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Consciousness

19 February, 2007

Sebastian Faulks has one of his characters in Human Traces sum up the paradox of the human condition thus:

“We are much more developed than we need to be. I think consciousness is like an extra sense – the equivalent of sight, perhaps. It gives us a way of reading the world. Sight uses light waves, hearing uses sound waves, consciousness uses language to help us construct a reduced model of the universe, in which we can picture ourselves as actors in a simplified version of time.

“But just as our eye does not give us all the light waves, so our consciousness gives us only a sample of reality. It is our sixth sense and it is unique to humans, but it’s no more complete or transcendent than a dog’s sense of smell or a hawk’s eyesight: it is good of its kind but it is limited; it is just a sense. I would no more base a reading of reality on the evidence of my consciousness than on the evidence of a hound’s nose. 

“Furthermore, because it is the only ‘sense’ that deals in ideas, it is the only one to give us an idea of its restricted powers; it is consciousness itself that makes us aware of its own limitations.

In reality, there are probably more than the three dimensions that our optic nerve can perceive, but only seeing three, we do not fret over what more is there.

“With consciousness it is otherwise. We are frustrated by the limits of our capacity to answer what we think of as the big or important questions. But we should not be. The failure is not only in the answers, but also in the questions. We can only wonder at the tiny mysteries thrown up by this blindly evolved faculty. But these are not real mysteries; these have as much to do and as little to do with reality as the questions that remain unanswered by the limited range of the hawk’s eye. …

“Perhaps one day we will know the questions, … when another faculty, as great as consciousness, has also evolved in us.”

– Sebastian Faulks in Human Traces

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