To be honest I am interested in your answers, but I am more interested in the process that led you to those answers. I am interested in the intricate web of sensations and thoughts that shaped your responses. There is no right or wrong in any of your answers. Then, again there is no right or wrong when it comes to consciousness.
I am fascinated by the phenomenon of consciousness. You could say it permeates my blog and the posts I write, although not always explicitly. Why do I feel so attracted to consciousness? Because it is at the core of who we are as humans is one answer. Another could be that it is the most (un) human element, the most mysterious one, the one that has eluded scientists and philosophers so far.
I began this post straight after reading Oliver Burkeman’s recent excellent essay on the subject of consciousness. One reason why I loved Oliver’s article was because it was not heavy on scientist lingo. I am still a layperson when it comes to defining, explaining and making sense of consciousness. That does not detract from my fascination with the topic, but as soon as you mention the thalamus, you lose me.
What is consciousness, then? To me, in a nutshell, is the awareness of being. That sounds easy, but it’s the “how we get to that realisation of being” that has divided the scientific community and pitted scientists against philosophers and theologians.
If I exist, then it follows that I can be measured, weighed, assessed and observed. En bref, I can be explained. There is evidence to substantiate my existence. But what if the way to prove my existence is a non-physical phenomenon that can only be perceived by me internally?
Burkeman traces the origin of the debate back to the 1600s and Descartes’ famous maxim: “I think, therefore I am”. What? I am what? I still remember asking myself that question when I first heard that phrase many years ago. I am what? A person? A being? Consciousness minus the body?
The main point about Descartes’ theory is that you might arrive at the conclusion that your surroundings are illusory, that your physical self exists only in the eyes of others, or in relation to others, but consciousness does not work the same way. When you make sense of your existence through a “device” that is non-physical you eliminate the possibility of perception by others. Especially because said “device” is based within yourself.
Descartes mentioned the g-word. That might be the reason, as Oliver explains, why scientists avoided the subject of consciousness for many centuries. As we became more rational, God became more distant.
If you have seen the film 21 Grams by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, you know that the film explores various themes, such as love, death and whether the latter can be weighed or not. If it can, it is alleged that we all lose 21 grams (hence the title) at the exact moment of our death. If you can measure such a difficult and hard-to-describe phenomenon, can we not apply the same principle to consciousness? The brain weighs 1.4kg, how much do you think consciousness weighs? If the answer is that we can’t weigh consciousness because it is not physical, then, does that necessarily mean that this particular phenomenon on which we all depend to make sense of ourselves was gifted to us... by... someone... else?
I can see you, my fellow atheists, frowning and wondering if yours truly was a closeted religious believer all along. No, but it is science that dictates that to close down the argument on a subject is to deny the possibility of error and of further development. My explanation is completely amateur and befits my layperson’s category. To me consciousness is an essential part of the brain in as much as rim tape is an essential part of a bicycle. Without the latter you will get puncture after puncture. But do you see it? Same with consciousness. Without it, we would not be able to make sense of the world, or you, readers and fellow bloggers, would not be able to make sense of this post. The difference, as some of you will hasten to add, is that if you dismantle a bicycle’s tire you can see the rim, whereas if you open the brain... mate, what did you do with my consciousness?
I don’t know whether I am right or wrong. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post I am more interested in the process(es) my consciousness unlocks and sets in motion. Read Oliver Burkeman’s essay (it’s part of The Guardian’s The Long Read series, so, make sure you are sitting comfortably) and let me know what you think. Remember, there’s no right or wrong.
Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th February at 11:59pm (GMT)