In “Ego and the Problem of Death,” I spend a lot of time not talking about consciousness. “Consciousness” is one of those situations where we seemed to run out of words, so we use one word to refer to several different things. It can mean the opposite of “comatose,” or the opposite of “subconscious.” Those two meanings are OK, I’d just rather use the terms “awake” and “explicit.” It’s the third definition of consciousness that gives problems; the one that refers to awareness or sentience.
Neuroscientists tend to pooh-pooh the notion; they feel that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex system, like memory. They tend to be ambiguous about what they mean by “consciousness”; when pressed, they advise us to ignore the subtle distinction between intelligence and sentience, which by definition implies a certain je’ne-sais-quoi.
I personally believe that “awareness” is a part of the human psyche; the question is, awareness of what. I agree with the neuroscientists that it’s more than a little meaningless to speak of “Self-awareness.” How can the Self discover the Self? The Self IS the Self. We are playing with words.
Well, sort of.
Any time you get to know another person, there is an unfolding. It’s like a rose blooming. The nature of a person is slowly revealed to you, over time.
In the case of a child, it’s not just a matter of something being revealed. It is, at the same time, something being manifested.
I’m using the term “manifestation” as a synonym for “development.” Development occurs throughout the life cycle, so the process of manifesting ourselves continues until the moment of death, with no guarantee we will ever be fully manifested.
I am not using “manifestation” as a synonym for “becoming.” You can if you want; just remember, you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re born a tabula rasa, and you become an adult human. Or you are born an human being, and all that you are becomes manifest as your brain and body grow into the task.
For the purposes of defining “consciousness” in the sense of “awareness” or “sentience,” either way is fine. Either way, we can agree that we aren’t born knowing how to be adult humans. We pretty much have to learn everything. That’s not true for fruit flies or cats. They don’t have to learn anything to become authentic adult animals. They just have to show up.
The rest of us have to show up, and also ask, “What the heck am I doing here” at some point. Turns out we have to ask that at multiple points along the way, often with a different answer at each point; and the ultimate true answer, unfortunately, is elusive. So I would describe “a sentient entity” as one that one that is not born with the explicit knowledge of what it is, or what it’s supposed to do. And I therefor see sentience, or consciousness, as a process rather than an end point. At least in this life.
That makes a little more sense to me.
My thoughts, regarding an approach to the question, here.