The Questions of Consciousness

Descartes’s radical statement, “I think, therefore I am,” was a recognition that human existence resides in consciousness. One exists as an independent being because one has thought. Consciousness is the great divide, and sentient consciousness magnifies the type of being humankind has become.

But thinking by itself is insufficient for a meaningful life; in the words of Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (Apology 38a). Descartes himself used his maxim “Cogito, ergo sum” as the basis for a methodology to turn opinion into knowledge, to turn an unexamined life into a meaningful one.

While Descartes used his proposition as the starting point for a rational methodology of logical discovery, the question of consciousness and a meaningful life remains the existential basis of being. The Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, remarks that every human being lives with three anxieties: the fear of death, the fear of guilt, and the fear of meaninglessness (42-54). These three anxieties can mold an individual worldview, and bend the examination of life into predetermined channels of denial and projection. In other words, one’s fears can lead one into thinking only of the self, fulfilling only self interest, and denying greater realities outside the self. In this state of affairs, not only is the self left unexamined, but also it becomes void and empty. It is a psychological paradox that a life lived only in service of the self is a life filled with meaninglessness.

How does one live an examined life? Socrates would not answer this question; in true Socratic fashion he would leave it for us to answer ourselves. In my view there are two essential questions of being–questions of consciousness. The first is the question of conscience: “Who am I?” The second is the question of suffering: “What is Good and Evil? And how can each lead to suffering?”

These questions are called the great and terrible questions of being. They are great, because they address the essence of one’s identity. They are terrible, because authentic answers require a full self-examination of one’s thoughts, actions, desires, and habits, with a full moral accountability to the other. The “other” is defined as the primary relationships whereby one conceives of the self. Paradoxically, the self is only defined whilst in relationship with something else. Literally, what kind of conscious being we are is defined by how we treat others. For some, the “supreme other” is the open question of the mystery of another being. For others, the supreme other is simply the self projected onto anything else in view. Martin Buber calls this the “I and Thou” relationship, where we treat others as an object, “Hello you, my ability to use,” or as a predicate, “Hello thou, my ability to serve.” In each case the self is defined. And in each case the self enters into a new possibility. In the former, the self ruminates only upon self-interest, and ironically the consciousness of the individual shrinks within the horizon of one’s own predetermined desires. In the latter, the self opens up new horizons of learning. These horizons do not always lead to happy endings. Indeed, the pain of discovering evil, for example, leads many to serving only the self. This is a truly self-defeating paradigm. And a self-perpetuating one.

In my next few posts I am going to explore these two questions of conscience and suffering. Nothing in a blog can be definitive, but I will attempt to ring the bells of awareness in my own soul; after all, blogging for me is part of my examined life.

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