Consciousness

I don't like giving photos twee titles. In fact I hate that practice with a passion. But, against all my instincts I call this Birds with Truck, because although the truck is obvious the birds aren't and I want people to see them. This is a crop from a bigger picture. When I took it with a long lens I was  interested in the sky and I didn't notice the birds. Turns out they are the best bit. And none of this has anything in the slightest to do with what follows

Sunday. I was up at dawn and got my duty to God and his church finished early. Other people in our house, having just come back from Christchurch late last night rose later They were wandering round in dressing gowns and making coffee so I took Noah outside. I let him go where he wanted and do whatever he wished while I played guardian angel. He kicked a ball, pushed his car around for a bit and then made a beeline for the gate while I hovered. "Door, door," he said, rattling the gate. His intentions were clear. I let him out into the reserve beside our house and floated along behind him as he tottered off. We were joined by Frank, the world's most intelligent cat, and the three of us, led by Noah, took a slow downhill walk along a cracked concrete path, through the piled up leaves, across the tiny stream and under the dark trees until about 15 minutes later we reached the playground.

Noah and I talked about all we encountered. His vocabulary consists almost entirely of nouns and a few adjectives but this limited auditory palette still allows for quite a bit of conceptual interchange. Frank is largely constrained to body language, but he too is eloquent. He was quite chipper about being part of the adventure until we got to the school boundary, and therefore the edge of the known world, when he strongly advised  against continuing this foolhardy quest. His worst fears were realised when we got to the playground and there was a dog and there was an endless expanse of mown grass stretching to the horizon in every direction with nowhere a sentient being could secrete himself. Don't say he didn't try to warn us. Noah had had this end in mind all along of course. He wanted to sit on a swing, and have me push him, standing in front of him and pushing him by his gumboot clad feet so that as he swung we could discuss the environment; Birdies, flowers, dog, Frank! Frank? Wet..... And to protest our eventual departure in the strongest possible terms.

Three of us. All conscious. All, to some degree or other,  in communion each with the others. All of us communicating, more or less. Frank is currently more aware of the world, more rational, more intelligent than Noah, but there will very shortly come a time when Noah will surpass him, and then, later, I hope a time when he will surpass me also, in knowledge and wisdom and self awareness and achievement. Each of the three of our intrepid band of explorers has our view of the world shaped by the perceptual software hardwired into our brains and by the instincts and drives implanted in us by the countless generations of our ancestors' struggles. Each of us has a certain level of intelligence decided by and measured by the physical configuration of our brains and their stages of growth. But each of  our individual consciousnesses; those windows in each of us through which the universe perceives itself is equivalent and of the same sort. I have a room full of books in my house. I've read at least bits of all of them. But increasingly it is this common possession of consciousness, and not possession of all those countless words, which tells me why I am here, and what and who I am.

We walked back up the hill. Noah's rage at the injustice of being denied his swinging rights was soon ameliorated through distraction. I can see two cars. Look. A red one and a green one. And there is the water. Can you see flowers? Frank advised against the dangerous practice of walking along Highcliff Road as there was, again, no adequate cover and he was proven right when yet another dog and a couple of completely unknown humans appeared, but he accepted my reassurances and followed, albeit reluctantly. Sometimes, says Martin Buber, the I-It relationship we have with the objects we encounter in the universe is supplanted by something deeper; we recognise that the thing we encounter is also a point of consciousness and is looking back at us in an I -Thou relationship. Such awareness comes sometimes in the course of a pilgrimage to the swings; to the end of the world and beyond; to the tiny piece of reserve about a half kilometre from my back door. Especially when such a pilgrimage is made in the company of known and trusted friends.


Comments

Kate said…
I feel that what you are saying is like a slippery eel and I can't quite grab it. This is not a relection on your careful articulation, but more on something profound that I saw today that fits in somewhere in this conversation here and also involves a cat. I'll see if I can find it again.
Kate said…
https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=471654766241688

Questions
Does the dolphin like the cat? If so, why?
Does the cat like the dolphin? If so why?
What is the definition of 'like' in these contexts?
Kelvin Wright said…
Your questions are good ones but I'm not sure they are the right ones. I don't know anything about dolphins, not in any important sense anyway, but I have some acquaintance with cats. Do cats like dolphins? Or people? I don't know how anybody but a cat could ever answer that,and obviously a cat couldn't either. My current cat is Hakku. She seems to prefer me to any other person (in fact any other living thing) on the planet. She keeps near me, sits on me at any available opportunity and if she can manage it will sleep in my bed - but only on my side, curled up against me. But does she like me? Or even love me? Impossible to say.She's operating with a suite of mental software that is very different than mine. So I'm the alpha male, to her anyway. I provide food. I protect her. I'm safe. And I'm also big and soft and warm. She responds to all that in ways decided for her by her evolutionary history. Is that akin to the human concept of liking? Who can tell?

The more significant question is, does she recognise me as alive? As an individual? Does she have a relationship with me? And I think I can safely say yes to those. And isn't that remarkable, that across the boundaries of species she and I can recognise each other not as "it" but as "thou"?

I think the cat and the dolphin similarly recognise each other and relate to each other in an I-Thou relationship. Which to me brings me smack up against the issue of consciousness - what is it? How do we recognise it in others, even in others as alien to our instinctual patterns as a dolphin is from a cat?

I think that consciousness is subjectively discerned, and only ever subjectively discerned: which means that it is forever inaccessible to science whose business is with objectivity. Science can measure and talk about the characteristics of consciousness and the various phenomena which are associated with it, but science has failed to even adequately define it - as is now, has been from the beginning and everymore shall be. But consciousness, and life (also beyond the power of science to adequately describe and also subjectively discerned) are the clues to what this universe is about and why we have the privilege of being part of it.

And apropos of a conversation, or at least part of one, that we had at your place, I thought you might find this interesting:
http://aeon.co/video/science/siphonophores-and-individuality-a-short-film-about-jellyfish/

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