Consciousness is a characteristic of the mind generally regarded to comprise qualities such as subjectivity, self-awareness, sentience, sapience, and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and one's environment. It is a subject of much research in philosophy of mind, psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science.
Some philosophers divide consciousness into phenomenal consciousness, which is subjective experience itself, and access consciousness, which refers to the global availability of information to processing systems in the brain. Phenomenal consciousness is a state with qualia. Phenomenal consciousness is being something and access consciousness is being conscious of something.
An understanding of necessary preconditions for consciousness in the human brain may allow us to address important ethical questions. For instance, how is the presence of consciousness to be assessed in severely ill or disabled individuals? To what extent are non-human animals conscious? At what point in fetal development does consciousness begin? Can machines achieve conscious states? Are today's autonome and intelligent machines already conscious? These issues are of great interest to those concerned with the ethical treatment of other beings, be they animals, fetuses, or, in the future, machines.
"Consciousness" derives from Latin conscientia which primarily means moral conscience. In the literal sense, "conscientia" means knowledge-with, that is, shared knowledge. The word first appears in Latin juridic texts by writers such as Cicero. Here, conscientia is the knowledge that a witness has of the deed of someone else. In Christian theology, conscience stands for the moral conscience in which our actions and intentions are registered and which is only fully known to God. Medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas describe the conscientia as the act by which we apply practical and moral knowledge to our own actions. René Descartes has been said to be the first philosopher to use "conscientia" in a way that does not seem to fit this traditional meaning, and, as a consequence, the translators of his writings in other languages like French and English coined new words in order to denote merely psychological consciousness. These are, for instance, conscience, and Bewusstsein. However, it has also been argued that John Locke was in fact the first one to use the modern meaning of consciousness in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, although it remains closely intertwined with moral conscience (I may be held morally responsible only for the act of which I am conscious of having achieved; and my personal identity - my self - goes as far as my consciousness extends itself). The modern sense of "consciousness" was therefore first found not in Descartes' work - who sometimes used the word in a modern sense, but did not distinguish it as much as Locke would do -, but in Locke's text. The contemporary sense of the word (consciousness associated to the idea of personal identity, which is assured by the repeated consciousness of oneself) was therefore introduced by Locke; but the word "conscience" itself was coined by Pierre Costes, French translator of Locke. Henceforth, the modern sense first appeared in Locke's works, but the word itself first appeared in the French language.
Locke's influence upon the concept can be found in Samuel Johnson's celebrated Dictionary, in which Johnson abstains from offering a definition of "consciousness," choosing instead to simply quote Locke.
stub: Higher consciousness, also called superconsciousness (Yoga), Buddhic consciousness (Theosophy), cosmic consciousness and God-consciousness (Sufism and Hinduism)--to name but a few--are expressions used in various spiritual traditions to denote the consciousness of a human being who has reached a higher level of evolutionary development and who has come to know reality as it is. Evolution in this sense is not that which occurs by natural selection over generations of human reproduction but evolution brought about by the application of spiritual knowledge to the conduct of human life. Through the application of such knowledge (traditionally the preserve of the world's great religions) to practical self-management, the awakening and development of faculties dormant in the ordinary human being is achieved. These faculties are aroused by and developed in conjunction with certain dispositions of character such as patience, kindness, truthfulness, humility and forgiveness towards one's fellow man – qualities without which higher consciousness is not possible.
The concept of higher consciousness rests on the understanding that the average, ordinary human being is only partially conscious due to being under the sway of inferior impulses and preoccupations. As a result, most humans are considered to be asleep (to reality), even as they go about their daily business. Gurdjieff called this ordinary condition of humanity 'waking sleep' an idea gleaned in part from ancient spiritual teachings such as those of the Buddha. In each person lie potentialities that remain inchoate as a result of the individual being caught up in mechanical, neurotic modes of behaviour where the correct use of energy for personal spiritual development has not been understood but is squandered in unskillful ways. As a result of the phenomenon of projection the cause of such a person's suffering is often seen to lie in outer circumstances or other individuals. One prerequisite for the development of consciousness is the understanding that suffering and alienation are one's own responsibility and dependent on the mind's acquiescence (through ignorance, for example). Traditionally, both in the Eastern and the Abrahamic spiritual traditions a person who sought mind-body transformation came under the tutelage of a Master (Rabbi, Sheikh, Guru, Acarya, etc) who would oversee their progress. In the past, as today, this education would often involve periods of retreat in communities (ashrams, monasteries, meditation centers etc.) whose sole purpose is the cultivation of awakening.
