Overview

This article introduces and provides a complete guide to the current, principal, mainstream views about what ‘consciousness’ is. These views are rooted in well-established traditions of thinking and research, from philosophy, psychology and the biological sciences, as well as the religious traditions (see also Introduction). There are of course many competing and sometimes very conflicting ideas in these fields, with lots of debate and disagreement, but the views presented here represent the predominant, conventional perspectives on consciousness. 

This overview section serves as a self-contained introduction to the main points about consciousness. Just reading the overview should give a sense of what the mainstream view of consciousness is, where it comes from and how it developed. It is these aspects that are then developed more fully in the main sections of the article that follow the Introduction, which cover the key contributions to the mainstream view of consciousness from neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and religion respectively. 

What is consciousness?

Consciousness refers to the faculty from which arises a living being’s awareness of, for example, its thinking, feeling and willing, as well as the world around it. This awareness of oneself and the world is (and becomes) one’s experience of life. It is generally considered to be entirely unique. As one leading science writer and researcher into consciousness puts it: ‘[while many claim] that it cannot be defined at all… defining it is actually straightforward. Here goes: Consciousness is experience. That’s it’ (Koch 2021). 

An important characteristic of consciousness is that it appears to be continuous and stable, and is synonymous with (but is not necessarily the same as) the ‘awake’ state. Yet this state of consciousness is broken up by other states, such as falling asleep and waking up. Sleep can be a period during which there can be no apparent conscious experience or contents of consciousness. Yet, it can also be a time of dreams or semi-real experiences. Consciousness and experience is thus considered (and experienced as) a continuous cycle, between more and less awake states during life. 

During consciousness in its most normal state, one can be aware of an extraordinary range of content all at once. One can be aware of all the sights, sounds and smells of a busy market place, as well as various emotions, feelings, thought constructions and memories of other conscious experiences, or mental constructions like histories, theories or awareness of the thoughts of others, all connected with this in the present moment. However, consciousness can also be narrowly focused on a specific aspect of inner or outer life, such as one particular thought or memory or activity. 

How is consciousness created and where does it come from?

There is a great deal of disagreement about how consciousness arises and what kind of phenomenon it is. However, most mainstream positions, for example as might be exemplified in standard textbooks on the subject, consider consciousness to be (and study it as) a physical phenomenon that is created by a person’s brain. 

Since the development of the electroencephalogram in the early twentieth century, consciousness and changes in states of consciousness have been linked empirically to brain functioning. Research in this area over the last hundred years has been considered to provide strong support for the idea that consciousness is a physical phenomenon. 

However, another mainstream position and tradition holds that consciousness is fundamentally different to physical phenomena, and finds it problematic to explain consciousness as arising from the brain. In these positions, consciousness is essentially non-physical in origin and state.

Contemporary accounts of consciousness from either camp relate to debates that predate the biological sciences by millennia. In so far as consciousness concerns questions about the nature of the self, what exists, what are things made of and where does one come from and so on, ideas about consciousness today are influenced by previous thinking in philosophy and religion through the ages, and in many ways continue debates that were started in these fields.

Why is it important to understand consciousness?

For a long time, until about the mid 1990s, consciousness was hardly considered an important subject of scientific research. This was perhaps in part due to the subject or phenomenon being thought simply impossible to study. It is only in the last twenty to thirty years that it has emerged as not only a topic of fundamental importance, but a key ‘mystery’ to solve and prize of conventional scientific research. 

Consciousness is a human being’s experience of life and this is the very thing through which human beings gain knowledge about life and the world. With that knowledge, humans gain the ability to master the elements and shape their world. Yet, that knowledge is circumscribed by the consciousness through which it is obtained, and therefore so is the mastery of life and world. 

Pursuing this line of thought, consciousness can be seen to be vitally important to the human quest to master life and the world, to understand and master nature. To fully understand consciousness is to obtain a key to understanding being, life, nature and how these are all connected. 

The current scientific project on consciousness arguably has no capability yet, despite a possible growing interest, to deal with such questions or issues. Yet, arriving on the back of a millennia-long history of enquiry, it is surely in the early stages of building up its capacity for this. Indeed, there are already some interesting developments and directions being taken that will surely lead many investigators to begin to understand how central consciousness is to everything of relevance and importance to human beings as well their past, present and future.

A brief history of the key developments in understanding consciousness

The history of thought about consciousness is written in the history of thought about the origin and nature of the human being as told by religion, philosophy and science, which in modern times has been told mainly through the disciplines of psychology and neuroscience. 

Ideas and teachings on the nature of the mind, in the context of teachings about the nature of the human being more generally, are found in all the major religions and philosophical schools from the last 2500 years. There is also evidence of still more ancient conceptualisations of mind, intellect or ‘soul’ in ancient civilizations like that of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Yet it was arguably the work of Plato and his ideas about how the body and soul were fundamentally different things, and the work of Descartes, which gave the first form of what we know today as the mind-body problem, that have formed the backbone of thinking about consciousness in the western tradition of thought. Buddhist conceptions of mind, arguably stemming from the Buddha’s own teachings on the ‘not-self’, could be said to form the backbone of thinking about consciousness in the eastern tradition. 

Since the development of empirical science in the seventeenth century, and the emergence of the biological and psychological sciences in the nineteenth century, modern scientific discoveries about the brain have shaped contemporary views about consciousness being created by the brain. Nevertheless, the raising of the issue of so-called ‘hard problems’, which are purportedly problems of consciousness not solved by materialistic accounts, has meant that dualistic accounts and variations of these remain prominent in contemporary debates.

A most interesting development in scientific consciousness research today is a new form of panpsychism. This holds that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the natural world. It remains to be seen how well contemporary scientific methodologies are able to fully assess, address and answer the question of where and how consciousness is in the universe and ourselves. 

Introduction

What follows on now from this short overview are some more detailed discussions and presentations on consciousness, drawn from the key mainstream fields of enquiry. The primary aim is to give an idea of what the mainstream view of consciousness consists of. ‘Mainstream view’ is here taken to mean those views or positions that are part of the prevailing trend, part of the current conventions of thinking, and that belong to or are a part of the established institutions of knowledge production, such as universities, scientific organisations, or religious institutions and societies. 

Since this is a web-based article, it is intended to evolve and be updated regularly, serving as a point of reference on consciousness. Whilst seeking to be comprehensive, it cannot be exhaustive. A search in Google Scholar for the word ‘consciousness’ in the title of any publication yielded 122,000 results in March 2021, and almost 4.6 million results if the criterion ‘anywhere in the article’ was selected. The presentation that follows is necessarily highly selective. 

First, the article explores the origin of the word ‘consciousness’ in English and other languages, and presents the various meanings and usages of the word in contemporary speech. Subsequently, the key ideas about consciousness from the fields of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy are presented respectively. Following this, the key ideas from all of the mainstream religions are presented. 

The presentation of ideas here naturally reflects the personal selection of the author, but some attempt to achieve both breadth and depth has been made. Mindful of inherent Eurocentric biases, attempt has been made also to give due representation to non-Western ideas, even though this article is about the mainstreamviews of consciousness and that ‘mainstream’ necessarily reflects historical biases. Nevertheless, the mainstream is also changing and in certain areas so-called eastern ideas are just as prominent as the so-called western. In the case of modern science, experiments and peer-review take place in practically every country where universities exist, and so is arguably more representative of a global spirit of enquiry into consciousness than ever before. However, limitations of space mean that some important omissions will remain, for which the author apologises. 

Etymology

Using the Oxford English Dictionary, we can tell that ‘consciousness’ is made up of the word ‘conscious’ with the suffix ‘-ness’ added, which expresses a ‘state or condition’. ‘Conscious’ itself is made up of the prefix ‘con-’, meaning ‘with or together’, and ‘scire’, meaning ‘to know’, plus the suffix ‘-ous’, which denotes ‘characterised by, full of or abounding in’. Pulling all this together gives us a meaning of consciousness like this: the state or condition of abounding in knowing. 

Modern dictionary definitions indicate several meanings related to awareness and knowledge, and the OED offers four main current meanings for the word consciousness: internal knowledge or conviction; the faculty from which awareness arises; the totality of impressions that make up a person’s sense of self; and the state of being aware of one’s surroundings. 

The word appears to have entered the English language in the early seventeenth century, on the back of the word ‘conscious’, which shares an etymological link to two Latin forms made from the prefix ‘con’ or ‘cum’ and ‘scire’ meaning to know: a) ‘conscius’ meaning sharing knowledge, inwardly aware and ‘conscious of guilt’, and b) the form ‘conscientia’, meaning the same but also signifying a point of conscience in post-classical Latin. 

