We are human beings: inanimate material brought to life, and invested with consciousness. It is indisputable that we are not alone in this. Dogs and spiders, fish and even brainless octopuses are physical compositions with various kinds of consciousness. That much is known.
Biology has discovered how we come to life, how our cells multiply, and how they transform basic chemicals and physical elements into infants capable of independent life, and how we continue to ingest physical stuff to sustain our bodies.
What we have not even begun to successfully explain is where our consciousness comes from. For a while it seemed that the new science of psychology would eventually do that. Freud broke through to astounding insights, Jung to others. But some underlying principles, some unifying concepts, remain elusive.
Religion has tried to account for this in another way. As Mircea Eliade put it, “… homo religiousus always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real” (The Sacred and the Profane, p. 202)
Religion has for millennia proposed alternative mysteries in which to immerse our concern about how we think and how we compound those ephemeral flashes into enlightened understanding. Religions provide coded clues contained in narratives and ritual reenactments that potentially turn one of the mysteries into consuming truth, the heart of consciousness. Then religions have tried to dismiss as unimportant or evil whatever mysterious residue may remain.
Religion’s fundamental principle is that there is a reality that is separate from whatever makes up physical reality … stardust, electrons, and everything physical. It is so separate that the sciences designed to perceive what is real about the universe are skeptical that this other reality exists at all. Science believes that everything about us can be accounted for without resorting to mystery.
Yet, the mystery of consciousness remains. There are thoughts, memories, and dreams that cannot be accounted for. Many can. Most can. But not all of them. Those, few though they may be, haunt us and entice us. They beguile us and refuse to let science have the last word. More than that is the mystery of consciousness itself.
At what point and in what way does consciousness start for an individual, and where does it come from? Even more, what is it? If we do not know that, do we really know anything?
Of course we do know many things. Memory serves us. The whistle of my tea kettle arouses me to action. Intention serves us. I have confidence I can get out of my chair and go somewhere else. We know things.
Almost all our knowing is learned from actions we took long before they meant anything. They became meaningful and remembered, and then were associated with other memories. However, our capacity to do this is an enigma. It does not have the nature of an electro-chemical process. It remains a mystery, one that we do not entirely control. This ability is not learned. It is intuitive, acquired without intent, and never fully domesticated.
We do not have it. It has us.
(Link to the first essay on consciousness: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/consciousness-itself)
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.