Consciousness | May 1998

FMBR Editorial: May, 1998

Consciousness

Marshall Pease

It is interesting to note the semantic confusion among professionals concerned with the idea of consciousness. Others have noted this also, and have attempted to distinguish between the different meanings without resolving the problems being addressed. Since some sense of consciousness seems inherent in the notion of selfhood and even of Self one must wonder to what extent the resultant turbulence obscures what can be usefully said about the human condition.

Ken Wilbur, in the First International Electronic Seminar on Wholeness , lists an even dozen major schools of consciousness studies. He comments further that these views are often contradictory and dramatically opposed. At one extreme are those who see consciousness as indistinguishable from artificial intelligence, little more than a sophisticated system with self-referential capabilities. Others label it as nothing more than an epiphenomenon of neural anatomy or other organic processes. Still others believe it must involve quantum processes lying outside of ordinary physical processes. Some believe its basis must lie in subtle energies based on something more than the four recognized physical fields. Other perspectives also exist, but these will illustrate the diversity of the views of those claiming professional status in the field. With such confusion among the so called experts, how can mere laymen hope to make sense of the subject?

In fact, the average person is not confused. It makes perfect sense to hear people say they are conscious of the telephone (an external event), or of a pain in the toe (an internal event), or of being angry (an emotional state), or of the importance of something (a value), or of what is the right thing to do (an ethical judgment), or of any other of the many ways we use the term. We are not at all confused by the diversity. Further, we understand the more subtle connotations of consciousness, recognizing it as the ground from which all sorts of mundane events and conditions are given subjective meaning. We may not understand the essence of this subjective experience or how external events can acquire that significance, but it is enough to know they do.

We may admit we do not even know if others have exactly the same feeling as we do, but we are generally willing to assume they do have a comparable awareness of their own selfhood. We also realize, if we think about it at all, that this awareness is indefinable and incommunicable. We can talk more or less coherently about what effect we believe it has on our inner lives, but the feeling itself remains entirely elusive.

As I have mentioned before, I once heard an Hasidic rabbi discussing how he replied to those asking if God exists. He said his answer was that God is, He does not exist. He went on to say that, for him, God is the ground of all existence. To say that He exists would be to see Him as figure, not ground, and so would deny Him His true essence.

Much the same seems true here when we consider this ultimate sense of beingness as the deepest meaning for consciousness. That level of consciousness is the final ground of our own inner reality. Perhaps we can say that, at this level, consciousness is, but does not exist. Maybe that is why the experts have so much trouble with the concept.

Marshall Pease