Consciousness as the foundation of individual existence
All the individual experience of our human life is based on consciousness. If we consider the functioning and behavior of the human organism we can observe its multiple activities, but if we turn our attention to our inner life, we realize that only what enters in the field of consciousness acquires meaning in relation to what we think to be as existing individuals. Human life can only be experienced when our consciousness is activated: whatever happens to our organism and to our nervous system remains unknown to us if it is not registered (in one form or another) by our consciousness, or if we do not consciously experience the consequences of such events. Our inner feeling, determined by the functioning of our mind, represents the reflecting mirror of the mental activity that gives depth and interest to human existence.
The state of being conscious is neither simple nor homogeneous: we can classify different states of consciousness according to what we are aware of and the level of attention with which we focus our consciousness. We can be aware of our thoughts, of the environment around us, of what we are told, of what we are watching, of the activity we are engaged in, of our feelings and desires, of our happiness and sorrow, of our fantasies and our concerns. Since the state of consciousness also depends on the attention we are devoting to it, many of these things are focused by our consciousness without us almost realizing it, but when our consciousness vanishes, the world and our life cease to exist for us: indeed, the reference center of the same Ego is missing. Only our body is left helpless, or run by others, or endowed with some form of unconscious activity: a body devoid of what we can call individual existence. In the sphere of human life, the difference between being or not being conscious is coincident with that between to exist or not to exist. Being aware does not mean knowing, nor knowing how to handle our organism or how to behave, but simply constitutes the condition of our individual existence: a state that can cease or be interrupted.
States of consciousness
Consciousness may appear in various forms, almost as if it had different shades of color: there is the ordinary consciousness of the waking state, the dream consciousness, the consciousness of the altered states, among which we can include lucid dreaming, OBEs (Out of the Body Experiences), NDEs (Near-Death Experiences), sleepwalking, hypnotic states, hallucinations, the states corresponding to the presence of multiple personalities that manifest themselves in the same body and through the same brain, and the experiences induced by the use of psychoactive drugs. As a whole, the experiences derived from these conscious states are distinct from those of ordinary consciousness of the waking state, and are usually classified under the acronym of ASC (Altered States of Consciousness). Since the term altered seems to me inaccurate, as they are different from the normal waking state, but are still consciously experienced, I prefer to call them non-ordinary states of consciousness, and as such they are dealt with in the sections devoted to them (non-ordinary states and near-death experiences).
Blackout of consciousness
If consciousness fades completely away, there is a blackout: the individual Ego ceases to exist, and if by chance its consciousness comes back after some time, the period of absence is perceived as a void. This is the reason why those who believe that organism's death, which entails the end of all brain activities, causes every form of consciousness to vanish, argue that we can not even realize that we are dead, because we are no longer conscious either of our Ego or of our state. At most, before death, people may realize that they are about to die, if they are not already in a deep coma.
Consciousness and memory
Consciousness is tuned into the present, but to be complete in relation to the perception of individual existence, it needs the support of memory for what regards the past, and the sense of continuity given by the ability to imagine the future, at least in the short term. In fact, the perception of individual existence goes beyond the present moment, which is more directly focused, but extends to a more nuanced and less intense field that includes the past and to some extent the future: it is like the beam of a flashlight that lights up very well what is closer, but can also light, more or less clearly, the things that are farther away. This applies to the past, but within the light beam of consciousness are also included factors such as intent, will, anticipation, determination, or desire, that pertain to the future. Memory consists in the conscious recall of the states of consciousness and the psyche's contents that we experienced in the past. Most of the events of our lives escape memory, also because of the disorders that this mental function may be subject to: however, we can be aware that we do not remember some things, just as we are aware of those we remember, precisely because consciousness differs from its contents.
