Thursday, 24 March 2016
Conscious of being conscious
Lent 2016: Day 44 - Maundy Thursday
The idea that living creatures other than Mankind are conscious - are aware of their existence, their surroundings, experience sensations such as surprise or the feeling of sun or wind on their skin - is not particularly controversial. But can they be aware of being aware? Have they the consciousness of being able to sift through their thoughts as they happen, and analyse them?
We don't know for the present. Maybe one day science will be able to answer this question. Or maybe not. The notion that consciousness is distributed throughout the Universe is controversial, let's hold that it is indeed true. That just as we can, or a dog can, feel alive, so can far smaller beings - even atoms may possess awareness of their own existence, albeit to a far, far smaller degree.
Evolution has brought us - and our consciousnesses - into being, a process that took billions of years. It has been a journey beginning with Big Bang (and who knows what happened before then?), the formation of galaxies and stars and our star, and our planet, and life - conscious life - emerging and continually improving.
Is there a purpose to the evolving complexity of consciousness throughout evolution? Is consciousness evolving elsewhere? On other planets, on other galaxies? I am not considering intelligence at this stage. I would posit that intelligence tends to go hand in hand with consciousness. With greater intelligence the greater ability to define one's own experience in terms of awareness of sensations and tools with which to report upon our thinking.
Trains of thought chunter along through our minds, often distracted onto another track, as a set of points at a railway junction will make a train change directions. And as they do so, we can rise above the tracks and look down and see what made our train of thought change direction. This is the ability to think at the meta-level. But is it uniquely human? Could we imagine a chimpanzee or gorilla, engaged in the act of digging termites out their nest with a stick, suddenly pausing to think about a flash of sunlight reflecting from the surface of a glossy leaf - and consciously catching itself doing so?
A side-track; back to the main line. Our intelligence increases over generations. This is not to say that there weren't geniuses in centuries past - there were, but there were fewer of them. Access to education, being able to learn facts, and then being taught to interpret those facts, is helping raise the sum of human intelligence. The internet is helping immensely. Facts have never been so easy to find, the synthesis and propagation of new ideas has likewise become easier.
What is this likely do to the state of consciousness? The experience of the mystical, the spiritual - definition is important - depends on sensitivity, on the awareness of being aware. Just as we are not all equally intelligent, so we are not all equally sensitive to those moments of sublime connection with the Universe, with Eternity, Infinity and Oneness. Some of us more than others, some would consider this whole discussion a faggy waste of time.
[Just had a train-of-thought-at-a-junction moment as I considered a delightful conceit in which a future President Trump is told about Roswell and UFOs and Area 51 - all true - and he can't cope with it all and he loses his mind and is carried away gibbering to a padded cell]
But anyway, let us safely assume that a) consciousness does reside in all life forms and b) we are unique in being conscious of the fact that we are conscious. What next?
If humanity can survive this turbulent and dangerous period of its history, I would like to think that we do, as a species, become more intelligent, more aware, more sensitive, less warlike, able to identify and subdue our destructive and warlike traits, our capacity for hatred and anger, and evolve in the direction of more angelic beings, which possess ever higher levels of consciousness.
This time two years ago:
New road and retail
This time four years ago:
Warsaw's Northern Bridge - its name and local democracy
This time six years ago:
What's Polish for 'commuter'?
This time seven years ago:
Four weeks into Lent