Kids ask themselves questions pretty soon after they begin school. Questions like: ‘How/Why am I me?’ And ‘What’s it like to be someone else?’. It’s an acknowledgement by kids of the curious and ineffable mystery of consciousness; self-consciousness.
As a parent one is able to ramble on somewhat discursively about an embryo having been formed in the mother’s womb and out of a fertilised egg etc etc blah blah; but nothing any adult is able to say touches, even comes near to an answer to, such curious but nonetheless pressing and important questions coming from a child.
As adults we may want to scoff at and to pass over such childish questions, as being banal or as being ‘things put away’ because they are embarrassingly callow thoughts. Yet the power of these questions remains to raise doubts and wonder in even the most worldly of minds and in those people even who are wholly ‘in the swim’ of the social whirl. They come at a person abruptly and are like a wall in that they admit of no further progress; only speculation and wholly guesswork; and inevitably they lead to positing a Maker of persons Who is beyond the generative and gestational roles of mothers and fathers and He is at work.
This positing of a Power Who makes us as persons and as conscious beings, One Who makes me, to be me – and you, to be you, is also an embarrassment to many of us to hold onto; and that sense of being overcome with an infantile regression which is involved in our speculating on such childish questions, rules us, and so overrules our opportunity raised by us asking ourselves these same questions; opportunity which had offered to us a possibility of a meeting point with God. A meeting point we otherwise would not have had nor perhaps would have entertained as a serious proposition.
Rene Descartes the 17th century Frenchman who wrote on philosophical topics and ideas, was not too embarrassed to begin his speculations with the now famous phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think; therefore I am’. Descartes began his inquiries hereabouts at his own sense of being conscious and of being able to have or to generate thoughts, because he had previously asked himself a question: ‘What can I not doubt?’ He understood he could doubt his own senses and also that information these senses told or gave him. He knew well that sometimes he might see things wrongly, or even see things with his eyes which were not ‘actually there’ (a concept which is kind of hard to define!).
He knew he could not even be sure there were other people around him; and he knew that these others around him might be figments or illusions and all his senses of touch, smell and so on being the providers of the illusions. And beyond these illusions? – nothing? – or maybe something utterly strange and unknowable?
So he started with himself and his own thoughts, because he felt that if he were to doubt these he was doubting whether he himself existed and whether his thoughts were indeed his thoughts – crazy yes? – so if he was thinking, then he was himself; thought Descartes.
So even the first of the early-modern philosophers Rene Descartes could not get further back into certainty about human life and existence than to have to call a halt to his doubting once he had reached back as far as his own consciousness. There’s nothing further to be said; nowhere further to revert/regress back to.
Now a savvy bang up to day post-modern guy or girl might begin here laying stuff on us about neuroscience and about brain/mind identicality; about how when one sticks a pin in the grey matter here; an arm there jolts upwards; or when you cut out this bit of grey stuff a limb loses all motor and tactile facility. Now it has been known perhaps for millennia that the brain when affected or altered will have repercussions for the motor etc and the psychological workings of the body, or should we say, for the person? We have know also for millennia about drugs and pharmaceuticals; how these are able to change physical and/or mental states of a person. So what is really new about the basic assumptions on which neuroscience seats itself?
The questions remain as valid as ever. Why am I me? Why are you, you? What happened that a consciousness (me or you) was suddenly made somehow – magic – inexplicable – yet we are insiders to the problem – we are the subjects and the subject matters of the problem – yet even as outsiders, as a consciousness studying other consciousnesses around me (or you) we can get not further, get no handle on these questions at all.
Undoubtedly (common sense prevailing) we are all walking consciousnesses; we experience having bodies and movements, volitions and choices, will and appetites, desires, and all the other paraphernalia of functions we hold in common as beings. And with other life forms – except perhaps for our so acute self-consciousness.
I have heard some guys say that there is no such thing as consciousness; just as some guys hold that they are the only persons in the world and the rest of us are figments in their minds (crazy!). Both of these positions are absurd because; a) if more than one guy or girl says they are the only person and the rest of us figments, whom, which one, amongst them should we believe? How does anyone – including the guys and gals who claim this status – decide on the truth of the matter? Ask yourself the question: what evidence could any of these guys produce to one another, or to us all who are staying with a common sense view of things, which is evidence that goes half a milli-byte towards convincing others like them or us that they are right, and are The Chosen One? (this is satire).
Now those who like to deny consciousness are I believe merely calling a word -which has been used in English for over a thousand years to denote autonomous thinking beings’ awareness of these faculties in themselves, and the outward indications of the same things operating in others around them; – these naysayers to consciousness are just changing the goalposts – by saying the word ‘consciousness’ is no longer to be used to mean its age-old meaning – but we have to use this other word instead (insert here whatever these wiseacres want to put in place of what we all else call consciousness in our own everyday lives).
We are beings who are able to reflect upon ourselves, upon our actions, our thoughts, our judgements; we are able to sit in judgement on ourselves; and with the right help (I firmly believe) we are able to make solid and sober estimations about our single self alone and about our success or failure concerning individual acts we have done; and also about ourselves as human being as a whole – by looking at our whole past lives and summing up in our hearts how we feel about these – and so about who we are – about whom we have become.
