A ghost in the Cartesian theatre

The problem of human consciousness has plagued psychologists and philosophers since formal discourse commenced in these fields. William James, for example, spent a large proportion of his career investigating the nature of human consciousness as a basis for human psychology. James thought that if we can understand the source and function of consciousness, we will be better able to explain all mental processes relevant to the human condition.

James developed varied perspectives on consciousness throughout his work but never quite came to a complete model that would explain its ultimate role. To date, scientists debate the nature and function of consciousness. Aiming to grasp this topic, particularly altered and expanded states, led me to study psychology almost a decade ago. I was curious about why we experience a certain level of consciousness, and one that is specifically unique to us (at least subjectively).

David Chalmers suggested that we can think about the subjective sense of having awareness as the hard problem of consciousness. Although we can explain the interplay of consciousness in the brain, it is more difficult to understand what it is like to experience consciousness — the essential nature of being. How can we possibly define an aspect so unique and internal in reductionist terms? Or, should we even strive to define it?

A functional understanding of consciousness explains what happens in the brain when we eat a piece of fruit — but the qualia issue leads us to think about the subjective quality of experiencing: What is it "like" to experience tasting a piece of fruit for the first time?

Some scientists believe that our role of explaining consciousness is not relevant, or at least not central to explaining human experience. From this perspective, consciousness could be an illusion or an artifact of the human brain — one that arises due to increasing loads mental processing. Some researchers suggest that the sense of having consciousness could be a happy accident of evolution, with no specific function or purpose at all.

From an opposite viewpoint, we can take a pantheistic perspective, one in which consciousness is not a mere byproduct, but in fact essential to all life experience. Theorists on this side of the debate suggest that not only human beings, but animals, plants, and perhaps even objects, are conscious to some degree. The idea of a consciousness universe is shared by authors such as Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza.

Lanza, for instance, argues that consciousness could be an essential quality that arises pre-matter. This notion is in line with an idealistic philosophical viewpoint — one that asks us to consider the fundamental nature of reality. Those on this side of the debate raise the question of whether self-awareness is ignited in a material brain, or rather if consciousness is irreducible to neurons.

A reductionist view of consciousness?

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness. – Max Planck

While some argue that modern neuroscience has explained the proverbial "ghost in the machine", there is reason to doubt this, as the consciousness problem is more complex than we often give it credit for. The consciousness problem asks us to consider both the structural and subjective presence of our inner experience.

Structural models

Certain models such as the Global Workspace Theory (GWP) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT) aim to map the structure of consciousness. Although these approaches provide a good starting point for conceptualising consciousnesses, neither quite gets to the heart of the qualia problem — the nature of consciousness itself: What is it?

No matter how well we can seemingly map the occurrence and structure of conscious experience, the most critical component is left out — the essence of experience. This problem is typified in mapping of complex learning machines, which are able to demonstrate the development of language (for example, in Google's recent artificial intelligence — AI — experiments), recall, and decision-making; many characteristics that we attribute to human experience. For instance, if AI has reached a certain level of complex information processing, should we infer it has become conscious? More problematically, how would we discern this? This issue of discernment has been captured in many modern films about AI.

The other side of a structural approach focuses on a pragmatic argument against consciousness. If we can explain other functions of the human mind, such as language, attention, perception, and so forth, is there a need for self-awareness, or consciousness, to come in to play at all? In other words, can these functions arise without a mysterious subjective force governing them? Chalmers' discussion of philosophical zombies comes to mind: That is, can human beings function without consciousness?

Radical behaviourism and mind as epiphenomenon

Let's take a time capsule back to an era of radical behaviorism. If we consider some of the behaviourist explanations of human action and reaction, we observe that many of our behaviours are conditioned responses. Behaviourists argue that mind/consciousness is less important than we believe, as most of our actions are determined via sheer responses to stimuli. You might have read about the experiments Ivan Pavlov conducted in which he trained his dogs to have a particular response when anticipating a meal. Strict behaviourists argue that all of our behaviours are conditioned in a similar manner.

Conditioned behaviour that seems rather complex on the surface can be observed in most animals. Researcher Michael Graziano argued that over the past 500 million years a form of "super attention" has developed as life forms have evolved to become more complex and actively responsive to their environment. This intricate attentional processing allows us to navigate through the world and, according to Graziano, could have given rise to having a unique sense of consciousness at some point in our evolution across millenia.

