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Neuroscience of Consciousness | Consciousness Conclusion | Consciousness Sources

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Graphic Credit: h.koppdelaney@Flickr
Consciousness is a term used to define a range of mental phenomena. It is generally defined as subjective experience, self awareness, ability to feel, and the main control of the mind. While consciousness is one of the most important pieces of the human mind, it is still one of the biggest mysteries in science and psychology. Although research continues to uncover more information about the biological source of consciousness and its implications, philosophical interpretations of consciousness remain a major part of current consciousness theory.

The current dominant philosophical theory explaining consciousness is known as “Naive Realism.” Naive Realism states that, in general, objects in the world that are perceivable exist, as proven through sensory experience, and that these objects are perception-independent (meaning that they exist whether or not they are currently being perceived) . Furthermore, Naive Realism argues that the perceived properties of these objects exist and are also perception-independent. In essence, Naive Realism says that generally, people experience the world as it exists and that their senses accurately describe the physical world (this contrasts with other philosophical beliefs stating that human perception is false and the world humans experience does not exist and is an illusion). While Naive Realism may seem redundant and simply common sense, it is important because it establishes the baseline for further philosophical speculation and scientific, empirical research (if the world humans perceive does not actually exist and human senses simply deceive, then studying any aspect of the world would be futile).

Rene Descartes was one of the first of the modern philosophers to theorize about the
Rene Descartes, one of the first philosophers to seriously address the question of consciousness
Rene Descartes, one of the first philosophers to seriously address the question of consciousness
mystery of consciousness. Descartes argued that consciousness exists in a realm outside of the body, a theory known as Cartesian Dualism. Descartes said that after sensory inputs enter the brain they are passed into the immaterial spirit, essentially the consciousness, which then analyzed the inputs (the immaterial spirit does not exist in a realm accessible by physical means) (Descartes, 1628). In terms of empirical evidence, Descartes’ theories leave much to be desired; however, since consciousness has yet to be completely defined in terms of biology, philosophy remains an important component of consciousness theory, and Descartes’ theories of consciousness still retain value when discussing consciousness.

Until the 1960s, consciousness was a taboo topic in psychology, as it was difficult to conduct scientific research on a topic so broad in scope, and the enigmas of the human brain were just beginning to be uncovered (although studies were conducted on altered states of consciousness, research on consciousness as a specific function of the brain was not conducted until later). Recently neuroscience has begun to uncover possible sources of consciousness within the brain, however as of now, all evidence is at best highly suggestive of the source of consciousness, and definitive proof is still lacking.

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17th Century Artist's Impression of Consciousness
While advances in neuroscience, particularly via the fMRI, have uncovered information regarding many functions of the brain, consciousness still remains a mystery to psychologists. Philosophical theories are often based upon non-scientific evidence and “thought experiments," nevertheless, when it comes to consciousness, philosophy still plays an important role in providing answers that are currently out of the bounds of neuroscience.

Some questions to think about while reading this chapter are
  • Do you agree with Naive Realism, or are we simply viewing a giant illusion (something such as “**Plato’s cave**”)?
  • Which emphasis, neurology or philosophy, is more pertinent to the human understanding of consciousness?
  • What are some potential implications of consciousness? Does it give humans more control over the world, more responsibility, or both?
  • While philosophy cannot prove anything biologically, what does it allow researchers to do that science cannot? (your answer may simply be “nothing at all”)
  • If humans have conscious thought, is it possible that animals do too? After all, there is no definitive proof that biologically allows for consciousness.
  • At what point in biology, especially in a grey area such as the brain (pun intended), is it acceptable to claim something is fact? (this is a very big question in science, and the answer probably varies depending on whether the person being asked believes in the current theory at large).