Musings of Consciousness

I was doing some research on stream of consciousness writing and it got me thinking about thinking. Actually this goes back to two problems I am beginning to realize are gigantic problems that I didn’t really understand when I was a child. The first problem is the problem of thinking. It is really the problem. It is the existential problem of how do we think? What does our thinking mean? How can we explain thinking? This is the first problem with all of the related questions. The second problem which I am sort of recovering recently through my exploration of Torah is what is writing? How do we deal with the problem of writing.

So the research I was doing on stream of conscious writing led me to explore the idea that we are machines, the idea that people are basically preprogrammed machines designed by evolution and the purpose of humans is the same purpose as all biological machines, the purpose is to survive and reproduce. The problem is that we can’t really say anything about what evolution is or why we exist. I am fairly convinced with my own limited understanding that there isn’t any point to existence and there isn’t any point to evolution. It is simply something that is happening that we are caught up in. I believe that our deep meaning scouring that we do to try to understand existence is driven by our own evolutionary (design).

As problem solvers we have spent most of the last 200,000 to 3 million years or so constantly reprogramming our cognitive map to understand our environment in order to survive. The idea that there must be some meaning and some reason for the existence that we experience is a direct outcome of the problem solving deep dive that is a hallmark of our species. So that is my own take on reality, whether or not it is true is up to you. If you believe in a completely different reality that involves a platonic ideal that we transcend into then I have an option you might consider. I propose that there is a permeation of that problem solving deep dive nature of our existence that leaves a mark we can lean on.

Every person that has ever tried to find meaning in the world, every religion they have ever invented, every language they have ever spoken, every academic discipline they have ever created has added to the store of human knowledge and human meaning. Every one of those expressions is in fact a testament of the basic dilemma of human existence, the struggle to create meaning. Every one of those meanings is a sanctuary we can rest in, a landscape that has been explored and a temple that we can inhabit which provides our existence with comfort and meaning.

The accumulation of meaning, which I will call culture, is our comfort, our security blanket and our direction forward.

So that brings me back to my initial paragraph about stream of consciousness writing. James Joyce, Virginia Wolf and Samuel Beckett are some examples of stream of consciousness writing styles. The style of writing is also referred to as interior monologue and that refers to the psychological space we inhabit during our waking mind. That is what brings me to the point of this essay, if stream of conscious writing describes our interior world or attempts to understand and authentically represent how we think or experience the world, then this is really a very complicated task. It isn’t as simple as it seems at first.

I think it all starts by first asking what is consciousness. In his book, the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jayes argues that consciousness as we understand it is a recent phenomenon, and it can be understood as such in some ways by simply looking at language. Language in his argument constitutes evidence, and we don’t have evidence of consciousness as we understand it before about 3000 years ago. His explanation of the mechanism of consciousness as we understand it is a bit simplistic. He basically argues that the left and right hemispheres of the brain were essentially functionally separate until the ongoing demands of language, especially written language and the concurring demands of civilization forced the mind to adapt, essentially creating consciousness as we understand it, which he argues is a much deeper penetration and comingling of the spheres of the mind.

If I can really understand his worldview, it would go something like this — before the emergence of consciousness our sense of time was completely different as well as our sense of identity. People still seemed the same, if you met one today on the street you wouldn’t be able to tell physically that they were any different than you, but because the spheres of the mind were essentially separate, one part of the mind was basically language and the other part was basically imagination. The one side of the brain was timeless, connected to the universe and to existence, the feeling and flow of life. The other side was all about language and problem solving. When the two became sufficiently interdependent consciousness emerged, the ego was made manifest, we essentially became aware of deep time and capable of critical inquiry.

What really strikes me about this theory, in spite of its problems, is how interesting it is as an idea. What also really fascinates me is how little information we actually have about the emergence of consciousness. We really don’t know almost anything about it that is scientifically verifiable so almost every statement we make about consciousness is like talking about god or the flying spaghetti monster, we simply don’t have any evidence. We don’t have brains to study, people to ask questions or even a question to ask. We don’t even know what consciousness is so it is hard to ask a question about it.

