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What Is Consciousness and Why Does It Matter

9 Apr

I discovered consciousness on my own many years ago. Prior to that, I do not recall hearing or reading any discussion of the subject. I would not have tuned into it if I had.

I was thinking about death and asked a fateful question. What is it about me that changes when I die?

After asking that question, I realized the answer was not nearly as simple as I had automatically assumed. I thought about the difference between a living person and a dead one. All the same atoms are there. All the same molecules are there. The atoms and molecules are merely interacting in a different way. Large clusters of molecules, cells, stop exchanging molecules that contain bound up energy. Cells specific to the brain, neurons, stop communicating with each other.

Then something struck me.

When neurons die, they stop communicating with each other. However, even when they are alive, they do not communicate with each other instantaneously. Neurons communicate with each other only as quickly as electrical signals can propagate down their axons. The entire chain of communication is not even electronic. When the signals get to the ends of axons, they change form. They are replaced by the motion of molecules called neurotransmitters that travel across gaps called synaptic clefts. Not only do neurons not communicate with each other instantaneously, they communicate with each other through a relatively slow mechanical process.

Then, I looked all around me and realized how unified my experience was and how that experience differed from the neurons in my brain. Where did this unified experience take place? Did it take place on the terminals of axons or did it take place on the dendrites that received the neurotransmitters? How could I have anything like a unified experience when my brain was so obviously a lot of separate parts?

As I reflected on this, I realized the experience I was having was the real me. I closed my eyes and realized that who and what I really was still existed even though I was not looking at anything. I realized, further, that this experience would persist even if I had no external sensations at all. There was something inside of me, my “self”, that was experiencing my existence.

This discovery astonished me. I had been accustomed to thinking of my brain and my body as mere physical objects like rocks, chairs, automobiles or radios. Indeed, my body and brain were physical objects. However, I realized that there was something contained inside of my body, probably inside of my brain, that was not, and had never been, like the physical world I perceived around me. I thought I had discovered the soul.

I explained this observation to several friends. Some of them immediately caught on and some of them never seemed to get what I was saying. The ones who caught on had an experience similar to my own. They believed, as I did, that they were perceiving their own soul. I explained this observation to an English professor I was taking a class from and was surprised to learn that she was familiar with the concept.

Later, I read a quote attributed to the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. Descartes had made the observation that while the brain seems to be infinitely divisible the mind seems to be unified.

Eventually, as I investigated further, I came across the term “consciousness”, and learned this was the name philosophers and psychologists assigned to the experience I had discovered. It occurred to me why so few people seemed to have recognized the nature of this phenomenon. The problem was the name itself. We are so used to describing a person who is awake and aware as “conscious” that most of us never make the distinction when the term is used in the more philosophical sense.

Once I had a name for this phenomenon, it was easy to find books and essays that discussed it. I found several theories. There were the theories that I came to refer to as the “pile it higher and deeper” theories. These were the theories by thinkers such as Douglas Hofstadter, the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. These people believed consciousness was the result of ever-increasing complexity. They supposed that out of the complexity of the brain consciousness somehow “emerged”. To me these theories seemed like saying that if you made an object out of lead, and made it complicated enough, it would somehow turn into gold.

I read an entire book by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes had a theory about when and how consciousness came about, but no real explanation of what it was.

Eventually, I ran across a book on a bookstore shelf by Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained. It surprised me that someone thought they had found an explanation. I started to read Dennett’s book, but decided he was completely missing the point. He seemed to be conflating the way the brain processes information with the actual experience of consciousness. More recently, I watched a video by Dennett that explains the basics of his theory. Dennett uses what amounts to magic tricks to show how the brain’s way of processing information  creates the “illusion” of consciousness. What I realized, however, is that Dennett’s explanation is, itself, a kind of magic trick. It obscures consciousness by redirecting the listener’s attention away from it. I immediately understood why many philosophers refer to his theory as “consciousness explained away”.

Over the years, it has been disturbing to learn that Dennett has a large following, especially in the scientific community. However, I have a theory for why his ideas exist and why they have received such easy acceptance.

Dennett is part of a movement in philosophy called “materialism”. Materialists attempt to explain the entire universe, including the human experience of the universe, in terms of mechanical processes. To a materialist, the universe is a giant machine that has no meaning or purpose, but that merely exists in time and space. Consequently, materialists are atheists.

However, that may be putting the horse before the carriage. In my opinion it is atheism that precedes materialism. It is people who embrace the non-existence of God or other divine phenomena who become materialists.

Materialists hope to indoctrinate all of humanity into their belief system, but there is one thing that stands between them and their ultimate goal. That one thing is consciousness. As long as there are people who are aware of consciousness and its nature, there will be people who believe that there is more to life and the universe than mere mechanical processes.

I have often speculated on the true nature of materialism. It seems at times that materialists are inhabited by some sort of evil that drives them to reject the otherworldly nature of consciousness. More often, it seems that they merely see consciousness as an obstacle to their political goals. Materialists tend to believe in social agendas that include replacing what some refer to as natural law with invented systems of their own. The most obvious example of this kind of invented system is socialism. I have noticed a strong overlapping of socialism and materialism.

Materialism is dangerous. The moment that materialists gain the upper hand in the philosophical community will be the moment that belief in meaning, purpose, and especially divine purpose, will be transferred to the realm of abnormal psychology. People who believe in God will no longer be viewed as exercising a right. They will be considered sick and in need of help—possibly hospitalization. I think you can see where I am going with this.

Clearly, consciousness negates materialism. However, the negation of materialism is not the only reason why consciousness is important. It is also important because it demands an expanded view of the universe. One cannot recognize the nature and power of consciousness without also recognizing its implications for how the universe is structured. Either consciousness is inherent to the universe or it is supported by the universe. Either way, the universe is a much more compelling structure than it would be if consciousness did not exist.

Consciousness seems to be distinct from the physical universe. However, despite this distinction, it somehow communicates with the physical universe. Somehow, through the brain, consciousness is able to get word out to the physical universe that it exists; and somehow, through the brain, the events of the physical universe are able to get back to consciousness. Somehow, the brain is where the rubber of consciousness meets the road of the physical universe. I have a theory about this connection that I will explain in a later blog.

The important thing to realize at this point is this. Consciousness is real, it is the visible component of whom and what we really are, and no one, especially Daniel Dennett, has come close to explaining it or explaining it away.