Consciousness Studies/The Description Of Consciousness

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This section presents the empirical idea of consciousness. What consciousness is like before theories are applied to explain it. It is based on descriptions from the Historical Review.

The definition and description of phenomenal consciousness[edit | edit source]

What is it like to be conscious? Before embarking on the analysis of phenomenal consciousness it is important to have a definition of what it is that we are attempting to explain. The article below considers empirical descriptions of phenomenal consciousness. It shows that phenomenal consciousness is the space, time and content of our minds (where the content contains intuitions and feelings). As will be seen in later parts of the book not all philosophers and scientists accept that this "phenomenal consciousness" actually exists.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Empirical descriptions of phenomenal consciousness have been available in Western literature for centuries and in Eastern literature for millennia. It is often maintained that no-one can define consciousness but there is a large body of literature that gives a clear empirical description of it. Perhaps the claim that no-one can define consciousness is frustration at the fact that no-one can explain consciousness.

Weiskrantz (1988) asserted that "Each of us will have his or her own idea of what, if anything, is meant by consciousness..." and that insisting upon a precise definition would be a mistake. Koch and Crick (1999) stated that "Consciousness is a vague term with many usages and will, in the fullness of time, be replaced by a vocabulary that more accurately reflects the contribution of different brain processes."

But is consciousness really a "vague term" and should we each have our own idea of what it means? The empirical descriptions of Descartes, Kant and others are summarised below under the headings of space, time, qualia and awareness. These descriptions show that consciousness is not a vague term at all.

Space and Time[edit | edit source]

Kant (1781) argued that our minds must be capable of representing objects in space and time. Experiences presuppose space and time as pure concepts of reason. Without space, objects could not be differentiated and would have no properties. Without representation in time, the concepts of succession of events and simultaneity would be unknown to us. James(1904) also describes experience as extended in space and says that the idea that "inner experience is absolutely inextensive seems to me little short of absurd". Descartes (1641, Meditation V, 3) was also clear that imaginings and perceptions are experiences where things are arranged in space and time: "In the first place, I distinctly imagine that quantity which the philosophers commonly call continuous, or the extension in length, breadth, and depth that is in this quantity, or rather in the object to which it is attributed. Further, I can enumerate in it many diverse parts, and attribute to each of these all sorts of sizes, figures, situations, and local motions; and, in time, I can assign to each of these motions all degrees of duration." Descartes was, as was so often the case, well ahead of his time by describing continuity and dimensionality, the factors that define his view of space as an actual vector space accessible to mathematical and physical analysis (See section on Descartes for a full discussion.)

Gregory (1966) also pointed out that we see things as if they are projected into space around us. The idea of projection was implicit in Kant’s and Descartes’ descriptions, which are from the viewpoint of an observer looking out at contents of experience, but Gregory is explicit (although he believes that explanations based on the projection are absurd).

Kant and Descartes describe consciousness as something extended in time but it is Clay and James who draw this fully to our attention. James (1890) quotes E.R. Clay who coined the term "specious present" to describe how we exist for more than a durationless instant and then goes on to say: "In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were--a rearward--and a forward-looking end. It is only [p. 610] as parts of this duration-block that the relation of succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and from the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it." Notice how James’ observer is at an instant but the mind is stretched over time.

James’ mental time is probably not the same as physical time. Hermann Weyl, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, wrote that reality is a "four-dimensional continuum which is neither 'time' nor 'space.' Only the consciousness that passes on in one portion of this world experiences the detached piece which comes to meet it and passes behind it, as history, that is, as a process that is going forward in time and takes place in space" (Weyl 1918). In other words consciousness has a way of containing events in the same order as they occur in the world but seems to use a mental time that is different from physical time.

Qualia[edit | edit source]

Qualia are types of things that occur in conscious experience. The colour purple is a good example of a quale (Tye, 1997). Hume (1739) pointed out of things in the mind that "[t]here is nothing but the idea of their colour or tangibility, which can render them conceivable by the mind;" in other words, qualia might be things in the mind rather than attributes. Qualia appear to be exceptional and inexplicable: Churchland (1988) writes "How on earth can a feeling of pain result from ions passing across a membrane?" Descartes (Meditations VI, 6, 1641) clearly describes qualia.

Awareness[edit | edit source]

Descartes, Locke, Hume, Reid and Kant describe conscious phenomena as if there is an observer in their mind looking out at qualia or feeling qualia in the space and time around about. Descartes and Kant thought that the mind must also contain a conceptualisation or intuition of the meaning of its space, time and content so that the qualia become grouped into objects, the objects into events and the events into meaning and expectation.

