For we are all insulted byThe mere suggestion that we dieEach moment and that each great IIs but a process in a processWithin a field that never closes;As proper people find it strangeThat we are changed by what we change,That no event can happen twiceAnd that no two existencesCan ever be alike; we’d ratherBe perfect copies of our father,Prefer our idées fixes to beTrue of a fixed reality.No wonder, then, we lose our nerveAnd blubber when we should observe…– W.H. Auden
Mind, after all, is almost universally taken to be something inside us. That was Descartes’ view. Inside each of us there is a thing that thinks and feels. Each of us is identical to that thing. Neuroscience updates the picture by adding that that thing inside you that thinks and feels is your brain.You are your brain!What are the implications of such a view? One is that we inhabit our bodies as a submariner inhabits his or her vessel; the main function of the body is to transmit signals from the surrounding sea of stimulation to neural headquarters. And what of the world beyond the body? Well, it is nothing more than a sea of potential stimulation! And what of other people? These are nothing other than more-or-less persistent patterns in the flow of surrounding stimulation!What an ugly idea!…Let’s imagine a new possibility. Your brain is not the thing inside you that thinks and feels. Not because something immaterial does this work for you, but because nothing does. Thinking and feeling is not something that happens in you, not in your brain, or anywhere else. Consciousness is something you achieve. It is something you do, and like everything else you do, it depends on your embedding in and reliance on the world around you (including other people).Trying to find consciousness in the brain — consider this! — would be like trying to find the value of money in the molecular structure of bank notes. And just as the fact that we can’t find the value of money using an electron microscope does not show that value is mysterious, the fact that we can’t find consciousness in the brain does not show that consciousness is somehow unnatural.
Well, first of all, monetary value is not a property of coins and dollar bills; those are just symbolic representations of value, which itself is abstract and symbolic. The brain on the other hand, is not symbolic of consciousness, and consciousness is very much an emergent property of the brain, so this metaphor kind of falls flat.
Other than that, he seems to just be playing fast and loose with the definition of who “you” are. It is, of course, obviously true that we, as conventionally defined individuals, don’t exist in a vacuum. As Nietzsche said in response to Kant’s concept of the Ding-an-sich:
The properties of a thing are effects on other “things”:if one removes other “things”, then a thing has no properties,i.e., there is no thing without other things,i.e., there is no “thing-in-itself”.
You, Joe/Josephine Blogreader, are a physical product of your parents’ DNA, and all the air, food and water that have maintained you since birth. Mentally, the thoughts you think are conditioned by the culture you live in and the language you speak, both of which are organic processes in constant evolution, with countless contributions along the way from countless people. So in that sense, yes, you are not simply a self-contained, unchanging, timeless observer peering out from the fortress of your body at a world filled with dead matter and likewise separate observers. “You” wouldn’t exist without “everything else”, as a lengthy stay in a sensory deprivation tank would make clear.
However, your individual brain is the nexus, the crossroads in time, where all these physical and cultural elements come together to form unique and unrepeatable combinations of experience. Remove or severely damage that, and there won’t be anyone “doing” or “achieving” consciousness on any level. No other conventionally defined individual will have the same thoughts you do at the same time about the same events as viewed from the same perspective. No one else will ever have the precise experience that you have, informed by the same history, at 3:18 on Wednesday afternoon next week. Understanding this does not imply a life of empty, spiritual barrenness or any of the other clichés he trots out, just as understanding the former perspective does not imply mental peace and bliss. You can fully grasp that life itself, the great process, the Tao, the “I know not what” will continue on after absorbing all of our temporary individual selves back into itself and still feel a pang of wistfulness at the thought of your individual perspective, limited as it is, coming to an end at some point.