What is Consciousness?

Consciousness allows us to do much more than blindly acting in automatic response to sensory signals, which is all a machine can do. No feelings are possible between the symbolic recognition and the programmed action. It is consciousness that creates the interiority we experience.
by Federico Faggin
by Federico Faggin
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Feeling, comprehension, and being are intertwined

I know within myself that I exist. This is a common experience to every human being. But how do I know? I know because I feel so within me. Thus, the feeling is the carrier of the meaning (I exist), and the capacity to have feelings and understand their meaning is the essential property that “explains” how we know. When I smell a flower, I feel the scent. But the feeling is neither the set of electrical signals produced by the olfactory receptors inside my nose, nor the electrical signals produced by the brain after it has further processed the olfactory signals.

Electrical signals carry information, but that information is translated within my consciousness into a subjective feeling: the scent of that flower I feel within.

We could certainly build an instrument capable of detecting the specific molecules that carry what we perceive as the scent of a jasmine, for example, and correctly identify a jasmine by its smell. This machine could even say “jasmine” by converting the electrical code corresponding to the identified smell to another electrical signal to drive a loudspeaker to voice “jasmine.”

To be aware, however, the machine should feel. Instead, its sensory capacity stops at the electrical signals, and from those signals it can generate other symbols to cause some response, some action, but no feelings are possible between the symbolic recognition and the programmed action. We could say that there is darkness inside a machine, but it would only be a “poetic” statement because the concept of “inside” doesn’t exist for a machine. It is consciousness that creates the interiority we experience.

Consciousness allows us to do much more than blindly acting in automatic response to sensory signals, which is all a machine can do. By feeling the smell, seeing the image, and touching the petals of the jasmine, we connect with that flower in a special way. We “experience” the jasmine, and this lived experience goes far beyond mechanically recognizing an object. A machine instead cannot connect with anything because it is only a web of blind action-reactions.

Consciousness could then be defined simply as the capacity to feel. But feeling implies the existence of a subject that feels, an observer, a self. Therefore, consciousness is inextricably linked to a self. Self and consciousness are inseparable.

We could then say that consciousness is the inherent capacity of a self to perceive and know through feelings, through a sentient experience. Yet, consciousness can also turn toward the self, allowing it to know itself in addition to perceiving and knowing the outer world.

It is as if the self were to come into existence in the process of self-reflection: I am because I know, and I know because I am (a slightly more nuanced version of the cogito ergo sum of Descartes). I exist the instant I know that I am because the “substance” of which I am made is self-reflecting and in recognizing itself I become a self. The self-knowing is creative because it leads to the existence of the self. Existence and knowing are like two irreducible faces of the same coin.

The nature of feelings

We have seen that the perception and comprehension ride on the feelings of the self. Feelings are clearly a different category of phenomena than electrical signals, incommensurable with them, and nobody knows how feelings may arise out of inert matter.

Philosophers have coined the word quale (the plural is qualia) to indicate what something feels like. Explaining the existence and origin of qualia has been called the hard problem of consciousness because it is still an unsolved problem.

 If we now examine our feelings, we can immediately recognize four distinct classes of feelings, where each class has a characteristic signature: (1) physical sensations and feelings, (2) emotions, (3) thoughts, and (4) spiritual feelings.

The first class consists of the sensations and feelings that arise from perceiving the physical environment both inside and outside our body. For example, what food tastes like; what an object or an animal smells like; what touching something feels like; what colors and shapes feel like; and what our body feels like, including physical pain and feelings of physical well-being.

The second class, emotions, has a distinctively different “feel” than the first. In this class belong feelings such as fear, anger, sadness, curiosity, friendship, compassion, pride, self-will, shame, envy, greed, confusion, trust, and so on. Emotions feel very different compared with physical sensations. We instinctively know that emotions originate from a different “layer” of self than the one from which our physical sensations arise.

Surprisingly, most people are not in touch with their emotions, to the point that if I were to ask, “what do you feel right now?” they would tell me what they think they feel because they do not feel anything clearly identifiable, unless their emotions were unusually intense. Therefore, their answer would describe more often a thought, or the memory of an emotion felt in the past, rather than an emotion lived in this moment.

