Defining Consciousness: Attempts and Limitations

Defining Consciousness: Attempts and Limitations

DeGroff 1

“Defining Consciousness: Attempts and Limitations”

Written by Alex DeGroff


At first thought, defining consciousness seems so easy. Human beings are conscious animals; they can think and reflect on events in their life, and can even imagine events, people and places they have never experienced. But when pressed for a precise definition, consciousness is a term that seems intent on escaping one’s grasp. It seems at once both complex beyond imagination but also so primitive and simple that being unable to comprehend and explain it seems both frustrating and wrong.

There are working definitions, far-reaching and all-encompassing definitions, and also denial of ever being able to define justwhat consciousness is. Obviously, with such a range of approaches to defining consciousness, conflicts will emerge. Consequently, thenumber and variety of definitionshave led to rifts between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists who work to explain consciousness.

It is important to understand how and why attempts at defining consciousness have been made because human consciousness appears unique. Defining a simple object like a desk will usually consist of using physical terms such as size, usage, and position. However, consciousness does not seem so easily defined in physical terminology. Instead, consciousness seems to be readily classified with terms such as gravity and energy. Perhaps as was the case with gravity and energy, consciousness will be more readily understood and defined in time.


Consciousness appears to be such a simple thing. And at first thought, defining consciousness seems so easy. But when pressed for a more precise definition, consciousness is a term that seems intent on escaping definition. Physical terminology such as size, shape, and location do little to clear up the mystery of consciousness. Attempts to pinpoint the physical location of consciousness or to describe the mechanisms of consciousness are usually disregarded. Instead, synonyms are often employed as a referent or comparison piece to try and get at least some idea of what consciousness really is. But using synonyms just replaces one problem with another. The question then arises to be asked: can a definition capture consciousness?

The significance of looking at consciousness through the specified lens of defining stems from the human tendency to classify objects and events via the use of definition. When a person is asked to define a word, such as ‘slow’, they can usually do so to a satisfactory level. An example could be, ‘moving without speed or at less than usual speed’. Definitions of ‘gravity’ and ‘energy’ on the other hand are very similar to those found for consciousness. More abstract words and terms are used than those found in defining ‘slow’, but gravity and energy are readily understood and have everyday practical applications. So why does consciousness seem so much harder to get a handle on than gravity and energy? The difference seems to be that Gravity and Energy are understood in Physics terminology but the same cannot be said of consciousness.

Roots of theModern Philosophy of Consciousness

It is oftentimes important to look to the past in order to understand how something exists in its present state. The problem of consciousness seems right to employ such wisdom. Therefore, a brief overview of two important figures from the history of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes and David Hume,shouldbe a solid basis for contemporary research on consciousness.

Rene Descartes:

Rene Descartes was undeniably one of the most important figures in all of the history of philosophy. He is responsible for one of the fields’ more popular phrases:cogito ergo sum. The Classic Dualist position also owes much to him, as does a long list of movie productions including The Matrix, Freaky Friday, and Ghost in the Shell. But for all that is owed to Descartes, there was much that he was wrong about.

Descartes advanced the theory of Dualism; that there is a definite split between physical and mental things. In the case of the human mind, the brain represented the physical while the mind represented the mental. In his classic series of meditations, Descartes offered what he considered to be the undeniable argument for his dualism:

I next considered attentively what I was; and I saw that while I could pretend that I had no body, that threw was no world, and no place for me to be in, I could not pretendthat I was not; on the contrary, from the mere fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things it evidently and certainly followed that I existed. On the other hand, if I had merely ceased to think, even if everything thing else that I had ever imagined had been true, I had no reason to believe that I should have existed. From this I recognized that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is to think and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing.[Discourse on Method, 1637]

It would follow that human beings are mental entities that seem to be contained in or tethered to a physical body. The mind was able to interact with the brain and therefore have an effect on the body via a unique meeting point at the pineal gland. The process and details by which Descartes thought the pineal gland served to unite the two otherwise totallyseparate categories remains uncertain. Current philosophers have turned their back on the pineal gland theory. As Dennett put it, “not only is the pineal gland not the fax machine to the soul; it is not the Oval Office of the brain” (Dennett 132).

The significance of Descartes brain/mind split was to place the human mind in a privileged position, a place where man alone contained the powers of reason and logic. This isolation of mind to humanity placed non-human animals into a precarious position. As the animals had no minds then they were equivalent to automata. The “animals were mere mechanisms; if they squealed when injured this was no more than the squeak of a rusty machine. Humans and humans alone had the power to think and therefore to be” (Rose 137). Therefore, only humans could be conscious, and their consciousness was an immaterial substance beyond the study of science.

