Descartes famously concluded that ‘I think therefore I am’, taking the conscious experience as the one certainty that could prove existence against the reduction of scepticism. So if we can know anything, it is that we have a consciousness. But the hard problem of consciousness remains, in understanding how it is that our consciousness arises from the reality that we perceive. How is the conscious mind related to the brain, and brain activity? Importantly, how might they be causally related, such that the actions I take have been consciously intended, or not (do I have free will and can I be held responsible for my actions)?
Some argue that the physical world can be fully explained in terms of cause and effect without recourse to this conscious intention, and that in this way all future actions have been determined by events that have already happened and continue to happen. There is even a study that is seen to prove this out, whereby we can observe the brain preparing to act in a certain way prior to the person themselves being conscious of making that decision. In this way, it could be argued that my consciousness is merely a resultant effect or a post-rationalisation of what is occurring due to this causal chain, and that our consciousness is more like an observer than a director of events.
Alternatively, it could be argued that in fact, while we can be sure of our consciousness existing, we cannot be certain of much else. The existence of physical reality as we perceive it is dubious, since our senses are fallible (and indeed can be manipulated), and can be subject to delusion and hallucination, but we have no means of experiencing the world without them.
I recently came upon this interview with a cognitive neuroscientist which convincingly discusses this problem, and how we can best describe our ‘visualisation’ of the world by use of the metaphor of a simplified computer interface (i.e. that the icons and actions as perceived by us bear little relation to the actual complex mechanics of what is occurring within the computer system) which has been advantageous to our survival and so ‘designed’ through the process of evolution. I have not before heard someone so succinctly define the problem in assuming our understanding of space and time is fundamental to the world itself, and not merely fundamental to our own interpretation of it.
For me, this highlights a key problem for the individual, that considering the constraints of our perception, we cannot fully understand ourselves or other agents in the world, let alone the world outside. It speaks to an innate paradox within us, that a fundamental desire is for us to be truly known and understood by others, but we cannot even truly know or understand ourselves. That the ‘individual’ is in fact made up of countless consciousnesses that somehow combine to create our singular experience, is fascinating. Reality seems more surreal than ever!
Hoffman argues we should still take seriously our perceptions of the world, since they have evolved for a reason to enable our survival, but not necessarily take them literally, is I think where we can find the place for art and creativity. By utilising an unconventional way of thinking and problem solving, and by using and abusing the visual language and metaphors of convention, to provoke others to think and see things differently, art might have a unique ability to help us break out of the constraints of perception, at least for an instant. Though cynically we could say that it is just as constrained as anything else. It could be interesting to explore sensory deprivation, or more around automatic art to try and access the consciousness outside perceptions of the external world.
In future, is it possible that we might fully understand the connection between our physical reality and consciousness? If so, this for me implies that we would be able to break out of our current constraints of knowability, and for instance be able to communicate directly between consciousnesses – i.e. something like telepathy. This could be a very different future, one which might be ‘post-language’, and where many of the conventions we use now to try and approximate communicating our inner experience would become defunct (e.g. facial expression, gesture).