This is a conversation I had back in October, but I haven’t posted anything recently, so I figured I’d copypasta it here for posterity.
A friend wrote:
Do you think consciousness is
(i) A real phenomenon
(ii) Unreal phenomenon ?
Real here means that there exist (a) physical process/es (in the brain) that causally correspond to the “observed” phenomenon of consciousness. While unreal means that it is just a word people use to describe something that is not a part of reality, but rather a construct that was input to them since they were children ( for example, like fairies ) OR a word that stands for many processes and adds an imaginary glue, thus gaining new meaning ( like vis vitalis).
Note: I’m aware of problems with definitions of causality and reality, but let’s just take the usual practical ones.
This was my response:
The simple answer to you question is that consciousness is poorly defined, so answering those requires a more solid definition. This is a boring answer, though, so I’m going to expand on stuff.
All ideas are models. When I talk about an apple, there is no “thing” in “reality” that is “an apple”, there is stuff, but the concept of apple-ness is my own. I’ve created an internal model of the apple so that I might predict things about reality (like what it’ll feel like in my hand a half-second from now).
Some ideas are very strongly predictive, like the idea of apples. Having an idea of apples is so useful that it’s practically hardwired into our mental structure by our genes. Other ideas are not strongly predictive, and they might only relate to strong ideas. If I have a memory of having had an apple in my hand yesterday, it lets me reason (via relationships) about the future, but it carries no predictive value per se.
If predictive utility is how we define the reality of things, then there are certain ideas that simply cannot be real because they (for whatever reason) carry no predictive utility. Such ideas include invisible, ethereal, silent, massless … dragons in one’s garage, paradox statements, and (in my humble opinion) qualia.
Qualia are typically described as the “form” or “flavor” of experience, but often not in any way that lets us predict actual physical structures. So if we define consciousness as “the state of having qualia”, then I would say that consciousness cannot be real because the definitions are flawed. “Do we actually have subjective experience?” is like asking “why is there a universe”, no possible answer will suffice because there is a flawed premise.
But clearly there’s more to the word “consciousness” than hand-wavy mumbo-jumbo about philosophical zombies. One of the more common uses might be summarized by “When I was a young child I saw other people as forces of nature that helped or hindered me according to arbitrary laws, but as I grew I began to understand that people were all like me, in that they have thoughts and desires and dreams. Each one of them looks out their own eyes just like I look out mine. They are conscious.” This version of consciousness IS predictive, because it lets us know the minds of others by assuming that they are like our mind. I might call this “projective consciousness” or “anthropomorphic consciousness”. If asked whether this version of consciousness is real, I would say “Absolutely! I am just one human amongst many, I am not unique in having a mind.”
Interestingly, this definition assumes that I can predict my own actions and think about them in a detached way! The ability to self-model leads us to our third definition, which is probably the most common one. Self-modeling ability is trivially easy from a computational standpoint, and it’s so easy, in fact, that most people don’t think machines can do it, even when they’re clearly doing it (probably because of conflation with the previously mentioned uses of “consciousness”). All it takes to self-model is an idea-symbol that represents “self” and a set of functions which describe the dynamics of “self”. (Note: while many computer systems have a self-model, I have never seen one that has emergently gained self-modeling ability (except maaaybe some fringe cases with genetic programming), that is, gained the ability to self-model without having been programmed explicitly to do so.)
Yet another definition of consciousness is “ability to perceive one’s own thoughts”. This definition is the one I typically use when thinking about cognition, as I think it’s related strongly with all of the above and is interesting to speculate about in the context of evolutionary psychology. I think it’s pretty simple to show that this definition is “real” by asking someone to slowly navigate from point A to point B in their imagination, then quizzing them as to “where they are” half-way. (Theoretically someone could fake internal perception by deriving a new path after the second question was asked, but that fails Occam’s razor.)
There are other definitions, such as “sleeping vs awake”, “distracted vs aware”, or “possessing the magic thing given by God that goes into heaven after death” (though that last one is “soul” if I’m not mistaken ;) ). Clearly some of these are real and some aren’t, but I’m not too interested in them.