Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'm alive

The title of this post has a double meaning.

On the one hand, it's simply been far too long since I wrote here. I feel terribly guilty about this, but the guilt only pushes me further away from writing again. Starting a new job, moving to a new place, worrying about finding a next job (I am still just a lowly post-doc)--all of this has kept me away from my personal blog. There is another factor involved, on the level of ideas: I have needed the time to think about things differently. At times I have wondered whether I wouldn't simply take this whole blog down and start over (or never blog again). My ideas have shifted quite a bit over time, and my reasons for blogging today have very little to do with why I started.

On the other hand, the title of this post shows what I've been thinking about most recently (outside of my professional life, that is). Consciousness, or mind, was the philosophical problem that fascinated me most when I was in college, and as I continue to sift through the intellectual debate that manages to make it to such channels as Ted Talks and Youtube videos, I am led to think that we as a species have made little to no progress on this question.

Modern thinkers would love to have a complete theoretical account of experience, including consciousness. I am inclined to think this is fundamentally impossible. Consciousness is paradoxically reducible and irreducible. By reducible, I mean we seem to be able to explain it in terms of smaller pieces--namely, the neurons which make up the brain. By irreducible, I mean simply that consciousness is the point of access to the whole world. Imagining that my consciousness didn't exist is not simply like imagining that the computer in front of me didn't exist; it's really to imagine that nothing exists.

If the concept of consciousness necessarily contains the idea of self-awareness, then mind need not. The point really isn't whether I'm aware of me, the individual, but whether I'm aware of anything at all. Mind is not that thing which allows me to say, "I exist," but rather that which allows me to confront the fact that something exists. In fact, being self-aware is in some sense a way of diminishing the significance of mind. I realize that the world could go on existing without me, and so it does not seem so dramatic to think that one day all the lights could go out. I am led to believe that when I contemplate mortality, it is only my own mortality, and not the end of the world. Yet that belief, ironically the result of self-awareness, requires a leap of faith in the external world. It is a leap everyone seems to make without thinking, which, I suppose, is to our advantage.

Solipsism, after all, is really not the belief that I am the only conscious being. It is, rather, the annihilation of the concept of I, and indeed of consciousness. It is the most literal possible reading of the external world. Things exist, they have colors and shapes and smells and tastes, they make sounds, they cause feelings. There are also thoughts, images that don't always correspond to light, sounds that don't always correspond to vibrations, feelings that don't always correspond to motion. If ever all the lights go out, and all these smells and tastes and sounds and feelings go away--then nothing will exist. There is no person "out there" to carry on "experiencing" anything.

No one seems to think this. They think of themselves as part of a larger whole. Each of us differentiates "I" from all the rest. It is the most natural act of faith. It allows genuine relationship, the encounter of the other. No amount of bizarre speculation should ever make us want to shrink from that.

Yet if we reflect for a moment on the true nature of solipsism, and then again on the leap of faith we make to avoid it, we might see what an overwhelming and miraculous thing it is for two persons to interact. It is not simply the meeting of two objects in space. It is the meeting of two universes. For if I erase the concept of I, then there really is only one world; yet if I become aware of another who might also do the same, erasing their own concept of I, I see that there are actually two worlds, which then intersect through the exchange of thoughts and feelings. In which case I then must recover my concept of I, because I realize that the "world" as I experience it is only my own, and there are others which may change it or be changed by it.

This is the nature of mind. I still haven't explained why I think we will never have a comprehensive view of mind together with the rest of the world, but I think this is a start.

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