Monthly Archives: November 2019

Inquiry into Consciousness Part III – The Self

There is the experience of consciousness. On the surface, it carries with it the assumption of individual agency. This assumption assumes that there is a self which experiences consciousness and that this self has some degree of agency or free-will.

In my last post I examined the “internal” experience of consciousness which consists of various kinds of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. This examination revealed to me that although the assumptions of self and agency seem obvious they tend to break down under scrutiny.

Say I have a creative idea and act on it (e.g., I write a novel, song or paint a picture). I implicitly want to take credit for this idea even though I do not know the process by which that idea came into being. Nor do I know that I am responsible for this process even on a subconscious level. The implicitness of this desire to take credit stems from the fact that the idea seemed to originate inside my head. My head is a part of my body and seemingly encasing the physical space where consciousness exists (i.e., behind the eyes and between the ears). Concurrent with this assumption of credit is the assumption that there is a “me” who is capable of taking credit. The implicitness of this assumption seems to primarily stem from the fact that I have a body which occupies physical space and that I have memories which form a continuous timeline of my experience. So there is a conflict that exists between my inability to control my internal experience and the assumption that I should nevertheless take credit for it.

I have been exposed to the idea of “no self” for some time but I cannot say that I totally understand it or feel it. The fact that thoughts occur and I want to take credit for them without understanding the process of their creation begins to shed light on this illusive concept. Not only do I not understand the process of thought creation but I cannot predict or control my thought creation. If I don’t understand the process by which something is created, nor can I predict or control that thing, can I really take credit for it? The self is intimately connected to my thoughts and internal experience, none of which I control. As such, can I really claim there is a self?

But still, the feeling of a self seems very strong and real most of the time especially when I do not directly place my attention on it. Perhaps I could say that there is a self but that this self does not control it’s thoughts and internal experience. In this respect, the self is more of a vessel for this experience. But the self I feel myself to be is not the vessel it is the internal experience. And much like my internal experience, I don’t control most of the functions of my body. I can control my breathing to an extent, but I don’t consciously control my pancreas (for example). If there is a self, I cannot define it as that which I control. It is really what I experience. But saying my self is my experience is different than thinking of my self as an autonomous, sovereign being.

Alan Watts talks about the self being an illusion and that there are only experiences without the need for a self to be the the one who experiences the experiences. This is a difficult idea to understand because as I said it feels like I exist and act autonomously. I have memories that connect my experiences into a life. I have a body etc. etc. I guess the best I can do is say that my self is my experience. This includes both internal and external experience (i.e., the world). Alan Watts says as much. If I am my heart beating then I am also the sun shining.

I recently listened to the audio book version of “Free Will” by Sam Harris. His basic premise is that human beings generally exist with the assumption that they have free will. That is, they believe they are to some degree consciously choosing the actions they take in life. Harris argues this assumption is incoherent in that thoughts appear in the human conscience out of nowhere and therefore the humans experiencing these thoughts cannot take credit for them. Moreover, human experience is shaped by external forces that are out of one’s control. For example, humans have no control over the family, social class and geographic location they are born into. To a large degree, the events in life are also out of one’s control and all of these external forces shape the decisions we make as humans. Curiously, Harris is a staunch atheist. But the idea of no self and no free will tends to tilt me more in the theist camp. After all, something is going on. The experience exists even though my self does not. Something has to be the beneficiary of this experience of consciousness.

The idea of no self can be disappointing because it goes against the implicit assumptions regarding the experience of consciousness. But if there is no me, then who is getting disappointed by the fact that there is no me? This is indeed difficult to wrap one’s head around. Perhaps the idea of the self is the wrong way to go about it. I do not claim to know the right way to go about it. Let us say for now, (1) there is consciousness, both internal and external, (2) there is experience of consciousness and (3) there is existence. Perhaps this is the implication of the statement “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). There is simply pure “am-ness” and maybe it is only God that has a self and can create thought. I will explore this in the next blog post.

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Inquiry Into Consciousness Part II – The Internal Experience of Thoughts

In the previous post, I began my self-inquiry into consciousness wherein I made the following conclusions about consciousness that I believe to be true:

  1. The experience of my individual consciousness (both internal and external) is transpiring at this moment. That is, I know it to exist because I have a first hand experience of it.
  2. On the surface, it appears that there is an external world inhabited by myself and other people who appear to have the experience of individual consciousness.
  3. I do not know with authority how the experience of my individual consciousness came into being or to what extent it is separate from the external things it experiences. That is, I do not know with certainty that the things I perceive to be external things have an existence independent of my consciousness.

