In this article, I will explain what consciousness is and how the mind works. These are both concepts that are difficult to understand because they don’t fall into our normal thought structures. Before we get into all that, let’s establish a few key points that may seem obvious, but have been debated by philosophers over the years.
You are real. Your body is real. Your brain is real. Your mind is real.
You are aware of things. You can look around and see them. You can think about people and objects. You can also imagine things that don’t really exist in the world. They all appear in your mind.
You can also think about ideas. You can reason. You can think symbolically (language is symbolic so if you’re reading this, you’re thinking symbolically). You can even think about how you think, which is called metacognition.
You have volition and will. You can evaluate options and decide among them. You also have instincts, desires, and habits that influence your decision making. Your will is free to act like your body is free to move: the more you’ve trained in the past determines how much you can do in the present.
All of the experiences of your life occur in your mind. This can be a little harder to accept, but it’s true. If you stub your toe, you feel the pain in your toe, but you experience that feeling in your mind. The mind has the amazing ability to present feelings, objects and interactions as if they’re happening all around. But they’re really just presented to “you” inside a theater-like feature of the mind. There’s a lot more about this below.
All living organisms have agency. Agency is a nonverbal awareness of existence. It is the sense of boundary between self and other. For example, if a dozen plants of the same species are growing in a tight space, and one plant dies, the others keep on living. Somehow, those plants have a sense of the boundaries that keep their lives distinct from one another. This sense is agency.
In people, agency is buried deep within identity. Your identity is a very complex, multi-layered sense of who you are. It has physical, psychological, social, intellectual, and stylistic elements. For example, you have a body, personality, preferences, habits, friends, family, and place in life (student, parent, spouse, work, play). You are aware of many parts of your identity, but there are probably many aspects so deep or so ingrained that you don’t even realize they’re there. Your identity is a filter that your mind automatically uses to evaluate everything that happens. Finally, your identity both evolves naturally over time and can be changed deliberately if you want and are willing to work at it.
The will always works to support the identity. The identity is the filter for all experiences and actions. The will interprets everything according to how it impacts the identity, and makes all decisions based on supporting or enhancing the identity. Since the identity is the sense of self, this means that all actions are selfish.
There is, however, an important catch. The identity is very capable of including others. Most of us strongly identify with our relationships. Being a good parent or a good friend or a good citizen all require actions that benefit others directly. Therefore, acts of kindness and altruism are both genuinely for the identity (selfish) and genuinely for others (altruistic).
We now have to use a little of our ability for metacognition (thinking about thinking). As you may remember from grammar class, all complete sentences require a subject, an object, and a verb. For example, you (subject) are reading (verb) this article (object). There’s a reason why grammar requires this structure. All of your thoughts, sensations, emotions and feelings are also structured in the same three-sided format. Usually, you are the subject of your experiences. The experience requires something to happen (action). And, there is always an associated object. In the case of an emotion, the emotion itself is the object that you (subject) are feeling (action). Even nonverbal experiences are structured this way, just without the language. With music, you (subject) are playing or hearing (action) the notes (object).
I bring this up because it’s always true, and will be a factor when we define pure consciousness later. Our minds are literally incapable of thoughts, feelings, experiences that don’t have this three-sided structure. Just like a CD player can only play CDs and not vinyl records, we can only think in subject – object – action.
Another limitation of our minds is time and space. We always structure our thoughts, feelings and experiences at a certain time and place. It’s possible that other species in other universes live without time and space, but we literally can’t imagine what that could be.
What the mind does do really well is create meaningful experiences. The mind takes the events of objective reality, which are inherently bland and boring, and enhances them with meaning in order to create relevance, drama, and excitement. This happens on every level all the time. In fact, we couldn’t live without it.
Let’s look at a very basic example. When you open your refrigerator, light hits the food items and containers on your shelves. Each item absorbs some of the light in a particular way, changing the wavelengths of the light that bounces off it and into the back of your eye. Your mind instantly converts all this raw data into three-dimensional colored shapes. Immediately, your mind also identifies these colored shapes as various types of food and drink, and you make a decision about what to grab.
All this happens so fast that you don’t realize it’s happening. You just think, “There’s the OJ.” But in reality, the concept of a jug of orange juice is a mental creation. There is an objective reality of a sugary liquid made from the fruit we call oranges sitting in a container on the shelf. But the scene you experience when you open the fridge is much richer and more meaningful than the objective reality.
Three Layers of Reality
Looking further at this example, there are three key layers of reality that affect us all the time. The first is the objective reality, which in this case are the molecules grouped into objects and bouncing light. The second is the shared subjective reality, which are the concepts like eggs, butter, OJ, and leftovers. Pretty much everyone who speaks English would use the same words and same concepts for the same objects.
