What is Consciousness?

Consciousness is the experience of being alive. 

This website is an exploration into the nature of being alive.  What makes life full?   What can we control in life?  What must we accept and adjust to?   At the heart of our inquiry lies our understanding of consciousness. What is it?  How does it work?  Do we have any control over it?   

Consciousness shapes our experience of life.  We are conscious of having an outer world around us.  We are conscious of having an inner world within us. In the overlap between these two worlds we create a separate reality which is experienced as our own private world.  These 3Realms of life have been described elsewhere on this site.

There is a lot of confusion around the word “consciousness”. There are different theories about what it is and where it comes from. In this article we will discuss some broad issues surrounding consciousness.  In the next article we will discuss the major controversy that exists. (See 2-3).

Objective and subjective views of consciousness.

Consciousness is the subjective experience of being alive.  There are two diametrically opposite ways to study this consciousness.  

Science is the objective observation of the outer world around us. How does science objectively observe a subjective phenomenon?  It can’t. It has to find surrogates for consciousness in the outer world that it can study.  And that surrogate is activity in the brain.  Science has been studying mostly the meat and the potatoes.  These are what show up when they perform brain scans and probes. There is nothing wrong with this.  The meat and potatoes are important also.  We want to learn about them.  But it is important to distinguish the difference between the broth and the meat and potatoes.

Neuroscience has discovered that the brain shows many different patterns of activity that correspond to specific types of sensory experience.  If researchers stimulate specific areas of the brain, research subjects report they experience a similar kind of sensory experience.  This cannot be a coincidence.  Clearly there is a cause and effect relationship between the brain and certain types of sensory experience.

This has led scientist to declare that consciousness originates in the brain.  Science then does not need to observe consciousness itself.  It claims  it can measure activity in different parts of the brain and relate these discrete brain activities to specific types of subjective experience.  

There are strong pros and cons to this approach.  One the hand, it is nice to have a way to objectively measure the existence of certain aspects of consciousness.  We can verify certain things that would otherwise remain unknowable in the subjective realm.

On the other hand, science has taken this too far.  Most Neuroscientists insist that science is the sole arbiter of the knowledge about consciousness.  Consciousness comes from the brain.  The only consciousness we can know is that which is indicated by brain activity.  There is no other way we can learn about consciousness.  There is no other source of consciousness. The scientific approach is chauvinistic.  It claims authority over a subject it can only narrowly understand and rejects any other approach.  (For more on this, read 2-2.)

There is actually another approach to studying consciousness.  It is called phenomenology.  This is the study of people’s subjective experience.  It is largely rejected by science because it is not objective.  But it can expand our understanding of what consciousness entails.  

Phenomenology is the formal study of subjective experience.  We can all learn informally from our own subjective experiences.  Most of us have had one or more unusual experience that seem to expand our notions of reality. I have written about a number of mine elsewhere on these websites.

But this brings us to a critical juncture.  Who can claim to be able to understand different experiences that we humans have?   Science makes that claim.  But then they say that their analysis is limited to the outer world alone. This is objective reality.  It can be properly analyzed and evaluated.  This gives us the only certainty that is possible?

But what about the inner world? Science dismisses this with the back of their hand.  These experiences are subjective.  They cannot be measured, therefore they cannot be taken seriously.  In effect they are telling us that these experiences are not real. 

They are talking about other people’s experiences. It is easy to dismiss something that you yourself have not experienced.  You know nothing of what the experience was like.  It is easy to dismiss inner experiences when you believe that only the outer world is real.

It is another matter when you have experienced the inner world yourself.  Have you experienced having the outer world vanish before your eyes?  Have you ever looked down into a great void and seen the origins of life arise from deep within it?  Have you ever had the outer world merge and become one with you?  When you have had experiences like these (and I have) you do not question whether they are real or not.  You know that this is another realm of reality that lies beyond that of our conscious of daily life.  The question becomes:  how do we access this other reality and what does it mean for us?

In addition to studying the links between brain activity and conscious awareness, we also need to start categorizing our different varieties of consciousness.

