Perhaps the most difficult subject to understand in all of philosophy is the explanation of the experience of consciousness. With the help of The Urantia Book and the philosopher John Searle of Berkeley, I’ll present a few ideas on the subject.
Professor Searle outlines ten features of consciousness in his book “Mind, Language and Society”:
1. Ontological subjectivity – All conscious states only exist as experienced by an agent. [Ontology is defined as that branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being, reality or ultimate substance.]
2. Consciousness is experienced in a unified form. This is the ability to bind together diverse stimuli and unite them into a coherent perceptual experience. As the UB says “Mind, in its essence is functional unity; therefore does mind never fail to manifest this constitutive unity, even when hampered and hindered by the unwise choices of a misguided self.”
3. Our subjective states have intentionality. These states include beliefs and desires, intentions and perceptions, as well as loves and hates, fears and hopes. It is a general philosophical term for all the various forms by which the mind can be directed at, or about, or of objects and states of affairs in the world, even imaginary objects such as pink elephants and unicorns. These states, known as “mental representations” are also “self-intimating”, that is, a person in such a state knows he/she is in that state.
4. We experience conscious states in a particular mood with a certain color or flavor, from elation to depression.
5. We structure our conscious states into coherent wholes, seeing meaningful patterns, even where there may not be any actual coherence, such as seeing a picture of a face in a cluster of toothpicks.
6. We focus our attention on certain aspects of what we are experiencing at any one time, although we can freely shift our attention to other aspects of the experience.
7. Our conscious states have an awareness of the sense of our location in space and time, even though the location itself is not an intentional object of our consciousness.
8. Our conscious experiences have varying degrees of familiarity. We experience things on a continuum, a spectrum, that goes from the most familiar to the most strange.
9. Our conscious experiences often remind us of other experiences stored in our memories. We put them into a meaningful context.
10. Our conscious states are always pleasurable or unpleasurable to some degree.
II. Before discussing the Urantia Book’s comments on consciousness, I would like to comment briefly on the attempts of some philosophers to explain consciousness without resorting to mind as an independent entity (the ghost in the machine). They believe that the real world is made up entirely of material or physical entities, and therefore consciousness as a mental phenomenon does not exist except perhaps as a “property” of matter. They trivialize the inner subjectivity of consciousness by saying that it is an illusion or at best an epiphenomenon, which means that consciousness accompanies certain neural processes but has no influence on subsequent events, which are determined at the molecular level. In other words we have no conscious free will.
Recently there have been attempts to explain consciousness by saying it’s a computer program or a mathematical form of information containing bits of data in symbolic form. Refuting all these arguments requires careful thought and analysis by professional philosophers, often by Professor Searle. Nevertheless the above features of consciousness combined with the revelations of The Urantia Book listed below have convinced me that our conscious thoughts are far more self-directed than a mechanistic computer program or simply bits of information generated by the physical brain. An appropriately programmed computer, or any form of data in symbolic form, has a syntax but no semantics: the symbols generated by computers have meanings that can be interpreted by an observer (“objective relativism”), but the computer itself can only manipulate the symbols as instructed by the programmer without really understanding them. Computers have no beliefs, desires or intentions. Indeed a top neuroscientist named Stanislas Dehaene has said that “Neuroscience … has long rejected the computer metaphor… With its massively parallel, self-modifiable organization, capable of computing over entire probability distributions rather than discrete symbols, the human brain departs radically from contemporary computers.” The quotes are from his excellent book “Consciousness and the Brain” about the latest empirical studies on what happens in our brains when we have conscious thoughts vs. what happens when our brains process information on unconscious levels.
I also admire the respected Mr. Dehaene for his arguments strongly advocating the idea that we have relative free will: “But our decisions are genuinely free whenever they are based on a conscious deliberation that proceeds autonomously without any impediment, carefully weighting the pros and cons before committing to a course of action. When this occurs, we are correct in speaking of a voluntary decision — even if it is, of course, ultimately caused by our genes, our life history, and the value functions they have installed in our neuronal circuits.”
People who don’t believe in free will have also made a big deal about the fact that our thoughts start being formed one-half second before our conscious awareness of them. However, our thoughts are based on our knowledge of language, and the words to convey the thought start being formed based on our memories of language for such thoughts before our conscious awareness of the fully formed thought one-half second after the process begins. Once we become aware of the words in our thoughts we still have the evaluative option of changing or rejecting the words. We can also reject any actions that are prompted by the words. For instance if our subconscious brain starts directing us to walk across the the street half a second later, we can cancel the idea if we see that we’ll be hit by a bus.
III. So who is the self who is having these conscious experiences? According to The Urantia Book each of us is given a unique personality by none other than God the Father himself. “Personality is defined as that feature of an individual which we know, and which enables us to identify such a being at some future time regardless of the nature and extent of changes in form, mind, or spirit status. Personality is that part of any individual which enables us to recognize and positively identify that person as the one we have previously known no matter how much he may have changed because of the modification of the vehicle of expression and manifestation of his personality.”
The UB does go on to say that human personality is distinguished by self-consciousness and associated free will. Self-consciousness includes the ability to recognize our own personalities and to recognize the existence of other personalities. In fact man’s own personality awareness, self consciousness, is directly dependent on this very fact of innate other-awareness, this innate ability to recognize and grasp the reality of other personalities. Self-consciousness is in essence a communal consciousness: God and man, Father and child, brothers and sisters.
