What Is Consciousness?

May 1, 2017 § 6 Comments

“Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts.’‘ – Sam Harris

”The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness.” Lao Tzu

“As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.” Ram Dass

Consciousness is self-awareness of our own existence; the mind contemplating itself & its place in the world.

It gets a little trickier when we try to elaborate.

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”The human brain contains about one hundred billion interacting neurons,” relates science writer Michael S. Graziano. ”Neuroscientists know, at least in general, how that network of neurons can compute information. But how does a brain become aware of information? What is sentience itself?”

”What is the essence of awareness, the spark that makes us us? Something lovely apparently buried inside us is aware of ourselves and of our world. Without that awareness, zombie-like, we would presumably have no basis for curiosity, no realization that there is a world about which to be curious, no impetus to seek insight, whether emotional, artistic, religious, or scientific. Consciousness is the window through which we understand.” (‘What Is Consciousness? Neuroscience May Have Answer To The Big Questions.”)

Fajar P. Domingo[Fajar P. Domingo]

“Consider an analogy from physics,” adds psychologist Kristian Marlow, “knowing every equation predicting how mass and gravity interact does not tell us why they interact in the way they do. To understand why mass and gravity interact, we must appeal to highly esoteric explanations involving relativity, quantum mechanics or string theory. ”

Graziano offers a simpler metaphor: a child and his father watch as a magician saws a woman in half. “How do you think he does that?” asks the father. “Dad,” says the kid. “It’s obvious!” “Really?” asks the father, intrigued. “How?” The child replies: “The magician does it.”

Neuroscience, at this stage, Graziano asserts, is merely pointing at the magician; not explaining the trick.

how to become a magician[image source]

In philosophy, the study of consciousness is called phenomenology.

The mind–body problem examines the relationship between mind and matter, specifically the relationship between consciousness and the brain. The issue was addressed by René Descartes in the 17th century, resulting in Cartesian dualism. Descartes asserted that the the seat of intelligence & sentience was distinct from the brain, “a ghost in the machine.”

[ Fajar P. Domingo]

In the world of philosophy, physicalists maintain that consciousness is entirely physical,  while dualists think we are dealing with a two part system in which mental phenomena are, in some respect, non physical.

The philosopher Spinoza apposed Descartes’ theory of dualism, asserting that all matter was in fact made up of a single substance: an impersonal God with infinite attributes.

Spinoza’s theory represents a monist worldview, in which the distinctions we perceive are not ultimately indications of separation—a view which quantum physics appears to confirm & the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta established thousands of years ago.

How To Shoot Stellar Milky Way Double Exposure Portraits[image source]

Pioneering writer & philosopher Starhawk comments that the dualist way of thinking has created a culture of estrangement in modern life in which people feel “as strangers in the world,” disconnected from nature, each other & themselves.

Within this stock narrative of dualism in Western culture, Starhawk observes that “all qualities can be broken down into pairs of opposites—one is good, idealized, and the other is bad, devalued. Psychologists call this thought process “splitting”—the inability to see people or things as wholes containing both desired and undesired elements. In the split world, spirit wars with flesh, culture with nature, the sacred with the profane, the light with the dark.” (“Dreaming The Dark: Magic, Sex, Politics.”)

Forgive me folks if this post is something weird for you. What you read is totally my own. I respect your ideas about this.: [image source]

Starhawk observes that the split narrative becomes a metaphor for hierarchy. The fact that the “good guy versus bad guy” theme is the most dominant story line in Western culture is no accident, she asserts: it implants the message that in order for some to be good, others must be bad. A mental program that keeps us eternally divided, from each other & within ourselves.

Although we are technically all conscious as long as we are living, sometimes, although we are operating in the world, we may feel dull, uninspired, disconnected, apathetic. We encounter people who seem checked out as well.

This state has been dubbed in the parlance of modern spirituality “unconsciousness”: that trance-like state when you’re technically alive but don’t feel particularly vital or connected with your environment, yourself, a sense of purpose, etc—when, as Starhawk would say, we feel “as strangers in the world.”