The third layer is the individual subjective reality. This is how all those objects relate to you, often stirring emotion and/or desire. This layer is always contextual. The way you look at what’s in the fridge is entirely dependent on why you’re there. Are you making a list before heading to the grocery store? Are you hungry for breakfast? Are you hungry but conflicted because you’re trying to change your diet?
Unless you’re a scientist, engineer, or philosopher, the objective reality rarely gets your direct attention. The mind works automatically to convert the bland and mundane objective reality into an interesting and meaningful world. Everyone does this, and most of what constitutes raising children is training them how to do this effectively.
In any given society, there are lots of expectations for how everyone is supposed to operate with and in this shared subjective reality. All language, laws, politics, and social norms are part of the shared subjective reality. Each person then relates to all these expectations in their own way (based on the unique characteristics of their identities and will).
The analogy of a DVD player can help understand this process. If you want to watch a DVD movie, you need a working DVD player along with a TV and speakers. The reality of the DVD itself is a very long sequence of 1s and 0s organized into code. The DVD player takes these 1s and 0s and converts them into a set of signals that activate pixels in the TV and sound from the speakers. When you watch, you organize what you see and hear on the fly. You turn the light from the TV into shapes and images, and you convert the sound from the speakers into dialog and mood music. You then invest yourself into the moving images and soundtrack in such a way that the movie comes to life and means something.
In this analogy, the data on the DVD is the “boring” objective reality. The DVD player is the part of your mind that works with your senses to convert and interpret the raw data. The TV and speakers are another part of the mind (the theater). The “you” in this analogy is a third part of the mind (the identity). The will, which is a fourth part of the mind, groups the raw data into known objects and ascribes meaning to them and their interactions. In this way, the entire experience occurs in the mind.
There is an important difference between a DVD player and the mind. The same DVD will play exactly the same movie no matter which working DVD player you use. The human mind, though, always has some bias and some agenda. This means everyone’s individual experiences of the movie differ. While we usually agree about the shared realities of the length, plot, and characters, how each of us interprets what the movie means, or what we feel about it can vary significantly.
The reason this happens is because your will is the driving force for all your experiences. And, the motivation behind this force of will is your identity. Your identity is the lens that filters all your interpretations, evaluations and decisions whether you want it to or not. This is happening on all levels of the mind, from the deliberate to the subconscious and instinctual. Furthermore, your identity has a set of essential qualities that influence the nature of your experiences. This identity is a strong force indeed, but it is also malleable, so there are ways for you to tweak it or even restructure it if you want to change your experiences.
Let’s dig into this concept a little. The characteristics of your identity and will are the key determining factors in how you experience the world. There is an objective reality. There is a shared subjective reality. And both of them are substantially out of your control. So, if you want to understand, influence, or fundamentally change your experiences, you have to work with your identity and will.
At first, they both feel like they are fixed entities that operate on their own. But they’re not. They do have lots of momentum and habits, but they can be changed with consistent and sincere effort. The first step is an honest look at how your mind works minute by minute. Notice where your attention goes and what kinds of thoughts result from what kinds of experiences. Talk to your friends and family about their thought processes and notice the differences. You’re likely to see a lot of discretionary activity that you can start influencing.
Consciousness makes all this possible. We’re going to create a very specific definition of consciousness, so try not to assume or picture what it is yet. The word “consciousness” has been used in so many ways that it’s nearly impossible to make sense of it. The Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but we only have one for consciousness? No wonder there’s so much confusion.
Remember we talked about the mind only thinking in subject – object – action within time and space? Well, pure consciousness has none of these characteristics, so the mind simply cannot conceive of it. It’s like putting a vinyl record into a CD player. The music is there, but you can’t access it with the CD player.
Also, there are two distinct “realities” for consciousness. Pure consciousness “by itself” and consciousness “combined” with the biological building blocks of life. The terms “by itself” and “combined” are in quotations because pure consciousness has no time, no space, and no form, which means there’s no “real” way for it to be “by itself” or “combined.”
A limited metaphor for this is oxygen and water. Water is H20, which means hydrogen and oxygen chemically combined. Water is a liquid but oxygen is a gas. You can learn a lot about the world by seeing all the different ways that water supports life. But oxygen also exists separate from water, so if you only study water, you miss some of what oxygen really is. The metaphor is limited because oxygen and water both exist in measurable forms within time and space, whereas consciousness does not.
