ON THE PUZZLE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
A NOTE ON THE PUZZLE OF CONSCIOUSNESS
D. R. Khashaba
Why should we find consciousness so puzzling? We are immediately aware that we are aware that we are, in the same way that we know that we are alive. Most of us accept the fact that we are alive simply without finding anything problematic about that: it is only when we think of Life in the abstract that we are faced with problems. In the case of consciousness however we – or at least certain erudite scientists and philosophers – seem to find the fact itself that we are conscious to be problematic. I think this contrast in attitude to life on the one hand and to consciousness on the other hand is revealing.
Scientists and empiricist philosophers have ceased to puzzle about life because they think that the sciences of life have adequately explained life. This is a delusion. Biochemistry and evolution and genetics and what-not have given us a fair measure of control on life processes and that is what scientists and empiricist philosophers take to be explanation and understanding. I maintain that even if we succeed in turning inorganic matter into a living organism we will not thereby have explained or understood the mystery of life. We will only have prodded Nature to do in a short time what she previously did in a (humanly speaking) very long time. As Shakespeare has it “… nature is made better by no mean / But nature makes that mean: so, over that art / Which you say adds to nature, is an art / That nature makes.” The mystery of life remains unexplained and unexplainable. To lose our sense of wonder at the mystery is nothing but a blunting of our spirit: it is to be bereft of our sense of philosophical ignorance, and that is to suffer what Socrates branded as the worst amathia (ignorance).
Neuroscience and the so-called philosophy of mind have not yet matched the achievements of the biosciences. That is why they (or at any rate some of them) have not yet lost all trace of puzzlement at the fact that we are somehow aware of — of what? Aware of our inner reality that is just that awareness itself: this mysterious and obstinate awareness that empiricists and positivists vainly tried to exorcise by dubbing it epiphenomenon or phosphorescence or deus ex machina. They will not have rest until they realize that all their researches are examinations of the objective ephemeral manifestations of the unapproachable reality of mind or consciousness. I say the reality of mind and consciousness because this is the reality, the only reality, we are immediately and indubitably aware of — a reality more certain and more stable than all we can observe or detect in the outer world from neurons to galaxies to quantum uncertainties. Scientists will continue to discover marvels in the workings of the human brain, and perhaps greater marvels in the brain of an ant or a gnat, but they will never explain away or explain mind or consciousness because this is an ultimate reality, an ultimate mystery, more certain and more obstinate than the Big Bang or the curvature of spacetime.
D. R. Khashaba
November 26, 2016