The word ‘conscience’ in English (via Anglo-Norman and Old French) goes back to the middle ages. It appears to be synonymous with the Middle English ‘inwit’, which it largely replaces in usage from the 13th century onwards. Today, the word ‘conscience’ is more readily associated with senses of morality than the word ‘conscious’, but in the early 16th century both words could be used in this sense. 

Through the seventeenth century, and particularly in the work of Descartes, the form ‘conscius’ seems to be firmly associated with awareness as we use it today. For example, in defining the word ‘thought’, Descartes writes, ‘I use this term to include everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware [conscii] of it’ (Descartes 1984).

Having largely lost its association with morality and conscience, ‘conscious’ today has (apart from a few less common literary uses) a few further meanings to those above that form part of the word consciousness: having knowledge or awareness, able to perceive something; present to the mind, known to oneself; having the faculty of consciousness; done or created deliberately; and aware of one’s surroundings, in an active waking state. 

The Middle English word ‘inwit’ is itself related to the word ‘wit’, which means ‘knowledge’ in Old English and corresponds to the word for knowledge in various Germanic languages, such as the Old Frisian (wit), Low German (wit), Old Norse (vit) and Old High German (wizzi). In English it used to mean ‘the seat of consciousness’ and took on various meanings related to knowledge and science. In modern idioms such as ‘at one’s wit’s end’ and ‘live by one’s wits’, wit means one’s mental faculties or one’s capacities for reasoning. Wit and ‘witty’ (consider also ‘quick witted’) can indicate a talent for saying clever and brilliant things. 

It is the root word ‘wit’ that forms the basis of the modern German word for consciousness, ‘bewusstheit’ (https://www.dwds.de/wb/Bewusstheit). This comes from the Middle High German word ‘bewissen’. It is this word that becomes ‘bevissthet’ in modern Norwegian and ‘bevidsthet’ in modern Danish. The historical dictionary of the Danish language notes how the word was not yet in the 1793 Danish dictionary edition, making its entry only at the end of the eighteenth century. 

A study of the etymology of the word consciousness reveals that the specific way we use the word today, and the way we conceptualise the underlying phenomenon with this word, is, at least in the European context, a relatively recent development occurring in only the last 400 years. Despite thought and language about human nature, the self, the soul, the mind and so on extending back thousands of years, it is difficult to suggest that we have a discourse on ‘consciousness’ that is of equal age. It is very useful to bear this in mind when reading modern translations of ancient texts, for example.

Neuroscience

The scientific study of the nervous system through the twentieth century has massively increased human understanding about the processes in the brain that are related to things like sleep, the waking state, memory and brain damage. Building on success in these and many other areas, numerous neuroscientists have gone on to think about consciousness itself, and in particular the role of the brain in this, from a neuroscientific perspective. The most prominent, modern scientific theories of consciousness are based squarely in neuroscientific knowledge, theory and research, and so any presentation of a mainstream view of consciousness should arguably start with neuroscience. 

Key neuroscientific discoveries and concepts

Before getting to the main contributions on and theories of consciousness from neuroscience, and in order to present these in a concise, comprehensible way for those not familiar with the subject, this article first presents a number of key neuroscientific discoveries. The first of these comes from the pioneering work of the first person of Spanish origin to win a scientific Nobel Prize, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1943). 

Building on the work of Camillo Golgi, with whom Ramón y Cajal shared the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and using Golgi’s staining technique to visualise nerve cells and their branches (dendrites), Ramón y Cajal came up with the idea that nerve cells were not all connected and that there were in fact some gaps between them (Ramón y Cajal 1999). In this he disagreed with Golgi, who thought that the nerves formed a single network (Golgi 1906). Presenting this work at the time with, amongst others, Heinrich von Waldeyer-Hartz (who studied and synthesized this early neuroanatomical work and presented it to peers in Germany), lead to the formulation of the ‘neuron doctrine’, the idea that the nervous system is comprised of individual cells, which Waldeyer-Hartz termed ‘neurons’ (Scheuerlein, Henschke, and Köckerling 2017). It was this doctrine that has been considered to be the foundation of modern neuroscience (Finger 2001).

This early work on neuron cells and the discovery of the ways they connect electro-chemically and form circuits, paved the way for the development of an idea that is also now central to neuroscience: that it is not single neurons that explain behaviour in complex living beings, but circuits and networks of neurons. At a higher level of brain organisation than neurons, circuits and networks, it has also been observed that various whole brain regions are involved in specific sensory or behavioural experiences, and one idea is that these regions collaborate or form ‘coalitions’ (Crick and Koch 1990), where brain areas form alliances for specific purposes, akin to how political parties might work together for a period on a specific issue or cause.

Although it has long been recognised that different regions of the brain do perform specific functions, such that we can specify areas of the brain associated with language, speech, visual perception and so on, it is only with more advanced neural imaging technology like PET and MRI scanning that scientists are now able to observe which brain regions are active in real-time experiencing and behaviour. A series of scans can show, for example, how neurons fire in different areas, such as when processing visual information, and can even show how different regions activate when different types of images are perceived (Olman et al. 2012). 

A further key discovery has been ‘neuroplasticity’. Neurons form circuits and networks, and they also tend to be strongly interconnected. Electrical impulses fire across synapses or junctions between these highly interconnected neurons. The way the impulses shoot across these junctions changes over time, with some strengthening and others weakening. Neural connections that are no longer needed may be pruned, whilst connections that seem more vital may be strengthened. That these neurons form groups, and groupings that can change, has given rise to the notion that the brain is quite plastic or flexible (Merzenich and Jenkins 1995). It is thought that the development of neural pathways and groupings takes place according to two main processes, the first during embryo development and early life, and the second throughout the life course. 

The various ways that individual neurons, coalitions of neurons and neuronal groups have been discovered to work in the brain whilst we humans go about the business of experiencing life challenges what our instincts might tell us about this, or what myths we have harboured. For example, the persistent idea that humans only use a small percentage of their brain power is shown to not fit with what we observe, where PET scans show how all of the regions of the brain may fire at different times (Herculano-Houzel 2009). Humans use all parts of their brain during a typical day. However, there may be some truth behind the myth in that, as has been shown by experiment, different cortical areas activate at different times when, say, we visually perceive an object. In what is called perceptual visual asynchrony, we become conscious of colour (associated with area V4 of the visual cortex) a certain period of time (measured in milliseconds) before the perception of motion, which is associated with area V5 (Moutoussis and Zeki 1997). 

Since Hans Berger first recorded the wave patterns of the human brain using the EEG in 1924, great strides in understanding the biology, physiology and anatomy of the brain and nervous system of living beings has been made. This is particularly so following the invention of the electron microscope, which helped confirm and clarify many ideas about the structure of cells like neurons. Of note is the existence of microtubules. These tiny structures help give cells their shape, acting like a kind of scaffolding. They have also been shown to function in cellular transport systems. They are particularly interesting in the context of ideas about consciousness because some prominent theorists have used them in the development of quantum theories of consciousness, as discussed further below.

The work of Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke in 1964-65 led to the discovery of the so-called readiness potential (Bereitschaftspotential), which measures neural activity in the brain in the moments before a voluntary movement. In their experiments, they recorded observations on tape using the electroencephalogram (EEG) of subjects’ finger movements, and then analysed the tapes by reversing them since they there was no reverse playback function at that time (Deecke and Kornhuber 2003). They found that there was indeed a negative electrical potential prior to voluntary muscle movements. Subsequent experiments have confirmed the readiness potential also accompanies actions like speaking and writing. 

Yet it is perhaps research into brain diseases and disorders that has yielded much of the material for debate about consciousness and provided support for the view that consciousness is created by the brain. Since brain dysfunction correlates so well with changes in consciousness (Purves et al. 2018), so this thinking goes, consciousness must be an effect of brain functioning. Various brain systems have been conclusively demonstrated to play a role in either the alteration or the loss of consciousness (Kandel et al. 2013), but both the brainstem and the corticothalamic system in particular have been shown to be implicated in consciousness changes of both a normal (i.e. sleep-wake functions) and abnormal kind (i.e. coma, vegetative states). Whatever one’s explanation is about the origin of consciousness being in or beyond the brain, it must be able to account for how and why it is affected by damage to the brain. 

