Today I listened to a podcast from the show Waking up with Sam Harris. The topic of the podcast was consciousness and the self the guest was a Anil K. Seth. I haven’t finished the podcast yet (it is over three hours long) but even in the beginning I couldn’t stop wondering why it would be necessary to make such a big deal about the concept of consciousness.
Sam Harris said that consciousness was the most important thing in the universe since everything we perceive we perceive through the lens of consciousness. I think that is an odd way of thinking about it. Sure, for us individually, that is true; but objectively it is most likely well of the mark. The universe is such a gigantic place, filled with wonders we know of, and even more of whom we don’t. That we have any importance at all, apart from being a small piece in something large and beautiful, seems very unlikely to me. In effect, our consciousness also does’t matter much, since we don’t matter much.
I do agree that there is a need for us to find a source of spiritual wealth; to have something we believe in which is above and beyond cold, hard natural laws. However, I think it is misguided to search for this in our consciousness; to see something magical in it with significant spiritual value. I think there is a very easy explanation for the existence of consciousness; that it is something which enabled the long line of our ancestors to find better solutions to the problems the environment presented them. In all likelihood, it exists in all our relatives in the animal kingdom in a modified form; just as our brains, legs and heart.
Philosophers often make a big deal about that we would never be able to ‘know’ what it was to be like a pig, for instance. But I think we do know. Since our brain in many ways is very similar to a pig’s brain it is very likely we have the same feelings and insights. We know when a pig is afraid, we know when a pig is joyous; and we know so only because the pig is a mirror of ourselves in so many ways.
Consciousness is simply a model of the world; an abstraction. Like any abstraction it is more than the physical world but it is grounded in it. It is a wonder beyond comprehension that nature could result in such a mechanism and that our brains are capable of supporting this model. It is however undoubtedly very insufficient for the tasks we set it towards in our modern world (like trying to define consciousness); it was simply not designed for this.
We can marvel at the existence of our consciousness but we must also acknowledge that there is nothing special about it; even that it is lacking in many ways. Thus exploring our consciousness is not a path which leads to truth. Our collective insights, enabled and advanced by technology and robust methodologies, are far more valuable and a better guide for us to build a better self and a better life.
Image Credit: johnhain