Hello everyone,

I have a question for you all.

"What is consciousness?"

It's not a trick question. In fact, I don't think it should be a hard question. The hard problem is how consciousness arises, not what it is.

I have had conversations with otherwise intelligent people who didn't seem to understand the word.

Consciousness is experience.

But what is experience?

  • All sights are experience, all sounds are experience, all sensations are experience, all thoughts are experience.
  • Anything that you know directly (ie; not through concepts and thought) is experience.
  • What is happening in your attention right now is experience.

Experience, subjectivity, awareness and consciousness can even be used interchangeably.

Refer to the title of Thomas Nagel's famous essay.

"What is it like to be a bat?"

If it is like something to be a bat, if the bat experiences, then it is conscious.

Is this clear?

Please let me know if it isn't.

Why does this matter?

When it comes to ethics, morality and how we value other beings it is everything. If solipsism were true (if this was like a dream and everyone except you wasn't real), then there would be no moral imperative to act to not act in any way. It really would be that anything goes. It is because we believe that others experience, and more precisely that others suffer, that we can make any moral claims at all.

At what exact stage in an embryo's development is it capable of being aware, of suffering and of having interests?

How much suffering exists in non-human animals? Do certain animals experience a lot more vividly than others, should we take more care not to harm them?

Would replacing meat in one's diet with insects increase or decrease the total amount of suffering? Would killing thousands of crickets be less harmful than killing a chicken?

As our computers increase in their intelligence will consciousness also come along for the ride? Will breaking a computer one day be morally equivalent to killing a living organism? Are some of our machines already conscious?

All of these questions are open at the moment. We do not know how consciousness arises. The philosopher David Chalmers has called this the hard problem of consciousness. How does a collection of matter and energy provide a rich inner experience of being that collection?

Looking at the brain, there is nothing from the outside in that suggests that it experiences anything. What distinguishes it from any other system in nature is its complexity, but does this mean that complexity is what gives rise to consciousness?

It has been said that consciousness is an emergent property of information processing in a physical system. But what is information processing physically? Is it just the transfer of matter and energy from one place to another? Is any activity in the universe accompanied with some minimal consciousness?

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has suggested that as far as we know, we should assume a being is conscious if it has a nervous system. If I remember correctly, he suggested that a systems ability to represent its external environment seems to have something to do with consciousness.

So matter and energy has formed our brains and bodies. We are conscious. Could there be other patterns that are conscious? How precisely is it that certain arrangements of atoms give rise to experience itself?

More Reading

This letter was inspired by listening to the latest episode of the Making Sense podcast. In it Annaka Harris speaks with her husband Sam about her new book Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of Mind which aims to sum up our current understanding of consciousness and open doors to the possibility that it may be more fundamental to nature than we realise.

Here are a few extra materials to those of you especially interested:

Your Best Guide Yet to Solving the Mystery of Consciousness - Quiet Revolution
Our experience of consciousness is so intrinsic to who we are, we rarely notice that something mysterious is going on. Consciousness is experience itself, and...
A short excerpt from Annaka's new book
The Mystery of Consciousness | Sam Harris
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are …
Sam Harris on the mystery of consciousness.
Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality | Anil Seth
Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience -- and not just any conscious experience, your experienc...
Anil Seth on reality as a shared hallucination

Special mention to this music video by Melodysheep. Watch it, I dare you to.

You will not regret watching this.

How do you think matter gives rise to consciousness? Does matter give rise to consciousness? Why do we experience anything at all?

If you have any thoughts on the matter, please reply and let me know. I'd love to hear them.

Thank you for reading this far, until next time!