Panpsychism (pan puu psyche ism) is a theory that the universe is essentially conscious. The idea in this exploration of the universe is that the fundamental building blocks of consciousness are immanent and therefore consciousness as we understand it is a fundamental expression of the universe. What I can say about panpsychism is that it is a nice idea. We don’t really have an explanation of why we are conscious and so the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe is certainly worthy of an exploration. I don’t believe myself that the universe is conscious but I do have an idea that exists sort of on a middle ground. I think that most living things are conscious, and I don’t think that their experience of consciousness is very different from ours.

I think this idea goes a long way toward resolving this issue of consciousness. Although we don’t have any evidence of animals possessing consciousness we do have a reasonable expectation that they would experience some kind of consciousness because they have a brain and they seem to have an awareness of their surroundings. Furthermore, many animals, especially mammals are essentially similar from an observational standpoint to humans. Mammals especially, but all animals generally have what might be called an observational awareness. That is, we as animals experiencing the world, have a deep awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. If this isn’t a good definition of consciousness then I challenge you to find a better definition.

In fact, I think that the animal experience of consciousness is the same consciousness we possess, which is part of my edge into consciousness as it is understood today. I think that when you look at how we exist we are reactionary. That is we tend to react to our surroundings and our environment. Our hardware is all internal, and it is projecting outward. The evolutionary function of that awareness is located around functions, the functions of the body in its environment. The body is the foundation of our experience of awareness and as embodied organisms we share that same body awareness which is the foundation of consciousness that all animals possess, at least all mammals but more likely all animals with brains.

So what is different about us from this theory of consciousness. In a sense there is no difference, only that our nest is bigger, our habitat takes up more space and the needs of that space demand more of our attention. Having successfully gained control of our environment to some extent we have the freedom to spend more time creating the floating world we inhabit. The world of written language, of art, of architecture, of literature. These are all expressions of our nest, but our nest still serves the same function, to support us in our habitat and to provide habitat for future generations. From the perspective of an animal, I can’t walk around, inside or out of my examination of the material world as we experience and not see that every expression of it is an evolutionary expression that is serving the same purpose it does for every other animal species on this planet.

Still there is this idea that we think, and our thinking, our self awareness is unique. There is something about self awareness that is specific. After all, we project ourselves into an imaginary future as well as an imaginary past. Even though our existence is entirely in the present moment of now, we are constantly somewhere else in our mind. In fact our ability to parse out time into constructed units has given us even more time then we had before, so just like the universe we are creating and expanding time with the expansion of our consciousness. That is really the key to understanding what is happening with us, our consciousness really is expanding as our material culture expands. We gain more knowledge and understanding of the material and physical world, by utilizing the scientific method we are able to begin to answer questions we didn’t even know we had, until we began to think about them.

This brings us round about to Origins of Consciousness. What is important to understand is that at some point our experience of awareness and physical culture became so dominated by every aspect of our own human created human occupied human mediated existence, and in such overwhelming numbers and presence that I think we by default shifted into the kind of awareness we have now. That awareness is an awareness, a consciousness, that has been so completely human mediated and so completely human inundated that it seems to be natural and normal. The is what makes our consciousness so closely aligned with all of the animal world, it is our reaction to our environment which seems almost as if it has been created and mediated by someone else. It is the accumulation of culture that is consciousness. In each generation we reabsorb that consciousness and the depths of our culture. We seek to learn its machinations in order to exist within the floating world we all seem to reside in.

What I am wondering, though, and what I will conclude this essay with is the question of innate consciousness. Do we have an awareness that is deeper than our animal awareness? Can we make anything or do anything that is not within the purview of our human created culture? My sense is that almost every idea we have, every language we have, every religion, every academic discipline is simply an evolutionary house we live in. It is a space of comfort and sanctuary that has been long inhabited by many many generations of individuals who chose to occupy the same warm safe place we are choosing to sit in now. It appears as if by magic to exist now in the moment as this marvelous world of fascination and whimsy, full of flashing lights, towering buildings and glowing screens. This visual world of constructed detritus is our consciousness, we are quantum tangled in the ennui of our collective history as a species, and that is our identity, our self awareness.

So I didn’t get to most of what I wanted to say in this essay but I hope it is a starting point for more exploration of this theme. It doesn’t quite say everything I need to get out but it gets out a little bit of it. If you read all the way to this point I thank you for taking time to read my thoughts and I hope you have a wonderful existence full of joy.

Anna Thompson is a writer, artist and cat lover who lives in Portland Oregon with her partner and six cats. She loves writing about sex, gender and religion.

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