Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The three hard facts of consciousness

There are three fundamentally hard facts to being conscious animals, so far as I can reason (perhaps there are more is what I mean by this qualifier). Those hard facts are simply things that conscious animals with sufficient reasoning capacity to struggle with them, including ourselves, must face, and they are all uncomfortable. Religions, though they have served other functions as well over the centuries, have been ways at their cores of papering over these three hard facts and the discomfort and fear that comes with them. That has not yet changed.

These aren't the same as the big displacements, like heliocentrism and evolution, although those are hard enough facts for animals that are determined to believe themselves special. I don't wish to elaborate on this now, so I've mentioned it only to get it out of the way that these are not the kinds of hard facts I'm talking about. The truly hard facts hit us deeply in the centers of our psychology, and they are actually hard, unlike those scientific discoveries, to wrestle with and eventually accept.

The three hard facts of consciousness that I have identified are
  1. We each will die, and death is final.
  2. There is no ultimate and objective purpose.
  3. We are fundamentally alone. 

We each will die, and death is final.


This is beyond doubt. Every animal that has ever lived has died--particularly the ones that we might cite as being conscious and with sufficient reasoning capacity to get a grasp on what that means. Despite various myths and legends, and despite medical interventions within short timeframes and under particular conditions, no death has ever been undone, not in the full and proper sense. Given enough time being clinically dead, which is not a very long span of time, and there is no coming back.

Religions have tried to paper over this reality because it is scary for most people to reconcile the fact that their consciousness, which is literally all they have ever known and ever will know, will end. Some religions tell us that if we behave in certain ways or believe the right things, we get to come back reincarnated into another life--human, animal, or other--although memory of previous lives is not necessarily guaranteed. Other religions tell us that if we behave in other certain ways or believe different right things, we get to go to a different realm and live forever as spirit, maybe rewarded, maybe punished, maybe lost in some kind of limbo. Some tell us that we get a new body, the same body back again, need no body, or that we all become part of one great cosmic One. None of this has any evidence to support it, however, and a great deal of evidence suggests it is unlikely to be true.

The fear of death is central to living, as it is in many, many cases the fear of death that keeps us alive. Evolution would favor an innate fear of death as well, as there is a self-preservation mechanism to it. Thus, we are animals innately afraid to die, and we know it. Thus we invent ways to cheat death or to imagine that death is an illusion. Nothing gives us support for those imaginings, though, except the weight of belief itself.

We will each die, and death is final--knowing it and dealing with it is a hard fact of consciousness. Dealing with it has the benefit of putting the value and meaning of our lives in this life instead of in the hope of another.


There is no ultimate and objective purpose.

Not only will we die, everyone we know will die. Not only will everyone we know die, our entire society will die. Not only will our society die, our entire species will die. Not only will our entire species die, all species will eventually die. This is a simple result of thermodynamics, and though it may take a very, very long time for it to happen (with local catastrophes being far more likely in the meantime, so far as anything we'll ever be likely to be able to impact), it will still happen. The universe, being itself inanimate (though containing animate bits in very small proportion), is not able to intervene on our behalf, and it isn't able to care whether or not it should intervene. It merely grinds on, impersonal because it has no agency. It will grind us and our entire impact to essentially nothing eventually.

Indeed, the impact that we can have on the universe is remarkably small and provincial. Technology may widen that scope at some point, but it is unlikely to be able to widen it to any significant portion of the galaxy, much less the universe at large. We will continue to find purposes, as we always have, but they will be here, as they always have been.

There is a fear of meaninglessness contained in this, rather like the fear of death on steroids. Even our legacies will succumb eventually to nothingness. That's how it is. There is no room for purpose in our endeavors in a universe that will eventually grind them all to nothing.

Religion papers over this fear by inventing objective purposes. Some call them God, Salvation, or escaping Samsara, but these purposes are imaginary. They make it easier to cope with the fact that in a sense--the vastly wrong sense to focus upon--there is no meaning or purpose to what we do. It covers up the reality that we each, as tiny little provincial beings, work upon tiny little provincial things, however hugely consequential those things happen to be to the individuals who experience them.

There is no ultimate and objective purpose--and it's a hard fact of consciousness to know it and deal with it. Dealing with it has the benefit of finding our purposes in ourselves and in each other, so far as we can reach them and for however long that will matter, seeking to enhance the subjective experiences of sentient creatures as well as may be for as long as that is possible, for only there does purpose lie.


We are fundamentally alone.

Do you see the color red the same way I do? Do you smell pine the same way I do? Do you experience the world the same way I do? You can't know, it seems, but this has been tested. People do not experience the world in the same way. Your experience is your own.

However much empathy you possess, you will never feel the physical pain or pleasure of another human being (or animal) as they feel it. You will never think about things exactly as they do. You will never have the experience of being anyone other than yourself, your entire experience of everything filtered through your sense organs and your nervous system, particularly your central nervous system, which color your entire experience according to their unique makeup. Your experience is your own.

You can attempt to share your time or your experiences with others, in person or through writing. Communication, including nonverbal communication like touch, enables us to extend our nervous systems outward, affecting other nervous systems, but ultimately, every one of us will experience those nervous systems as us, not as someone else. We are, inescapably and in a real way, fundamentally alone.

Religion very effectively papers over this hard reality. On the one hand, religions are great community endeavors in most cases, a primary function of religion being to create a assumption and perception of shared values that create the illusion that other people aren't so different from us (and in reality, they may not be much different, though they are different). On the other hand, religions often posit the existence of a supernatural agent, perhaps God, that is fundamentally with us at all times and with whom we can have a personal relationship. Because God is always with us and constantly offering us a personal relationship, we are never truly alone, even when no one else is around us. The paper is thin, though, and translucent. The only agent someone can know for sure is always with him with whom he can have a personal relationship is... himself.

We are fundamentally alone--and knowing and dealing with this is a hard consequence of being consciously aware of it. The benefit of dealing with it is functional interdependence born of courageous independence blended with empathy. We go it alone, but we also know how it is to struggle with going it alone, and so we are more eager to reach out with help or for help seeing it as the only bridge we really have to each other.

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