We are on very dubious grounds straightaway when we ask the question “What is consciousness?” We are on dubious grounds because we’ve closed the door without ever knowing that we have done so. This actually happens every time we ask a question because no question can be made without making certain assumptions within which to frame it; just as soon as we start thinking in terms of that question we promptly forget all about the assumptions we have made and – as a result – we narrow the field of inquiry without ever realising that we have done so. Any answer we arrive at – if indeed we do arrive at some sort of an answer – will therefore be conditioned by the assumptions that we have made without knowing that we have. Another way of putting this is to say that the so-called ‘answer’ that we have obtained is merely a reflection of the assumptions that we have had to make in order to ask the question in the first place. This is – we might say – a more general version of the famous ‘quantum measurement paradox’.
We can be more specific about the assumptions that we have had to make in order to ask the question “What is consciousness?” We would definitely want to be very clear about what exactly it is that we are assuming in asking this question – it wouldn’t be very good for us to ask such a big question and yet at the same time remain unconscious about what we are assuming in the asking of it. The joke would be very much on us in this case. So the big assumption that we are making here is that it is possible for this thing that we are calling consciousness to be made into an object of the rational mind. We are taking it for granted that consciousness is some kind of ‘thing’ and this is a very big assumption to make. Thought can only understand what it can describe to itself and not all phenomena can be exhaustively described – the Mandelbrot set can’t be exhaustively described, for example. The Mandelbrot set is said to be ‘an infinitely complex mathematical object’ and this is just another way of saying that it can’t be ‘exhausted’ in terms of applying descriptions or definitions to it. No complex system – be the weather or the ecosystem or any emergent phenomenon – can be completely described, and we live in a world that is full of emergent phenomena. We live in a world that is far more complex than we tend to realize but just because some aspects of the world we live in are too complex to be described doesn’t mean that we ought to ignore them! We can only understand things ‘in parts’, so to speak, and because we don’t generally see this that doesn’t make for a very good understanding. We’ve unwittingly oversimplified the world in other words, and this always brings unwanted consequences because we’ve ‘left something out of our equations’…
We can take a somewhat different tack here too (although it comes down to the same thing in the end): we have said that it is ‘a very big assumption’ to assume that consciousness is a thing that can be understood by the thinking mind and this might lead us onto asking “What’s else are there in the world other than ‘things’?” Surely ‘things’ are all that there are – if something isn’t a thing then it isn’t anything, after all. It’s no-thing! There is another possibility here however – it just happens to be a possibility that we never think of. There are ‘things’ (or ‘events’) and then there is the space within which these things or events can take place. There can’t be things without there being ‘the space for these things to occur in’, even though, since we are so focused on the specific things or events, this is something – in the normal run of things – that rarely if ever occurs to us. Things can be defined precisely because they are things – it is the fact that we can define them that ‘makes them be things’, but space – being space – can’t be defined. If we defined it then it would wouldn’t be space – it would then be ‘locked down’ (or ‘collapsed’) into a rigid definition in this case and this means that it would be no good as space. It wouldn’t be fit for purpose. All definitions are ‘rigid’ – what sort of thing would a fluid or easy-going definition be, after all? That would be like a rule that doesn’t have to be obeyed, and a rule that doesn’t have to be obeyed isn’t a rule.
