Consciousness – Not such a Hard Problem (2 of 2)

Read Part 1

Without Consciousness, nothing can be known. But Consciousness itself cannot be an object of knowledge, just as in a totally dark room, a torch may illuminate everything but itself. Knowing requires both knower and known. For Consciousness to be known, it would have to be a knowable object but it is the knowing subject. We ‘know’ Consciousness because we are Consciousness. Consciousness is our true nature. The ultimate observer (which is who you essentially are) is simply not amenable to any type of objective investigation: who could there be beyond the ultimate observer to do the investigating?

Numerous attempts have been made to define Consciousness. Most seem to revolve around the assumption that a person’s behaviour indicates its presence or absence. It is argued that consciousness is present during the waking and dream states but not in deep-sleep or under anaesthesia, for example. But this is again to confuse Consciousness and awareness. When we awake from a deep-sleep, we are able to state with confidence that we were ‘aware of nothing’. This is a positive statement – there were no gross objects, emotions or thoughts present for us to perceive.

It is analogous to the astronaut in deep space facing away from the sun. There is nothing to reflect the sunlight so only blackness is seen. But the sun is still present, just as Consciousness is still present in sleep. If this were not so, what would cause it to reappear on awakening? And why could dead people not also regain consciousness? We must also differentiate Consciousness from ‘being conscious’!

It is not possible to have a behavioural definition. If someone responds to a question or command (even if this response can only be determined by MRI scan), it shows that their body-mind is ‘animated’ by Consciousness, but it cannot say anything about what Consciousness is. All that we can say is that the person is conscious (to some degree). An analogy would be to try to claim that, because we can observe an automobile moving, we therefore understand the nature of petrol. Examining the brain in the ways described by neurobiology is like tinkering with the carburettor or spark plug timing – it will certainly influence how the petrol functions but you cannot thereby determine its chemical formula.

Supposedly, one of the more illuminating avenues for investigating consciousness is the observation of the behaviour and analysis of the brain functions of those people with brain damage of one sort or another. A metaphor for this might be the way in which light is reflected by a dirty or cracked mirror. Looking into such a mirror, the quality of the reflection would clearly depend upon the nature of the dirt or damage. But, just as this could tell us nothing about light, so the brain-damaged can tell us nothing about Consciousness.

Accidents, infections, scalpels may all affect the brain and cause changes in perception, cognition etc. Clearly the brain is responsible for all of the differentiating aspects of consciousness. But what is happening is that Consciousness remains the same but is unable to function in those areas which have been damaged. It is like a complex model railway. The locomotive is itself independent of, and unaffected by, the railway track but it can no longer reach those stations to which parts of the track have been damaged or removed.

Of course, metaphors often help us to reach an intuitive understanding of something which is inherently complex, but they can also mislead. I have used the analogies of electricity and light above but both of these are essentially material in nature – we can point to electrons and photons, respectively. What must be avoided is disposing of the neuroscientist as a candidate for understanding Consciousness and instead sending the particle physicist off down a blind alley in search of the C particle! Despite what scientists insist must be the case, Consciousness is subjective; this means not objective, and this equates to immaterial – not matter.

In summary, then, the brain is only a medium through which Consciousness manifests. The more complex the brain, the more sophisticated the perception and behaviour can be. But, just as examining a mirror will not provide an understanding of the nature of the sun, so all of the efforts made by the neuroscientist will tell us nothing about the nature of Consciousness.

In order to understand (as far as is possible) what exactly Consciousness is, we have to look in an entirely different direction, one which is intrinsically closed to science. One might call this ‘philosophy’ but philosophers, too, are not immune to the pitfall of objectivity. Rather it is an understanding that arises as a result of a guided investigation into the Self (the ultimate observer, the subject rather than any object). One such proven system is the teaching of Advaita, a branch of Indian philosophy that was systematized over 1200 years ago. Unfortunately (and this is not a cop out!), it is not possible to convince you of this in a few sentences. Read my books!