A frequent topic in here, and in some of the blogs I’m fond of visiting, is the mystery of consciousness. How is it that “mere” matter can become self-aware? Can matter be the engine of consciousness at all, or does it merely serve as a temporary and intermittent host?
There seem to be three avenues by which people approach this mystery – philosophy, science, and mysticism. I have the intuitive conviction that they will, ultimately, give consistent answers – in other words, that they are all three digging toward the same hidden truth, although from different directions, and with different tools. My wish is to try to follow the progress on all three fronts, and to participate actively where I can.
The philosophical approach to the question of consciousness begins with trying to identify, by the faculty of reason, exactly what it is we are asking. What are the features of consciousness that we seek to explain? We have a commonsense idea of what it is like to be conscious, but in ordinary life much is left unexamined. Philosophers of mind have brought to the foreground various aspects of conscious experience – for example, qualia, intentionality, and the apparent freedom of the will – that are enormously perplexing mysteries with profound implications for the underlying nature of reality. Many philosophers believe that there is something irreducible about consciousness – that Mind is itself one of the fundamental constituents of the world, and that any attempt to “explain” consciousness in physical terms is doomed always to fall short of capturing its radically subjective ontology.
The mystical approach is similar to the philosophical in some ways, in that both begin with an effort of radical self-observation, but whereas philosophical methods are cogitative and rational, mystical techniques are exploratory and experiential. The student of such methods, under the guidance of one who knows the way, embarks on a difficult inward journey, often over rather inhospitable terrain. Much of what is discovered and experienced in such a program of inner study is difficult to convey adequately in declarative prose; many of the greatest mystical teachers spoke in parable or poetry to share their insights. Over the past few decades I have acquired some practical experience of my own along these lines, although I in no way represent myself as an “awakened man”. But I am deeply convinced of the value and importance of this sort of work, and of the possibility, for those who work at it, of living more consciously, and will try to share what I can of it in future posts.
Finally, there are the scientists. One might sum up the scientific attitude as assuming that since we’re here, and since all the evidence suggests that we are made of ordinary matter, and since we are unquestionably conscious, then the question becomes: “How?”, or perhaps, in a bit more detail: “What kind of stuff has to come together, in what sort of arrangement, for consciousness to occur?” Physical scientists are working at the problem from both ends: by learning more and more about the building blocks of matter and biological systems, and by using increasingly powerful tools in order to reverse-engineer consciousness by watching the brain in action. This is, of course, the very program that dualistic philosophers argue can never hope to bridge the gap between objective meat and subjective Mind, but the scientists are going to press on regardless.
Most of the sources one consults on these questions seem to come at the problem rather exclusively from one or another of the three approaches I’ve mentioned; I think there is rather a shortage of forums for bringing these interests together. I’d like to make this triune exploration of consciousness a recurring theme here at waka waka waka, and I will be very grateful for any and all participation on the part of those who stop by.