These and many more neuroscientific discoveries have led many scientists to no longer consider there to be a mind-body problem, and it is not uncommon to find textbooks on the subject dismissing the debate as either irrelevant to neuroscience or a moot point, given the overwhelming body of literature on how mental life is related to neurobiological processes (Purves et al. 2018). However, debates about consciousness, and precisely how it could be that the brain could give rise to the subjective experience of being, persist and have been developed into theories on the back of the various discoveries and advances outlined in this section. It is to these that this presentation will now turn. 

Theories of consciousness based on neuroscience

Building on the idea of neural networks and the observation that consciousness is associated with widespread activation of these networks, some neuroscientists have conceptualised the brain using the metaphor of the theatre or workspace in what is called Global Workspace Theory. It is one of the most popular mainstream theories proposing how consciousness arises from the brain (Baars and Baars 1997).

For the American neuroscientist Bernard Baars, many brain processes and activities happen outside of our conscious awareness, although they influence it. These processes are happening, as it were, ‘off stage’. But when this activity comes ‘on stage’, it then becomes a conscious experience of which the individual is aware. In this view, consciousness is a by-product or effect of neural activity entering the main stage or area under the spotlight, simply put. 

This idea of an ‘on’ and ‘off stage’ expresses how coalitions of neurons can be related to either the conscious or unconscious state. In the work of Francis Crick (one of the discoverers of the DNA double helix structure) and Christof Koch, which has been influential in advancing the scientific study of consciousness, unconscious neuronal coalitions would represent what are called ‘zombie’ modes, in which the individual automatically responds to environmental stimuli (Koch 2004). Conscious experience would be represented by neuronal coalitions activated by more complex behaviours. The idea that consciousness arises at a neural level and is associated with certain active neural processes as opposed to others, has given rise to the influential idea of there being neural correlates of consciousness or NCCs. 

A key issue about these NCCs is how different, dynamic groupings bind together to create the continuity of experience that is consciousness, the so-called ‘binding problem’ (Crick and Koch 1990, 19). For Crick and Koch, it is the brain’s ability to construct a flow from these shifting groupings that gives what they feel is essentially an illusion of continuous flow. In the theatre of the mind, the brain makes a play out of individual scenes and characters, combining the parts into a whole.

The observation that the different groupings of neurons change and adapt over time has led to various ideas about what the mechanisms are behind this change, and a key contributor in this area is the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. He was first a doctor, but moved into neuroscience later in life. He applied the ideas of Darwin and natural selection to make a case for how neuronal groupings are formed due to natural selection processes and pressures (Edelman 1989). So, groupings and synapses that are better able to respond to the environment are more likely to survive and strengthen. Edelman’s ideas help to reinforce the idea that consciousness is essentially a physical by-product of brain function, but this idea that consciousness develops through an evolution dynamic, his neural Darwinism, offers an interesting hypothesis on brain development. 

By contrast, and building on his work on both the Bereitscahftspotential or readiness potential and the binding problem – or, how does a unitary and coherent awareness arise in the context of distinct neural patterns? – Benjamin Libet’s work claims that consciousness is a non-physical property that emerges from brain that is also not reducible to it (Libet 2009). 

Although considered a champion of the deterministic view that consciousness and free will is determined by the brain, he introduces the idea of the unified conscious mental field (CMF) to explain consciousness as emerging from brain matter and being accessible only to the individual. In a way, this idea holds that the brain creates its own CMF, and is not like other physical fields such as the magnetic or gravitational field. As an emergent property, a problem that occurs is explaining exactly how the physical brain creates the non-physical CMF, and there is as yet no satisfactory response to that issue. 

One of the more radical ideas – at least for mainstream science – about the nature and origin of consciousness, is that it emerges and results from the basic level of reality as described by quantum mechanics. The work Roger Penrose and Richard Hameroff to develop a quantum theory of consciousness has been prominent in this area (Penrose 1995).

Quantum mechanics was famously described as being something that nobody understands by Richard Feynman (Feynman, Leighton, and Sands 1963). Erwin Schrodinger (Schrödinger 1943) was an early proposer that life fundamentally depends on quantum processes. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the ideas from quantum mechanics that underly the work of Penrose and Hameroff, which expands on the idea of consciousness as being quantum phenomenon. However, the basic idea is this: discrete events occur at the quantum scale of reality. These are identified and delineated from other events by living beings. In the brains of these living beings, the events are ‘coupled’ with brain activities, such that a certain type of event gets a corresponding coupling with a certain set of brain activities. This coupling gives rise to conscious states. When conscious, the organism’s behaviour and subsequent handling of the discrete events are impacted and this in turn can impact the handling and coupling of other discrete events. Human beings thus become able to delineate (they use the word ‘orchestrate’) those events that make up our reality (Hameroff and Penrose 2014).

The quantum events at hand are present in all physical interactions, but Penrose and Hameroff (ibid.) suggest that the corresponding elements of the brain where they occur is in the microtubules. In the microtubules, quantum states are hypothesised to reduce or collapse under gravity, which leads to the elementary, underlying and beginning acts of consciousness. Such a proposal does, however, necessitate an understanding of how gravity relates to quantum mechanics, an understanding which has so far not yet fully come forth.

Given what we know about brain states, a key question in consciousness studies in neuroscience is what makes something conscious, or to what extent can something be said to be conscious. It is this problem that the work of Giulio Tononi and his integrated information theory (IIT) seeks to tackle, where, in the simplest terms, it is down to the degree to which something integrates information that determines how conscious it is (Tononi 2004). This theory allows for theoretical discussion about the consciousness of living ‘systems’ like human beings as well as artificial systems like computers. 

What does information integration mean? It turns on the idea that conscious experience is composed of specific phenomena, of distinguishing one thing from another, as in ‘this’ and ‘not that’. The more distinguishing that is going on, the more differentiation that exists, and this is an indicator of more ‘information’. At the same time, since conscious experience is a unified experience – in the experience of watching a film we do not experience each pixel on the screen, but the image as a whole – the information is ‘integrated’. It is this idea that forms the crux of IIT. 

The basic take away of IIT is that any system that has the characteristics of distinguishing multiple possible states and integrating them is necessarily conscious. It remains then for IIT to come up with a way of describing how far specific systems are conscious, and Tononi and others have devised ways of expressing this mathematically using the symbol Ф (phi) (Tononi 2008). The higher the Ф, the higher the level of consciousness something has. One appeal for this theory for contemporary neuroscience is that it presents as being theoretically testable, although there has so far been many difficulties in coming up with a way to calculate consciousness. 

Yet, this idea of the unified nature of consciousness (notwithstanding any ideas about the integrated nature of experience, which is a related but separate issue), has for some theorists lead consciousness studies into a kind of trap. For neuroscientists like Semir Zeki, we should think instead that there are multiple consciousnesses (Zeki 2003). 

This idea builds on the discoveries of what was earlier described as perceptual asynchrony, the idea that different perceptual events occur at different times i.e. the perception of motion occurs a number of milliseconds after the perception of colour. For Zeki, two separate micro-consciousnesses are created here, one for motion and one for colour. 

To account for the unified nature of conscious experience, Zeki proposes that the structure of consciousness is hierarchical, with micro-consciousnesses co-occuring to form a macro-consciousness, which themselves are potentially subject to another, higher level of a unified consciousness. However, since experimental evidence has suggested that, for example in the case of visual perception, several brain regions can activate in the absence of consciousness, the hierarchical model of consciousness is problematic since not all supposed micro-consciousnesses would necessarily be involved in macro-consciousness. 

Built on the neurobiological discoveries made possible by the invention of the microscope and body imagining technologies like the MRI and CT-scan, as well as the EEG created almost a century ago, the chief idea behind the contemporary neuroscientific conceptions of consciousness is that it arises or emerges as a result of brain functioning. It is, in other words, an epiphenomenon of the brain. However, it is far from the being the case that the matter is considered solved or no longer up for debate. It is perhaps because of this that consciousness studies has become so prominent and become such an active area of mainstream scientific research. By virtue of that, there are potentially some very promising insights to be gained by the continued exploration of what even only 40 years ago was considered an intractable mystery (Chalmers 1995).

Psychology

In the current time, consciousness has been approached within the broad field of psychology from experimental, clinical, social and cognitive psychological perspectives. Key points of focus have been the topics of subconsciousness and self-consciousness, as well as sensory consciousness. In more recent times, appreciation of the potential contributions from narrative accounts of consciousness has also made in-roads, and inter-disciplinary work with the field of linguistics has addressed the importance of language as it relates to consciousness. 

