No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above." - John 3.5-7

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The Nature of Humanity

What does it mean to be human? Are we really "made in God's image"? Or are we just animals whose brains grew too big? Since we are clearly animals (otherwise we wouldn't need bathrooms), does that mean we are no better morally than dogs or pigs? If that were true, wouldn't we have liscense to behave like dogs and pigs? Does our biological species have a special obligation to be moral because of - what? Those brains again? Some other attribute?

Some say that awareness, a sense of self and also a knowledge of the self-ness of others, is what compels us to behave morally. Others argue that we are conditioned by socialization rituals that evolved to control dangerous and disruptive animal instincts, a point of view that does not consider the significance of awareness. A fundamental philosophical difference is at work here, for there are two ways of understanding consciousness - either as a product of the interactions of matter and energy, or as the basis of all matter and energy. These belong to, respectively, the materialist and idealist ontologies, or ways of understanding existence.

The Origins of Human Consciousness

In the mainstream materialist model of reality, the physical world of measurable events is considered to be the only reliable source of knowledge, an epistemological point of view known as empiricism. So, it is assumed that the physical world is the only world, and phenonemena that aren't physical (like thoughts and feelings) must be explained in terms of physical laws operating on matter and energy. These non-physical phenomena are supposed to have come about in living things after evolution via the mechanism of natural selection, which is attributed the power to produce unintentional complexities in aggregates of physical particles, through the calculus of survival of the fittest.

In the cosmology of this model, way back in time, but well after the material world came into being, a bunch of simple molecules all bounced around randomly until they accidentally made complicated molecules that could replicate. Through natural selection these molecules developed into cells, and then after more natural selection, multicellular organisms, which after much more natural selection became hairy organisms with large brains, who invented tax accounting. The ability of living matter to demonstrate intelligence and the will to manipulate its environment is never really explained, it's just understood that the organisms at this advanced stage of evolution are intricate and complex enough to manifest these properties, which are called emergent.

Consciousness is emergent, too, but it really has no place in this model, since everything originates in the need to survive. However, it is not you who needs to survive, but rather the replicating molecules, which last much longer, since they can replicate. This model explains why you would run into a burning building to save your mother by arguing that it's not really you saving your mother, but rather your genes saving their original copies by programming you for altruistic behavior toward your parents. The fact that both you and your mother are self-aware is accepted, but not explained.


Materialist Explanation of Consciousness

The materialist model of consciousness.


In the mainstream idealist model of reality, sometimes known as the perennial philosophy, consciousness is considered to be fundamental, based on the fact that denoting or describing anything requires first that there be awareness. The physical world exists within consciousness, rather than consciousness coming out of the physical world. Results of experiments in quantum mechanics are interpreted as evidence that the material world does, in fact, only sort of exist, being dependent on awareness for its manifestation.

Consciouness is thus understood to be the ground, or foundation, of all existence. An important thing about consciousness is that it can be in a blissful state where nothing ever happens, or it can separate into an experiencing subject and an experienced object, a process which creates space and time. Only in this separated state can anything interesting happen. For some reason, eternal bliss wasn't good enough for the primordial One consciousness, and here we are, surrounded by interesting happenings.

So, cosmologically, first there was this One consciousness, and then the world we experience emerged from it, exactly how is mysterious. Space and time are sketchy in this model, since they don't exist until manifested as an experience of a self-aware being, but all of the atoms are still sort of bouncing around, they're just doing it in potentia, where they aren't real. But once they do become real (i.e. experienced), it looks like they went and did all that bouncing around for billions and billions of years, then ended up making a nice Class M planet with an adorable race of future tax accountants.


Idealist Model of Consciousness

The idealist model of consicousness.


The Nature of Reality

An important thing about idealist models is that they invert the materialist hierarchy of experienced phenonemena. In the materialist model the atoms are sovereign, and from their myriad interactions emerges life, which evolves to a higher level of complexity, from which emerges mind. Awareness can be seen as a property distinct from mind (since there can be unconscious thoughts), which might emerge from the extreme complexity of a well-endowed brain.

To the idealists, awareness wears the crown, and thoughts, emotions and sensations are aspects of consciousness. Mental and vital objects (thoughts and feelings) are directly experienced in subtle, private, internal worlds, while physical objects are experienced indirectly, via sensory apparati, in a gross, shared, external world. The key here is that thoughts and feelings depend on the physical world to manifest their states (mapped in all that intricate molecular biology), but are experienced as events in a separate but co-existent reality, with the glorious mind-body whole integrated through a common thread - consciousness.

Consciousness thus creates both physical and non-physical reality, within the constraint of natural laws - so there is not complete freedom to choose any desired event (alas!) Also, when the One consciousness identifies with the experiences of a mind-body, it imagines itself a separate consciousness, a charlatan known as the ego. This ego is a false self, perceiving an external and hostile world, not realizing that all existence is One web of energy, and that it is participating in a mass delusion. But its reign is temporary, as it is dissolved utterly upon the death of the brain.

So What?

Differences between the two models determine how important phenomena are understood. The idealist metaphysical position is clearly the superior option for attributing meaning to human existence. In the materialist model, you are a meat robot, controlled by genetic programming developed over aeons of pointless competition for survival. In the idealist model, you are an agent of moral choice, made of meat and bone, robot-like in many ways, but alive and aware because of Spirit, and capable of changing the world for better or for worse.

The idealist perspective validates the beliefs of the world's major religions, with God as variously named understood to be that Consciousness that underlies everything. It also explains the common human experience of compassion, since it recognizes that we are all part of one great Being. If you ever have to run into a burning building to save your mother, you will do it for love.

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What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! - Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

Most of the ideas expressed here are owed to the excellent expositions of idealist philosophy found at Science Within Consciousness.

This page copyright Steve Barrera 2001-2013