Consciousness as the foundation of the individual existence
All the individual experience of our human life is based on consciousness. If we consider the functioning and behavior of the human body 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 an individual existence. First, human life can only be experienced when our consciousness is activated: whatever happens to our body 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/brain, 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 of our concerns. Since the state of consciousness also depends on the attention we are devoting to it, many of these things are illuminated by our consciousness without we almost realize it, but when our consciousness vanishes, the world and the life cease to exist for us: indeed, the reference center of the Ego itself is also 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 the 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 the body or how to behave, but simply constitutes the state of 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 the lucid dreaming, the OBEs (Out of the Body Experiences), the NDEs (Near-Death Experiences), the sleepwalking, the hypnotic states, 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 psychotropic substances. 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 states than the most common one, but which are anyhow consciously experienced, I prefer to call them non-ordinary states of consciousness, and as such 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 his/her consciousness comes back after some time, the period of absence is perceived as a void. This is the reason why those who believe that at death, which entails the end of all cerebral activities, every form of consciousness has to vanish, argue that a person can not even realize that he/she is dead, because is no longer conscious neither of his/her Ego nor of his/her state. At most, before death, a person may realize of being about to die, if he/she is not already in coma.
Consciousness and memory
Consciousness is tuned to the present, but to be complete in relation to the perception of individual existence, it needs the support of memory for 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 the most 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 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 their psychic 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 may be aware as well of what we remember and what we don't remember, just 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 causes for which such complex phenomena, but 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 in the light of our ability to know. In fact, the laws we humans have been able to discover (with a remarkable effort and thanks to the commitment of people of uncommon intelligence), tell us nothing about the causes or the purposes of the reality and the human life. To give an example, we all know, and 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 matter, 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: only 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 and the states of consciousness: once the link between the two has been established, and once recognized that the states of the neural networks determine the consciousness, what we can say to know is that certain areas of the 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 his eye are transmitted to his nervous system and by this processed, we do not have enough elements to assert that the fish is conscious to see, so that we can not say if a form of self-consciousness can be associated with the fish. For what we know, fish could be an organized system able to function in relation to the stimuli of the environment in which it lives through a neural control system: an automa, in fact, perhaps more complex than those the current human technology is able to build, but still an automa. As has been seen, for the functioning of cybernetic systems it is necessary that the information is transmitted to the system through a program prepared 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 by the automa, nor is there a need for the 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: that is why we are conscious beings. 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 by direct knowledge how and why our brain sees something: the information we have about these processes has been acquired indirectly and laboriously through studies and researches 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 tonight I observed 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: «Tonight I watched the moon and I was charmed».
Therefore it is by virtue of consciousness that all the functions of the intellect, of the feeling and of the 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 regulate it, but it is able to acquire and process mental information in a definitely innovative way with respect to the animal's level, in whole or in part 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 the animals, and in particular in those with a more developed brain, such as upper mammals, including primates and dolphins. But the most interesting features to us are those to which we can attribute a cognitive value in relation to the transmission and processing of information, qualitatively superior to those present in the animal world.
Through mind, humans are able to creatively process information acquired from the outside environment and can fine-tune and exchange coded 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 out new knowledge, which will become the basis for further evolution. 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 the complex societies, where so many human beings interact by collaborating in the progressive processing of acquired information. Thus, humanity has, for better or 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, while the 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 individuals, such as humans, is integrated with non-organic technology.
As for the data coming from the physical world, consciousness acts as a recipient and compiler of an already partially decoded information. When using expressions such as «nature reveals to us 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. While it is true, as it seems, that the complexity of the human brain's structure has not changed for thousands of years to this part, what has changed in recent times is the quantity and quality of information that human brains exchange after processing them.
Consciousness and the 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 the 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), which are certainly not there just for beauty. 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 processing ability of our brain, yet a state of consciousness could be acquired also with other systems, at least in theory. The evidence of the dependence of consciousness on cerebral activity is the fact that consciousness fades away if we intervene through chemicals on certain areas of the brain, or when some parts of the organ cease to function for trauma or other causes. 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 untrustworthy information elaborated by the human psyche: in the centuries of humanity's history and in the different cultures, this information has taken on the most varied and bizarre forms, so that if we retrospect the whole material produced by the psyche, we are tempted to doubt every form of philosophical speculation, given the lack of reliable knowledge tools, with the exception of mathematical ones, with their quantitative and logical features, and those derived from experimental evidence.
In the physical dimension, the programs conveyed to us by the socio-cultural medium in which we live represent an enigma in terms of information reliability: these are in fact psychic tunings that can never be taken as true. Most humans live their lives in a complete and 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 the socio-cultural conditioning, from the interaction with the human environment, and ultimately from all the programs inserted within the body-mind system with 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.
The reliability of the information received and the needs of the conscious Ego
The picture, however, seems no longer so tragic since humans have a method and the technology 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 because of the complexity of this world, however offers us advantages and a real power in relation to many needs of life. One may wonder whether, in his receptive role of the psychic 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 an intentional and volitional faculty that seeks to influence the functioning of the mind, often with little success, even in relation to an orientation that transcends the physical dimension. For example, the inherent tension in the need for knowledge, in the defense of harmony and justice in relation to the mistakes in life, and in 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 psychic experience. Of this we will deal more in detail in the pages on the human psyche.
The meaning and the non-natural aspects 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 to the other. 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 instrument we live through, make for each of us his/her 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 humanity, 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 instinct 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 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 regulate and give a direction to the development of our society. This search for meaning seems to contradict 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 revealer of the desire for knowledge present in the psyche, brings with it the need for a process of feedback through which the phenomenon can self-represent through one of its products ( the human brain), seeking a conscious comprehension 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, or 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 the environment, elaborated by 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 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 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 oppressor 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 the social assessments elaborated by human reason. While recognizing the effect of informatics elements that can predispose genetically to certain modes 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 worse, in shaping the behaviors and the modes of functioning of the individual mind within the social systems. But other natural things, such as the deseases and the suffering they cause, or genetic mistakes (which are alco considered as one of the engines of evolution), may appear to be undesirable and therefore to be avoided, in the light of human reason.
The conscious evaluation of the human condition
In Western culture, the present human condition seems to be suspended between two situations, the well-known one of the past, dominated by a largely unconscious operation, predominantly instinctive and based on erroneous information and knowledge, 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 consider 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 getting by in survival's problems, collective needs, and health trubles (not to talk of woes, such as wars and misery, 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 a better world.
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 were revealed, in which we were put from the impulse to the reproduction that involved our parents (or even only one of them) and to whom we are bound by the urge that forces us to survive, whether or not we are satisfied with our state, our condition could not be defined as free, and this only fact would give us the right, by virtue of our essence of conscious beings, to manifest our intolerance. 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 that of the Earth (which is usually not so satisfying, and could also turn into a torment that, the sooner it ends, the better it is), but rather as the possibility of recognizing as a value something that in this reality is often not recognized or is 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 putting a validation signature on your enslavement. Every time there is a tension in life that leads to desire and to try to get something more human in terms of knowledge, freedom, love and sympathy, there is a stimulus that is trying to overcome the process of natural evolution we have so far experienced.