Why is consciousness becoming a topos—a place in the world of thought where it is discussed, examined, explored? Why does it prompt us to wonder and speculation? The first answer that comes to mind: Consciousness is where everything is at. It is where we all live, the dimension by means of which we all experience “reality.” Consciousness is what everything comes down to, the place we can never get out of, escape from or transcend. What we are and what we feel and think and imagine are born of consciousness; without consciousness, our greatest thoughts, our most wonderful and horrific experiences are null and void. Consciousness is the primary fact of our existence; it is also the most intimate.
That’s my first answer to the question about the fuss. The second has to do with the singular nature of consciousness. This consciousness that defines us is a complete mystery. That is, science is at a loss to explain it in terms of physical reality. We know there is a general connection between consciousness and the brain. There are connections and correlations but no satisfying explanations or clear causations; consciousness, mental experiences, are totally unlike physical brain processes. My mental life is physically undetectable; my thoughts, perceptions, feelings, dreams, memories intentions, hallucinations are invisible, intangible, unmeasurable, if not immeasurable—quite unlike my brain, which is visible, localized, and measurable.
So much for the second reason, which leads to a third. Given that consciousness is so intimate, so inexplicable, and given it cannot be reduced to the brain, one wonders about the extent of conscious existence. Grant the mystery of the sheer fact of consciousness, there is the question of its outer limits. Our minds and conscious awareness extend much further into the world than common sense would normally suggest. Mystical and other supernormal phenomena prove that over and over again. Our immediate awareness is grounded in a much wider and deeper mental life. With Heraclitus, the early Greek philosopher, we can describe it as “boundless.”
Now to my fourth reason for being curious about consciousness. Consciousness provides a vocabulary for discussing classic philosophical questions such as the perennial one about the existence of God. Western science has destroyed the naïve belief in gods and goddesses and the literal-minded adherence to the great creation mythologies. Can consciousness rescue God from being ousted by science?
We will have to distinguish between “God” and “God consciousness.” The God of the old mythologies may have ceased to be credible in the minds of many educated people, but “God-consciousness” remains an empirical possibility, I mean the possibility of having transcendent, transformative experiences characterized as godlike or god-inspired. This distinction is clear in classical Indian and Buddhist religions where enlightenment and divinity are primarily conceived of in terms of states of consciousness. The mythologies are not treated with the same literal-mindedness often apparent in the Abrahamic religions, the exceptions being the mystical traditions where consciousness is central.
People everywhere and at all times and in endlessly varied ways have such experiences. The traditional mythologies of the divine and the transcendent may be pronounced “dead,” but the experiences that people have continue to occur and be reported. The forms of what is called divine consciousness keep changing; we are free to view them with kindly intent through the lens of phenomenology.
The big point: consciousness is fundamental and the root of the belief in transcendence. Our relationship to our inherited gods is optional; what is not optional is that we exist in a world of consciousness. The interest in consciousness is about the need to recapture dimensions of human experience we’ve lost, the effect of living in a world dominated by material science and technology.
The fascination with consciousness is part of the revolt against being imprisoned in one-dimensional reality.