Daniel the practice manager put Issue 2 of the New Philosopher magazine out this month in the clinic’s waiting area. I was flicking through it and came across an interview with John Searle in which he is quoted, “consciousness is a biological property like digestion or photosynthesis.”
I quite like the idea of consciousness as a biological process. Certainly, the brain is an organ. It is a part of the central nervous system, which we can map out in our bodies. The mind is harder to grasp. It is what psychologists call a ‘construct’ – something that we can not measure directly. We can’t put a ruler to it and measure its length. We can’t put it on a scale and measure its weight. The mind and its properties can only be measured indirectly through questions that we propose. It is ever elusive and at times tangled with the divine.
John’s words puts consciousness in the perspective of it’s function. In other words, it makes us think about the purpose of consciousness. If consciousness is another body function, like digestion, what does it contribute to our survival and wellbeing? Digestion helps us convert food into energy and gets rid of waste product. It’s necessary. John proposes (I think) that the function of consciousness has something to do with meaning-making. It helps us make sense of all the stimulus we are bombarded with… sound, lights, heat, pressure, et cetera… it transforms physics and chemistry into a cohesive narrative through which we navigate.
I like this practical view of consciousness. Often, we get too caught up in the ‘sense’ we have made of the world and we forget that sense-making should be in service of a purpose, not the other way around. It would be like eating for the sake of having something to digest, rather than digesting for the sake of continuation of the organism. Digestion isn’t the end goal. Yet, we sometimes fight for the stories our minds have made. We say to ourselves things like, “this shouldn’t have happened to me” or “they would be better off without me”, we treat them as truth, and we don’t stop to wonder for a moment what the function of these thoughts might be. If we can view consciousness as a biological property, we are freed to consider the process of thoughts; are the thoughts I’m having advancing my survival, or am I experiencing the thinking equivalent of indigestion?