As Kant put it, we have "intuitions" about the relations between things. In modern parlance our conscious experience appears to contain the output from an unconscious processor; although Kant's term, "intuition," is a more scientific approach because it is an observation without assumptions about causes. If the present is extended in time, or a "specious" present as Clay put it, then many moments are available through which it is possible to apprehend both a question and its answer: the processor can frame the question and provide the answer. The observation that our minds extend through time means that this processor does not need to be recursive to provide the outputs we experience as intuitions (one moment can contain an intuition about another whilst both are in the mind).

Descartes (Meditations VI, 10, 1641) considered the origin of intuitions: "Further, I cannot doubt but that there is in me a certain passive faculty of perception, that is, of receiving and taking knowledge of the ideas of sensible things; but this would be useless to me, if there did not also exist in me, or in some other thing, another active faculty capable of forming and producing those ideas. But this active faculty cannot be in me [in as far as I am but a thinking thing], seeing that it does not presuppose thought, and also that those ideas are frequently produced in my mind without my contributing to it in any way, and even frequently contrary to my will." Descartes suspected that the ideas were formed unconsciously, probably in the brain.

Types of Consciousness[edit | edit source]

It is sometimes held that there are many types of consciousness, Antony (2001) lists: phenomenal consciousness, access consciousness, state consciousness, creature consciousness, introspective consciousness and self-consciousness. Antony takes the view that these are all 'modulations' of the term consciousness and do not mean that there are in fact different types of consciousness. In other words these 'types of consciousness' are modulations of the intuition of content arranged in space and time that is the singular consciousness described by Kant and Descartes. According to this explanation access consciousness is the time extended form of processes in phenomenal consciousness, self-consciousness is the time extended form of bodily processes and inner speech etc.. As an example, if we say a word then think it soundlessly it is evident that inner speech is whole, time extended words coming from the vague direction of the vocal chords (or both ears), when we move a limb much of the whole movement is present in our experience as a set of displacements at the position of the limb and extended through time.

The nature of consciousness as described above, i.e. phenomenal or subjective consciousness, must be distinguished from the type of consciousness used in Medical clinical states. Clinical consciousness is determined partly by the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) in the brain stem extending into higher anatomic levels of the brain including the cortex. Alerting or arousal is the function of the ARAS and is the doorway to awareness. Failure of this system or its components results in clinical states ranging from a temporary loss of consciousness as noted in head injuries (concussion) all the way to complete coma. The comatose state includes failure of eye opening to stimulation, a motor response more than just simple reflex withdrawal movements and lack of verbalization. Coma can be produced by structural lesions of the brain, metabolic and nutritional disorders, exogenous toxins, central nervous system infections, seizures, temperature-related extremes (e.g. hypothermia or hyperthermia) and most commonly trauma. Included in this extreme are such entities as persistent vegetative state and the minimally conscious state. The gamut ranges through stupor, prolonged concussion, and transient concussion. This use of the term ‘consciousness’ is not the nature of ‘consciousness’ as used in this article and must be distinguished as such.

Observations and Denials[edit | edit source]

There can be little doubt that most descriptions of conscious phenomenology have described the same things although some have used terms such as 'continuity' for time and 'representation' for space. Our conscious experiences are the experience of being an observer that has qualia distributed in space and time around a point. This experience is imbued with intuitions.

Contrary to the views of Weiskrantz and of Koch and Crick there seems to be no need to await a definition of consciousness. It has been described for centuries. So why did these authors feel a need to suspend any definition?

The answer is that over the years there has been no widely accepted theory of how this empirical consciousness could occur. This led certain philosophers such as Ryle (1949) to question whether the description of consciousness was credible.

In most cases this sceptical analysis begins with an explanatory discussion of consciousness such as: if information travels from the observation to the observer then the observer contains the information so there must be another observer within to observe this second set of information. In this case the conclusion is that this implies an impossible homunculus or Ryle’s "ghost in the machine" so observation and observer’s cannot occur in the mind. This is an interesting argument but it can also be framed to give exactly the opposite result. The scientific form of the argument would be: the observed form of conscious experience cannot occur if it relies on information transfer, therefore the hypothesis that information transfer is all that is required to explain consciousness is wrong and some other explanation is needed. (This means that although the content of consciousness is derived from the senses via signals in neurones, conscious experience is not these signals flowing into a nexus). In science the observation is paramount and cannot be discarded because it conflicts with theory.

The process of discounting an observation when an explanation fails also applies to other aspects of consciousness studies. As Gregory (1988) put it: " 'If you can’t explain it – deny it' is one strategy for dealing with embarrassing questions such as 'what is consciousness?' ". If we discount these denials then the empirical observations of Kant and Descartes and the other empiricists are the bedrock of consciousness studies and consciousness can indeed be described as an observation containing the space, time and content of our minds (where the content contains intuitions and feelings).

