7. Consciousness

Our discussion has so far produced an account of how the mechanism of mental identification could move from accidentally creating a self to aggregating as many objects and ideas as that self thinks it needs to continue indefinitely, even forever. We might agree the discussion has merit, but even if it offers an alternative image of self that we reluctantly agree could be true, it begs the more fundamental question of what we are if we are not individual selves, if selfhood is just an easily understandable and universal mistake.

Back toward the beginning, we defined mind as the conscious brain. I admit that I have been a bit loose since then in using the term, to avoid taking up too many things at once. But now we need to turn our attention to consciousness itself. This is a rather tall order, and there is little by way of consensus or common knowledge to guide us, so it’s time to take flight. Actually, it’s not as dramatic as that, since what we really need to inquire into are the properties of consciousness, and it is much easier to describe something than to say what it is. Still, we’ll need to set at least some parameters for what we agree consciousness refers to.

We could start with a dictionary. Merriam-Webster is available and respected, so how does that venerable compendium of words define consciousness? The first definition has three parts, the first of which defines consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself.” The third part defines it simply as “awareness,” while the second involves the self-referential “state or fact of being conscious of an external object, state or fact.” There seems to be a little shifting around on the internal/external point, but I think the truncated idea of consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware” works quite well as a basic definition.

For the related entry “conscious,” the same dictionary gives a first definition of “perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation.” It lists “aware” as a synonym, which it defines as “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge.” Putting these together adds the element of perception, apprehension or realization to the mix.

We could inquire further, but I think these definitions work well enough. Consciousness is a quality or state of being aware that involves perceiving or apprehending. Clearly this requires some functional combination of a brain linked to sensory apparatus.

Now we can consider parameters. Humans certainly are conscious, but what about other forms of life? How about other animals? Maybe we could agree that mammals are conscious. Surely they perceive and react to the world around them. And they have emotions, so even the idea of being inwardly aware applies as well. Birds, fish and reptiles all certainly also perceive and react to the world around them, but just as certainly in a more mechanical way. This cursory observation applies even more to insects, and by the time we consider the simplest organisms, including the viruses and bacteria that could yet be our undoing, we would probably agree that we are no longer in the conscious realm. The plant kingdom we might be tempted to dismiss entirely, but luckily we don’t have to, because we already have gradations of consciousness that disappear as we approach the inanimate physical world in general, and I’m sure we can agree that rocks, dirt, air, water, atoms, etc. are not conscious.

So what can we say about consciousness? That it involves awareness, and that this presupposes some kind of brain and sensory apparatus. That might not seem to get us far, but in reality it does. What it implies is that consciousness appears, or arises, at some point in the evolutionary process. It was not present at the Big Bang or during the billions of years it took for the galaxies to form. It is a newcomer. It is intimately related to what we would generally term “life,” and even seems to require a brain.

And while a dictionary definition is not a yardstick for reality, it is most interesting that it describes consciousness as a state. Indeed this is common usage. Among other states, the brain could be asleep or unconscious, as well as, in a different sense, anxious or confused. The next question would be whether consciousness is intrinsic to the brain.

We can look at whether the brain can function without consciousness. But what are all the modern electronic devices based on computer chips if not thinking machines, brains devoid of something essential to consciousness? If we accept this observation, we need to look at what this thing or quality could be, but first let’s come at the matter from the other side. Our bodies certainly can be alive yet unconscious.

Here we come to the wonderfully humbling realization that the brain, in its non-volitional functions, works perfectly well without self-consciousness. In fact, the array of functions it carries out is perhaps outdone in wonder only by the universe and everything. From keeping the heart and lungs working to managing the countless chemical transactions and communication tasks needed to sustain the human body, the brain does so much more than we often pause to give it credit for. And it can continue much of this complex management even in a coma.

Our brains function perfectly well in many respects while not in a state of consciousness, and machines neither conscious nor alive can function as brains do. This is enough to suggest that consciousness is not intrinsic to a brain.

Conversely it seems the brain is intrinsic to consciousness. Since our working definition of consciousness involves perception, some kind of sensory apparatus or body is also needed. But do not even very simple forms of life have some sensory mechanism? And do not the sensors that machines use to “perceive” changes in the world around them also qualify? So a brain, or at least a sufficiently complex brain, seems to be required for consciousness. Here again, though, the computer can function as a brain of at least some complexity. So what is the key ingredient, so to speak? I think the ability of the brain’s involuntary functions to continue in a state of unconsciousness provides the answer. What is missing then, but present in a state of consciousness, is volition, or will.

