When it comes to consciousness, one of the top challenges is defining what it is. (Some insist it doesn’t even exist, which makes defining it even more of a challenge.) Part of the problem is that there is no single correct definition. There never really has been.
There is also that there is sentience (essentially the ability to feel pain as pain) and there is sapience (roughly: wisdom). Lots of animals are sentient, but sapience seems to be a property of human consciousness.
Which raises the question: Are humans just a point on a spectrum, or is there some sort of “band gap” between higher and lower forms?
A definition can depend on its instances — whatever is included as an instance participates in the definition. The distillation of those properties is the definition. The definition comes after identifying actual examples.
On the other hand, a definition can depend on abstract concepts. In this case, the definition comes first. Being an example depends on matching the definition.
I think the more irreducible an idea is — the harder it is to define by other ideas — the more we need to rely on examples to define it.
Love is hard to define; it’s a complex and irreducible concept. But it’s fairly easy to point out examples.
In contrast, consider the Mandelbrot. It has an abstract definition that comes first. (Although various mathematical ideas led to the idea of the Mandelbrot.) And it is fully defined using other simpler ideas (the math).
Consciousness (at least for now) is much more like love than the Mandelbrot.
With that in mind, what do I think some of the defining properties of consciousness are?
¶ Self-reflection (aka meta-cognition). This might be one of the central aspects of higher-consciousness. Consciousness looks at itself, is aware of itself.
This isn’t the something it is like to be consciousness, this is being aware there is something it is like.
It’s one thing, something it is like, to be wet and cold, but it’s another level to be aware your misery might affect your health.
¶ Curiosity. Consciousness asks questions.
It wonders about models of reality; it seeks to create accurate models. In a sense, this is the self-reflection turned outward. Curiosity leads to science and mathematics, also traits I’d expect to see.
(More likely, self-reflection is curiosity turned inwards, which makes curiosity a central trait, too.)
¶ Creativity. Consciousness can imagine new models of reality.
This expresses itself in new tools, in improving existing tools, in creating new structures (buildings, bridges, roads), as well as in storytelling and other expressive modes (see below).
¶ Communication: Consciousness wants to talk!
Language, literature, sending letters, journalism, talk shows, letters to the editor, sending emails, chat rooms, text messages, online comments… consciousness just won’t shut up!
¶ Art: Consciousness is expressive.
Music, dance, song, images real and surreal, decoration. Art is a combination of consciousness being both creative and communicative.
¶ Science & Mathematics. Consciousness wants to understand things.
Already mentioned above as a part of curiosity, but these also include creativity, communication, and a little art.
I think these are all hallmarks of consciousness.
A way to put it very simply is that: Consciousness attests to itself.
An important point is that these traits don’t necessarily announce themselves immediately. It may take time, and many examples, to really see if these exist in a system or not.
A system of programmed responses (a “Chinese Room”) might fool us for an hour or even part of a day, but I doubt it can fool us over, say, a month of living with it.
Call it a Rich Turing Test — taking the time to get to know the consciousness and only then deciding.
What about brain damage? Coma? The effects of drugs?
What about them? Broken examples, by definition, aren’t expected to have all the properties of the class — they’re broken.
We don’t define a bicycle in terms of one with a broken chain or busted wheels. The definition of a bicycle assumes a working — often a pristine, even abstract — bicycle.
Likewise a definition of consciousness refers to a fully working mind. Our definitions reference ideal systems.
These things, damage or drugs, do show consciousness is a complex engine made of many parts. Some of those parts can be impaired, even quite severely, without completely breaking the engine’s functionality.
Think of all the ways a car engine can be impaired and still output useful revolutions to turn the wheels. Complex systems can often manage to work around failures of its parts.
On the other hand, sometimes an O-ring destroys everything. The logic of “for want of a nail” does sometimes apply.
One of the confounding things about consciousness is that it’s the only aspect of existence we see from the inside as well as the outside.
Everything else in reality, we can only see what it looks like, what its appearances are. (Which includes visual, sound, taste, touch, voltage, weight, temperature, etc.)
But we all have a personal experience of consciousness. We know what it feels like to be conscious. (The something it is like.) We live inside of our own consciousness.
This adds a strong subjective element to its definition.
Another interesting aspect is the idea of a spectrum of consciousness.
We consider many animals as having some form of consciousness — at the least, they’re sentient. Some animals are quite intelligent.
But there seems a very large gap between the smartest most capable animal and the something that humans have.
We don’t know what their experience is, we don’t know what goes on in their minds. Yet those who have spent a lot of time with animals tend to see a bit of something there.
I’ve made the analogy of laser light with consciousness, and as aspect of that may apply here.
It’s possible for the right materials to lase very weakly. If you compare a laser pointer just before the batteries die, versus with new ones in, you get an idea of what I mean.
There is also that some materials can lase, but only some.
Which brings me to: what do I think consciousness is not?
- It is not structure or information alone.
- It is not integration or network alone.
- It is not information processing alone.
- It does not occur in number crunching
- It does not occur in data tables.
- It does not occur in any simple systems.
But structure and information and integration and network and information processing are all crucial aspects of whatever does generate consciousness.
They are necessary, but not sufficient.
So, bottom line, as with love (as with porn), I can describe it, I know it when I see it, I certainly know it if I spend time with it, and it seems to stand out — it seems to attest to its own consciousness.
But defining it is really difficult.
Stay conscious, my friends!
 And all three are mind-blowing in their complexity!
 These properties are distilled from active observation of putative members of the group over a lifetime — 60+ years of data!
 Albert Einstein, in a remark made in 1923; recalled by Archibald Henderson, Durham Morning Herald, August 21, 1955 (emphasis mine):
“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.“
 You might say to me, “But many humans don’t have these qualities!” And I would reply to you, “That’s true. What’s your point?”
 Or we need to invent a good Gom Jabbar.
 Or consider the definition of a circle — no real circle meets that definition, so all real circles are “broken” in some sense.
 Immanuel Kant was one of the first to make it clear we can never fully know these external objects, these “things in themselves.” We can only know their properties empirically.
 For me it’s dogs. I look into their eyes and someone seems home.