Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"
Segment #3: Consciousness
Part I: Conscious Awareness
In 1971, anthropologist Ernest Becker succinctly described man's dilemma. He noted that "The science of man is the science of man's knowledge about himself: it gives a chill in addition to a thrill - the chill of self-exposure... The exposure of this secret is very unsettling, very anxiety causing." Becker further noted that our species has a very long way to go to deserve its name Home sapiens, which means "Man the Wise."
We're pretty sure that some other mammals have an awareness of themselves as individuals - they have a "me". Who can have owned a dog (or had a relationship with a horse, or an elephant, or a whale) and doubt it? But we don't think these animals are conscious of this awareness. We don't think they reflect on what it means to have a self. For sure, they haven't reflected on it to anything like the extent that humans have with exploding volumes of information from the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the medical and physical sciences.
One thing we've noticed (mostly as a result of our fascination with birds) is that we humans don't seem to be much in touch with any group consciousness we might be part of. Think of a flock of sanderlings flying above the water's edge, moving as a single entity. We know that individual behavior is influenced by being in a group, but we rarely think about that influence. We're much more likely to notice our own individual consciousness, and are mostly unaware of any group consciousness we might be part of.
Of all the wonderful and amazing gifts that conscious awareness has brought us humans, self reflection has got to be the pick of the litter. It is surely the most miraculous feat that life has yet pulled off. To be able to step outside ourselves, witness our self, and then make some suggestions as to how to go about being a better person or how to figure out the meaning of life. Just who is that witness out there watching the show and making internal dialogue comments? And who is this "me" that the witness is talking to?
A second component of our conscious awareness is the genius of imagination which allows us to not only step outside ourselves, but to project ourselves inside another person, feel what they are experiencing and then become flooded with empathy or compassion or disgust or delight depending on what we felt when we imagined ourselves experiencing what we perceive them to be experiencing. Or we can use our imagination to think of and then actually create such things as buildings, statues, bridges, airplanes, telephones, atomic bombs, or kidney transplants. We can create concepts such as theology, philosophy, poetry, art, beauty, ethics, logic, rational thinking, the scientific method, genocide and justice. Not to mention indispensable items such as spray deodorant, panty hose, beepers and Hum Vees.
This conscious awareness phenomenon has enabled, in fact has mandated, our shift from being an essentially instinct-driven species to one that is driven by meaning, by how we 'make sense' of our experience. While it provides us with some of that heavy equipment mentioned above, it also comes at a very high cost. Because of our self reflection capacity and our need to fabricate meaning from our experience in order to inform our behavior, we are confronted with an assortment of existential issues in life with which we must deal. We are, for example, consciously aware that:
- we are mortal - at some point in the future we’ll simply cease to exist;
- we are born into a scary and mysterious world and must construct (fabricate) meaning so we can determine how to behave and decide what to do with our lives;
- we are continually confronted with choices, with making sense of our experiential input and then deciding what it means to us and therefore how to respond to it. (You must now choose the extent to which to believe or doubt what you’re reading right now.)
- although we did not ask to be born we are responsible for our lives and what we do with them.
The dues for entry into the meaning-driven species club are indeed very high. Because we have now learned how to manipulate nature and use it for our own purposes we have (inadvertently?) become active participants in the evolutionary process, both our own and that of other forms of life on our planet. Unlike any of the species which have preceded us up the evolutionary ladder, we are no longer merely passive recipients of what the evolutionary process serves up. We are active players who can and should be aware that we are having a powerful (and often negative) impact on how life on this planet is evolving.
With conscious intentionality we create factories and industrial plants which dump all manner of toxins into the air, the water, and the earth. And then we tell ourselves not to eat fish because acid rain and paper mills have put too much mercury and other poisons into them. Meanwhile, the industrial plants and paper mills continue to operate because we want to buy what they produce. We extract oil from the earth, convert it to gasoline, use it to drive millions of cars, and then at the same time measure the greenhouse effect caused by all the automobile exhaust, and continue to build more cars. Are we ambivalent or what?
The price for membership in the meaning-driven species club is that we have become the stewards of our planet. Whether or not we like having this stewardship thrust upon us, we are confronted with the fact that we have the awareness, the capacity, and the responsibility to care for, nurture and maintain our planet and the life it supports.
George Bernard Shaw said: "Though the Life Force supplies us with its own purpose, it has no other brains to work with than those it has painfully and imperfectly evolved in our heads." Our task is to put those brains to good use.
- What strikes you most about what you just read?
- What does it mean to you to have conscious awareness?
- How often do you notice your own conscious awareness?
- Do you ever feel attuned to any group consciousness?
Next: Evolutionary Psychology