The enigma of consciousness
Although each of us continuously experiences to be conscious, we know little or nothing about the nature of consciousness. Reasonably consciousness is considered as a function of the mental activity, or more precisely as an effect of the activation of particular neural circuits within the brain; however about the reasons why such complex phenomena, essentially of electrochemical nature, must result in consciousness, we can say very little. On the other hand, as we have seen in the section on life on earth, we live in a physical universe that appears enigmatic and mysterious to interpret, in the light of our cognitive abilities. In fact, the laws we humans have been able to discover (overcoming many difficulties, and thanks to the commitment of people of uncommon intelligence), tell us nothing about the causes or the purposes of this reality and human life. To give an example, we all know, as we experience it constantly, that there is a force called gravity, and that such force is connected to that thing we know as matter (in that particular aspect defined as mass). However, our knowledge of the connection between gravity and matter is still incomplete: we have discovered the laws that relate gravity to mass, creating an association between the two, but these laws (even in their experimental accuracy) are a manifestation of the cognitive faculties of the human brain and ultimately depend on abstract computing processes. We can not say anything certain about the origin and nature of the laws we have discovered, except that they are valid in the environmental conditions of the physical universe we know. The same can be said about the relationship between the states of neural networks in our brain and the states of consciousness: once the link between the two has been established, and once recognized that the states of the neural networks influence consciousness (but the opposite is also true), what we can claim to know is that certain areas of cerebral cortex represent the physical support through which consciousness manifests itself in this world.
The difference between an automa and a conscious being
Considering the organism of an animal, such as a fish, we have seen that there is an enormous amount of information inside it, that performs its task essentially as a set of instructions executed with adequate precision in relation to certain environmental stimuli. The fish presents itself as a cybernetic creature with improved sensory organs, systems and devices capable of determining interactions with the environment, including a nervous system (a true information and control center made up of neural networks) that processes the information received from the environment and determines the behavior of the animal. However, while we can clearly say that the fish sees, as the signals captured by the instrument of its eyes are transmitted to its nervous system and by this processed, we do not have enough elements to assert that the fish is conscious to see, so we cannot say whether a form of self-consciousness is associated with the fish or not. For what we know, the fish could be a complex system of servomechanisms organized to function, through a neural control system, in relation to the stimuli of the environment in which it lives: an automaton, in fact, perhaps more complex than those the current human technology is able to build, but still an automaton. As has been seen, for the functioning of cybernetic systems it is necessary that information be transmitted to the system through a program created by an external intelligence capable of developing it for a purpose, but once the program has been incorporated into the system, there is no need for any form of awareness on the part of the automaton, nor for conscious processing of information.
On the other hand, we human beings are conscious to see, to think, to remember, to live, and we know that our life will have an end: our existence as conscious beings consists in all of this. At the same time, the functioning of our body is just as unconscious for us as that of the body of a cat or a fish. We do not know through direct knowledge how and why the functioning of our brain allows us to see something: the information we have about these processes has been acquired indirectly and laboriously through research and investigations conducted by some teams of brains that then made them public. Yet, if I look at the moon I can be aware that my eye and my brain are watching the moon. I can also have a thought about it: I can use a code to indicate both the object I'm observing (by the word moon) and what I am doing (with the phrase «I'm looking at the moon»). I can also consciously memorize this action, recalling it through a code like «I remember that last night I looked at the moon». I can relive, up to a certain level, the feelings and emotions associated with that memory, and convey to another human being – who shares the same linguistic code – information about this event and the effects it has produced on me: «Last night I looked at the moon and I felt enchanted».
Therefore it is by virtue of consciousness that all the functions of intellect, feeling and memory are integrated in that unitary and individual process which is the life of each human being. Consciousness does not eliminate our animal functioning, nor can it directly intervene in the complexity of the mechanisms that rule it, but it is able to acquire and process mental information in a definitely innovative way with respect to animals' level, completely or partly unaware. Of course, there is a range of transformations between the human being and the fish, that make not only possible but also plausible the presence of elementary or even evolved forms of consciousness in animals, and particularly in those with a more developed brain, such as higher mammals like primates and dolphins. But the most interesting features to us are those to which we can attribute a cognitive value qualitatively superior to those present in the animal world, especially with regards to creative skills and the transmission and processing of information.
Through mind, humans are able to creatively process information acquired from the outside environment and can fine-tune and exchange encoded information through spoken and written language. By using these codes, those who are able to process information at a more advanced level can convey and spread new knowledge, which will become the basis for further elaboration. All this translates into a creative process carried out in the light of consciousness: a process that, as we have seen, becomes particularly effective within our complex societies, where so many people interact by collaborating in the progressive processing of acquired information. Thus, humankind has, for better or for worse, achieved a power of knowledge and transformation of the world that can not be found in any other animal species. The tremendous amount of information that human consciousness today has acquired throws new light on the meaning of our existence: information is exchanged between billions of individual minds, interacting with each other through continuous exchanges of signals and information that, with the technological support at our disposal, take place at an ever-increasing pace. Under this profile, Internet is the preferred system for the exchange of information: an informatics network in which the consciousness of organic human individuals is integrated with non-organic technology.
