One of the hottest debates in philosophy these days concerns the nature of consciousness. What is consciousness? How did it originate and what purpose, if any, does it serve? Although the present controversy about consciousness has been enlivened by recent scientific research, these questions have always been with philosophy and in fact, actually preceded it. For consciousness itself is like a great root of wonder from which religion and magic arose, well before philosophy and science blossomed afterwards. Even so, the questions of consciousness sometimes seem to fall into retirement as its apparent mystery appears to be solved by plausible explanations. God, for instance, though himself considered far beyond human comprehension, was once seen as the source of all consciousness and explained everything from the movement of the stars to the thoughts and moods in our heads. But those explanations no longer carry the authority they once did and the idea of God's role in creation increasingly appears to be the product of the human imagination fabricating explanations for mysteries that were once believed to be forever closed to human understanding. We now know, of course, that the sun, moon and stars do not wheel around a stationary earth. And the solar system itself is an infinitesimal speck in an unimaginably vast universe that contains billions and billions of galaxies. Although some people still maintain that a divine hand is responsible for the cosmic order, science would have never advanced without first removing God as an explanatory principle. The same appears to be true of our understanding of consciousness. The divine spark that was once thought to explain the light of consciousness has now been superseded by the complex structures of the brain that modern neuroscience has just begun to reveal, but with dramatic results. The brain, many investigators now believe, is merely an organic computational device that blindly follows the biological instructions that are hard-wired into it. We are simply "the clumsy robots of our selfish genes", as Richard Dawkins puts it. Moreover, for all of the brain's undoubted complexity, many scientists and philosophers do not regard consciousness as an unfathomable mystery, but instead see it as a problem that is just about to reach a conclusive explanation. "Consciousness Explained" is the title of one of the books by the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett which brazenly expresses this view.
Yet it is possible to be dazzled by what science has to tell us about the brain and its processes without believing that consciousness has been completely explained by these revelations. It would be more accurate to say that many of the mechanisms of consciousness are becoming better understood though scientific investigation, but important questions about consciousness still remain. Perhaps foremost among these questions concerns subjectivity. What is it to be a conscious person, not just considered archetypally, but what is to be a "me", that is a self reflective subject with a unique history and point of view, whose experience must, in principle, be unique? Although there are metrics for virtually every physical and mental human characteristic--height, weight, intelligence, temperament, sexual orientation and so forth can all be fit into pre-determined categories--none can fully illuminate human experience without reference to self consciousness, indeed, to being a self. To say the self is an illusion, as Dennett does, does nothing to dislodge the illusion of selfhood or begin to dispel the problems of being a conscious person. Still, in some respects Dennett is clearly right. We are often mistaken about the truth of our actual condition as we inevitably hold false beliefs about ourselves and the world. In fact, our understanding of both the self and the world must be flawed by the necessarily provisional knowledge we form about both. But in the darkness we inhabit, perhaps we may be forgiven for sometimes mistaking the dim fires of consciousness for the bright light of truth.
Yet, no matter how much we overestimate the veracity of our understanding, we all recognise that that there are matters about which we will always be ignorant. Much of our ignorance is general and collective and is so remote from our affairs that it scarcely seems to impinge on us. Nobody could possibly know what might exist beyond our sensory and cognitive capacities to apprehend them. Wondering, for example, what happens in those billions of distant galaxies that we will never be able to explore would seem a pointless question because there can be no intelligible way for us even to imagine it. But even the most immediate and commonplace items of experience become subject to unanswerable wonder if we ask why they--and we--exist at all. In truth, why known things exist is far more mysterious than what unknown things might exist. For the mystery of known things presses in on us by their very presence as soon as their mystery is admitted into our awareness of them. And from any experience of wonder it is just a small step to wondering about wonder itself. What enables us to wonder and why is it so compelling once it claims our attention?
For some people of a strongly rational disposition, these questions may seem frivolous and pointless. Wonder is useful to such people only insofar as it can be converted into active curiosity about knowable things. As for mysteries that can't be investigated by rational methods, hardened rationalists believe that such things are best ignored and should be treated as virtually nonexistent. Yet some mysteries can be neither dismissed as trivial nor investigated by rational methods as we discover whenever we find ourselves in a state of suspense about concerns for which there can be no clear predetermined answers and no way of regarding them as unimportant. Such questions as "Will he/she love me?" or "Am I going to recover from my potentially fatal illness?" may never rock the epistemic foundations of scientific knowledge. Yet, if forced to confront such questions personally, each of us would be held transfixed in a state of anxious wonder. For we can never solve such mysteries, but can only live them out with the understanding that our fate depends on how our concerns will unfold. Of course, seen objectively as examples of perennial phenomena, falling in love and falling ill may be taken as nothing more than biological processes, as natural and as unmysterious as leaves falling off trees. But as individuals living out our lives we are compelled to wonder whenever such things happens to us, as we experience them as mysteries that endow our lives with emotional meaning.
Mysteries are not always enchanting. They can sometimes be agonising, as the example about serious illness shows. They can also be merely vexing, as when we wonder when the traffic jam we are stuck in is going to clear so that we can be on time for an important appointment. Mysteries can also arise out of factual confusions. No gods ever caused the sun to disappear behind the moon at midday, even if a tribe's misdeeds would seem to have angered them enough to do it. And though we can now easily see past such a confusion with our superior understanding of astronomy, it would be arrogant to suppose that we are no longer be liable to similar misunderstandings. For our understanding of things can only be provisional and must be revised whenever new discoveries inform our ideas about them. But the notion that we as individuals will always be in a position to wait patiently for all the facts to come in is to misunderstood the human situation. For we are always in danger of being worried about being late for important appointments, to say nothing about finding love and dying too soon. Our lives always depend on eventualities whose outcomes we can never know in advance.
This is where psychotherapy can be helpful. Not by providing answers for unanswerable mysteries, but by enabling people to deal with them, which is something that no scientific theory of consciousness will ever be able to do. Buddhism tells us that the law of impermanence infiltrates all things and offers a path of escape from the flux of existence. Therapy helps us negotiate the mysteries in our lives within which that path lays concealed.