In this section, some of the major contributions from across psychology to the mainstream understanding of consciousness in the following five areas are discussed: a) cognitive approaches to consciousness; b) developmental psychology and the development of consciousness in individuals; c) the role of language; d) social psychological approaches and the evolution of consciousness; e) research into consciousness states. In this latter subsection there is some discussion of what mainstream psychological research has to say about normal and abnormal states of consciousness and altered states of awareness including meditation.

Cognitive approaches to consciousness

Psychology took a cognitive turn after focusing on behaviour through the first half of the 20th century, in which it became interested once again in (and able to investigate) complex mental processes. Since that time, a dominant idea about consciousness has been that it results from the way information is processed in the brain (Pockett 2014). Two main approaches that consider consciousness as part of an ‘information processing’ system have emerged: a modular system approach and a network approach. From these, and combining elements of both, a third, more globalist approach and consensus has also emerged. 

In the modular system approach, the brain is viewed as consisting of various basic modules, for things like speech processing, visual processing and so on. A good analogy might be to think of these like chips on a computer motherboard. A range of models have been presented by researchers such as Johnson-Laird (1983), Schacter (1990), Shallice (1972) and Baddeley (1974). They all emphasise the role of different modules and how they are organised. In one such model, by Schneider and Pimm-Smith (1997), neuro-sensory activities like ‘vision’, ‘speech’ and ‘touch’ are seen as modules that have information flowing between them and another type of module called a ‘conscious processing module’. In a selective way, this module reads the messages and information passing around the whole system and also sends messages of its own. In this model, consciousness is a result of this conscious processing activity. These models view consciousness as, basically, an operating system and the brain as a kind of mother board.

In the network approach, the key activity is what goes on at a more microscopic level. In these models, the ‘modules’ mentioned above are more like macroscopic structures and in fact it is the activity of the underlying networks that is important. In short, it is not so much the communication between modules that leads to consciousness, but rather the pattern of system-wide activity happening at the network level. Individual modules or nodes are not as important as the activity as a whole, and activity in modules is seen as reflecting only what is going on at the network level. Here, consciousness is modelled more like the Internet than a computer and operating system, and is a result of the information passing around the system as a whole.

It is both the module system approach and the network approach that come together in more globalist approaches that are found in, say, the Global Workspace Theory described above. In another example of a globalist approach, by Pribram (1999), the brain is viewed as a kind of hologram-making machine. Here, the brain assembles conscious experience from the various bits of information distributed through the various brain systems and networks. Just as we can create a 3D hologram from a 2D surface, the brain here is viewed as creating ‘consciousness’ from the information processed by the brain. 

It is here that a consensus has kind of emerged, in which consciousness is viewed as being a distributed and flexible system that gives underlying, non-expert systems in the brain a global access to information that is of high-value to the organism. However, these views do have their detractors and critics, who do not see consciousness as being inherently unified at all. As mentioned in the section above, the work of Zeki promotes a more fragmented view of multiple consciousnesses. 

Developmental psychology

The research focus in developmental psychology of the topic of consciousness was primarily to answer the question of ‘when’ it starts. Does it start in the womb, or does it start much later after birth? The debates about ‘when’ have then arguably led to debates and ideas about there being ‘levels’ consciousness (Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson 2007). 

Baldwin, Piaget and Vygotsky, the early pioneers of developmental psychology, saw how the very structure of consciousness changes during human development, not only its contents. Baldwin observed how infants are not in a state of recognising dualisms and are unaware of basic differentiations between self and other until, as consciousness develops, this differentiation progresses and becomes integrated (Cahan 1984). He felt that imitation was a key developmental factor here. Through observation and imitation, the infant is able to bring human behaviours into a self and social understanding. For Piaget, it is the development and emergence of new structures of cognition, which allow for new ways of knowing and experiencing reality, that is associated with the increase of awareness of oneself as a subject (Piaget 2015). As part of a growth process, the cognitive structures develop through experience of reality and processes of greater abstraction to ever more accurately reflect the logic and nature of reality. Vygotsky emphasised language, and how consciousness transforms by the appropriation of language. He argued that thought and speech ‘first develop independently but then become tightly intertwined’ (Vygotsky and Kozulin 2012). For him, speech gave human beings the unique capacity to be both ‘subjects and objects of their behaviour’. 

Contemporary work that builds on this early work have led to the development of new models of consciousness development, such as Zelazo et al’s Levels of Consciousness (LOC) model (Zelazo and Sommerville 2001). It models the development of consciousness in first five years of human life, but claims to offer possibilities to extend the framework into adolescence and adulthood. The LOC model offers a view of consciousness as operating at discrete levels in a hierarchical structure, from minimal to higher. Higher levels come about through increasingly complex reflection on the contents of consciousness i.e. the things seen, heard, felt. It also corresponds with growth of prefrontal cortex (Zelazo 2004).

According to the LOC, the first level of consciousness is akin to that of the infant at one year. It is a minimal consciousness. The next or second level is ‘recursive consciousness’. In this level, the growing human being can have consciousness in the absence of perceptual stimulation. At level three there is self-consciousness, which in the human being emerges around halfway through the second year of life, between 18-24 months. At this age and level, the infant can pass the famous mirror test, recognising themselves in a mirror, which is considered evidence of the development of a concept of self. At level four, around 3 years of age, the child can employ a pair of rules and make some judgements about history, and thus deploy ‘reflective consciousness’. At level five, between 3-5 years, the child can now integrate incompatible rules, and deploy a more developed reflective consciousness. 

Models like the LOC can help to understand data received from observations and experiments in consciousness development, as well as make predictions, but much still needs to be done in order to understand how consciousness develops beyond early childhood. In particular, what happens to consciousness at adolescence, and beyond? How might higher levels of consciousness be associated with increases of binding complex neural areas? And how might something like this framework be used across lifespan, and to understand the development of other kinds of conscious states like mindfulness? Research in this area is ongoing.

The role of language

Even to a non-specialist, the importance of language to consciousness, especially in the case of human beings, is obvious, but exactly how language relates to consciousness has been an area that has received relatively little attention in psychology or neuroscience. 

For some investigators and philosophers, it has been a case of equating consciousness with linguistic expression. The philosopher Betrand Russell wrote how ‘A desire is “conscious” when we have told ourselves that we have it’ (Russell 2012). Piaget wrote how ‘thought becomes conscious to the degree to which the child is able to communicate it’ (Piaget 1967). Ludwig Wittgenstein also made some important remarks on language and critiqued some conventional positions on ‘mind’ in important ways. Two famous quotes from the Tractatus come to mind: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ (Wittgenstein 2016, 5.6) and ‘We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot sayeither’. For Wittgenstein however the chief point is that the self is not a part of the world, but is the world – world and self are one and the same thing (at least, philosophically speaking). What he wanted to do was critique the idea that there is somehow a separate self. His aim was to not to come up with a theory of consciousness related to language. 

Yet a number of thinkers have thought through how language relates to consciousness, even if a full theory has not emerged. And these key ideas could continue to shape the mainstream understanding of how and where to pitch consciousness, language and thought in relation to each other. 

Jackendoff takes the position that language is in fact independent of thought. He used the example of speakers of different languages using different words to convey the same thoughts, as he saw it. For him, thought is unconsciousness and all that beings are conscious of are the words and imagery that express the thoughts. He writes that, ‘although language expresses thought, thought itself is a separate

brain phenomenon’ (Jackendoff 1997). At the same time, the relationship is not unidirectional since language influences thought; but this thought only becomes consciousness when manifested in and as language. 

A number of writers have identified the importance of ‘narrative’ as a function of language that is key to understanding consciousness. Oatley, for example, identifies how consciousness of self involves narrative, which includes a ‘distinct mode of thinking about the plans and actions of agents (self and others)’ and ‘about vicissitudes encountered, about attempts to solve problems posed by these vicissitudes, and about the emotions that arise in these attempts’ (Oatley and Mar 2005). Yet for other writers, like Nelson, a step further is taken to argue that consciousness is something that develops as an ‘emergent property with the development of language, and most specifically with the development of narrative language’ (Nelson 2003, emphasis added). 

At present there does not appear to be any mainstream consensus on what the role of language is to consciousness, and much work remains to be done in this area. 

Social psychology and the evolution of consciousness

Social psychology is the science that looks at how ‘the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied the presence of other human beings’ (Allport 1979). Particularly since the 1950s and subsequent decades, where famous social experiments made their impact, the contributions of social psychology to consciousness research and debates can be said to centre around two key points: a) that our social world helps shape our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and attitudes and b) that large areas of human behaviour can unfold quite well without our will or attention being involved.

