Only the human consciousness can register it. Long before Koch and Oates and Woolf, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James January 11, —August 26, examined the mystery and complexity of consciousness in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature public library free ebook — the masterwork based on his Gifford Lectures, in which James explored science, spirituality, and the human search for meaning.
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James considers the central function of human consciousness — to make sense of reality through abstract concepts:. The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims… in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it its significance.
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As time, space, and the ether soak through all things so we feel do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just. Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of. We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predicates and heads of classification and conception.
Three decades after Nietzsche lamented how our abstractions blind us to the actuality of life , James adds:.
This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution. Polarizing and magnetizing us as they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings. And beings they are, beings as real in the realm which they inhabit as the changing things of sense are in the realm of space.
And yet our consciousness, James argues, is capable of states that radically disrupt its own neat model-universe of abstractions.
He considers how these transcendent states discompose our constructed, concept-constricted experience of reality:. Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation.
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No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.
Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.
John Makeham (ed.), New Treatise on the Uniqueness of Consciousness - PhilPapers
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