The Problems of the Word “Consciousness”

Is the study of Artificial General Intelligence identical to the study of consciousness?

The word “consciousness” is bantered about as if it’s a specific thing. “Are animals conscious?” someone asks. They are expecting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer because they are assuming that consciousness is a single unified concept.

But the Buddhists aren’t too far off when they speak of ‘level of consciousness’ — though even that’s not really correct either because it implies that there is a nice scale from 0 to 100 with 100 being fully conscious and 0 being an automaton.

The word “consciousness” is actually a vague term that is associated with many different semi-related phenomena. It’s entirely possible for some characteristics we associated with ‘consciousness’ to be present while others are absent and vice versa.

A Few Things We Equate to “Consciousness”

Here is just a short off-the-top-of-my-head list of phenomena that are sometimes equated with consciousness and sometimes not:

  1. Being awake instead of being asleep
  2. Showing an ability to recognize one’s self as different than other entities (aka the mirror test)
  3. Experiencing qualia, e.g. pain.
  4. Being consciously aware of something (vs subconsciously aware)
  5. Being able to generate new explanatory knowledge.
  6. The ability to store long term memories and remember one’s past experiences
  7. Paying attention to the here and now.

What’s interesting is that it’s possible to be missing some items on this list while having others present. Because the term is used so vaguely and inconsistently, it’s possible to be, in some sense, both ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ at the same time.

Inexplicit Knowledge

Take the example of learning to ride a bicycle. (Dennis Hackethal used an example like this on the Do Explain podcast.) At first, you have to pay close attention to everything you are doing constantly consciously error-correcting. You have to pay attention to balancing, steering, pedaling, etc. This takes up all your attention and you fall down a lot.

Then something just suddenly ‘clicks’ and suddenly you can ride your bike around without really thinking about it much. You can think more about what your goals are and your body and mind just unconsciously take care of the balancing, steering, and pedaling. From that point forward, you “automatically” error-correct to keep your balance or change the rate of how fast you are pedaling.

We say ‘automatic’ but really no two rides of a bike — even if to and from the same location — are ever identical. So the unconscious mind must be doing considerable knowledge-creation and error-correcting to do this task well.

Yet the unconscious mind does such a good job that, back when I was a kid riding my bike to school, it was pretty common for me to ride the whole way there and then realize I had no idea how I did it. I wasn’t sure which path I had taken nor was I aware of anything I saw or experienced along the way. I only became “fully conscious” during the ride if there was some sort of problem that my conscious mind needed to address. This rarely happened so for all intents and purposes it was my unconscious mind that rode to school and not me.

In fact, what we call “skills” are all like this. What we call ‘inexplicit knowledge’ is really unconsciously learned knowledge. It’s ‘inexplicit’ in that we don’t know how to put it into explanatory knowledge, so we don’t yet know how to ‘program it.’

Presumably, most of our knowledge is actually acquired and improved (i.e. error corrected) without ever actually becoming conscious explanatory knowledge. A person that knows how to ride a bike can’t explain to someone else how they do it. They just do it.

This raises an interesting question. When I rode my bike to school and had no idea how I did it, was I conscious or unconscious? There actually isn’t a clear answer. I was certainly awake (#1) while riding my bike to school, but clearly not paying attention to anything (#7). Typically I’d be lost in thought. Is being zoned out and “lost in thought” a case of being conscious or unconscious? Or something in between?

It’s interesting that when Buddhists speak of ‘higher levels of consciousness’ they aren’t actually being metaphysical or supernatural. They mean quite literally learning to not be lost in thought and paying attention to what is happening to you in the present. The Buddhists are well within the penumbra of the word ‘conscious’ when they claim I was ‘not fully conscious’ when riding my bike to school.


We also use the word ‘conscious’ to mean things like ‘self-aware’ or having memories and a sense of one’s own history. These two are often equated together. But even these two concepts aren’t really the same thing. An animal that passes the mirror test has at least a limited concept of self. But some ants pass the mirror test, and it’s unlikely that with an ant-sized brain they have any meaningful sense of their own history. [1]

But we don’t need to look to the animal world to realize the sense of the word ‘conscious’ isn’t precise. Consider the case of Ambien zombies, sleepwalkers, or someone experiencing a walking alcohol “blackout.” Are such people conscious or unconscious? Many people think of them as being ‘unconscious’ but it’s often hard to even tell they aren’t conscious except by their overall lack of good judgment.

Malcom Gladwell, in his recent book Talking to Strangers has a whole chapter on how women tend to experience alcohol blackout at parties before men do and the problems that arise. The woman may actually give permission even though she’s not actually fully “conscious.” But the man may have no way to know that because she’s still acting as if she is “conscious.” Yet, Gladwell points out that someone experiencing alcohol blackout may act very much like they are conscious and aware, even completing complex tasks.