As for the data coming from physical world, consciousness acts as a recipient, processor and interpreter of an already partially decoded information. When using expressions such as «nature reveals its secrets» or «science discovers another mystery of nature» it is meant that information, present since millions of years in the physical world, has been conveyed to human consciousness through a recently open channel. If it is true, as it seems, that the complexity of human brain's structure has not changed for thousands of years to the present, what has changed in recent times is the quantity and quality of information that human brains exchange after processing them.
Consciousness and brain
Regarding the question whether consciousness is a function exclusively of the brain activity or whether it can be activated by other means, one must never underestimate the importance and power of the brain in the processing of all forms of mental activity: in the neocortex alone there are two million kilometers of nerve fibers (more than five times the distance between Earth and Moon), and in every cubic millimeter of gray matter there are kilometers of cables capable of transmitting modulated signals. Of course everything that comes to our consciousness must be considered, as a rule, as a result of the functioning of our brain, yet a state of consciousness could be acquired also with other systems, at least in theory. Evidence of the dependence of consciousness on cerebral activity is the fact that consciousness fades away if we intervene through drugs on some areas of the brain, or when some parts of the organ cease to function due to a trauma or because the nutrition and oxygen supply is missing. So it is a fact that in the physical dimension consciousness is determined by brain activity: for a closer look at the current state of scientific research on this topic, see the following page. Nevertheless, it is worth recalling that the brain itself is an instrument organized and developed by an evolutionary plan of which we know absolutely nothing, outside the unreliable information elaborated over time by the human psyche: in the centuries of humankind's history and in the different cultures, this information has taken on the most varied and bizarre forms, so that if we retrospectively examine all the material produced by the psyche, we are tempted to doubt every form of philosophical speculation, because of the lack of reliable knowledge tools, with the exception of mathematical ones (based on logic and calculation), and those derived from experimental evidence.
In the physical dimension, the programs conveyed to us by the sociocultural environment in which we live represent an enigma in terms of information reliability: these are in fact psyche's tunings on which one can never fully rely. Most humans live their lives in an almost complete and often passive, though conscious, acceptance of the signals and information coming not only from the processing of their brain system (which works according to the instructions and the stimuli received during its development), but above all from sociocultural conditioning and the interaction with human environment: their way of functioning is ultimately determined by all the programs inserted within the somatic and mental system through which we live in this dimension. These factors are nothing else but variables of a single phenomenon of huge proportions, the human psyche, in which our individual mind is immersed, but with respect to which the conscious Ego seems to have a very limited power of control and understanding.
Limits of the reliability of received information
The picture, however, seems no longer so tragic since humans have a method and the technology which allow them to verify the correctness of information at least in relation to the physical world. This is the value of experimental scientific knowledge, which, though still recent and limited – mainly due to the complexity of the various aspects of this world – however offers us benefits and a real power in relation to many needs of life. One may wonder whether, in its receptive role of the psyche's contents, the conscious Ego is completely passive or may also have an active participation, influencing in some way the functioning of the psyche itself. It is certain that the Ego has intentional and volitional faculties that are able to influence the mond's functioning, not infrequently with poor results, even in relation to orientations that transcend the natural needs of our organism. For example, the need for knowledge, the defense of harmony and justice in relation to the mistakes which occur in life, and the need to find a meaning in the experience of our individual life, can be considered manifestations of the intent to transcend the normal contents of the psyche's experiences. Of this we will deal more in detail in the page on the phenomenon of uman psyche.
The meaning of our conscious life
In brief, the presence of consciousness makes each of us a center of experience of a life, and this experience is different, to a greater or lesser extent, from one human being to another. The intensity and involvement with which this experience is lived, which do not depend on our conscious intention, but are determined by the very requirements of the organism through which we live and by the Ego's sensitivity, make for each of us our own life the most important aspect of reality. If we look at things from the point of view of the evolutionary process as a whole and in its historical development, including humankind, we can only consider ourselves as pawns, functional elements for the evolution of the phenomenon, without any other purpose than to give our forced contribution to the next step for a new development. Sons and daughters of the energetic tension that rules the reproduction from the early stages of animal evolution, all of our most specific human features – made up of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and everything else that determines the conscious inner life of each of us – would be nothing more than self-regulating products of a system developed and tuned by evolution itself.
