I listen to the podcasts of Sam Harris sometimes. He’s really intelligent, and I appreciate many of his viewpoints. I would strongly prefer not to use Facebook, so I guess I’ll never have as many Internet followers as him. But I have enough supporters in real life, so I don’t think I’m missing out.
Sam Harris, you are a true seeker of knowledge, and I commend you for that, to say nothing of being a Neurologist. You’ve long pursued the slippery and difficult quest to get a satisfying definition of consciousness, once and for all. This deceptively easy-sounding thing to define evades all such nailing-down.
I feel that I can offer you a viewpoint worth considering. Buddhist monk with 11 years seniority here. You’ve been meditating for more years as me, but perhaps not as intensively. Anyway, without dwelling too much on who’s meditation has gotten where, I’d like to speak up on the topic of consciousness, for what it’s worth.
I think that to ask the question “what is consciousness?” is a question which is effectively doomed to not get very far, because it has assumptions baked into it which seriously encumber the quality of the answer that can be found.
In order to crack the nut of what consciouness is, or even better, what consciousness could be, I feel a more skillful question that should be asked instead is this: “What is true knowledge?” …to which a possible answer might be: “Consiousness wielded wisely.”
Next you might wonder: “So what does a lack of this true knowledge look like?” …to which an appropriate answer would be: “Consciousness wielded unwisely.”
Why did I frame it this way? Because for those who, without this true knowledge, still insist on asking the question “What is consciousness?”, are likely to assume that consciousness is a thing. But is that a sound assumption? Isn’t it more like a verb, not a noun?
Let me use an analogy, to help illustrate. I’m pretty sure you’ll have heard that riddle of “You Stand at a Crossroads…”, right? That’s a damn tough riddle to solve, and it takes a super crafty genius to realize that in solving the riddle, and proceeding down the correct road, you never do find out who was the liar, and who was the teller of the truth. Conventional thinking would have one first nail down who’s lying, and who’s telling the truth, and then, based on that, you can sort out which road to take. It takes unconventional thinking to drop the need to ever learn who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, but rather one’s attention stays locked onto the prize of taking the correct road as directly as possible.
Sam, I invite you to engage in unconventional thinking in this way. I invite you to drop the need to know what consciouness is from an intellectual’s point of view, which can only go so far, and rather keep your eyes on the prize, and proceed straight to taking the correct road. That is to say, wield your consciousness wisely (in whatever way actually works best for you), and eventually you’ll have first-hand, experiential knowledge of what the full range of consciousness can possibly be. I assert that that experiential knowledge is the crisp, and ever-changing definition of consciousness that you were actually looking for, and furthermore it’s the best definition you could ever get. It “is to be experienced individually, by the wise.” It is in this way that you’ll see that conciousness is more like a verb, not a noun.
As one’s wise wielding of consciousness deepens, one won’t ever be able to adequately express these experiences of what the full range of consciousness is, or the range of what it could possibly be, in English (or any other language for that matter), without highly likely cheapening those precious and deeply meaningful experiences. But at the end of the day, that doesn’t really matter, when one’s eyes are on the prize of taking the correct road, which is to say, wielding consciousness wisely.