Julian Pacaud:

[Julian Pacaud]

Contrast this with the experience we have all had at certain times of feeling intensely present, conscious & vital—in which we feel awakened to a sense of possibility & connection.

But words fail, because this “awakeness” is an extra, internal layer of awareness & alertness beyond the physical mechanism of simply not being asleep. This experience is universally typified by a sense of peace & uplift. Insights, which seem to recede into the background in “the trance, ” re-emerge as self-evident truths.

[Fajar P. Domingo]

Spiritual practice could be defined as the conscious cultivation of accessing this experience of “awakeness”—as one often seems to stumble into it and out of it. But tools like meditation, mindfulness & gratitude practices can help us access this feeling at will. This sense of deepened awakeness is often referred to as higher consciousness, and connecting with this state is the goal of spiritual practice.

We might define higher consciousness & its pursuit as: consciousness being conscious of itself as consciousness, and seeking to refine that awareness.

[Fajar P. Domingo]

What are your thoughts on consciousness? Which camp do you fall in (dualist or monist) & why? What is your experience of the awake/unconscious scenario?

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If you enjoyed this post, try:

“Dreaming The Dark: Technologies of Immanence”

“Stardust Contemplating Stardust: Inner Space & The Science of Illumination.”

“The Human Soul & The Floating Man”

“Polarity & Paradox, Black & White Thinking In A Rainbow World.”

Polarity and Paradox: Black and White Thinking in a Rainbow World

February 8, 2012 § 27 Comments

By Tai Carmen

escher_sky_water“Sky & Water” by M.C. Escher

“To offer the leadership and vision our times require as individuals, professionals, change agents in any domain, and even as spiritual leaders, wisdom dictates we move beyond unconscious polarization – not just intellectually, but in the very words we speak and the actions we take.” ~ Ragini Elizabeth Michaels 

“[T]he thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

“To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”
~ Jianzhi Sengcan

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to think in terms of black and white.

If one extreme presents itself, such as a predator, it’s logical to put as much space between you and that danger as possible, to go the opposite direction. It makes sense to label the saber tooth tiger “unsafe” and the cave where he can’t reach you “safe.” In situations so basic, locations which are “somewhat safe” are ineffective to ponder.

But we no longer live in an age where this kind of thinking serves us. In fact, the cognitive distortion brought on by viewing a complex world through the simplistic lens of “this or that,” “all or nothing,” “either/or,” can harm relationships, diminish well-being and limit our overall understanding of the world. In viewing a multi-faceted situation through a binary lens we are bound to miss essential details.

In the modern era the ability to perceive nuance, ambiguity and paradox is considered the height of cognitive vitality. Finding balance between seemingly contradictory elements is believed by many to be the road to inner peace.

Language itself promotes dualistic thinking. ‘Difficult’ and ‘easy’ define each other. What would ‘calm’ mean without ‘anxious?’ ‘Up’ makes ‘down’ distinguishable.

Even the simplest, most everyday question — “How are you?” — pressures us to pick a side. If, for whatever combination of reasons, our focus happens to be on the pleasant, enjoyable, fulfilling aspects of our lives that day, we will likely answer, “good!”

If, for whatever combination of reasons, our attention has been brought to the difficult, frustrating, undesirable aspects of our lives, we may say the social equivalent of “bad” (“not so good,” “seen better days,” etc.)

Yet, our lives at all times contain both pleasant and challenging aspects. What has changed, more often than not, on the days we say “good” from the “I’ve had better” days is simply our focus.

Middle ground responses will likely provoke an interpretation veering towards the negative. For instance responding with a shrug, “So-so,” “I’m okay,” or the unlikely but far more accurate, “I’m both good and bad,” will be read as unspecific and inspire detail pressing. The most honest answer (“I am”) would be considered highly uninformative.

