Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Consciousness, And How To Make It Easier

The “band” in 1995 with (from left to right) Tom, Adam, John and myself. You’ll notice… no cymbal.

When I was 15 I was obsessed with making music. I bought a Tascam 4 track recorder, second hand drums, a guitar and bass and looped any friend I could find into the “band.”

Of course the second most important thing, after the music, was how cool the name and logo were, so most of the band members were as shocked as I was when Adam, never known to hold back opinions, seemed to disagree so aggressively to the idea of having a “symbol” for the band.

“We don’t need a symbol,” he fired into the discussion. “It’s probably the last thing we need right now.”

Tom hopped in on my side. How could we be taken seriously without one? We talked in circles for a solid 15 minutes, making what both sides felt were excellent cases. Finally we realized Adam was not talking about “symbols,” but “cymbals.” We all had a good laugh.

Conversations about consciousness can feel like this a lot, without the sitcom style payoff, just a lot of furrowed brows and shaking heads and people feeling like they can’t believe their friends are such idiots. But I think the feel good ending to these conversations is actually quite likely if we can recognize how to scope our conversations appropriately.

I like to suggest that rather than developing a rigorous scope for the term consciousness, we recognize that definitions vary and we talk about types or consciousness, or levels.

If you google levels of consciousness you’re likely to find a medical definition that looks at the levels of arousal or confusion. There are also freudian ideas around the human conscious and unconscious boundaries. That’s not what I am discussing here. Nor am I talking about ideas coming out of modern spiritual traditions about getting enlightened or reaching a higher conscious level.

What I’d like to look at are the heights of consciousness for a given entity. Of course there is speculation here, as was famously written by Thomas Nagel, it’s hard to know “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, much less an electron, but that’s the point. Let’s come up with sane ways to talk about the different levels of consciousness we perceive in the world, so we can ask better questions, and refine our mental models.

I’ve organized this framework by complexity, with single cells and atoms at Level I and super intelligences at Level V, but this need not be read as Level V being the most important. Western/dualist philosophy would likely see Level V as source of consciousness (stemming from an all powerful god, or the human soul) and thus the more important or influential, while eastern philosophy would likely value Level I and the shared bond between everything in our environment as more important.

These level also need not apply only to biological systems. It’s not unrealistic to think of machines or software programs slotting into each level. In fact, the concept of Tranformers recently in vogue in AI development, could be thought of as a piece of software maintaining conscious awareness of its context to produce better content.

The idea that consciousness is the original animating influence in the universe and something that coexists with all matter, plants, animals etc., is known among philosophers as panpsychism. And it seems to be coming more into vogue.

Philip Goff recently wrote about this idea in Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. Goff and his compatriots see the idea of elemental consciousness as a key reframing that can help people better understand the world. As he writes, “consciousness is not a mystery, nothing is more familiar. What is mysterious is reality, and our knowledge of consciousness is one of the best clues we have for working out what that mysterious thing is like.”

This is the level where brains or central processing units come into play. The mind of a Level II conscious entity, like an insect or earthworm on the low end and a frog or a fish on the high end, has a more complex set of tools to coordinate.

Hearts need to pump blood, muscles need to move limbs, and most importantly the brain has to coordinate responses to an ever changing environment.

A script for how to react to this environment, how to direct attention based on stimuli, is the essence of what I’m calling Level II consciousness. This script, however, is likely quite rudimentary and reactionary. Think, for example, of the vision cortex of the frog.

The frog is able to catch a fly by flinging its tongue at what it sees, but this is likely pure reflex, rather than conscious action. We know this because of the differences in the brains of frogs and humans, and because the same visual system frogs have is present in humans, we just can’t consciously access it.

In his book The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, David Linden discusses this ideas and a favorite topic of consciousness researchers, blind sight. Patients with blind sight are not conscious of being able to see, but can pick out the location of light shined in their eyes when asked, and some can even navigate through an environment with obstacles.

While evidence like this might be reason to say these Level II entities are not consciousnesses, research has been noting a lot of what defines our human conscious experience is actually filtered through brain structures present in fishes and frogs.

The boundary between Level II and Level III is perhaps where one of my favorite thinkers on consciousness Michael S.A. Graziano would draw the line between what is a conscious entity and what isn’t. As animals moved from water to land, he would argue, they needed increasingly more complex models of their world and their peers in order to thrive.

These models would require more complex brain structures that would result in the ability to do longer range planning and more elaborate problem solving including social modeling and social engineering. Of course our closest genetic relatives are examples of this as captured beautifully in Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons and Frans De Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics.

One of my favorite examples of the level of sophistication in apes is a fairness experiment where monkeys are given a cucumber for completing a task, which they are more than happy to do until they realize a neighbor is getting a grape for the exact same task. The video of the reaction is priceless.

But there are also plenty of other examples of this kind of sophistication from animals more distantly related to us like dogs and crows. Crows have continued to amaze researchers with learned behaviors like dropping nuts on a road so cars will crush the shells, using tools, even tracking the number of people that have entered and left a building so they know when it’s safe to enter.

The self aware layer of human consciousness is likely what most people think they are discussing when they use the term consciousness, but as we’ve seen, many of the aspects of our human mind are also present elsewhere. The cherry on top that seems to separate humans from other types of consciousnesses is awareness, or self awareness.

Stanislaw Dehaene, author of Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts puts it this way:

“What counts as genuine consciousness, I will argue, is conscious access — the simple fact that usually, whenever we are awake, whatever we decide to focus on may become conscious. Neither vigilance nor attention alone is sufficient.”

A Level IV consciousness then, is able to not only to act according to a complex and changing model of the world, but also to become aware of the model itself, to identify goals and seek out solutions that previous programming (our genetics in the case of humans) could never lead us to. This is most obvious in human behavior that competes with our biological programming, like deciding not to have children or giving up meat.

Level V consciousness, however one might define it, doesn’t seem to exist beyond conceptual speculation, but I think it’s a valuable to explore what something more conscious than a human looks like, especially with the artificial intelligence revolution underway.

I would suggest a Level V intelligence would most closely resemble a limited version of a western god, modeling two of a god’s three key characteristics, omnipresence and omniscience.

Omnipresent in that a Level V consciousness may be able to offer Level IV engagement to a large or infinite set of spaces. Think of the Christian idea that Jesus is listening to prayers from all believers and developing a personal relationship with them.

Omniscient in that a Level V consciousness may have a much deeper access to its own internal data. Think of knowing exactly the mechanism that caused a joke to produce a laugh, where each morsel of food is along the digestive process, or exactly how close each hair is to falling out, and then being able to reprogram or adjust responses to each of those things.

Secular examples of something like an omnipresent consciousness can be seen in film. In Her, the protagonist develops an intense relationship with a software program and his emotions seems to be genuinely reciprocated. Of course he is crushed later to find that this AI has been talking with 8,316 other people and is similarly in love with 641 of them.

In The Watchmen film, we see Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend Laurie Jupiter become furious when she finds out that while he’s making love to her he’s also working on scientific problems. “My attention was completely focused on you,” he says. She’s unconvinced.

Note, the clip is pretty NSFW. Lots of Manhattan genitalia as spoofed hilarious here

So this is my proposed framework. I expect any model of levels of consciousness will remain a moving target as we continue to learn more about the minds of humans, other animals and AIs, but I hope it’s a nice jumping off point for discussions. If you have thoughts or suggestions about it please let me know.

Writing about consciousness. Former designer/PM. Former Mormon. Master’s in Human Computer Interaction, Carnegie Mellon.