Looking for consciousness

Consciousness plunges into a full discussion of so many other universal questions. Even apparently opposing points of view about consciousness seem to approach one another after all, then diverge suddenly like charged particles. Even defining consciousness provokes forays into divergent topics, as if eluding sight of the subatomic particle.

One can begin at an extreme, that of the radical opponents of consciousness like B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist. The behaviorist dismisses consciousness as non-existent. If it cannot be weighed, measured, or quantified then it does not exist. Instead, according to behaviorism, everything humans do is conditioned long before, just conditioned reflexes. This may simplify our understanding of, say, motor reflexes, but it assumes that we are products of upbringing and of society’s acculturation — which is true to a large degree. That is, most people seem to function as automatons in some perverse avoidance of thinking and reflecting on what they have inherited and on what is surrounding them.

But that is not what consciousness or denying consciousness is all about. Instead, denial is the denial of a human nature other than whatever physical juices have evolved. Human propensity for violence is due to inevitable shortages of electrical impulses or to an overlarge amygdala. All of this sounds sufficient if we are assessing the human being as a composite of society and culture over the centuries. It does not address the individual or potentialities. And we can sense the inadequacies of scientific explanation when we see how it is as much dependent on society’s values at the time, as in behaviorism’s heyday of the 1950’s infatuation with technology and progress. The modern behaviorist fears Descartes’ ghost in the machine, the theologian’s soul, the universal self , because ultimately behaviorism cannot accept will.

The existential philosopher Sartre appears to represent the very opposite point of view. Consciousness is demonstrated by the very fact that we are completely, starkly, and imminently free to define our selves and exercise our wills. This is the insight of existentialism, which is not trying to make of the will a hero or metaphysical champion but instead to recognize the profoundness of our individual capability to become aware of the content and nature of society and culture. We are conditioned in an anecdotal sense, in that we are born with this or that set of parents, learn this or that language and set of values, cultivate this or that personality. All of this is grist for consciousness: to recognize all of this socialization and to wonder at its significance — and yet at its insignificance in assessing what it means to be human, really human.

Yet Sartre concludes that when we look behind all of this accoutrement of social face and presentation to the world, consciousness is not that. Consciousness is not the sum of acculturation, not the sum of the parts. But neither is it the soul or the ghost in the machine. Sartre says, simply, that it is nothing.

Now, “nothing” and nothingness have a long career despite their 20th century tone of nihillism. In Vedanta, for example, we catalog the objects of our senses and conclude that what “is” is “not that, not that.” It is the nada that John of the Cross spoke of. It is the object of meditation east and west when our minds rest in emptiness. It is no “thing.” But, then, what is it? It is our awareness of this emptiness, this nothingness, that constitutes consciousness. Equating this nothingness with consciousness does not define consciousness but sets out its existential parameters. It identifies what the individual can “do” with the objects it encounters. What it “does” reflects the maturation of will, the refinement of self, and, ultimately, the qualities of consciousness.

A sense of what consciousness is might be to consider a flower. How conscious is a flower of not its surroundings but of its self? We would say not at all but, well, it does not matter. The flower’s surroundings are its self — to the delight and the denial of the behaviorist, who will gleefully not assign the flower (or the human being) a self, and will see the growth of the seed, the stem, the leaves, and the flower, as the equivalent of “conditioning,” needing no consciousness, which is dismissed as a primitive anthropomorphism. The flower will have no more meaning than the universe.

But we have as much of a career as the flower. The only difference is that, as Heidegger says, “being” is an issue to us. We are reflexive, we are out of our emptiness and nothingness, unlike the flower, which exists in perfect harmony with the universe, its surroundings, its self. Our human restlessness makes the behaviorist in turn restless about the possibility that we humans have — even as we grow, mature, age, and pass away like a flower — awareness. Who can deny that we are painfully and achingly aware of this, that we have “consciousness,” be it the ghost, the soul, the self, the unit of expression by the universe, or an eternal flower.

So the challenge is to search for consciousness but with the expectation of finding, well, nothing. And everything.