In Asch’s 1952 conformity studies, it was demonstrated how participant’s perceptions of the length of lines of chalk on a board could be influenced by others’ opinions, undermining the view that internal perception was under the exclusive control of individuals themselves (Asch 1961). Other famous experiments, such as Milgram’s putative electric shock tests (Milgram 1963) and the Stanford Prison Study (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973), provided further evidence for the social nature of behaviour and attitudes. Research is ever ongoing to determine the extent to which our social situation affects our inner world.

Yet the key finding that many complex psychological processes and behaviours can unfold independently of conscious will has raised the question of what consciousness is for. If consciousness is not really needed for the body to live and for psychological processes to take place, what, then, is consciousness for? 

Work on the evolution of consciousness has been based largely on behavioural evidence from animal studies and archaeological evidence, but here again there is certainly nothing like a consensus, given that there are still many different ideas about how and when modern humanity emerged from earlier species, and how and when human language emerged also, since a key indicator would be the development of autonomous speech.

There has been much discussion about consciousness emerging concomitantly with the so-called ‘human revolution’ of about 40,000 years ago, but even this date is widely disputed, with some arguing that it happened earlier along with innovations happening in Africa between 125,000 and 83,000 years ago, before largescale migrations out of Africa took place (McBrearty and Brooks 2000). 

Lastly, one idea has been that the capacities for consciousness were dormant or latent, present in the brain but awaiting activation by culture and circumstances (Bickerton 2017). However, this idea is challenging in the context of ideas about natural selection. 

Consciousness states

Since the work of William James, consciousness has been thought of as an aggregate of various components working seamlessly, such as attention, memory, intention, volition and so on (James 1890). Humans are the only species thought to display all of them, although some animals are thought to display some of them. Changes in the components of consciousness are postulated to be associated with changes of states of consciousness, as part of a generally physicalist paradigm of consciousness in which, then, the state of consciousness occurs in cycles regulated by brain functions.

Even in deep sleep the brain is highly active, which could be read as suggesting that therefore only a small proportion of brain activity is dedicated to consciousness. In the ‘dream’ state, certain components of consciousness are more activated (like emotion) but others less so (like memory, attention) (Siclari et al. 2017). In other words, in this model it is the brain that mediates consciousness, and changes in the waking state are results of changing brain functioning. This is understood to be what occurs when drugs alter the waking state, or illness or trauma. Indeed, brain damage is often used as an example of providing the best evidence for the ‘brain causes consciousness’ argument. 

Altered states in the apparent absence of drugs, illness or trauma, have been explored neuro-scientifically through the investigation into meditation, with many studies (although of varying quality) being conducted since the 1950s (Austin 1999). Although ‘meditation’ has been difficult to define in a scientific context, and it has proved difficult to mount fully controlled studies, studies of meditation have showed it provides an environmental, stimulating context which taps into the neuroplasticity of the brain, and this has become an active area of research (Davidson 1976). 

Whilst it is possibly too early to draw conclusions from the various findings coming through from these meditation studies, and it is all too easy to speculate and jump to conclusions from them, there are some exciting developments that show how meditation affects, say, the cortical thickness of the brain (Lazar et al. 2005). How that translates into differences in conscious experience is too early to say with any definiteness.

Conclusion

There has been a remarkable progress in understanding the nature and development of consciousness from the psychological perspective, which has also been using the techniques and findings of neuroscience to better probe and understand even once-obscure phenomena like Buddhist meditation. Although there is still a very long way to go before psychology and neuroscience is able to address in any fundamental way the deeper questions that have been addressed in religious and spiritual traditions for millennia, lines of enquiry and methodological approaches have now at least been tested and could be developed further. Future research may help radically alter the scientific worldview and understanding of consciousness as something with an even more interesting relationship to the brain.

Philosophy

As it must be emphasised but also easily understood, it is not possible to do any justice to the great philosophical tradition that lies behind human thinking about mind and consciousness in what follows. It is not possible to really give even a brief account of all that is relevant and important to that history. Instead, the focus here is on simply presenting and unpacking a few of the key ideas and interesting points that give a sense of what the mainstream philosophical position is today and what this has been guided by in terms of past philosophical developments. 

The long debates on the nature of reality, and whether there is something like a non-physical reality, have in the mainstream fallen largely on the side of physicalism, informed by discussions and debates about results from the physical sciences in mainstream scientific publications. However, this does not mean that there is a physicalist consensus, even if, as one study puts it, 70% of philosophers side with physicalism (Bourget and Chalmers 2014). The ‘mystery’ of consciousness is still discussed as being, well… a ‘mystery’ (Solms 1997).

The briefest history of some of the main turning points in western and eastern philosophy is given below. This is followed by a short presentation and discussion of the key ideas of and arguments for or against physicalism and dualism; it is the work on physicalism and dualism in philosophy that is arguably philosophy’s greatest contribution to thinking about consciousness today. The section ends with a brief presentation of some current philosophical theories of consciousness. 

History and background

The modern day study of consciousness sits in a context of extensive explorations of what is or what exists (in philosophy, this subject is called ‘ontology’), what ‘self’ is, and what ‘mind’ is that goes back thousands of years. Arguably, the modern idea of consciousness is the result of a story told in many chapters of history and culture, where it has been given many names and plays various roles in the natural order and cosmologies of successive schools of thinking. The modern eye can trace a line of intellectual development from ancient times to day in this regard, but this is not to suggest that there is a direct line of thinking about the subject from, say, 500BCE to today. 

The ancient Greek philosophers before Socrates developed various ideas about how everything was made up of, or could be explained by, certain primary substances or elements. Empedocles developed his famous idea of there being four primary elements (earth, air, fire and water) around 500BCE. There began to be a sense of mind, or ‘psyche’ being elemental. For example, in one ancient summary of this thinking by Aëtius, the philosophers ‘Anaximenes, Anaximander, Anaxagoras, and Archelaus have said the nature of the soul is airy’ (Graham 2010). Plato rejected the idea that mind could be reduced to substance (Plato 2011). For him, mind was not something physical, but had to be instead based in a world of pure forms, of which physical existence was but a cast shadow, and something with which we normally took to be reality. 

It is this fundamentally dualist concept of reality that finds itself being expressed and developed throughout western philosophy (and, relatedly, Christian theology) right up to the present day. However, it was René Descartes (1596-1650) who developed a new formulation of the dualist idea that mind and body were separated that dominated until the 1950s, and effectively created the modern so-called ‘mind–body problem’ as we know it (Descartes 2013). For Descartes, the issue was to demonstrate how, if mind was material, then it must have all the properties that materials have. Since matter takes up space, mind had to also then take up space to be material. And since mind could not be seen to take up space, it had therefore to be non-material. The problem then was how mind and body could be so connected.

Modern scientific developments in the twentieth century ushered in newer understandings of the material or physical universe, and arguably contributed to many philosophers challenging dualism strongly. With works like The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle (2009), which attacked Descartes’ dualism as being merely a ‘dogma of the ghost in the machine’ that arises by not correctly seeing mind to be only an aspect of bodily behaviour, a new era of strongly physicalist approaches to consciousness gets under way. And, as the discussion above regarding neuroscience and psychology has demonstrated, it is this physicalist approach, which sees the mind as being an aspect of body/brain, that is now the dominant, mainstream approach to the subject.

The idea of there being something non-physical was less problematic to the eastern philosophical tradition, to the point that the ‘mind-body problem’ has perhaps been seen as a peculiarly western preoccupation. 

A profound, complex cosmology emerged in and from the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, from about 4000 years ago. Key ideas about there being both an ultimate reality (‘brahman’) and also individual essence or supreme being (‘atman’ – which also meant ‘breath’) lends itself to comparisons with western dualist thinking. However, there is not a direct correspondence. And just as in western philosophy there is no single school of thought, in Indian philosophy there were also critics of dualist thinking, as well as critics on the use of the Vedas at all, most notably Guatama Buddha. This early thinking on the nature of the atman/self in relation to the ultimate perhaps provides the specific philosophical context for thinking about consciousness in India for almost 4000 years, and provides a background for specific contributions to the contemporary scientific investigations into consciousness and altered states like meditation today.

Chinese philosophy has through the ages tended to foreground a humanistic focus over metaphysical considerations, but it would be fair to say that in Chinese thinking the relationship between the individual and Nature or reality is understood to be more unified, holistic. Humanity is viewed as already being a part of nature or the natural order, with concepts like yin and yang, qi or ‘vital breath/pneuma’, ultimate reality (‘wu wei’) and the concept of the ‘dao’ or Way, seen to pertain to both the universe at large as well the individual, as microcosm. In this regard, in Chinese philosophy we see the development of yet another unique approach to understanding what today we call consciousness.