The third category is made of thoughts. Interestingly, thoughts are generally not considered feelings, but if I ask: “how do you know that you had a thought?” you may recognize you felt something vaguely cross your mental screen, so to speak, depositing a faint “image,” a quale, carrying the essential information of that thought. For most people, the translation from qualia to mental words (symbols) is so swift that they believe their thought came directly in a verbal form.

We have generally learned to ignore, or even to suppress, the primary feeling that is the essence of a thought, unless it is so strong that we cannot do it.

When the intensity of feelings is not much more than normal, we feel next to nothing, and since we confuse thoughts and feelings, we often believe that a thought may change how we feel.

This idea only appears to be true, because when we think we are feeling something, we are bringing up from memory a synthetic feeling like the one we thought about. We do this when we are not in touch with our true feelings.

A true feeling can only happen spontaneously in the present as a “live form.” The memory of a past feeling is not a real feeling; it is what a symbol feels like, not what “I” feel like. “I” is not a symbol. That synthetic feeling then replaces the apparent lack of feelings in our consciousness, leading us to believe that a thought can cause a feeling.

This happens only because we were not in touch with our real feelings. If we had been, a thought could not have changed a true feeling. For example, when we have a strong emotion, no amount of thinking can make it vanish, even when we would like to do it, proving that thoughts neither cause nor change real feelings.

We have learned to use our thoughts to “crowd out” our weaker feelings and occasionally replace them with “memories of feelings.” This is particularly true when we think we should feel something that is politically correct in the current situation. We do not realize that in so doing we have closed off an essential source of information about ourselves, because a synthetic feeling is far different than the presence in the now of a spontaneous feeling.

Finally, the fourth class contains spiritual feelings. In this category, we have the most subtle and revealing feelings. For example, feeling the deepest sense of existing as an independent and unique self, beyond any doubt; the sense of having a deep and independent intention and purpose; the most intimate feelings of love with the desire to know ourselves and the people we love; the sense of connection with the universe and with some transcendent “presence” vaster than we are; and so on.

The categories or layers of feelings are useful to indicate the origin of a specific feeling, but then the impact of a real feeling, particularly if it is intense, may spread to all the other layers of our being, bringing forth other feelings associated with the first. For example, anger is generally born in the “emotional layer,” but its impact quickly spreads to the physical layer with sensations of arousal and a call for action. It may then move to the thinking layer with thoughts of hitting back, for example; and finally, it may inhibit the emergence of any spiritual feelings while anger is present.

There are some feelings that have the same name, even though they originate in different layers of the self and are truly different from each other. This happens because they have something in common. The feeling of love is a case in point because it may arise as a physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual feeling, each different from the others, despite having the same name, because they all have in common a feeling of union or merging.

For the remainder of this essay, I will use quale to indicate any feeling originating in any of the four layers just described.

Science cannot explain qualia

The nature of qualia cannot be scientifically explained either as a nervous, or informational, or chemical, or physical phenomenon. This simple fact suggests that we are missing something fundamental in our understanding of nature. If consciousness were just an emergent property of a complex information processing system, as many scientists are telling us, we should have already been able to create a robot with a primitive consciousness, given the sophistication of our current information technology. The fact that we do not even know where to begin to design a robot with feelings, indicates that we are dealing with another order of reality, a reality beyond reductive machines, something beyond mechanism.

There is no evidence that electrical patterns in computer memory, or electrical signals traveling in electrical wires will produce qualia, no matter how complex they may be. In a robot, these electrical patterns may produce reasonable and appropriate automatic responses. The imitation may even be so veridical that we may believe they are conscious. Yet robots have no awareness, they simply do what they are programmed to do, or what they have learned through their artificial neural networks that have been architected by the comprehension of conscious human designers with the explicit intention to imitate human behavior.

It is only our proclivity to project consciousness onto anything that behaves like us that deceives us into believing that robots might be conscious in the future. Robots have no sensations, no feelings, no self-knowing, and no meaning because these qualities do not exist outside of consciousness. We perceive and understand only because we feel, and our consciousness is the strongest evidence that we are more than machines.

Qualia belong to a different category of phenomena than physical phenomena. For example, the pattern of voltage created in the millions of pixels of an image sensor produces no sensation of light, color, and forms in the digital camera that houses the sensor. Nonetheless, when the image data are properly processed and displayed in a screen that generates light like the one produced by real objects, we experience sensations as if the images in the screen were truly real. Instead there is only virtual reality; points of light turning on and off to simulate reality.