Mathematically speaking, we can equate ‘space’ to U, the universal set. U isn’t rigid, obviously – if it was then it would no longer be universal. If it was then it would be ‘particular’ instead. The other way of putting this would be to say that there can’t be a rule or algorithm saying what can be allowed in the universal set; everything is allowed in U and there is no rule, no algorithm for ‘everything’. Rules work by excluding stuff (just as descriptions do) and so if stuff is being excluded (or ‘out-ruled’) then ‘everything’ can never be the result! How can we arrive at ‘the Summation of Everything’ via a process of exclusion, via the process of applying rules or exclusive criteria? There are algorithms to determine what is allowed in specific sets therefore, but no rule for the universal set and this is why we are saying that ‘things’ and ‘the space within which those things can exist’ are radically different, and simply not understandable in the same way. But just because space is different in kind to the things that happen in it doesn’t mean that space isn’t ‘real’ in the way that things are taken to be – it’s just our prejudice to believe this. Actually, space comes first – space comes first because (as we have said) without space they couldn’t be anything! Space is the mother of all, just as the Dao is said to be the mother of all. Just because space doesn’t ‘aggressively assert itself’ in accordance with some plan or agenda that it has doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any reality – just because the universal set doesn’t exclude anything doesn’t make it any less vital or significant in the defined sets that get to exist only by excluding everything! Space doesn’t need to exclude anything in order to exist, and this is clearly an indication that it is real, rather than evidence of the contrary. If it doesn’t need to assert itself to exist then its ‘existence’ is obviously robust.
Coming back to the point of this discussion, we might ask what it is that makes us assume that consciousness has to be ‘a thing’ or ‘an event’ rather than ‘the space within which things or events can exist or occur’? Why is it that we so firmly exclude that possibility right from very beginning of our enquiry? Is there any good reason for doing so? Any sort of reflection on the matter will show however that there is no good reason for excluding this possibility – we exclude it without acknowledging that we are doing so after all! We exclude automatically without pausing to reflect on what it is that we are excluding, and this is very far from being a good reason for excluding! When we’re starting off with a big question such as “What is consciousness?” we simply can’t afford to narrow the field without paying any heed to the fact that this is what we are doing – that would be unbelievably sloppy! This is reminiscent of the often-told story of the man who, late one night, comes across a stressed-out motorist searching and searching the road next to a streetlight. The guy explained that he had lost his car keys, but when he is asked exactly where he lost them he points to somewhere a good way up the street, in the darkness. “Why are you looking for them there, then?’ the helpful stranger – naturally enough – replies. The searcher immediately replies “Well, the light is a lot better here!” Physicist and author Amit Goswami relates this story to illustrate precisely this point – that we would rather use the ‘light’ of the rational intellect to search for answers, even when the rational mind plainly isn’t the right man for the job. What is needed here, the ancient alchemists might have said, is not the spot-light of the discriminative intellect, but the light of nature, the lumen naturae, since – according to Carl Jung – (that greatly neglected psychologist of the last century), “the lumen naturae is the light of the darkness itself”… This is the motif also known as ‘the Black Sun’. Jung always stressed that rational awareness is created by ‘separating the opposites’ and this ‘polar’ type of awareness necessarily comes into being as a result suppressing consciousness, which is an essentially non-polar phenomenon, as we shall argue later on.
To exclude without paying any heed to the fact that we are (or to narrow the field without paying any fact heed to that fact that we are narrowing the field) is what the thinking mind always does; this is how thought operates – it is of course the only way that thought can operate, so straightaway we can see that using rationality to say something about consciousness (which is a very different kettle of fish from rationality since it doesn’t function on the principle of discrimination)) is not going to be a helpful way to proceed. We have to first consider whether the narrow spotlight of rational thought is ‘the right tool for the job’ or not. Were it to be the case that consciousness is ‘a specific event occurring in space’, then the thinking mind would be in with a chance. But suppose this assumption is wrong, suppose consciousness is somehow ‘outside of space and time’ rather than being something that is contained in it? Suppose consciousness is a ‘non-local’ phenomenon, in other words? It might seem to be too big a jump to suppose that the phenomenon we call consciousness is non-local (and therefore non-causal) but why – as scientists – would we let that put us off? Science proceeds – as Thomas Kuhn argues, by means of our rebelliousness, not by means our obedient conformity to what has been said before. Science moves forward by jumping recklessly from one paradigm to another, not by steadfastly ignoring everything that doesn’t make sense within the paradigms that we are currently using. ‘Ignoring everything that doesn’t make sense within the paradigm that we are currently working within’ might be a recipe for playing it safe but it certainly isn’t the recipe for good science!
