The Nature of Consciousness


C.N.C. Barchard.


What is consciousness?


The Traditional View


Throughout time man has asked the question what am I? Most of all this question is addressed to the nature of consciousness as experienced by the individual. Normally one is aware of the self as a constant glow while awake, illuminated by the ever-changing world of sensory data, thought, feelings and emotions. However much changes around us, however we feel, whatever we are thinking, we still retain a sense of this self as centred in something unchanging and continuous. This can be called the conscious I. From our immediate experience it may seem self-evident that there is something passing through time yet constant. Because, subjectively, the self appears to be of an entirely different nature to the objective world around us and even our bodies as we observe them, it may seem self-evident again that we are separate and different even from our own physical bodies. This naturally leads one to conclude that we are spirits, dwelling in physical bodies but otherwise free. There is a sense, when we are thinking, that this is generated by the centre of our consciousness wherein dwells the will, through which our spirits initiate action in the natural world. Such has been man’s experience of himself throughout the ages and whole religions have been built from this starting point.


A View Staying with Matter


What I seek to elucidate here is that this view of consciousness is illusory and misleading. What I am going to say challenges the very nature of our relation to the world, eachother and ourselves. Far from being merely a piece of abstract philosophy, it has far reaching implications as to the basis of moral responsibility and justice as well as shedding light on the physical foundations of life.

It is now clear that the matter which makes up our bodies is constantly changing, such that every seven years or so there is virtually no molecule left that was there seven years previously. The conscious I appears to remain unchanged throughout life however. This situation has been used as grounds for supposing that the I is not material but spiritual, that it is not the brain but something above it. What I would propose is that the conscious I is form rather than separate spirit and that it is generated in the brain and given its sense of continuity through memory. I would propose that consciousness is not something separate from matter but that it is matter, matter as being rather than as the object of observation.

In this context I mean matter in its broadest sense which includes the physical forces associated with things that possess mass. If matter is fundamentally conscious what does this mean in practice? Why then is not everything linked into one big conscious I? Matter is composed of particles which entail forces, the final nature of which is not fully understood. However it would be reasonable to suppose that the smallest particles form mini centres of consciousness but that they can be linked together through the electromagnetic forces that are bound up with them. Thus, under certain conditions larger, holistic bits of consciousness can develop and I would suggest that consciousness in the brain is in some way formed like this. What the actual experience is at any one moment depends on the chemical and electromagnetic configuration at that time. The brain goes out of its way to mimic in these configurations what is around it through sensory data, as well as responding to it. It can also reflect on this data and produce configurations embodying extremely abstract ideas which may incorporate feeling and emotion and form the basis of creative activity. The sense of self is itself a configuration which is in some sense paradoxical. While all that is in consciousness is self in the sense that sense perceptions are distinct from the objects to which they are a response, the conscious I distinguishes these from what is purely subjective to itself i.e. feelings, emotions thoughts and its own consciousness. The situation is a little less straightforward than this though because these distinctions are linked and such things exist as the awareness of seeing something as a personal sense perception while at the same time regarding what is seen as distinct from the self (I can see the house / the house is there). There is a sense of continuity as a result of memory which prevents consciousness being locked in a single moment. Things fade in and out of consciousness but traces are constantly being left in memory. Reference to these gives a sense of time and one’s motion through it. Not only does the world get reflected in consciousness but consciousness itself is self-reflecting and it is this capacity and the ability of the brain to differentiate between sensory data and its personal response to it that enables the identity to develop.

Each of us is locked in this experience of consciousness, the former being impossible without the latter. Looked at in this way, consciousness is more substantive than the object of which it is conscious because individually and collectively this is the way we exist and none of us can get further than the link that the senses give us with what is not us. Consciousness is the most central reality to all of us. Though we see things from outside we see them inside. Consciousness is like two mirrors facing eachother, a system that embodies its own reflection. It exists at a moment in time but is aware of its past receding behind it like the tail of a comet. It can come and go and the space between two periods of manifest consciousness appears to be of no duration at all, as anyone who has had a general anaesthetic will know. It is the most rarefied of all states of matter.

It can maintain a sense of its own continuity even though the matter that its memory is recorded in is not the same molecules that were there at the time of the events remembered. It is like the clapping of two hands where the clap is what is remembered; the hands represent the molecules and the clap is the given configuration for the memory.

