Sunday 1 February 2015

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Are you sitting comfortably? Did you have a nice breakfast/lunch/dinner (depending on what time you are reading this post)? Did you have tea or coffee with your meal? Are you even a tea or coffee drinker? Did you sleep well last night? Did you wake up this morning and looked through your bedroom window? Does your bedroom window provide you with a nice view? Does this view make you feel alive? Does this view make you aware of your own existence and as a consequence you feel happier?

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.

What's inside?
And yet...

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.

© 2015

Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 4th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Geez aren't you the nosey Parker today asking questions by the ton lol it can really make one's head spin as you think about all the probabilities with conscience, guess we each hae to come to our own conclusion but leave the door open a crack for other possibilities.

    And...yes, yes, no, no, yes, yes, no, no, umm yes.

  2. WOW...this really is a deep one, isn't it?
    And I am probably the wrong person to ask any questions regarding consciousness - you could say I am bound to be biased in my reply!
    I am a medium, have been since birth...and as such am in constant contact with disembodied consciousnesses - if I fail to carefully close down (which I do all too often!).
    The way I perceive it, consciousness is the essential being - the Spirit, if you like...whereas the brain is simply a tool that enables the Spirit to negotiate it's way around the physical world and communicate with others for the short time it is incarnated. At the point of death, the consciousness (Spirit) withdraws back to the World of Spirit, unless there is some unfinished business that keeps it attached to the physical.
    Oh reply to your initial questions:

    Have a Great Day:)

  3. "...consciousness is an essential part of the brain..."
    Is it possible that consciousness is part of a greater reality than the brain, and I am not referring to religious explanations, but that the totality of human experience, potentially verifiable scientifically, encompasses more than the brain.

  4. Hoy nos presentas un tema muy reflexivo el cual me hace pensar que la conciencia hace parte de la responsabilidad y a la vez del derecho del deber, muchas veces nos sentimos mal porque tenemos conciencia en si hacemos correctamente bien nuestros actos.
    Un buen domingo, espero que el frio no te afecte.

  5. when i wake, particularly on the weekend i like to lay there and let my body awaken by centimeters and inches...feeling life ripple through each nerve and muscle...
    by where we have the coffee, there is a bay door that opens to the back the pale sun was already out and i watched into the woods as the bare branches
    danced...its a bit warmer...around 40 so not so bitter i went out on the porch which is on the second floor from the back...i like your definition of conciousness,
    an awareness of being...and i think that transcends religeousity...

  6. Very big questions here. Again.
    I am grateful for my consciousness and often wonder about that of others. Not humans so much, but other living (and perhaps inanimate) things. When a tree stretches its roots seeking water and nutrients and when its leaves unfurl in the sun, is there consciousness there? And do mountains remember?

  7. the awareness of being... i like that... and i'm wondering what are the moments when i'm most aware of it... maybe when i write - or paint or when i just sit in a cafe among a sea of people and kinda find my place among them

  8. In my former life I did a researxh study that included getting to grips with the idea of 'theory of mind' - the capacity to understand that we can think. It's a process in the development of a child and marks the ability to be reflective and not purely reactive - and its development is impaired in children who are neglected or abused. As an idea it's quite useful, to explain why some troubled children behave as they do. But I do recall wishing that the academics who wrote about it didn't dress it all up in such complicated language that I almost lost the will be live trying to understand it!

  9. Wow, what a post! The comments provide me with as much food for thought as your own article. For me, consciousness is of more than my brain. It is of my entire being in relation to the cosmos it's a part of.

    Thanks for suggesting Burkeman's essay. I'll find a cozy nook and dig into it soon.

  10. This is quite a post, so many questions, so much to think about. I am a deep thinker so I prefer to reflect on things take my time. I have enjoyed all you have shared here, thank you so much.

  11. First, I have made a note to weigh and to measure myself promptly upon my death, and to relay any significant data to you, CiL.

    Next, I am sort of a subscriber to the Native American concept of manitous, which means all things -- animate and inanimate -- have a "spirit" which is capable of communicating to one and another. Everything originated from the same "seed," from the same ice and fire, I think. I talk with animals; I talk with lakes and rivers; I talk with rifles; so nothing I say can be taken seriously, much less believed. Maybe, I will change my mind tomorrow.

    As you might guess, you have a serious post, CiL, and I am both serious and lost in thought this evening. I do love your music ....

  12. I agree with Pat Hatt's comment. I hope my mind is open enough to accept changes in all fields, but really I'm too old to be bothered too much. Interesting post, though, and definitely food for thought for many of your readers.

  13. Those are a lot of very serious questions to ponder. I'll have to think about them while I listen to the Mozart Fantasia (which is an awesome piece. I love playing it!)

  14. you are bringing up a tough subject today. Consciousness?? Brain???
    A lot of reasearch is going on of those things today. And the more they discover the angrier I get. The brain is covering up the consciousness and only let´s us know a tiny thing about what is happening around us or inside us. "We" never makes any decisions without going through the brains filters. How the h-l can the brain determin what "I" want to do? I only get selected information. For now I await the knowledge of what system in the brain does the decisions for me. How can a brain know what info I need to respond to?
    Right now I´m in a situation when I can see that people are not responsible for their actions at all. People should not go to prison. The brain should, or whatever runs it!
    Sorry about that!

