What is Consciousness?

We are largely unaware of the traffic of ‘thoughts’ within our heads including those that guide most of our living actions. The primary actions that keep us alive, such as breathing, seeing, hearing, touching and even tasting, take place without our conscious participation or stopping to think about them.

It is interesting to note that most of our purposeful behavior happens without the aid of consciousness. We even solve most of our routine problems unconsciously. It is when a purpose or result can be achieved by alternative means that consciousness is called upon. In other words, at the routine level of existence, we do not employ consciousness except when we are altering our actions or thoughts from the routine, for a purpose.

Rudolf Steiner believed animal consciousness to be the experience of desires, hopes and fears without self-awareness and the ability to view the body and those emotions from the point of view of an inner observer. He thought plants too have a form of consciousness, perhaps resembling human sleep. The German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling (1775-1854) wrote: “Mind sleeps in stone, dreams in the plant, awakes in the animal and becomes conscious in man.”

What is Consciousness?

What raises us above other known sentient beings is our ability to be conscious of our own consciousness. But what does this mean, scientifically?

Consciousness, according to western science, has its roots in the mind, which in turn is seated in the brain. The human brain, with its highly developed frontal cortex, is divided into three distinct parts and includes the cerebrum, cerebellum and the medulla oblongata or stem. The latter is a remnant of our reptilian ancestry with the ocean as its original habitat.

“Much of today’s public anxiety about science is the apprehension that we may be overlooking the whole by an endless, obsessive preoccupation with the parts,” says physician Lewis Thomas. The following view is an attempt to avoid the above pitfall.

Editor’s Choice

“To learn is to eliminate,” says neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux. From the embrOnic stage itself, there is a furious amount of editing at work to fine-tune our brain content. It startled scientists to discover that our growing up and learning process is not of adding new material so much as editing existing ones. Nerve cells in the brain die without being replaced in our infancy (or in degenerative brain disease as adults), although they appear to remain fairly stable later through a lifetime of healthy individuals. The fact remains that the brain is the only organ that does not grow new cells to replace those that are lost.

Human consciousness is a cerebral ability with inputs from the approximately 50,000 million cells that constitute an adult body. There is a growing understanding of the intelligence in individual cells in living matter. The human body is incredibly complex and each of its cells is in constant communication not only with cells that perform similar functions but also with every other cell in the body. Our consciousness probably results from assimilating all this data and arriving at choices or solutions. Our present state of consciousness may be likened to the tip of the iceberg of potential human awareness, of itself and of the universe.

To arrive at consciousness, we have to enter the areas of the brain that contain memory, information and emotion. Human memories go back, to the primal soup and perhaps beOnd, to the void before material creation. Scientists of various disciplines are involved in a worldwide research project that is trying to map all of the genes in the human DNA sequence. Another project, not so widely publicized, known as the Human Consciousness Project is already well under way to map the gamut of human consciousness including the unconscious. The latter project is also multidisciplinary and researchers around the world are piecing together what they call a spectrum of human consciousness. This includes: instinct, ego and spirit; pre-personal, personal and transpersonal; subconscious, self-conscious and super-conscious; thus, no state of consciousness is dismissed from its embrace. Undisputed evidence is already in hand that such a spectrum does exist.

The first concept associated with consciousness is ‘awareness’. We are conscious when we are aware. This is immediately seen to be not quite true. We may be aware, for instance, without really being conscious of being aware. Awareness is, therefore, only a part of consciousness. Other known aspects of consciousness are free will, reasoning, visual imagery, recalling and making choices.

How Much Do We Know?

It is now widely accepted that all knowledge (heavily edited to include only that which is useful to human life), from the beginning of time, is available to each of us, an intelligence that is carried at the cellular, subatomic level. Highly evolved individuals who have touched the hem of the eternal and communed with the infinite through their higher consciousness, made that quantum leap but have been unable to transfer their understanding due to limitations imposed by language. Because language is incomplete and fragmentary, merely registering a stage in the average advance beOnd the ape mentality. But all of us do have flashes of insight beOnd meanings already stabilized in etymology and grammar.

