Confusion & Inconsistency: What is Consciousness?

A Particularly Unclear Subject

The topic of consciousness is a popular one, but ripe for confusion.

  • If asked to define consciousness, many people will struggle to find words. Whether or not they have an intuitive sense for its meaning, “consciousness” is a subject they find difficult to describe.
  • Those who are more comfortable with the term may describe it from a variety of different perspectives.
  • Sometimes consciousness is presented as a fuzzy, “woo-woo” concept that is so “out there” as to be of no practical value. Other times, it’s used improperly narrowly, presuming a definition that is far too limiting when another word would be more suitable.

What’s Causing All the Confusion?

Here are some contributing factors to the confusion and inconsistency:

  • The dictionary definition for “consciousness” is “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.” However, that dictionary definition is a better description of the “conscious mind,” a mind state distinguished from the unconscious mind state.
  • In some uses, “unconscious” refers to a comatose state. At other times, it’s used interchangeably with the “subconscious,” the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior and emotions. In other words, these are mind states — not what discussions of consciousness are typically about.
  • Bottom line: Mind states and consciousness are not referring to the same thing.
  • With such a confusing dictionary entry, we find others who have defined the word to meet their needs. There are various uses of the word based on the angle or “lens” through which each source views the subject.
  • As the lack of clarity has persisted over time, more and more people have come to use the word casually, making it ever more vague and nebulous. At times, it’s used as “filler” — something that sounds good and seems to add power or credibility to an assertion, but in fact, contributes to the haze of confusion.