I was having a conversation with my friend Andy today about the nature of consciousness, and how it relates to mortality. Andy observed that it is impossible for a conscious being to know what it would feel like to no longer exist (depending on your metaphysics, you might think of this as the merging of your self with some universal consciousness. In any case, the invidivual consciousness instinctually thinks of itself as existing only up to the moment of death).
I told Andy that I thought this inability was actually a necessary feature of consciousness – because it is the thing that makes consciousness useful as a tool for survival. Our conscious mind, with its focus on identity and selfhood, is the rallying point for all of these vast cognitive facilities at our brain’s disposal – the General who can rally the troops to work together for survival, when the need arises.
After our conversation I thought about these ideas some more, and was struck by how much our thinking, as humans, is so suffused with an emphasis on consciousness and identity. It would be quite hard for us to think in any other way. For example, when I say to someone: “I love you”, on one level I am just saying “this human loves that human” – the same statement I would make if I were talking about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
But I’m not just saying that, am I? I’m also saying that I have linked this other person (“you”) together with all of the strategies that my conscious mind will use, going forward in time, to ensure my own survival as an individual. It’s not just a statement of fact – it’s a promise of agency in the future.
And so we arrive at the supreme irony of human existence: Our very ability to express love for one another is based on a shared understanding of each individual’s own powerful instinct to survive and to forestall their own death.