However, we can observe, through our most advanced mental activities, that one of our strongest demands is to investigate the meaning of our experience and our life, both in the individual aspect, which concerns us more closely, and in the social and collective aspect, with respect to the need to drive and give a direction to the development of our societies. I think that this human search for meaning contradicts the evaluation of evolution as a phenomenon devoid of intent and purpose, as emerges from some of the speculative and non-scientific reductionist theories typical of our time. Instead, it is more plausible than just the emergence of consciousness, as a detector of the desire for knowledge present in the Ego, brings with it the need for a process of feedback through which the phenomenon can represent itself through the mental activity of one of its products (the human brain), seeking a conscious understanding of its future development. In this regard, we observe that there are significant elements of information which appear to our consciousness (for example, in the form of altruism, desire for justice, or improvement of the human condition), which must be originated from something, since information is always transmitted from a source to a recipient.
The very experience of life and the signals we receive from our environment, elaborated through our mental tool, show us the lack of a satisfactory balance in the way that humans experience life. Some experiences are interesting and rewarding, others are hard, with no perspectives and sometimes full of pain. And in the way that individual humans confront this situation, there is a substantial antithesis: some are ready to take advantage of their condition, also exploiting the miseries of others for their own profit, while others are willing to sacrifice their own well-being in an attempt to improve the living conditions of the needy. Moreover, it is possible to observe that the mental processing function does not have the same effects in all humans: in some of them, mental programs are very simple and limited, almost elementary, whereas in others the mind constantly processes new information elements, more and more complex, which interact with the social culture, contributing to determining its further developent.
The sense of justice we seem to be endowed prevents us from being able to consider human life as an experience for its own sake. The predator and the victim, for example, can be considered on the same level within the laws that rule nature, in which each body acts exclusively according to the program that drives it, but can no longer be the same in the light of social evaluations developed by human reason. While recognizing the effect of informatics elements that can predispose genetically to certain ways of behavior in animals as well as in humans, we must not forget the cultural and environmental component and the remarkable influence it exercises, for better or for worse, in shaping the behaviors and the modes of functioning of the individual mind within the social systems. But other natural things, such as deseases and the suffering they cause, or genetic errors (which are often considered as one of the engines of evolution), may appear to be undesirable and therefore to be avoided, always in the light of human reason.
The conscious evaluation of human condition
In Western culture, the present human condition seems to be suspended between two states, that of the past, dominated by mental dynamics largely not controlled by the Ego, mainly instinctive or based on erroneous information and cognitive elements, and that of the future, in which consciousness and knowledge should have a more important role. One of the things that science will have to take into account is the important feedback represented by the evaluation of the meaning of life by humans. In fact, there is no doubt that considering human life as an event concluded in itself, with no other values and without prospects other than those of coping with survival problems, collective needs, and health disorders (not to talk of woes, such as wars and famine, which still do not spare so many human beings in different parts of the world) can not have as a result a more evolved and positive vision of the world, based on mutual trust, collaboration and commitment to making this world a better place to live.
In the end, if our lives were simply reduced to being at the service of a natural phenomenon of which neither the intent nor the purpose can be revealed, into which we were placed by the impulse to reproduction that involved our parents (or even only one of them) and to which we are bound by the urge that forces us to survive, whether or not we are satisfied with our state, the condition of our Ego could not be defined as free, and this mere fact would give us the right to manifest our dissatisfaction, by virtue of our essence of conscious beings. It then becomes understandable how the hypothesis of our conscious Ego's survival can offer comfort to many human beings, not so much as a continuation of a condition similar to the earthly one (which is usually not so satisfying, and always runs the risk of turning into a torment which, the sooner it ends, the better), but rather as the possibility of being able to cultivate, through the evolution of the conscious Ego, a value that in this reality is often not recognized or even denied.
Those who consciously live the human experience have all the right to elaborate and manifest the need to give a meaning to their state, given the limits and the miseries of such condition. Not doing this would be like signing your consent to your own subjugation. Every time there is a tension in life that leads to desire and to try to get something more evolved in terms of knowledge, freedom, love and sympathy, there is a stimulus that is trying to overcome the natural functioning processes experienced so far.