Ordinary consciousness as projection
In the spiritual traditions of India, consciousness is understood to be obscured by defilements (Skt: Kilesa) which are compared to clouds covering the sun. These defilements are the result of conditioning (Skt:samskara), accumulations in the unconscious caused by past actions (karma) . As a result, what any individual perceives as reality is a picture of the world at one particular moment filtered through his unconscious conditioning – a ‘reality’ that western psychology calls ‘projection’ (i.e., of the contents of the unconscious). Every individual human being has their own store of conditioning based on their unique past experiences. The goal of spiritual practice (buddhadharma, shariah, yoga etc) is the transformation and higher integration of these contents so that any practitioner following a spiritual path comes closer to reality as the causes of delusion are dissolved. Enlightenment (also called salvation, kaivalya, moksha, Union with God,etc) furthermore, involves the complete dissolution of all the causes for future becoming so that reality is seen, finally, as it is, rather than through the veils of projected unconscious contents. It may be protested that the mere possession of an apparatus such as the mind and body of a human being with its genetically predetermined structures prevents the possibility of unconditioned consciousness (Skt: asankhata-nana or nibbana) but the testimonials of numerous saints and mystics throughout history bear witness to the contrary.
The spiritual path
The path of cultivating consciousness requires the adoption of certain self-imposed rules or vows. These are generally concerned with exercising restraint with respect to actions of body, speech and mind. Examples include the five precepts of Buddhism. The effect of this restraint is to begin to contain energy and prevent unskillful actions that cause ongoing harm. Over time changes in the moral disposition of the aspirant are accompanied by physiological changes in the brain and nervous system opening up the energy channels (nadis or meridians) present in the subtle bodies which are thereby activated. Critical (indeed central) to development of one’s latent spiritual faculties is the practice of meditation. After moral restraint, meditation is the most important tool in the purification of the mind.
Consciousness: spiritual approaches
Spiritual approaches to consciousness involve the idea of altered states of consciousness or religious experience. Changes in the state of consciousness or a religious experience can occur spontaneously or as a result of religious observance. It is also maintained by some religions, religious factions and some scientists that the universe itself is consciousness.
In shamanic practices, changes in states of consciousness are induced by activities that create trance states, such as drumming, dancing, fasting, sensory deprivation, exposure to extremes of temperature, or the use of psychoactive drugs. The experience that occurs is interpreted as entering a real, but parallel, world. In many polytheistic religions a change in emotional state is often attributed to the action of a god; for instance love was ruled by Aphrodite and Eros in Ancient Greek polytheism. In Hinduism the change in state is induced by the practice of yoga. Yoga means "union" and is intended to produce a state of oneness between the practitioner and the divine. In Islam and Christianity, the change of state can occur as a result of prayer or as a religious experience.
The change in state of consciousness in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam is reported to be quite similar. The pursuit of yoga and the Buddhist Jhanas involve feelings of oneness with the world that give rise to a state of rapture. This is also reported by those undergoing some forms of Christian (or Islamic) religious experience; for instance, James (1902) provides the following report:
"I cannot express it in any other way than to say that I did "lie down in the stream of life and let it flow over me." I gave up all fear of any impending disease; I was perfectly willing and obedient. There was no intellectual effort, or train of thought. My dominant idea was: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me even as thou wilt," and a perfect confidence that all would be well, that all was well. The creative life was flowing into me every instant, and I felt myself allied with the Infinite, in harmony, and full of the peace that passeth understanding. There was no place in my mind for a jarring body. I had no consciousness of time or space or persons, but only of love and happiness and faith."
Meditation is used in some forms of yoga such as Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Transcendental meditation, the Buddhist Jhanas, the Buddhist Immaterial Jhanas (there are several versions of the jhanas in different types of Buddhism), in the practices of Christian monks and Islamic scholars such as Sufis. Meditation can have a calming influence on practitioners, as well as changing the state of consciousness. Theravada Buddhism views the Jhanas in a similar way that some yogic practices view the early stages of meditation - as a preliminary, in which it is demonstrated that states such as rapture are delusions (see The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation: "With the fading away of rapture, he dwells in equanimity, mindful and discerning"). In most types of Buddhism, serenity meditation is followed by a philosophical "insight meditation" that focuses on the idea that the universe is consciousness only, one that is perhaps indistinguishable from Monism.
- Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, 1901, Richard Maurice Bucke, Penguin Books 1991 edition: ISBN 0-14-019337-5, 1905 edition online
- The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution, P.D. Ouspensky, Online Version
- The Dhammapada, trans. Harischandra Kaviratna, Online Version
- Discourses of Rumi (Fihi Ma Fihi), trans. A.J. Arberry, Online Version
- The Evolution of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein
- The Degrees of The Soul, Shaykh Abd Al-Khaliq Al-Shabrawi, Quilliam Press