To answer the question: What is Consciousness? we have to have a framework to couch our answers in. For me that framework is phenomenology of Husserl, and those who followed him like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology is the descriptive study of consciousness. It is not analytic in the sense that it does not study the concept of consciousness itself as Analytic Philosophy does, but rather it tried to understand and describe the actual workings of consciousness from the inside. For the most part Husserl wanted to that so he could answer questions such as what is a number, or what is a logical judgement, i.e. to ground philosophical speculation underpinning science, mathematics and logic. His first great work was called Logical Investigations.
From the perspective of Husserl’s phenomenology Consciousness is described as being conscious OF something, in other words it is intentionality. Intentionality is the fundamental projection of Synthesis when the Intentional Morphe imposes form on the hyle (content) of consciousness. But Husserl sees that this a priori view developed originally by Kant must be given the caveat that we never actually seen form and content separated so consciousness is made up of noesis and noema, i.e. that which is closer to form and that which is closer to the content of phenomena appearing in consciousness. And here form/content combinations are always associated with meaning.
As we move from Husserl, to Gurwitsch, to Heidegger, to Merleau-Ponty the descriptions of consciousness become more and more nuanced and subtle. But also something strange is happening which is that we start getting differnet modalities of dasein (the presubjective and preobjective source of consciousness) which is that we get the breakup of Being into different modalities of experiencing the world. Thus the study of consciousness becomes more and more intertwined with the understanding that Being is not just a plenum but has a structure that underpins our understanding of consciousness. When consciousness is just a concept as it is in Analytic philosophy we do not notice these nuances that become visible when we look deeply into our experience of consciousness.
Once we understand that the idea of consciousness is bound up with the idea of Being and that Being is the basis of a prior projection, i.e. illusion and delusion then we can start wondering about the relation between consciousness and awareness of Existence which must be the ground of the projection mechanism of Being. I call that the Holonomic Theory of Consciousness. It is based on the interaction between the Special Systems and the kinds of Being. Basically they are interleaved and mutually defining. Thus Being and Existence intertwine with each other, and this is an important idea if we are to disentangle Being from Existence. Consciousness is based on Awareness which goes beyond intentional consciousness.
Thus consciousness and awareness have to be understood through their symbiotic relation with each other that is based on the distinction between Being and Existence. We get in touch with awareness through meditation. So it is necessary to have a sophisticated theory of awareness such as those developed in Buddhism in order to be able to refine our theory of Consciousness.
Awareness is defined in terms of the Special Systems which are ultra-efficacious and represent a model of interpenetration. Being on the other hand is fragmented into layers of illusion and delusion from the Buddhist point of view called the meta-levels of Being.
When we look at the Special Systems it becomes clear that their three levels that are associated with Dissipative Ordering Structures ala Prigogine, Autopoietic Symbiotic juxtapositions of these structures (following Maturana and Varella) , and Reflexive Social (following O’Malley and Sandywell) conjunctions of the autopoietic systems, are related to Consciousness, Living and Social emergent phenomena respectively. In other words the nature of consciousness as a projection system is like a dissipative ordering structure that is negentropic. It is supported by the living body as a viable organism within its environment. So the Autopoietic system which is cognitive and ordering of material elements at the same time is made up of two dissipative systems in symbiosis. Thus consciousness and the body as a material object are like the tree that is above and below ground so that the two parts support each other but have a completely different function. As Merleau-Ponty asserted we cannot know anything about consciousness without knowing about its embeddedness in the body. And that organism with consciousness is situated in a social context externally interacting with other autopoietic systems.
Consciousness, Living and Social are emergent qualities that can be associated with these various levels of the Special Systems. But also these levels are non-emergent, i.e. existent as neither emergent nor de-emergent. Thus underlying consciousness as a projection is awareness. Underlying the Living as organism is the living as cell. Underlying the Social is what Hegel calls MindGhostSpirit (Geist) held mutually by the socius (social group).
These emergent qualities co-exist in us because we are conscious living social beings. We cannot understand the qualities separately because awareness and life and the social are all intertwined in us.
As Hegel knew we cannot have a theory of consciousness that is not social consciousness of a living being. Thus he climbs the stairs from Sense Certainty, to Philosophically inclined Greek slaves of the Romans, that convert mere consciousness into self-consciousness. Then from self-consciousness we move to Reason, and from reason to Spirt. Notice that mere consciousness is like the dissipative ordering structures of Prigogine, but there is only self-consciousness when there is mirroring by two such structures intertwined like Solitons in a Breather. And Reason is the cognitive stability that comes from the boundary of this intelligent organism being stable. It can give reasons for what it does but we cannot know from the outside what its intention was. It is cognitively closed as a system with its own consciousness partially known by it through introspection. But since our consciousnesses are isolated from each other and we have to formulate a theory of mind and have to emulate though mirror neurons, it is only by indirection that we are connected at the reflexive level that generated social phenomena like symbolic interaction. And this indirect reason that the group shares Hegel called Geist.
So to put it plainly there is no individual consciousness without the social which generates language. There is only social consciousness of living beings that can be analyzed based on the special systems using precission as Peirce called the process of exploring a synthesis without cutting it apart for analysis. Our individualistic society has cut up psychology, sociology, and biology into separate disciplines with an occasional overlapping into social psychology, or cognitive neuropsychology. Unless we take into account awareness beneath consciousness that allows Being to be founded on Existence, or the Geist that permeates the social group as they develop culture and act in history, then we cannot really understand very deeply the nature of consciousness. Same goes with society, and biological underpinnings of human nature.
See Holonomic Theory of Consciousness http://archonic.net/hc01A