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Meeting The Crisis Of Man’s Consciousness

The mystery of consciousness is as old as there have been people conscious that they were conscious. However most people, including most philosophers and scientists, don't know what consciousness is. That confusion is compounded when speculating on whether animals other than humans are conscious.

The term consciousness can refer to anything from sentient creatures like humans, to 'higher' mammals such as elephants and orcas, and even to the awareness that some say pervades all life and the universe as a whole.

Buddhists ascribe sentience to all animals, and say even lower forms of life are sentient. Scientifically and philosophically however, sentience refers to being conscious that one is a conscious being. Traditionally, it's referred to as self-awareness -- awareness of self, as distinguished from self-knowing.

Given this definition, I'm quite sure that only humans are the only sentient animals on this planet. That doesn't mean that other animals don't have consciousness, just that they don't have awareness of self. Clearly, to have awareness of self a creature has to have constructed a self, with an image of oneself as a distinct individual.

The mirror test is perhaps the best indicator of self-awareness in this rudimentary sense. The experiment involves placing a mirror before a captive chimpanzee or other animal in such a way that it becomes accustomed to its reflection. After some days, the experimenter then paints a large red dot on the forehead of the chimp while it's asleep (a process requiring a mild anesthesia).

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When the chimp awakens and sees its reflection in the mirror, it will pause, touch and study the dot, thus indicating it has, at minimum, an image of itself stored in memory that does not conform to the image now being reflected in the mirror.

Not all primates indicate this basic level of self-awareness, but neither do human babies. At some early point in our development however, we form an image of ourselves. Unlike chimps, that image becomes more and more complex, entrenched and detrimental to our development as human beings. We assume it has independent reality, and call it 'me, myself, and identify with it.

We thus get stuck in images of others, and ourselves, which prevent direct perception and insight, which are always of the moment. The programmed images eventually calcify and stultify the brain.

Would we say that the chimp, because it has rudimentary awareness of itself, has an inner life? Of course not. An inner life pertains to subjective experiencing, the capacity to ask questions about existence, consciousness and transcendence.

All humans have this capacity, though few develop it throughout their lives. To ascribe it to even the smartest animals on earth does not fit the evidence or common sense, which doesn't make us separate or special as humans.

Therefore it's seriously silly to say, "Before my kitties arrived in my home, I rarely had occasion to consider the inner lives of nonhumans." Such a statement fills a seeing and feeling person with sorrow, since the writer, like so many people, apparently has no inner life of her own.

Perhaps sensing the silliness of the statement, the writer becomes philosophical: "Does my cat even understand that she is - does she, in the way Rene Descartes conceived it, possess knowledge of a self?"

No, our cats or dogs do not "possess knowledge of a self," because they neither are possessed by a self nor do they possess knowledge about the self. That isn't to say animals are 'automata,' as Descartes conceived them, "essentially mindless machines."

In short, because even the smartest animals, such as orcas, probably lack a subjective experience of a conscious self (though we can’t be sure), and almost certainly don’t have a subjective experiencing of life, it does not make them devoid of consciousness.

On the other hand, it's the height of anthropomorphizing, as well as reductio ad absurdum, to maintain there is "reason to suspect animals possess consciousness because we are animals and we possess consciousness." Besides, awareness of a separate self and full consciousness are two different things.

No matter what putative philosophers of consciousness say, consciousness is not just a "felt quality." Cats, dogs and many other animals have limbic systems much like ours, but that certainly doesn't mean that they feel and suffer as we humans do, much less "feel what it's like to see the sun set or smell the rain on a spring morning."

The misguided intention in recent decades is to erase the quantum distinction between humans and other animals. Doing so has taken us further from self-understanding, and done nothing to diminish the "great moral catastrophe of food production facilities all over the world routinely treating nonhuman animals as Descartes saw them, as machines without feeling or experience."

Rather than speculate about the inner lives of cats or dogs, we should be tending to our own inner lives. The tremendous number of 'zombies' in America and other countries ready to kill or be killed for their dear leader attests to an inner deadness that's all too common with human consciousness. The subsequent need to feel alive drives people into extreme sports, drugs or whatever just to feel alive.

People who speculate on the inner lives of animals, or worry about the future ethical treatment of robots that will purportedly have consciousness, haven’t even begun to understand their own minds and man’s crisis of consciousness.

We should be asking: How are we humans different from other animals, which allows us to exercise such destructive power over them, to the point of bringing about the Sixth Extinction?

It is because consciousness as we know it is based on thought, and is, as sages have said over the ages, a dream, based on separation and symbol, from which it’s difficult to awaken, requiring diligent awareness and self-questioning.

Awakening to the dream of thought-based consciousness is analogous to awakening from sleep as one is dreaming. Just as one believes, while one is dreaming, that the dream is reality, the vast majority of people believe, while allegedly awake, that thought-based consciousness is real.

When one is a state of heightened awareness, there is a spontaneous quieting of thought and silencing of the mind. That state, while fully awake, produces the same perception about 'normal' consciousness, that waking up from a dream produces about sleeping consciousness. In both cases, one was asleep, and for a few moments at least, one awakens.

The question I'm grappling with is this: Given the silent state of awareness in which psychological thought is not operating is true consciousness, and that it occurs regularly within one, why does the mind/brain revert to the dream state of thought? Is it that the brain has lived in a simulacrum of consciousness, based on symbols and memories, for so long that the intense flame of attention dies down even after the most intense meditations?

Be that as it may, can we as flawed and suffering humans make the transition to true consciousness? If not, the crisis of man’s consciousness, which is shared by everyone on the planet, will continue to intensify and endarken minds and hearts, producing an even more hellish world than we now have.

Martin LeFevre

lefevremartin77 at gmail.com

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