Thou hast slept well. Awake!

Do you ever wonder what happens when you wake up in the morning? Not after you’ve woken up, but the act of transitioning between absence and presence? When you become you again? If awakening is an awareness of you, then where was this you when you weren’t?

Consciousness is a curious issue: a type of autology that requires itself -or perhaps absence of itself- for meaningful delineation; like defining Canada by asserting that it isn’t the USA. But isn’t it just a circulus in probando if we already assume it is a special entity? When I was younger, I could content myself with reductionist thoughts like that; understanding things was not only desirable, it was essential. And yet, deciphering consciousness and my awareness of self, eluded me.

In one of my old university Philosophy courses that dealt with consciousness, I thought I had an answer, though -had the answer: my consciousness was an epiphenomenon, a byproduct of the neural circuits buzzing around in my head. But then I realized that if that were the case, why wouldn’t I exhibit constant consciousness if neural activity was all that was required? Consciousness again began to seem as slippery as a bar of wet soap in the shower -not only its composition seemed problematic, but even who was able to pick it up and use it seemed in doubt.

How far down the phylum ladder does it extend? Dogs and cats are easy; I can tell something is going on with them because when I look in their eyes, there is always somebody in there looking back out at me. And yet I seldom bothered to wonder if other creatures with less expressive faces: worms, say, or maybe flies -were constantly (or ever) conscious. I never even thought to look, I suppose.

But I digress. Is consciousness really something in and of itself, or is it more of a process that is always turned on like metabolism but of which we are only aware when it’s necessary to look for something to digest? Is awareness, in other words, purposive -goal oriented- or simply foam on the surface of an ocean wave? Perhaps it might be helpful to dissect consciousness a little more, although it’s at  times like this I wish I’d paid more attention in those long-ago Philosophy courses -not so much for their content as for their combativeness. Their challenges to what I thought I knew.

Admittedly, I was young in those days, and I thought I was already knowledgeable; Philosophy, I assumed, was just one more thing I could add to my inner bookshelves to prove that I was intelligent, and that I had perhaps accumulated something more valuable than many of those around me… It’s hard to understand just what I thought then, but I do remember thinking that knowledge was essentially a solitary endeavour -a personal marathon. Of course, I had to follow the route, and absorb what sustenance was offered along the way, but in the end the prize was somehow mine: I got to wear the ribbon.

But now, in retirement, I’m no longer as certain. An essay by Hrishikesh Joshi, a philosopher at Bowling Green State University, helped me to see knowledge in a different context, and in so doing appreciate the light it might shed on the purpose of awareness -and of consciousness itself. Let me explain.

The essay is entitled ‘Dare to speak your mind and together we flourish’ – not something I would have thought would have much to contribute to the idea of awareness.

Joshi starts with a discussion about Aristotle’s belief that for anything to flourish, it has to properly fulfil its function -a good knife has to be sharp so it can cut, for example; that is it purpose and also what distinguishes it from, say, a table. But what about us? Aristotle thought that what made humans distinctive was our ability to reason. Nothing new there, I guess.

But then Joshi asks ‘How might we cultivate our reason? A tempting initial picture here is the solitary thinker, engaged in contemplation: reason is that capacity, unique to humans, that helps individuals come to discover truths about complex matters that aren’t directly accessible by perception and intuition.’ And yet, is that true? Or is our capacity to reason essentially social? ‘Reason is dialogical by nature – we use it when we share our reasons with others and evaluate theirs in turn.’ Otherwise, one could argue that ‘reason is lazy and biased in our favour’: I’m smart; I have the answer, and if I am not challenged, or prefer not to find out what you think, I will go on believing my answer. And why not? I have the answer.

But, if I canvas your opinion and have to compare it with my own, I end up with ‘an elegant division of cognitive labour, enabling us to arrive at the truth by working together… truth can emerge as a result of each side giving their reasons, because, although we’re biased when evaluating our own reasons, we’re relatively good at evaluating the reasons of others.’

Knowledge, one of the things that presumable distinguishes us as human, seems to require interaction for its propagation and improvement. In fact, ‘We can’t fully develop our own ideas without being able to externalise them and evaluate them at a distance. At the extreme, if we have no method of communicating with others, we can break down and lose touch with reality itself.’

To be truly human, it is necessary to be able to communicate; it is necessary to be aware -to be conscious- and, at least for some portion of our day, to thrive and continue to exist in a world that basically has no need for our presence. Our awareness is, I suppose, a variation of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, only in this case perhaps it should be Conscientiam ergo sum (an online translation of ‘alert’ or ‘conscious’ that I Googled). And, in keeping with the thesis I just outlined, I checked the variation with Bailey, an old friend and a self-confessed cognoscente.

He thought the translation might be better phrased as ‘Conscious, ergo sum’ “Close, but spelled, differently than yours, though,” he added with conspicuously raised eyebrows.

But I was unconvinced at either of our renditions. They both sounded contrived, somehow -and his definitely not Latin.

“Okay, then, how about ‘Intelligo, ergo sum’?” he said, glaring at me for doubting him.

I thought that sounded a little better, but it was more like it meant ‘I’m intelligent, so I exist’ -braggadocio, in other words… Not really the point I was trying to convey, so I shook my head. “I thought you majored in Latin at university,” I muttered, rolling my eyes.

“That was my brother,” he confessed. “He was always weird, though… I majored in Art.”

It was at that moment I suddenly understood the purpose of consciousness; that it wasn’t just spindrift in a storm. I learned something through the interaction I could never have understood had I merely been a robot, or had my selfhood been forever buried in sleep: you can only be a ‘cogito’ when you become aware that you are indeed unique; that others are not the same as you; that they’re even stranger.

Obviously, I should have tried harder to stay awake in my Philosophy seminars… I might have learned how to argue my way to an acceptable compromise… or not.

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