I love pondering Big Questions About the Cosmos. The stark existence of, well, existence is one of them, though I'm not sure if this is really a question. Maybe just a brute fact about which nothing more can be said.
(Along this line, recently I read a letter to the editor in New Scientist magazine arguing that circular reasoning, sort of like "existence exists," has to be the nature of a final truth. Otherwise there's always another truth along another link in a chain of causes/effects or reasoned explanations, and we never get to the end.)
Sometimes, though, little questions lead to the big ones.
I've started to read Nicholas Humprey's "Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness." I was drawn to the book because Humphrey starts off by simply asking what it means to see a red screen in a lecture hall.
And draws increasingly large conclusions about the purpose and nature of human consciousness from there. Interestingly, earlier today Mike Williams left a comment on one of my blog posts which read in part:
An interesting meditation is to imagine the color yellow. Then track it back to its source. See what happens when you try to consciously visualize yellow in meditation.
In a subsequent comment, Mike said (also in part):
Is there anything in the world which can be personalised ?
Without mistaken personalisation of thought, can a self even exist ?
Can thought ever be personalised ?
Is there a WHO in your machine ?
Here's some excerpts from the beginning of Humprey's short book about the simple act of seeing red. I'll blog again about the book after I read more of it.
The screen, in short, is colored red. This, we can say, is an objective fact, which could be confirmed by a physical measuring instrument such as a photometer. It is also an impersonal fact. It does not depend on any person's interest or involvement with it. Indeed, this fact about the screen would be the same if we all left the room.
...S is here, looking at the screen. And because S is here, there is now an interesting fact about him. S is doing whatever it amounts to for a person to "see red" -- doing it, presumably, somewhere in his brain. This fact about S is also an objective fact. There is every reason to suppose it too could be confirmed by a physical measuring instrument -- if not with present technology, then soon enough.
...However, this fact about S is a personal fact, because it does of course depend on his being here, with his eyes open. It is his seeing red. But being personal is only the beginning of what makes this fact remarkable. Far more important is that this fact belongs, among all the facts of the world, to a very special class: namely the class of objective facts that are also subjective facts.
...When S looks at the screen, he does something truly remarkable (in fact so remarkable that, if he were not so breezily familiar with it, he might rub his eyes in disbelief every time it happens): he generates that particular state of consciousness he will call having a red sensation. This sensation is clearly something he creates.
...having a red sensation has something of the character of a bodily action, perhaps an expression. At any rate, it is an active first-person response to being stimulated with red light. And, to bring this out, let's give a special active name to what S is doing here: redding.
This sensation, this redding, is the centerpiece of what it's like to be S at this moment. As its author, S experiences it immediately, in the making -- or so it seems. And yet, even though S is doing it, just what it is he is doing will be more than he can fully say. Indeed, as he tries to think about it, he will find the redding arrives in consciousness before he can even begin to put his mind to it and extends deeper than he can put his mind to (even given all the time in the world).
...Still, one thing that is obvious immediately is that the sensation is by no means a simple copy of the retinal image as a physical fact. For it is strikingly obvious to the subject that the sensation, the redding, has a quality and a valency -- subjective psychical properties -- which the image as such could hardly have.
The sensation represents not just the red light at his eyes but his interaction with this stimulus. And because of this, S will feel the sensation matters to him; he will mind about it.
...It's important to note that these aesthetic attitudes to color are primarily attitudes to the quality of the sensation that colored light induces in the subject, not to the fact that some thing has the colored surface it does. That's to say, when S finds red light exciting, for example, it is his own phenomenal experience, the redding, that he judges exciting, and not the fact that the screen is colored red.
...In doing all this, S gets to experience himself as an experiencer. The logician Gottlob Frege (following on from Kant much earlier) nicely stated the general principle that lies behind this: that wherever there is subjective experience there has to be a subject. "It seems absurd to us that a pain, a mood, a wish should rove abut the world without a bearer, independently. An experience is impossible without an experient. The inner world presupposes the person whose inner world it is."
...That's to say, it is our experience of our inner world that confirms the existence of the person.
So in just eleven paragraphs we've gotten from a red screen to examining the nature of "self." It's a universe in a grain of sand sort of thing. The smallest perception contains the essence of what it means to be a conscious human being.
I'm looking forward to finishing Humphrey's book. His view of consciousness is controversial, but from what I've learned so far, he makes a lot of sense.
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