The Nature of Consciousness
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Perhaps no problem has proven more vexing to both philosophical and scientific scholars than an account of the nature of consciousness.  The reflective nature of consciousness—its ability to consider itself, to provide a sense of being—has led some philosophers to assume that it characterizes the very essence of what it means to be human.  Or in the words of Descartes:
Cogito ergo sum

This sense captures only one of a number of meanings that have come to characterize consciousness in contemporary times. Modern psychological views of consciousness originate in William James classic work, Principles of Psychology (1890).  Most of the qualities he ascribes are easily discovered through introspection—a somewhat undifferentiated view of consciousness relative to more contemporary accounts.  They are presented below:
 

  1. Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.
  2. Within each personal consciousness thought is always changing.
  3. Within each personal consciousness thought is sensibly continuous.
  4. It always appears to deal with objects independent of itself.
  5. It is interested in some parts of these objects to theexclusion of others and welcomes or rejects—chooses from among them, in a word—all the while.


One of the problems with contemporary accounts is that consciousness is defined in terms of a number of different activities of the mind.  Philosophical, information theoretic, and neuroscientific approaches often use consciousness to mean different things.  Simply note the difference between using "conscious" to mean awake (not comatose), to be aware (I was conscious of a really strange smell in the room), some existential state (I suddenly became conscious of the meaning of my life and my place in the universe).  Pinker (1998), has identified these different usages in How the Mind Works and also the relative success of scientific explanations for these usages.  He suggest at least three ways in which the term consciousness is used:

1.    Self-Knowledge

2.    Access to Knowledge 3.    Sentience


Trying to answer the questions he poses in the section on sentience is a valuable exercise and will serve to sharpen your own understanding and views of these issues.  Good luck!!

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