Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Always beginning, but never again!

Currently, there is much work being done in the philosophy of mind on the topic of consciousness. It is truly baffling. I'm wondering if I should dare speak my "mind" on the topic; although not having much of a following it may not matter to anyone but a few. However, here goes.

The majority of philosophical works on the topic--there are some exceptions, notably Galen Strawson--appear to take the phenomenal, if not ontological, existence of consciousness for granted. Some very important observations are made the aim of which, in most cases, is to theoretically clarify the nature of consciousness for a better understanding of our human experience. Indeed, much of what is said is highly useful, not simply for theoretical purposes, but for those of us who endeavor to learn the lessons of experience to alleviate our levels of dissatisfaction. This, of course, is what Buddhism, Yoga, Samkhya, Vedanta, Sufism, and other so called "spiritual" practices have aimed at in their respective studies of consciousness. However, as useful as much of this work has been, for both the theoretical and practical, it seems to have reached a sort of impasse. I will explain as we progress. Obviously, much can and probably should be discussed here regarding the many theories regarding consciousness, I have but one single preoccupation at this time. It came to me in the form of a question, somewhat of a rhetorical question, but to me a very useful tool to understand the limits of most investigations into consciousness. So, I offer this question to those of us who do love the philosophy of mind and wish to see it "progress" to the point wherein the theoretical gives way to the practical mission of minimizing human suffering.

Here is the question: "What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of consciousness"?

It appears to be a simple question, one that might be answered from biological, neurological, psychological, epistemological, ontological, phenomenological, etc. angles. However, my answer to the question may reveal aspects of the study of consciousness that few of us have considered, at least from what I've seen of current literature on the topic.

Now, there are several elementary ways to grapple with this question that yield, what I take to be, valuable results. Let's take a look at some of these approaches that may come in the form of questions or propositions or both.

So, we are now ready to take a close look at our experience and examine "consciousness." Well, our first step is to assume the intellectual posture of looking. But what exactly are we looking at. Our thought can only "catch" what has just occurred. It cannot capture what is, it can only capture what was, the past, just out of our reach. The evanescent nature of experience, i.e., the movement of time, guarantees a sort of failure. We may indeed believe that our thought captures what has just occurred, but what is our guarantee? How do we know for sure? Surprisingly, we have also overlooked something very important. We have operated on a presupposition, the presupposition that thought can, in some way, "know" what occurred in the immediate past, our just arisen experience. As the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides said: "Thinking and that because of there is thinking are the same thing. In fact without Being, in which it is expressed,...you will not find thinking: in fact nothing else exists or will exist outside of Being...." Parmenides thought that thinking and the basis of thinking are one and the same. So, in some unimaginable way, thinking is the way (methodos) of Being, of what is. It is through thinking that we access what is, being. How is this possible? How does thinking become identified with what is? For us then, it would be possible for thought, in some way, to be identical with what is when we look at our experience. Is that the case? Can my thought "capture" an experience, a time, that has just occurred? How do I know that it does? What does it mean to capture here? Does thought "reflect" reality? Does thought mirror reality? Notice we have resorted to metaphors and we deem them apt only on the basis that we want them to be apt. We are driven by the impulse of karmically determined movements of thought. Metaphors seem to work, but to what extent? When it comes to a scrutiny of our just-lived experience is thought 100% accurate? How do we simply accept the notion that thought does indeed reflect what is? In other words, we have arrived at a radical level of skepticism.

I am certainly not proposing skepticism. However, I am proposing that we take a look at this relation of thought and what is, or in our case, what was, and ask ourselves how far we are willing to go in trusting the historically conditioned nature of language, i.e., thought. This is particularly important with regard to the inquiry demanded by a philosophy of mind. So, where do we get the historically generated, or if you prefer, karmically determined notion of consciousness?

Well, supposedly, John Locke (1632-1704) the great British philosopher, introduced the word to Western philosophy. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. What has happened is the many philosophers have been historically determined to posit realities, performing an act of reification, adding consciousness to their list of existents, on the basis of their ability to think it. Once posited and reified into an existent, albeit in many cases a phenomenal reality, consciousness has become a most problematic "thing" that must be explored and characterized.

"Consciousness" may be, for some analyses, a useful term; but that is all it is, a term. Once thought, we are tempted into thinking of it as a thing and that's when all sorts of problems begin, such as the mind/body problem.

Burning as living, Living as burning

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