At the same time, two prominent ‘Ways’ emerged in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, namely that of Lao-tse and Confucius respectively, with Confucius focusing on ethical and virtuous human being, a focus that became dominant in China through to the present day. Meanwhile Daoist philosophies, influenced by Buddhist philosophy, continued to explore questions of Being and Nonbeing. From the early twentieth century, the influence of the westernisation of Chinese philosophy through the import of the western philosophical tradition, coupled with the establishment of Marxism as the dominant and official philosophy of China, arguably relegated Daoist-Buddhist philosophical currents to the margins.

As the foregoing has suggested, the importance of the Buddha’s teachings in Asian philosophy cannot be underestimated, influencing philosophical traditions across India, China and Japan for more than 2500 years. And it is in the philosophical tradition influenced by those teachings that we find the most extensive and systematic treatment of what today we research as ‘consciousness’. Indeed, what emerges even in the period 150 BCE to 450 CE with the Abhidharma school of thinking (meaning ‘About the dharma’) is what has been called a theory of consciousness (Piatigorsky 1984), although in fact different schools of thought and different theories and models of consciousness emerged throughout India and Southeast Asia during this time. 

A key contribution to thinking in this area is the concept of not-self, and the idea that, whilst consciousness (‘citta’) is a result of various interrelated processes and functions, they are not to be construed as constituting a ‘self’. This can be contrasted, then, with Descartes’ ‘ghost in the machine’. This idea of an enduring self is an illusion in Buddhist thinking, as expounded in Buddha’s first public discourse, the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

This briefest of historical sketches of western and eastern philosophical notions concerning questions of what is and what reality is made up of, what mind is, what the self is, provides the main background to the situation we have today where views on consciousness tend to fall into one of two camps, whereby the answer to these questions (to put it very crudely and simply) is either: a) everything, including consciousness, can only be understood in material or physical terms, or b) this can only be understood in terms of there being both an ultimate reality and a material or physical reality that is distinct from (and is only a part of) this. The philosophical terrain in this area is thus marked by materialism or physicalism on the one hand, and dualism on the other. It is the key aspects of these positions as they relate to mainstream debates about consciousness today that this article turns to next.

Physicalism and dualism

Philosophical debates about what mind and consciousness are sit squarely in larger historical debates about what the universe and reality consists of. Can everything in the universe, including consciousness, be explained physically or in terms of physical reality and forces, as in the position known as ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’? Or is there something else in the universe, that is not physical, that best explains it, as in the position known as ‘dualism’? Related debates about what is real, what is true and how can we know these are also vitally important to both understanding the problems and proposing solutions to them. 

Debates about whether dualism or physicalism is the reality and is true is important to debates about consciousness since consciousness or mind has, at different stages, been held to both belong to the physical world and to also be somehow separate from it. The importance and relevance of which of these positions is true has important implications for our understanding of ourselves, our origins, the nature of reality and the universe, and thus also our science, as well as various religious beliefs about reality. It is thus vitally important and this is perhaps why science has woken up to the challenge of solving the hard problems. 

In what follows, physicalism and dualism are described briefly. The main arguments for and against them from the western philosophical tradition are also presented. 

Physicalism

Physicalism, or the idea that everything is ultimately physical in nature, grew out of materialism with the advancement of physics and the physical sciences and with deeper, changing understandings and knowledge about the underlying physical structure of the universe. Both materialism and physicalism have roots in more ancient thinking of the ‘monist’ type, which views everything as being ultimately one. In particular, substance monism holds that everything is ultimately derived from one substance. Spinoza argued that this substance was God or Nature (Spinoza 2000), but modern physicalism almost exclusively tends towards naturalistic explanations. Whilst there is disagreement and speculation about what the ‘one’ is, and whilst there are different kinds of physicalism (and many debates), the physicalist position asserts that everything is ultimately based on the physical properties, entities and forces described by modern physics – or that it will be seen to be so in the future where physics is not yet currently able to fully understand the ultimate nature of reality. 

A key argument for physicalism has been called ‘the argument from causal closure’. It is based on the argument that since every event that has a cause has a physical cause, and that mental events supervene on physical events, it follows that physicalism is true (Gibb 2015). Variations of the argument pertinent to the philosophy of mind include epiphenomenalism, the view that the mental is only a sort of by-product of the physical.

A further argument for physicalism is from what is called ‘methodological naturalism’. It is that we ought to be guided in our metaphysics by scientific method, and that the picture of reality that the scientific method leads us to is the physicalist one. In other words, we should believe physicalism to be true because physicalism is what following the scientific method leads us to, and we should base our ideas about ‘what is’ on the scientific method.

A famous argument against physicalism comes from Frank Jackson. It aims to show that encountering a fact that physicalism cannot account for shows that physicalism cannot be true. A thought experiment is used to support this argument: Mary, a scientist, spends her whole life in a black and white room, and learns all the facts of the universe from lectures on a black and white TV monitor. For the purposes of the argument, she knows everything. However, one day she emerges from the room and sees the colour red. She acquires a new fact that complete physical knowledge did not provide for. This is used to argue that physicalism is false (Jackson 1982). A number of counterarguments to this argument have also been developed over the years.

Dualism

Dualism can be contrasted to physicalism in that it proposes there is an entirely other, different, distinct and sometimes separate order of being to the physical one. It too has a long history and connection to ancient thinking, and it has perhaps its most famous expression in the work of Plato (Plato 2011). With his allegory of the cave, what we consider to be reality is in fact only an appearance of reality. Imagine being chained to the ground in a cave with one’s back to the cave entrance, facing and staring at the cave wall. All one would see would be the shadows case on the cave wall. One’s position leads one to assume the shadows are the reality, whilst knowing of the situation leads us to recognise that this cannot be so. For Plato, the human condition is one of being stuck in a cave.

In this view, there are in fact several higher orders of reality, the highest being the realm of ‘Ideas’ or ‘Forms’. These are the ultimate, non-physical essences of physical things. Whilst specific formulations of dualistic thinking emerged through various religious traditions, the most influential figures in the western philosophical tradition include Rene Descartes, who effectively created the contemporary ‘mind-body’ problem by separated reality into mind and matter; and Emmanuel Kant, who argued for distinguishing empirical phenomena from ‘noumena’ or things that exist in themselves and independent of human cognition, and which we cannot therefore perceive (Kant 1998).

A key argument for dualism comes from Descartes, for whom the mind or the mental is distinct from the physical in that it cannot be divided into parts or have a spatial quality (Descartes 2013). Can we delineate what a ‘quarter’ of the mind is? We cannot. Whilst his famous ‘cogito ergo sum’ is used to make the case that the mental and the physical are distinct, it is really this non-extensibility of the mind that he says makes the case for it not being physical. 

A major objection to dualism is that even if we assert that ‘mind’ is distinct from the physical, it does not follow that it cannot be explained by the physical, or that the mental is not caused by the physical. This is the main motivation for supporting what has been called ‘epiphenomenalism’, which sees the mind as being a mere epiphenomenon of the brain.

Physicalist views of consciousness and reality dominate amongst mainstream scientists, as mentioned above. However, physicalist accounts lead to a number of problems which are far from being resolved, of which a major one is that it often leads one to need to conclude that the mental is somehow not real, and that compromises that admit some kind of ‘middle-of-the road’ positions as Kim Jaegwon puts it ‘are not easily tolerated by robust physicalism’ (Kim 1998). The truth, as Kim sees it, is that physicalism is ultimately irreconcilable to any position that admits some kind of non-physicality. 

Contemporary theories of consciousness

In the section above on neuroscience, prominent theories like GWT and IIT have been discussed already. In this section, some (but by no means all) of the more specifically philosophical theories of consciousness that are prominent today are outlined. 

Representationalism

Representationalism promotes the idea that consciousness consists only of representations of the world as it comes to us through our senses, and that we never really ‘see’ the real world (although a real world is held to exist). What we become conscious of, then, is simply our ideas, pictures and interpretations of the external world. 

It was Kant who was prominent in arguing for the human inability to become aware of things in themselves, and in some ways representationalism accepts this basic position, however the representationalist might also argue against strong forms of idealism (that only the objects of the mind are real) by affirming how it is through our representations of the world that we confirm the reality of the world. At the same time, our experience, which can of course consist of dreams, visual illusions and hallucinations also tells us that our consciousness makes only a representation of the world, and does not tell us about properties of the world as it is. For example, we might look up the road and see how the sides converge in our sight, until travelling up the road where we can then observe it was a visual illusion. 

