ARTICULATING THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: THE SELF & FREE WILL
I experience my consciousness first hand. Without examination, I feel like I am a self, and should properly take credit for my thoughts and I have free will and am responsible for the decisions I make. Upon closer scrutiny, however, I do not know how my thoughts are created, nor can I predict my next thought. Because my traditional notion of self-hood (i.e., a creator of thoughts who has free will) has a great deal to do with my thoughts and my agency in their creation, I must question this notion of a self that I have heretofore assumed to exist.
If the experience of self is based upon a faulty assumption, what then is the experience of consciousness? Who is it that is experiencing consciousness and believes he has a self? The reality that exists in which a non-self entity can question whether he has a self, itself exists. That is, the process exists (because I experience it firsthand) but it is unclear as to whether there is or whether there necessarily has to be one who experiences the process.
Consciousness entails the awareness of this dynamic (and much else) but a definition of consciousness in its totality is elusive. Yet, we all seem to know instinctively what the word consciousness means. It is as if at its very nature consciousness avoids scrutiny. Questioning the notion of self illustrates this problem of consciousness.
MODELS OF THE UNIVERSE
This problem of consciousness seemingly exists within a universe (i.e., a physical realm). This universe consists of physical space in which to operate and physical objects within this space (including the body). This universe and all the stimuli within it can be interpreted in different ways. Each interpretation carries with it different implications as to the nature of the self and free will. Let us consider Monotheism, Non Duality and Atheism as examples.
Monotheism, including Christianity (of the non mystical variety) as well as Judaism and Islam (to the extent I understand them, not being of either tradition) espouse the belief in the self and a separate personal God who is also a self. This of course is a low level interpretation of the mind of God. Certainly Catholic theologians would speculate that the Godhead is so much more than what I would normally conceive of being a self. But essentially what I mean when I say that the Christian God is a separate self is that under this framework, God’s mind is not my mind and therefore God is a separate self. In the monotheistic universe, the universe itself is made of material stuff and is separate from the self. The self within this universe has free will subject to limitations. The self is also capable of creating thoughts and therefore morally responsible for those thoughts and any actions taken in response to thoughts.
By contrast, my understanding of the non dualistic spirituality described by Hinduism, Buddhism, Alan Watts and others espouses the belief that there is just one process going on. This process is God. My feeling of a separate universe, and a self within that universe is an illusion or a misunderstanding of the situation. This entire process is really God experiencing Himself in a limited manner through my eyes. The other people I interact with are also God experiencing Himself through their eyes. In this sense, the thoughts and free will I experience are essentially God’s thoughts and free will.
Presumably, God is experiencing Himself in these limited versions for a reason. Watts speculates that the only thing an infinite, omnipotent being would lack is limitation. Going through this process is the means for Him to experience this one thing He lacks. Put another way, God experiences the drama of existence through limitation. This conception of God feels unsettling and lonely to me, I suspect because that would mean that the only thing that exists is God. As such, God is all alone with Himself. There is something comforting about the idea that there are other selves other than my self. But perhaps this is only because I am not used to the non dual conception of God.
To a certain extent, non duality releases the self from responsibility. If the self is ultimately an illusion then there are no ultimate consequences for thoughts or actions. Of course, within the illusion there are consequences which may be unpleasant to experience in the moment. But this unpleasantness does not have the permanence it would have under the monotheistic system.
Atheism is another option. A rejection of God seems to be an embracing of the physical universe as the ultimate reality. Under this model, the physical forces that created the universe and brought man into being are unconcerned with man’s consciousness. The phenomenon of consciousness would be a byproduct of the physical world perhaps an adaptation employed for survival.
Many scientists including Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking gravitate to the view that the universe can (and does) exist without God. One argument typically made by atheists is that if the universe requires a creator then so would the creator. As such, at some point there has to be a non created, existing thing. As such, the universe itself could be that non created, existing thing.
Under this model, the problem of consciousness is simply one problem among others to be solved. We, as humans may or may not possess the ability or potential to solve the problem.
Not being a scientist myself, I would think that being trained to only make conclusions based on verifiable data naturally orients the mind towards atheism. Or perhaps if one’s mind is naturally oriented to think in this way one would be more inclined to be a scientist. For the purpose of this inquiry I should consider atheism as a possibility, but if I am being honest it just doesn’t feel true to me. Although, it also feels true that I have a self, think my own thoughts and have free will. So if I question one, I should question the other. In any respect, from an evidentiary standpoint, God’s existence remains an open question (although my heart rests with God you might say.)
In many respects my approach to God was shaped by the milieu in which I was raised (e.g., the Roman Catholic church as experienced in a suburban, New England parish in 1970’s and 80’s America. This was not the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism my parents grew up in which always seemed to be more serious, spiritually rich and on the whole more interesting to me. In a sense I felt gypped growing up in this version of the church.
My experience of Catholicism was somewhat disappointing. Those in charge of my experience never seemed to want to address what I found interesting about God. What they gave me seemed to be a watered down version of spirituality that seemed so sanitized it pushed me away. I longed for a more spiritual and transcendental experience of God.
I say all this only to provide the context in which I approach God. That is, I approach God from my own spiritual history. I have taken in Roman Catholic church history, iconography, music, literature and ritual for much of my life. In recent years I have explored alternative routes to God but I cannot deny the impact of my prior experience and my current thinking is that it would probably be better to use it rather than to fight it.
To me, God is the underlying force of consciousness. I cannot point to consciousness and say, “there is God” but I can feel God within consciousness. Some times this is more apparent than others. Ultimately, I do not know whether I create my own thoughts and therefore have free will. I do not know whether the monotheistic, non dual or atheistic model holds true. (I have my suspicious of course). Nor do I know if my notion of God is purely based upon my religious background. But I do know what feels right and harmonious. It seems that following this feeling is the proper future course of this inquiry.