What is Reality?

Our brain is domineering when it comes to coping with reality. We sometimes see things not as they really are, sometimes invent categories that do not exist and sometimes fail to see things that are really there. There are people who have never seen or heard of an aircraft and will not be able to imagine it and a real airplane overhead will be distorted in their minds, creating alternative realities.

To recognize that what we call reality is only a consensus reality (only what we have agreed to call reality) is to recognize that we can perceive only what we can conceive. Captain Cook’s ship was invisible to the Tahitians because they could not conceive of such a vessel. Joseph Pearce explains this best: “Man’s mind mirrors a universe that mirrors man’s mind.” On the other hand, if a seed of imagination is sowed, a germ of an idea can be planted contrary to existing evidence. The seed will grow and sooner or later produce data to confirm or deny the idea.

A Complex Issue

According to neurobiologist William Calvin, the human mind (in all likelihood, the seat of consciousness), located in the brain, is so complex that we have only just begun to understand bits and pieces of it. It is remarkable that despite the advancements of ancient civilizations in India, China, Mesopotamia and Greece, the discovery of the crucial importance of the brain as the seat of thought and action did not feature in human knowledge until barely two centuries ago. The navel, the liver and the heart were revered instead by different cultures, at various times.

Consciousness is the most advanced event in the history of evolution. But we cannot separate it from the spirit, mind or brain. In western science, to put it simply, consciousness is the output of the mind, which is an aspect of the brain. Consciousness depends heavily on memory, which is very tricky and can be full of holes, patched up, more often than not, by fantasy. Memory is also selective and, often, faulty. We paint rosy pictures of incidents, events and people when it suits us and we also do the exact opposite. The fact that some of our memories (true ones, because no imagination is involved) go back several billion years to the procrustean age while others belong to just a few moments ago, only adds to its mysteriousness.

Muddying the waters even further is our emotions. Our feelings color our consciousness as much as our memories do. Emotions are really reactions to external stimuli. You cannot feel an emotion in a vacuum. Even loneliness presumes that Ou have known togetherness. So, it appears that our consciousness needs the ‘other’ even if the other is Our own mirror image or parts of Our body/bodily functions. It needs an external environment; it needs language, an interaction with something outside itself. Consciousness therefore presumes an entity that is aware of ‘something’ (including itself).

Understanding Our Own Minds

What does this mean? To understand something, first of all we need evidence of its existence. Here, therefore, we are trying to use something (the mind) to understand itself and produce evidence of its own existence, somewhat similar to the Drawing Hands of Escher that depicts a self-drawn drawing (see illustration). An inherent paradox where something in the system jumps out and acts on the system as if it existed outside it. And when we examine our own minds, this is exactly what happens. According to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, understanding our own minds is impossible, yet we have persisted in seeking this knowledge through the ages!

Your Thoughts Count

The framework of consciousness is thought. Its shuttle is random selection and its warp and woof are memories and emotions. Human consciousness, unlike awareness, includes a series of choices. American psychologist E.L. Thorndyke called this the method of trial, error, and accidental success. Modern AI (artificial intelligence) calls it ‘generate and test’. Applied to our thought process, the chance creation concept goes back to Xenophanes in ancient Greece.

Our thoughts begin at random, our mind taking the first opening before it. Perceiving a false route, it retraces its steps, taking another direction. By a kind of artificial selection we perfect our thought substantially, making it more logical as we go along. With enough experience, the brain comes to contain a model of the world; an idea suggested by Kenneth Craik in his book The Nature of Explanation.

In an average day, we are conscious of several million things. Further, the conscious mind at a higher level is able to free itself from order and predictability to explore every possibility with its rich variety of choices and opportunities. This leads us to levels of consciousness.

Levels of Consciousness

From the conscious awareness of an infant to its immediate environment, recognizing its mother as apart from others, for instance, levels of consciousness rise as we grow.