Quantum approaches

Exactly how the fundamental features of reality that are described by quantum mechanics relate to brain activities and mental processes is now an active, albeit controversial, area of research. Much of the difficulty has as much to do with extending ideas from physics to areas beyond physics, such as the mind and biology of the brain, as it does with difficulties inherent in understanding quantum phenomena itself. 

Nevertheless, as Harald Atmanspacher writes, ‘Today there is accumulating evidence in the study of consciousness that quantum concepts like complementarity, entanglement, dispersive states, and non‐Boolean logic play significant roles in mental processes’ (Atmanspacher 2004). A key objective for philosophy in this area is to question and understand better the relationship between claims from physics and those from psychology, and understanding the logic of the frameworks that are used to explain how quantum phenomena in physics can explain human experiences. 

Panpsychism

A modern form of an ancient idea known as ‘panpsychism’ has also emerged. Although the term was coined in the sixteenth-century by Francesco Patrizi (Skrbina 2017), from the Greek words pan (‘all’) and psyche (‘mind’ or ‘soul’), the concept that everything is mind or psyche goes back to the earliest beginnings of philosophy. As noted above, philosophers like Anaximenes and Anaximander held that everything was of a primoradial substance, ‘air’ or ‘pneuma’ which can also mean spirit. 

In modern times, prominent advocates for panpsychist ideas include William James, the philosophers Bergson and Whitehead at the beginning of the twentieth century, and David Chalmers and Galen Strawson in the twenty-first century. Strawson in particular argues that panpsychism is one of the ways that physicalists can reconcile the mental into the physicalist view of reality without falling into dualism (Strawson 2006), but this does require accepting that some form of mind/consciousness is a fundamental component of reality, and does not merely emerge from it.

Conclusion

There is, as the foregoing suggests, a rich and varied history of philosophical enquiry into what consciousness (and mind) is. Yet, despite the advancements made by neuroscience and neuropsychology in the 20th and 21st centuries CE, consciousness continues to present significant, seemingly unsolvable challenges to human understanding. This is perhaps best represented by the idea of the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness i.e. the problem of explaining how conscious experience relates to physical processes. This problem remains a source of hot debate, despite some denying there is such a problem at all (Dennett 1993).

Proponents of the mainstream views of consciousness do, by and large, uphold the position that it is ultimately through science, and through recourse to the findings of science, that this problem can be approached and solved. In so far as the modern scientific practice, discourse and world picture presents everything as being ultimately explained in terms of physical entities, systems and processes as identified by that science, contemporary philosophical goals broadly aligned with this enterprise come out as against the dualistic ideas that are so prevalent in the history of philosophy. In many ways, this physicalist turn is precisely what characterises the view of consciousness today in both mainstream science and philosophy. The mainstream view of consciousness is, in short, physicalist in nature.

Religion

The decision to include a presentation of ideas and views about consciousness from the major religions as part of the ‘mainstream’ view of consciousness here stems from the consideration that religious worldviews still predominate in many parts of the world. According to the Pew Research Center, there are some 6.4 billion adherents of religion worldwide in 2020 out of a population of 7.8 billion, with 8 in 10 people identifying with a religious group (Pew Research Center 2017; 2015). A religious worldview is arguably the mainstream view on planet Earth, and so an account of the mainstream view of consciousness would be highly biased to include only non-religious perspectives. The focus here is on this question: What key things do these religions have to say about consciousness today? Central to answering this question are each religion’s different conceptualisations about what a person is. 

All the major world religions are covered below: a) Judaism, b) Christianity, c) Islam, d) Buddhism, and e) Hinduism, all of which covers around 5.9 billion people. Around 430 million people are adherents of folk religions, according to Pew, and attention is given to the following: f) African traditional religions, g) Chinese folk religions, h) Native American religions, and i) indigenous Australian religions. Around 60 million people follow another religion, and attention is given to the following: j) Baha’i faith, k) Jainism, l) Sikhism, m) Shintoism, and n) Taoism. 

Major religions

In Judaism, ideas about consciousness are not considered to be incompatible with neuroscientific ideas (Mittleman 2017). What is found, however, is that Judaic thought does not participate in reducing everything to the physical. A core concept at the heart of Judaism is the ‘imago dei’: that the human being is the image of God, and gets its personhood, its sense of self, and its dignity in being something more than a bundle of cells, from the Divine identity or source. The main focus, then, should be on the person, on selfhood. In many ways, it is less important how the person comes to be, whether by purely mechanical means or not. What is more important is that we ‘are’, and how when we are, we are in the image of God. Human beings are not to be identified with matter. At the same time, the Jewish concept of selfhood is compatible with it being an emergent property of a neurobiological process. 

Inheriting Judaic views of human personhood, and also inspired by Greek and western philosophical developments, mainstream Christian understandings of human nature are captured in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states ‘Body and Soul but Truly One’ (The Interdicasterial Commission for Catechism of the Catholic Church 1997). The human being is also conceived as created in the image of God, possessing a soul that is humanity’s ‘spiritual principle’ and which animates the body, giving it life and identity. Body and soul are distinct, but are a ‘unity’. 

As with Judaism, the findings of neuroscience are not entirely incompatible with Christian understandings of the body in so far as consciousness is not exclusively reducible to mechanical causes (McGoldrick 2012). Yet, Christianity finds itself at odds with certain interpretations of neuroscience’s findings and arguments against the existence of the soul and the ultimate underlying cause of persons, as well as with physicalism and its rejection of the existence of God. Taliaferro highlights how some contemporary theologians have adapted to the challenges of physicalism by arguing that God and the world are one (Taliaferro 1994). Nevertheless, he himself proposes a integrative dualism in which human beings are viewed ‘as nonphysical, yet materially embodied in an integrative union’ (ibid.), a view that tallies with the fact that human beings experience certainly do themselves as being distinct from their bodies, and an integrative theism which keeps God distinct but intimately connected with the physical world.

The key idea in Christianity is that many aspects of human consciousness are explained by appeal to the idea of the interdependence of body and ‘soul’, which in neuroscience are explained by reference to the body alone. In this regard, the experience of ‘conscience’ is not merely the firing of neurons, but the movement of the soul in relation to God in addition to the workings of the brain. 

In Islam, the soul is a necessary entity as it serves as the basis for a number of essential theological views, which include its role as the diagnostic of life, the locus of moral accountability, the explanatory principle of post-mortem existence, and it allows for access to understandings from the Divine realm (Brown 2013). In the Qu’ran, the soul is understood to be presented as distinct from, but interconnected with, the body (Qazi et al. 2018).

Qazi et al highlight two dominant positions in Sunni theology that they argue may speak to contemporary neuroscientific debates about consciousness: the subtle body position and the immaterial substance position. With the subtle body position, the soul is considered to be fundamentally physical, but of a different kind of physical substance. The subtle body gets bound up with the physical body during life, and separates at death. In this view, consciousness may be considered a subtle phenomenon that has its locus in the physical body during life. With the immaterial substance position, the soul is considered to be entirely non-physical, and in so far as consciousness is a faculty of the soul, consciousness by extension must also be non-physical. Yet, whilst not having a specific locus in the body, in this view consciousness has an attachment relationship to the body. It is suggested that these two positions on the body may serve as starting points for considering neuroscientific findings from an Islamic perspective, amongst other things.

Regarding Buddhism, Lin (2013) offers an interesting response to the mind-body problems of western thinking, arguing that Buddhism offers a way of understanding consciousness that is neither dualistic nor non-dualistic. Lin suggests that a Buddhist-centred dualistic distinction between mind and body is acceptable at a conventional level, but not at an ultimate level, because at the conventional level it helps the human mind to understand the human being in a holistic light. In essence, then, the dualistic concept can be considered a teaching aid in Buddhism, but with the caveat that this does not say anything true about the nature of ultimate reality according to Buddhism, and that also this does not necessarily imply that Buddhism is monistic or non-dualistic either: ‘The Buddhist position could perhaps be best described as a middle way approach involving “neither-duality-nor-identity”’.

The Buddhist position about the ultimate nature of reality is that it is beyond the limited conceptions and languages of human beings, and cannot be accurately captured by them. To perceive reality more truthfully requires the attainment of nirvana and ending the cycle of samsara.