David Hume:

David Hume was not the first philosopher to advance the idea of Empiricism, but he is most strongly associated with having been the foil to Descartes’ Dualism. Hume followed the trend set by John Locke and George Berkeley. Human beings do not acquire knowledge by means of deducing truths from abstract reason and logic, but rather by observing the world around them and inducing probable truths. Therefore, Hume advanced the ideas of experience and materialism as being the central tenets of how human beings acquire knowledge from the world. The senses are the means by which those experiences enter into the mind.

Becausehuman beings acquired information via the observation of physical sensory data, it followed that it was through materialistic means that the human mind could be altered. The logical place for this information to be gathered was in the brain. Hume, who was obviously not schooled in neuroscience, could not describe how the brain was able to contain all of the etchings that it received through experience. However, it is now accepted that visual data such as looking at a brown chair is not simply packaged as a photograph and inserted into the brain, but actually is composed of electromagnetic radiation. So while Hume’s theories may have been primitive compared to the more advanced physics and neuroscience-driven theories of today, he was still onto something by stating that it was by a physical means, not by an immaterial method, that human beings gathered and stored their information.

Attempts at Definition

There have been some attempts to define consciousness. Merlin Donald offers the most tantalizing interpretation with his three-class system. There are three usual definitional class-interpretations of consciousness: consciousness as a state, consciousness as a place in the mind, and consciousness as representational (Donald 117). Consciousness as a state covers such areas as altered states, such as trances, comas, dream states, or specify a state or readiness or concentration. All mammals alternate between states that can be labeled as asleep, awake, and alert and therefore seem to undergo consciousness as a state. Consciousness as a place in the mind corresponds to the apparent physical location of the central consciousness processor. The existence or nonexistence of the central processor is not important, as long as, from a cognitive standpoint, it is at the top of the control hierarchy. A theory of consciousness as being representational is dependent upon our human capacity for symbolization, and becoming aware of something is synonymous with capturing it in symbolic form. However, a downfall of this view is that non-human animals become automatons due to their lack of language.

David Chalmers agrees with Donald’s notion that a more far-reaching than normal definitionof consciousness is required to cover all of the aspects of the term’s use. He writes that, “the term ‘consciousness’ is ambiguous, referring to a number of phenomena. Sometimes it is used to refer to a cognitive capacity, such as the ability to introspect or to report one’s mental states. Sometimes it is used synonymously with ‘awakeness’” (Chalmers 6). This ambiguity seems to quickly eat away at the bedrock for any solid definition of consciousness.

Merlin Donald considers consciousness to be probably an impossible phenomenon to define, or one that requires many different definitions if we want to maintain some grasp of its meaning. “Consciousness can be defined in several ways and is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. However, conscious capacity is ultimately the foundation of self-awareness, and there is no escaping its crucial role in cognition” (Donald 7). Even if definitions cannot be made that capture what consciousness is, or that allow for people to understand it, the necessity for a term such as consciousness in the lives of human beings is unmistakable.

Counters to the Attempts

While there have been some attempts to define consciousness within the realms of philosophy and psychology, it appears that most researchers have taken the position that definitions simply won’t work. Human language is very well suited at defining specific things or events. A cow and a party, two very different things, but both similarly well definable using normal physical terminology and description. Human language seems to be poorly formed when employed to define more complicated and perhaps abstract terms such as consciousness.

It is a common occurrence in human language to try and fit too much information into a single word or phrase. Such tendencies lead to ambiguities. Although human beings in general don’t like to be imprecise, “a clear definition can make things worse, until we’re sure that our ideas are right. For, consciousness is one of those suitcase-like words that we use for many types of processes, and for different kinds of purposes” (Minsky 95).

Steven Rose claims that defining consciousness within limited bounds is of no benefit to research, becausethe various usages of the term consciousness can never allow for a strict definition.

“There are many other understandings and uses of the term consciousness; there is Freudian consciousness, with its murky unconscious world of desires and fears. There is social consciousness, class, ethnic or feminist consciousness, the recognition of having a standpoint from which one can interpret and act upon the world. All these understandings are lost in the impoverished worlds shared by these philosophers and neuroscientists, who reduce such varied worlds to that of being aware, being awake, being unanaesthetised. Being conscious is more than this; it is being aware of one’s past history and place in the world, one’s future intents and goals, one’s sense of agency, and of the culture and social formations within which one lives” (Rose 166).

