Quiet Contemplations Questioning Consciousness

The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted into other forms of energy – for example, if you slap the wall, the mechanical energy that goes into the slap is converted into the energy needed to produce sound. With Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2 it is easy to see that conservation of energy translates into conservation of matter.

This dictum applies to the physical reality that we inhabit. But what about the individual that experiences this physical reality? What is the mind?

Interestingly, whatever the mind is, unlike physical reality, can be both created and annihilated. A mind comes into existence when a person does, and then ceases to exist upon death. With the mind goes an entire universe worth of existence – a model of the universe generated within that mind disappears, unable to ever be faithfully reconstituted. The physical substrate that composed the mind – a couple pounds of fat and salty water – loses the battle to maintain physiological homeostasis at the cost of energy and tends towards thermodynamically favored chemical equilibrium, but is otherwise unchanged.

This means there is a something that goes from existing to not existing when a person dies – a “substance,” if you will, that could be said to be the ground of conscious Being. This “substance,” for lack of a better term, does not take up space. It can’t be weighed or measured or isolated or broken down into simpler components that can exist independent of the rest of it.

So, what is consciousness? And what does it mean that it is like something to be ourselves? And what does it mean that I have the experience of being this particular me as oppose to some other me – that it is like something to be me, and that is different than what it is like to be you?

The first two questions are often answered either from the bottom up or the top down, so to speak. For the third I have not found much information – about why there is a specific, particular me. To answer this question, we first have to ask ourselves how many possible consciousnesses can exist. If it is theoretically possible for an infinite number of consciousnesses to exist, then how is it possible for any particular one to exist? If the landscape of all potential consciousnesses is imagined as an infinite plane, then without a particular origin, the distance to any particular consciousness is infinity. Perhaps, because this landscape is only a landscape of potentiality, not actuality particulars may exist. Does this mean that the “substance” at the ground of conscious Being is a potentiality that can come in and out of actuality when a consciousness is born and dies respectively? Sort of a “world of the potentials” in the same vain as Plato’s world of Forms.

If there is something general or universal about consciousness, then does that mean that my consciousness is a specific instance of some substance or form that can be called consciousness? And, for that matter, are particular instances of consciousness a shared substance with different forms or a shared form created with different substances? Are form and substance even appropriate terms? And what does it mean for the makeup of consciousness that it can be chemically altered using drugs? Or that it changes over the course of time? Or even that it changes as it gains new information?

Anyway, this was a bit stream-of-conscious (pun intended) about some thoughts that came to me this evening. Feel free to comment if you have anything to add or dispute.

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