One of the largely unnoticed facets of language is that its binary (all or nothing) nature confuses our simple primate brains. For example, you come indoors after walking in the rain and text me that you got wet. For you, that means a little dampness on your clothing because it wasn’t raining hard and the walk from your car to the front door was a matter of less than a minute. But in my mind you’re soaked to the skin. Sure, we can use modifiers in this example but often we can’t. Look at: “Julie loves Michael.” This could mean a thousand quite different things. Is Michael her romantic partner or her child or her father or perhaps the name she’s given to her phone? In each case the feeling will be significantly different from the other potential feelings she would have for our hypothetical Michael.

OK, so now we come to the word “conscious.” Frankly in my 60 years on this planet I’ve seen a great many people who are partially conscious occasionally (if by conscious we mean self-aware, able to acknowledge their own feelings and motivations, aware of relevant memories, and capable of at least rudimentary reasoning), a great many who seem to lack nearly all the requirements of consciousness, and a tiny handful who are conscious more frequently than most. But no human is fully conscious because our brains aren’t evolved to provide that experience. It was never necessary during our evolutionary history. Good enough was, well, good enough. Just as our brains fill in the two holes in our visual field in order to ensure we aren’t aware of these gaps (which exist due to the optic nerve passing out the rear of each eyeball) so our brains manufacture an illusion of consistency that every study on the topic has conclusively shown to be just a highly fallible illusion.

So when we talk about people being “conscious” whether in real life or in the impressionable teenager’s idea of a Hollywood movie computer fantasy, we need to be cautious. The computer simulation idea is merely an indication of why, now that we have empirically-based science, no one cares about what philosophers think. It’s not a useful hypothesis or thought experiment and it tells us nothing whatsoever about consciousness. Neuroscience and clinical studies, however, can tell us a great deal. That’s where we should be directing our occasional limited tenuous human consciousness.

Written by

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store