A Theory of Consciousness: As inspired by Plato and my bus ride into work
We brush our teeth twice a day. We take a shower. We drive or we take a bus to our place of work. After dinner we do the washing up. How much should our thoughts be aligned with our actions? Should we be mindful? When I’m brushing my teeth should I be conscious of the toothbrush passing from one tooth to the next, should my awareness stay in that space? Or is it ok for my mind to wander – to get led away with whatever big story of the day is being debated on the radio, or to consider what we might make for dinner that evening?
Should we always strive for thoughts and acts to be aligned? Don’t actions become automated so that we can pursue higher ends? What's the rule?
I think about the low clouds and the high clouds – when they are moving in the same direction then the weather is settled; when they are moving in different directions they’re know as crossed winds, and they signal changing weather. (In this analogy the low clouds are my actions and the high clouds are my thoughts).
Over 2000 years ago, Plato gave us his Theory of Forms. He argued that when we discover the forms or designs of nature, of society, or of beauty, or of the best way to live, that we are remembering them, these forms, because before we were incarnated into our bodies we dwelled in heaven.
I look out into the garden; it is a hot day and the flowers are desperately in need of water.
The central nervous system perceives the garden and consciousness comes into being.
So we head out into the garden and water the flowers. In that moment then it is as though the Platonic image of the garden – just one part of a vast architecture of forms – calls us. We perceive the entropy of the flowers wilting. The Platonic image needs to be restored. Though any gardener may leave her personal signature on it, she is not the creator of the image. A healthy, flourishing garden is something ‘understood’ by all of her contemporaries who keep gardens. A common image of health calls her into action.
Much like with those cross-winds, as she begins to water the garden her mind begins to wander again – the sense of ‘I’ begins to drift much as we are sleeping and we forget ourselves, forget our agendas. As the content of her thought drifts, she experiences little dreamlike ‘ripples’ of consciousness which are not intensely integrated; the intensity of her I-hood falls back.
Perhaps mindfulness is about recognising what I am currently conscious of, on what level –
how high or how low - my consciousness currently is. For example it makes perfect sense that whilst I am travelling into work on the bus, my consciousness shifts from the bus route – the sights and sounds immediately around me which I see in a similar way every morning – to the lecture I will be delivering that morning. The bus ride in this case becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I am called into being not by the bus ride per se, but by the lecture. But there are maps within maps. A single lecture may take meaning within a much wider program of learning, and in that respect the lecture I am delivering that morning is not an end in itself but a means to an end. And thus I am called into being by that – a stairway that rises higher.
A person decides to take up piano-playing – they begin with the most basic melodies but they are becoming initiated into a world of music; of Bach, Mozart and Chopin. With practice and increasing skill they rise up the scale. Here Mozart gained clearer sight of the Platonic heaven – as communicated through piano music – and returned from those heights to share his knowledge with the rest of us (mere mortals). By entering into these soundscapes, through performance or even just through listening, we realise a degree of transcendence. As the music is converted in our own minds from mere vibrations of sound through natural materials into conscious experience and communication, we remember something of that Platonic heaven, and that is where the spotlight of consciousness rests.
At earlier stages, to get to this point, the spotlight of consciousness might have been directed towards the construction of a piano out of maple wood, felt, wire and ivory, or of the purchase of tickets to the live performance, those means to an end included our navigating through the physical space from home to the theatre house – by foot, or by vehicle. Perhaps we had to fill up with petrol on the way etc. But in the moment of transcendence all these supporting acts and events fall away, and all that there is is participation in the music. We couldn’t quite anticipate how we would feel in that moment of the music and yet we pursued it – through thousands of micro-thoughts and actions we were directed towards it – as though heaven were calling us and we followed.
It is not as though the conscious self is ‘born’ in that moment of music. The act of constructing the piano, or of buying the tickets, or of navigating to the theatre – all these were conscious activities, though the quality of consciousness was different. But it was in the purposefulness of them, or to use the term championed by Mick Cooper, their directionality, that the conscious self came into being through these actions.
The self, the ‘I’ that I am – or you are - may be a biological machine of great potential, of unfathomably sophisticated hardware in the form of a brain and central nervous system. However it needs software to run. I only come into being when I have some frame – whether a garden to tend to, a lecture to deliver, or a concert to attend - within which to process information and to take action. Without this software that hardware will lie idle; will remain in darkness. Thus I propose that consciousness is not located in the brain. Instead, consciousness is charmed out of the central nervous system like the flautist charming the snake out of the basket. The sound of the flute is ‘out there’: the Platonic heaven which has been calling us from the moment we were born.
The consequence of Plato’s idea is that even if all the world were destroyed – consumed by an expanding Sun in some distant future, and the human race was wiped out; then piano concertos after Mozart, Shakespearean plays, Uffizi galleries, and Venetian canals – all these would continue to exist in potential, until some other sentient life form came along to ‘remember’ them in their own way, as Plato proposed. This is a comforting idea for me as I notice the increasing frequency of grey hair along my flanks, and that the years seem to hurtle along at increasing pace. The most beautiful moments of past, present, and future, may come and go, just as I came and will one day go. But in one way it doesn’t matter whether consciousness is high or low, sharp or dull, or if I fall out of consciousness altogether. Because ‘memory’ somehow remains.
I highly recommend these two superb essays on consciousness:
Dicey-Jennings, C. (2017). I Attend Therefore I Am [online]. Available from https://aeon.co/essays/what-is-the-self-if-not-that-which-pays-attention
Frohlich, J. (2020). Frames of Consciousness [online]. Available from https://aeon.co/essays/to-say-what-consciousness-is-science-explores-where-it-isnt