You look at humans and see consciousness. I look at humans and see life. I see no difference between the two.
Nope there's a slight difference in how the word consciousness is used. I do NOT look at humans and see consciousness. If I look at other humans, all I can see is brains (and life, as you put it), and if I think about it, I assume those brains are conscious. BUT I cannot see their consciousness. Only I can "see" my consciousness, and it isn't even a seeing in any normal sense of, a subject looking at an object, because for me, consciousness is the subject, or to get religious, the Supreme Subject or Supreme Self, but that woo language isn't necessary, albeit poetic, it is just that, if I wasn't conscious, then I would experience nothing, and not even nothing, there could be no sense of "experiencing nothing" because experience itself, of anything, would simply not be, for me. I would not be. The analogies for consciousness are that it is a mirror on which everything is reflected, but the mirror itself is not made of anything, it is more like "space" or "emptiness". Again, poetic, but just that's consciousness.
Life is consciousness, and vice versa.
You experience consciousness as the ability to think, to say to yourself, "this is why I am doing this."
Again, not quite. Descartes said, "I think therefore I am" but he was mistranslated! It was more like, "Being, therefore Existence". A dog may be sentient, but that doesn't mean it has thoughts about itself. Man 500,000 years ago may have been sentient, but the contents of his experience didn't include thought out questions like, "why am I doing this", rather, he may have operated purely on instinct, but also, experienced his life, or given he didn't have the thought, "my life", he may simply have experienced running down large animals and experienced his hunger satiated by the flesh. Likewise elephants might be sentient but because they lack the neurones for abstract reasoning, they just hang about in their herd and look for water, experiencing life on the savannah like that.
Sadly, the FMRI machine, transcranial magnets, and some modern science experiments have shown that consciousness is just a side effect, a plausible explanation of our actions fed to the conscious mind by the real workhorse of human action and thought, the non-verbal parts of the brain. For instance, say you decide to move your arm. TOO LATE! Your brain started sending the signal before you consciously thought if it, before you decided, before you thought. Then thought is merely the reflected afterimage of non-conscious/non-verbal modules of the brain, the part of the brain that thinks it is the motivator, the initiator of action when in reality it is merely the translator of actions and thoughts into verbally accessible structures and experiential sensory phenomena. It is almost as if consciousness is just the "seminal memory," an altered version of events that gives the verbal part of the brain an understanding of what has just happened in terms it can relate to, but which actually deviate quite strikingly from actual reality.
Seeing thought and consciousness as the illusion they are, realizing that the actual human experience of life is inaccessible to the verbal mind, and therefore not able to be experienced truthfully, and that every verbalization of experience is fundamentally flawed with the untruths inherent in our experience of reality as "thinking beings" with "consciousness" becomes a little disorienting. Better to take the observation of "life" and "consciousness" outside the organism which we have proven has issues (massive ones!) with internal consistency, objectivity of experience, and even cause and effect.
From outside we see a complex system, reacting to the environment based on a system of internal rules. We call it life. It has movement, structure, and seeming purpose. An issue arises though. This is is in many ways functionally indistinguishable from the levels of complexity we see expressed from sub atomic particles, to atoms, to molecules, to cells, and to other organisms. This thing we call life is made up of the things we call not-alive, and yet, when observed very closely, these not-alive things seem to behave much like life does. The molecules have movement, structure, and seeming purpose. When introduced to other molecules they seem to take action, operating in these actions according to a set of internal rules. Even their constituent parts are the same, having movement, structure, and seeming purpose. They operate according to a set of internal rules and seem to take actions when introduced into an environment with other similar scale parts.
This is a fundamental truth of our universe. There is a fractal arrangement of interactivity, structure, and purpose from the incredibly micro sized up to the macro size. Everywhere we can observe, and at every scale. Some would say this complexity has reach it's pinnacle in the human form. That our intelligence and consciousness is the top of the scale.
I call that arrogance. Hubris if you will. We would be as aware of the levels of organization, structure, and seeming purpose above us as enzymes are aware of cells, as heart cells are of the horse they inhabit.
Our first gods were the sun, earth, moon. If they are the next scale up, who is to say they don't speak the cosmic language of large bodies, expressed in magnetism and gravity, emission spectra and absorption, or forces we cannot yet detect in the dark spectrum? What would they converse about?
Yeah that last part is pretty woo, but would we even know the difference if it were true?
Well, this goes to what I was saying that some people think consciousness is a hard problem, and others dismiss it. The reason you're dismissing it is basically because we know there is a brain and the brain is doing a lot of work which we don't experience. I do not for example, experience the cells in my retinas assembling information into patterns of light and dark and nor do I experience the neurones in my brain which are busy detecting edges in images, and so on, all the way up to the "room, desk, and chair" which I actually experience. So we would conclude that consciousness is just a thin layer or illusion. And there is a lot of truth in that. But see this goes back to my point, why bother being conscious at all?
So, imagine a second that you are as you are, a human operating in the environment, with all processes happening unconsciously in the brain. Imagine, if you will, that you are NOT sentient. Does this feel like it is just a small and unimportant change? DO you mind existing but not experiencing anything of life? Or is that tantamount to being dead?
If that total oblivion is death, like you were in an accident and they restore 99% of your brain function, so you can continue to walk around and go to work, but your conscious experience has vanished, you are no longer sentient, is that like being dead?
Yes, the data which appears in our experience has come via a long chain of processes which we do not experience (all the way back to the big bang actually). And as sentient beings, would we not be "dead" without consciousness?