This is the first in an ongoing series of posts in which I will explore the question: What is consciousness? For, as I’ve explained to many friends over the years, there is no more fundamental question in your life than this. This is basic, basic. So let’s jump right into it. Things are about to get Matrix-y.
So what is consciousness? This question has been formulated in many different ways since man first kicked a rock and said, “Ow, that hurts.” It would not be too much to say that this question is the background of all further inquiry. Take metaphysics (the study of reality) for example: it asks, what is reality? Let’s suppose we were successful in determining what reality is. How would we know what it really is, unless there were something or someone that is conscious of it?
Some 400 years ago Descartes formulated the inquiry as the Mind-Body problem, and compartmentalized consciousness into separate registers. But this only complicated the matter further, for now we had to contend with the mind as a separate engine, and the body as its own thing as well. And where did the emotions fit in all this?
These days we no longer refer to it as the Mind-Body problem. Instead these questions are the domain of the Philosophy of Mind. For a wonderful introduction to these questions see David Chalmers’ book The Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings http://tinyurl.com/8om6ttj
But perhaps the greatest difficulty in approaching the nature of consciousness, the reason it eludes both the rigor of science and the intuition of religion, is that it is both objective and subjective. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Christof Koch, a neurobiologist at Caltech, said that “consciousness is the central factor of our lives.” He added that “unlike black holes or the Higgs boson or molecules, consciousness has both an external perspective and an intrinsic perspective,” and that “because it has both an exterior, third-person perspective as well as an interior, first-person perspective, it’s unique among all the phenomena in the universe.”
Let’s go over that again in plain language. Consciousness is both inside you, and outside you, at the same time!
Take an example: you see a red apple in the outside world. We generally assume that the red apple exists, and that it is outside us. We can prove this by touching it, smelling it, or just plain eating it. But, do we really know this for a fact? Let’s look at what happens before we ever conclude that what we are seeing is a red apple.
There is an unknown vibration of light that you receive through the cornea of your eyes. This is registered as an impression.
That impression is received upside down in the retina. Think of the retina as a movie screen, except the image is upside down. Yes, we all initially see everything upside down!
The impression travels through the optic nerve to the back of the brain, where it is transformed into a mental concept (in this case, red apple).
This information is sent back through the optic nerve to the retina, except this time it is right side up.
You say to yourself, “red apple.” But you only say this because you’ve been trained by your environment, education, experience, etc that we call it a red apple, and there seems to be a universal agreement about it
So then, we can ask, is the world outside us, or inside us? And how? Try an experiment!