Dominic Fairfax Forum
Dominic Fairfax Forum




Consciousness is a fascinating and extraordinary phenomenon. It is the stuff that minds are made of. It is the essence of who you are and yet it is elusive and inaccessible. It is odd that relatively few people think about consciousness considering that consciousness is what and who we are. Yet despite two and a half million years of trying to fathom it nobody knows what consciousness is. It is a question that has puzzled scientists and philosophers for centuries.  All we know is that its source is our organic brains. The human brain is an extraordinary complex mass of neurons consisting of synapses, axons, dendrites and neurotransmitters. It is from these electrical impulses that consciousness arises but it is not known how. How is it that something as unconscious as the matter of the brain can ever give rise to something as wispy and immaterial as consciousness? To paraphrase the philosopher, Simon Blackburn, we should consider that as incorporeal as it is, human consciousness is the most complex thing in our section of the galaxy.The human brain controls memory, vision, learning, thought and voluntary behaviour. Different sense organs respond to physical stimuli and then transmit signals to dedicated parts of the brain which then work together to enable us to see, feel, taste, remember, compare and classify things. For most of the time the brain works efficiently enough. We only get a sense of its fragility when things go wrong.  A small amount of neuronal damage and we have organic brain deterioration on our hands.


The brain is the physical basis of our consciousnesses as thinking, active human beings. But what is it the basis of?  What about our secondary, superadded world? This is the world of our ‘inner’ experience, our imaginings, feelings, thoughts and sense experiences - our own private take on things. My inner world is accessible to me and yours is accessible to you. But yours is not accessible to me, at least not in the same way as it is to you or that mine is to me. We have privileged access to our own mental states and this is why many people insist that this is why we can never really know each other. Furthermore, a scientist might be able to chart the excitation patterns in my brain on a monitor, but it is I, the subject, who sees the tornado causing havoc in my memory. You do not see my sight of that, however closely you pry into my brain or however accurately you observe the way the cells are doing their dance. Our mental states are themselves invisible to the best scientists of the brain. 


Irrespective of how much neuroscience learns, the portal to the world of consciousness is a closed door. The brain can be equated to the hardware; consciousness the mysterious software; a ghost in the machine. It is this extraordinary relationship of dualism that has always eluded scientists and philosophers. "The body and brain act and react in the world and carry information back to the ghost."  But the world of the ghost and the system by which the ghost is connected with the body is shut off from scientific enquiry. The philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, rejected the idea of Cartesian dualism in favour of logical behaviourism.


The religious feel that it is reductionist to view consciousness solely via the realm of physics. They claim that consciousness is metaphysical and comes from God. We are poor copies of the ultimate consciousness and the reason for our existence is to become aware of that collectively, but we are being held back by oppression, greed and preoccupation with the wants of the body. Opponents of this view argue that the religious need the idea of the soul in order to alleviate the fear of obliteration after all the trials and tribulations mere mortals suffer. Moreover, they believe that clerics control people's lives and take their cash in exchange for offering comfort for that fear. They assert that the idea of a benevolent God instilling inferior consciousnesses into fragile human brains in fleshy bodies in order that they might eventually reach, or return to, some kind of 'ultimate' consciousness is cruel beyond belief considering the physical and emotional suffering that most people endure. 'It doesn't make any sense.'


From a physiological perspective it is feasible to suggest that consciousness is a by-product of the electrochemical activity in the brain. It might be the case that what most people call consciousness is essentially our ability to ascribe language to items, communications, reasoning and other abstractions. Language precipitates thought and vice versa. Thinking would certainly be primitive without language. But could it only be that? At this particular moment in time, nobody seems to know exactly what consciousness is. It is likely that there are multi-dimensions to it that remain to be discovered.


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