The Problem of Unconsciousness

Hi all,

I had some surgery recently. It was minor, being nothing more than the removal of some bone and tissue in my nasal cavity that was obstructing my breathing. As part of this operation, I was put to sleep with a general anaesthetic so that the doctors could do their work. This experience inspired me to put down on paper a conception which I have pondered periodically—that of the problem of unconsciousness.

When we talk about consciousness, what we are talking about is summed up in the concept popularised by René Descartes,Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”. This conception is popularly held as a proof of existence. The problem of unconsciousness is that if the affirmative proof is accepted, then the negation must also hold. I.e. I do not think, therefore I am not “Non puto igitur non sum (Courtesy of Yandex Translate)”. The problem which is inherent in this position is apparent when this proof of existence is coupled with the conception of the soul or the mind-body theory as exemplified in dualism. Because, if proof of our existence is that we can think, and if interruptions to our physical state can disrupt our ability to think, this would seem to argue against a separate existence for the mind.

So, if we are, as theists suggest, a ghost in a shell, would unconsciousness not be experienced somewhat differently from how it is experienced currently? For me, being put to sleep in the hospital was remarkably similar to my usual bedtime experience. I could feel a distance from my physical sensation, a retreat into the mind and then simply nothing. The next thing I knew was that I had woken up in the recovery ward. This absence of observed existence is interesting as, from my perspective, I had simply ceased to exist for around two hours. If I were separate from my physical existence, would I not be more likely to experience a loss of sensory perception as opposed to a loss of consciousness?

If we were (for lack of a better term) spiritual beings possessing a body, if we were to be prevented from experiencing sensory stimuli, we would expect to continue to experience thought/consciousness but without access to the senses. Now, I am not sure what this state of consciousness without sensory input would be like, but it seems likely that it would not be the “blank” experienced in unconsciousness. I.e. if we were really separate from our bodies and able to continue to exist after death, how could anything interrupt the perceived existence of our minds?

If consciousness is separate from the physical as it is required to be, if it is supposed to survive physical death, it seems reasonable to assume that the physical world could not have any effect on its basic functioning. Injury, disease, or the effects of psychoactive compounds could not in any way affect the consciousness of the individual (though they could, of course, affect the senses). However, this does not appear to be the case.

It is held ‘a posteriori’ that head injuries, the excessive consumption of alcohol, and many drugs can induce unconsciousness in individuals through their impact on the human brain. In each of these cases, the individual reports a loss of perceived existence. This to me is suggestive of the consciousness being synonymous with the individual’s physical self and not separate from it.

This means that if this deduction is correct, then our existence is predicated on the continuation of our physical form. We can infer that it is very likely that death denotes a permanent loss of consciousness and the resultant oblivion of the individual. As such, if we accept this position, we must also accept that each day could well be our last. There is likely nothing more after this life, therefore, let’s live it to the full.

While it is true, as Avi Loeb said in his newest book ‘Extraterrestrial’, that “even the longest life is infinitesimally short on a cosmic scale”. Even the shortest life is long enough to achieve our Individual Purpose. If we were to live for just one more day, but live it in such a way as to promote the welfare of our communities and families, it would be a life worth living. That one day would be worth more than a thousand lifetimes wasted in the pursuit of wealth, power or fame. Seek after the ‘good life’ now. Focus on how you can contribute to the welfare of your family and community today. Practice the virtues and seek to be the best person you can be, while you still can. So, why wait? There may be no tomorrow.

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