We all do things we can't explain. Whether it's just to pass the time or to fill a "void," everyone acts on certain behavioral impulses that may satisfy them but, nonetheless, might not make much sense to others, or even themselves. In this regard, I feel that questioning one's own eccentricities from time to time yields constructive introspection that can arouse personal discovery and encourage positive self-expression. I've recently revisited a curious pastime of my own that I used as a diversion from schoolwork when I was younger. When reading, if I came across a word I hadn't seen before, I would naturally go grab a dictionary. If I was especially bored with the context surrounding that word, I was never too hasty to get back to reading. Occasionally, I would pick another word from the definition itself and look up that word. I would proceed to look up a new word from each subsequent definition and repeat the process to my heart's desire. I had no particular reason for doing this other than distracting myself from the task at hand; however, after reflecting on these experiences I've found them surprisingly meaningful.
What's interesting to me is the way I chose to play this dictionary game. I quickly saw that there are certain key concepts without which a word's definition would be meaningless. For example, a wombat is a marsupial, which is a nonplacental mammal classified as a vertebrate, a subphylum of chordate animals, which are all multicellular organisms
enjoying the great game of life, et cetera. I would follow this path, continuing the regression, until I came to a concept too fundamental to be explained without self-reference, at which point I would consider myself a winner and get back to my homework.
The activity seemed innocent enough many years ago but has ever since replayed itself in my mind and allowed me to realize an intuitive aspect about language: All concepts are characteristic of being functions of another set of concepts. Basically, almost anything for which we have a word can be described in more fundamental terms. Upon understanding and appreciating this conceptual hierarchy, I set out once more to play the dictionary game with the one concept that has most intrigued me of late: consciousness. However, the problem with consciousness is that it simply defies definition. People have tried defining it by reducing it to a set of attributes of mind, such as perception, subjectivity, self-awareness, and emotion, but soon realized that these are emergent properties of consciousness that don't necessarily tell us what it is. We could continue meshing traits together all day long and never get anywhere because, while they are indeed aspects of consciousness, they do not create it. Can playing this dictionary game with consciousness actually tell us anything about it? I believe it can. By doing so, I've managed to rationalize consciousness through an interesting bit of fuzzy logic. It is by no means a scientific explanation of why consciousness exists; nevertheless, I feel that I've gained something personally meaningful from the exercise that will stay with me for many years to come.
If you look up consciousness at Dictionary.com, you'll find it's defined as "the state of being conscious; awareness of one's own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc." At first glance, it was difficult for me to choose a word from which to branch off and begin the game. As indicated by "et cetera," this definition is just another list of traits of consciousness that could go on forever, so it was difficult to choose just one. But, when I remembered that the "goal" was to arrive at a self-referential concept, the answer became clear: existence. Sure enough, existence is inescapably self-referential and sits at the top of the hierarchy of conceptualization, where it reigns eternal. Existence is all that exists, encompassing all concepts, including both consciousness and itself. One can merely say, "Existence is" to sufficiently get the point across. There aren't a whole lot of words that can hold their own in a two-word sentence. "I am" comes to mind. Ren Descartes said it best when he summarized conscious experience with his famous maxim "I think, therefore I am."
It's incredible to me that a concept can still hold meaning for anyone while simultaneously requiring nothing more than reference to itself to be understood.
"What is existence?"
"Existence is everything that exists."
"Well, that makes perfect sense!"
In fact, it does make perfect sense. However, what doesn't make any sense is how we know that it makes sense. How are we able to conceptualize something that is seemingly infinite and claim to understand it? For that matter, when dealing with consciousness, how do we even know that everyone is referring to the same concept when there seems to be no way to define it? The answer I've discovered had been within me all along, in a manner of speaking.
If I were to define it without listing any traits, I would say consciousness is that which autonomously modulates computational effort towards obtaining, retaining, or maximizing specific parameters. What's interesting about this broad perspective is that it affords for much more than just life to be said to exhibit consciousness. Even the universe as a whole fits this definition. So, what exactly is it maximizing through computation? The universe, through its computational effort in the form of evolution, is autonomously maximizing consciousness. We can look back through time to see the singularity of existence where it all began. Existence has gradually awoken through time and now manifests its consciousness through beings with the ability to conceptualize existence itself. We can understand the concept of existence because we are existence. Existence manifests within us through consciousness and consciousness is manifested through existence. It's as if the universe itself said, "I think, therefore I am."
So, what is consciousness? Consciousness is a black hole of the mind that envelops all linguistic endeavors put forth to pinpoint it, shrouding a singularity of "unknowledge." In this sense, I believe there is some degree of faith in consciousness. Does lacking the means to prove one's consciousness not constitute a belief in, rather than knowledge of, its existence? Is this singularity, this quantum dot of consciousness, the "void" we try to fill in our lives? Existence is necessary for consciousness and consciousness is necessary for existence to maximize itself. The dictionary won't tell you this, but I believe consciousness is synonymous with existence. Consciousness is existence and, through us, existence is conscious. What better way to fill our quantum void of consciousness than with existence?