“While we speak to the unity and harmony of the whole as our desired goal,” writes Ragini Elizabeth Michaels in her article “Managing a Paradoxical Life,” “our language itself too often reveals an unconscious choice of one pole of a polar pair as more important, or more right, than the other – spiritual over material, peace over conflict, trust over doubt, unity over diversity, harmony over discord.”

A false dilemma (also called a false dichotomy, or black-and-white thinking) is a type of logical fallacy that involves a situation in which only two alternatives are considered, when in fact there are additional options. (“It wasn’t medicine that cured Mrs. X, so it must be a miracle.”)

Marked by a logical leap and the oversimplification of a more complex matter, a false dichotomy may be presented intentionally, in order to manipulate a perspective (“You’re either with us, or you’re against us,”) or unintentionally, due to an assumption (“He wouldn’t do that if he loved me.”)

Social systems reinforce this kind of polarized thinking. For example, if you want to identify with a political party of any influence in the United States you have two choices: either you can identify as pro-peace, pro-gay, pro-tax, pro-regulation, pro-choice and anti-gun or pro-military, anti-gay, anti-tax, pro-free market, pro-life and pro-gun.

What if you are pro-gay, pro-free market, anti-tax, pro-life, pro-peace and pro-gun? Too bad. Pick a side or your vote yields no power. Cultural splitting such as this encourages people to think in unnecessarily polarized terms.

In structuralism (the sociological study of cultural context) dividing the world into two opposing categories, known as  binary opposition, is seen as a fundamental organizer of human philosophy, culture, and language (for example, we need the idea of “evil” in order to conceive of the concept of “good.”)

But others (post-structuralists in particular) argue that such binary opposition is often value-laden and ethnocentric.

French philospher Jacques Derrida agrees that binary oppositions often marks “a violent hierarchy” where “one of the two terms governs the other.” For instance, in the West, the idea of presence occupies a position of dominance over absence, because absence is traditionally seen as what you get when you take presence away.

In this way, binary language can be linked with hierarchy and oppression. For instance, male can be seen, according to traditional Western thought, as dominant over female because male is the presence of a phallus, while the vagina is an absence, and therefor seen as a loss.

paradise, m.c. escher“Paradise” by M.C Escher

“Black and white thinking doesn’t just hurt ourselves, but also the relationships we try to build with other people. When we view the world in strict and over-simplistic terms, we are less likely to compromise and cooperate with others to meet common interests,” notes psychology writer Steven Handel.

“We lose in black and white thinking because we are never going to be everything we want to be. We’re always going to be lacking something if we’re trying to measure ourselves on some black-and-white scale where x is good and y is not good. We’re never going to be able to be completely x. It doesn’t happen, because we’re human – we’re unfinished – and we’re not simple.”

“A black and white viewpoint often creates artificial ‘needs’ in our life that lead to disappointment and depression,” continues  Handel, adding that the cognitive-based psychotherapist Albert Ellis called one example of this ‘musterbation.’ “This is our tendency to think that we must have something, or we must do something, or life must be a certain way – or it will be awful.

“Black and white thinking doesn’t open us up to the possibility that even if life doesn’t work out exactly the way we think it should, we can still find happiness.”

Ragini Elizabeth Michaels agrees: “We may think that by eradicating the pole we don’t want, we are creating a non-dual universe, or ‘fixing the problem.’ We may believe that the dilemma, or duality itself, with its conflicts and tensions, will then somehow disappear. Or worse yet, we may begin to perceive the spiritual as the solution to the problems of the material world – which, paradoxically, it is and it is not.

“In contrast, depolarizing the mind frees us to perceive war and peace, anger and compassion, freedom and responsibility, and even duality and non-duality, as partners, and to perceive the friction or tension between them as creativity in disguise. This shift in perception changes everything.”

German philosopher  Hegel saw history as a merging of opposites, creating progress: one viewpoint (the Thesis) merges with another, seemingly polar, viewpoint (the Anti-Thesis,) creating a new entity altogether, the Synthesis. This process is known in philosophy as the Hagelian Dialectic. For Hegel, dialectic tension is inherently creative and capable of union.