    1. I loved your passionate response. Incarcerating the brain would definitely free up the body. But we would not able to detach one from the other! :-) I get your point about the filters and the selected information. Especially when we select information that might benefit us instead of harming us, or it might harm others but we still choose that information.

      Thanks fo ryour comments.

      Greetings from London.

  15. Hello, greetings and good wishes. I googled and found some interesting information on the subject.

    What is"Consciousness? The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness....When asked what consciousness is, we have no better answer than Louis Armstrong's when a reporter asked him what jazz is: "Lady, if you have to ask, you'll never know." (quoted in Pinker, How the Mind Works)

    "The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness -- to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it."
    Stuart Southerland, The International Dictionary of Psychology.

    There are many forms of consciousness, such as those associated with vision, thinking, emotion, pain, and so on, including self-consciousness. Consciousness (or rather, self-consciousness) has traditionally been used as a defining characteristic of humans as opposed to animals. Descartes used the Cogito as an act of self-definition, and considered animals as machines. Descartes' followers in Port Royal are said to have tortured animals with the confident conviction that their cries of agony were comparable to the noises from machinery. In a note to the Systema naturae, Linneaus dismissed the Cartesian theory that conceived of animals as if they were automata mechanica with the vexed statement: "Surely Descartes never saw an ape." (Giorgio Agamben) Today, it seems increasingly difficult to deny animals any form of consciousness.

    It can be useful to distinguish between "perceptual consciousness" and "reflective consciousness."

    Perceptual consciousness is "the state or faculty of being mentally conscious or aware of anything." It is a basic conception of consciousness as being aware of something, and it may entail memories, anticipations, or thinking about nonexistent objects or events as well as immediate sensory input. (see Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds ) Gerald Edelman calls this form of consciousness "primary consciousness," which is seen in animals who are able to construct a "mental scene" but have limited semantic or symbolic capabilities and no true language. (A Universe of Consiousness)
    According to Freud, the ego is an agency of the psyche,by means of which the subject aquires sense of unity and identity, "a coherent organization of mental processes." Through consciousness, the ego is the site of differentiation between inside and outside, between "subjective" and "objective." Freud's central idea -- that conscious recollections are inevitably distorted by a person's wishes, desires, and unconscious conflicts -- became a core assumption of all psychoanalysis.

    According to Daniel Dennett, our powerful subjective impression that we are conscious of sensory perceptions in real time is an illusion. (but isn't this the illusion we live by?)

    However, I cannot understand your statement=As we became more rational, God became more distant.

    In India, as we became more rational we came closer to God. We have Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Jews, Parsi,Buddhists etc. Some of these religions are slowly spreading in the west.

    I am also aware that more and more people are becoming Atheists. But at present Atheists are only two percent. Hopefully one day, Atheist will more than than the followers of God.

    Very thought provoking post.

    Best wishes

    1. Thanks for your very informative answer, Joseph. There are various concepts in your reply with which I was not familiar.

      Re my statement, I made a general comment taking into account the history of atheism and how we went from a workd in which everyone had a certain type of religious belief (hard to buy, but it was true) to one in which rationality and a science-based approach dominate.

      I quite liked your comments about illusion. Is the keyboard I am using now that illusion? I remember reading about a French philosopher who said that what thought was reality was not. Intriguing.

      Greetings from London.

    2. Hello, I think the vast majority of people believe in God because they want to believe in something that is supernatural and supreme considering the fact that human beings are are very vulnerable to the ups and downs of life. They try to find peace in seeking God. They may not be rational but every one wants peace and hope. So rationality is put on the back burner.

      This is why I said the Atheists are just two percent and they will grow over a period of time. But looking at what is happening in India I find people who believe in God are also growing leaps and bounds. They are also making inroads in the Western countries.

      I read int the news papers that more than six million people attended the Pope's mass in Manila. This speaks volumes for the people's need for hope and peace. They just don't want to believe that their life will be over once they they are dead.

      Best wishes

  16. Hey Cubano-- consciousness is certainly a large topic, and there are so many varieties and levels of awareness within it. I have a hard time believing the 21 gram business--as to whether that has been truly measured--I will also look it up, but it sounds a little pat to me honestly; as I think of consciousness as more a pattern of electricity and chemicals than something with actual weight (though it can certainly weigh us down.)

    Your post makes me think of meditation retreats I have done where the consciousness becomes very finely attuned to the moment. (I have not done enough of these, I'm afraid.) I do not know about the God part, though certainly, if one was raised in a religious tradition, one almost automatically tilts in that direction whether one truly believes or not. All interesting and food for thought, thanks. k. (

  17. I too read the article and was gripped by it. I thought the consensus is that consciousness cannot be measured, defined, understood, because the only consciousness we know about is our own. I also never asked what comes after ‘I think therefore I am’. There is nothing after I Am. I just am. That’s the consciousness I am aware of, not yours, not his or hers.

    I am looking forward to the play ‘The Hard Question’.



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