In Hinduism, an extensive description of the nature of reality and the human being has emerged through various schools of thinking, in which consciousness (puruṣa) is understood in its distinct relationship to both the mind and body. For the Bhāgavata, for example, consciousness is ontologically distinct from the mental functions and from the body (Edelmann 2012). Hinduism, like with Buddhism, has its own fully worked out conceptualisation of the nature of the human being and universe, and the place and role of consciousness in it, and forms part of the mainstream view of consciousness where these world views dominate.

Folk religions

Folk religion, briefly, is an important distinction within the study of religion to differentiate the religious beliefs, practices and cultures that people follow as compared to religion in its official, doctrinal and institutionalised forms. The term originated from a German Lutheran preacher, Paul Drews, who wrote an article for newly qualified preachers to inform them about the various kinds of Lutheranism they would meet with in the community and that would be different to what they had learned in the seminary (Drews 1901). 

Historically, folk religions were sometimes officially classed by authorities, or considered by anthropologists and sociologists to be ‘primitive religion’. This term, symptomatic of a colonial, Eurocentric social evolutionism, is no longer used today. 

The many hundreds of languages, cultures and religious systems existing on the African continent make summarising impossible, and nor is it possible to give any kind of picture of ‘African folk religion’ or even a typical African folk religion, as if Africa were a single country. However, it is useful to highlight some of the different ways that concepts of self vary across the traditions found across the continent. For example, in the Yoruba tradition, consciousness or ‘the conscious self’ is but one amongst five ‘selves’ that make up the person (Love 2012), whilst for the Luo of Kenya, an individual is made up of three aspects: del (body), obuongo (brain, and also intelligence) and juok (a spiritual element, in which capacities like ‘will’ reside) (Wiredu 2004). Unique ontologies of human nature can be found across Africa, but one key similarity is the emphasis on the multiple nature of the essentials of personhood. There is, more often than not, no straightforward duality here. 

This is characteristic of folk conceptions of self and personhood all over the world. As Mazard (Mazard 2016)points out about Chinese tradition religions, through her study of the Nusu people, dualistic paradigms which divide the person into a body and soul ‘are inadequate to describe Nusu ways of thinking about the self, whose ‘soul attributes’ possess corporeal as well as spiritual qualities’ (ibid.). The Nusu number about 8,000 people and live mainly in Nujiang, a mountainous prefecture between Myanmar and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and consider different soul attributes to be fragments of self, which can act independently and combine in various ways to affect a person’s life experience. 

Following their study of Native American conceptions of ‘soul’, Carr et al (Baltus and Baires 2017) note how the person is conceived as being formed by many kinds of material and immaterial essences, distinguishable from the physical body. These essences or ‘soul essences’ (or, simply, ‘souls’) can vary in number in terms of how they constitute an individual, with some believing a person has two souls, others believing a person has four souls and so on. The Woodland and Plains Indians societies have various ideas about how these souls relate to the body at death, or when dreaming or in trance and so on, that could inform debates and research into states of consciousness.

The broader concepts of what is life, what persons are, as found in indigenous stories from North America to Australia are not, as Pierotti (Pierotti 2015) argues, unscientific. In fact, there are many points of congruence. Periotti illustrates how, at the beginnings of the western scientific tradition and particularly with the work of Aristotle, concepts of life and energetic flow were more holistic. For Aristotle, there was no separation between mind and body, as is found for many indigenous world views and folk religions. Western scientific progress went largely in a different direction, but it is interesting to see how, at least in some quarters, there is perhaps a turn towards a more unified, holistic conception of the natural order in which an understanding of consciousness perhaps shares some affinity with indigenous perspectives.

Other religions

It is of course not only with the world’s large, formal, institutional religions, which have extensive traditions of research, scholarship and theology, that we find fully articulated conceptions of personhood, consciousness and the nature of reality. Religions like Jainism or Taoism, with relatively smaller numbers of formal adherents, have developed some highly sophisticated and original systems of thinking somewhat independent of, specifically, the western tradition. 

Yet, as in the case of the Baha’i faith, with it being a relatively new religion and emerging at a time when western science was already established in the world, we do find some writings specifically addressing the subject of consciousness as it is conceived by western science. The Swiss neuroanatomist August-Henri Forel (1848-1931) entered into correspondence with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of the Baháʼu’lláh who founded the Baha’i faith in 1922. The letter from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá includes many clarifications of thought from within the faith about what spirit and mind is or is not. Even minerals are given to be endowed with spirit, writes the ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

A similar position is found in Jainism, where there is a distinction between the soul and mind, which itself can be of two types, psychical and physical (Kachhara 2020). In Jainism, all living beings have soul and consciousness, from microscopic beings like bacteria and cells, to larger animals. The body is created through karmic forces encoded in DNA, which contain instructions for ‘designing’ the body according to karmic influences the individual is subject to. 

In Sikhism, consciousness is considered to be more of a state than a soul substance, an awareness, which can be directed outwards to the world or inwards the soul (the atma). According to Virk (undated), atma is pure consciousness without any content, and atma is not different from Paramatma, the Cosmic Consciousness. In Sikhism there is a distinction between the human soul and the cosmic soul, yet they are in reality intertwined and indistinguishable from one another. It is considered a human affliction to not realise this aspect of reality, and an understanding of consciousness in the Sikh tradition is not complete without an understanding of the need to change this consciousness in order to be fully realised as a human being. 

In the eastern traditions and religions of Shinto and Taoism, the universe is not dualistic, although it is understood how this appears to be so. Again, the separation of mind and body does not exist in the same way it does in western thinking. In the Shinto conception of the nature of humanity, various elements like soul or mind are seen as coexisting under the control of a single spirit (Picken 1994), where the emphasis is on how the various elements of human personhood synthesise into one whole. In Taoism, the concept ‘hsin’ or ‘heart/mind’ is more diffuse and cannot be easily rendered in English in the typical context of the mind-body split since it conceivably consists of both mind and body as understood in the west (Pregadio 2013). In Taoism, the key point is that the elements and energies of self, or personhood, are typically broken down into separated parts, but in reality they are all one. Taoist religious practices, as advocated by successive schools of Taoist masters, are geared towards unifying what is separate into original oneness or wholeness. 

Section conclusion

As can be deduced from this brief survey of the world’s religions and folk traditions, there is often no direct engagement with specific western, philosophical or neuroscientific ideas of consciousness that developed particularly since the work of Descartes. Yet, in the world’s repository of religions are long traditions of thinking about the nature of the self and the nature of reality in which that self exists, and this forms part of the mainstream view of what consciousness is and what it is of. Even though these views may not be visible in or form a direct part of the mainstream scientific discussions of what consciousness is, they still form a large part of the human landscape of perspectives on the subject. Aside from the view of consciousness that is presented through a relatively small number of books and scientific journals, billions of people understand the nature of their awareness in terms framed by the religious traditions presented in this section. 

General Conclusion

This article began by providing a short, self-contained overview of some of the mainstream views on what consciousness is, how it arises, why it is important and the key historical developments of understanding about it. Following an introduction to the larger article and some discussion of the etymology of the word ‘consciousness’, key ideas from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and religion were presented. This included key neuroscientific discoveries and some of the major neuroscientific theories of consciousness; key developments in cognitive, developmental and social psychology, along with research into the role of language and states of consciousness; and a presentation of the philosophical background to contemporary understandings of consciousness, including a discussion of physicalism and dualism as well as current philosophical theories. The article ended with a presentation of different ideas about consciousness from the world’s religions, or related concepts such as mind, self and the person. 

As can be determined from the foregoing article, the ‘mainstream view’ of consciousness consists of an eclectic range of views that considers consciousness to be something that arises from or is created by the brain, or also as something that is independent of but connected with the brain or body. Understandings of consciousness are linked to and dependent on understandings about the ultimate nature of reality and whether everything is somehow ‘one’ or whether consciousness belongs to a somewhat different order of reality than the physical reality of the material world, or some combination of these. Traditional, historical and religious conceptions of the self, of the nature of ultimate reality and the human being’s relationship to this, have shaped present religious understandings of what minds and bodies are, however they are presented in contemporary scientific terms. A view which holds that science and religion think fundamentally different things about consciousness is very simplistic and fails to appreciate the many ways that histories, philosophies and concepts between these interconnect. 

As the science of consciousness progresses, as religious and interreligious dialogue develops further, it will be very interesting to see how diverse and fragmented, or conversely how unified, the mainstream view becomes. 

First Published: 31 March 2021 | Last Updated: 31 March 2021

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