Monthly Archives: January 2019

Becoming Conscious: Shabbat Bo 5779

How do you explain consciousness? The inner sense that each of has of being alive, of making decisions, of directing our bodies, of remembering, of feeling, of knowing—where does all of this come from? Why does it ebb at times of sleep, and return when we awaken? It is horrifying to imagine being alive and yet permanently unconscious. Self-awareness is definitive of human experience, but what is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean? These are ancient questions, and are central to Jewish thought (see below). Yet until recently they were outside the realm of scientific inquiry since consciousness seems subjective and impervious to measurement. Neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists have lately focused their attention on the nature of consciousness. We know quite a bit about how brains work, we can explain how inputs and outputs relate, we can even point to regions of the brain that are associated with different conscious states (such as fear and anger with the amygdala). But what about consciousness itself—what is it?

Philosopher David Chalmers discusses this subject in a TED talk, noting that consciousness may be our defining human quality, and yet we do not have appropriate ways to define it. He proposes some “crazy ideas,” such as that consciousness is a fundamental feature of existence, just like mass or energy. More controversially, he relates the idea of Giulio Tononi that consciousness may be a universal feature of all existence, including inanimate particles such as photons. The more complex the intellect, the more it can integrate information, the greater the consciousness. Tononi uses the letter Phi to symbolize this measure of consciousness. The radical concept is that while humans might have high levels of Phi, there is no aspect of the universe that is devoid of consciousness. Even inanimate objects may integrate information and thus be identified as conscious.

I can’t vouch for the neuroscience, but the idea that consciousness suffuses all existence is familiar to religion, certainly to Judaism. In Tikkunei HaZohar we encounter the memorable expression, leit atar panui minei, “no place is empty of [God].” A mystical reading of “Ashrei” [Psalm 145] from Maharam Shik understands the unbound grandeur of God (ולגדולתו אין חקר) as a reference to consciousness (ידיעה)—it suffuses the universe. God’s greatest gift is the sharing of consciousness. Think of experiences of understanding—moments when an idea took hold in our mind or where you helped another person, young or old, to grasp a concept—that is a moment of joy. At such moments we feel more alive, which is to say, more conscious, since our minds have connected to other minds, and perhaps to the universal mind that we identify with God. Continue reading