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In essence, consciousness is an internal experience (awareness) that bears some correlation to external events or phenomena, yet is distinct from them and self-existent. In its highest form, it is also self-referential (i.e. can consider itself as an object). Such experience is typically thought of as cognitive (thoughts, mentation), but can also be emotional (feelings), physical (pain, pleasure, body skills such as dancing, touch-typing, bicycle-riding) - or typically, some combination of all three.

Conscious awareness may be a response to, concurrent with, or an initiator of current phenomena. It may also be an awareness of past phenomena (memory), or speculations about hypothetical past, present or future phenomena (imagination, fantasy). In the case of fantasy or nocturnal dreaming, the awareness and its object exist in a feedback loop, wherein the experience of hypothetical phenomena in one moment itself serves as an object to be experienced in the next moment. Fantasy experience generally starts in the mind and is subsequently experienced in the emotions and body - sexual fantasy being one of the more compelling illustrations.

In popular usage, the term is often applied to social phenomena, using a modifier, to denote collective attention focused on a specific topic - for example, racial consciousness, or gender, or consumer, or ecological consciousness.


Western and Eastern perspectives on consciousness

Western philosophies generally view consciousness as a by-product of the increasing complexity of neural organization in living systems. In contrast, many Eastern philosophies hold that consciousness is a primary force in the cosmos, and that the material universe arises as a movement within it. In the former, a living object is considered to have consciousness. In the latter, the manifest world occurs within consciousness. In the latter case, consciousness is thought to pertain to all extant things, in increasing levels of complexity.

Debates around consciousness

Several ongoing controversies exist around the topic of consciousness. One pertains to whether machines can be made to possess true consciousness, or can they merely mimic its effects? The answer perhaps hinges on the resolution of a greater controversy: can consciousness exist apart from a physical substrate? This is the essence of the historical conflict between religion and science, having implications not only for concepts like eternal life and the realm of spirit, but also for the way we view and treat other peoples, the planet, and the greater ecosystem. Are these phenomena merely objects to be efficiently managed and manipulated, or must each be treated with the respect due a living subject? Citing a popular folk wisdom, perhaps our conscience will have to be our guide.

Additional Resources

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Author: Bill Miller