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Consciousness is linked to will. But how closely? Inanimate matter does not possess will; it merely follows the consequences of whatever forces act upon it. As with consciousness, it is clear that the animals at the higher end of the evolutionary scale – mammals – possess will and that this capacity is less and less certain as we move down the ranks through birds, fish and reptiles to insects and the more basic organisms, which seem to operate mechanically, following a limited set of what appear to be preprogrammed activities. We do not conceive of plants as having will.

It seems that will and consciousness do correspond as closely as we might be able to observe, although we have to admit to only a hazy conception of where to draw the line between the haves and have-nots. If we focus in on humans, however, we might be able to fine tune our observations. Do we experience either consciousness or will independent of the other? Pretty much by definition I think we can exclude the possibility of willful unconscious activity, and I would include special cases such as sleepwalking or hypnosis in this. But consciousness can and does occur independently of will, though I can make the case only in a roundabout way, starting with a very subjective experience.

While attending university, I used to drive a fairly long and very winding road almost daily back and forth between my home and the university. After a while I realized that I could go long stretches on this road, sometimes for miles, through any number of twists and turns, without paying any attention to driving. I would be, as the saying goes, “lost in thought,” yet my brain and body were coordinating on a series of complex maneuvers.

It could, of course, be argued that I merely drove the road so often that my brain developed a program much like it does for other common functions like putting on pants or brushing teeth. We all do these with little willful attention beyond the decision to start the activity, and even that can be part of a programmed activity. But such simple routines do not involve the environmental awareness and corresponding bodily responses that driving along a twisting road requires.

Now I think many or all of us have experienced or seen something similar on any number of occasions. Two relatively common situations would be sports and emergencies. I cannot speak for the subjective experience, but who has not seen a great athlete do something truly remarkable, responding instantaneously to what can only be a unique confluence of people and events? Or who has not heard of someone responding in an equally remarkable way in an emergency situation to avert a disaster? In such cases, there is no time to think; instead, a highly tuned or highly motivated mind perceives and acts without the intervention of will. A less common, but for me more immediate, example is music, my particular passion. Anyone who has heard great improvisational music, typified for me by the likes of John Coltrane and the Grateful Dead, knows that at peak moments, these artists cannot be thinking about what to play. The music is playing them as much as they are playing the music. I can only leave it to you to agree or not agree with this line of reasoning.

Are we sliding into pop mysticism here? I don’t think so. Because what we are considering is perhaps nothing more than a further case of identification. Our basic premise is that the mind creates a self through identification and aggregation. We have seen how this could lead to concepts of the self as unlimited or immortal. What we have not considered is that the mind’s power of identification might be used for some other purpose than extending a pseudo-self. Were it to identify with a situation, which would not in essence be very different from identifying with an idea, there would be an immediacy that might provide an opportunity to bypass will. This is easiest to conceive of if we think of identifying with other people involved in a particular situation (though reality might prove more flexible the closer we get to it). But to see how this might work, we need to look more closely at the relationship between consciousness and will. We also need to differentiate mind and will.

At this point I think we have reached another fork in the road. If we exclude the possibility of a real individual self that somehow supersedes our life, I see only two possibilities. One is that life proceeds as essentially independent self-contained bubbles that somehow form and then at some later time pop, leaving behind only a physical residue that simply rejoins the inanimate world. The other is that our minds graft our selves onto something more basic, something common or shared, that precedes and succeeds us.

If the human situation consists wholly of temporary bubbles of consciousness, each wedded for one lifetime to a body-brain, then the road ends no more than a few steps from wherever we are. I am not discounting this possibility, but neither am I interested in it here. If what continues has no conscious relation to what preceded it, then so be it, and there is little more to say. As for the religious answers that the self lives on as a soul, or in a less self-conscious way through reincarnation, I can only point out that this is incompatible with the concept of the self as a virtual creation absolutely dependent on the physical brain-body from whose experiences and memories it is built. But what of the other possibility, that we add our self-identity to something more basic, something not individual? Let’s take that fork in the road — which really means repeating the assumption we have already made, that life springs from a unitary impulse and not some random chain of events — and pick up the thread of mind, will and consciousness.

So, if a brain need not be conscious, but individual consciousness as we know it does seem to require a brain, how can a brain become a conscious brain? One thing we can observe is that consciousness is not something present in some humans (or other animals) but not others. Aside from the potential of an extreme abnormality, individual consciousness is a common trait in species with brains that have reached a sufficient level of development. It is not learned.

