Friday, September 3, 2010

In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.
_ Gautama Buddha c. 556-480 BCE

Consciousness is not a thing that is stuffed into the body, nor is it a bump on the brain.

If one of us encounters an unconscious person, we will first try to get a response. We want the the person's eyes to open and have them ask, "Where am I?" or "What happened?" In turn, we ask, "Are you okay?" This may sound as if we want is a medical report, but what we are asking for is that brief set of coordinates that gives each of us presence in the world: our name, the names of the people to whom we belong, and how to contact them. Simple, and yet these few bits of information join the individual to the community of human beings.

Human infants are born with mammalian instincts, but identity and self-awareness must be activated by the people who raise them. In modern western cultures these attributes are considered to be somewhat flexible and personal. Conservative societies impose identity on individuals in the form of class and gender roles; roles are the structure of society.

Language is inseparable from the process of creating a human being. A child is told who it is, where it belongs, and how to behave. The interaction of an adult with a baby reinforces electrical connections in the brain; language prunes an unruly tree of neurons so that a particular structure of electrical pathways is strengthened and organized. Setting tasks and asking children questions along the way helps parents to discover if the preferred responses are in place.

I don’t remember blurting out “Cognito ergo sum!” in school one day. Achieving awareness of my existence was a misty process, a journey taken before I knew myself. Identity (which is not the same as personality) does not pre-exist, it is constructed by family and educators using religious indoctrination and social pressure. Long before a baby has been conceived, family and society have composed an identity and world view for children; the majority of those who belong to a religion are members by default, not by choice.

How many of the memories that we assume to be our own are actually provided by family? Do you remember your first birthday? Years later, you may be shown snapshots of yourself at a party and these become memories, as if you had been present as a conscious being, which you were not. The phenomenon we call consciousness might correctly be called co-consciousness, since what we are referring to in everyday terms is our ability to respond to other human beings. There can be no 'self' without the 'others'.

The worst thing that can happen to a child is to become lost, so children are required to memorize their identity: name, rank, and serial number. Even with this basic information in place, children can be frustrating for adults to deal with, because children are not fully able to interpret language and may be slow to respond, which adults often interpret as willfulness or defiance. We are impatient for a child to use language as an adult does. His or her attention confirms a connection to us; obedience conveys a willingness to follow the rules, but children are young animals in need of physical experience, and the words we bombard them with may not have the desired effect. It is better to demonstrate what it is we want from them, but that requires adults to model proper behavior.

The human need for reciprocity is the tip of the behavior iceberg. Our all-consuming need for connection to other people results in the projection of consciousness onto every object in the universe, from rocks, trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, springs, planets and stars and the moon, to the universe itself. We wait expectantly for beings from distant galaxies to contact us. Humans have relationships with automobiles, slot machines, animated characters, stuffed animals, and body parts.

The egocentric projection of human awareness onto objects in the environment, which manifests in toddlers, does not go away, but persists in adults as unquestioned patterns of thought. Animism is not confined to a primitive past; modern people need the reassurance of being connected and protected by invisible and powerful beings that exist in our brains as instinctual, ancestral figures. Being born utterly helpless is a scary way to begin life.

Supernatural thinkers are not daunted by scientific explanations of phenomena, but neither are scientists exempt from magical thinking. Scientists also desire to find a pre-existing Cosmic Consciousness, a Super Mind, and a Theory of Everything. Myths from cultures the world over insist that every part of the world is aware, and if spoken to correctly, the consciousness (spirit) that dwells in the object is likely to respond. Our search for alien life (a single microbe would do) is an extension of the animistic need to connect.