The Definition of Consciousness

One of the greatest impediments in the study of consciousness today across all fields is the lack of an operational definition. Eskimos have 50 words for snow, yet the one term “consciousness” is used for a wide variety of phenomena.

A partial list of what the term “consciousness” is currently used to describe:

  1. The capacity for metacognition
  2. The capacity for language
  3. Sentience
  4. Perception
  5. Awareness
  6. Knowledge
  7. Mature self-awareness (as in a more conscious being)
  8. Deliberate thought
  9. Intention
  10. Wakefulness (literally being awake, not asleep)
  11. Self-conscious (in the sense of unease or embarrassment)
  12. Pure sense of self or “I”
  13. Spirit
  14. God
  15. The field of awareness in which all experience happens
  16. The “only reality.”

Furthermore, there is a need to distinguish between the human experience of consciousness and the objective realities of consciousness, including other living organisms.

What follows is an operational definition of consciousness that I hope provides a common terminology and framework for furthering the full scope of scientific studies of mind and consciousness.

The Definition

Pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known). Consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are aspects of knowledge and requisites for life. These powers reside neither in consciousness nor in nature alone; it is only in their union that life is possible.


Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, which means it cannot be explained by any other phenomenon or combination of phenomena. It is uncaused.

The word undifferentiated means that consciousness has no specific form or energy of its own, nor does it have any presence inside time and space. Instead, it imbues nature with the powers of awareness (agency) and volition (will) that manifest in each living organism according to the biochemical makeup 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.

The word potential means that consciousness can do nothing by itself. It requires union with the building blocks of nature for anything to know or be known.

The word knowledge is meant in the purest sense, and can be any kind of living knowledge. Knowledge requires agency (awareness) and will (volition). There can be no knowledge without a knower (one who is aware of the knowledge), and there can be no knowledge without the will to know (knowledge is an action for which volition is required).

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 imbues plants with the ability to sense light and move toward it. A plant cannot think because it doesn’t have a brain, but it does have an awareness of the light and can grow toward it.  

The concept of quantity is irrelevant to consciousness. It is undifferentiated potential that activates according to the capacities of the organism. Therefore, 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.

In all living organisms, there is the will to live. Efforts are made, no matter how simplistic, to sustain life and avoid death. This requires two things: a sense or awareness of the boundary between self and other (agency) and the ability to convert stimuli into adaptive action (will). Agency is the containment of life within a single organism. 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. Each of these plants has a sense of the boundaries that keep its life distinct from the others. This sense is agency.

As organisms become more complex, pure agency develops a richer identity, and the will is used for gratification and play in addition to survival. In the human mind, the complexity of identity and will is vast and subtle.

The human mind is literally incapable of conceiving of pure consciousness. Just as our eyes are only capable of perceiving wavelengths from 400 to 700 nanometers in the electromagnetic spectrum, our minds are only capable of thoughts structured by subject – object – action within time and space. Pure consciousness has none of the qualities of subject, object or action, and is without time and space. Instead, pure consciousness is what gives the mind the capacity for agency, awareness, sentience, cognition and will.

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.

All knowledge and awareness starts with a sense of existence, which is also the sense of self or agency. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is a good proof because the sense of self or agency is a prerequisite for thought. Thought requires agency, therefore, if there’s thought there’s existence. Agency itself is a form of knowledge (the knowledge of individualized existence), which is why the definition of pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge, not agency.

Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, and cannot just be a function of other natural processes. Awareness, agency and will do not arise out of physical, chemical or biological processes alone. Some have argued agency is a clever trick (“strange loop”) of brain activity. If this were true, the drastic reduction of brain activity through deep meditation would arrest the agency loop, causing the sense of individuality to disappear. But the opposite happens. The sense of individuality is what remains when all other thoughts are stopped. For more on this, see the Philosophy of Mind article.

Furthermore, the difference between living and inanimate objects is the presence and absence of life force. All animate organisms exhibit the will to live, which always manifests as some kind of response or adaptation to stimuli. This is obvious in animals, but even plants move toward light, and amoebas differentiate and move toward prey. Adaptation cannot occur without some type of primitive knowledge or awareness. The potential for knowledge and awareness comes from pure consciousness, not the inert materials that constitute the physical body.

