Consciousness is not a “stuff”

I pulled two quotes from Chuck to respond to.

We may be the “conscious part of the universe” (possibly not the *only* conscious part – life on other planets?) but that doesn’t inexorably lead to a probability that we are thereby manifesting some sort of universal consciousness.

There is no logical connection between having an individual consciousness and there being a universal consciousness. I totally agree that we “emerged through the process of evolution right up out of the matter in the universe” and there is an ever-growing mountain of evidence to support that statement. But consciousness “emerging out of matter” does not necessitate the existence of a “field of consciousness” possessed by the universe itself.

Interestingly I actually agree with Chuck here – even though he is refuting me. I don’t believe in the existence of a “field of consciousness” that would exist like some kind of electromagnetic field of intellect or a conscious invisible mist hanging in the air around us. At the same time, I have to admit my guilt in having used the metaphor of a “field of consciousness” at times when giving seminars or lectures – but in my own defense I do believe that the image of consciousness as a field can be useful to create certain adjustments in our view on reality – even if it isn’t ultimately something I believe exists in a literal sense. Discussions like the one we are attempting here are difficult because of their speculative nature – we don’t even have the language yet to describe some of the things that we want to write about.

As I was saying I don’t believe in a “field of consciousness” and given everything that Carl has shared on this blog over time, I am not sure I believe in consciousness at all – at the very least I go along with William James when he denies the exists of consciousness and states:

“There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. ‘Consciousness’ is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function to be carried on.”

Consciousness, to the extent that I am willing to be definitive at this time, is whatever it is that allows human activity to be so uncannily harmonious with its surroundings. We seem able to know, predict, see, infer, understand and decide – and we know this because these “functions” are reflected in the consistency with which our activities merge seamlessly with the world around us. (You see Carl you are making a behaviorist out of me – but that is for another post.)

When I write about our consciousness not belonging to us, but to the universe, I am not speculating on the nature of some “stuff” of universal consciousness to which we are connected. I am questioning the location of the boundary that we are drawing around the self. Rather than a gall bladder (Chuck’s metaphor) what about using an apple seed. You could reasonably say that the seed belonged to the apple and you wouldn’t be wrong – you can also say that the seed belongs to the tree and also not be wrong. Similarly consciousness (as defined above) could be seen as belonging to the individual human or it could be seen as belonging to the universe of which the human is a part. I contend that this is a matter of definition just like the case of the apple seed, but the definitions we hold do have affect in action.

So the question becomes: which is the better boundary to draw? Sometimes a ring around the apple is more useful, for instance if I ask someone to get me an apple seed it is useful for them to know that they will find one inside an apple. At other times it is more useful to draw the boundary around the tree, for instance if I ask what will grow if I plant an apple seed it is useful to know that it will be a tree and not just an apple.

I believe that the boundary that we draw around the individual human in relationship to the source of consciousness is similar. There are positive and negative results in action for having that boundary so unquestioningly taken to reflect reality. The positive effects have been all the incredible development of the western world. Our ability to see ourselves as separate sources of original consciousness, I believe, is an ontological source of the enormous diversity and creativity that has created all of the social and technological advances that we enjoy and that benefit us. At the same time it has created a sense of alienation and separation from other human beings and from our natural surroundings that is threatening to destroy the planet on which we live .

There may never be any way to know what the ultimate truth is about questions as big as the nature of consciousness, and I would never advocate that everyone on the planet become a romantic explorer of unknowable truths. What I do think is that we need a small but statistically significant number of people who are willing to put their lives on the line to probe into impossible possibilities. And we need ongoing dialog with people who are adventurers in other directions – and we all have to stick to our guns with a loose enough grip on the handle so that we can teach and learn from each other. Is that romantic or what?