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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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 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 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.