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The Question of Consciousness

The Question of Consciousness

After studying religion for a while, I have discovered that one useful way of categorizing different varieties of religion is how they answer the question of consciousness.

I am not talking about the “problem of consciousness,” which points out the difficulty (perhaps even the theoretical impossibility) of explaining how consciousness works, or where it comes from. What I am referring to is a moral question:

Is consciousness a good thing?

If so, can we expand and deepen it? If not, can we in some way reduce it?

These secondary questions are relevant because looking at the effects upon consciousness of particular religious practices can help us reverse engineer the overall attitude of the religion towards the question of consciousness.

Now this presumes that religions must have some deep interest in the matter, and the skeptic may be right to doubt this. This is exacerbated by a separation in the language used to speak on the matter. Most religions came into being prior to the word “consciousness,” which didn’t come into popular English use until the 17th century. But of course, “consciousness” itself (as a word) is not the thing itself, and other ways of alluding to the subject existed prior to the word. In fact, some religions seem quite sophisticated in identifying consciousness through allegory, symbolism, and even in simple phrases that injunctions that reveal deep thought on the matter. At least, interpreting some otherwise baffling verses through the lens of consciousness allows us to make sense of them in a way which fits nicely within the broader message of the doctrine.

Take, for example, this classically ambiguous verse from the book of Matthew:

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,

Matthew 6:3

I admit, I had no idea what this meant up until today. In fact, there is a good chance I still don’t fully understand the verse, but approaching it by asking what the Christian attitude is towards the question of consciousness allows us to see at least one possible interpretation that is physiologically, even neurologically, insightful.

I will explain what I believe this verse means in detail shortly.

But before I go there, I want to first give at least a basic definition of what I mean by “consciousness.”

The word was first used in English in the 1500’s. Derived from Latin “con” (together) and “scio” (to know), it originally meant something like “sharing knowledge with oneself.” This original, etymological description is rough, but it captures something of the distinction between “consciousness” and mere “awareness.” There are many creatures who experience sensation and emotion without ever realizing or acknowledging that phenomenon; they are aware, but not conscious. They are like the bird in D.H. Lawrence’s famous poem:

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will fall frozen
Dead from a bough
Without ever having felt
Sorry for itself.

The unconscious creature feels the stimuli, but lacks the communication with the self that gives rise to the feeling of a “big picture” experience and interpretation of our existence. It is this experience of communication with the self that I am tentatively calling “consciousness.”

By contrast, the conscious creature in the bird’s position might hear a voice in its head saying “dear God, it’s cold…”

This voice may or may not seem like the creature’s own voice. Where religion is concerned, that difference matters tremendously (I have mentioned the work of Julian Jaynes elsewhere on the blog). But that distinction isn’t particularly relevant to the question of whether or not consciousness — that self-talk which gives rise to the sense of self — is good or bad.

Let me begin with Christianity.

And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:9

This verse is the Chekhov’s gun for Genesis 3, wherein man eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God becomes very upset about it:

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

Genesis 3:1-11

It is not a particularly new or novel interpretation to see the fruit of the tree as consciousness. It isn’t necessarily mainline (most churches take it a bit more literally), but the obvious self-consciousness which follows from eating the fruit makes the interpretation plausible, especially with such metaphorically descriptive phrases as “eyes shall be opened.”

What is new (as far as I am aware) is using this interpretation as a tool for understanding Jesus’ injunction not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.

The usual interpretation of this verse is that we are not to be egotistical in giving… but it isn’t exactly clear how the hands not knowing what each other is doing has any metaphorical value in doing this charity in secret (Matthew 6:4 completes the sentence: “…That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly).

The secrecy lies not in keeping your generosity hidden from others, but hidden from yourself. The aim is to avoid sharing knowledge with yourself; to avoid consciousness.

(The choice of left and right hands is particularly interesting, as cross-meridian communication seems particularly important for the emergence of the experience of consciousness).

