A while ago, I attempted to pin down a friend (1) of mine on the subject of consciousness. My view that a rock could be conscious didn’t go over too well. He said, “Words are sounds that gain meaning with use. Saying that a rock is conscious is like saying a rock is alive. That might work in a poem, but not for logical communication. Look in dictionaries for guides to usage rather than rely on my memory”.
Later I looked up the word “conscious” in a few dictionaries and then tracked down some of the words used to define that word. I felt like a dog chasing its tale. Clearly, word definition is a messy affair when you scratch the surface. Not wanting this vicious circle, few ever do. Nevertheless, I can show why a rock or even an atom for that matter, qualifies as being conscious using the following trail of definitions.
Some definitions of “conscious” specifically refer only to living organisms. That being the case, I’ll limit this to living things — initially. Limited to organisms, it is very easy for me to see how even a virus, bacteria, or amoeba is conscious, or perhaps ‘subconscious’. Actually, I should say ‘it is very easy to see’ as long as you follow the trail of definitions below.
The Trail of Definitions
Conscious (Date: 1592)
perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation <was conscious that someone was watching
Perceiving (Date: 14th century)
to attain awareness or understanding of
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French perceivre, from Latin percipere, from per- thoroughly + capere to take.
Awareness (Date: before 12th century)
a: watchful, wary b: having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge
Etymology: Middle English iwar, from Old English gewær, from ge- (associative prefix) + wær wary
Subconscious (Date: circa 1834)
the mental activities just below the threshold of consciousness
Mental (Date: 15th century)
the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism
Mind (Date: before 12th century)
a: the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons b: the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism
Etymology: ME mynde < OE (ge)mynd, memory < IE base *men-, to think > Gr menos, spirit, force, L mens, mind
Spirit (Date: 13th century)
an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French or Latin; Anglo-French, espirit, spirit, from Latin spiritus, literally, breath, from spirare to blow, breathe
Breath (Date: before 12th century)
a: the faculty of breathing b: an act of breathing
The faculty of breathing:
I’ll stop here for this is looking more like a vicious definition-defining circle to me. Chapter 32 hints at the problem…
Beginning with… The way is for ever nameless.
Though the uncarved block is small,
The sharper word definitions aim, the more the ‘cutting’ reflects human-centric, culture-centric, self-centric bias. Long held beliefs that children, women and Africans were not fully aware, conscious, mentally capable, exemplify such bias. Clearly, where we draw our definition lines in the sand reflect our own strongly felt insecurity. Evidently, we humans desperately need to nail down reality with names and words, and we do so in ways that prop up our own self-image.
One striking problem with language is how it boxes perception into preconceptions that we learn from birth onward. Peeking outside this culturally induced ‘brain washing’ is not possible as long as one is a staunch supporter of any definitional status quo. Perhaps it is healthy to consider at least the possibility that a rock is conscious.
In a way, dictionaries are the definition of an ‘inside the box’ viewpoint. Like all humans, I was raised inside this box, and understand the view from in here. If I couldn’t, I’d be incapable of writing any of this. The correlations process arose out of my need to ‘peek outside the box’ enough so I could reevaluate my from ‘inside the box’ viewpoint. Contrast is the issue here; I need to find a ‘there’ in order to see a ‘here’. (See Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations)
So, is a rock conscious?
It all depends on what you mean by “conscious”. By my definition, rocks are conscious, although they don’t think or breathe. Only we think, as far as I know, and so only we have coined the word “conscious”. If we limit the definition of consciousness to thinking, then only humans are conscious. And even then, only after the age of 12 months or so after we’ve learned enough names, words, and language to begin thinking.
What is thinking? I define thinking as a brain function that requires symbolic language. Thus, according to this definition, without language, there is no thinking. Think is also a synonym for believe. To paraphrase chapter 71, To know yet to believe that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to believe that one knows will lead to difficulty.
Clearly, we are stuck with thinking. Symbolic language is burned into our awareness, our consciousness. What we think, however, is more fluid. Acknowledging that a rock may be conscious is more fluid, and conforms to chapter 71’s To know yet to think that one does not know is best‘. Why? It leaves the door open for mysterious sameness, as chapter 56 puts it, to tickle your consciousness. Mysterious sameness hints that all existence shares an essence of being, a consciousness of being… ‘Beingness’.
(1) This is the same friend who instigated my last post, See No Evil. This post, Is a Rock Conscious? , and that last post are somewhat connected.