Book: Sceptical Spirituality

What is ‘consciousness’?

And why is it a ‘hard problem’?

Peter Eastman
12 min readJan 18, 2023

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Collage illustrating the concept of consciousness.
(Artwork by the author.)

What is ‘consciousness’? In simpler terms, what are we — as ordinary people, or as philosopher/scientists — referring to when we employ the term ‘consciousness’? What imagery or ideas do we call up, or rely upon, when we think about the concept of ‘consciousness’?

And then, on top of that, why do we consider the conception ‘hard’ or ‘difficult adequately to resolve’? In other words, what it is about ‘our’ current conception of consciousness that supposedly resists an easy resolution in scientific or philosophical and intellectual terms?

Where to begin? Well, we can start by unpacking — that is, reducing to some very simple characterisations — some of the key features of that which we usually refer to when we speak about ‘consciousness’.

Opening definitions and descriptions: ‘responsiveness’

What do we usually mean when we say that something is ‘conscious’? At its simplest, to label something as conscious means that — the creature in question — ‘possesses’ a kind of ‘observable responsiveness’ to its environment, or surroundings. It might express this responsiveness through intentional, purposive behaviour — such as exploring its environment or circumstances — or it might be merely responsive to things like changes in temperature or humidity. So insofar as we observe responsiveness, we are inclined to infer that the responsive creature — whatever it might be — possesses some form of consciousness. So at its very simplest, consciousness = responsiveness.

Of course we can’t leave it at that, because plants and machines and even inanimate objects can be ‘responsive’, so we tend to want to restrict the idea of consciousness to creatures which we believe might possess some sort of centralised ‘mechanism’ — or better still ‘organ’ (like a brain) — which controls and directs responsiveness in some kind of meaningful and persisting way.

But even at this very stage we can say that when it comes to non-human forms of responsiveness, we do not find their dynamics philosophically problematic, as we normally think that they can be adequately explained in terms of simple ‘scientific…

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Peter Eastman

Independent Buddhist counsellor, teacher & writer. A quest for an objective spiritual Truth, devoid of any type of doctrine, belief or religion. Scepticism 101.