Saturday, October 8, 2011
To Be Aware
For instance, a blue jay can be said to be conscious in the sense that it feels hunger, analyses its environment, becomes excited as it sees a worm, chooses what it feels is its best path, becomes excited as it sees a worm, and then experiences the pleasure of having its desire satiated. (Of course, no one has spoken with a bluejay, but I see no reason to think that through behavioral observations and knowledge of brain function, we can't reasonably assume that these feelings are occurring).
However, the blue jay is doubtless unaware of its consciousness - that it is experiencing hunger, excitement, pleasure, etc. In this way, it can maybe be said to be unconscious, just as we are when we go about our daily business by habit, simply responding to the environment and making choices that we are unaware we are making. These habitual decisions are certainly more complex, but are they not just as unconscious as the bluejay? For instance, driving a car, parking it, locking the doors, etc. The spiritual tradition of "mindfulness" is explicitly about raising just this sort of consciousness, so that even in these smaller actions, there is a sort of memory we learn to engage that adds an extra layer of consciousness to simple daily activity. There is certainly an argument to be made for this, given the human tendency to allow our unconscious behaviors - and thoughts, even - to get the better of us, leading us into what are ultimately poor decisions. So, the lesson learned is to be more mindful, to develop a sort of leverage point – some trigger – in our daily experiences by which we can shift one level out in our perspective, towards some broader context.
A key detail in the debate over free will, I think, is the degree to which this leveraging actually defines what we mean by free will. What is it to be conscious? I once checked a book out from the library on lucid dreaming. The idea was to take advantage of the cyclical nature of sleep, where we spend ever longer periods of time in deep, REM sleep, yet then wake briefly between cycles. The instructions were to begin a dream journal, and to develop a habit of jotting down our most recent dreams immediately upon these awakenings. By beginning to become more aware of our dreams just after having had them, this habit would help trigger lucidity in the dream state.
The book also recommended the mindfulness I spoke of previously. Throughout the day, if one developed the habit of mindfulness – a higher level of awareness of one’s own consciousness – this would translate into the habit activating in dreams, leveraging lucidity. I spent a little over a week practicing these techniques, and low and behold – I had my first lucid dream. Unfortunately, not only did I become aware that I was dreaming within the dream, but I became aware too that I was aware that I was aware! This seemed to stumble me right awake. By this point, I wasn’t sleeping very well – what with all the waking and writing. And I decided to give up on the whole project.
So, this concept of lucidity in dreaming seems a strong parallel to, shall we say, meta-consciousness in waking. Can this delineation give us any traction in the free will debate? Can we argue that of these two forms of consciousness, the mindful, meta-consciousness presents more freedom? This is certainly the form of consciousness that we all try to imagine when questioning whether we make conscious choices: we are conscious that we are choosing. This, as opposed to the choice we make when putting sugar into our coffee.
In fact, it may also be of importance to place any given state of consciousness on a spectrum of meta-consciousness. At one end, we are almost blindly reacting to the world – when dodging a flying object, say. And at the other, a state of super consciousness in which we are greatly aware both of our external and internal stimuli, but also of our awareness of our awareness. Maybe we could place all other mammals below some maximum level of meta-consciousness, and below that all other creatures capable of thought, ending who knows where – in single-celled creatures little more advanced than any of our individual cells, “thoughts” consisting literally of groups of molecules creating chemical reactions.
What does all of this mean for the term choice? A choice can be as simple as a series of binary responses to stimulus (i.e. too hot = pain, move hand). But it can also be an infinitely complex calculation of multiple competing values, involving in no small part the “gut”, as well as the brain’s calculations. At what point do we describe choice as conscious? At what point do we describe it as free? Can part of choice be not-free, while part of it free? Anyone who has endured suffering in order to receive reward would seem to have made such a choice.
And yet, is it possible to make a choice in which the risk outweighs the reward, yet it is still made? Surely such a choice would be stupid. In fact, is that not the definition of stupidity? No matter what choice we make, there is always something that occurs to us as – that we are conscious of as being – more rewarding than the alternative. The reward may not be to our person, but to another, for whom we have great compassion, and wish to help because it pleases us to do so. It seems that when it does not please us, we are seen as somehow corrupt – if not biologically so.