What is consciousness? By Félix de Azúa

This post is also available in: Spanish

In Spanish, by consciousness one can mean two different things. Moral awareness is simply morals. In that case, someone may use the word “consciousness” when not paying attention, but morals are morals and it can be called moral awareness, in the sense that you’re aware of your morals. But by consciousness I simply understand the knowledge of death. I would call consciousness strictly that possibility that a point, a tiny part of the Cosmos, has, of being aware of its own disappearance, which it calls death and which does not mean annihilation. A cat dies and its hair becomes keratin, a great part of its body is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and it disappears. It’s annihilated. Where there’s consciousness, a really strange idea appears: the belief that death does not mean annihilation. Thus, from the age of cavemen, the corpse is preserved. The dead person is kept. They’re buried. Since there’s an awareness of death, from that moment on there’s also an awareness of immortality. Unfortunately one thing leads to the other, it’s impossible for it no to. From that comes this construction we talked about before, the construction of meaning. But it’s true that only humans are aware of death. There’s nothing else in the Universe which has it. So what is it? After 30 years reading Philosophy, I don’t know. I think nobody does. The most daring philosophers say that we don’t need to know. For example, a substantial part of the English school, Wittgenstein’s intellectual progeny, points out the problem doesn’t lie in the what but in the how, in the where. Let’s work on linguistic questions, but what consciousness is is not a philosophical question, it belongs to a different level and thus we should not raise it. That question can never be scientific. And it’s possible that it is this question precisely the one that determines us as the weird species we are, and which simultaneously has taken us where it has, that is, than in a certain way everything we’ve done may be the effect of that question. And then Freud may appear and say, “Look, I can explain it to you: this is the product of…” and then he gives you a technical schema, made of notions, which are supposedly the builders of consciousness. Of course, that’s a seductive idea, but in the end it still is a bunch of words which back each other up based on their credibility, that is, their capacity, and you can take them or leave them. There isn’t much difference with Hegelian propositions, which are the same linguistic scaffolding which lead straight to immortality. What Hegel finally promises is immortality. Not exactly immortality, but the overcoming of the idea of death. Freud, in his way, does more or less the same. Summarizing: on one hand I would call consciousness strictly that problem, the problem of the invention of death and immortality and all the consequences that brings with it.

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