To continue the story of the difficulty of conceptualizing consciousness, we may add a self-reflexive paradox that Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, introduces.
Consciousness is a curious topic to consider, because it at once places us in the realm of self-reflexiveness. It is the mind thinking about the mind, which is very much akin to the blind leading the blind. I am at once reminded of the biologist Lyall Watson's self-reflexive paradox that "if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." (1) It is a basic tenet of systems theory that you cannot completely understand a system from within. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and you have to step outside of the system to see that whole. (2)
(1.) I originally came across this quote in Patrick Hughes, More on Oxymoron. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983). 145. The quote was only attributed to "a philosophically minded biologist." but a quick internet search revealed that Lyall Watson was the biologist's name, although I was unable to find a specific bibliographic citation for his quote.
(2.) See, for example, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, G. Braziller, 1969; Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1996; and Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. (New York: Anchor Books, 1996).
We also talked about confabulations. They are not to be taken as a proof that we're evil or constant liars. Rather they just reflect the fact that our narrative is a product of our consciousness that is almost a closed system or that we are 'structually coupled with the world.'
The nervous system is close to being a closed system, and it requires that closure in order to allow a worldview and a consciousness to form. If it were any more open, too much chaos would come in, and consciousness would not be able to organize itself. By the same token, the nervous system is not and could not be an entirely closed system. It needs that limited amount of chaos to allow for growth and increasing complexity. And while our sense of being in direct contact with the outside world is a false consciousness, it is still true that our perceptions are a response to outside stimuli, a reflection of the world. Even if they are just shadows on the cave wall, they are directly and immediately connected to what they represent: objective reality. As complexity theorists Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela put it, we are structurally coupled with the world. (28)
(28.)The two Chilean biologists provide an accessible introduction to their perspective in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (revised ed., translated by Robert Paolucci). Boston: Shambhala, 1992).
Systems theory may also explain that our narratives are cultural products and possibly the consciousness expressed by an individual narrator is part of the consciousness of the community.
A basic point in systems theory is that systems are in a sense self-reflexive. Systems can exist within larger systems and those systems within systems that are larger still. It follows that the individual consciousness, which can be understood as a system of thoughts or ecology of mind, can also be seen as an interdependent part of a larger system, a group or collective consciousness if you will. This is not necessarily a spiritual concept, as collective consciousness corresponds to some extent with the concept of culture. However this theory of metamind, the idea that we are part of a larger whole, is difficult to accept because we remain inside the system, unable to get out. Moreover, western culture's emphasis on individualism leads us to think of ourselves as alone and unique in the world. But on the biological level, we all share the same basic genetic code. And on the social level, members of the same culture use the same linguistic and symbolic codes. We think with forms of communication that are community property. We think with tools that are not of our own devising. As much as we would like to think otherwise, our thoughts are not ours alone.
I just want to read the works of Niklas Luhmann more carefully.