Defining consciousness has been a perennial challenge for the human mind, enchanted as it is with explicit definitions and materialistic descriptions. Behavioural Brain Sciences says “…if it is explained so that you understand it, it hasn’t been explained correctly.” The International Dictionary of Psychology says, “The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means….”
British physicist Peter Russell, who has written extensively about the subject, says: “The biggest hurdle to defining consciousness is the word itself. A noun is inappropriate. Consciousness does not exist as a ‘thing.’ It is not a ‘thing’ to be known, but knowing itself.”
The best I have been able to do so far is the equivalent of throwing darts so a pattern emerges consisting of what consciousness isn’t and some of what it is like. When one squints through all the patterns one can begin to have an experience of what consciousness might be, not too dissimilar from gazing at stereograms (see sample below).
If you develop the ability to look at the stereogram with wide-eyed vision you can discover the three dimensional image otherwise undetectable in the image. I see a similar need to shift one’s vision if one is to understand what consciousness is, or what it is not.
Recognizing this could be a fruitless endeavor, I wish to toss another dart and make another stab at clarifying what I mean by conscious awareness. I’ll call this dart “multiple dimensions of consciousness.”
The dictionary defines consciousness as being synonymous with awareness, the most popular idea. But aware of what?
There are different dimensions to what one can be aware of: one dimension is who one is, as in knowing oneself as Socrates once advised. From his point-of-view, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” So the who dimension involves knowing oneself intimately, a quest that might appear to be endless given the complexities of the human mind and psyche.
A second dimension is the what – as in what does it mean to be a conscious person or a conscious leader. What is being called for, as one becomes more aware? Most agree that this includes greater maturity and wider responsibility, relinquishing all victim and negative ego behaviors.
Another dimension is the where one is – being aware of one’s position in the Universe, what relationships one finds oneself a part of and in which systems one is embedded. This dimension also has an endless quality since one can seek connection above, below, and on all sides of oneself yet never find an endpoint or stopping point.
Another dimension to be examined is the how, as in how does one live one’s life. What values does a person honor and use as guideposts in living one’s life? How does one treat others? To what degree is life about oneself or service to others? Is there a relationship with a power greater than oneself? Is there a spiritual aspect – a transcendental awareness – to this consciousness?
These are only four dimensions – who, what, where and how – and we could probably include more.
I’ve heard people refer to the vertical and the horizontal aspects of consciousness – another feeble attempt to make the implicit explicit. This is a two-dimensional model: the vertical representing the depth of one’s own consciousness and the horizontal representing the vast expanse of things to be conscious of. Some find this model useful for understanding the concept.
A quick sojourn into Google Search on the subject yields thousands of models of dimensions and levels of consciousness, including progressive levels of consciousness – some from colleagues I know, admire and respect.
But let us be clear: all models are merely models, not the truth and not the “one and only.” They all are attempts to make the ineffable effable, or trying to “eff” consciousness into a definition the mind can understand within its present limitations.