Being able to experience and remember pain and pleasure

Why even try to define consciousness? It’s something that everyone experiences directly and has also been seemingly impossible to discover or learn about objectively. What benefit could there be in defining it? Actually, it’s the fact that we all experience it directly that I think makes it worthwhile to try and create an objective definition for it. If we primarily think about consciousness through our own experience of it we can miss the objective facts about it that might otherwise be obvious.  Also, consciousness is something that’s very important when thinking about definitions. At some point when trying to define a new term we have to think about how we feel about it, how do our subjective conscious experiences shape the way we think about an idea. But consciousness is also very difficult to define because while we all have a lot of experience with it, we also know essentially nothing about how it works.

Given the limitations of what we know about consciousness the best way to define it isn’t to try and nail down the specific mechanism or processes that create human consciousness, but to define a more general category of consciousness. We know there’s at least one way to be consciousness, the way that humans do it, but we should acknowledge that there’s potentially more than one way. Perhaps octopuses are consciousness in a different way? And in the future we could discover aliens or create machines that achieve consciousness in ways that are very different than us. So let’s define this broader category of general consciousness, and that will hopefully give us some insight into how human consciousness fits into that.

What would a broader definition look like? Take the idea of “magnetism” for example. We know enough about the physical causes of magnetism to break it down into it’s most basic parts, and at the most basic level magnetism is everywhere. The electromagnetic force is present in everything that’s made of atoms, and it’s the way that we experience most interactions in our lives. But we don’t call everything magnetic and that’s because we’re using the second type of definition here. We’re looking at what unique qualities magnets have and defining magnetism based on that. It’s not the qualities of the building blocks that matter, but instead it’s the large scale behaviors we observe. In the case of magnets it’s a certain kind of interaction in the presence of some metals and electric fields. In the case of consciousness what are the behaviors that would define it in a similar way?

The first and probably most important question about consciousness is if it’s a physical phenomenon on not. I believe that’s going to be a testable hypothesis eventually, but until we can test it, I think we should conclude that it’s more likely than not, for the following reasons:

  • As a starting point, is there anything that’s not physical? If we set aside the idea of a mental and physical divide, which just assumes that our conscious mind is a non-physical kind of thing, are there any examples of anything, anywhere, that’s not physical? Maybe at some point in history magnetism or gravity or radiation would’ve been called non-physical, but not anymore. If we also rule out ghosts and magic, that doesn’t leave any examples for non physical things I can think of. Is it possible that consciousness would be the first and only non-physical thing we know of? It might be possible, but I can’t imagine a definition of physical that would make sense like that.
  • Because what would a non-physical thing be like? It wouldn’t be able to interact with any other physical things, since physical things behave and interact with other physical things according to the laws of physics. How would we discover something non-physical? All of our senses and all of our experimental equipment is physical, so we wouldn’t have any means of discovering non-physical things. They’d be completely impossible to interact with. Another way to think of it is that there could be non-physical things everywhere, but it doesn’t matter because they have no effect on us, and we can’t affect them either.
  • Clearly our consciousness reflects physical information that comes from our sensory organs, and it gets there via physical neurons. If our consciousness wasn’t physical, how would that work? How would a physical neuron affect consciousness if consciousness wasn’t physical itself?
  • There’s also good evidence that consciousness can have a physical affect on our brains because we can confirm and describe that our conscious experiences match what the physical world is like. That’s a physical effect that appears to be caused by consciousness, the descriptions we make are caused by what our conscious experience is like, and that appears to have physical effects. Somehow consciousness causes neurons to fire and they cause muscles to move, and those movements appear to contain information from our conscious experiences. How is that information transmitted if not by physical means at every step?

Another way to convince ourselves that consciousness is a physical phenomenon is to look at the ways that we break down ourselves in to conscious and unconscious parts. Sight is an important part of most people’s conscious experience, and yet we’re not conscious of every step in the process. Light hits our pupils, which causes neurons to fire and those signals travel through a lot of steps we’re not conscious of. Edges and motion and faces are detected, and complicated processes like having the two sets of images from our two eyes put together to form a 3D experience happen. We’re not conscious of any of that, it’s just the very last step where it all comes together that we experience. Plus, it’s possible for brain damage to cause problems with any of those individual steps, some injuries cause people to not be able to see faces, or not see motion and it’s possible to lose the ability to consciously see entirely even though our eyes still work fine.

If consciousness wasn’t physical, why should there be such a tight correlation between physical parts of the brain that precede conscious experience and the experience itself. If consciousness wasn’t physical than presumably it that could happen anywhere without needing a physical structure. For example, why doesn’t consciousness happen in our eyes or any of those neurons they’re immediately connected to? Why is it always correlated with what’s happening physically in our brains, and not just all over our brains, but specific parts of our brain, the parts that come after all these steps processing visual data?  I can’t think of any reason why we should doubt that the specific physical structure of parts of our brains are integral to being able to experience consciousness. Physical electrical signals travel through neurons, triggering different changes along the way, and eventually at the end of that we have a conscious experience. Why, and how, could only the last step in a long series of physical events be nonphysical? Especially since we don’t have any evidence that anything can be nonphysical. Proof that it’s possible to observe, by any method, a nonphysical phenomenon would seem to need extraordinary evidence, not just a lack of an explanation or understanding like is the case with consciousness.