A machine cannot convert light or electrical signals into qualia. The production of qualia requires “something” that is not present in the computer. If the brain were truly a reductive information processing system like a computer, as many scientists believe, then consciousness couldn’t possibly arise from the brain either.

To believe that the brain, as an isolated physical system that uses the physical laws we know, can cause a conscious experience, is like believing that the picture on our TV originates from inside the TV.

It’s more likely that the brain resembles an intelligent terminal rather than a computer; a terminal that translates signals from the physical world into symbols that our individual consciousness can perceive and comprehend.

Consciousness is the “inner space” where the outer information processed by the sensory-brain system – performing a function like a computer – is converted not only into qualia, but also in the meaning that those qualia convey. The conversion from signals to qualia is called perception. The conversion from qualia to meaning is called comprehension.

This simple analogy can explain why our conscious experience depends on our brain being in good working order. If the “terminal” malfunctions or the communication channel from the brain to consciousness is blocked or impaired, consciousness will receive either corrupted or no signals, accounting for the dependence of the experience on the condition of the brain.

Perception

 Perception is the capacity to have a sentient experience based on qualia. We experience the world through qualia, but qualia are neither patterns of bits in memory nor electrical signals. Where do qualia come from? And what are the physical principles that allow electromagnetic activity in the brain to be translated into qualia?

We know the physical principles that may explain the complex electromagnetic activity of the brain that is correlated with seeing a glass of wine, touching it, smelling it, and tasting the liquid. But where does the image-quale of the glass, the “sense” of holding it, the “feeling” of liquid in our mouth, the “aroma,” and the “taste” of wine come from? Physics can only explain how a machine encodes information into electrical signals to represent some variables, but not the feelings produced by such information. There is nothing in the laws of physics that can explain or predict qualia.

We also know next to nothing about how any specific object is represented within our brain. It is certainly something highly dynamic and quite different than the “picture of the object” we perceive in the screen of our consciousness. But then, where does the “screen” come from?

If we close our eyes and examine the mental space that seems to be empty when we take away all the objects of perception, we begin to recognize that it is like a field of awareness, like a computer screen, except this one is invisible, multi-dimensional and appears to be infinite because it has no edges. In this field, all types of inner and outer patterns are “projected,” not just visual information but all types of it, corresponding to inner and outer realities. And each pattern-type has its own characteristic feeling-tones or qualia.

In fact, even the outer reality is brought inside and becomes “subjective” through the unique sensing and information processing performed by the body, which is different for each person. That inner field of awareness is illuminated by all types of sensations and feelings coming from translating the electromagnetic signals produced by the sensory-brain system connected with the outer and inner senses.

The outer senses take signals from the outer world and process them to produce a picture of it, which we then project out of ourselves as if it came from there, when it is instead a representation produced within us, using an infinitesimal fraction of the information that exists in the world.

The inner senses, called proprioceptors, take signals produced by the body that, once processed by the nervous system, create a picture of the inner physical world. To them we must add the emotions, the thoughts, and the spiritual feelings whose origin is still a mystery. The seamless integration of the five classes of signals generates a unitary perception that captures the entire state of the inner and outer worlds within the consciousness of the self.

The multidimensional qualia field makes us feel like an agent between agents operating in the external world and the unique “owner” of the internal world that is private. Without qualia, we could translate the signals of the physical world into other symbols and act in the external world, but we would be unconscious, deprived of any inner world. We would be exactly like our robots: zombies, sleepwalkers, unaware that they exist.

Consciousness is indispensable for the exercise of what we consider exclusively human characteristics such as thinking, reasoning, comprehending, willing, imagining, emoting, and conscious deciding. The machinery controlling the screen – however complex and prodigious it may be – is irrelevant compared to the significance of our conscious life that we derive in “living” the information presented to us. Consciousness is what makes us live the experience and the capacity of consciousness to understand the meaning of perceptions is called comprehension.

Knowing, understanding, and comprehending

Comprehension is an even more extraordinary property of consciousness than qualia-perception. Before going into the description, however, I would like to define the concepts represented by the words knowing, understanding and comprehending with more precise meanings than the ones they have in their common usage. We often use the word knowing as a synonym for understanding or comprehending. Other times, knowing only means having information, data.

