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How important is consciousness to our identity? Read about the potential of this property and its importance to the humanist view on life.

Some have described our possession of consciousness as what is distinctive about being human. We may not be the only animal to possess it, but it would certainly appear that no other animal possesses it to the same extent as we do. Even if it can be argued that our consciousness is not distinct enough to claim uniqueness, perhaps the way we use it is. It is also a capacity crucial to the humanist worldview.

Mind and body

Attempting to explain consciousness is beyond the remit of this course. It is important, however, to remind ourselves that, for the humanist, we are made of matter alone. The materialist picture, however, might appear to leave out the mental – our beliefs, emotions, feelings, sensations, desires, and decisions – our conscious experiences. It therefore appears to threaten something of our human nature. Do we then need the concept of a mind or soul or spirit as something immaterial and distinct from the body in order to account for consciousness?

The claim that the mind and the body are distinct kinds of things is known as dualism. One problem with this view involves providing an explanation of how the two interact. If mental processes cause physical processes and vice versa, how do they do it? How does one kind of thing move the other if they are completely distinct?

Conscious experiences, then, must be accommodated within the physical world. One way to do this is to treat talk of mental states and the corresponding physical states as being about only one kind of stuff, but as different ways of describing or thinking about it. One can say that conscious experiences, such as pain, are identical to particular neurons firing in the brain, just as water is the same thing as H20, and lightning is the same thing as an electrical discharge in the sky. In each case, we experience the same thing in two different ways, we have two different ways of describing it, and the two different descriptions do not mean the same thing, but they both refer to what, from the scientific evidence, we know to be the same identical entity. We are still a long way from answering all our questions about the relationship between the mental and the physical. However, from a humanist perspective, the mysterious idea that mind and body are distinct things does not help to answer the questions. It simply makes them even more incomprehensible, whereas searching for natural explanations can help to further our understanding.

A source of value and purpose

‘The possession of consciousness seems to be an essential precondition for things that give our lives value and purpose.’
Richard Norman, On Humanism
The richness of our lives depends on our consciousness. It allows us to reason, to deliberate between options, to imagine alternatives, to make choices, and to evaluate and reflect upon them. Richard Norman describes consciousness as ‘a precondition for our status as moral beings.’
This capacity is essential for us to have hopes and aspirations and to predict and plan for the future. Our experience of time gives us the awareness of ourselves as continuing beings that will one day no longer exist. It allows for the concept of growth and progress, both of ourselves and of society, and it enables us to construct much-needed narratives and stories that connect our experiences and can motivate us to act.
Although our actions are not completely within our own control, our consciousness allows us to feel like the ‘authors of our own lives’. The sense of freedom our conscious life provides also accords us with a responsibility, for ourselves, for other people, and for the planet. It is not just that we can make choices, but we have to make choices. The existentialist humanist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that we create ourselves through what we do. But our choices also reveal how we think other human beings should act. Perhaps unintentionally, but often unavoidably, how we live says something about how we think everyone should live.
‘When we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.’
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

Over the next few weeks we will learn how this capacity is essential to the humanist view on life. Our status as beings with consciousness is necessary for us to make meaning in our lives, to build and nurture our relationships with others, and to work towards a better world.

This article is from the free online

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

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