What is Consciousness?

This web site is more or less about me contemplating consciousness. What does that mean? I will try to answer by attempting to do the impossible: define consciousness. The British psychologist Norman Stuart Sutherland had this to say: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon. It is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.” That is an interesting comment but not very helpful, don’t you agree? One dictionary defines it this way: “The state or condition of being conscious.” That’s not particularly helpful either. Any time a dictionary uses the word itself to define it, I know it is going to be difficult to pin down the definition. Yet in spite of the difficulty of defining consciousness, most people seem to have a reasonably good intuitive sense of what it is. However, it is hard as the dickens to put that sense into words.

A long time ago, I learned a meditation that helped me to clarify what consciousness is to me. (I do not remember the source.) It went something like this:

Imagine for a minute that you have no eyesight. You cannot see now and you have never been able to see. You cannot even sense the difference between light and dark and the concept of color has no meaning. Neither do you have a memory of it. It is not particularly difficult to imagine that situation, is it? Many unfortunate souls live their lives in exactly that way. Imagine that you are one of those who are so afflicted, and ask yourself this question: who am I? I am satisfied that you will answer something like this: I am who I am and the lack of eyesight, however tragic, does not change that. Who I am goes much deeper than the sensory experience called vision.

Okay, let us go further. Imagine that you cannot hear and that you have never had that sensory experience either. In addition to a lack of vision, you have never heard a sound of any kind. This may be slightly more difficult to contemplate. With neither of these two senses, without even a memory of them, there really is no way to formulate human-level language and therefore, communication is drastically impeded. However, there are people who live life this way. Again, imagine you are one of them and ask the same question: Who am I? Although the answer you construct in your thoughts is impaired due to a lack of vocabulary, you will intuitively know that you are still the same person you were with sight and with hearing. Am I right?

Now we take another step. Imagine that in addition to having never had the ability to see or hear, you have no other sensory abilities either and you have never had them. You have no feeling in your body whatsoever and you cannot taste or smell. No feeling in your body means more than no sense of touch. For example, you have no physical awareness of raising an arm if you do that. The concepts of heat and cold are unknown to you. You cannot sense the force of gravity pulling you. You cannot even know the difference between up and down. Some might say that this leaves you with a sensation of floatation but I would suggest that is not accurate. Floating implies knowledge of what that sensation is, a memory of it, but you have never had that sensation. I would suggest that the sensation you experience in this mind experiment is simply “being.” However, “being” is a lot.

Now ask yourself that same question: who am I? All physical sensations, the things that make up your experience of the physical world, have been removed along with every reference to the past and all ability to project thought into the future. What remains is pure consciousness at the present moment. It is a “potential,” if you will, to live, to do, to feel, to think, to reason, to love. But it is none of these things themselves.

Alas, this mind experiment does not define consciousness any better than the dictionary. What it does for me and what it may do for you is lead us to a deeper understanding of what it is. I would go further. Removing physical sensation utterly destroys the concepts of past and future. What we are left with is an eternal presence, a “universe” that is without boundaries of space and time. This illuminates the notion that the concept of space and time is illusory. Even Einstein named reality an illusion. After all, each of the physical senses that were removed in our mind experiment were mental in nature. They were representative of brain activity only. Yes, one might argue that they recorded impulses from the physical world but do we really know that? How can we separate what we experience from a dream? I’ll leave you with this quote from Plato:

How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?

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