Colin Wilson suggests at least eight degrees of consciousness, from Level 0 to 7. They are: Level 0-deep sleep; Level 1-dreaming or hypnagogic; Level 2-mere awareness or unresponsive waking state; Level 3-self awareness that is dull and meaningless; Level 4-passive and reactive, normal consciousness that regards life ‘as a grim battle’; Level 5-an active, spontaneous, happy consciousness in which life is exciting and interesting; Level 6-a transcendent level where time ceases to exist. Wilson does take note of further levels of consciousness as experienced by mystics but gives no details.

Cosmic Consciousness

Canadian psychologist Richard M. Bucke, in his book Cosmic Consciousness, coined this term. It is a transpersonal mode of consciousness, an awareness of the universal mind and one’s unity with it. Its prime characteristic is a consciousness of the life and order in the universe. An individual who at attains this state is often described as ‘Enlightened’ and such a person is also said to have a sense of immortality, not of attaining it but of already having it. Burke saw this state of consciousness as the next stage in human evolution, very much as spiritualists have always seen it.

Indian Ogis and mystics classify the seven states of consciousness differently. They point out that human beings normally experience only three states: sleeping, dreaming and waking. In meditation, fleetingly Ou experience turya, literally the fourth state, or transcendental consciousness, commonly known as samadhi. When this state coexists and stabilizes with the other three, that is the fifth state, where I-consciousness expands to become cosmic consciousness. The sixth state is God consciousness whereby Ou see God everywhere, in everything. The last is unity consciousness: what is within is also outside-pure consciousness, and nothing else is.

Spiritually, consciousness is as vast as the universe, both known and unknown. The potential power of this level of consciousness has been merely touched upon and that too by a few mystics. Consciousness at this level becomes capable of magical powers, defying accepted scientific physical laws and giving us a glimpse of probable future developments in, among other things, quantum physics.

Collective Consciousness

Historically, great movements in any area emerge from a collective consciousness. It is not surprising that in any given field of activity, great ideas do not occur in isolation. Despite an idea germinating in an individual mind, it is interesting to note that the same idea strikes two or more thinkers, geographically far apart, around the same time. Collective consciousness results from consensus. At any given time, collective consciousness is actively operational in a group as small as the family and as large as half the global population. The power of collective consciousness has not been fully explored or appreciated, except perhaps in times of great distress when ‘prayers’ are offered by a group of individuals for a particular reason and the prayers are answered.

The Paradox of Consciousness

The conscious human mind is capable of great good and equally extraordinary evil. It is only for the sake of simplicity that we talk of levels in the form of tiers with an upward hierarchy. In fact, consciousness, while rooted in causal linearity (within the Darwinian evolutionary framework) is dynamic, free moving and nonlinear. The greatest discoveries and inventions were arrived at intuitively. The genius sees what we all see except that s/he thinks about it differently. The evil genius does exactly the same.

Kierkegaard says: “The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.” A conscious human knows something and he knows that he knows it (ad infinitum). The paradox of consciousness is not that we are aware of ourselves but of other things as well, including those that do not constitute the ‘real world’. Of course, when we ‘conceive’ or imagine something ‘unreal’ even our farthest imagination cannot transcend ‘known’ symbolism, which is why there are some things that defy definition. One of these is ‘consciousness’ itself.

Consciousness is a fresh fruit of evolution and our most prized possession. It is consciousness that sets us apart from the opulent variety of earth-life and puts upon us an onus of responsibility. It takes us on incredible journeys and has given us the gifts of insight and transcendence. The same kind of process that gives the earth abundant life allows us to have a sense of self, to contemplate the world, to forecast the future and make ethical choices. Each of us has under our control a miniature world, continuously evolving, making constructs unique to our own minds. In the same way that life itself unfolded, our mental life is progressively enriched, enabling each of us to create our own world.

The universe was born from chaos billions of light years ago and evolved through random selection, and is doing so even today. Stars (and people) are born and die for no better reason than that they simply do. Some stars live longer than others do; some support a host of satellites. Our sun is one of the latter and our fragile planet is just a rock that accidentally came from the sun and eventually became home to an abundance of life forms. As life forms evolved through random selection, humans emerged on the top of the food chain and from there, in the blink of an eye, here we are, seriously and consciously looking for answers and meanings in the universe around us.