The Meaning of Consciousness

What does it mean to be conscious? Does it even have a meaning?

As a psychiatrist, I am influenced by the way in which the terms “conscious”, “unconscious” and “subconscious” are used. The latter two terms generally refer to perceptions or emotions or thoughts that we are not aware of having. In contrast, then, to be conscious of a perception or emotion or thought, means to be aware that we are having or experiencing that perception, emotion, or thought, and be extension, consciousness refers to the state of being aware.

Our sense of smell provides an example. A particular odour has to be sufficiently strong before we become aware of it, in the sense that we realize in our thinking that we are experiencing that smell. At lower strengths, the odour may still influence our behaviour (think pheromones) but it is possible for that to happen without our being aware of it.

In general, the chemical senses are extremely important for survival and for reproduction, not only for higher mammals, but even for single-celled organisms including bacteria. No one would argue that bacteria are conscious. At what level of complexity does an organism become conscious, then?

Finding food, avoiding predators, and reproducing are behaviours that do not require consciousness, as evidenced by their obviously adequate functioning in simple species without any definable nervous system. There is every reason to believe that these basic and essential functions can work equally well in higher mammals, including man, without requiring any sort of conscious awareness.

So if we can accomplish the essential tasks of nourishing ourselves, reproducing, and avoiding being eaten without conscious awareness, why would evolution have built consciousness in?

I believe that consciousness developed along with, and as a necessary component of, language. Let me explain. There is a theory that verbal language developed in littoral and aquatic mammals because in the seashore environment, chemical and visual modes of communication may not function as well. Elaine Morgan and others have propounded the “Aquatic Ape Hypothesis” of which this theory of the evolution of verbal language is a component. The essence of verbal language is that actual physical entities are represented by symbols (words); for language to be useful for communication, sender and receiver have to agree on what symbols represent. And to communicate effectively, a speaker has to be able to call up the required symbols and string them into the order required by the language’s grammar. Up to this point, conscious awareness is probably unnecessary.

The ability to communicate in symbols, however, opens up the possibility of deliberately miscommunicating, ie lying. In terms of finding food and mates, and avoiding being killed, the ability to lie could be advantageous and therefore selected for by evolution. I think that to lie effectively with symbols requires conscious awareness (as contrasted with the kind of deceit practiced by animals who use camouflage or mimicry). Thus, the purpose of consciousness is to support the use of verbal language for dissimulation.

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