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Richard Smoley's Blog

What is consciousness?

One of today’s hottest topics is consciousness. Where does it come from? How does it relate to matter (e.g., the brain)? What does consciousness mean anyway?

The answers have been maddeningly vague, and often circular. What is consciousness? Uh, well, awareness. What is awareness? Uh, well, perception. What is perception? Uh, well, consciousness.

Admittedly, it’s hard to define many basic terms without some circularity: right is the opposite of left, and left is the opposite of right. But consciousness is especially problematic because it’s so central to our lives, in fact to who we are.

Then there is the problem of how the human brain produces consciousness. The brain affects consciousness, but that’s been known at least since the fifth century BC, when the Greek physician Hippocrates wrote a treatise entitled On the Sacred Disease (meaning epilepsy). He argued: “Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.”

After that, the details get a little fuzzy. And not just for Hippocrates. In a 2007 issue of Scientific American, neuroscientists Christof Koch and Susan Greenfield sum up the state of current knowledge when they write, “Neuroscientists do not yet understand enough about the brain’s inner workings to spell out exactly how consciousness arises from the chemical and electrical activity of neurons” (their emphasis).

Personally I believe that this is in large part because up to now no one has clearly defined what consciousness is. I would like to propose a very simple, but, I believe, extremely fertile definition: consciousness is the capacity to relate self and other.

It’s simple. If there is no sense of self versus other, there is no consciousness. The most obvious example is deep, dreamless sleep. You’re unconscious at that time, and there is no sense of self or other—not even the elusive and tenuous sense of self that we have while dreaming.

But if you accept this definition, even provisionally, you immediately realize something else: this capacity to relate self and other has any number of gradations. You are not conscious of the physical world when you are dreaming, but you are aware of a dream world. You still have consciousness of a kind.

Even in dreamless sleep some sense of of self and other remains. After all, what’s the most universally prescribed remedy for? Probably sleep. It enables the “self” of the body to fight off the “others” known as pathogens.

We can go further. Anyone with even the slightest experience of animals knows that they can also relate self and other. Dogs and cats can’t reason except in a rudimentary way, but they have emotional lives that are enough like our own to be understandable. (a major source of their appeal). Can we say they are conscious, not as we are, but conscious all the same? I think we can.

What about more primitive creatures: plants and even protozoans? We can be fairly sure that they don’t engage in philosophical introspection, but their fierce attachment to life, to perpetuating their own existence, suggests that they too have some sense of themselves over and against an external world.

Like many discoveries of the past few centuries, these insights seem to erode the human sense of privilege. We used to think—and many still do—that we are sole possessors of the magnificent gift called consciousness, but now it turns out that we have to share it with all living things.

But there are some consolations. The problem of human consciousness becomes less confounding if we see it, not as something sprung mysteriously out of nowhere, but as a stage on a continuum. This view of a common and collective consciousness might also help mitigate the feeling of isolation that has come out of our misplaced sense of human uniqueness.

Where, then, do we draw the line? At inanimate things? Maybe not. Here is an excerpt from an 1890 interview with Thomas Edison by the writer George Parsons Lathrop, published in Harpers:

“I do not believe,” [Edison] said, “that matter is inert, acted upon by an outside force. To me it seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence. Look at the thousands of ways in which atoms of hydrogen combine with those of other elements, forming the most diverse substances. Do you mean to say that they do this without intelligence? . . . Gathered together in certain forms, the atoms constitute animals of the lower orders. Finally they combine in man, who represents the total intelligence of all the atoms.”

“But where does this intelligence come from originally?” I [Lathrop] asked.

“From some power greater than ourselves.”

Somewhat boldly, then, we could say that a hydrogen atom “knows” how to recognize an oxygen atom and, under certain circumstances, how to combine with it to form water. After all, it can, in a manner of speaking, perceive something outside of it and relate to it; it is, in a very rudimentary sense, conscious. If an atom could not take a stance in the physical world and draw some kind of line between itself and what is not itself, it could not exist.

