Sunday, 22 February 2015

Are you aware of your consciousness?

What is consciousness? Unlike intellect (the ability to work out that eight times seven is 56) or memory (the ability to remember that eight times seven is 56), neuroscience has yet to discover the seat of consciousness in the brain. So what is it if science cannot define it?

The sense of self, self-awareness. A metal detector can detect metal buried underground because it has been created to do so. But it is not aware that it has detected metal - it merely informs its operator. A smoke alarm does not have an appreciation of the smell of smoke, nor the awareness that smoke is present - it's merely been created to sound in the presence of smoke. But we are aware of the fact that we see, smell, hear, touch and feel.

I recommend this useful article on Wikipedia as a convenient starting point in any deliberations of consciousness. It reminds us of how much science does not know about our inner workings. I was about to write 'mental workings' - but that suggests that the seat of consciousness is the mind - not proven.

I became aware of my consciousness as a small child, piling up memory upon memory, some learned and stored - the words 'my first day at school', for example, prompt a memory of the smells of floor polish and Magic Marker ink. The smell of a hardware store - timber and paraffin. Over the decades, my brain has become immensely more sophisticated in terms of knowledge and experience, but that sense of 'I-ness' is the same. You can feel it in your dreams - in mine, I am ageless, an actor moving through sets and scenes that are both familiar and unfamiliar (and familiarly unfamiliar) - but the dream 'I' is the same consciousness as the waking 'I'.

Is this the soul?

Dualists would say no. I remember catechism classes at St Joseph's Catholic Church in Hanwell; the notion of the soul residing invisibly (it is not the creation of this world) within my torso, and a little dark patch appearing on it every time I sinned which only confession and Holy Communion could clear. No, the traditional teachings of the Church would have us believe that our immortal soul is heavenly, entirely disconnected from the physical universe.

And here I'd beg to differ. I would argue that consciousness is of this, our tangible, physical universe, yet something beyond the understanding of contemporary science - it is the very seat of what makes the State of Being so very special.

Does a cat have consciousness (as opposed to simple instinct and memory)? A sense of self? Very much so. A rat? Also. A prawn, an amoeba, a bacterium? Is a bacterium aware of its own existence? No? Yes? In which case, at what point in the evolution of our planet did life acquire consciousness?

I think of Michelangelo's painting The Creation of Adam as an anthropomorphic depiction of that moment - 12 billion years or so after the Big Bang, sometime after the emergence of life on Earth - when consciousness first appeared. Or was it always there?

And given that we don't know a) where consciousness resides and b) what's conscious and what isn't (how are we to know that an oak tree is bereft of a sense of its own existence?) we are clueless as to when in the Universe consciousness first appeared.

Perhaps it resides down at atomic level? Perhaps consciousness is so distributed across our being that it is the sum of all those atoms of which we are made? But then it is believed that there is no molecule in our body that's been there more than nine years (or so), then memory must be forwarded on from molecules that are due to pass through us to the ones that have just joined us.

So many questions - and yet my instinct is that higher spiritual understanding will come from asking questions and testing the assumptions, rather than from accepting that which we have been told. Wisdom is there to be passed down from generation to generation, but it needs an empirical framework on which to sit. "Don't eat pork", wrote Leviticus, divinely inspired. On indeed prawns. Well, at least until mankind invents the refrigerator.

Next: the immortality of the soul.

This time two years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time three years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This four years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time six years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time seven years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst


AndrzejK said...

Interesting research on people who have had heart transplants and experience memories which can only be those of the donor.

Also MRI scans have revealed that the heart reacts to danger stimuli (photos of predators) faster than any part of the brain.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Andrzej K

Exactly the point I made to Adam R the other week - transplant patients reporting anomalous memories that square with the life-experiences of the organ donor.

Interesting about the heart and the brain - all suggesting that consciousness is distributed about the entire body.