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Contemplating Consciousness

How Our Awareness Speaks Volumes of Questions without Answers

On Aging
On Aging
Jun 6 · 5 min read

The simple definition of consciousness provided by Merriam-Webster is “the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself.” And, of course, when you look a bit deeper into that definition and attempt to further define and question why and how we have consciousness, and what its role is in the universe, you can easily find yourself perplexed. According to British philosopher Jules Evans, author of “Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems,” there are basically four ways in which we define why and how we have consciousness and its relationship to the universe. He bases these four ways on the views expressed by prominent truth-seekers going back to the fifth century BC and up through today. The debates on the essence of consciousness have not abated.

Evans explains the four in a chapter titled “The Hard Problem of Consciousness.” They are, in brief:

1. Consciousness is an illusion. “You can’t have some ghostly phenomenon called free will hiding in the machinery of the universe, so we have to accept it doesn’t exist — and eventually science will prove it,” Evans writes.

2. Consciousness evolved through Darwinian natural selection and we do not know how, and will never know how, it works.

3. Consciousness is strictly a human trait that gives us the means “to find earthly happiness in wiser and better ways.” There’s no cosmic aspect to it. We “are a small capsule of meaning adrift in a vast black ocean of meaninglessness.”

4. Consciousness is a dimension of humanity that exists in all matter. It’s being examined in the scientific field of quantum physics, which will eventually come up with a “theory of everything.” As to the why of consciousness, Evans writes that “Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics were right, and that human consciousness arose because the animate universe intended it to, not merely to help humans survive and reproduce, but to enable them to reflect on the cosmos and reveal its truths.”

The Inevitable
Those who do not believe in consciousness as a cosmic entity, point to our deaths. Everything ends — all that deep meaning that has been swirling around our brains is kaput. No further explanation needed. All the love we experienced, all the suffering, all our uniquely individual accomplishments, all the joy winds up in the heap of history, with most of us and our experiences forgotten, ended, a tiny grain in the millions upon millions of human lives throughout time, while the next generation comes and goes.

So, live in the present, and don’t get pulled into all this meaningless and confusing cosmic consciousness mumbo-jumbo that many folks believe deeply in with their hearts and souls. You are here, make the best of it before you die, help others when you can to peacefully get along with each other and make future generations better, until at last you are no more and all your personal suffering, confusion and absurdity is over. There is something about that way of thinking that’s both appealing and utterly sad. For some, it can be the source of existential anxiety, and for others it can be the source of mindful contentment. For me, it is a source of anxiety.

I want to believe there is something more to our fascinating consciousness. I want to believe that every sentient being has a conscience existing forever in the cosmos, where we all coalesce into something greater than ourselves, that we are in a continuous loop of forever learning more about our why, while still maintaining our singular inner souls.

A personal experience affirmed this anxiety when I was under anesthesia for surgery over six hours. It felt like I blinked my eyes from the moment of being anesthetized to the moment I came out of it — as if that period of time never existed. Essentially, I was completely unaware of that specific period of time. “The quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself,” did not exist for six long hours. It had an entirely different emotional effect than waking from a deep sleep where you have some sense of the time you spent snoozing away.

Neuroscience’s Seemingly Futile Attempts
Some neuroscientists seek out “the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC), defined as the minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any specific conscious experience,” writes Christof Koch in a 2018 Scientific American article. He explains that “almost all” conscious experiences originate in the brain’s posterior cortex. However, the difference between this region of our brain and the prefontal cortex, “which does not directly contribute to subjective content,” is, at present, unknown.

So, without going into all kinds of esoteric neuroscientific research on consciousness, I think we can safely say we are still in the not-fully-explainable phase concerning the how and why of consciousness. In short, consciousness is a mystery. It was 2,500 years ago, when ancient Greek philosophers gave their estimations on it, and still is today.

Even popular atheist Sam Harris writes in “Waking Up” that, in scientific terms, “consciousness remains notoriously difficult to understand, or even to define.”

In a March 2019 article in Quanta Magazine, science writer Philip Ball explains that “some problems in science are so hard, we don’t really know what meaningful questions to ask about them — or whether they are even truly solvable by science. Consciousness is one of those.” Ball then goes on to explain the mechanisms of a very early stage project funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, called “Accelerating Research on Consciousness.” The Foundation openly admits, however, that they “do not expect to solve the mysteries of consciousness, but we aim to foster progress by reducing the number of plausible and scientifically testable theories.”

Isn’t that what science has been trying to do all along, without arriving at any real solid answers? So, what’s the point in thinking about it? Would it not be better to simply enjoy life in the moment and avoid the existential anxiety that questions about consciousness inevitably brings?

If you type “consciousness” into a Medium search, you’ll find all kinds of fascinating and intelligent articles, including one posted on Thrive Global, headlined “The Curse of Consciousness: Why Peak Human Pleasure Exists in the Absence of Thought,” where writer Andrew Frawley explains that consciousness is perhaps “a sickness that developed in us 70,000 years ago. While we are the best at survival, clearly an evolutionary win, we live aware of the vastness of existence, but with no real answers — beautiful and torturous at the same time.”

Perhaps we should just leave it all at that and get on with life.

Enjoy your thoughts.

Thanks for stopping by,

George

On Aging

Written by

On Aging

Posts from George Lorenzo, writer and curator of Old Anima. http://www.oldanima.com

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