There may be no greater mystery of the modern era than consciousness. Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and countless others have attempted to unravel this great puzzle, in an attempt to understand the origins of the mind and the mechanics behind human cognition that remain elusive to us even today.
Part of the mystery of consciousness has to do with the divided opinions about its nature and existence: some argue that it is central to the human experience, while others question whether consciousness even really exists, apart from being an illusion that arises from the senses. For Renee Descartes (and many thereafter who read his seminal works), there was perhaps no greater eureka moment in philosophy than “I think, therefore I am.” The fact that we have an awareness of ourselves, the ability to self-reflect, and our fundamental ability to think about the fact that we think, all constitute a unique phenomenon for humans.
Despite the seemingly self-evident nature of self-reflection in the role of understanding consciousness, others have argued that it may not be as real as it appears to be. Chief among the modern proponents of this idea is Daniel Dennett, author of the aptly named 1991 offering Consciousness Explained. It is at times an unputdownable tour-de-force in the study of the age-old mind-body problem, in which Dennett incorporates everything from psychology to A.I. in his assessment; hence, it’s not surprising that Dennett has compared consciousness, at times, to how a computer works, in that many of the underlying processes of human perception are analogous to folders on the desktop of our personal computers. We can click on any of these with ease, enlarging the folder and viewing the contents within; further clicks will open documents, spreadsheets, programs, or other visually-appealing representations of information that can be read and studied with ease.
The deeper question that arises from this is an interesting one. The simplicity of opening a document with a word processing program, for instance, is merely the peripheral, “user interface” side of the system we’re engaging. The underlying process, on the other hand, would be almost unimaginably complex for the majority of us: the extensive coding, the software and its interface with underlying mechanical hardware, all constituent parts of an underlying multiplex that creates for us, with the click of an icon, that “simple” experience when we use our computers, smartphones, and similar devices each day.
In Dennett’s conception of consciousness operating similar to a computer in this way, we begin to see that the aspects of thought and self-reflection that comprise our notion of consciousness are anything but simple: there is a biological architecture beneath it all that is far more complex, almost infinitely so. Consciousness, in other words, is an illusion that arises from myriad complex biological processes in our bodies that comprise our systems of awareness and mind function.
Dennett is not without his critics, of course. John Horgan, writing for Scientific American, notes that, “Trouble arises when Dennett, extending the computer-interface analogy, calls consciousness a ‘user-illusion’… An illusion is a false perception. Our thoughts are imperfect representations of our brain/minds and of the world, but that doesn’t make them necessarily false.” As Horgan argues, we may not see the full picture, in other words… but why should that mean that anything we perceive as conscious, living entities is any less “real”?
Consciousness, if it were to be simply defined, might be called “the state of being aware, or having awareness.” Logically, it seems that we should be able to acknowledge this “simple” idea of consciousness, in terms of what it means to us to have it, as thinking and self-reflecting beings, and also acknowledge the fact that it is comprised of far more complex underlying processes. Both ideas or approaches to identifying consciousness seem to be requisite, in other words, for having a full understanding of this broader problem in any relatable sense.
Altogether, even if certain aspects of our conscious experience can be likened to being “illusions,” the fact that we can perceive them as such appears to suggest that there is a reality behind them. Hence, if we think, then yes… we are. However, we have a long way to go toward unraveling the full meaning of the “what” that exists behind the famous “I am” that Descartes left for us to ponder.