However, there is a fundamental difference between knowing certain facts and understanding them. Understanding requires “getting” how the facts or elements of that knowledge are linked together in order to have the deepest possible meaning. Understanding, however, occurs within an interpretative context that is provided by the global understanding of the self, which I call comprehension.

Each new understanding enriches the comprehension, thus creating an ever-growing context of our new understandings. Without understanding and comprehension, there would be no evolution and growth of the self. Understanding is therefore the ability to know the meaning of qualia in the context of the comprehension of the self.

It is also essential to realize that given a body of knowledge, there are many levels of understanding possible, often organized in a hierarchy. At the first level one understands just the bare facts, the “atomic” units of that body of knowledge. The next level requires finding meaningful relationships among those atomic units. Using the metaphor of chemistry, the next level of understanding is like discovering the “molecules” into which those “atoms of meaning” can be organized to give us a richer meaning. The following level involves discovering an even deeper level of relationships among those molecules. And this process can continue to ever-deeper levels, depending on the characteristics of the body of knowledge the self is considering.

Every time one achieves a new level of understanding, that “discovery” is accompanied by a “Aha!”. “Aha!” captures the joy of discovery in an instant of delight in “getting it.” The excitement is proportional to the degree of surprise inherent in the revelation of a hidden level of meaning previously unknown. “Aha!” expresses the achievement of a new “quantum of understanding” that unpredictably emerges. And here I use the words emerges and quantum quite intentionally because the understanding appears in its own terms, unannounced, coming from our unconscious in response to our desire to understand. But desire is not enough.

Desire only acts like a field of force, like a “prayer” that invites the object of our desire to manifest itself. Yet, desire alone cannot make understanding appear. It simply invites the inherent “capacity to comprehend” of our consciousness to deliver the desired outcome. And when finally understanding emerges, it occurs in a discrete, all-or-nothing unit; a “quantum of understanding” together with a quantum of self-fulfillment (joy).

The process that produces understanding is unknown. It occurs underneath the veil of consciousness, requiring a sophisticated combination of differentiation and integration. Differentiation relies on the ability to discriminate subtle differences and similarities between the elements one is trying to join into a new structure to give birth to a new understanding.

Integration involves the capacity to synthesize a new set of semantic relationships among the lower-level cognitive elements, by “connecting the dots,” so to speak, that will eventually characterize the new understanding within the context of the previous comprehension. This process requires a continuous “rearrangement” of certain relationships between the various hierarchical levels of meaning, until the final configuration leading to an “Aha!”. This happens when “mysteriously” a new coherent semantic structure at a higher-level emerges.

Comprehension

At this point it is possible to make a subtle distinction between the concepts expressed by understanding and comprehension that I will use henceforth. Understanding is local; comprehension is global. Comprehension is the background or context for any new understanding. When a new understanding occurs, it is also simultaneously integrated with the previous comprehension to form a new and greater comprehension. “Aha!” marks the moment when the self becomes aware of the simultaneous formation of a new understanding and a new comprehension due to the integration of the new understanding with the  comprehension.

A new comprehension occurs when a provisional understanding (the part) that attempts to simultaneously self-realize and integrate itself with the previous comprehension (the whole), reaches the point in which “the part adapts to the whole” and “the whole adapts to the part” thus creating a new part and a new whole.

In that instant, both the new understanding – the part – and the new comprehension – the whole – take the final form, changing both to adapt to each other. Here, then, the new comprehension cannot be the simple sum of the new understanding with the previous comprehension.

The key process that leads to understanding and comprehending is hidden in the word integration. Integration requires intuition, differentiation and synthesis, extraordinary properties that characterize the deeper nature of consciousness.

Surprisingly, many scientists tend to value reasoning and analysis much more than the synthesis that come with comprehension, despite the latter being primarily responsible for most discoveries and inventions. Understanding and comprehension mark the moments of manifestation and illumination.

It is important to realize that perception, understanding, and comprehension are subjective and creative processes because they take place within the inner self and are not accessible through observations from the outside.

Despite the subjectivity of perception, understanding, and comprehension, it is possible to find intersubjective agreements that allow us to communicate and agree on a common reality that becomes “objective by convention”.

This essay is the first installment of a series of essays on the nature of reality that will be published periodically on this site. The next essay, entitled “The Nature of Consciousness,” will be published on May 17, 2019.

   © Federico Faggin, May 2019