That thing in my head

An adjunct to the previous post:  this thing called consciousness.  The first question humans are faced with when considering this thing, this ability, this function: are we special?  Not a question anyone seems to be at ease with.  There seem to be varying forms of consciousness in many animals, and judging if they are “like” us, and how much alike, is difficult and definitely a value judgment as well.  But we can ignore this aspect, and simply revel in consciousness- for lack of a more nuanced definition, the awareness of self in the world- and still find that it is quite an amazing thing.  The human cognitive power to imagine, to see one self in the mirror and know it is the “I” (a classic test for consciousness), to rotate objects in our mental space, to predict, to hypothesize, to consider the past, to synthesize our senses and interpret meaning, to understand absurdity, to laugh, are all quite amazing really. 

 I will not oversimplify the vast work of so many philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, and religions.  They are all there for you to explore if you take the concept of consciousness seriously. 

 But today, again I am reminded of the sheer variety of ways humans react to this knowledge- which is amazing as well.  What strange and creative patch-works Scientology, all stripes of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hindu, Shinto, and all the rest makes if we consider them reactions to the knowledge of self in the world.  No one really seems to like the hard core Atheist position- it inspires such fear that many even equate it with “evil”, they are so unable to respect that it is actually a valid position given the evidence in life because of the fear that it might, just might, be right.

 I come down on what I think of as the Bill Maher point of view- I don’t know, and you don’t either (an old-school agnostic saying).  His film “Religulous” is a fun exploration into the strange and oddly self destructive about organized religions that offers little more than extreme fantasy for people to buy into in order to avoid a fear of death.  If taken as simply complex reactions, instantiated throughout long periods of time and tradition thus offering some comfort when faced with existential questions, if one can be that detached and rational about observing, then there is a lot about these responses to consciousness that can be interesting.  I don’t get into the angels-on-the head-of-a-pin arguments anymore, because the premise always demands a. agreement that god exists, and b. that my idea of god is better than yours.  I start my questions a bit further back from those assumptions.

 I am not arrogant enough to say I have answers to the great existential questions posed by consciousness:  Why do I exist?  Is there any part of me that exists after death?  What goes on?  Why?  Is there a god (I have made peace with definitions of moral, ethical, and spiritual that work for me, and apply to being alive NOW, or functionally)?  What is reality?  Forgive me a little blurring of philosophy here- I tend toward more psychological groupings.

 It seems so much of being human is to be fascinated, to be curious about other humans, and ourselves (in the extreme, this can make for solipsistic, or narcissist driven people).   We put humans at the top of the food chain, and all our narratives are about humans, or anthropomorphized humans (applying human characteristics to animals or other objects in order to tell a story, or attempt to understand them, or ourselves).   We have lives made up of responsibilities, needs, wants, desires, actions, and when we take a moment, just a moment, to draw aside the demanding curtain of all these and look around, think, feel, and consider ourselves- our consciousness turned to consider itself- I think them we have a chance to, as the current Dalai Lama has said, really see.  There is fear and comfort both in this act of considering, and it is not a paradox. 

 My first reaction is always to laugh.  For example: while I know so much about adornment is to achieve explicit and implicit satisfactions, to communicate, to clothe, etc.  Looking at this one feature of humans continually strikes me as funny; to look at how people adorn themselves.  Everything from tattoos, to shoes, to hair, the cloth used, so many levels of analysis possible! 

 John Berger wrote “Ways of Seeing”, a book (based on a series of TV episodes) that has become something of a piece of the “canon” on this topic, particularly as it applies to art (but subtly as it applies to all seeing, or learning).   I find his focus on the necessity, while also the impossibility of detachment in this process useful.  We can’t ever get away from who we are, this thing that is “I”, the filter for everything we experience (loads of philosophy on this one), or the contexts that bound us, but we can be aware of ourselves, or what is called the “meta” self, the conscious awareness of being human, in all our specific idiosyncrasies, contexts, and be self critical about how that filters our perceptions, creations, knowledge, and beliefs.  At its best; I think this is what post-modernism offered philosophy.  At its worst, post-modernism can be badly reductive and extinguish the joy, the fascination with consciousness to an existential dead end.  One has to work with this dialectic to get into what comes after, and it’s been a fractured affair at best in the past 40 years, a patchwork of resurrected modernism, structuralism, and contemporary ideas to suffice for a trajectory into consciousness and all the related issues, and sub-topics.

 But I wander.  That’s also a feature of the human mind.  I have not met a truly creative person yet (and I have known many, in all arenas of formal activity) who did not know themselves to have a “wandering” mind.   My favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, that I used to keep on my office door and still have in my home office, has Calvin looking at his mom saying, “I let my mind wander and it didn’t come back”, to which she replies “I thought you’d lost your mind years ago”.  As a mom, I’d change the last line to “Really? I thought I’d lost my mind years ago”.

 I don’t believe anyone can truly be creative and not consider the issue of consciousness from time to time.  I’ve said before curiosity is a core feature of creativity, add the freedom from fear to consider consciousness.  Not to be without fear, but to be able to be free from letting it control (but perhaps still motivate) the consideration.

 If nothing else, it pulls us out of the everyday and offers us a chance to take a breath, survey all that we are doing, and laugh.  I know, I know.  The dishes won’t get done by themselves, as much as some sci-fi writers have created visions of reality where they could.  Sci-fi as a reaction to awareness of consciousness is another thread worth discussing, call me if you are in the mood for some wine and shared blather about it.  For now, there are the dishes, and the ever-present cat somewhere in the steel box that will never be opened.