Saturday, January 18, 2020

Nine Faces of Consciousness

Practically, immediately, and even theoretically, I am my consciousness.  I am conscious; therefore I am.  Descartes took consciousness as irreducible, the starting-point of the human adventure, a sovereign reality. The prevailing view today is that consciousness evolved from complex brain processes, and is an emergent property of nature, a derivative, subtle and elusive, of matter and physical energy. 

The trouble is that nobody has a clue to how consciousness ‘emerged’ from slightly electrified wet brain meat.  Nobody understands quantum mechanics, it is said, and in like manner, nobody seems to understand consciousness.

Fortunately, we don’t have to cling to Emergentism. It is just as logical to assume that mind and consciousness pre-exist the brain.

Exactly this has been the primordial intuition, expressed by seers and thinkers of ancient times, and by modern philosophers, poets, and scientists: consciousness is a fundamental fact of nature, it is by itself and in itself, the real root of all human experience.  This is heresy for materialists, of course.

We should try to spell out a little of what we mean by consciousness—a word with Latin roots, con+scientia, literally, “with-knowing”, which suggests another familiar word, conscience.  “Thus conscience makes cowards of us all,” says Hamlet, and I think he means by ‘conscience’ consciousness—being acutely aware.  Too much consciousness can be a problem.   

 It is very hard to imagine consciousness because there is nothing thinglike we can liken it to, except perhaps light by which we see anything at all.   And yet consciousness is neither physical light nor empty space.

If it didn’t emerge from complex brains, we may assume that it pre-exists brains.  We still would like to form some idea of when and how consciousness arose in the first place.  But if consciousness, strictly speaking, is outside space and time, it make no sense to ask where or when it erupted into existence.  It seems to follow it is just a fundamental fact of being that admits of no explanation but itself.

Difficulties arise the moment we try to talk about consciousness; hard to talk about “the mind”; use the word and you start looking for some thing.  But according to William James, consciousness is not a thing but a function. 

This seems right, as far as it goes. What I see when I reflect on my own consciousness are distinct forms of function.  As of now, here is my list:

1) Ontology -- The most basic function of consciousness, to my mind, is ontological; my consciousness – any form of it – is what it is like to be me, it is my existence; the light that shines on my being, hellish or blissful; consciousness is the matrix of what there is.  Nothing exists but consciousness and the void.

2) Perception -- Through consciousness we perceive the world; colors, forms, textures, masses, velocities.  Jung’s sensory function. Essen est. precipice.

3) Memory -- Through consciousness we remember the world, we form memories of our experience and the present is constantly disappearing into the past but can be recaptured in memory.  Memory, like consciousness, is a mystery.   Just as nobody can explain consciousness, nobody can explain how our memories are preserved. 

4) Reason -- Moving beyond sensory forms of consciousness we note that we possess the power to use the light of consciousness to reason, to discriminate, to judge, arrange in various orders, use abstractions, principles, mathematics, theories and meta-theories.   “In apprehension, like a god,” is the way Hamlet puts it.

5)  Moral intuition -- We come now to yet another distinct form of consciousness that is informed by moral intuition, the sense of right and wrong, of justice, fairness.  The range of this sphere of consciousness is vast: going from the insanely antisocial to the super-engaged and truly compassionate.

6) Feeling -- Altogether human and fundamental, consciousness is powerfully driven by feeling – again, a basic function cited by Jung.   It is our feelings that we associate with our values, and here is another key dimension of consciousness.   Aristotle described what today is called “emotional intelligence.”  In fact, all these functions of consciousness occur on a spectrum of potentiality. The spectrum of feeling is virtually infinite.

7)  The Will – One function of consciousness is praised to the hilt or scorned as illusory: I mean the conscious focus on a goal or end that we freely pursue, the voluntary, intentional and attentional function of consciousness.  This has not only survival value but is key to our transcendent possibilities.    

8) Imagination – Consciousness takes the forms of imagery in dreams, fantasies, communication media, different art forms, the figures and archetypes of mythology and pop culture: and we could include here what Hillman, Ficino, and some Sufi poets call the imaginal.  Imagination can become so vivid as to begin to materialize, as when an image comes to life in the in-between state of waking and sleep called hypnogogia or in the form of plastic or dramatic or poetic art .  

 9) Intuition: Last but not least, there are ecstatic, mystical, and paranormal functions of consciousness; we could call them intuitive because they are immediate, non-linear, direct forms of cognition or rather ultra-cognition.  There is an interesting tradition from Plato to Nietzsche and Myers that singles out ecstatic forms of consciousness as related to mystical and paranormal experience.   

These are the nine faces of consciousness I find when I objectify the panorama of my mental life.  As I see these nine functions, they are distinct from each other.  A telepathic intuition is quite different from a sensory observation, which is quite unlike a memory, and so on.  All the functions are distinct but also interconnected. And they are all aspects of the one consciousness.

Moreover, there are reasons to believe that our individual spheres of consciousness are aspects of, and grounded in, a yet greater sphere of consciousness.  All kinds of names for this big mind.


Mike said...

I enjoy your writing. Thanks for doing it!

jjams said...

Well thought out with the greatest depth and understanding , not a simple explanation yet understandable as written !
Thanks for expanding our minds on this vast subject !


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