Agency and will are key differentiating factors between living intelligence and artificial intelligence. With living organisms, their problem-solving intelligence always has a purpose, which is survival of, and/or some other expected benefit for, the organism. With artificial intelligence, there is no self-directed purpose. Instead, some other agency (person) determines the purpose of the problem solving.

Inorganic matter and dead organisms lack agency and the ability to respond to stimuli (will). Machines lack agency, and thus they lack the ability to adapt to stimuli for their own sake. Machines’ responses to stimuli are programmed by others. Any artificial intelligence programmed into a machine for future adaptation is for the benefit of those doing the programming, not for the machine’s sense of self, which doesn’t exist. No matter how capable and sophisticated a computer may get, it is not conscious without a core sense of self (agency) and will.

Because pure consciousness does not have any spatial-temporal existence, we have no way to understand it directly. This is not that surprising. Human vision is limited to a narrow bandwidth of light wavelengths, hearing to a narrow bandwidth of hertz, and our sense of smell is one of the most limited of all living organisms. We have developed knowledge of the phenomena outside our perceptual abilities through logic, inference, and the development of tools.

Today, we have no mechanism or tool to measure pure consciousness. Pure consciousness, unlike ultraviolet light, ultrasonic bat pulses, or ant pheromones, has no manifestation of its own within time and space. This may mean that it can never be measured by any tool, present or future. Humans, though, are exceptional in their ability to solve problems, so I wouldn’t bet against it.

For now, we can apply rigorous logic and reasoning to observable phenomena to validate the theory. We all experience agency and will daily, yet they have no measurable existence within time and space. This is because they are based on pure consciousness, which has no spatial-temporal manifestation. While this seems to violate the scientific principles of measurable, observable and repeatable data, we are dealing with unique phenomena (pure consciousness, agency and will) that defy traditional approaches. We have to expand our approaches without lowering our standards.

All thought and all language are structured around subjects, objects and actions. There is a reason for this. A life is nothing other than the uninterrupted stream of actions performed by that living organism within time and space. All organisms have a sense of self (agency), which is the subject of their actions. All organisms exist within a physical body and interact with other bodies and objects.

Consider the negative of any of these three aspects of experience. An agent with no body and no object with which to interact has nothing to do and no reason to exist. A body or object with no possibility of an agent for whom an interaction would be meaningful cannot produce an experience. And, an agent in a body that cannot move or be modified in any way is also incapable of experience.

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, it’s part critic and part General.

All living organisms have their own particular and limited bioelectrochemical tools for interpreting and interacting with the world. These tools vary by species and even individually within species. The fusion of pure consciousness with nature allows agency and will to operate within these tools. This operation is mind.

For a detailed explanation of how mind works, see the Philosophy of Mind article.

Further Considerations

Science is the study of cause and effect, with the implicit assumption that greater understanding is beneficial on many levels. The term beneficial requires an agent who benefits. Therefore, all the sciences should include these three aspects in their rules and laws: objective reality, subjective reality, and action or change. Consciousness and subjective realities are difficult to measure and validate, but difficulty has never stopped science before. Hopefully, the operational definition of consciousness provides a unified structure for including it in the hard sciences.

This model is neither dualism nor materialism. There is no separate consciousness as a material or energetic force on its own. Yet neither does consciousness arise from the material universe alone. Instead, pure consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are requisites for knowledge and life.  

In terms of science, there should be a clear distinction made among three levels of reality:

  1. Objective reality, which exists independent of any interpretation by the mind.
  2. Shared subjective reality, which has tolerances of interpretation (like language, laws, traffic)
  3. Individual subjective reality, which is real to the person no matter how closely aligned with others’ realities it may or may not be.

We also have a formal tool for working with many of the dilemmas of quantum physics. Pure consciousness is the fundamental principle that empowers agency and will in living organisms. These powers can’t be explained by any other phenomena. Therefore, we can formalize the role of the observer (agent), and study it without bias.

In Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for example, there are three elements in the dilemma: position (particle or matter), momentum (wave or energy), and knowledge (technically, the precision of knowledge). Yet, only two are formally included in the equation. The relationship between wave and particle or matter and energy have been intensely studied for at least a century, in no small part due to Einstein’s E=mc2. Perhaps now, the third element, knowledge, can be approached scientifically. Maybe the next wave of world-evolving formulae will have three variables instead of two, even if we have no means for measuring it today:

  1. The study of matter, form, substance, particle
  2. The study of energy, change, momentum, wave
  3. The study of knowledge, awareness, observer, agent.

