Problems in Defining Consciousness

By: Mark Bancroft, MA


The Problems:

1. Inclusion/ Exclusion: The fundamental problem in defining consciousness can be attributed to what to include , or in most cases what to exclude, in one's definition. Objective methods developed and relied upon throughout the scientific era are and have been used to try and define consciousness which lies deep within the subjective domain. Controversy over particular definitions and theories typically relate to what should be included in one's analysis of the topic. This is usually done through the practice of exclusion; the work of Occam's razor which seeks to reduce all hypothesis' and theories to their most fundamental (basic) parts. Some desire to include the firing neurons and exclude all else from the domain of consciousness. Others seek to exclude nothing at the inclusion of everything- rocks are consciousness.


2. Paradigms & Drawing the Line: During the last two decades the limitations of the scientific paradigm have begun to surface. Psychology, ecology, physics, and medicine are facing unique; yet, similar challenges which in some cases threaten their continued existence. The reductionist approach would prefer to draw the line of consciousness at the realm of conscious thought. Consciousness becomes the exclusive domain of those who can prove they are conscious by their ability to speak and think rationally, in English, to their inquisitor. Everything else is deemed non-conscious, and less important. Living systems theory challenges logical assumptions as the above with a "new" set of logical constructs. Living systems theory tells us that there are no lines to be drawn; everything is interconnected- all lines are arbitrary. Therefore, it is logically incorrect to assume consciousness requires a definitive line before it can be defined.


3. The Challenge of Language: The challenges presented by our current language impede our ability to develop a coherent theory of consciousness. Language plays a critical function in sharing our ideas with others; as well as our own capacity to think in certain ways. Currently, language has primarily an "either/or" orientation. This causes the inner and outer worlds to be exclusively perceived in an "either/or" orientation. Explaining revolutionary concepts and ideas to ourselves and others has to be done through the use of inadequate language. In writing this is evident in the placing parentheses around a common word. This implies the author wishes to express an altogether different meaning; it is hoped that the reader will know what the author means. Metaphors are also used to describe the indescribable. It is important to understand that revolutionary concepts and ideas must be expressed and shared through inadequate words.

Nothing is ever invented out of nothing. To invent new distinctions, we must already speak a language. New distinctions are always invented as new distinctions of an old language. They modify, extend, or complement the distinctions of the old language. So, to invent new distinctions, you need competence in a language already spoken by people [ What We're Doing and the Time at Which We're Doing It].


4. Bound to Attributes: The influence of objective favoritism has led to the strong tendency to define consciousness by its observable (objective) attributes. Rather than asking "what is consciousness?" and developing an explanation; the standard approach is asking "what does consciousness do?" and using that to explain what it is. Consciousness then becomes that which can be studied, quantified, and tested in objective language. Therefore, consciousness is defined according to its observable attributes: it is learned; alterable; dependent upon the brain; requires social intercourse; bound by language; equated with rational thought.


The Solution:

1. Survey the Existing Theories & Models: Rather than attempting to draw a definitive line of consciousness at this time it would be more beneficial to openly survey the variety of explanations which already exist. Much has been written throughout history on consciousness. Quantum physics, mythology, esoteric teachings, religion, biology, philosophy, mysticism, and poetry all hold valuable clues which may help explain the nature of consciousness. This approach may offer the means to develop a more convincing and comprehensive definition of consciousness.


2. Framework of Expansionism: Attempting to strip consciousness of its inherent subjective nature has proven futile. Instead of reducing phenomena to their elemental properties a move towards expansionism would yield more significant results. This does not mean to seek absolute inclusion in favor of reductionism. This would be the same fallacy which currently impedes our progress- just in the opposite form. A framework is necessary to offer structure for the material being subjected to study. The choice between surrounding the study of consciousness with a frame of reductionism versus the larger frame of expansionism must be addressed.


3. Spectrum of Consciousness: One promising direction in the study of consciousness which has emerged is the theory that consciousness consists of multiple levels. A more accurate description views consciousness as a spectrum. Viewing consciousness as a spectrum allows for discrete "levels" but does not arrange these "levels" into a hierarchical model. The multiple-levels theory is vertically oriented which invariably implies some modes of consciousness are more important than others. However, the "more important" modes are dependent upon their lessor counterparts for existence. The ability for conscious thought is recognized as being consciousness in and of itself. It is easily forgotten that an environment which is self-organizing, energy conserving, driven by equilibrium, and evolutionary is essential for the self-aware, thought-driven human experience.

A horizontal orientation, such as describing consciousness as a spectrum, reduces the tendency of ethnocentrism of one's own level. The spectrum model allows for two apparently divergent views to coexist. Rather than deciding if The Copenhagen Interpretation or Madam Blavatsky hold the correct interpretation of consciousness, we are presented with a viable solution which is based upon sound reason and logic. Ken Wilber writes:
Each investigator would be correct when speaking about his own level, and thus all other investigators- plugged in at different levels- would appear to be completely wrong. The controversy would not be cleared up by having all investigators agree with each other, but rather by realizing that all were talking about one spectrum seen from different levels…

And of course, they would both be right, because each was working with a different band of the spectrum, and when they realized that, the argument would cease, and the phenomenon…would be understood through a synthesis of all the information gained on each level [Wilber, p.17, 1977].



A more precise interpretation of consciousness would be to say that the conscious experience displays definite attributes, and that the conscious experience is an expression of something less clearly defined which may be called consciousness. The conscious experience being of course one band situated along a conceivably infinite spectrum- which we may call consciousness.

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"What We're Doing and the Time at Which We're Doing It," article from Kathy James. (1996).

Wilber, K. (1977). The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House.


Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA

Article: Copyright (C) 1998. Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT, Nevada City, CA, 95959. All rights reserved.