One of the fundamental issues within philosophy is that of human consciousness.
What is consciousness, what does it mean to be aware of oneself?
In the past it has been identified as a defining trait of humanity to be able to reflect on one’s own thoughts and actions, on that which we call “I” or “the self”.
In recent decades in has come to light, however, that at least some animals are conscious of themselves as well, to varying degrees. What exactly this means shall not be the point of this essay. Instead, I’d like to focus on the problem that arises with consciousness and the realisation that others, including some animals, are aware of themselves as well.
Can we, as individuals, truly be certain of this circumstance? Just because we ourselves have realised that we exist, that we act, that we think (“cogito ergo sum”), does that automatically mean that other people are capable of the same? Simply because they act in similar ways, display similar behaviour?
This issue has been known within philosophy as Qualia and a famous essay of Thomas Nagel titled “What is it like to be a bat?” illustrates this problem well. Within it Nagel answers the question posed in the title with the conclusion, that it is impossible for a human being to grasp what it’s like to be a bat, despite the fact that it is a mammal, just like us, because of one defining issue. A bat perceives its surroundings through echo location, a sense which human beings lack. Thus, we can’t even begin to imagine how the world is experienced from the perspective of a bat.
This may not come as a surprise to most. Of course, we lack the sense of echo location. Furthermore, we can’t fly (at least by means of our own bodies) and then there is the issue of consciousness. Do bats even have something that resembles human consciousness? In Nagels opinion it is impossible to know because the only way we can experience the world is through our own eyes or – more fittingly – minds. Consciously or unconsciously our minds create the world we live in, partially based on what we perceive with our senses and partially based on past experiences and how they fit in with what is being perceived at the moment. This means that in the moment of processing external signals picked up by one or multiple of our senses a process of interpreting the perceived has already begun. Now what does this mean for our consciousness?
It means that it is – strictly speaking – impossible to be certain of anything we believe to perceive because we know that our mind has most likely altered that, which has been perceived, in one way or another. This also means that we cannot be sure that other beings – if they do exist in the first place – possess a consciousness, regardless of how closely they seem to resemble ourselves. The only thing we can be completely sure of, is, that we ourselves exist, at the very least in our mind. This, of course, is not a fundamentally new discovery, as has been demonstrated by René Descartes centuries ago. But it is important to remember the fact that we construct the world we live in ourselves within the confines of our own mind.
I have previously suggested that, following my line of argumentation, we cannot be sure of the existence of anything we perceive, and I do believe this to be true. This, however, is no feasible way to live, even if the whole universe only exists within our own mind.
Instead, I propose to reflect upon the fact, that we very much construct our own world. Thus, we gain the ability to take previously unconscious processes into our own, conscious hands, at least partially. Whilst in the past we may have taken certain things for granted without even considering their “true” character and values we can now determine by ourselves how we want to perceive them. Theoretically we could aim to “only look at the bright side of life” and live “happily ever after”, which certainly sounds appealing. But this approach could lead to a delusional view of the world in which negative developments are simply ignored. And whilst it is important, for our own health, happiness and a sense of fulfilment, to take an optimistic stance on life it is crucial not to forget that others may not be as fortunate as ourselves and that they require our help.
The point I’m trying to make is that once we have realised that our perception of the world is fundamentally flawed, we can take matters into our own hands and change things for the better, for ourselves and for others. Becoming aware of our consciousness and then taking it a step further and reflecting upon the fact, that our minds govern the way we see the world enables us to construct our own universe. This doesn’t mean that we should just create a place within our minds where everything is perfect. Instead, we should aim for a realistic perspective of the world around us without succumbing to its perils.
The only question that remains then, is: How do we know what’s realistic and what isn’t? This simply doesn’t seem to be possible given that we cannot be certain of anything we perceive. If the tree, the house, the person I’m seeing, the wind I’m feeling, the flowers I’m smelling and the birds I’m hearing are just constructs of my own mind, how can I possibly know that they actually exist? And what about more abstract yet all the more important concepts such as morality and virtue? How do I know what is right and what is wrong? Why do I feel something to be right or wrong in the first place?
There is no easy answer to this question, in particular in regard to concepts of morality. Throughout the ages people of different cultures have had different moral dispositions which of course were subject to change over the course of time and under the influence of other cultures and peoples. Barely anybody in human history has ever thought of themselves as fundamentally evil, although they are clearly remembered that way. In some cases, people of the same culture perceive actions, past and present, in very different ways, as is observable in political debate within democracies around the world. If everyone had the same idea about what’s right and what isn’t there wouldn’t be a need for multiple parties within a democratic system. There would only be one party, representing everybody accurately. By extension there wouldn’t even be a need for this singular party or a voting system, as everybody would vote for the same thing anyway. Perhaps not even a government would be required because everyone would know what the right thing to do is at any given time. The only objective of a government would be directing the actions of its people in order to increase efficiency, if that’s desirable in such a world at all.
For better or for worse this is not the world we find ourselves in, however. People have different ideas about right and wrong, and I don’t presume myself to be so wise as to give advice on how to act and behave or how not to act and behave. Instead, I suggest, as has been the case before, to reflect upon one’s own moral compass and virtues. Why do I believe something to be right or wrong? And I don’t only mean to look for arguments to strengthen one’s own opinion. Instead, I suggest taking the opposite approach. What if I’m wrong? And how have I come to believe something to be right or wrong?
This process of reflection may lead to the realisation that, just as was the case with external perception, our internal concepts are constructs of our minds. They have been influenced by what we’ve previously perceived and how our mind has interpreted the perceived. Our upbringing, our parents, our family, our friends, our colleagues, our society, our culture, our history. All these things influence the way we think and act. They influence the concepts we form in our minds. Once we become aware of this fact we can take matters in our own hand, we can look at things from an outside perspective. Would a member of a different society, from a different time, judge the situation the same way as I do? Why would or wouldn’t they? Am I “more” right than they were? And can I even know that for certain?
Again, there are no easy answers. But the point isn’t to provide definitive, objective answers to subjective questions because ultimately that’s impossible due to our limited capability of understanding the world around us caused by our flawed perception and our insufficiently developed minds. The point is to illustrate the relativity of thought, of feelings, of concepts – of consciousness – and to provoke a more reflective way of thinking to foster a better understanding of ourselves as individuals and of others, regardless of their cultural background or upbringing in order to make the world a better place for all of us.