It would seem that consciousness is some sort of field, presumably electromagnetic in nature, generated by the matter in the brain. We perceive pictures, for example, in a holistic way such that the parts of them come together as a whole in consciousness. It is as if the field of consciousness curves in on itself so that every point in it is part of every other point. It is differentiated yet integrated at the same time. We are only geared to conceive of three dimensional space but it would seem that we conceive of it in a way that requires more dimensions than that. There is so much about us that we can reduce to logical abstraction and there is so much that we cannot, at least so far. There is much that we can do that we understand little. For instance the composition of music seems to embody forms of idiomatic logic that continue to baffle computers.

In order to understand consciousness in a much more specific and scientific way it will be necessary to develop some form of mathematics that can encapsulate the holistic nature of consciousness. I am not in a position to begin to speculate as to how this would work, but to point out the most general aspects of this phenomenon of consciousness as a starting point for others with more specific scientific and mathematical knowledge to work from. Most of Western thought these days comes from breaking things down into their smallest elements and seeking to find the final truth of everything in those elements. While this certainly reveals a lot about matter it is not sufficient to form a theory of consciousness which, by its essential nature, is a unifying phenomenon and to understand it some theory of unification is required. Colour (as perceived in consciousness), beauty, emotion, the totality of a three dimensional form, are all things which can only be conceived of holistically. Trying to understand these phenomena by reducing them to smaller bits is like looking for the beauty of a pot by shattering it. Its substance will still be there but what one was looking for will definitely not.




The foregoing looked at consciousness in life. It would be worth looking at the nature of death. Because an organism has ceased to move and function visibly and entered a state of dissolution does not mean that the matter from which it is composed has lost the germ of consciousness. It is reasonable to suppose that its brain no longer embodies an image of the world around it because that is form and the chemical and electrical configurations in the brain that embody that form have ceased in any organised way. Animation, as we experience it, has stopped. But the matter, the energy, is still there in some form. Something remains although it is difficult to conceive of it. One thing that would appear to be the case is that memory is not being laid down. The capacity for the brain to trace backwards in life requires special chemical and electrical configurations that are presumably lost in death. The sense of time depends on memory. The mind, while perceiving the present, also looks into the immediate past in order to have a sense of time and continuity. Without this sense of time one can only imagine the dullest of glows of consciousness. Consciousness, as we understand it, with all the frenetic activity we experience in it every day must be reduced to a latent, diffuse state in dead and non-living matter.






If consciousness is indeed an aspect of the physical universe then two points emerge: firstly it is subject to physical laws and secondly, by its very nature, it would suggest the existence of phenomena not yet quantified. Freedom of the will, in the sense that religions teach, would seem to be ruled out. At the most some quantum phenomena based on the laws of chance might be involved but that is more like a semi-chaotic situation than one in which choice is freely made.

Indeed some of the ways in which chemistry determines what goes on in our brains has been described. Notably different drugs produce characteristic responses in people. One wonders whether consciousness is just a by-product, a screen on which the events in the brain are played out. However that is clearly not entirely the case. Some reactions are simply not present without consciousness. Unless pain is felt a subject will not scream if hit or burnt. Sensory data cannot be gathered without consciousness, the concept of beauty could not exist, the way we perceive colours could not exist in any other than conscious form – it bears no resemblance to the wave-forms of light! So it would seem that consciousness has functions, possibly beyond being that which makes the difference between life and death, darkness and light. It may be the only format in which holistic mental processing can occur and it embodies the essence of meaning. Whether these functions go beyond physical law into transcendent realms is questionable.






Moral Consequences

Autonomy and responsibility

The human mind has a degree of autonomy. It can reflect on sensory data and decide whether to respond to them and how, although the process with which it arrives at its decisions I am maintaining is bound by physical laws and therefore automatic. Its autonomy derives from its capacity to resist the controlling influence of others or circumstance (a capacity which varies greatly between individuals) rather than on any absolute freedom. In the first instance one could say that genes determine its responses. But probably from the earliest stages in the womb experience begins to build up, modifying and refining its responses. This is a developmental process and not a static situation and it qualifies the degree to which the mind can be said to be autonomous because its reactions are subject to a continuous process of conditioning through interaction with its environment. One can surmise that two people of differing tendencies from genetic origin could become like eachother through the conditioning effect of different life experiences. This presents a complex picture where people live in a state of flux although it is well known that they tend to change less as they get older and have more life experiences. To describe the processes by which this happens is an enormous challenge but it would be fair to suggest that without a proper understanding of the effects of genes on a personality it would be extremely difficult to gain a valid understanding of the processes of development of the personality as the individual reacts to others and the environment. There would be, so to speak, no base line to start from.

