What is consciousness?
What do the philosophers say consciousness is ... ?
Philosophers have no agreed position but as an overview:
Within analytic philosophy the dominant position is that taken by Dan Dennett
(who is best buds with Richard Dawkins) he basically argues that consciousness is an 'emergent phenomenon' of the brain. In other words that given an, as yet unattained, full understanding of the brain we will understand consciousness. Put another way consciousness is something which can be reduced
to physical (specifically, neurological) causes.
The main 'opposition' to this is represented by David Chalmers
who argues that while it may well be true that all consciousness is 'caused' by the brain, there is an irreducible subjective quality which cannot be scientifically explained. For example, imagine you learnt every physical objective fact about orgasms, this would still, according the Chalmers, miss out the fundamentally subjective experience of having an orgasm. Thus objective scientific description will never fully account for consciousness.
Within continental philosophy the question has been approached very differently, not so much asking what is consciousness?
but asking what is it like to be a consciousness?
. Of particular interest is Heidegger develops the notion of consciousness as being within time
and Sartre who links consciousness with 'nothingness'
My own view, for what its worth, is one that emerges from the works of 'ordinary langauge philosophers'
like Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Austin. In their view most of the problems of philosophy come down to peculiarities of how we use language. The best work I've read on consciousness comes from this tradition and is found in The Concept of Mind
by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. His essential claim is that 'consciousness' is a collective term to account for human behaviour; we fall into error when we suppose it is a thing-in-itself. He provides an example of a man touring Oxford university; he is shown the buildings, the students, the faculty, the examination halls, the libraries, the parks, the colleges and so on. At the end the man says, "that was all very nice, but can I see the university now?" Ryle's point is this, the 'university' is not a thing but the name given to a collection of things. Similarly 'consciousness' is not a thing, but a name given to the totality of our behaviour. To ask 'what is consciousness' is to mistake language and to start us on a wild-goose chase....