How Does Human Consciousness Work?
The OP then, asking how human consciousness works, should be broken down into two separate parts:
1) How does awareness in general work?
2) How does human consciousness differ from awareness in general?
1) In consideration of the above, the ‘how’ of awareness becomes a metaphysical issue – it could be said even a meta-ontological issue. If awareness-in-general (or use my term pansensitivity) is the most primitive prerequisite for all phenomena in all possible universes, then we must retrain ourselves to stop looking for more primitive phenomena which compose awareness.
I think that we can say awareness is sensory-motive in nature. That is, there is a quality of passive perceiving and active participating which cannot be rationally done without. Even an atom or subatomic particle requires a context where its identity is made coherent in some way, where its presence is detected or can be inferred from some detection of its effects. In the absence of such a detection, again, there is no difference between such a particle and nothing at all. There is no context from which to derive that difference.
That doesn’t mean solipsism – it doesn’t mean that particles don’t exist unless we see them, but it does mean that the concept of ‘existence’ is incompatible with the existence of our own consciousness unless it is identical to detection/participation in some modality or context.
We need not posit a universal mind or God (although there is nothing that I am proposing which rules that out), only that existence itself in the absence of all perception is fantastically implausible given that 100% of what we know of the universe comes to us exclusively through perception. If the universe doesn’t need perception, then there would be no rational explanation for why some parts of the universe could evolve such a redundant and irrational feature to depend upon exclusively.
From this sensory-motive awareness-in-general, we can develop a hypothesis about how it divides and multiplies itself into different perceived forms and participatory functions. This entails performing a kind of Copernican inversion on our early 21st century* worldview, turning the outside (<matter>mass>energy>entropy>space) in, and the inside (pansense>sense<motive>significance>time) out. I don’t expect anyone to really understand that right away…it has taken me several years to put it together in those terms, but hopefully the general idea of the role that symmetry plays comes through. Suffice it to say, I think that how awareness works is that it plays with variations on itself using separation and reconnection on many levels at once. It’s very much like the view that has been a part of Eastern philosophy and Western mysticism for centuries, but with the important difference of plugging directly into modern models of physics and information.
As far as information goes, the sensory-motive primitive can be plugged into the medium-signal relation. Physics gives us a lot of these kinds of conjugates: surface-depth, electro-magnetism, space-time, mass-energy, etc, but when we are working with information and semiotics, we lose the concrete reality of sensation and substitute automatic, ideal abstractions of theoretical mechanics. Computer science and math do not concern themselves with how one number is able to add itself to another, only that there is a reliable result. Physics does focus on how phenomena interact, but not what those interactions actually are or what it is that is actually doing the interacting.
The Medium-Signal Relation
In a simple case of communication, two people might hold a string tight on opposite sides of a room and pull on the string once to indicate ‘yes/true/1’ and twice for ‘no/false/0’. In this case the string pulling, along with the tactile sensitivity of each person to detect the state of the string with their hands would be the medium. We can argue that behind that sensitivity is a lot of other cellular and molecular interaction, but that only pushes the medium down into the microphysical level of description. Even at the bottom, we still need some quantum-atomic sensitivity for any kind of basis of interaction to emerge (or diverge).
The combination of string pulling and any schema which is applied to the interpretation of those pulls would be the signal or sign. Many if not most people confuse ‘signals’ with the physical conditions (string pulling, neurons ‘firing’, semiconductors polarizing, etc), but a better understanding is that the signal is a semiotic interpretation; a conscious consideration of changing conditions within a sensory-motive medium.
Another metaphor that I like is brightness vs contrast. Brightness is the medium – if you have zero brightness there is nothing to see. Light, brightness, and the ability to see are, in the absolute sense, the same thing: a condition of awareness. Contrast stands in here for information or signal, which is a second-order relation of brightness and darkness. If you have no brightness, contrast doesn’t help, but if you do have brightness, then contrast allows many degrees of brightness and frequencies of its absorption to be presented simultaneously.
2) The difference between awareness in general and human consciousness is the incredible degree of elaboration, and the specific experiences which have shaped Homo sapiens. The degree of elaboration I’m referring to would be the number of steps from raw pansensitivity to particular subjective sense vs objectively distanced sense (matter-space), to organic molecules, to cells, to tissues, organs, animals, and vertebrates. The corresponding consciousness of such an elaborate chain of continuous world-crafting seems likely to be be appropriately rich and deep aesthetically. The base level sense and motive is enhanced by orders of magnitude to a heart wrenching, visceral level of participation.
I propose that the specific experiences which have shaped us individually and as a species lend our human consciousness its particular qualities. We share many qualities with other species – perhaps tender emotions with mammals, coarse emotions with reptiles, playful trickery with primates, etc. It’s all sourced in real experience over hundreds of millions of years. It is, in my view, very much like our individual psychology is shaped by our experience, and our families and societies are shaped by their histories. This is what makes human consciousness human, and this is why an AI cannot simulate who we are. A computer may copy the signals from the medium of our communications, or from the medium of neuroscience, but without the medium of the totality of human experience going all the way back to before the first life form, it will only be a kind of doll – an imitation of who we are cobbled together from what our brains are and how they behave.
*really legacy 20th century