Saturday April 3, 2010
It’s the day before Easter, and I’m sitting outside in the sunshine with a pot of Chinese tea, trying to convince myself that it’s warm enough not to be holed up inside. There’s an April chill in the air, and I suspect that the cold will be cumulative, so I’ll make this post relatively short. Still, it is nice to see the sun again, and to sit here listening to the birds twittering and bumble bees chugging around and the distant sounds of traffic and barking dogs. And it’s nice to be away from my philosophy books for a while, after quite a few days of intensively reading about all things Wittgenstein for a book I’m working on (which is one – but only one – reason for the title of this post).
What I want to write about here, however, is not Wittgenstein, but something I came across a couple of days ago whilst reading the New Scientist. Last week’s edition carried a brief article which asked the intriguing question how many ways can we be conscious? The article suggested that consciousness is not a simple either/or business (either we are conscious or we are not), but that there is increasing evidence that the kinds of things the brain does are much more intricate and many-layered than this.
Now the idea that there are different kinds of consciousness is one that is familiar within the Buddhist tradition, where there are all kinds of rankings of states of mind, for example the familiar list of hierarchically-ranked dhyānas. The idea of a hierarchy of consciousness is one that I think is deep-rooted in us. It appears in the New Scientist article as well, which ends by saying “consciousness is looking increasingly like a ladder rather than a light switch.”
This tendency to see consciousness hierarchically may, however, be the very thing that gets in the way of understanding the real implications of what is going on here. After all, it’s all very well to loaf around all day in the “higher” states of dhyāna, and these may indeed feel higher as one sits on one’s cushions. But it is not clear in what sense they could be considered “higher” if we wanted to do something more practical like pilot a plane or perform brain surgery. I’d choose a brain surgeon with ordinary everyday bog-standard consciousness (whatever that might be) over fourth-dhyāna consciousness (whatever that might be) any day…
Leaving aside metaphors of ladders and ideas of hierarchy, the fact that what we designate as “consciousness” is not one but many things, that there is a multiplicity of different kinds of mental states, and that our binary opposition “conscious/unconscious” is not up to the task of talking about this multiplicity of states, is one that should give philosophers of consciousness pause. What, after all, is philosophy of consciousness actually about, if we start finding that our notion of consciousness itself begins to fragment in this way?
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