People, as would follow from the ideas put forward in the first part of this work, are not responsible (in the traditional sense) for their actions. This is to be seen as distinct from the idea that there is no such thing as right and wrong but I shall come to how these can be conceptualised in a deterministic framework further on in this part. For the moment let us merely take the idea of right and wrong as a generalised concept as read and work from there. The traditional ideas of retribution and a person getting their just deserts become flawed when the idea of the freedom of the will is abandoned. Unless a person has done something freely and by that I mean without inner as well as outer constraint, then the idea of blame in the traditional sense ceases to mean anything. We need to look to understand what processes are at work, both intrinsically and extrinsically, when someone does something wrong and how these can be manipulated so that they are unlikely to do it again and more broadly so that others are also less likely to do it. That is what we need to work towards. We should be looking for humane and effective ways of changing people who do things we find offensive and the social conditions in which their problems germinate. Punishment, based on repression and inducing fear, has been shown to be wasteful of people, often ineffective and the further it is taken the more damage is done to society generally by the actions of the state by the ruination of the lives of many of the convicted and often those of their families, quite apart from the damage done by the offenders. We delude ourselves if we believe that we know what it takes to change a person who is a problem into one who is not reliably and without a strong risk of damaging them. Where attempts are made to change people we do not know why some people  change and others do not.




A Basis for Right and Wrong


Traditionally people have looked to religions for doctrines of what is right and wrong. These doctrines are attributed to deities or people with divine characteristics and are taken as absolute and unquestionable. Much of the power of religion has subsided in modern Western society and there is no consensus, indeed an emerging vacuum, as to any fundamental basis for concepts of right and wrong. If people were to abandon the sense of right and wrong saying that there was no basis for it then chaos would surely ensue. We are torn between concepts that vie with eachother. How do you create a fair society without interfering with liberty? How do you reconcile science with religious belief?  How is free will compatible with brain chemistry? We often opt for what feels best, being unable to think our way through the moral maze.

It would be very easy to give up the search for a fundamental basis for right and wrong and say that it’s a personal thing: what is right for one person being as valid as what is right for another. But this is a woolly and divisive stance. We need some axioms to begin to build a conceptualisation of right and wrong that can gain a rational consensus and I am now going to build from what has already been said about the nature of consciousness.



I have already suggested that the field of consciousness is a coming together of energy through some very sophisticated chemistry. Unless it wants to end itself and thereby eliminate itself from the world of existence, consciousness usually wants to maintain this togetherness that is it. There is not much point in existing if one does not want to and not existing rules out any argument about anything. Indifference is also pointless so the only state worthy of attributing any positive validity to is that of wanting to exist; so I shall assert that this is the first primary good and that continued existence and that which promotes it are also primary goods.

Science, in all its objectivity, tends to see survival as the main aim of life, if not the only aim. It seems to fail to ask what life is surviving for, failing to see that survival for its own sake has no point at all. That is where feelings play a crucial role in giving experience a sense of meaning. It would be wrong to suggest that feeling good is only related to successfully surviving. Pleasure can be for its own sake. There are obviously a great many things that we have to do in order to survive. A great deal of pleasure can be associated with these things as well. The world of feelings and emotions is itself very complex; but in the simplest terms it is fair to say that without feelings and emotions, or with purely unpleasant ones, life loses its meaning. It is these rather than thought that determine whether we find life worthwhile and, unless they are overwhelmingly negative in nature, are a primary good. One has to look inward to understand this. One can generalise by reference to the idea of inter-subjectivity, in that as far as this goes it would seem pretty evident that this is generally agreed. Objective observation of others cannot enable one to see what makes life worthwhile. It is necessary to recognise consciousness as fact whether we can view it directly in others or not. It is worth noting here that all objectivity or observation exists at a subjective level anyway and it is worth nothing unless it is related to what is purely subjective, this being the point at which science ends and philosophy begins.

