I think; therefore it’s time I returned to my series on consciousness.
Part 1, “Emptiness”, was mainly anecdotal, sharing what I think I’ve concluded from my experience of meditation. I suggested that the idea of “pure awareness” is an illusion, and instead that awareness is an interaction with an object.
I ended with this:
Witnessing necessarily involves an object. All talk of “the witness” in this metaphysical context may be utter nonsense. Of course, something is certainly witnessing. I hope to delve a little more into what we might reasonably consider that to be in future posts.
I was denying that we have a non-physical mind that witnesses our life. My intention in this series is to approach the difficult task of grasping a materialist explanation of consciousness. I am trying to make sense of the idea that what is witnessing our life, the “I”, the “self” is simply the physical brain-body system.
This causes much difficulty, not because it is illogical or because the evidence points elsewhere, but because human cultures ubiquitously deny it, and we all grew up within a human culture. It is difficult to see beyond what we take for granted. Indeed, our language does not easily encapsulate the idea of conscious matter. Presumably it was so for most of human history: mind, we say, is what animates, knows, thinks, speaks, in a world that is otherwise dead.
Dennett remarks that consciousness is the new élan vital, that was thought to make the difference between life and non-life. Now we’ve got used to the twin facts that there is a fuzzy line between them and that we define life with arbitrary conditions, we puzzle similarly about consciousness.
So, people can accept that they are physical entities, but repeatedly insist that consciousness is a mystery, because they imagine it to be non-physical. They say it must be non-physical, although they seem rarely to consider what that means, by what attributes something “non-physical” can be identified. They simply have an unspoken rule that matter cannot be conscious – it is essentially part of their definition of matter.
The difficulty, of course, is what David Chalmers famously called “the hard problem of consciousness”, which is to explain how (and why) the brain performs the feat of creating subjective experience. I am suggesting that the reason is simple: we refuse to accept that we, as physical matter, could possibly experience the brute fact of our being. Losing the notion that we are a ghost in the machine – easier said than done – is what allows us to feel our physical reality, whereupon the mystery begins to dissolve. Continue reading