Consciousness is the riddle of awareness. You might call it the attention we pay to what occupies our attention. For example, we pay attention or spontaneously react to a man-eating lion just as gazelles and monkeys do. However, it’s the ongoing loop of attention we also devote to how we’re reacting from which the “i” we think of as “us”, somehow emerges.
One of the godfathers of cognitive science, Douglas Hofstadter explains that the “more self-referentially rich such a loop is, the more conscious is the self to which it gives rise. Consciousness is not an on/off phenomenon, but admits of degrees, grades, shades. Or to put it more bluntly, there are bigger souls and small souls.”
This might sound heretical to the Kumbaya-We-Are-The-World types, yet they’d probably be the first to admit their pets, chimpanzees or dolphins possess some fragment of consciousness, what Hofstadter describes as a “primitive soul”. Yet, how can this be comparable to the complexity, depth, or self-awareness of one’s yoga teacher?
This diminution explains how much of the world rationalises killing animals for food. Sure, a chicken or cow is conscious of something – but not like us! And this “is why we ‘men’ feel we have the perfect right to extinguish the dim lights in the heads of these fractionally-souled beasts and to gobble down their once warm and wiggling, now chilled and still protoplasms with limitless gusto, and not to feel a trace of guilt while doing so,” writes Hofstadter.
However, if we are to admit graduations in consciousness in other species – from rat to pig to weeping elephant – surely we must also concede they exist within a species; that there are levels of consciousness – of self-awareness – in humans? As an orang-utan is to a wombat, is not the Dalai Lama to your average ALP powerbroker?
And if this ladder of consciousness exists, does it not befit us to limit our study of real estate trends and the practice of golf swings, so we might apply ourselves to the demands of self-awareness?
This has implications. Much as one tries to avoid communing with criminals, psychopaths and boors, it’s also productive to circumvent men and women with “small souls”.
File under “reasons not to enter politics”.