THE TENSION BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY AND COMMON SENSE

imagesCommon sense readily understands that a self can’t exist without a world, but it becomes slightly more difficult for common sense to grasp that a subject can’t exist without an object. If we try to think of a subject without an object, we would be trying to conceive of a consciousness without any content, which is impossible. Consciousness is consciousness of something. This is what philosophers call intentionality. Some forms of meditation seem to remove all content. For instance, I close my eyes and by patient meditation manage to flush everything out of my mind. I seem to achieve a state of pure consciousness, consciousness without content. But I cannot entirely get rid of the darkness that results from having closed my eyes. To get rid of all content would precisely make me unconscious.

It is even harder for common sense to conceive the reverse: that there can’t be an object without a subject, content without consciousness. In fact, we might even say that common sense finds it impossible to conceive of this. It dismisses any such notion as idealism. But here common sense only has in mind what Kant called naive idealism, the only kind of idealism common sense knows. It seems absolutely certain that a cosmos exists independently of consciousness. And it is of course true that the universe exists independently of my consciousness and your consciousness. But we cannot adequately think of a universe that is independent of all consciousness without taking the concept of oblivion into account.

Previously, I defined oblivion as therelessness (Greek atopos). Total unconsciousness is therelessness — oblivion. That is, if the universe is in a state of total unconsciousness, then it is also in a state of oblivion. What does being in a state of oblivion mean, how can we adequately conceive of it? This talk of “being in a state” is in fact already misleading. Therelessness is the absence of a state. But a state of not being in any state whatsoever, what is this but a contradiction? Let’s try to get a handle on it.

What state is the universe in if everything is in a completely unconscious state? Common sense wants to say that the universe would still be in some physical state or other. And of course from the standpoint of consciousness we’re able to look back and determine that the early universe was in such and such a state. The sky outside my window is currently in such and such a state. The earth will be in such and such a state even after the planet becomes inhospitable to life. But again this is always done from the standpoint of consciousness.

Similarly, common sense thinks it knows that even when one is unconscious one’s body is still there. One’s body remains even if consciousness goes out like a light. The proof is that my body is always there when I return to my senses, when I wake up. It can also be palpably proven simply by observing the body of someone in a coma. There the person is — braindead but still there. And the body of a dead person is also still there.

By making these banal observations we haven’t gotten around the fact that consciousness (and not space) is supplying the clearing in which things are, in which they stand out from oblivion. The body of an unconscious person remains there for someone who is conscious of the body. But for a person who is completely brain dead the body isn’t there. Of course, if the person wakes up, his body is there again, recognized as having been there all along. But what if the person doesn’t wake up? This latter state is precisely the state of a universe in which there is no consciousness. Here nothing can be given, nothing can be posited. If nothing is given and nothing is posited, then what is there?

If nothing had ever been given, then nothing would ever have existed. This claim is precisely what common sense rejects. Surely things would exist, surely they would still be there, even if no consciousness had ever known them. Common sense latches on to this notion as if for dear life. The thought that so much would hinge on the mind seems impossible.

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4 responses to “THE TENSION BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY AND COMMON SENSE

  1. Things can physically exist without being known, but what is the point of it? until there comes to be perceiving, conscious, intelligent life in the Universe, it is pretty pointless. Common sense or philosophy, the meaning of the Universe is wrapped up in intelligent beings.

    • As I see it the universe is incomplete unless it comes to itself. Glad to see this entry made sense. I wrote it late last night and thought I had saved it as a draft, intending to revise it more before posting.

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