The mechanistic paradigm presupposes the principle of causality, so we can rephrase what we have just said by saying that if it so happens that the phenomenon of consciousness (assuming of course that there is such a thing, and that is not to trip a neurological trick that’s been played upon us by our nervous system, as some theories assert) does fall within the proper remit of the mechanistic paradigm, then we can straightaway come up with a basic blueprint for what a model of consciousness will look like. This model takes the form of X leads onto Y, where Y = consciousness and X equals ‘the specific set of conditions that gives rise to it’. This might sound more than just a little bit ridiculous as a basis for a theory of consciousness, but that’s only because we haven’t given any consideration at all to the alternative paradigm, which is the non-causal one. If it turns out to be the case that the non-causal paradigm is the appropriate one to use in connection when we are investigating the phenomenon of consciousness then we will be looking at something very different indeed from the basic formula of X causes Y. The significance of this difference cannot be over-stressed – in the non-causal (or non-mechanistic) paradigm there is only there is no X causes Y, there is only Y!
Now if we were to agree (which we may not) that there are these two contending paradigms, the causal and the non-causal, then we would have to say that it is very important indeed to set out the two possibilities in the way that we just have done. It then becomes perfectly helpful to go to the trouble of sketching out the basic formula of X maps onto Y as a general formula for consciousness production. When we are still at the stage of trying to make out which paradigms fits, then we really don’t care what X might be – that’s a trivial concern at this stage of our deliberations. We can come to that later – if we need to. And if it turns out that causality doesn’t have anything to do with consciousness, the X gives rise to Y model would never need to be investigated in the first place. We would have to go there. Any problems that we might have in seeing how a non-causal approach could possibly be relevant to consciousness are purely due to the prejudicial way of looking at things that is (necessarily) imposed on us by the mechanistic/causal paradigm. It has no basis other than this – we’re still looking at everything in terms of the old way of seeng things, which we have a tremendous unconscious allegiance (or attachment) to. Nothing ‘causes’ space after all and we don’t have any problem with this! We don’t go around saying that X or Y causes space and so maybe this is also true for consciousness. Why after all are we in so much of a hurry to put consciousness into a thought-created box? What is the reason for us being so averse to seeing consciousness as something that is bigger than thought? How – we might wonder – would that be a ‘bad thing’?
Our ‘prejudice’ is always to be convinced that consciousness must be some sort of trivial affair, some sort of epiphenomenon, some sort of ‘off-shoot’ or ‘by-product’ of something more primary. It’s an ‘effect’ caused by rubbing certain molecules together; in this case, as Stanislaw Lem (perhaps ironically) puts it, we can say that“…all perception is but a change in the concentration of hydrogen ions on the surface of the brain cells.” It has also been suggested that consciousness is an effect caused by some sort of exotic phenomenon such as quantum coherency; other theorists again have suggested that it doesn’t exist at all in the way that we take it to. It could be just the brain’s way of representing data to us. The one thing we never want to look at is the possibility that consciousness isn’t trivial, that it isn’t just another ‘thing’, that it isn’t just something taking place secondary to some more primary process. There are grounds for us looking at consciousness as being somehow not predicated upon logic in the way that all mechanical processes are. For example, one property of consciousness that we can talk about is that it doesn’t bring particular aspects of our environment into focus by using contrast, as thought does. Contrast means ‘either/or’ logic and it is inarguable that this is how the rational mind operates; either/or logic produces a black and white world, a binary world where it is the differences that are important. The thinking mind works by creating boundaries, and that is how we derive our familiar picture of the world. But when the thinking mind is ‘knocked off’ (which is something that neuro-scientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes very well in her Ted talk My stroke of insight) what happens then is that it is the connections between everything that suddenly swim into view rather than the differences, and this ‘lack of compartmentalization’ clearly isn’t something that is imposed by the categorical mind – on the contrary, it’s what we see when the framework of thought is no longer being imposed. This same ‘unitary’ experience can also come about as a result of entering a meditative state (meditation being the process through which we disengage our awareness from the format that is provided by thought); and it can be brought about very dramatically by ingesting psychedelic drugs such mescaline or LSD. The loss or impairment of our mental categories also seems to be a feature of schizophrenia, where many novel ways of seeing the world can arise simultaneously, potentially ‘drowning out’ the standard one entirely. Inclusivity rather than exclusivity is the order of the day in this case, and this is like having the world suddenly pulled out from under our feet… The unitary necessarily involves the loss of the particular, and if we are identified with the particular (as we very much are!) then this experience becomes a persecutory one, a very terrifying one.
