Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Being and Consciousness

Mobile marine organisms, increasingly sensitive to environmental alterations, responded, e. g., by either approaching life-enhancing heat or avoiding excessive heat. Eventually, one organism also felt the heat. That organism had become sensitive enough not only to respond and move but also to sense. This qualitative change initiated consciousness. Sensations were followed by perceptions, thoughts and imagination. By definition, the earliest sensation cannot have been intended or planned because intention and planning presuppose consciousness.

Although, as yet and as far as we know, consciousness is only a minute part of the cosmic process, the entire process is necessary to generate consciousness: 

the initial explosion filled space with gasses composed of the lightest elements;
gravitational collapse of gas into stars generated the density and heat that synthesize heavier elements necessary for life;
stellar explosions fill a second generation of stars and planets with heavier elements;
some life became conscious.

If the initial explosion had not occurred, then consciousness would not exist. If the stars were not there, then we would not be here. Did the explosion occur in order to generate consciousness and do the stars exist for the same purpose? No, because a purpose presupposes consciousness. If any powerful intelligent beings did design this universe, then their consciousness must have originated elsewhere. Consciousness as such cannot fulfill any purpose. Our universe generates consciousness. Other conceivable universes do not.

There are at least three cosmic eras: BC, Before Consciousness; AC, Animal Consciousness; HC, Human Consciousness. Only in the third era can conscious beings discuss consciousness – and disagree about it. Many of our contemporaries do not agree that there was a BC in this sense. There are many theists. Also, when I was a Philosophy Evening Class Tutor, a student argued that what I call the BC era depends on consciousness because we cannot discuss it without referring to consciousness, even if the consciousness in question is just our consciousness of the hypothetical era while we are discussing it! Certainly our discussion of a hypothetical BC era depends on our consciousness of it but how can the era itself depend on our later consciousness? Surely it is the other way around. And, if not, then how did we originate?

Believers in a BC can regard it as preparing for consciousness provided that they do not interpret this preparation in a way that presupposes consciousness. It is only we who look back at an earlier period and regard it as preparing for ours. The formation of the English Channel “prepared for” the history of Britain as an island. Earth’s uniquely large satellite may have “prepared for” life by gravitationally thinning out the terrestrial atmosphere, then “prepared for” land life by causing large tides facilitating the evolution of amphibians.

Being became conscious. Every other event either prepares for or elaborates this. The heat/cold and pleasure/pain dichotomies must have been early sensations. Organisms approaching food and evading predators at some stage began to feel hunger and fear. Amphibians learned the difference between dry and wet. 

Consciousness, although of supreme value to us as reflective beings, originated as a by-product of natural selection, because pleasure and pain have survival value. An active organism that experiences harm as pain fears pain so avoids harm. Biologically, we help kin because they bear the same genes as us and help others because they might help us in return. Psychologically, this is experienced not as calculating self-interest but as moral obligation. We value self-conscious beings as ends, not as means, but this is our value system, the system of self-conscious beings. It is not written in the heavens. Being will continue if consciousness ceases. 

The neutrality of being on moral issues need not concern us because only self-conscious beings can have values. We make value judgements. We start by needing heat, food etc for survival, regard these as good things at least for ourselves, naturally share them with our offspring and close kin because we are social, not solitary, animals who live or die in groups and then extend moral obligation to the rest of mankind. The Samaritan is our neighbour. We naturally extend the word “good” from its non-moral use, applied to things we need and like, to its moral use, meaning the obligation to share such “good” things with others.

“Being” means only that which is independently of consciousness whether or not it is an enduring substance. Its nature is the subject of scientific enquiry. It is also called “nature”, “matter”, “mass”, “energy” etc, is the subject of all consciousness and becomes self-conscious through organisms which are individual subjects. We can say that being values consciousness but it only does so through conscious beings. It only values anything through conscious beings.
There may be a PC, Post-Consciousness, era. We do not know whether consciousness will transcend entropy, escape to another universe or end soon:

mental states are momentary;
conscious beings are transient;
consciousness has so far existed through finite time on Earth and might end here soon.

Some Hindu scriptures identify the Absolute as Being-Awareness-Bliss or Existence-Knowledge-Joy. This formula corresponds to one interpretation of the Christian Trinity which personifies the three aspects: 

the Father is (“I Am”);
the Son or Word is his self-knowledge;
the Spirit is their joyous union. 

I disagree on several grounds with Christianity but the Hindu formula scores two out of three. Like Christianity, and like all idealist philosophy, it reifies consciousness but it also recognizes both the primacy of being and the transcendent nature of contemplative experience, the “joy” of the unitive awareness of being.

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