Attached above is a map I used to conceptualize the problem. This post talks about the left third of the map.
To answer the question, What Is Consciousness? It will be well to probe into two questions:
- What problem(s) is consciousness the solution to? (Which can be rephrased, more dramatically, as, What is the Human Condition?)
- What is the precise mechanism by which consciousness solves its problems?
I’ll talk about my answer to question 1 in this post, and touch briefly upon question 2, which I will talk in more detail in the next one.
The existential problem that human beings (perhaps also some animals, but I will talk about the specifically human case now) face on a daily basis is the question of “What should I do?” (or, if you like, “How should I live?”). There are two components to answering this problem. A) What should be done, as in, the goal, aim, telos that I should strive towards. (Hence sin is the translation of the Greek archery term hamartia, which means “missing the mark”.) B) What should be done, as in, what manner should I adopt in the world to optimally realize one’s goal.
This “What Should I Do?” constantly haunts us, first, because we are limited and embodied, limited in resource (time, energy, mental expenditure), embodied in that we can die, and is actualized in a single area in space. This means that there is only a limited number of options that we can pursue in the world, in contrast with the infinite number of potential actions that is available to us. Thus, we need to think carefully about each of our actions, for each one done is another left undone. In more philosophical language, we choose by actualizing finitely a portion of our infinite potential, and therefore we have to choose wisely (to signpost later discussions, wisdom, as the general intelligence for relevance-realization, is the highest embodiment of conscious functioning).
[A small tangential note, this is what theologians mean when they say that God’s existence and essence is the same, that is, God, as infinite, actualizes all of his potentials. But this is plainly not the human condition, for human beings move in a world of flux, whereas God, as actus purus (pure actuality without potential), is changeless and still). This is also, perhaps, what Christians mean when they say that “man is made in the image of God”—that we have infinite potential that can be actualized to some degree. Or what John means when he writes “In the beginning was the Word”, the word being a special function of consciousness to look into the world of infinite potential and create categories to make sense of it, to anticipate consciousness’ solution to the human condition.]
“What Should I Do?”, again, nags conscious beings because the answer is not obvious, since, as mentioned above, we have an infinite number to choose from, but also, and this is my next major point, we receive too much input. We see, hear, smell, touch, too many things, and it is difficult to make sense of them all. If we were to try to make sense of every input and their potential implications, then there will be a combinatorial explosion, that is, we will be calculating all day without being able to act at all. Physicists, in fact, have found that the computational power of the universe cannot compute all the possibilities of the universe itself, so it really is an impossible problem. (This, to throw in some speculation, may be the problem that people with Autism face—to be overwhelmed by the explosive nature of reality, which makes it difficult to act in the world, whilst also meaning that they are remarkable at computation.)
This question of “What Should I Do” is a question specifically for consciousness because the non-conscious beings provide the answer with their genes. Normal behavior of an organism is a direct Gene-Behavior relationship: My gene directly tells me what to do. Consciousness, in contrast, is an emergent phenomenon out of a cluster of gene interactions which can self-transcend (a concept that will be used to solve question 2) its limitations.
The Taoist symbol (TaiChi Tu) with the intersection of the Ying and the Yang is the best schematization of the condition of consciousness that I’ve found. An explanation of it will help tie all the previous discussions together. The lighter part is the domain of order, things that I think I am certain about, things that I have conceptualized, what I have explored—transcribed into the current problem, actuality and processed information. The darker side is the domain of the chaotic, the unknown, the unexplored—the infinite potential that haunts us, and the overwhelming input that we cannot fully process. Consciousness is the line between the two sides of the graph, mediating order and chaos, actuality and potentiality, the processed and the overwhelming.
What I will argue for next time is that consciousness does so through a) the categorization of reality in order to understand the overwhelming inputs and ignore most of what consciousness deems as irrelevant (the creation of Order, the lighter side of the TaiChi Tu, or to almost encode certain programs, or create a gene sequence, that consciousness can operate on), and b) the cultivation of the ability for self-transcendence, which is the ability for second-order thinking—the thinking about my own categorizations that underlies my thinking—through which I can change my categorization of reality and create a new Order to adapt to the changing nature of the world.