Consciousness is important to define because it’s integral to how we act, but it’s also important because the things we consciously experience are what give meaning to our lives. Specifically, consciousness allows us to feel good and bad about things, to experience pain and pleasure. These two feelings are different from the rest of the things we experience consciously. When we see red it’s because there’s some physical thing in the world that’s red that’s causing it, and when we feel warm it’s because there’s something physical interacting with our body’s and we  sense that and that’s turned into a feeling of warmth. But pleasure and pain don’t represent anything else out in the world, they’re not relaying information that exists outside us, they only exist in our mind. But they’re also incredibly important to us, they profoundly shape our behavior and help us define who we are because a huge part of our identity is what kinds of things make us feel good or bad, and the ways that we go about pursuing or avoiding those experiences.

Without being able to feel good or bad about something, how would we assign meaning to anything in our lives? Imagine if we were born with ability to experience everything we sensed out in the world consciously like, everyone else, except we couldn’t feel good or bad, pain or pleasure, at all. How could we make sense of anything? Even something as simple as distinguishing one object from another would seem to be impossible if we couldn’t care about the effects it could have. If nothing we do or interact with could make us feel good, then we wouldn’t have any reason to try to do anything. Or if we couldn’t feel pain, we wouldn’t have any reason to avoid danger or even do something as simple as try to eat when we’re hungry. If hunger didn’t feel bad and love didn’t feel good, then how could we know which one to pursue and which to avoid? And how would we learn to talk or the meaning or words if we didn’t feel good when we were successful at communicating. At the heart of all meaning there’s our conscious experience of pain and pleasure.

For simplicity’s sake I’ll use the term “feedback” to refer to the conscious experiences of pain and pleasure or feeling good or bad. Some have argued that these two opposite kinds of experiences are actually different ends of the same spectrum of a single experience. While that seems possible, we don’t know if that’s true or not. So for now a single term to cover these feelings whether they’re two things or one thing is useful.

Feedback has to happen to someone, and therefore identity is important to the idea of consciousness and the creation of meaning. If something, say a rock,  had the same underlying physical mechanism causing consciousness as humans and could feel warmth, but couldn’t remember it or get any pleasure from it, is it really useful to call it conscious? The physical effect could be the same in the rock and in us, but if it’s not accomplishing the same thing we wouldn’t call it consciousness. The same way we don’t call everything magnetic even though the magnetic force is present in everything.  Whereas if a rock could both experience rewards and remember them, even if it couldn’t act on them in any way, I think we’d find it difficult to call it anything except conscious. And that would be the case even if the fundamental physical mechanism that allowed for those experiences was completely different than human consciousness. The qualities that separate a rock from a conscious rock are the ability to feel feedback and the ability to remember those feelings. In its broadest sense remembering just means that the experience has some impact on future behavior or experiences, that it can make some physical change that affects the future in a consistent way.

Something is consciousness then if it can experience rewards and remember them. Even though we can’t say what the mechanisms are that create consciousness, given the way we use the word consciousness, this captures the unique effects and behaviors. Somewhere in our brains, some things are happening that causes these two effects. Whatever those things are, that’s what we should call the source of consciousness. This doesn’t require consciousness to initiate or be the source of any action or thought, it could be that it’s an entirely preventative process stopping bad choices or instincts. Or its purpose could exist to provide feedback to make learning more flexible and efficient. We think consciousness is important, but that doesn’t mean it has to have a role in our behavior that dominates everything else. Eventually we’ll figure out how the part or parts responsible work and what’s the underlying physical interactions that are happening and we’ll understand the building blocks, but for now it’s enough to focus on these unique behaviors, rewards and memory.

There’s only four fundamental forces, or interaction, in nature. Everything that we know of has to interact with anything else via one or more of those. Consciousness doesn’t seem to count as any of them, so another possibility is that there’s a fifth undiscovered interaction that we’ll have to discover. But it might be that consciousness is one of the four we already know and we just don’t realize it yet. We can observe what happens objectively when a magnetic fields changes or interacts with something, but we don’t know if the magnetic field causes a subjective experience too. It could be that’s what consciousness is, the subjective experience of the fundamental forces we already understand interacting with each other. Maybe evolution ‘discovered’ that magnetic fields had this property of consciousness could do some useful things in a brain, and that’s why we ended up with some specific structure in our brains. Of course evolution doesn’t have a plan or care what it makes, but in a sense, that’s the only reason any of us, the conscious us, are here. To help our brains and our bodies interact with the complicated world we live in and have created around us. The “conscious us” care about our bodies and our brains because they’re the only ways that we know of to keep our consciousness around, and the only ways to connect it to the rest of the world, but that won’t always be the case. In theory almost every part of our body can be replaced or removed, and eventually the same will be true for most, maybe all, of our brains. Before we get to that point it would be good to know what kind of thing consciousness is. What is the fundamental force or forces that allow it to exist and interact? And if consciousness is something that happens when a bunch of particles interact, what keeps that interaction contained in our brains? If consciousness can interact with, or is made of, neurons and neurons are just made of atoms like everything else, what makes the atoms in part of our brain a special separate consciousness than the rest of our body, or the rest of the matter around us? A definition is never going to be able to answer these questions for us, but it’ll at least allow us to ask these questions and imagine different answers and think of experiments we could do to test those answers, and that’s the next step we’ll eventually have to take.

I’ll follow up on a few of the ways that we can explore these ideas using this definition of consciousness in another article on the implications of consciousness.