About Self-Awareness

In examining the universe, we end with a necessary choice of belief.  All our science tells us that a universe in which all of the cosmological factors are balanced just right to allow life is extremely unlikely.  Science also tells us that our methods cannot know anything about the first few fractions of a second of the Big Bang, much less penetrate the “greater reality” that existed before that moment in time.  We cannot choose to believe that the greater reality that created our universe does not exist, so we must either ignore it or choose to think something of its nature.  Our choice is between two possible explanations for our unlikely universe.  It is either the result of an infinitely large number of creations, one of which randomly produced the right factors for life or it was created by a conscious force that intended to make it as it is. 

This choice brings us to a necessary discussion of consciousness and awareness.   For me, self-awareness has always been a mystery at least as great as that of the entire rest of the universe.   I find its implications frightening and confusing.  It often seems to me only a step away from madness and I believe that it tells us a great deal about the nature of the greater reality we seek.  I often wonder why so little is written about the mystery of self-awareness.

 The Center of the Universe

For me, the greatest wonder of the universe is that I personally seem to be the center of it.  Everything that I am close to seems large and important.  Everything far from me seems small and distant.  From my perspective, the greater part of the universe, consisting of millions and millions of galaxies, is less a gnat flying around my head. 

Logically, I tell myself that every other human shares the same self-centered perspectives.   However, this is just a projection.  I can’t know anyone else’s awareness.  I am alone in my perspective.  The largest part of my life is the monologue (or is dialogue) that takes place in my mind which I alone can hear.   In terms of my self-awareness, I am totally alone and isolated in a frightening way.  The external companionship of others is so important largely because it distracts me from the essential isolation of existence.

Being the center of our personal universe offers is own strange paradoxes of life.  Externally, we can see that we are not central to the world at large, but all of our perceptions and thought tell us otherwise.  In our dreams, our self-awareness moves easily between different characters, different bodies.  In our dreams, our self-awareness is bigger than the reality, seemingly shaping it around us.   In real life, however, our self-awareness is trapped within a single body.  Logically, we know that that body will some day die, but our self-awareness seems too central to the universe to be something that dies.

The Perspective of God without the Power

It is the start of the great paradox of existence.  Our personal awareness makes us each our own center of a universe.  Self-awareness creates a personal universe with a unique perspective.  None of us perceives the general universe except from the perspective of our unique personal one.   All perceived reality exists only through this lens of unique self-awareness.   We each have a unique angle on the physical universe that is lost forever with our deaths.   We can imagine a “meta-universe” consisting of all conscious perspectives of the physical universe taken together, but, of course, without a conscious, personal God, that meta-universe cannot exist.   Without God, all these perspectives cannot be taken together since they physically only exist independently and forever isolated from one another, small slivers of an imagined greater whole. 

The heart of the paradox is a great sense of contradiction.  Each of us exists only as the center of our universe, but we are clearly not in control of that universe.  We have the perspective of a god, but no taste of any real power.   We can move our limbs and affect our environment, but our abilities are clearly limited.  We must adjust to our larger environment.  We can’t even control the internal functioning of our own bodies. We are merely guests within our bodies, not their masters.  In many ways, our bodies control us, eventually condemning us to death.  

It is as if we were placed in the control room at the center of our universe, but we soon discover that, despite appearances, this  isn’t the control center at all, but only an observation platform with a few, minor controls whose major purpose is merely preserving our perspective for a limited time.   Our sense of largeness at the center of our universe is quickly dispelled by the fact that we are clearly at the mercy of the larger universe. Our accumulation of knowledge has tamed nature to a degree, but it can only temporarily insolate us from the larger reality of our ultimate limitations.  We are more comfortable.  Our lives are longer, but in the end we and all we love will fall prey to disease and death.  The uncontrollable factors of “chance,” determine more of our fate than we do. 

The Nature of Awareness

Since we are made of consciousness, as much as we are made of atoms, we can’t help but wonder about the nature of that consciousness, but beyond Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” little of significance has been written about the experience.  Recently, there has been a spate of books about self-awareness, but their purpose seems primarily to diminish the importance of the experience, locating it in the brain, and relegating it to a “survival strategy.”   Having perused a few of these books, their main mistake seems to be confusing memory with consciousness. 

