Consciousness, Bodies, Psychical, Reality, Sensation, Perception
The first of the three points we have called attention to has, so to speak, become famous through the lectures of du Bois-Reymond, which attracted much attention, on “The Limits of Natural Knowledge,” and “The Seven Riddles of the Universe.” That these thoughtful lectures made so great an impression did not mean that a great new discovery had been made, but was rather a sign of the general lack of reflection on the part of the public, for they only expressed what had always been self-evident, and what had only been forgotten through thoughtlessness, or concealed by polemical rhetoric. Consciousness, thought, even the commonest sensation of pleasure and pain, or the simplest sense-perception, cannot be compared with “matter and energy,” with the movements of masses. They represent a foreign and altogether inexplicable guest in this world of matter, molecules, and elements. Even if we could follow the play of the nervous processes with which sensation, consciousness, pain, or pleasure are bound up, into their most intricate and delicate details, if we could make the brain transparent, and enlarge its cells to the size of houses, so that, with searching glance, we could count and observe all the processes, and even follow the dance of the molecules within it, we should never see “pain,” “pleasure,” or “thought,” or anything more than bodies and their movements. A thought, such as, for instance, the perception that two and two make four, is not long or broad, above or beneath; it cannot be measured or weighed in inches or pounds like matter, tested with the manometer, thermometer, or electrometer for its potential or intensity and tension, measured by ampères or volts or horse-powers like energies and electric currents; it is something wholly different, which can be known only through inner experience, but which is much better known than anything else whatever, and which it is absolutely impossible to compare with anything but itself. Even if we admit that it can only become actual and develop as an accompaniment of processes within bodies, and only within those bodies we call “living,” and that wherever bodies exist psychical phenomena occur; even if we were able, as we never shall be able, to produce living beings artificially in a retort, and even if psychical phenomena occurred in these also, we should still have made no progress towards explaining what the psychical really is. It would still only be the blazing up in these bodies of a flame which, in some inexplicable way, had fallen upon them, and associated itself with them. We do not doubt that this association, where it takes place, does so in obedience to the strictest law and the most inexorable necessity; therefore, that wherever and however the corporeal conditions are produced, sensation and consciousness will awaken. For we believe in a world governed by law. But the mystery is in no way lessened by this, and the modern theory of evolution throws no light into this utterly impenetrable darkness. In the first place, the whole idea of “explaining” in terms of “evolution” is a futile one. The process of becoming is pictured as a simple process of cumulation, a gradual increase of intensities, while the business is really one of change in quality and the introduction of what is new. In the second place, the occurrence even of the first and most primitive sensation contains the whole riddle concentrated on a single point. In the third place, the riddle meets us anew and undiminished in every developing individual. For to say that the physical inwardness, once it has arisen, is “transmitted,” is not an explanation but merely an admission that the riddle exists. And the idea that the psychical is just a penumbra or shadow of reality, which comes of itself and so to speak gratis, is quite inadmissible from the point of view of strict natural science. There are no longer luxus and lusus naturæ. Reality cannot throw a “shadow.” According to the principles of the conservation of matter and energy, we must be able to show whence it gets the so-called shadow, and with what it compensates for it.
Pre-eminence of Consciousness
But we have already spent too much time over this naïve mode of looking at things, which, though it professes to place things in their true light, in reality distorts them and turns them upside down. As if this world of the external and material, all these bodies and forces, were our first and most direct data, and were not really all derived from, and only discoverable by, consciousness. We have here to do with the ancient view of all philosophy and all reflection in general, although in modern days it has taken its place as a great new discovery even among naturalists themselves, by whom it is extolled and recognised as “the conquest of materialism.” Such exaggerated emphasis tends to conceal the fact that this truth has been regarded as self-evident from very early times.
What is a body, extension, movement, colour, smell and taste? What do I possess of them, or know of them, except through the images, sensations and feelings which they call up in my receptive mind? No single thing wanders into me as itself, or reveals itself to me directly; only through the way in which they affect me, the peculiar changes which they work in me, do things reveal to me their existence and their special character. I have no knowledge of an apple-tree or of an apple, except through the sense perceptions they call up in me. But these sense perceptions, what are they but different peculiar states of my consciousness, peculiar determinations of my mind? I see that the tree stands there, but what is it to see? What is the perception of a colour, of light, of shade, and their changes? Surely only a peculiar change of my mind itself, a particular state of stimulus and awareness brought about in myself. And in the same way I can feel that the apple lies there. But what is the perception of resistance, of hardness, of impenetrability? Nothing more than a feeling, a change in my psychical state, which is unique and cannot be described in terms of anything but itself. Even as regards “attraction and repulsion,” external existence only reveals itself to us through changes in the mind and consciousness, which we then attribute to a cause outside ourselves.
It is well enough known that this simple but incontrovertible fact has often led to the denial of the existence of anything outside of ourselves and our consciousness. But even if we leave this difficult subject alone, it is quite certain that, if the question as to the pre-eminence of consciousness and its relation to external things is to be asked at all, it should be formulated as follows, and not conversely: “How can I, starting from the directly given reality and certainty of consciousness and its states, arrive at the certainty and reality of external things, substances, forces, physics and chemistry?”
|Written By Dr. Rudolf Otto|
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