The suggestion that consciousness isn’t a conditioned event but the undefined space within which all events take place isn’t in itself particularly hard to understand – all we need to do is think in terms of ‘the figure versus the ground’. Our automatic assumption is that the phenomenon which are we are investigated in is ‘a figure’, a ‘defined or definable particularity’. The more we get engrossed in the particularities however the blinder we become to the bigger picture, the blinder we become – in this case – to what it is we are actually looking for. The very fact that we are engrossed in searching for consciousness (or searching for a technical explanation of consciousness) means that we are ever less likely to find what we’re looking for – it’s the focussed looking itself that stands in the way of us seeing what is ‘hidden in plain sight’, so to speak. It’s fairly intuitive to suggest that space is a good metaphor here (or perhaps even more than a metaphor) for this very fine, non-compartmentalized sensitivity that we have to the world around us (although, as we have just said, this is very far from obvious from the rational point of view). Space is after all, as we have already said, quintessentially ‘non-aggressive’ in its nature, which is to say it doesn’t impose its own preconceptions, its own structure, on the objects that exist within it. Space doesn’t actually have any preconceptions – space doesn’t actually have any structure, obviously! Space doesn’t have any ideals or categories for how ‘things should be’ and this is what makes space as flexible as it is. A lack of structure is how space gets to be space.
Space might be said to exist in a negative way; which isn’t really ‘existing’ at all in the way that we normally think of it. Space doesn’t assert itself at all, and because of this it has the capacity to allow anything at all to exist (and assert itself as it wishes) without any effort of straining on its part. Space’s ‘negative existence’ facilitates all sorts of positive or assertive existences, in other words. We can suggest therefore that consciousness or awareness might have a purely negative type of existence in that it can be aware of all sorts of positive objects and events, without any ‘striving’ on its part, without the imposition of any pre-existing ideas or assumptions, and this accords with our share actual experience of awareness being an essentially ‘open’ kind of thing, and not at all rigid or ‘closed’ as we know the thinking mind to be. For the thinking mind to investigate consciousness therefore, and turn it to the object of its narrow (i.e.. rule-based) enquiry, would in this case be something of a joke. Thought can only ever acknowledge phenomenon that correspond to its categories or rules (which are ‘positive’ in nature) so and this means that it is incapable of acknowledging the negative reality that is space. This is why we automatically assume that space doesn’t deserve any status in the hierarchy of existence, that is why we assume that it is ‘negligible’ so to speak. This is the thing about thought – it always has to have some sort of ‘angle’ (some sort of ‘solid ‘starting-point’) with regard to what it is making an enquiry into. If it doesn’t have an angle then it can’t proceed and this corresponds to what we have already said about thought always having to ‘narrow the field’ before it can get to work. ‘Narrowing the field’ works, and is appropriate, when we want to find out about the figure. Narrowing the field means however, that we are by focusing exclusively on the particular and thereby ignoring the universal. If consciousness is something that is universal rather than particular then in this case, by employing the tool of rational inquiry, we would be wrong-footing ourselves right from the start. Given our very great tendency (even as scientists) not to look at the limitations that are inherent in rational thought, it is more than likely that this is exactly what we are going to do…
Art: Taken from article by Tim Hinchcliffe Virtual Reality Takes Consciousness Research into Mystic Realms of the Divine Play