Phenomenological Psychology studies how people experience consciousness, the qualitative sensation of mental states and our awareness of the experience. Qualitative states of consciousness bring up a ‘hard’ problem – the mind-body problem. If states arise from a physical basis, how is it that there is a subjective component to sensory experience? Even if all relevant functions can be explained, the problem of experience will persist (Chalmers, 1995).
Nagel (1974) puts it that way: Physical states are objective while experiences are subjective. Pain has a typical input (tissue damage) and typical output behaviour (e.g. moaning), but it is pain because it is experienced as such. Neural mechanisms respond to tissue damage and trigger pain response, but why do we experience pain and not itching? Furthermore, the degree of pain and the way it’s actually perceived will vary from person to person. This uniqueness to experiences, our ability to be aware of it, to think about actions from the outside and express it through language makes us conscious beings. But how can we account for consciousness?
There are four important concepts that exemplify consciousness, i.e. what it means to be me and human and that the quality of my experience differs from everyone else’s. We all may be conscious but my consciousness is qualitatively different to your’s.
Consciousness always seemed obvious to me because of my ability to think about it (which brings to mind Descartes’ quote again: I think therefore I am). It is interesting and challenging to think about what other ‘parts of self’ may make us ‘aware beings’ and it is curious whether we will ever know for sure about our ‘being’,that of non-human animals, plants, or even things….
Chalmers, D. (1995) Facing up the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3), pp. 200-219.
Nagel, T. (1974) What it is Like to be a Bat. Philosophical Review 83(4), pp. 435-450.