The Little Philosophy Handbook: Consciousness
Robert Solomon was the Quincy Lee Professor of Business and Philosophy and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He was the author of over 40 books, including The Little Philosophy Handbook which provides a concise look at perennial philosophical questions. Questions everyone asks like “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?”. In the excerpt below Solomon looks at the concept of consciousness.
For many people, the beginning of philosophical curiosity might be summarized in the French exclamation Voilà!—“Here it is!”— a sudden sense of wonder at just being alive and being here. What this means, however, is not easy to spell out. What is, is you, your being here in the world. But in coming to appreciate your being here in the world, something else, even more amazing, has happened. You have become self-conscious, not just in the sense in which you look in the mirror and become aware of the toothpaste on your chin or that you look really good in that green dress but in more of a global sense, that you come to understand and be thankful for the very fact that you are alive here and now.
With this self-consciousness come other thoughts and reflections. For instance, you might consider the possibility that your life could have been very different. You could have been born somewhere else, with different parents, of a different race or religion, of the other gender, or even as a different kind of creature. Holding onto some tenuous sense of the self, you imagine the possibilities. But what is your self other than all of the properties that make you you? It seems that consciousness itself is what defines you, just the sheer fact of being here imagining all of the different ways you could be. Thus, you become reflectively aware of the marvelous fact that you exist and your existence could possibly be very different from what it is. But this is a remarkable fact in itself, the fact that you can become aware of yourself in this way, that you are conscious. But we will see that the concept of consciousness is ambiguous.
Once upon a time, whether you follow Genesis or Darwin, something truly miraculous appeared in the world, namely, what we call “consciousness.” First of all, the universe itself came into being, which was remarkable enough. Then there was the phenomenon of life, which was also truly astounding and whose beginning remains one of the great, unsolved mysteries along with the origins of the universe. But somewhere in the development of life organisms became sensitive to their environment by means of their senses—touch, taste, smell, sound, and vision—and only well after that, and perhaps only in human beings, some creatures became fully conscious, that is reflectively self-aware. This is how we can have the “Voilà!” experience.
We need to distinguish two senses of consciousness, however, what we might call consciousness as sensitivity, which we share with most other animals (and arguably even some plants) and consciousness in the full and distinctively human sense, self-consciousness, the sense in which we can think about ourselves, can resolve to change ourselves. It is also because we are conscious in this full sense that we can do philosophy, pursue scientific theories, and have religious faith that speculates about our proper place in the cosmos. Much of this has to do with the fact that self-consciousness in humans includes the remarkable ability to describe the world and ourselves in language, and with language all sorts of new possibilities emerge. But, most immediately, it is because we are conscious in the full sense, self-conscious, that we can recognize and appreciate our own existence and have the “Voilà!” experience.
Consciousness (though not necessarily human consciousness) might thus be seen as the highest stage of development in the universe. The ancient Hindu philosophers and many Buddhists who followed them argued that the universe essentially is consciousness. The Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that the final goal of the cosmos was “thought thinking itself,” which later thinkers interpreted as God. The nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel insisted on something very similar, that the progress of the universe as a whole comes to completion with full selfconsciousness, when it is finally aware of itself, what it is, and how it came to be.
This idea of stages of development is an important part of many scientific and religious traditions. Genesis, for instance, is quite explicit that God created first the physical world, then the heavens and oceans, then the plants and animals, and finally human beings. And years before the theory of evolution, many philosophers and scientists agreed that there had been some sort of emergence of life from nonliving stuff, and only then came the emergence of sensitivity and finally full consciousness, culminating (they thought) in human beings. (Whether or not we are the goal or ultimate “end” of the universe is, of course, highly disputed.) But as one distinguished classicist has written (about the ancient Greeks), the development of consciousness is nothing less than “discovering what the human mind is for.” It is, ultimately, for knowing itself. So how did consciousness come into the world, and what does it mean that we are conscious?