As humans, we have a unique awareness of and ability to examine and impact our actions. Our day-in and day-out choices define who we are â€“ whether we are â€œgoodâ€ or â€œbadâ€, and the ways in which we differentiate ourselves as individuals within the crowd. We choose to like or dislike, maybe even pass judgment on others based on their choices. And we make changes in our behavior based on our ability to scrutinize it.
Or do we?
In an article titled Consciousness is Nothing But a Word, Henry Schlinger attempts to define human consciousness and posit its existence. Consciousness is difficult to define, as its existence has not been confirmed, leaving Schlinger to instead define what people mean when they say the word. Once a definition has been established, then the concept can be studied.
Schlinger offers a refreshingly practical approach to this nebulous problem by focusing on the identification and study of behaviors associated with consciousness â€“ the observable phenomena. He defines these behaviors as the ability to be aware of and recall our actions, and to express events, both internal and external. He defines language as a necessary prerequisite for consciousness and convincingly quotes Helen Keller, who experienced life before learning sign language.
â€œBefore my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was no world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. Since I had no power of thought I did not compare one mental state with another.â€
To illustrate, a child becomes what Schlinger would call conscious, first by imitation and eventually by actual awareness. What is that? A cat? Can you say cat? Cat. Does the child know itâ€™s a cat? Not yet, but she will eventually. And when she does, Schlinger would say she is conscious of her environment.
The opposite is also true. Schlinger refers to someone as unconscious if they are unable to identify and articulate internal and external events. The article uses brain damage, such as anterograde amnesia, as an example. Patients with anterograde amnesia are unable to make new memories, and by Schlingerâ€™s definition, are therefore only conscious of events that happened to them prior to the incident causing the amnesia.
So what does this mean? The article concludes that consciousness is just a word. And by â€œwordâ€ Schlinger means â€œfantasyâ€. He concludes his article by saying,
â€œWe skeptics find it all too easy to fault obvious pseudo sciences, but when it comes to our own messy, unscientific thinking about ourselves, weâ€™re a lot less critical. Thus, it will probably take a lot longer to realize that the conscious inner life that so fascinates us may be nothing more than a learned repertoire of verbal and/or imagined behavior than it did to realize that the earth is not flat, that it is not the center of the universe, and that life on earth was not designed by a creator.â€
Basically, consciousness is nothing more than the learned expression of internal and external events.
Although I can appreciate what Schlinger has done here, and I believe heâ€™s made an admirable effort to objectify consciousness, I think the reduction of consciousness to behavior leaves much to be considered.
The debate over the definition or existence of consciousness is more than a debate over the awareness and articulation of internal and external events. By this definition, a certain level of â€œconsciousnessâ€ could be found in my dog, based on her ability to communicateÂ her pleasure upon hearing the word “treat”, no matter how rudimentaryÂ her articulation.
Observable behaviors are the fruit of consciousness, but not consciousness itself. As imprecise as it may be, the debate should include, if not surround, the existence of self awareness and the ability of humans to impact their behavior based solely on analysis, not genetics or environmental stimuli.
And many have indeed weighed in on this debate. The prevailing evidence seems to indicate that behavior isnâ€™t â€œdecidedâ€ by the human, but is instead a predictable response to genetic and environmental factors, with a measure of randomness thrown in.
â€œA human can very well do what he wants, but he canâ€™t will what he wants.â€
And Francis Crick said,
â€œYou, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.â€
The implications of this are immense and disturbing.
If there is no free will, then just as we cannot take credit for the fairer aspects of our personas, we also cannot take responsibility for our darker actions. Thieves and murderers are only acting in a predictable manner based on their brain chemistry and environmental cues.
That we are â€œskepticsâ€ is of no credit to us, but instead only a chance occurrence caused by the alignment of brain chemistry and environmental cues.
And what about people who change? Without free will, the â€œchoiceâ€ to change, and admiration of the person who changes for the better, is an illusion. The change was not the personâ€™s choice, but instead a predictable reaction given the personâ€™s genetic disposition and personal history.
Although these are disturbing thoughts, they are no case for free will.
Like evolution, just because one might not like the implications of the theory, they donâ€™t make the theory untrue.
It is what it is.
The concept of human consciousness and free will is one I personally struggle with and about which I continually seek new information.
David Chalmers says the effort to understand consciousness is â€œthe largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universeâ€.
In the end we may just have to accept Schlingerâ€™s statement that,
â€There can be no science of the mind because science deals with real events, and the the mind is not a real event.â€
Skeptic Magazine Vol. 13 No. 4 2008 Consciousness is Nothing But a Word Henry D. Schlinger