I also once came across a man that had written to Ann Landers to get advice on if he should admit to his wife that he apparently had an affair while under the influence of Ambien but didn’t remember it. He spent the day as an Ambien zombie mowing the lawn, doing all the chores, calling a woman he knew, getting instructions from her on how to get to her house, driving over, and having an affair. He only found out what he’d done the next day when she called him. He still had no idea where she even lived.

Experiencing Qualia

Often when we ask a question like ‘Are animals conscious?’ what we really want to know is if animals feel pain and suffering or not. This makes sense because experiencing qualia could certainly be thought of as a legitimate form of consciousness.

Yet we know that feeling specific qualia and the general concept of ‘consciousness’ don’t always go hand-in-hand. If I drug you up just the right amount you will feel no pain, but you may well still be consciously aware of a great deal. And there are human beings that are perfectly conscious yet feel no pain or suffering (or perhaps no pleasure) due to a defect in the brain. So it’s a mistake to assume that qualia and ‘consciousness’ are always the same things.

Also, consider that Ambien zombies do seem to experience pain (and in the above case, pleasure) even if the person doesn’t remember it the next morning. So it’s not obvious that qualia and other types of consciousness have to go hand-in-hand.

Creativity and Consciousness

I once had a friend who had a bad tendency to become an Ambien zombie. She completed a complex artistic task she was working on and then, discovering the results the next day, accused her husband of completing it for her. So there seems to be no hard requirement that creativity is always synonymous with ‘consciousness’ either.

I would also note that most tasks we consider ‘creative’ are actually inexplicit knowledge and thus non-explanatory and ‘unconscious’ knowledge.


Most of us consider ‘dreaming’ an ‘unconscious’ activity. But really dreaming could be better thought of as a limited form of “consciousness” that happens while you are sleeping. However, it’s certainly not as conscious as being awake. As Psychiatrist Michael Golding points out on the Do Explain podcast, dreaming is sort of like being insane. Your full faculties are not functioning and that is the only reason why it feels so real. If you were really fully conscious in a dream you’d immediately realize you were dreaming. And this sometimes actually does happen in the case of lucid dreaming where you become conscious enough during the dream to realize you are dreaming and can take conscious control over the dream.


If dreaming is a form of unconsciousness that is semi-conscious, then insanity is a form of consciousness that is semi-unconscious. Steve Peck is a Biology Professor at Brigham Young University that recorded what it was like to go insane and then come back out of it. It’s surprisingly similar to being in a dream except the dream is intruding in on waking life. People that are ‘mad’ like this really aren’t fully ‘conscious’ even while being totally awake.

However, not everyone that experiences insanity can even recall it once they recover. Susannah Cahalan’s book Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness went insane and then recovered. She had flashes of what it was like, but for the most part couldn’t remember anything.

After recovery, she was able to watch videos of herself in the hospital. She mentions how disconnected she felt from ‘the woman’ (herself) she was seeing in the video. The woman in the video was clearly severely suffering. And she had vague flashes of what it felt like and knew the suffering was real enough. But since she didn’t remember any of the specifics of what she was watching, for all intents and purposes the woman in the video might as well have been someone else. So is a ‘mad’ person conscious or unconscious?


As we’ve seen, there is no single clear set of criteria that equate to what we mean when we speak of ‘consciousness.’ In reality, the word points to multiple related concepts that aren’t necessarily all present together at the same time. Some of the concepts are fairly well understood (e.g. what it means to be awake or aware) and some of the concepts are not.

A question like ‘are animals conscious?’ is actually an ill-formed question that has no single answer. A question like ‘do animals feel pain’ is a much sharper question. As we research AGI, we need to get away from vague terms like ‘consciousness’ and instead get more specific about what we mean.


[1] The Mirror Test. A quick (limited) defense of using the mirror test with animals: David Deutsch has pointed out that it would be trivial to program a computer to pass the mirror test today, yet we’d not mistake this for consciousness. Certainly, this is true.

However, the fact that we can explicitly make a program that can pass the mirror test isn’t really comparable to an animal doing so. How often do animals gain survival value from noticing that it’s their own reflection in a mirror? If there were evolutionary survival value for animals to pass the mirror test then “passing the mirror test” for an animal wouldn’t be a very meaningful test of anything any more than it is for a computer program.

But for an animal to pass the mirror test — without being explicitly adapted to do so — implies that there is something else going on in their minds that is allowing them to pass. Whatever that “something” is, it must be quite a bit more complicated than how a computer program would go about it today. Presumably this “something else” is a concept in the mind that allows them to recognize themselves as an individual.

How do animals do this with neither explicit programming nor explanatory knowledge? We don’t know. And this is an interesting question and answering it may even teach us something about what we call ‘consciousness.’

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