In order to distinguish the conscious state itself from its aspects and contents we need an answer to the question “if there is something it is like to be conscious, what is it?”  A succinct answer to this question is provided in the form of a common denominator of all conscious states. This characterization of the conscious state has implications for the systematic study of consciousness through its bearing on a number of concrete issues connected with the nature of consciousness and its relation to the biology of brains and their evolution. These are discussed with a view to delineating the characteristics of consciousness, suggesting the primary functional role of consciousness in the total economy of brain functions, and exploring the tractability of the problem of consciousness from the standpoint of ordinary science.


There is currently an upsurge of interest in the problem of consciousness from within both philosophy and natural science (Hameroff et al., 1996). One has to go back to the 1950s and the excitement generated by the discovery of the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS; Moruzzi & Magoun, 1949) to find a comparable level of serious interest in the issue, at the time reflected in conference proceedings with titles such as “Brain Mechanisms and Consciousness” (Adrian et al., 1954) and “Brain and Conscious Experience” (Eccles, 1966). Though there are significant points of continuity between the earlier and present concerns the hope pinned on the ARAS as the key to consciousness was largely premature and current interest in the problem constitutes in many ways a fresh start. In this situation it is worth noting that one reason the earlier ARAS- centered approach did not reach its goal was conceptual: the ARAS was the key to a dimension or variable or parameter of consciousness, namely alertness, “arousal” or vigilance, and not to the state of being conscious as such.  Today, with data supplied by techniques such as functional brain imaging fuelling theory, there is similarly a danger of confounding the problem of consciousness as a state with one of its aspects, this time, namely, with the contents of consciousness. To avoid such errors it is necessary to have some means of conceptually characterizing  the conscious state itself. That is, assuming that ”there is something it is like to be conscious” (see Nagel, 1974) we need an answer to the question “if there is something it is like to be conscious, what is it?”  A succinct formulation of a general answer to that question would provide a means for delineating the conscious state as such, an essential step in the systematic study of the problem of consciousness.

Bjorn Merker,

The Institute for Biomusicology, Mid Sweden University,

Ostersund, Sweden

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