What Is Consciousness?
Excerpted for Choices and Illusions by Eldon Taylor
What is consciousness? Language is often thought to be the tool of consciousness and evidence for the kind of consciousness that makes humans different from monkeys. Indeed, language has often been referred to as the “jewel of cognition.” Some scientists have argued that Neanderthal man possessed advanced talking ability. This assertion is largely based upon a neck bone found in 1988. Other scientists argue for a more recent origin to speech—recent in this sense being between 50 and 100 thousand years ago. By contrast, early origin theorists date the beginning of language at more than 2 million years ago.
The evolution and history of language have a bearing on certain philosophical issues where consciousness is concerned. For example, take any date for the first appearance of language. For fun, let’s just assume some hairy bipedal creature that has never spoken. Is this creature conscious? Conscious in the sense humans are conscious? Now one day the creature utters some meaningful form of speech. Not a grunt or guttural sound, as all animals do, but some form—beginning—of speech. Is the creature now conscious?
What is the difference between the consciousness of animals and the consciousness of humans? What is intended by distinguishing between the two conscious forms as different and why? If a primate species shows the ability to learn, remember, and associate learnings, some insist this is evidence for reason. Most flatly refuse to recognize it as such. Is it possible that by recognizing consciousness as worthy and ripe for study that man’s consciousness will lose its unique, elevated status? What precisely is it that one means by consciousness, anyway?
Certainly reason preceded language. It would be rather odd if it were the other way around. Still, that’s an interesting thought.
Some seem to reason only with the tools of their language. In other words, their reason is limited by the rules and definitions of their language. Plus, there is some argument in favor of certain language structure as having greater or lesser faculties for developing logical thinking. Literal languages such as German, for example, tend to encourage the development of logical thinkers. However intriguing this may be, it still seems reasonable that reason preceded the conceptualization and development of speech. As such, one is hard pressed to limit the consciousness of a species on the basis of sound patterns called speech.
It gets still tougher--sound patterns that resemble speech, are uttered by so-called non-conscious animals such as whales and dolphins. So, what is consciousness?
Is consciousness a matter of wakefulness? No, it can’t be just that, for one can be a conscious being and still be asleep. Is consciousness memory? According to the experiments of Cleve Baxter, plants exhibit memory. Since science abandoned the study of consciousness years ago, the problems inherent in describing consciousness have proliferated during the interim. The advent of animal studies, plant studies, and synthetic or artificial intelligence has greatly complicated the matters of consciousness. Or perhaps simplified them.
For most people, parts of the left brain handle language. Brain hemispheric studies, including the now popular Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show that the right ear sends acoustic information to the left hemisphere. According to Marc Hauser of Harvard University and Karin Andersson of Radcliff College in Cambridge, rhesus monkeys “display a similar cerebral setup, with the left half of the brain often taking responsibility for vocalizations intended to signal aggression.” If that is true, does it mean that the anatomical evidence for language processing is evidence for consciousness in the sense that we normally think of mankind’s consciousness. If not, what are the differences?
For some, mind equals brain. But for many, mind is a more general term that refers to the processes handled by the brain. Therefore, mind is often used interchangeably with consciousness. Is mind equal to brain? The chief area of inquiry offering evidence one way or another to answer this question is a discipline often held in low regard. Still, literally thousands of laboratory experiments in scientific parapsychology demonstrate that many aspects of mind cannot be reduced to anatomical or material brain.
Eldon Taylor has made a lifelong study of the human mind and has earned doctoral degrees in psychology and metaphysics. He is president of Progressive Awareness Research, an organization dedicated to researching techniques for accessing the immense powers of the mind. For more than 20 years, he has approached personal empowerment from the cornerstone perspective of forgiveness, gratitude, service and respect for all life. To contact Eldon in response to the story, you can reach him via his website: http://www.eldontaylor.com
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