This simple definition of the experience we call consciousness is internally consistent and can be expressed in mathematical language. Phenomenal consciousness is a multidimensional manifold with vectors pointing towards the centre (the apparent observation point). The content can be both the input and output of processors that are external to the manifold.

Adapted from the article The description and definition of consciousness by Alex Green in Science and Consciousness Review (with permission of the author).

A non-mathematical description of consciousness is: a collection of events arranged in time and space that form directed elements that all point at the same place and instant.

The viewing point and the observer[edit | edit source]

Green's summary of phenomenal consciousness deserves further elaboration and description. Science begins with empirical descriptions. To experience phenomenal consciousness simply lean back with your eyes open and listen. Phenomenal consciousness is the observational space and time that is occurring and the simultaneous things within it that point at the apparent viewing point. It includes bodily sensations, inner speech and the smell on and around things etc. Phenomenal consciousness is experience itself. If the experience is a lucid dream it may contain a fantastical image, if it is a perception it may contain information about something in the world beyond the body. Experience is not usually an experience of the content of experience, experience is already there, arranged in space and time (see note below).


The illustrations show the difference between an actual 3D part of the world, 2D representations of that part of the world, conscious experience itself and naive realism.

It is well known that a 3D object cannot be shown on a 2D surface. Its form is specified as sets of coordinates.


Most visual experiences are arranged as views. Views are represented on paper using perspective drawings. Pictures that use perspective are scaled images of the world as it would appear on the retina of one eye.


In experience itself things are arranged as things directed at a point (vectors). Nothing flows into the point. Experience is a manifold of events that are loosely based on data from the retinas and other sense organs. It has contents like the drawing on paper but instead of being a collection of ink particles confined to 2D it is a set of vectors directed at a point.


Experience also involves things arranged in time. Things can be simultaneous and there is continuity. Arrangements in time are independent of arrangements in space. The phonemes of a word do not overlap each other and the stages of a movement do not create a smear. These independent arrangements in time are akin to the way that things that are arranged left and right do not overlap things that are arranged up and down. Left and right are independent of up and down. In a similar way, time seems to be an independent direction for arranging things.


Our experience differs from naive realism. In naive realism experience is believed to be an impossible physical meeting of light rays at a single point in the eye that through some unspecified mechanism project back to their source. Naive realism is a primitive dynamical interpretation of experience, an attempt to explain an empirical geometrical form in terms of flows of matter. In contrast, in experience there seems to be a set of vectors directed at a point.


An intriguing feature of the empirical form of experience is that things seem to be separated by angular separations. This allows objects of any size to be represented and explains how a page of text on our laps and the dome of a planetarium can be encompassed in the same form.

The apparent viewing point has caused considerable difficulty for many empiricist philosophers (although the British Empiricists tended to avoid it). When philosophers have stopped describing conscious experience and tried to explain the viewing point they have often resorted to the supernatural: Descartes, Malebranche and Reid all explained the viewing point in terms of a supernatural soul at a point that does the seeing or experiencing. But none of the empiricists describe anything flowing into the viewing point; indeed nothing does flow or could flow into and through a point. The empirical truth is that the viewing point is a geometrical phenomenon, not the recipient of some simultaneous flow of everything in experience. Just look, your viewing point is where everything in experience is directed but things are not pouring into it and it, itself, is a point, it cannot and does not contain anything. This seems to be Aristotle's insight when he wrote "In every case the mind which is actively thinking is the objects which it thinks."

The field of vectors that are the content of consciousness are also difficult to interpret; some philosophers believe that they are in the brain and form a representation of the world whilst others believe that they are directly attached to things in the world beyond the body.

The empirical description of consciousness allows us to make a sharp distinction between the scientific activities of measurement and observation. Measurement is the change in state of a measuring instrument in response to an event in the environment. Observation is the occurrence of events in the geometrical manifold that we call our conscious experience.

This section has used the descriptions provided by generations of philosophers to characterise the phenomenon of consciousness. Many modern philosophers assume that readers are familiar with these empirical descriptions and use "what it is like to be conscious" as a shorthand for these empirical reports. From the seventeenth century onwards it was realised that these descriptions are difficult to explain using Newtonian physics or elementary information theory.

* Note: the term "experience of" should be reserved for things that act as a source of the content of experience, such as the QM fields that constitute the things that are sensed. We have an "experience of" a flower when signals from the flower are composed into the form of a flower in our experience. Sometimes there is an "experience of" the content of consciousness, for instance when intuitions about the content occur. See later modules for a discussion.

References[edit | edit source]