Self-consciousness also connotes recognition of the actuality of mind ministry and the realization of the relative independence of creative and determinative free will.
I’ll discuss two different manifestations of mind ministry. The first manifestation is the “cosmic mind”. “The fact of the cosmic mind explains the kinship of various types of human and superhuman minds. Not only are kindred spirits attracted to each other, but kindred minds are also very fraternal and inclined towards cooperation with each other. Human minds are sometimes observed to be running in channels of astonishing similarity and inexplicable agreement.”
“There exists in all personality associations of the cosmic mind a quality which might be called the “reality response”. It is this universal cosmic endowment of will creatures which saves them from becoming helpless victims of the implied a priori assumptions of science, philosophy and religion.”
The cosmic mind unfailingly responds to three different domains of reality which are self-evident to clear reasoning and deep-thinking mortals:
Causation – the reality domain of the physical senses, the scientific realms of logical uniformity, the differentiation of the factual and nonfactual. This is the domain of mathematics.
Duty – the reality domain of morals in the philosophic realm, the arena of reason, the recognition of relative right and wrong. This is the domain of ethical judgments.
Worship – the spiritual domain of of the reality of religious experience, the personal realization of divine fellowship, the recognition of spirit values, the assurance of eternal survival.
These scientific, moral, and spiritual insights make it possible for man to to function as a rational and self-conscious personality in the realms of science, philosophy and religion.
Other manifestations of mind ministry originate in the mind circuits of the Infinite Spirit that enable us to sort and process the associations of consciousness that make intellectual and spiritual growth possible. As Jesus said per the UB and slightly paraphrased: “The human self is not merely the sum of the successive states of consciousness. Without the effective functioning of a consciousness sorter and association processor there would not exist sufficient unity of mind to attain the conscious levels of human status. If the associations of consciousness were just an accident, the minds of all men would then exhibit the uncontrolled and random associations of certain phases of mental madness.” Mind ministers make it possible for us to have a unified conscious experience and to put our conscious experiences into a meaningful context.
Following is a description of the seven different types of mind ministers who help us evolve into mature personalities of survival potential. Such spiritual influences were revealed in part in the Bible in Isaiah, chapter 11, verses 1, 2 and 3 if we equate “might” with courage and the “fear of the Lord” with worship, which many do. Only the spirit of intuition is missing from the Biblical list.
“1. The spirit of intuition – quick perception, the primitive physical and inherent reflex instincts, the directional and other self-preservative endowments of all mind creations…including the lower orders of animal life.”
“2. The spirit of understanding – the impulse of co-ordination, the spontaneous and apparently automatic association of ideas. This is the gift of the co-ordination of acquired knowledge, the phenomenon of quick reasoning, rapid judgment, and prompt decision.”
“3. The spirit of courage – the fidelity endowment – in personal beings, the basis of character acquirement and the intellectual root of moral stamina and spiritual bravery. When enlightened by facts and inspired by truth, this becomes the secret of the urge of evolutionary ascension by the channels of intelligent and conscientious self-direction.”
“4. The spirit of knowledge – the curiosity-mother of adventure and discovery, the scientific spirit; the guide and faithful associate of the spirits of courage and counsel, the urge to direct the endowments of courage into useful and progressive paths of growth.”
“5. The spirit of counsel – the social urge, the endowment of species cooperation; the ability of will creatures to harmonize with their fellows; the origin of the gregarious instinct among the more lowly creatures.”
6. “The spirit of worship – the religious impulse, the first differential urge separating mind creatures into the two basic classes of mortal existence.”
“7. The spirit of wisdom – the inherent tendency of all moral creatures towards orderly and progressive attainment….This spirit is the secret of that inborn urge of mind creatures which initiates and maintains the practical and effective program of the ascending scale of existence; that gift of living things which accounts for their inexplicable ability to survive and, in survival, to utilize the co-ordination of all their past experience and present opportunities for the acquisition of all of everything that all of the other six mental ministers can mobilize in the mind of the organism concerned. Wisdom is the acme of intellectual performance. Wisdom is the goal of a purely mental and moral existence.”
“These mind-spirits send forth their influence into all the inhabited worlds as a differential urge, each seeking receptivity capacity for manifestation quite apart from the degree to which its fellows may find receptivity and opportunity for function.”
As I typed this list I realized that thinking is a lot more complex than anybody had thought before the arrival of The Urantia Book. The “urges” described above were thought to be just the product of self-reflective thinking or the manifestation of animal instincts. We didn’t know that we were being encouraged to grow intellectually and spiritually by specialized mind ministers, without conscious awareness of their encouragement. Of course we still have the freedom of will to ignore these sirens of the mind, but not many people refuse the helpful directions of the mind ministers. Most people, even atheists, deal bravely with the many challenges in their lives, despite almost paralyzing fears at times, and grow in character and wisdom as evolving sons and daughters of God progressing toward glorious destinies.
Of course we still have to explain how our conscious states, “the ghost in the machine”, can convert abstract concepts into physical actions. I once saw an explanation that seems to have some merit: There could be a cascade effect in which a slight nudge by a slight amount of energy associated with a thought can cause a chain reaction in our physical brains that eventually results in physical movement. Details unknown
Finally a quote from the UB: “Man’s greatest adventure in the flesh consists in the well-balanced and sane effort to advance the borders of self-consciousness out through the dim realms of embryonic soul-consciousness in a wholehearted effort to reach the borderland of spirit-consciousness – contact with the divine presence”.