Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain? But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition? So consciousness ‘looks on’. And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation. Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects. Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.
However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception. And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight. Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?
Think about it – a cause of consciousness. What does it mean? Does it mean that the cause is operative in the identification of itself? Or does it mean that the cause and effect work in some kind of relationship brought about by a difference occasioning an interaction?
But how are we to identify a difference without a point of comparison that is particular to the nature of consciousness? And how can the observation of parallel changes in the operations of consciousness and its physical support processes prove sufficient to explain any differences or show that they are one and the same thing?
Scientifically speaking, the lesser reality is the greater – assuming that an underworld of physical processes will provide a ‘theory of everything’. But that ‘everything’ is not everything – because experience reveals that a universe which subsists beneath the threshold of self-perception is not the whole thing. However, experience might be confined to a world of its own with no inkling of a ‘bigger picture’ beyond the images that happen to hold our attention.
On the other hand, whatever else reality may or may not be, we can know without further ado that it includes the perception of ourselves thinking. And if our capacity for reflection is the thing that distinguishes our thinking, albeit in the absence of a definitive knowledge of anything else, then at least we can know that thinking exists as a feature of the way things are, though the wider reality may not be tied to the way we think about it.
Even so, this would be sufficient to tell us that we inhabit a sentient reality, as augmented by a power to be, which we can know but incompletely by its instantiation in the vagaries of our understandings. And we can know as much because of the reflective experience of the vagaries of our understandings. Then again, even if we could know everything in terms of ‘something else’ identifiable as the source, we would still need to ask ourselves: have we really identified the whole, or explained the something else?
Change presents the eye with a paradox – because things can be seen to change without changing – because the flow of change reveals nothing of the step to come – because a fact may be seen as one thing and another. Consequently, change raises more questions than answers. Some famous examples from antiquity include the paradoxes of Theseus’ ship and the heap: A heap of grains can be reduced to nothing by removing one grain at a time, but there is no definite point of change – unless one grain constitutes a heap. The paradox of the ship is more challenging: by systematically replacing every piece of the original it ceases to be the same ship, and yet it is. In sum, these puzzles carry an enduring message because they point to a fundamental problem of explanation that we would rather not think about – that there is more to change than its observable causes.
Shifting to the modern era, we see the same problem redefined. Science shows us that the universe is constituted of sub-atomic particles – a fact that includes ourselves – but there is no point at which we can see those particles becoming conscious. Indeed we do not see consciousness as a feature of the physical world until we rely upon the end result as a means of observing a world that is constituted of nothing but physical processes. So we observe the change as an effect that may be regarded for the sake of explanation as a variation on what is – which means that things do yet do not really change. Either way, the putative cause, namely the changing configuration of physical processes, doesn’t actually explain the untypical nature of the result – even though, logically, it must if there is no other cause to be found.
There is no contest, not because they are doing different things, but because they are indispensably complimentary when it comes to the big project of trying to understand the essential nature of existence – and it would be naïve in the extreme to say that one can work without the other.
Stereotypically, science explores facts whilst philosophy explores ideas; however, there is no known fact or truth that is independent of its conceptualisation, and the ‘known evidence’ simply reiterates the problem of getting to know – for in order to make progress we need to constantly re-evaluate the evidence, which never was independent of our values. Indeed progress seems to require cohorts of dedicated scientists and philosophers who are passionately involved in their version of ‘the truth’.
Furthermore, values can prejudice our perceptions, including our approach towards knowledge and its ‘value-free’ content – since an understanding is not something to be recognised outside itself, nor does a fact discover its own relevance. But we don’t think of a scientific fact as beholding to its personal relevance for the discoverer, though it is impossible to detach the personal from any aspect of human endeavour. Yet it is assumed that a philosopher’s work can be entirely personal to them and of little or no wider significance until others happen to discover some meaning in it for themselves.
Philosophy is the idea that carries the present into the future, and it stays alive by being re-cast in the mind that is the future’s future. But it is the way of language, not philosophy, to further itself in the endless dissection of what has been said. For no analysis of language has uncovered the real world. Also, no record of things said lets us know what to say next. Nor is our recognition of the past masters sufficient to show us what is to come.