Redefining consciousness in order to solve the Big Question

Consciousness is an emergent property of evolution. Like all things that resulted from evolution, we can gather evidence to come up with theories and explanations.

We should avoid (or postpone) the problem of subjective experience (qualia); we should intentionally remove the question of personal experience and switch to scientifically observable evidence.

This idea was proposed by Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Consciousness and the Brain.

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A variation/interpretation of this idea is to redefine consciousness to be a property of living things or complex adaptive systems in general where certain common behaviors are exhibited. In the case of a wildcat hunting a rodent, with the implications of recognition, focus, attention, and other factors, we might be able to collect a set of markers of this kind of consciousness. There would not be a single marker, and we would not expect these markers to be consistent in all species, because consciousness could come in varying degrees, kinds, and loci.

In terms of degree, a snake probably has “less consciousness” than a fox. And a fox probably has “less consciousness” than a human. And all of these animals have “more consciousness” than a carrot.

But it may not be a matter of degree – perhaps it is more a matter of kind. (Is it possible to map raccoon-like consciousness to dolphin-like consciousness?)

Or it could be more a matter of locus (if there is anything like consciousness among ants – can it be found in a single ant’s brain? Or is it more likely to be distributed among a swarm of ants?)

Brain imaging has become a powerful tool for using evidence-based science to get at the problem.

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There’s an old gem of wisdom: if a Big Question defies the Big Answer, you might need to change the Question. Consciousness may need to be unshackled from subjectivity in order to be redefined using scientific evidence. As a consequence, there may be new and better ways to understand subjective experience.

Our subjective experience causes us to resist the act of defining consciousness based on evidence, because subjective experience is precious and tied to the self, which wants to be immortal.

When the answer to the Big Question comes, it might have two possible effects: (1) It might be unsavory and counterintuitive – similar to the way quantum physics is counterintuitive – but nonetheless indisputable and scientifically verified; or (2) It might unleash an orchestra of language, mental tools, metaphors, and intuitions, forming a major advance in human knowledge and understanding – not unlike the theory of natural selection itself.


Deconstructing Agnosticism


Take a random phrase from the left column, a random phrase from the middle column, and a random phrase from the right column. Combine them to construct a question about your belief in God. How many possible questions can you construct?

The the answer is 1080. That doesn’t include the many many possible phrases you might want to include in this list. This illustrates the expansiveness of questioning everything. Since “God” is difficult to define, and since there are many ways to represent, understand, and experience God, one can’t truly answer the question “do you believe in God” unless the asker and answerer both share the same sense of what they are talking about

One conclusion from this exploration is that we cannot escape the realm of words and language in the effort to articulate the nature of our beliefs. Can any one think about belief without using some form of (internal or external) language? 

Is belief naturally binary (I do believe vs. I don’t believe)? If it is not binary, can it be called a “belief”? Cultural/social forces and neural structures may cause a predisposition towards binarism in beliefs. In any case, I suspect that it is good to subdue these tendencies, for matters of intelligence as well as for social ease.

In my opinion (which could always change), agnosticism is (1) a good way to exercise one’s own intellectual agility, and (2) socially productive; it helps you hear and accept other people’s many kinds of beliefs, non-beliefs, assumed beliefs and believed assumptions.

True agnostics are not compelled to agree or disagree. In terms of epistemology, they are incapable of doing either.

No doubt, for many people, belief and faith are passionate and deeply-felt, and so it may not be easy to take such a dispassionate attitude. But as long as people are using language to question and express belief, the mechanics of logic necessarily come into play. 

In that case, the art of living may be the wordless expression that escapes the realm of agreement and disagreement.  Thus, God (or the absence of God) is best expressed in terms of how we live rather than what we say.