20 December 2011

Understanding Consciousness: Types of Consciousness

Consciousness is a term that refers to the relationship between the mind and the world with which it interacts. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind.

It is difficult to compromise the scientific and philosophical implications of the question "What is consciousness?".

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy treat the words “conscious” and “consciousness” as umbrella terms that cover a wide variety of mental phenomena. Both are used with a diversity of meanings, and the adjective “conscious” is heterogeneous in its range, being applied both to whole organisms — creature consciousness — and to particular mental states and processes — state consciousness.

Video: Antonio Damasio: The quest to understand consciousness

In their definition, an animal, person or other cognitive system may be regarded as conscious in a number of different senses. These senses can be broken down as follows:

Sentience. It is conscious in the generic sense that it senses and respond to its world and environment.

Wakefulness. Consciousness when the organism is "awake" or have the capacity to act and alert to its world and surroundings. A sleeping organism such as a hibernating bear or comatose patient would not count in this category.

Self-consciousness. Consciousness where the subject is not only aware but also aware that they are aware, thus treating creature consciousness as a form of self-consciousness.

What it is like. Thomas Nagel's (1974) famous“what it is like” criterion aims to capture another and perhaps more subjective notion of being a conscious organism. According to Nagel, a being is conscious just if there is “something that it is like” to be that creature, i.e., some subjective way the world seems or appears from the creature's mental or experiential point of view. In Nagel's example, bats are conscious because there is something that it is like for a bat to experience its world through its echo-locatory senses, even though we humans from our human point of view can not emphatically understand what such a mode of consciousness is like from the bat's own point of view.

Subject of conscious states. A fifth alternative would be to define the notion of a conscious organism in terms of conscious states. That is, one might first define what makes a mental state a conscious mental state, and then define being a conscious creature in terms of having such states. One's concept of a conscious organism would then depend upon the particular account one gives of conscious states.

Transitive Consciousness. In addition to describing creatures as conscious in these various senses, there are also related senses in which creatures are described as being conscious of various things. The distinction is sometimes marked as that between transitive and intransitive notions of consciousness, with the former involving some object at which consciousness is directed.

Trying to understand what is consciousness is a very difficult subject. It can be said that classifying it into types but a general understanding of it is difficult. There are both scientific and philosophical factors that come into play. In the TED Video above, Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio uses this simple question to give us a glimpse into how our brains create our sense of self.

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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