by Stuart Gathman

Human Consciousness

Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho writes that  Human consciousness is at risk.  For the reader that is wondering what is meant by "human consciousness", I recommend two books. 

The easy and fun book is Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy.  The format pretends to be an irreverent pop psychology self help quiz.  Unlike most such quizzes, the questions are quite penetrating, with "thought experiments" in the form of entertaining short stories.  In the middle, is a short introduction to semiotics, a discipline which attempts to create functional maps of the symbols in our brain with which we think.   The key concept, is that while people are arguing over biological evolution, the real mystery is the explosion of consciousness (self awareness) and civilization that began around 10000 years ago.  The brain, whether designed or evolved or both, is a suitable receptacle for words and symbols, and these words and symbols are the basis of thought and consciousness.  They do not arise spontaneous in the brain, but are transmitted from society.  For example, Helen Keller had the behaviour of an animal, with only limited trainability, until her teacher finally made for her the fateful association of the finger sign for "water" and the water flowing from a pump.  That spark ignited an explosion of consciousness, and she went on to develop great intelligence.  Percy describes how modern consciousness results in selves that are isolated from the world.

The hard book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield.  Since words and consciousness are transmitted from culture to individual, and each individual can then use those words in new ways, consciousness evolves over time as individuals change culture, and culture sparks intelligence in new individuals.  Barfield traces this evolution from ancient India, to Greece and Rome, to Medieval Europe, to modern Western Civilization - describing how we got to the situation described by Percy.  Idolatry refers to the tendency to confuse the symbols in our minds with the things they refer to.  Since these symbols are the only way we experience the world (even our senses, like vision, are processed by our brains into internal symbols), it is easy to do.


Posted 1/21/2012 at 9:51 PM

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