I was at one time a host for the Microsoft Network's Writers' Forum where was held a weekly poetry seminar. Each week poets would gather and post their work before other poets for critique. At one of these was present an Australian physicist who at the end of one person's presentation said, almost dreamily, "How marvelously self-referential." I bristled at this, reacting viscerally before engaging any intellect to interpret or analyze the response. As an artist trained in the classical disciplines of fine arts I had come to accept that self-indulgence of any sort robbed a work of art of its universal quality and thus relegated it to being anecdotal and therefore invalid as art. By saying "self-referential" about it (in other words) one is also saying "it is not art." And, if one says that about a poem, then one says it is not poetry. So, rather than complimenting the work as the physicist obviously was trying to do, he was condemning it though he didn't know that. I must say here very few of the attendees (including the physicist) had the slightest formal training in art, or literature specifically. We weren't dealing with any Carl Sandburg types, so a grain of salt had to be taken to even undertake a seminar such as this.
Yet, I also had to admit that the times being what they were there was a move to do precisely that - reference oneself. I suppose it came as a result of a population living in the obscurity of massive, densely-packed population centers and the threat of losing ones identity and becoming an anonymous member of a huge herd, or swarm (of mosquitoes - school of fish?) Thus, choosing oneself as a focal point came into vogue and was beginning to characterize all of the art produced at that time. People began writing about their own lives, however unremarkable those lives were, for instance. These sorts of creations are in the parlance of fine arts "conceits". They are indulged to a degree, such as the painter's self-portrait. However, they are not celebrated if such a perspective permeates an artists entire catalog of work. After all, what makes you a more important and significant subject than (for instance) ME? One is as good as the other. Yet a deeper point, artists are supposed to be out there objectively observing reality, synthesizing it through their own beings (which is where the me part comes in) then expressing the results through their bodies with their chosen art media. "Here is the world experiencing itself," not, "Here am I experiencing MY world."
I mention this in order to expand the notion of consciousness beyond the self-referential when defining it. Self-reference, after all, can be done by things which cannot reference others referencing themselves. Take DNA for instance. An enzyme unzips DNA, then feels around a pool of amino acids for the correct partner to a rung it's trying to complete to create another identical strand of DNA. Adenine goes with Thymine. Guanine goes with Cytosine. It is aware the strand requires one of the four. It is aware when it comes across the appropriate one to attach and move on to the next to complete its work. However, it is not aware of where it is. It is not aware of other DNA strands nearby. It is not aware of the full extent of the results of its activity. It is aware of where it is at that moment and what it needs to complete its action and move on. It
is also impelled to move on. As remarkable as this self-awareness may be, and the self-referencing its doing to assure it's carrying out its work correctly, we do not define this enzyme as being conscious. Defining consciousness as self-awareness is a wildly inaccurate simplification. There are other features which accompany the state of consciousness. However, the hitch in this get-along is, we can only be certain of our own consciousness, and this is all but impossible to express to others. The classic example is one of a person in a coma. Is a coma akin to sleep?
We know when we sleep we dream. Are people in comas dreaming? Are they aware of their surroundings but are just physically incapable of outwardly expressing this awareness to us? This we cannot know. The most we can know is (when attached to the appropriate device) which part of the brain is functioning, and what we've come to identify as what function that part of the brain serves. Yet, it must be said unequivocally our knowledge in the functions of the brain is still rather primitive, and our methods in detecting so-called "activity" are rather primitive as well. We also know, for instance function overlaps in sections of the brain, and the brain will also change the function of one of its sections to accommodate the loss or shortage of function in an adjacent section. So, we don't really know what we're seeing when we look at EEGs with their orange colors, or lack thereof. Yes, there is electric current actively moving in that region, but what is being perceived by the owner of that brain? We have no way of knowing this.
Even if a person tries to tell us, we have no way to with certitude ascertain the veracity and accuracy of what the person is saying. There are vocabulary limitations. There are image attached to terms gulfs in understanding. There are cultural biases. All we really can do is try to enumerate the differences between one object and another. Let's compare a grain of sand to a paramecium. Let's compare a paramecium to a virus. Let's move from one-celled "animals" to multi-celled creatures, and on up. Certain ancient cultures, such as the Hopi and the Aboriginals of Australia, assert that the earth itself has consciousness. Of course "modern" thinkers will be quick to claim that's an absurdity and an impossibility, but the only evidence they have of what they counter-assert is to compare the earth to another object - say a bunny rabbit. There isn't even a language with which consciousness can be accurately discussed in the same fashion as mathematics, for instance. One is as good as another.
Consciousness is - it depends on who you ask. If you ask a famous German physicist what consciousness is, he'll in all likelihood mention a list of "features". If you ask an Apache medicine man, he'll in all likelihood give you a cryptic response then tell you you'll come to understand what he said over the course of your lifetime. "What is consciousness to me?" That is the more accurate question considering the primitive state we occupy in relation to the highly-evolved concept we're trying to define. If we're in the item being defined...if we ARE that item, can we define it objectively to meet the scientific rigor requirement of truth?
We can't even answer that question conclusively.