In this blog post I want to explore with greater specificity those things I perceive to be an internal experience. The “internal” experience appears to be populated by thoughts (in the forms of language, images, intent and desire and urges), emotions, bodily sensations and attention. I will now discuss each in detail.

Thoughts in General

Thoughts carry with them the illusion of agency but with examination are revealed to be largely (if not entirely) outside of conscious control.

Thoughts in the Form of Language

Thoughts in the form of language are experienced (i.e., not heard) as a disembodied voice. This voice can give expression to general information, creative ideas, advice, commands, criticism and all the forms of verbal communication that I could experience from another person.

I can say with authority that thoughts in the form of language exist because I experience them first hand. It is unclear based on the experience just how these thoughts are generated. There seems to be an implicit assumption that “I” am responsible for my own thoughts but the fact that I cannot control or predict them consciously seems to undermine this assumption. If I pay attention to my thoughts (e.g, through meditation) I can directly observe my inability to control them. On the other hand it may be that I control or create my thoughts on a subconscious level. Or perhaps these thoughts are generated by some external source.

Thoughts in the form of Images

Thoughts in the form of images are similar to thoughts in the form of language in that they appear to be outside of my control or prediction. Images can be still like photographs or dynamic like movies. Often they are memories of events I previously experienced that seem to be triggered by present events that are connected in some way, or by suggestions from external sources (e.g., a person tells me to think of an elephant and I picture it in my mind). Other times they can appear without a readily identifiable trigger. It seems reasonable to assume that there is some reason or triggering event for their existence that transpires on a subconscious level. Curiously, these thoughts seem to be more easily attributable to external causes than are thoughts in the form of language.

Thoughts in the Form of Intent

These thoughts are decisions made in order to accomplish a task or achieve a result. There seems to be some agency involved with decision making. However, as Alan Watts pointed out:

We feel that our actions are voluntary when they follow a decision and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if a decision itself were voluntary every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide. An infinite regression which fortunately does not occur… – The Way of Zen

The fact that I do not experience a decision to decide (in any obvious or conscious sense) also undermines the notion of agency with respect to decisions.

Thoughts in the Form of Desire and Urges

Thoughts in the form of desire or urges can manifest themselves in language such as “I want this or that” or can be simply a non verbal impulse to engage in some behavior or a longing for something that I do not have immediate access to.

At its most basic level, I desire to survive, to not suffer, to experience good things, and my existence to have meaning. These desires seem to be prioritized in that order. That is, I seem to be able to be interested in satisfying a desire only if the preceding desire has been satisfied. There might be some wiggle room there but I think that is essentially correct.

Incidentally, as I write this I am conscious of a desire to have this blog post read by other people. I desire these people to “like” it and to comment on it (so please do if you have made it this far). I suspect this desire is connected to the desire to experience pleasure (as I receive a dopamine hit when this happens). It may also be connect to the desire for my existence to have meaning. That is, if I create through writing and that writing has an impact on other people then it suggests that my existence is meaningful in an objective sense.

Desires seem to precede and perhaps inform any agency that I might have. That is, my actions seem to be designed to satisfy my desires.

Emotions

Emotions or feelings seem to operate independent of my will. Often they are a reaction to a person or situation I encounter in the external world. They can also be triggered by memories or subconscious processes. Like desires and urges, emotions also seem to precede and inform agency.

Bodily Sensations

Bodily sensations are the physical feelings I have in my body (e.g., heat, cold, pain, pleasure, pressure, etc.). Like emotions, bodily sensations also operate independently of my will. This makes sense in that bodily sensations are caused by external and internal physical causes.

Attention

Attention seems to be the one internal process that seems to be most likely under my control. I can choose (although I don’t know how I do this) to focus my attention on various things within both the internal and external experience. However, the fact that I do not know how I choose to focus my attention (deciding to decide) also undermines the notion that I have any agency in this process.

In summary, the internal experience of my consciousness carries with it an assumption of agency, however, the more my internal experience is examined the more the assumption of agency becomes undermined. It seems possible that there is no agency at all. Or perhaps thinking of this in terms of agency is the wrong way to go about it because it fundamentally misunderstands the dynamic in some way. As such, I believe the logical next area of inquiry should be the idea of agency as it relates to the self.