Great thinkers have always embraced paradox — looking past black and white simplification into a world where seemingly contradictory forces can co-exist. Kierkegaard said:

“…one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”

In Asian philosophy, the concept of yin yang (referred to in the West as “yin and yang”) describes how seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, giving rise to each other in turn. Yin yang are not opposing forces but complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole.

Paradox is the heart and soul of Zen philosophy.  As Lau-Tzu said, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty…Look, and it can’t be seen. Listen, and it can’t be heard. Reach, and it can’t be grasped… seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception…You can’t understand it, but you can be it. The Tao is beyond is and is not…”

Next time you find yourself feeling anxious over some perceived reality, take note. Are you making a logical leap that if X is true, then so must Y? Are you boxing yourself or someone else into an all-or-nothing false dilemma, considering only two alternatives where there are many? Ignoring seemingly contradictory aspects in order to create the illusion of a more manageable whole? In the end, the dualistic world view is not more manageable. It is more prone to distortion.

Am I saying to abandon discernment? On the contrary! By releasing preconceived dualistic notions we open ourselves to perceive a greater spectrum.

So take off those black and white glasses and behold the multi-colored world!

The Eternal Return

April 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

By Tai Carmen

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Ecclesiastes 1:9

I dwell in sacred time, which flows in a circle. Not historical time, which runs in a line. T. A. BarronThe Lost Years of Merlin

The idea of the eternal return is not limited to Biblical platitude. The concept can also be found in ancient EgyptianMayan and Aztec beliefs, in East Indian and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as the 19th century thought experiment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The concept of the eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form, an infinite number of times across infinite time and/or infinite space.

The image of the Ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail, symbolizes the eternal recurrence, or “the end is the beginning.” It has been seen in various expressions through out ancient Egypt, Japan, India, and Greece — in European woodcuts and Aztec art.

Stephen Hawking affirms the possibility of the  “arrow of time”,  a concept that the universe proceeds up to a certain point, after which it undergoes a time reversal.

Respected religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, expands on the concept in his book, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, first by splitting man’s experience into two categories: the sacred and the profane, or everyday.

In his studies of tribal belief systems around the world, Mircea concludes that traditional or “archaic” man associates “the sacred” with some original mythology of creation. He sites the Aborigines concept of “dreamtime” as one example. In the Aborigine legend of “the time before time” creators, who exist in a world outside of time, created the world within time, and then become rocks, trees, stars, etc. in the world. In this way, Mircea observes, the profane only gains meaning through the sacred.

Nietzsche uses the idea of the eternal return as a thought experiment to explore his concept of Amor fati, or “love of fate.” Imagining such an existence horrifying, he rallies with the cry of embracing what is:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”

The Question of Reality

January 19, 2011 § 9 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” — Chuang Tzu

From Plato’s Cave to The Matrix, thoughtful humans throughout the ages have found different ways to ask the same question: Are we fully cognizant of the true nature of the reality that surrounds us?

There is a basic unease to the human condition, the vague and gnawing sense that there must be something we are missing, something we have not been told; a feeling rooted, no doubt, in the fact that we are born into a world where the most burning questions have only theoretical, subjective answers.

Religion has attempted to fill this void with meaning, but even in its answers, more questions arise.

How solid is our reality? Science, so often pitted against the mystical, has the most mystically fraught of answers: not solid at all. On an atomic and subatomic level — as we all learned in school, though most likely didn’t grasp the full implication of at the time — there is space and movement between atoms. The so-called solid wall is teeming, pulsing, dancing — molecules full of wide open space.

If I put my hand on the wall, the sensation I experience as touch is the interaction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of the wall; on an atomic level, there is a point where the difference between my hand and the wall become indistinguishable.

In other words, it has been scientifically proven in our lifetime that the reality we behold is — to some degree, anyway — illusory.