We are born as conscious beings, and while we do not spend every moment of our lives conscious, it is the normal state of our being when we are not sleeping. The same observations apply down the evolutionary line. Now, we might wonder just where along the line consciousness makes its appearance. But this poses a bit of a puzzle, because, as we have noted, we might agree that “plain matter” is not conscious, but starting with the most basic single-cell organisms and up through the microscopic world to insects and then fish, reptiles, birds and mammals we have a kind of gradation. It would be impossible, I think, to agree on an exact cutoff point and say one species is not conscious while another just an evolutionary hair’s width away is. Were consciousness like a toggle switch — either off or on — this should not be so hard to do. A creature or species simply would or wouldn’t be conscious.

The obvious alternative is that consciousness does not suddenly manifest itself but appears in various forms or capacities. The most natural way to account for this is to consider whether the capacity for consciousness could evolve. And since it requires a brain, and the animals with the largest and most complex brains seem the “most” conscious, a reasonable first proposal would be that the capacity for consciousness evolves with the brain. Now working this idea backwards, we see that brains get awfully small and even disappear by the time we reach the most basic organisms. Yet even these most basic forms of what we call life show some “awareness” of their environment in that they feed on certain things and not others.

What link can we make? It seems that anything we consider alive could be seen to possess some rudimentary form of consciousness, but that the forms of consciousness we usually consider more advanced are reserved for the large-brained mammals. This follows naturally if we associate consciousness directly with life. We might again face some disagreement as to what we take life to include or exclude, but the situation is clearer. Biology has a fairly well-defined field of operation. Perhaps there is debate over whether cells are alive, but certainly organisms comprised of cells are on our side of the fence. So I propose that we consider consciousness a property or state of life. Not of any particular or individual forms of life, but of life itself. So should we next consider what life is?

Any reasonable inquiry into things that go beyond the capacity of a brain to process, to manipulate in terms of symbols and relationships, must invariably reach a point where it must concede that it has reached a limit. I think we have done so here. As part of life, we simply cannot grasp the totality of it. So we must either call a halt or turn to something that is outside the firm ground of reason. What is it, though, that has us questioning, wanting to go beyond the limits of the possible? It is precisely our mind, our conscious brain. Some people speak of a calling, from without, but the image that resonates with me is of an urging, from within.

Until now we have looked at various aspects of the self and consciousness, we have even touched on the concept of will, but we have not dealt with will head on. Something is steering the mind, someone we might say. The whole thrust of our discussion thus far is that this someone is not the self, which comes later, by accident. Then who, or what, is it?

Life is the only answer consistent with the proposition that consciousness is a property or state of life. But let me quickly rule out some interpretations that might just as quickly suggest themselves. I am not talking about some unfolding grand plan. I am not talking about an incarnation of some divine principle in the world of matter. What I am talking about is life as a non-dependent evolving phenomenon.

I want to deal as much as possible with unadulterated reality, free of unnecessary constructs and unencumbered by unnecessary differentiation, so let us simply take reality as a whole. But to do this we must confront the seemingly obvious distinction between life and inanimate matter. So let me retell one of the most stunning insights I have ever come across, in the book The Universe Is a Green Dragon, by Brian Swimme (though the idea might appear in other places as well).

Matter is formed from the elements of the periodic table, but only hydrogen and a little helium were produced in the formation of the universe. All other elements are produced only in the bowels of stars, where enormous heat and gravitational force fuses these simplest elements into heavier ones. This means that all the elements from which the earth is made had to have been formed inside a star. The only way they could have come out of that star is for it to have exploded in a supernova, sending streams of matter out into space. Some of that matter eventually coalesced into the earth, and some of those atoms and molecules now form you. And you can now think about that star. So in a manner of speaking you are that star thinking about itself billions of years later.

[Dramatic pause]

I don’t know if that gives you goose bumps like it does me, but the point is not mystical alchemy per se. It is a way to conceptualize how intertwined life and matter are, with consciousness as the critical interface. Does it really make better sense or is there stronger evidence to think of life as an assortment of isolated entities rather than as the evolving manifestation of a single impulse? I don’t think so, as long as one does not get lost in the small scale of daily human reality on a speck in the cosmos, fearful that the events of a lifetime might not be the stuff of eternal dreams. But let’s try and follow out what the idea of life as one evolving whole would mean in more realistic terms than pop mysticism has to offer.

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