By Aditya Prasad
(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum and voted for publication by forum members. All opinions expressed are those of the author.)
|(Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, released into the public domain.)|
It is very hard to know at any moment whether or not you are dreaming. I taught myself at age 4 to dream lucidly, and have had over a thousand lucid dreams since, and I still find myself frequently generating false positives when I investigate whether or not I'm awake.
On the surface, this might seem absurd. Surely when green dragons are flying around your living room, and you even have the presence of mind to check whether you're dreaming, you cannot fail to discover that you are.
And yet, this kind of thing happens all the time for me. Even if my suspicion is aroused by oddities and absurdities, it is apparently trivial for my mind to generate a perfectly satisfying explanation and convince me to move right along. Oh, those are just my pet dragons. I thought they were blue for a sec.
It seems to me that all the cognitive faculties I use to arrive at certainty about my world can be hijacked without consent, knowledge, or even suspicion. One cannot simply think his way out of schizophrenia or confabulation.
The illusion of continuity of experience can be provided by false memories. The ability to reason properly can be tinkered with simply by the mind producing satisfaction with its answers. External validation can be supplied by imaginary characters.
If this is beginning to remind you of solipsism or the Matrix, it's for good reason. Anyone who thinks about these issues long enough realizes that indeed, there is no rational conclusion one can be absolutely certain about. None at all.
Or more precisely, although one is likely absolutely certain about a great many things, such certainty is not necessarily indicative of any underlying truth. If otherwise intelligent people can be certain that they do not have an arm that they actually do, is it such a stretch to imagine that I could tinker with your brain in such a way that makes you conclude that 1 + 1 = 3 – and fail to understand, or even be surprised, when you cannot find a hole in your proof of the fact?
So great a thinker as Descartes is supposed to have locked himself in a room until this epiphany dawned on him. Certainty is just another feeling – one that serves to let us navigate our lives without seeming like we're on an endless acid trip.
But there's another kind of certainty. One that does not find its basis in reasoning at all. It is the certainty that conscious experience seems to be taking place. Though its nature or cause may be unclear, it is simply not meaningful to deny that something seems to be happening. After all, if one tried to deny it, one would be doing so using this very capacity itself.
Now, it's not hard to come up with a seemingly rational counterargument: a computer could print out "I deny that I am experiencing anything" and indeed not be experiencing anything, for all we know. And if you are in fact not conscious, none of what I'm about to say will be convincing. I am sorry for the loss of those readers.
So instead of resorting to reason, I'd like to invite you to simply sit for 30 seconds and experience the flavor of the certainty of experience itself. No doubt there will be a million thoughts vying for attention and drowning out this obvious realization, but try to ignore those for now. See if the recognition that you are experiencing requires any reasoning.
The more one practices, the more one comes to get a feel for how this differs from rational certainty. More interestingly, one gets a feel for how it provides the very basis for that capacity. The feeling of a thought being true, or false, or uncertain, or funny, or boring, are all simply modulations of this faculty of experience. The very process of reasoning itself is just one more manifestation of this faculty.
To which the rational mind typically responds: "Yeah, and? So what? I can explain it all. Some neurons in the prefrontal cortex fire like so, and bam. Experience, reasoning, and the whole shebang."
It somehow conveniently forgets that, as with all rational conclusions, it might conceivably be wrong – without any hint of irony. If I insert it into another circumstance (say, a dream in which heads are filled with jelly beans instead of neurons), it would just as triumphantly declare an "explanation" in terms of whatever conditions it finds itself in. "Yes, conscious experience is caused by jelly beans in the skull. So what?"
That is the mind's job, after all, and it does it well. But it has been my experience that as this second faculty (of direct experience) reveals itself more and more, the more the reasoning mind begins to sense some disingenuity in trying to explain it with its limited resources.
After all, if one tries to explain a certainty (experience) in terms of uncertainties (neurons or jelly beans), shouldn't one at least be up front about it?
Which is not to deny the mind its place. Indeed, in this dream that you and I currently seem to be sharing, the capacity for consciousness may be consistently correlated with the firing of specific neurons – and nothing but reasoning would reveal that to us.
But it would be a tragic mistake to conclude that this tells the whole story. Indeed, mystics across the ages have urged us to follow the rabbit hole deeper. What is the nature of this fundamentally certain capacity that we carry with us – quite apart from its mundane (in the most literal sense of the word) "explanations"? Is there something to be gained from meeting it on its own terms, without the rational mind as an arbiter and intermediary?
To find out, they invite us to spend at least as much time in this other mode as we do in reasoning mode. Why? I'm afraid I won't be able to give you a satisfying reason.