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How to Define Consciousness: And how Not to Define Consciousness

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Definitions of consciousness need to be sufficiently broad to include all examples of conscious states and sufficiently narrow to exclude entities, events and processes that are not conscious. Unfortu-nately, deviations from these simple principles are common in modern consciousness studies, with consequent confusion and internal divi-sion in the field. The present paper gives examples of ways in which definitions of consciousness can be either too broad or too narrow. It also discusses some of the main ways in which pre-existing theoretical commitments (about the nature of consciousness, mind and world) have intruded into definitions. Similar problems can arise in connec-tion with how a 'conscious process' is defined, potentially obscuring the way that conscious phenomenology actually relates to its neural correlates and antecedent causes in the brain, body and external world. Once a definition of 'consciousness' is firmly grounded in its phenomenology, investigations of its ontology and its relationships to entities, events and processes that are not conscious can begin, and this may in time transmute the meaning (or sense) of the term. As our scientific understanding of these relationships deepen, our under-standing of what consciousness is will also deepen. A similar trans-mutation of meaning (with growth of knowledge) occurs with basic terms in physics such as 'energy', and 'time'.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London SE14 6NW, Email: m.velmans@gold.ac.uk

Publication date: 2009-01-01

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