 

 

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Inquiry into Consciousness

Leo Gura of Actualized.org recently dropped a podcast entitled “How to Discover What’s True” wherein he suggests that the Truth of existence can be discovered by thinking and asking questions about existence methodically. He asserts it is possible to arrive at Truth in this way and that he has done this himself. It seems logical to first question the veracity of this assertion. I don’t know that it is true that I can discover Truth simply by thinking and asking about it. So then, the next step would be to test the assertion in some way. The most obvious method to me of testing his assertion is to assume it is true and then to follow it where it takes me. This is the inquiry.

Truth is a rather broad concept. As such, it would be helpful to break it down into more specific areas of inquiry. The truth of consciousness seems like a good starting point. After all, I have direct access to consciousness that I am experiencing it right now. I have been experiencing consciousness as far back as I can remember. But what is consciousness?

According to wikipedia, “Consciousness at its simplest refers to … awareness of internal or external existence”. I can say it is true that I am aware of internal and external experience because I am directly experiencing my internal and external experience. I don’t think I have to question whether I am actually experiencing these experiences because if I can’t trust that I am actually experiencing my experience then I cannot trust this inquiry in the first place. And really, what would it mean to say that I am not really experiencing my experiences? Even if they are hallucinations, I am still (on some level) experiencing the hallucinations. Certainly, my interpretations of these experiences could be untrue but the experience is still there as far as I can tell.

The definition of consciousness refers to two types of awareness: (1) internal existence and (2) external existence. On its face, my experience seems to accord with this bifurcation. But I have listened to enough Alan Watts lectures to question the veracity of this bifurcation. I can conceive of a reality where what I perceive to be external experience to be an extension of my internal experience. This is not solipsism per say. In the Watts explained conception of reality (which corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist thought as far as I know) there is a omnipotent and omnipresent deity that has decided to experience limitation (the one thing it lacks). It did this because it is impossible to have an adventure if one is omnipotent and omnipresent. Nothing could surprise such a being. Nor could it learn and grow from experience. And so it experiences this limitation by experiencing our lives individually. As such, my consciousness is really God pretending to be me. Likewise the experience of other people are God pretending to be them. It’s a big, elaborate hallucination that only God Himself could pull off because He is omnipotent and omnipresent.

Of course, this conception of consciousness is inconsistent with the Christian tradition (specifically Roman Catholic) which is the tradition in which I grew up and with which I am the most familiar. In this tradition there are individual consciousnesses which were brought into being by God and are therefore separate and distinct from God. There is also a real external reality in which these consciousnesses exist and interact.

If I am being honest, I cannot say (at this point in the inquiry) with authority that I know which model is true. It is interesting that Christianity requires belief in its model for salvation. I have explored this odd requirement in a previous blog post. A belief is something a person holds to be true. But how can a person believe something that he does not know with authority to be true? He could pretend to believe it but the belief system seems to require actual belief. And why would God require this belief from a person who is not in a position to know its veracity with authority? Two ideas come to mind to address this question. The first is the concept of faith which is a trusting attitude in the teachings of a higher authority. The second is that belief is akin to the placebo effect. That is, belief in a particular idea, in some real sense creates the reality of that idea. We see this most clearly when a placebo actually heals a person who believes it to work. But belief from a position of faith and as a placebo are not in the spirit of this inquiry which is to see if Truth can be discovered wholly through self-inquiry. I cannot speak for other Christian traditions, but Roman Catholicism is not wholly against the concept of self-inquiry or self-reflection. In fact it encourages it to an extent. But there is definitely a sense within Roman Catholicism that self-inquiry cannot take one all the way across the finish line. Anyway, the point here is that for the purpose of this inquiry, I will need to suspend any Christian requirement of belief. If it ultimately turns out that belief or faith is required then I would like to think that I would arrive at that point on my own through this process of inquiry.

At this point, I can say a few things with authority based upon this inquiry. (1) The experience of my individual consciousness (both internal and external) is transpiring at this moment. (2) On the surface, it appears that there is an external world inhabited by myself and other people who appear to have the experience of individual consciousness. (3) I do not know with authority how the experience of my individual consciousness came into being or to what extent it is separate from the external things it experiences. As I am approaching 1,000 words I will leave it at that for now.

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