There has been a statistical dilemma when looking at the evolution of the universe, particularly in the rise of human intelligence. The odds of all this coming about from pure randomness are incredibly tiny. The alternative proposition that it has been guided by an external force or divinity is unscientific because there is no evidence for it. It is also increasingly counterintuitive as science continues to find causal explanations for more and more of what has traditionally been ascribed to divine intervention.

We can now reevaluate the question with the understanding that agency and will are the primary characteristics of life. Agency and will work together to create life force, or the simultaneous effort to maintain/improve life and avoid death. These efforts are not random, but rather self-directed for the sake of that organism’s life. Might not the collected sum of self-directed, willful and life-enhancing actions of all individual life forms throughout the history of the universe be enough to bias evolution away from randomness toward the path we’ve observed?

The metaphor of human travel can help explain this idea:

  1. Humans have the will to travel.
  2. Over the past few centuries, we have greatly evolved the means of travel.
  3. Throughout history, individuals, groups, businesses and governments have worked alone and in concert to improve the ability to travel, making travel safer, faster, more reliable and more comfortable overall.
  4. Actual travel volume varies by individual and collective habits and choices, causing temporary congestion and capacity issues, and thus the desire for further evolution.
  5. Today, there is a sophisticated and interconnected web of paths, tracks, roads, waterways and airways navigated by increasingly efficient, safe and comfortable vehicles, trains, boats and planes. The entire system is managed by humans through a variety of rules, agencies and businesses.
  6. All this development has been achieved by humans acting alone and in concert, all with a combination of self-interested and common-interested motivations.
  7. There is no separate, non-human agency directing the evolution of travel.

In the same way, the individual and collective wills inherent in all life forms, acting alone and in concert, seem to have influenced the process of evolution to a degree that pure randomness doesn’t explain well.

Individual Verification of This Model

There is a way that a person can directly understand this definition of pure consciousness. As explained above, it cannot be through normal thought processes. The human mind, though, is also capable of special knowledge. Through extreme training and practice, the will can be used to reduce, slow, and eventually stop the normal activity in the mind. As this happens, the mind enters and passes through stages of concentration, meditation, and then trance-like states (called samadhi in Sanskrit). When the subtlest forms of mental activity are stopped even in the deepest state of trance, then the inert qualities of nature are distinguishable from pure consciousness.

This has to be an individual verification because there is no way to prove this knowledge. You can only achieve it for yourself. No one else can know if you truly achieved it or just falsely claim to have achieved it. This, of course, is unacceptable for scientific purposes. It does not, though, make the possibility untrue.

The only way to truly know that agency is at the core of identity is to break the attachments causing identity and remove the activity of the mind reinforcing it. This happens through very focused meditation in which the activities of the mind are abandoned layer after layer. The core of the identity is then revealed as the nonverbal association of the sense of self with the living body (“I am this person”). This linking of the “I” with the body with no further qualifications is pure agency.

As the meditation continues to deepen (technically, we’re in the realm of samadhi or trance), the pure individualized sense of existence (agency) is separated from its long held association with the mind. It is now simply the universal sense of existence that is the subtlest expression of pure consciousness with the mind/brain. When this universal sense of existence is stabilized, it’s possible to differentiate the source of consciousness from the awareness that is the cause of agency and will. When this differentiation is stabilized, the created nature of all the layers of identity and even of agency is realized as an act of will. This differentiation is not a thought, so it can’t be described in normal terms.

An analogy for this is taking the earlier movie projector analogy one step further. Life is like watching the movie on the screen where light and form (consciousness and nature) are one and the same, and thus inseparable. The process of meditation and trance is like turning away from the screen and looking at what’s happening inside the projector. The level of pure agency is seeing the lens through which the lighted forms are projected. The level of universal existence is seeing the white light hitting the film. And the final differentiation of pure consciousness from manifest awareness is like realizing that what you thought was the light source is actually a mirror. The true light source had been hidden. All the light you had seen before was just a reflection and not the source.

This description and the analogy, of course, do not constitute a proof. As a scientist, this bothers me. I have tried to conceive of a way to prove or at least establish the truth outside of this individual process. Personally, I spent over a decade in the above practices and have no doubts about it. But this and $3 will get you a cup of coffee. That said, this is an internal process available to anyone for their own verification. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Originally published: 9/9/15
Last copy edit: 9/10/15
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