Let me unpack what’s going on here in a more theological frame. Giving charity is an action. But without consciousness, it is just a body (you) performing the action. There is no “I” involved. And without that experiential “I,” there can be no sin of pride, because who would be feeling pride? There would only be the experience itself. With consciousness, however, there is the original experience of the act, and perhaps the joy in the act, but there is now also an experience of “I” that is doing the action. That hand is my hand; “I” am giving to this other person. That makes “me” a good person.

True Christian self-less-ness may, in fact, be impossible with consciousness. This, to me, is the best and only explanation for how Adam’s disobedience could have stained all of mankind with sin.

So Christianity clearly falls into the “against” side on the question of consciousness, along with Buddhism. But what about the “for” side? Which religions support the development of consciousness?

One example that comes to mind is Germanic paganism:

I know I hung on a windy tree
Nine long nights,
Wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
Myself to myself,
On that Tree of which no man knows
From where its roots run

Havamal, 138

This is Odin not merely sharing information with himself across his body, but across time. He is recalling something that happened in the past, based on something that he had planned for the future (the current present). His consciousness is not shunned, but is being clung to and expanded through knowledge of the runes.

Some among the more ecumenically-inclined have tried to draw parallels between Odin on the tree and Jesus on the cross, but the better parallel is between Odin (the “Allfather”) and Adam, who ate of the fruit of the tree at the center of the garden and learned wisdom. But whereas in Christianity this is treated as a travesty, the pagan tradition sees this as a kind of exchange: an eye and long nights of suffering are the price for wisdom. And, more importantly, an exchange that is perhaps worth making. The price is high, but consciousness — communication with the self, perhaps with strange symbols like runes? — is considered to be a good thing.

Christianity and paganism are not the only examples of “for” and “against” religions, where the question of consciousness is concerned. In fact, Buddhism may be the most decisive in its rejection of the goodness of consciousness. But what we need now is good terminology for these two categories.

My inclination is to use some pre-existing language from the esoteric tradition: “right-hand path” for those religions which prefer the dissolution of the consciousness into some greater ethos (such as Christianity and Buddhism), and “left-hand path” for those religions which prefer the cultivation of the individual consciousness even in opposition to authority or a larger ethos. Aside from the direct anatomical relevance to Matthew 6:3, this terminology has the benefit of mapping more or less perfectly onto the pre-existing definitions for these terms; it merely adds attitude towards consciousness to these categories, and gives us more conceptual language to use in understanding the relationship between religious practice and psychology.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article, you’ve shared very interesting perspective here. I am not religious but I have always wondered why it was considered a sin in Christianity for Adam and Eve to obtain the knowledge of good and evil. How knowledge per se can be a bad thing. Your interpretation helps me see the possible connection. It seems to be almost ironical that it took conscious creatures to come up with the idea that consciousness is bad. Also, I found the right and left hand terminology very interesting and I thank you for sharing the link to more detailed explanation.

  2. I can’t really say I ever understood the concept of original sin, but this is very interesting. I think mormons may have a different take on consciousness compared to mainline christianity. As far as I understand it (I’ve only read Bruce Charlton’s blog, who is of a mormon theological persuasion), mormons believe that we were all premortal essences who willingly chose to come into earth, in order to achieve theosis, and become more like god (god was once a man, and we can literally become gods in mormon theology). Perhaps mormons are the exception to the negation of consciounessness of Christianity. BTW, Jonathan Pageau has some commentaries on left & right hand: https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/mercy-on-the-right-rigor-on-the-left/

    1. Agreed, Mormonism seems theologically distinct from Christianity, to the point that my main critique of Christianity actually doesn’t apply to them. I had not heard about their theory of consciousness though; seems to match other fairly large departures from mere Christianity.

  3. I’ve never really thought about the idea of consciousness being bad, i always just assumed it was good. But your view of looking at it from a religious standpoint makes me understand how it could be so. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I’ve recently discovered my interest in philosophy so i’m really glad to have come across your blog. The article was really insightful and i look forward to reading more of your work

    1. Thanks! Always great to hear

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