Memory as a persistence of vision is certainly needed to discuss consciousness, but it is very different from the experience itself.  We can and do experienced consciousness with no trace of memory.  Our memories are abstraction and condensations of our conscious moments.  Few if any of us have memories so clear that we can relive a single conscious moment.  Instead, we can recall being conscious, but not the consciousness itself.  Awareness is limited to a moment in time.  It is always now.  We can recall other moments, but we are not conscious of them in the same was as we are of the now. 

I have been consciously studying self-awareness since I was in my twenties. It began with a study of yoga, but the more fruitful area over the years has been the study of sleep and dreams.  Sleep seems to be a state of unconsciousness, a foretaste of death perhaps (but I have come to suspect that it isn’t).   In moving between various levels of sleep, it seems that what we mistake for “unconsciousness” is really a disconnection of our senses and a lack of memory.  I have been conscious, with no sense of external world, and roused myself enough to record the memory of it.   At various levels of sleep “thought” is also distinct from consciousness.  Though it may be at first hard seem hard to disconnect through from consciousness, during sleep, I have been clearly conscious of point of time when my thought-forming mechanisms stopped working, but I still was aware.  Rousing myself enough to remember the experience, the scrambled non-thoughts experience seems to more emotional states with word images scatted in it. 

There are several drugs which allow a patient to remain conscious, but they have no memory of it afterward.  So doctors know that reasoning and consciousness are clearly separated from memory. Recently, I have had the opportunity to maintain memories through this drugged state, largely I think because of my practice with sleep consciousness.  

Though I cannot prove it, I have come to suspect we have no state of true unconsciousness, even when we are drugged and undergoing an operation.   We have only states that we cannot remember, cannot reason, and which are disconnected from our sensory apparatus.  Of course, that is a pretty big "only."  Without memory, reason, or sense, what is left?  That of course, is the heart of the matter.  The primary sense of "I am" requires none of the intellectual equipment of humanity, but with out it, that sense is something like a quantum singularity: impenetrable and imponderable.

Exploration of Dreams

Of course, we can learn a great deal about consciousness and our perception of reality from our dreams.  I have been capable of “lucid dreaming,” that is, dreaming while consciously knowing I was in a dream since I was a teenager and perhaps even earlier.  Dreaming and especially lucid dreaming tells us some very important things about consciousness and perhaps the universe which we inhabit.

During a dream, we often seem to inhabit a real world.  We are clearly conscious and often quite rational.  We have use of most of our mind, but not our external senses.  The dream world is different in many respects from the external world, but the similarities are intriguing.  First, in our dream world, we are still the center of perception, and we have no more control over reality than we do in real life.  During lucid dreaming when we realize that this is a dream, we get a little more control, but most of the times that I have tried to make things happen, the usual effect is simply to wake myself up. 

 In our dreams, other people seem to act and affect our situation.  In dream world where I am supposedly the master because it exists inside "my" head, I am no more persuasive on the other actors than I am in real life and maybe less so since the world has a tendency to shift out from under me.  We talk with dream people and wonder at their goals and motives.  Yet these “people” are clearly automatons, manufactured by our own minds.  Still, we have no more control over them or any more insight into thinking than we do other people in real life.   This reality of the dream state must lead us to question the reality of the waking state, or, as Tennyson put it, “Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?”

During dreams, we are always our conscious selves but often we are not the characters we “play” in real life.  The “me” of my dreams often has different memories than the “me” of real life.  I actually often remember what has happened to me in previous dreams, but my dream character remembers them a real occurrences.  Sometimes these dream memories are quite horrible, as dreams can often be.  When they flood back to me in a dream, I am often shocked that I could have forgotten them.  Frequently, I am shocked into lucid dreaming, realizing that these are dream memories of my dream characters.   I am often left in a lucid state wondering what my real identify and real memories are.  I am conscious and aware. I know that I am dreaming and I know that I am me, but I am completely disconnect from the Gary Gagliardi of the real world. 