Consciousness, through extremely complex processes in the brain, which start with the recognition of one’s body as being similar to those of others, is able to recognise the existence of and identify with other fields of consciousness as being similar to itself. If, in the first instance, it has come to value itself in the ways outlined in the last two paragraphs and then extends this to include others through identification I would maintain that this is again a primary good.

We ignore the overriding importance of consciousness and our pronouncements about life take a dangerous direction. We lose our true identification with others that is crucial to any notion of right and wrong and this leads to a dehumanising attitude towards life.

These three principles: survival, feelings of which the positive ones lend self-validating meaning to life and the identification with others as being conscious like oneself and subject to these things as well are axiomatic to the meaning and purpose of life and morality follows from this.




It is not difficult to see that conflicts of interest will arise between these parameters. Something one enjoys may threaten one’s survival or that of another, or the requirements for another’s enjoyment may be in conflict with one’s own for instance. What is right or wrong is often specific to particular situations and it is not possible to determine those exhaustively. However there is more to be said about general principles that follows on from what has already been said and which informs specific situations.

One of the greatest sources of conflict between people stems from people regarding themselves as better or worse or greater or lesser than eachother. It is obviously true that we are all different and some of us are better at some things than others, have more wealth or are more well liked. If we are honest with ourselves it is very hard for us not to make comparisons and the principle of competition is so woven into the fabric of our society that it is very difficult to break this tendency. However if we reflect that we did not create ourselves and are not responsible for the way we are in any ultimate sense then we may begin to lose this damaging tendency to judge ourselves and others. We do need to strive to do well but we do not need to become proud and superior about it. This idea is not original or new and I contend that it is a primary good not to feel oneself to be better than others and to understand that they probably feel as deeply as oneself.


The Development of a Sense of Responsibility


Nature, and our natures are not much of an exception to this, concerns itself greatly with survival. The situation is akin to a constant war with each species taking up as much room in the ecosystem as it can with only the violence of other species and the limits of available food limiting its numbers. In this arena survival becomes paramount with relatively little time for pleasure, at least for many species. We seem to exist half in this primitive state and half giving concern to higher considerations that relate to the moral axioms I have outlined. These can only be grasped by and be meaningful to intelligent beings with the capacity to reflect, such that they lead to judgements based on assessing the relative importance of the various factors of this kind in particular situations. This goes beyond instinct into areas where thought and feeling come together to arrive at opinions. If we consider others as being as important as ourselves we can be prepared to make sacrifices for their sake. Indeed this preparedness to make sacrifices is a defining quality of what is morally good as opposed to what is simply pleasurable and/or self-centred. However the essential aim should be to promote happiness, not as some people believe that we should simply suffer in the hope of some final reward after death. This work is rooted in this world and has no conception of any other to which one passes after death and regards too austere an approach to life as tending towards the masochistic and in varying degrees pointless. This is not to say that in some dire situations very austere decisions are not right.



Whether anyone behaves in a morally good way depends on whether they have understood that it is a good idea sufficiently deeply to wish to act on it. This work can only clarify a person’s understanding of the basis of good and bad and describe why such ideas are not anachronistic and redundant. This is commensurate with a mechanistic theory of the mind. A sense of responsibility is possible in this thesis but it is of the nature of what one understands about the fundamentals described here. It is something we impose on ourselves and others as a result of this understanding. People often enough fail to meet up to such impositions and it is important to remember that their failing is not one of free will. The whole world of desires, beliefs, thoughts, opinions, motivation and feeling is not free. It can change and does in varying degrees all the time but these changes happen through mental processes, physical in nature, rather that free thought.




This part has dealt broadly with how a framework of right and wrong can stem from and be built on a purely physical conception of the mind. The principles from which this can be developed are the primary goods of the survival of conscious being, the feelings that make this worthwhile and the capacity to identify with others and not seeing oneself as being greater of lesser than any of them in any absolute sense. The fourth of these principles derives from a proper identification with others and an understanding of its significance. The process through which these principles can be applied to given situations is thought, but not a coldly intellectual thought but one that embraces the whole nature of being.









Copyright (c) C.N.C. Barchard. 2000