The idea that the nature of form is misleading and ultimately unreal, of course, has been in existence for centuries — perhaps most famously put forth in the Eastern concept of Maya, (found in Buddhism and Hinduism,) a word derived form the ancient Sanskritma, meaning “not,” and ya, meaning “that.” Though the details differ, Judeo-Christian philosophy reiterates the same basic idea: that things are not as they appear, and this world is but a pale echo of a brighter, truer place.

There are more sinister shades, more paranoid potential, to this question of reality. The possibility that, as in The Matrix — where humans are grown by sentient machines, imprisoned in a virtual computer-generated world —we are living in an unperceived prison of sorts. As the character Morpheus says:

“What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

Of course, we can clearly see that there are many things wrong with the world — war, hunger, violence, hatred. Easily, that can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it-feeling of unease can find its root in quite tangible phenomena. Perhaps it is a form of escapism to look elsewhere than the obvious issues — wishful thinking that there is some explanation which would make the world’s horrors somehow more comprehensible. And yet, true though this may be, it doesn’t hurt to probe, to dig, to question consensus reality.

The Matrix premise borrows heavily from the Gnostic tradition, wherein the world was created by imperfect gods (though within the spectrum a perfect one exists.)

These flawed creators are described as a race of inorganic beings local to our solar system, called Archons. Agents of error, they feed off human misery and hence work to deceive the mind towards darkness. Pretty trippy stuff, considering the ancient texts date back to the 3rd and 4th century.

The fact that our experience of stimuli in the world is actually an experience of our brain’s interpretation of that stimuli (rather than the thing itself) does make a Matrix-like gap between reality and perceived reality plausible.

After all, the smell of a rose is simply information recognized through sensory organs and registered as “rose.”

The light waves we see when we perceive the rose are in our eyes, not the thing seen; the molecules we smell are in our nose, not the thing smelled. They are not the thing itself, but a relayed message or impression of the thing.

In the language of philosophy, this is known as the “brain in a vat” thought experiment. Theoretically, if it were scientifically possible to place a brain in a life-sustaining liquid environment (or “vat”) & hook its neurons up to a supercomputer—generating electrical impulses identical to those the brain normally receives—the brain would perceive the simulated reality as experiential reality.

This concept is used as a  basic argument for philosophical skepticism; as theoretically it is impossible to know, from the brain’s perspective, whether it exists in a scull or a vat.

Brain in a vat

Surrealist artist Rene Margitte plays with this concept in his famous painting, The Treachery of Images, which displays a pipe, underneath which is written in French: “This is not a pipe”

For, indeed, it is not a pipe, but a representation of one. Yet our first thought upon reading the painting’s caption is to object—certainly this is a pipe. 

Yet upon reflection we must admit that the clever artist’s pronouncement is absolutely accurate and, indeed, our tendency to associate the-thing-itself with its representation has been illustrated.

How can we assume this world is as it seems, when nightly dreams themselves can seem so real? What deeper, truer, more expansive identity and truth might be revealed to us about the cosmos and our place in it upon leaving or waking from this reality?

I’m not in any hurry to get there, and as Tom Hanks says in Joe vs. The Volcano, “Some things take care of themselves,” but I do — after many a dark night of the soul wrestling with doubt — have a good feeling about it. After all, the world minus man’s debacles, is a place brimming with potential and inspirational phenomena.


I’ve heard the life-as-dream/world-as-illusion theory described as angst-producing, proof of pointlessness. I don’t see it that way. Does an inspiring nocturnal dream enrich our spirit any less because it gives way to a deeper, fuller reality upon waking? Is a great novel any less meaningful because it didn’t really happen? When you start subdividing it, the word “real” itself begins to lose meaning.

We can knock on a table and feel reassured by its bright, solid sound. But even the table is like Magritte’s pipe — both what it seems to be and also not at all. Reality ripe with paradox and potential, lots of wide open space for us to take a tip from the molecules and dance, even in the smallest spaces.

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