There are three major differences between the world we perceive in the dream world and the one we perceive in the real world. In a dream world, we can never see as clearly as we can in the real world and our physical reactions are handicapped: we frequently have trouble moving or acting with any force.  Next, the dream world is less “solid” and its forms less persistent that our real world. Its reality or scene can shift in an instant.  Finally, during a dream, my consciousness often migrates from the character I am to the person that I am with or who I am confronting. 

In dreams, consciousness behaves more like the “camera” in movies.  It tends to follow the action or plot more strongly than the characters.  Sometimes, our self-awareness is outside of all the characters, simply observing the action, hovering in space.  Strangely enough, this floating awareness seems very natural and comfortable, never as shocking as having a dream characters memories.  This leaves us to wonder if it is a product of the movies that we watch and books that we read or the progenitor of them. 

The True Reality

Dreaming or awake, our consciousness is the only true reality.  If we were brains in a jar, being fed electronic impulses that created a world in our minds, we wouldn’t know it.  If we accept the appearance of the world, we are brains in a jar, getting electronic impulses through our senses, telling us what is going on, but we have no way for proving it.  Going back to Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation of our reality is that it is simply a dream that God is having.  God didn’t have to create the world at all. All God needed to do was simply dream it.  Nor did God have to dream every character.  God could simply be dreaming that he is me. In this version of reality, our awareness or, more precisely, my personal awareness, is God lost in my character in a dream.   This is the simplest explanation for the universe. 

Of course, this is a version of reality perilously close to madness.  This is why I find self-awareness the most frightening aspect of all in the search for divinity.

Having discovered that self-awareness is so central to our own reality, how to we apply this knowledge in a search for God? 

Let us go back to the choices that started this chapter.  We know that there is an ultimate reality from which our current universe arose during the big bang.  We can know nothing about this reality through the tools of science.   Our only clue to its nature is the suitability of this universe for human life.  This reality leaves us only two explanations.  We can believe in an unconscious prime force that perhaps by its nature created millions upon millions of universes in which this one an perhaps others just happened to have the right conditions for life to emerge.   Or we can believe in a conscious prime force that chose to make a universe in which conscious life could and must arise. 

If consciousness can occur in my limited form, it seems strange to deny it to a vastly more powerful reality.  I personally don’t believe that consciousness arises uniquely from the human brain. This is another form of the anthropomorphic error thinking the Earth is the center of the universe.  My tendency is to think that since I have consciousness, consciousness is not as rare as we might think.  I suspect that it arises naturally.  It might arise from complexity, but since I can be conscious without thoughts or memory, perhaps complexity isn’t even necessary except for more advanced forms of consciousness.  For all I know, life isn’t even necessary for consciousness. Every atom might have a simple form of conscious.  Stars like our sun may not only be self-aware, but the energy within them may form patterns of complexity many times more complicated than our brains, allowing extremely high levels of thought and perception.    For all any of us know, consciousness may arise from the folding of space in those seven or eight inaccessible dimensions. 

Since I am more willing to grant consciousness to atom or a star, I am not likely to deny it to the ultimate reality that generated the big bang.  My true belief is that self-awareness is simply the God stuff within us.  The sense it gives us of being the center of the universe is our share of divinity.   Our sense of isolation is an illusion from we have difficulty perceiving God within us.  In the deeper reality, we share our awareness with God and God shares the awareness of every conscious being.  God’s perspective is all of this private universe’s taken together.  However, this would get us very close to the “personal” God of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim ethic, a God that not only exists and is aware, but a God that is actually intimately concerned with each individual on this planet (and every other) and what happens to them. 

Choosing between the unconscious and conscious God, we are clearly exercising a preference about the type of universe we wish to live in.  Some people like being the lonely center of their universe.  They don’t mind the feeling of isolation or the thought of nothingness at the end.  They prefer to think that everything that happens is an accident, that there is no ultimate meaning in life, and that there is no purpose to history.  Others prefer living in a universe that has more meaning.  I am clearly one of the later. 

However, I think that there is evidence—not irrefutable evidence, but evidence none the less—that my view is the correct one.  I think that we find the clues in human history.  That will be the focus of my next letter.