Maybe this is the secret of those tenuous and elusive submolecular particles of today’s physics. They seem to flash in and out of existence. Sometimes they seem not to exist at all unless they’re observed. It’s as if their sense of themselves is so frail and ambiguous that it takes an external perceiver to bring them into being. It’s reminiscent of Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi: “to be is to be perceived.”

None of this presupposes a particular worldview — Newtonian, Einsteinian, or any other. After all, to speak of an object of any kind is to delineate it from the background of the rest of the world, to set it off as itself and not something other. And if things are to exist objectively and not merely as subjective impressions in someone’s head, they must stake out their own place in relation to the universe. That is, they must take a stance as self as opposed to the other that constitutes the rest of reality. So they are endowed with consciousness, however unlike our own it may be.

These forces have been given many names in various spiritual traditions. The Hindu Samkhya — the most ancient known philosophical system known — refers to self or “I” as purusha. The other, the “world,” is known as prakriti. These are the forces that make us up. Without them we would not be what we are. We would not exist.

Furthermore, nothing is absolutely a self or an other. They are merely matters of perspective. A hydrogen atom has some consciousness in being able to recognize an atom of oxygen and interact with it under certain circumstances to form water and other compounds. From its point of view, it is a self and the oxygen atom is the other. To the oxygen atom, exactly the opposite is the case: it is the hydrogen atom that is other, just as I am other to you and you are other to me.

Thus the relation between self and other, between “I” and the “world,” is a constant, dynamic interplay for all entities at all levels of scale and complexity.

As a metaphor, you might think of the game known as Othello or Reversal, which uses disks that are black on one side and white on the other. Each player takes turns setting them down on a grid, and the player who has more disks of his own color on the board at the end of the game wins. If, say, you are the black player and you manage to cap a line of white disks with your own black disks at both ends, the whole line of white disks flip over to black. Thus whole lines of disks flip from white to black and back again. This process gives a hint of the ever-shifting reversal of self and other that operates in the universe at all levels.

This sense of self versus other in ourselves is subtler and more profound than we might imagine. It can lead to some striking discoveries.

Consider your own experience now. Most likely you’re not aware of yourself, except in a vague background sense. But if you shift your attention, you can feel yourself as an “I” having experiences. Many of these are sensory: this room, this chair, this book.

You can go still deeper. You can be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they pass over the screen of your awareness (which is generally easier to do if you close your eyes). If you can be aware of even these most private and intimate thoughts as somehow “other,” then where is the “I”? Who or what is it? It has no attributes as such, no qualities; it simply sees. Hence the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi said that the question “Who am I?”, taken far enough back, will lead to enlightenment.

This insight seems to be the point of many meditative practices.

If we see consciousness in this way, many of the problems that seem to surround it begin to vanish. Consciousness is now revealed as being present anywhere and everywhere in the universe; our own consciousness is simply one particular and not necessarily privileged form of it. Human consciousness is no longer an inexplicable aberration in physical matter. The world of physical matter itself possesses consciousness — of a kind. (I’m certainly not implying that your coffee table has an introspective awareness like that of a Woody Allen character.)

In the second place, it’s a view that is echoed and confirmed in the sacred literature of humanity, from the Hindu scriptures to the Gospel of John, where the “I” (symbolized by Christ) is constantly contrasted with the “world.”

In fact, if you grant the ideas I’m sketching out above, a great deal of mystical literature, which often sounds so paradoxical and so bizarre, suddenly becomes much clearer. The Hindu Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, says, “This Self is the Lord of all beings; as all spokes are knit together in the hub, all things, all gods, all men, all lives, all bodies, are knit together in that Self. . . . Your own Self lives in the hearts of all.” The Self lives in the hearts of all because all things are selves.

According to the French philosopher Michel Bitbol, consciousness “is what we dwell in and what we live through in the first person” (emphasis in the original).

We may be forced to admit that the whole universe lives through the first person as well.

This article is adapted from material in Richard Smoley’s book The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the World.

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