Saturday, November 5, 2016

Consciousness and reality

Descartes' "cogito" is not a syllogism but a profound mystical experience of one's reality. (Pavel Florensky)
It is all the rage these days for scientists to become interested in the question of consciousness. We want to explain this phenomenon, because it seems like the last bastion of metaphysics where physics cannot touch. No scientific materialist can resist such a challenge.

But consciousness is not simply a "phenomenon." It is the background of all phenomena. To assert that something exists is the same as saying, "I am conscious that it exists." If there is no consciousness, there is essentially no existence. We can imagine a closed system in which no conscious being exists. But such a reality is merely hypothetical. It would not--could not--have any meaningful existence outside of our own thought experiment, which is itself the product of consciousness!

Reflecting in this manner, one is slightly tempted by solipsism. Perhaps all of reality is actually the product of my consciousness. Yet this is only a very slight temptation, because it feels immediately absurd. In reality, I have so little control over my surroundings, so little understanding even of myself. If I am at all self-aware, I have the constant sensation of being a very small part of a vast universe which goes on existing whether I do or not.

So if the existence of the universe depends on consciousness, it certainly does not seem to depend on my consciousness.

Both of these reflections have such a strong intuitive appeal that I can't help but accept them both. I conclude that my own consciousness is in fact one small result of a much greater consciousness, to which all things in existence are attached.

The materialist will argue that all of my experiences are the result of processes which occur physically in the brain, and therefore there is no reason to posit any notion of immaterial consciousness. But this is only to explain consciousness as an external phenomenon, one which we can observe, test, and then circumscribe in physical theory. That is not at all what consciousness is. We cannot reduce consciousness down to anything else because it is the most fundamental fact of all, as Descartes sensed vividly when he said, "I think, therefore I am." The most fundamental fact is, "I am." But that fact is precisely consciousness, which is why for Florensky this is not a syllogism but rather a mystical experience, that is, a powerful awareness that we normally suppress.

This is why the name of God translates to, "I am." There is nothing more fundamental than that something exists. But that fact would no longer be a fact if it were not known. Hence the universe comes into being through the words, "I am."

Obviously our own awareness of the universe is very limited, and it is only made possible by our extraordinarily complex material composition (in particular, the brain). But as much as we might understand the human brain, we will never remotely penetrate the question of why there exists something rather than nothing, and in the same way we will never be able to theoretically circumscribe consciousness. Indeed, consciousness is that which circumscribes all our theories.

Instead, we ought to try to understand the whole universe as an outworking of this assertion, "I am." Although our own consciousness is receptive, seeking to understand that which precedes it, God's consciousness is an active one, calling things into existence. The physical complexity of our brains is a requirement for us because we need so many complex functions to be able to respond to the world as it exists. God, on the other hand, needs no complex parts, because His consciousness is all-encompassing.

We encounter here the mystery of human existence. If we retreat into our own minds, we encounter consciousness, and it is as if we ourselves were God. But if we look outward for even a moment, we realize that we are mere creatures, and it is only because of the absurdly rich genetic inheritance that we have received that we have even a drop of consciousness in us. We cannot decide whether we are creatures or creators.

Scientific materialism leaves no room for this mystery. It makes us into mere creatures because it wants to assert that we are creators. It is the ultimate irony. We are alone in the universe; apart from sufficiently complex organisms, there is no such thing as consciousness; the universe is empty, no one is listening, no one is watching. We therefore must make our own reality, except that reality is already imposed on us; we are mere creatures, desperately attempting to be creators on the basis of our intellectual capacities. But since we are not created but the product of mere time and chance, we are not even creatures but rather objects. There is no mystery of existence; rather, it is a tragedy, or a farce.

I realize that it is with a very aggressive tone that I make these assertions, but that is not because I am so certain of my own position. Quite the opposite. I admit it's plausible, when we look at the world from a human point of view, that we are an accidental blip of consciousness in an otherwise dead universe. For me, it is more the heart than the head which rails against such conclusions. And although the heart is quite easily intimidated by the head, I think one sees more clearly through it than through any power of reason.

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