Overlays of Consciousness

Research on consciousness is still in its infancy.  We have learned a lot about the brain and its relationship to consciousness.  But we need to learn more about consciousness itself.   We have gone from thinking that there is just one form of consciousness to realizing that there are at least four forms of consciousness and probably more.

For example, what is the relationship among the four forms of consciousness?  Can we experience more than one form of consciousness at a time?  If we can, what is the impact of experiencing more than one consciousness at a time?

It is time for another analogy.

If you are old enough you may remember overhead projectors.  These were simple machines that enabled a speaker to illustrate his or her presentation before a group of people. The speaker would lay an 8 ½ x11 sheet of clear plastic on the projector and it would it would be projected up onto a wall or screen.  This enabled the speaker to illustrate his or her presentation.

The real beauty of these machines is that they allowed us to use a progression of overlays to illustrate complex graphics.  We could build out the graphic as we went along.  We could make sure the audience was with us with us before making the illustration more complex.

The first overlay would establish the basic framework of the graphic. The next graphic would introduce a new element into the illustration and explain how this element would impact the basic framework.  Then came the third overlay which would introduce another element. The speaker would use as many overlays as needed.

Here is the point:  if the presenter were to put up just one overhead with all the information at once, it would be confusing and hard to follow.

But the step-by-step changes were easy to follow.  The series of overlays made communication and comprehension easier. 

So, let’s imagine we have an overhead projector before us.  I am going to describe overlays of our different forms of consciousness. (We describe these four forms more fully inthe next chapter.)

  1. Our first form of consciousness is sentiency. This first overlay gives us the experience of an outer world around us. By itself this is a neutral experience.  There is no judgement or emotion experienced in connection with sentiency. We simply see and hear what is present in the world around us.
  2. Now we add an overlay for self-awareness on top of sentiency.  This second consciousness is the experience of a personal realm.  What happens when it is merged with sentiency? The personal realm changes our experience of the outer world.  Instead of being neutral about the outer world we now project our thoughts, beliefs and emotions outward onto what had been neutral perceptions.  The outer world—and especially the people we are interacting with in this outer world—is now impregnated with subjective meaning. The subjective meaning can be either positive or negative in nature.  We project this personal meaning out onto the outer world.  It is not actually there. But at this point, we cannot separate our own projections from that which is actually present in the outer world.  The two forms of consciousness have become fused together in our own personal experience. 

    The salient characteristic of sentiency has changed.  The outer world used to be an objective reality.  That is what science says that it is.  That is, we could all agree to what we perceived here. That is the nature of sentiency.  The overlay of self-awareness has turned the outer world into a subjective reality.  We each have different interpretations of what we have experienced and cannot agree on what is real and what is true. We all see the same thing but we cannot agree on what it is or why it is there. 

    The second layer of consciousness completely changes the nature of reality of our first layer of consciousness.
  3. We propose that there is a third type of consciousness which enables us to have inner experiences.  We call this consciousness feeling.  Feeling— as we are using the term—does not refer to emotions.  It is a state of receptivity.  It is an openness to taking in from everything around us and within us.  Feeling enables us to experience what is present for us to know.   
  4. Now we put down an overlay of universal consciousness. Universal consciousness opens us to a transcendent reality. The egocentric orientation of our outer life vanishes. In its place we are given an experience of having everything around us fused together into one seamless and coherent whole. Sometimes, when we are in the transcendent, we experience the outer world around us.  At other times the outer world disappears and we experience a radically different kind of reality.   We all become an expression of the one unchanging experience of life. 

Let’s loop back to our first analogy.  Notice that the whole qualia of life changes as we move in and out of different forms of consciousness.

Consciousness is like the broth of a soup and our thoughts, emotions, perceptions are like the meat and potatoes that go into the soup.

The broth provides the essential flavor of the soup; consciousness provides the essential flavor to life.  Different forms of consciousness, either separately by themselves or combined with other forms, creates the essential flavors of life.

Let’s loop back to our first analogy.  Notice that the whole qualia of life changes as we move in and out of different forms of consciousness.

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