What is consciousness? And can we be sure that anything exists outside our own consciousness?
Let’s start with Descartes’ famous undoubtable: I think, therefore I am. But then the obvious next question is: am I all that there is? Descartes went on from here to try to prove the existence of God using the ontological argument, but I reject that as more than just a bad argument in this instance. So, how are we to determine that there exist something other than just me?
I might approach it this way: my awareness is finite, situated at a particular point of view. My awareness is of a particular here and now, with a particular scale of size, spatiotemporal orientation, and a particular singular experience of whatever I am experiencing at a given moment (regardless of whether it all exists in my head or not). What I can conclude from this, though, is that my experience is not eternal and not of totality, it is finite. This means that, in virtue of having the particular awareness of the experience I have right now, there are other possible experiences that I am not currently aware of. Thus, I can conclude that there are things that I can define as being not me in virtue of defining what is me as that which I am currently aware of experiencing (so there could be experiences of what is not me occurring eternally and in totality, but I am not aware of those experiences).
From this I can infer that there is at least two modes of existence: the existence that I am aware of and the existence that I am not aware of (whatever the nature of that existence and any experience outside my awareness of it may be). From this I will infer that my own awareness of existence is contingent rather than necessary – it is possible for my awareness of existence not to exist, since there are parts of all that exist of which I am not currently in a state of awareness
If I am not currently in a state of immediate awareness of experiencing anything that is the color blue, then I am not currently in a state of immediate awareness of the existence of the color blue. This means that my immediate awareness of blue is currently non-existent. However, it is still possible for me to be in a state of immediate awareness of the color blue even while not actually in such an immediate state, meaning that the color blue exists as a possibility even in the absence of my being in a state of immediate awareness of it). Thus, while not in a state of immediate awareness of the existence of blue, there is (at least a) part of existence that exists that is not me, that is the non-existence of my awareness of existence.
Additionally, on account of the finite nature of my awareness of existence in comparison to all that is possible for me to be aware of (i.e. all of the possible experiences I am capable of being aware of but am currently not aware of), I infer that there is more possible experience than I could ever actualize into my awareness. The only way that I could actualize all possible experience into my awareness is if I were eternal and totality, which I have established above that I am not: I am finite.
From this – that it is possible for my awareness of existence not to exist and that there is more possible experience than I could ever actualize into my awareness – I infer the true contingency of my awareness of my experience of existence. Being contingent, it is possible for my awareness to not exist at all. Indeed, similarly to how I am currently aware that there are possible experiences of which I am currently not aware (due to my being aware of the experiences I am actually having being decidedly not those other possible experiences), I am currently aware of experiences I had been aware of having but no longer am currently aware of having (i.e. I can summon an awareness of experiencing things that I am not currently experiencing – what we call memory). Conversely, there are experiences that I cannot summon into awareness, and therefore possible experiences outside of what I can summon into awareness.
I take these experiences I am unable to summon into awareness as experiences that either I have (in memory) but am unable summon into awareness (i.e. I forgot those experiences) or that I do not have (in memory) and that is why I cannot summon them into awareness (i.e. there are things/events that exist(ed) outside of my experience of them). Either of these choices indicate existence in the absence of my awareness, and therefore I can infer that it is possible for me to be absent any awareness at all.
This state of total unawareness I will define as being the opposite of consciousness; as such, consciousness will be defined as satisfying the following two necessary (not yet sufficient) conditions:
1) Having experiences
2) Being aware of having experiences
I will add a third necessary condition that follows immediately from these two: that consciousness must be finite as defined above. The reason for this is because an infinite consciousness could only experience and be aware of itself eternally and in totality, since itself is all that would exist, and therefore its awareness would be static without limiting to a singular experience. Awareness is a determinate focus on a particular, a sorting of a single actual out of of all possible.
What we can say at this point about consciousness, then, is that in virtue of being finite and limited, it therefore contains only a finite and limited capacity to represent its experience. As such, consciousness possesses only an approximation of the full existence that it can only partially represent as its experience. For instance, we do not experience what an object, say a coffee cup, actually “looks like” from no particular single point of view (i.e. a single spatial distance and orientation, relative size, etc.). And so what we can say is that our consciousness uses its finite experiences to build a model of the actual world.
Possessing the capacity to satisfy the conditions for consciousness (of any level) I will call the state of being alive. What that capacity is and what conditions must be satisfied are issues for another time. For now, what is important is that such a capacity for consciousness is logically and physically possible and that it is logically and physically possible that such conditions that are necessary and sufficient for consciousness can, in principle, be satisfied.
Since consciousness is finite and therefore discontiguous with the existence of which it is not, it then follows that there is existence which is non-consciousness (i.e. those things that do not have the capacity for consciousness and do not satisfy the conditions to be conscious). From this I infer that it is possible for the capacity for consciousness to be disrupted such that the conditions are no longer met. This we can call death.
Death, lacking consciousness, is unaware of its existence by virtue of the fact that it does not have experiences and is not aware of its not having experiences. Consciousness necessarily has experiences and is aware of having those experiences.
Let’s further analyze these two necessary conditions: having experiences and being aware of having experiences. The word having indicates that there is a subject of both the experience and the awareness – a self or I that is the subject that has a relationship to the experiences and possesses an awareness of those experiences. This subject is not the experiences themselves but is the finite experiencer. Being the subject of experience – the possessor of the finite awareness of experience – necessarily means that this self is partial to its own existence by virtue of the fact that it by definition cannot be that which it is not and therefore must be and can only be that which it is. In other words, the self has an interest in itself on account of the fact that it can only either be itself or be nothing at all (i.e. be alive or be dead).
We have now established that there is a self – a finite subject of experiences and awareness of those experiences – and that this self, being finite, only approximates existence as it actually is through representations of experience (i.e. a model of actual existence). But how did this consciousness come about? Why is it here and what is it for? Those questions will have to wait for another post.