The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Between Conscious and Subconscious

Everybody agrees that there are conscious states of mind and unconscious states of mind. Most of what we do is done unconsciously. When you drive to work, you perform an extremely sophisticated task that requires driving skills, orientation skills, and avoiding all the obstacles and reckless drivers on the road; but usually you do it while listening to the radio a humming a song, hardly focusing on the action itself. On the other hand, there are moments when you pause and wonder, very consciously, about the meaning of life, or, if you are a poet, about your depressing financial conditions. However, these two extremes do not exhaust the kinds of mental life that we have. For example, what you are doing now, reading these sentences, is not quite conscious and not quite unconscious. When you read, you have to focus on the sentences. In fact, your attention increases, not decreases, compared with other moments. However, you are not quite conscious of your existence, precisely because you are so focused on what you are reading. The "reading" itself is effortless, just like many other routine tasks that you perform during the day without "thinking". But it would be unfair to all it "unconscious" since you have to push yourself to keep reading a difficult book like mine. In a sense, when you read, you are not conscious of yourself but you are as attentive as you can be. You can also feel strong emotions, like when you are reading a sentimental novel or a newspaper article about a brutal homicide.

Consciousness is usually about memorizing. When you are driving the familiar route to work, you hardly memorize anything that happens along the way, unless it is truly unusual (e.g. a car accident, a fire, a fallen tree). When you are unconscious of your actions, there is little or no memorizing going on. Their mostly reinforcement of knowledge you already had memorized. To memorize something, you have to focus on what you want to memorize, or at least you have to be devoting your full attention to that event. But when you are reading a book like this one, with the intent of memorizing as much information as possible, you are not quite conscious of what you are doing while actually at the peak of your learning activities. Studying, in fact, requires that you don't "think", that you direct your entire mental activity on the textbook; and that mental activity results in maximum memorizing. Is that activity conscious or unconscious?

Degrees of Consciousness

There is a level of consciousness that we do not achieve all the time, and some people may never or rarely achieve. Teenagers tend to watch movies and wear clothes and even eat food depending on which message prevails in marketing campaigns. The kids who do not follow the "trend" are considered "freaks", "weirdos". The truth is that the weird kids are probably more conscious than their friends. The weird kids are probably the ones who realize that there is nothing special about that actor or that fast-food chain: it is just that a lot of money has been spent to promote them.

As people grow up they tend to be more aware of why they do things. Some keep following the trends while others become more and more individualistic. The latter are invariably labeled as "eccentric": "eccentric" means that you use your brain instead of letting an external phenomenon condition your brain. The more "conscious" you are, the more eccentric they think you are.

The Beatles, Hollywood stars, Coca Cola and McDonald’s are all examples of things that people like because they have been told to like them. The less conscious somebody is, the more dependent that person will become on those things.

Society is built on a careful balance of thinkers and non-thinkers. Society relies on a few thinkers to break the rules and bring innovation, but at the same time relies on non-thinkers to perform the daily tasks that keep society alive. Business relies on a few people to bring innovation and on millions of non-thinkers to buy it. Capitalism, communism, fascism all rely on people not to think too much, otherwise the system would become highly unstable.

If people thought more, McDonald’s and Coca Cola would be out of business, and only a minority would listen to pop stars or watch Hollywood blockbusters. And probably very few people would work as hard as they do. It would be total anarchy.

Not only do different levels of consciousness exist, but society (and possibly nature at large) depends on a delicate balance of those levels. A successful society is made possible by the very fact that its members have different degrees of consciousness.

Beyond Consciousness o:p>

Philosophers have routinely assumed that there is matter and there is mind, implying that there is nothing else. We humans have the presumption to think that consciousness is the only thing in the universe that is not material, "qualitative", not measurable. We don't quite know what causes consciousness, but let's assume (with John Searle) that "brains cause minds": but what makes us think that, say, crystals don't cause some other qualitative phenomenon that doesn't have a name because we don't have it? Brains "experience" the material world. Other things may have other kinds of qualitative phenomena that don't belong to the material universe, phenomena for which we don't have a vocabulary because we cannot possibly know that they exist. Trees may not be conscious because they don't have a brain made of neurons, but their structure may yield some other kind of non-material phenomenon. There might well exist an infinite number of non-material phenomena in this universe, one of which is consciousness (caused by brains and only by brains). Brains do not cause all the other non-material phenomena, and therefore brains don't know that all those non-material phenomena exist and that they share the same universe with consciousness.

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