This is our distinctiveness – as my doctor once said to me about my onetime acute depression – it’s your special feature. He was a heartening doctor. This special distinctiveness we have then is nothing short of miraculous; and the question can be asked validly: why should we have such a facility, a distinctiveness, what might such a thing be of good use to us for?
Now we have the anthropologists come in and push the neurosurgeons out the door and so take up pole position on the floor and say with some confidence to us all: humans developed intelligence so as to be better able to survive against far stronger and better equipped larger predators; against challenging environmental and climatological obstacles and other conditions and variations; so that a small and frail hairless mammal was able to become a match for, nay, to better, the rest of the organisms of life forms. Like a fairy story with a happy-ever-after ending.
Thus some pundits of this ilk claim consciousness to have been generated as a sort of ‘froth’, as a bonus ball in the lottery of evolution; a sideshow; a fellow traveller; a stowaway; a lucky accident incidental to and concomitant with this growth of human intelligence which came over the aeons.
This fairy story is not without its socio-political assumptions; and these are pretty contemporary and not aeons old. These socio-political assumptions make sure that the fairy story they tell fits in well into the current Hans Anderson/Brothers Grimm Hollywood epic backstory presentations about life, the universe and everything. Now in cinemas near you.
Yes it’s mighty convenient to dismiss consciousness as being a by-product of an evolution in human intelligence; in one fell swoop consciousness is belittled as being a mere by-product and it is also relegated as having no material use in human life; unlike the application of our intelligence which keeps us on top in the world competitions of animals versus animals, humans versus nature, science versus the future and so on.
Thus are these backstories a part of a post-modern heritage of a fanciful mythology, which forms the foundations for our lifestyles and our beliefs and our world views; and in so far as we like to look upon the Romans and the Greeks and the Norsemen and the Native Americans and the Aboriginals of the South Pacific and on Native Latin Americans and Africans and so on – all as being or having been benighted by juju, or voodoo or by deifying a Pantheon of irritating childish sets of gods who seem constantly in the midst of domestics with one another; but yet we ourselves likewise cherish our own sets of petty idols and magic charms and devices which we feel work our own sorts of sorceries for us.
The fact of the unapproachabilty of the questions: why am I me? ; and why are you, you? give rise to another question then; and one which is equally as enigmatic and without answer – it is then – the foremost quality of our being, that jewel in our existence which makes our lives each so very precious to us and yet so very delicately balanced as to be wholly open to the smallest influence or change for good or ill; i.e. that consciousness which we each possess – why? why are we blessed/cursed with it?
There’s a few lines from the poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost and they are said in the poem by its arch-villain Satan, and is said at a point when Satan is considering on his fall from grace, and on the possibility of yet further punishments to come over and above he and his crew suffering an eternal hell-fire. Satan thus contemplates the thought of utter extinction for himself and his rebel angels; thinking that God might inflict this upon him and his angels. At first Satan considers extinction might be a blessed release, and to be annihilated is a thing to be desired; but then he stops and considers and says:
“And that must end us, that must be our cure:
To be no more. Sad cure! For who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish, rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night
Devoid of sense and motion?”
Is not here our universal human sentiment of fear and desire expressed and echoed? That life is good and of value and precious; so much so that even in bad times there is left to us a light of consciousness in which to roam around and share in to seek out solace and remedies? Even if such are phantasms and deliberate diversions from awareness’ bad aspects? The gripping movie or the drink with friends in a bar?
The question arises – why such a gift so immensely delicate and precious and known to the full by its possessors to be so – why should a source of such delight be suffixed by a full stop, a period, of final extinction – the light goes out and all that was is as if it had never been? The very consideration, even were we to apply it to something alien to us carries a sharp barbs and a cruel aspect. Is it possible that here is mere cruel blind harsh fate at play with humanity? At play even is a flight of fancy here, how might a blind and inert inanimate, dead thing like fate be at play with us? Does it really come down to it that – it just is this way – this is the way things are?
Should you think so or believe so, you are making some huge, massive, unwieldy, blinkered, severely presumptuous assumptions. For all our consciousness and its potential for giving lasting great delight to us, for all our proud knowledge, we are creatures who in many respects know very little about our origins or about our place in the nature of things. Our scientific bias of contemporary thought is at best only as good as, I myself think it not as good as in fact, any metaphysical account of ourselves we might try to give, and such accounts would include positing a God and a beneficent and capable God at that.
Our present-day science itself is supported on a metaphysic; one which is not durable and which will end in tears unless until we see more clearly and so seek out a better. The metaphysic of science in our times is not supported, to use an Information Technology coinage, whereas a Biblical one has much of our collective human experience and also each of our own individual accruals of judgement supporting it very soundly. The Bible also has a place in the empirical world as being a written record of events and also of what is termed ‘Revelation’; and this revelation is a something which as a Christian I believe I experience yet further as a part of my day to day life; and I experience it happening as a continuum of progress towards a better understanding of the God in whom I trust and Who assists me.
Before you protest too much and loudly and make some fun of me, look to yourself, in your need and poverty (as we all are) and maybe consider asking this God of whom I speak for some surety for yourself; and for some comfort with which to face whatever might be to come to each of us with a resolve; and emphatically with some grateful easeful hope.
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