Oliver Sacks' observations

In his posthumously published book, "The River of Consciousness", Oliver Sacks draws similar conclusions to Graziano, alluding to an evolutionary basis for human consciousness. Like Graziano, he explored the idea that mammals and vertebrates developed specialised uses of attention and consciousness, attuning to their immediate environment. For example, in Nagel's well known paper, "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?", we can consider the unique aspects of the environment a bat's senses might be attended to, based on an impetuses for survival. Of course, as human beings, our own attentional systems may be attuned to different unique functions altogether.

In his book, Sacks' clinical observations of people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Tourette Syndrome struck me in relation to consciousness. Sacks observed that those with ADHD or Tourette's perceive the passage of time at a much faster rate than others. Likewise, he noted that people in catatonic states experience the internal flow of time at a much slower pace, making their actions appear sluggish or delayed from an outsider's perspective. Curiously, from these individual's own vantage point, their experience of consciousness is rather normal; it is not rushed or slowed at all.


One of the topics often left out of the consciousness discussion is our capacity for meta-cognition. We can think about our own thought process, modulate aspects of our emotional experience, and take a step back into an "observer self" when making complicated decisions. The latter is a well-documented phenomenon in mindfulness research.

One of the obvious counter-arguments to a materialistic model is the ubiquitously apparent nature of consciousness. If conscious experience is so central to all life, then can it be reduced to neural activity in the brain after all?

This question becomes more complex when meta-cognition comes into the picture. Consider that you can think about your own thought processes, reflect on certain experiences of your choosing, and even modulate your state of consciousness — all of these are evidence of meta-conscious processes, and all are difficult to explain in mechanistic terms.

While an entrained conscious response can be observed in most animals, our human potential for meta-cognition means that we might not be as subservient to behavioural conditioning. Likewise, we can observe and discern states of consciousness different to our own, an interesting phenomenon that I doubt most other animals are capable of.

For example, recent interventions for ADHD, as well as those in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), show that it is possible for people to alter their own state of cognition and consciousness — a meta-regulation of sorts. Likewise, voice dialoging based techniques in schizophrenia research, such as those applied at Voices Vic, have demonstrated that people with schizophrenia are not necessarily forever bound to their delusions — they have the capacity to modulate them.

When we reflect on these instance of higher-order self-consciousness, we begin to realise that we can't quite do away with the Cartesian theatre just yet. We are not simply responsive to our environment, but we can in fact modulate the conscious state with which we approach our life experience.

Stages and structures

Most people think about states of consciousness in very rudimentary terms, such as either being awake or being asleep at a given time. In fact, we tend to fluctuate between a rich spectrum of states throughout the day, many of which we can induce and modulate. Those who experience lucid dreaming or transcendental meditation, for example, know well the capacity to modulate their state of consciousness from a meta-perspective.

Although structural models of human consciousness may not get to the bottom of the qualia issue, they are beneficial in exploring a taxonomy of varied states of experience. Some of the more pressing philosophical questions structural models might hope to explore include:

  • Are there other states of consciousness than those we fluctuate between as human beings?
  • If so, can we discover these states? (keeping in mind meta-cognition)
  • Do other human beings experience self-consciousness in the same way that we do, or does their spectrum of states differ from our own?
  • To what degree can we modulate or self-induce altered states?
  • What does all of the above tell us about the hard problem?
Wilber proposes the idea of post-rational thought in his work

Ken Wilber suggested that human beings progress through three stages of consciousness — a pre-rational, rational, and a post-rational centred experience of the world. Perhaps much like Piaget's suggestion of a post-formal operational internal model that develops in later adulthood, Wilber's post-rationalism too captures our capacities for higher meta-cognition. If these higher modes of mental experience allow us to modulate, and even experience different states of consciousness, then this could indicate the presence of a progressive, or stage-based, evolution of consciousness.

Consciousness as a byproduct of the brain or a mechanistic process becomes less likely when we consider instances of higher conscious function explored by some of these authors. Likewise, in certain religious and mystical discourse a view of expansive self-consciousness is taken. For example, in some of the Gnostic traditions, consciousness is viewed as a seed that awakens and can be cultivated to encompass broader states.

A model I proposed in 2014 suggested that we can learn the most about our conscious experience by embodying it, rather than becoming tied to the conceptual bearings of stages, structures, or models of experience. Perhaps if we immerse ourselves in unique states of human experience, we can come to a better understanding of consciousness as a phenomenon. This personal, phenomenological experience, lends itself to a certain understanding that cannot be achieved through rational exploration. As for whether we will locate the nature of conscious experience in the human brain, that remains to be seen.

Further reading:

Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness, David Chalmers, http://consc.net/papers/facing.html

The River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks