Friday, July 27, 2007

And consciousness is...



So Many Questions, So Few Answers

So many questions, so few answers. That’s the beauty of the arts. Recently I took a photograph (last Easter to be precise) of the outside of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. What caught my eye was the quotation from Camus, not the beautiful architectural miracle of the building. As you see from the above photograph, the quotation runs: “Si le monde était clair l’art ne serait pas” which translates “If the world were clear there would be no art.” How true, yet the same Albert Camus nearly drove himself distracted in his pursuit of clarity, that is, in trying to make sense of the world and of the human project we call life. He ended up by believing it to be meaningless. At least that is my memory of struggling with The Myth of Sisyphus, Words and The Outsider which we had to read for philosophy class.

What brings these thoughts to my mind at all? Well I’ve always been fascinated with philosophy, which to my mind asks all the good questions, the deep questions and it is an approach to reality, a way of asking questions that can be applied in any place, at any time irrespective of the company you are in. Also every single subject under the heavens has its philosophy e.g., the philosophy of science, the philosophy of chemistry, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of architecture, the philosophy of politics, the philosophy of psychology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of history and so on. All of these philosophies exist – if you don’t believe me check them out. Realise that a history of philosophy is considerable different to a philosophy of history. Just thought I’d slip that one in as it always caused me to think and to ponder a little more deeply when I was at college.

Then there were those big hard questions which people asked from time to time, but which a lot of scientists, and even philosophers of a scientific bent, wrote off and still write off as meaningless. That brings up other questions itself – what is meaning? What is the meaning of meaning? What is the meaning of meaninglessness? If meaninglessness has a meaning then it is contradictory per se. Okay, this is a bit stupid in a way, I’ll admit, but nevertheless infinitely interesting.

Then there is that famous or infamous question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This very question, according to Martin Heidegger characterized as the most fundamental issue of philosophy. Try googling that question and you come up with around 69 million possible sites to hit on. Now there, and there are those that say it’s a meaningless question. (Actually this, of course, is a total exaggeration as the 69 million refers to every possible combination of all the above words in every possible site. So it's a lie - Lies, damn lies and statistics!) Well, if it is, there are an aweful lot of people asking this stupid question. I’m a ttempting a little humour here – I hope that’s obvious! The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in attempting to answer this question begins with what I consider two beautifully suuccinct and wonderfully enlightening lines: “Well, why not? Why expect nothing rather than something? No experiment could support the hypothesis ‘There is nothing’ because any observation obviously implies the existence of an observer.” See the following link: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/

Okay, this is exactly what I want to bring up here, namely that there exists an observer who perceives and who is conscious. This leads me to what I think is the most central question in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience namely – What do we mean by consciousness? What do I mean by my being conscious as I type these lines? Hence this question and all its cognate questions relating to what we mean by “subject” and “object”, by “my subjective experience” and “your subjective experience.” What is the “real” world without “my subjective experience of it?” Can anyone really experience the “real” world in itself, per se? Can I really know the world apart from me and my experience of it? What is the meaning of “real” anyway?

As a practitioner of meditation for well over twenty years now I am somewhat used to asking questions about what my consciousness means? As I meditate sometimes I ask myself the question – “Who am I who observes these thoughts like clouds crossing the sky of my mind?” This latter is an interesting meditation I find. This is akin to asking the more philosophical question – What is consciousness? I remember reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge many years ago and I remember his talking about the eye and perception – the eye is set up to see in a certain way, and this means that it cannot see in any other way. The eye cannot, according to S.T. Coleridge, step outside itself to see itself. He was using this analogy to express his believe that everyone started with their own basic assumptions before engaging in any argument – in other words everyone is biased and prejudiced from the start. There seems to be no objective ground. Or is there? Big question. Don’t know the answer, but it is intriguing, is it not?

A question like what is the brain is a biological and physiological one. Okay we can study that physically and experimentally - there are no huge problems there. But then ask the question, what is the mind and you have a whole host of questions – what does it mean to think? Is that a biochemical operation solely? Can consciousness be reduced to bio-chemicals? What is personality? In other words does your personality equal your mind? What is intelligence? What are emotions? Are they just neurotransmitters at base? What gives all these neurochemicals shape and form as a mind? After a while you’ll have no end of questions. Where is the mind located? Is it in the brain only? When does a bundle of neurones become a brain? And so on and so on! I think I’ll have to go back and read a book I read in 1984 when studying for my Masters – The Psychology of Consciousness by Robert E. Ornstein. It is a marvellous introduction even though it is a bit dated now. (Pelican, 1984; originally written 1972)

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