I have been called a couple of times over the word ‘consciousness’. Some think it is not a useful word but a confusing one and therefore should be avoided. My answer is that it is a perfectly clear word for a very particular thing. It is the word for our being aware and experiencing ourselves in the world. We all experience things when we are awake; we don’t have to be told what it is to be conscious. It would be fairly difficult to talk about thought or feeling or behaviour without having a word for consciousness.
The problem arises when we assume that consciousness means more than simply being aware and experiencing life as it happens. As soon as we leave the phenomenal area and look at other aspects that might be grouped in with the phenomenal, we start having problems. The problems come from the different ways that people view the world, people and brains.
Max Velmans in a paper, How to Define Consciousness – and How Not to Define Consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies 16(5) 2009, attempts to develop a working definition of consciousness. He starts with the simple phenomenal definition. This is the definition that I think forces us to use the word – we don’t have another word for it.
This everyday understanding of consciousness based on the presence or absence of experienced phenomena provides a simple place to start. A person, or other entity, is conscious if they experience something; conversely, if a person or entity experiences nothing they are not conscious. Elaborating slightly, we can say that when consciousness is present, phenomenal content (consciousness of something) is present. Conversely, when phenomenal content is absent, consciousness is absent. This stays very close to everyday usage and it provides a simple place of departure on which widely diverging theories can agree. It also makes sense to stay as close as possible to everyday, natural language usage for related terms.
it is important to reserve the term “mind” for psychological states and processes that may or may not be “conscious”. … restricting the phenomenology of “consciousness” to the phenomenology of “thought” is too narrow. … To allow a clear distinction between consciousness of oneself and consciousness of things other than oneself, it makes more sense to reserve the term “self-consciousness” for a special form of reflexive consciousness in which the object of consciousness is the self or some aspect of the self. … it is necessary to distinguish “consciousness” in the sense of “phenomenal consciousness” from wakefulness and other states of arousal … much knowledge is unconscious, or implicit (for example, the knowledge gained over a lifetime, stored in long-term memory). So consciousness and knowledge cannot be co-extensive.
More interesting is his take on ‘conscious processes’:
I have argued that the psychological and philosophical literature confounds three distinct senses in which a process might be said to be “conscious.” It might be conscious:
in the sense that one is conscious of the process
in the sense that the operation of the process is accompanied by consciousness (of its results) and
in the sense that consciousness enters into or causally influences the process.
the content of such thoughts and the sequence in which they appear does give some insight into the way the cognitive processes (of which they are manifestations) operate over time in problem solving, thinking, planning and so on. Consequently such cognitive processes are partly conscious in sense (1), but only in so far as their detailed operation is made explicit in conscious thoughts, thereby becoming accessible to introspection. Many psychological processes are conscious in sense (2), but not in sense (1) – that is, we are not conscious of how the processes operate, but we are conscious of their results. …Crucially, having an experience that gives some introspective access to a given process, or having the results of that process manifest in an experience, says nothing about whether that experience carries out that process. That is, whether a process is “conscious” in sense (1) or (2) needs to be distinguished from whether it is conscious in sense (3). … Consciousness of a physical process does not make consciousness responsible for the operation of that process (watching a kettle does not determine when it comes to the boil).
I avoid ‘conscious process’ because I believe that my readers might take the phrase to have meaning (3) which I reject completely and would never mean. I usually specify exactly what I mean when I am talking about consciousness of the results of a process as in (2). And, I usually call (1) guessing.