When pondering the mind, consciousness is a difficult problem to fully understand. Consciousness is defined as the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself (www.merriam-webster.com). If a person, or organism, has a conscious experience, it means there is something it is like to be that kind of person or organism. To perceive your own consciousness, we ask ourselves “what is it like to be me?” It is fairly easy to grasp the essence of yourself, and therefore have an understanding of your own consciousness.
One of the biggest philosophical problems posed by consciousness is the mind-body problem. It was first posed by René Descartes, a French philosopher from the 17th century. He speculated that the body (the physical) and the mind (the mental) were two completely separate phenomena, and one process could not be explained in the terminology of the other. For example, mental entities, or thoughts, do not have physical characteristics and cannot be described using physical terminology. This is known as Cartesian dualism. Most scientists have rejected Descartes theory since physical processes and the mental processes are connected, and one can influence the other. For example, I see a cup of coffee next to me, and I realize that I really want to drink the coffee, so I grab the cup and drink it.
Now, to go further into the mind body problem, how does the visual system get the cup of coffee into our consciousness? Here is an explanation from Jonathan Westphal. “Very roughly, the physical story is that light enters my eyes from the cup of coffee, and this light impinges on the two retinas at the backs of the eyes. Then, as we have learned from physiological science, the two retinas send electrical signals past the optic chiasm down the optic nerve. These signals are conveyed to the so-called visual cortex at the back of the brain. And then there is a sort of a miracle. The visual cortex becomes active, and I see the coffee cup. I am conscious of the cup, we might even say, though it is not clear what this means and how it differs from saying that I see the cup. One minute there are just neurons firing away, and no image of the cup of coffee. The next, there it is; I see the cup of coffee, a foot away. How did my neurons contact me or my mind or consciousness, and stamp there the image of the cup of coffee for me?” (thereader.mitpress.mit.edu).
While it is clear that the physical mind and the mental consciousness are connected, we have no clear understanding of how this comes to be. It is possible that we simply do not have the scientific knowledge or tools to explain consciousness or the mind at this time. It cannot be explained in the physical sense, as we can see from the coffee example. There is a lot of debate in the scientific community over whether consciousness can ever be explained. A person, or any other organism for that matter, can only have mental states if there is something that it is like to be that person or organism. Consciousness is a subjective character of experience. We can try to make it more objective, but it is nearly impossible to take out the point of view connected with a subjective experience.
One topic of interest is whether we are able to understand the conscious experience of another person or organism. Cognitive scientists have posited that the more differences between you and another organism’s physical abilities, the harder it is to perceive what it means to be that organism, or to have its consciousness. For example, Thomas Nagel proposes that we as humans will never be able to perceive what it is like to be a bat (warwick.ac.uk). Bats can have experiences, so therefore there must be something it’s like to be a bat (meaning bats have a consciousness). Bats have sensory abilities that we do not have though. Bats have sonar, where they produce high frequency sounds through the mouth or nose and listen to the location it bounces off of to navigate. We cannot suppose that bat sonar is anything like the senses that we possess or that it is subjectively like anything we experience or imagine. Therefore, when we imagine what it is like to be a bat, we are limited to the resources we do possess. These resources are inadequate to imagine the experience of the bat, and we cannot form a schematic conception of what it is like to be a bat. We can conclude from this exercise that there are facts about the mind that cannot be explained because they cannot be formulated.
While it may be difficult to accept the premise that bats experience the world far differently than us, or that sonar is truly different from our senses, I will turn to another example. We also cannot truly perceive what it is like to be a person who is blind, or deaf. The reason why is because we use our senses to fill in our understanding of concepts. Concepts are complex mental representations that specify the characteristics that anything falling under the concept is likely to have. Those who are blind or deaf will not be able to create concepts with mental representations based on those senses. While some people debate whether our mental processing is different when we use different senses, I say that we can look to examples of individuals who had their sight restored to answer this question (www.science.org). 5 young children from India had surgery to restore eyesight. Researchers had them either touch or look at objects to see if they could recognize them. In the first experiment, the children had to feel two shapes without looking and identify if they were the same, and they did so with 90% accuracy. In the second experiment, the children could look at the two shapes to identify if they were the same but not touch them, and again they were successful. In the third experiment, they were asked to feel an object without looking and then look at an object and identify if it was the same object. This time, the children did only slightly better than chance (or guessing). What this experiment tells us is that the way these children process their world into concepts cannot be translated into senses they have not experienced before. Granted, this experiment had a very small sample size and limited external validity, so further testing should be done before we can accept the conclusions as final.
For now, we can assume that our mental representations are different based on the processing systems we use. Overall, this affects our experience and what it is like to be “us.” The more different we are, the harder it is to imagine someone else’s consciousness.