It seems impossible to contain all of the varieties of consciousness within a limited definition. A traditional, dictionary-style use of definitions simply will not do. At most, a collection of ambiguous lists of synonyms would occur.

There is also a moral and ethical undercurrent when it comes to explaining or defining consciousness. As with advances in the science of biology or astronomy, some people simply find it blasphemous that great mysteries are explained by human methods. Furthermore, “many people are afraid to see consciousness explained because they fear that if we succeed in explaining it, we will lose our moral bearings. Maybe we can imagine a conscious computer but we shouldn’t try, they think. If we get into that bad habit, we will start treating animals as if they were wind-up toys, babies and deaf-mutes as if they were teddy bears, and—just to add insult to injury—robots as if they were real people” (Consciousness Explained 448). This is a naïve argument, but one worth spending a small amount of time on. It seems sad that human beings will immediately lose their morality the moment that advances in the explanation of consciousness occur. However, it can be imagined that at least some people would do so.

Why Defining Does Not Work

The use of definitions for consciousness could be where all of the problems begin. Merlin Donald writes that, “The big questions about consciousness still revolve around its definition. We cannot be satisfied with a narrow definition of consciousness. It is, by its very nature, an inclusive concept” (Donald 9). Due to the variety of definitions and usages of the word, trying to pin down an exact definition of consciousness within the limits of the English language seems to be counter-productive. However, we cannot simply get rid of the term due to its difficulty in defining it because “it is also a scientifically necessary concept, without which we would have to invent another term with a similar function because it accounts for things” (Donald 98). Without the word consciousness how else would we describe our interaction with the world around us?

Intentionality loses all meaning in clean-cut definitions. As intentionality is a murky and ambiguous term, usually defined as aboutness, or as the subjectivity of any given thought, there are immediately problems when using intentionality to explain consciousness. Steven Rose argues that “there can be no consciousness without content; indeed it is constituted by its content, and its content is not merely of the moment but of all past moments in the history of the individual. It is thus an emergent property, not to be dichotomized, indissolubly historically located” (Rose 167).

Marvin Minsky is in agreement with Donald and Rose that a large portion of disagreement and confusion over consciousness is due to definition attempts. Minsky writes that “consciousness is one of those suitcase-like words that we use for many types of processes, and for different kinds of purposes. It’s the same for most of our other words about minds, such as awareness, sentience, or intelligence” (Minsky 95).

Alternatives to Definition

As the option to use common definition techniques to access consciousness seems inadequate, alternatives to the standard define-explain practice of philosophy have emerged. Again, a return is made to the more recently defined scientific terms which are now so well known and loved. Donald suggests a more open-minded resolution to the problem: “like the physical notion of energy, consciousness has several distinct meanings and requires several different operational definitions” (Donald 98).

Instead of focusing on the definition of consciousness, perhaps more interest should be invested in defining awareness. In addition to allowing for a more inclusive definition of awareness, Donald claims that understanding human awareness is “crucial to sustaining our belief in human purpose and intentionality” and that it “opens the door to consciousness in other species, so that we will no longer be able to see awareness as an all-or-none representational issue or a simple matter of achieving a certain level of civilization”(Donald 95). He hopes that “once we broaden its domain and allow many grades and shades of awareness, in both quality and breadth, we must inexorably move toward an evolutionary theory of consciousness” (Ibid).

Breaking big problems down into smaller and more workable chunks may be the answer to the problem of defining consciousness. The ambiguous nature of consciousness as a term seems to lead to confusion every single time. This seems to be due to philosophers trying “to pack into a single box all the products of many processes that go on in different parts of our brains—and this produced a problem that will remain unsolvable until we find ways to chop it up. However, once we imagine a mind as made of smaller parts, we can replace that single, big problem by many smaller, more solvable ones” (Minsky 97).


Defining consciousness is a task that may very well be impossible. Many of the brightest minds of all of human history have struggled with how to pinpoint or narrow in on just what consciousness is and none of them that I am aware of have been able to do it. The recent trend is to try and move away from any suitcase-style definition of consciousness. Instead the focus is being shifted to the many ways in which consciousness can be used to describe, explain, or allow for specific aspects of human life. Consciousness as a description or as a synonym for awareness and being awake seem to be the limit in today’s research. So while traditional systems of define then explain may work for some areas of philosophy, it does not seem to be the case for consciousness.