Consciousness in its simplest “combined” aspect is the power for agency and will within a living organism. It has to be a “combination” because there is no way to explain awareness and volition with biological processes alone. And, consciousness has no material or energetic reality on its own, so it can’t function in any way “by itself.” Instead, consciousness empowers physical organisms to be capable of awareness and volition.
So what is pure consciousness “by itself?” Technically, it is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge. Let’s break down what this means.
First, consciousness exists on its own, which means it’s not created by anything else or by any combination of other things. Some philosophers have said that consciousness is created by activities of the brain, but this isn’t the case.
Second, the word potential means that it can do nothing by itself. It needs the building blocks of nature for anything to know or be known.
Third, the word undifferentiated means that consciousness has no specific form or energy of its own. Instead, it empowers the organism according to the nature of that living organism. A limited analogy is electricity, which activates heat in a stove, light in a bulb, and rotation in a blender. The electricity is the same in each, but the activity is dependent on the design of the appliance. The analogy is limited because electricity is an independent energy, whereas consciousness is not energy.
Fourth, the word knowledge is meant in the purest sense, and can be any kind of living knowledge. Consciousness empowers the human brain to be capable of more sophisticated knowledge than any other organism we know about. But consciousness also empowers the simplest organisms to sense and adapt. For example, consciousness gives plants the ability to sense light and move toward it. The plant cannot think because it doesn’t have a brain, but it does have an awareness of the light and can grow toward it. One technical point is that awareness and volition are elements of knowledge, not the other way around.
Fifth, the concept of quantity is irrelevant to consciousness. The common phrases of one organism being “more conscious” or “less conscious” than another are technically incorrect. A dog is not more conscious than a fish. Instead, the dog’s brain is larger and more sophisticated than the fish’s brain. When this phrase is used with people, it’s typically referring to qualities of the identity and will, which are parts of the mind.
Putting this all together, all life as we know it cannot be possible without two independent but interconnected “realities.” The union of these two becomes the physical manifestation of the universe (nature). Without consciousness, nature cannot have any awareness or volition. Without nature, consciousness has no form, no energy, and nothing to know.
Understanding how agency and will arise from the union of consciousness and nature is extremely difficult for the human brain since pure consciousness does not have any manifestation of its own within time and space. There are three analogies that help explain it.
The first analogy is the difference between oxygen alone and oxygen within water. Water is H20, which means hydrogen and oxygen chemically combined. Water is a liquid but oxygen is a gas. You can learn a lot about the world by seeing all the different ways that water supports life. But oxygen also exists separate from water, so if you only study water, you miss some of what oxygen really is. The metaphor is limited because oxygen and water both exist in measurable forms within time and space, whereas consciousness does not.
The second analogy is a traditional movie projected on a screen. In the projector, colored film passes in front of a white (full spectrum) light source. The film has form and color but no illumination, while the light has illumination but no form or differentiated colors. They never mix with each other in the projector, meaning the light is always white and the film is the same no matter how many times you play it.
The images on the screen, however, are illuminated, colored forms. The light and form are not only mixed on the screen, they are inseparable. No matter what you do with the images on the screen, you cannot separate the light from the form. Yet back in the projector, they are still entirely separate.
A living organism is like the image on the screen. Consciousness and nature are mixed in a way that they are inseparable in that life. No matter what, you can’t find consciousness, or even a conscious mind, as a unique reality separate from the brain.
The third analogy is the concept of driving. Driving is the term we give to the active functioning of a car with a person controlling it. The driving is not a unique reality that can be separated from the car, the person, and their activity. In the same way, mind is the term we give to the active functioning of the brain inherently fused with consciousness for the purposes of creating experience. There is no mind existing as a unique, separate reality.
The mind is the vehicle for experiencing the world. The objective world is inherently bland and without meaning. The mind is incredibly creative. It filters, organizes and augments the raw data of the world so that a meaningful life can be experienced. This requires layers of perception, interpretation, grouping, imagination, reasoning, explanation, organization, and ascribing meaning to be working full time. The mind is part decoder ring, part interpreter, part bouncer, part streaming media player, and part producer/director. The mind, ironically, is also the viewer/experiencer. And to top it all off, it’s part critic and part General.
All these activities of the mind happen automatically unless you deliberately train the will to wrestle control of them. This is a lot like training a wild horse to be ridden. It’s not easy to accomplish, but it provides a fundamentally different way of maneuvering through life.
For more details on how this works, see the Philosophy of Mind article.
Originally published: 9/9/15
Last copy edit: 9/11/15
List of content edits:
9/11/15 – Added explanation of will, identity and altruism.