III. The Emergence of Consciousness

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Consciousness is a difficult concept to pin down.  Thinkers who are new to the task of characterizing and explaining consciousness will quickly find that the project has a tendency to draw out our intuitions, and present us with interesting and difficult philosophical and methodological questions.  Questions that should be faced include:

  • What are the essential features of consciousness?
  • Is being conscious the same thing as having a mind?
  • Does consciousness require self-awareness?
  • Is consciousness a physical process or property, or is it some fundamentally different kind of phenomenon?
  • If consciousness is a physical phenomenon, what kinds of physical parts and organizations generate it, and in what way?
  • Are non-human animals conscious?
  • Can synthetic organizations be conscious?

These questions have fueled arguments and conversations for centuries, and have led to many theories of mind and consciousness.  Some of these theories have been supported by intuition, some by cultural norms, and some by analytical thinking.  With the discoveries of neurosciences and resources such as fMRI, MEG, and EEG brain imaging, claims about consciousness can now be made on experimental bases.  Modern debates involve language that spans the borders between science, spirituality, and philosophy.  Christof Koch presented the President’s Dream Colloquium with ideas about consciousness that were shaped by experiments, expressed through philosophical arguments, and consistent with the teachings of some schools of Buddhism (and perhaps other spiritualities, depending on their interpretations).