The Possibility of Transcendence
In the previous parts, I have tried to establish the idea that consciousness is nothing more than one of two moments (the other being the body) within the unity that is the living construct. I did this by suggesting that consciousness is the phenomenon of the living construct, while the body then is the supporting structure of the phenomenon itself. However, there is one more thing which we need to establish in order to prove that consciousness is indeed the phenomenon of the living body. We have to prove that the phenomenon is not limited to the present instant, and therefore is capable of reaching out into the future in temporality, reaching out from within itself into the outside world, or at least exercise a distancing from the world in order for there to be the world as it is. In short, we need to establish the transcendence of the phenomenon.
Why is it essential that we establish the transcendence of the phenomenon? While it is true that we have tried to achieve an ontological differentiation between the phenomenon and the material world in abstraction by giving the phenomenon a different rationality from that of the material world, our explanation is still incomplete. After all, one might mistake our description for just another species of psycho-physical parallelism and dissolve the phenomenon into different psychological states. Doing so will render the activity of the phenomenon as we have conceived it to be impossible, and thus, it is imperative that we tie the loose ends with the conception of transcendence.
Before we continue, it is important to clarify first on what we mean by “transcendence”. Transcendence here simply means “the ability of consciousness to reach out from within itself”. Why is it important for consciousness to have this capacity? There are two reasons why. First, it is because the conception of transcendence is the direct result of our ontological concept of consciousness. We have discussed earlier that consciousness is a nothingness that is in a relation to being-in-itself (Sartre, 1992). Because it is a nothingness in the face of being, consciousness and the world will not be in an external relation to each other. Instead, consciousness is internally related to being-in-itself in the sense that it defines itself as a negation of the world. If being-for-itself is not a nothingness, then either consciousness will be a dead consciousness that can only be in an external relation with the world (just like a relationship between an inkwell and a table), or, in the case of being-for-itself’s presence-to-the-world, it will not be a presence-to, (which implies a separation), but instead an identity, since both consciousness and the world will belong to the same thing. In the end, there will be no relation between the world and consciousness, and there will be no awareness of what is missing, of what “ought-to-be”.
The second reason is our immediate experience as a consciousness that is in the world. While it is true that consciousness is contingent in the sense that it is thrown into the world without any justification, it is not contingent in the sense that it is not its own foundation, and it is not meant to be anything (Sartre, 1992). Compare our consciousness to a table. A table is; in itself, it is without any lack, any necessity. A table is contingent, it is enough in itself. Just like the impersonal world which it is a part of, a table is what it is. However, our experience shows that our human life is never limited to the “what is”, insofar as we are alive and are in control of some (if not all) of our cognitive faculties. We can never be anything, in the sense that a table is a table (Sartre, 1992). There can be no coward and no hero. There can be only people trying to be heroes and choosing to play the coward. This lack of being is something that we experience every day. Take, for example, the experience of thirst. There is no thirst-in-itself. If there is, then it cannot be a part of consciousness, for consciousness is a fleeting lucidity. A thirst-in-itself will be an object, an opaqueness that blocks out itself within consciousness. A thirst-in-itself ceases to be consciousness and can only be treated as an object in the world. It becomes an object-thirst, just like an object-table. Moreover, as an object-thirst, it is a full positivity, such as “the thickening of the blood”, or “a disturbance in the equilibrium”. In short, just like “the table is to the left of the door”, it will just be another fact in the world, a fact that, being entirely contingent, will not necessitate, or even call for, any change in itself. It is a thirst-in-itself. It will be a fact and lose all relations with anything outside itself. Therefore, for thirst to be identifiable as the experience of thirst, it should be treated as a consciousness-as-thirst, that is, as consciousness itself. Only then can the experience of thirst be treated as a “negative” phenomenon (as a lack of water, and the need to find water soon), a “lack” of plenitude. Only then can the experience of thirst point to satiation as something beyond itself.
Thus, how are we to explain transcendence in terms of the conception laid out earlier? First of all, we have to realise the phenomenon is nothing, as we have discussed earlier. Its essence, i.e., its facticity, the being which allows us to say that there is something, lies elsewhere. It does not belong to the phenomenon itself. On the contrary, it belongs to the materiality which supports the phenomenon. It is the reason why the phenomenon itself is fleeting. It has no rigid structure, and it has no “substance” of its own. It is a revelation that points to something other than itself. If we are to damage the underlying facticity which supports it, the phenomenon will change its shape. If we are to take its support away (like if we take the canvas away from the painting), the phenomenon itself ceases to exist. Its structure is such only if the underlying material underneath lends it one that is so.
This emptiness of being means that the phenomenon will therefore not be limited in a relation of exteriority with the world. The phenomenon itself is not a “thing” which is already full of itself. The phenomenon depends on the world for what it is and its “contents”. This condition allows the phenomenon to reach out to being-in-itself and therefore be in an internal relation of being with being-in-itself. Thus, we can see that psycho-physiological parallelism is only half right. Psycho-physiological parallelism is correct in that we cannot disregard the activity of our brain when we are attempting to shed some light on what consciousness is (for our conscious activity is indeed, to an extent, dependent on the functions of the brain), but then it goes to the other extreme by treating the psychological as different “states” that is akin to objects, thereby destroying the lucidity of the consciousness on which it is supposedly base. Only by realising that the phenomenon is without being can we explain the reason (1) why consciousness is experienced as a lucid and united flow of experiences instead of separate instances, (2) why knowledge contents can be regarded as a fair representation of the outside world, and finally, (3) why there can be an experience of time.
Complex Mental Activities
However, while laying the foundation of transcendence is one thing, explaining our everyday activities is another thing entirely. Our everyday activities involve far more complex faculties than simply “knowing what is out there”. For example, we are yet to explain the phenomenon of “thirst” which we discussed earlier. After all, is it not possible that the experience of thirst dissolves into just another fact, with the phenomenon itself being utterly powerless in the face of the positive state of thirst? How can the phenomenon of thirst call for its satiation? And why can we not explain the “calling for satiation” of thirst to be the result of a simple program in the brain? Is it not perfectly conceivable that the process is not at all dissimilar from what we have in our computers, that if condition X is fulfilled, then execute Y? Yet, we will not call our computers in any way “in a phenomenal relation with itself”, let alone call it “sentient”, will we?
First of all, we have to remember that it is true that our experience of things is supported by inert positivities underneath the phenomenon. Therefore, to say that thirst depends on positive facts (the thickening of the blood, etc.) is not entirely mistaken. It is thirst, for it is what thirst is, the lack of water. However, to say that it is all that thirst is would be a mistake, for it would disregard the fact that it is a conscious experience as a living construct. To limit ourselves in the inert would be to lose sight of what makes us alive in the first place. It has to be remembered that within our conscious experience, thirst as a conscious experience cannot be a thirst-in-itself. If thirst is thought of as a being-in-itself, then thirst itself would immediately be ejected out of consciousness, and the treatment it receives would be just like any other object in the world. Therefore, the experience of thirst cannot be a thirst-in-itself. To be more precise, the experience of thirst as a conscious experience cannot be limited to the inert, for it will then lose its full definition of thirst. For a thirst to be “a thirst”, it has to be experienced within our conscious experience. Earlier, we have discussed how consciousness is a phenomenon that is in a recursive relation with itself. And thus, thirst is defined as such only within this framework of phenomenal experiences. The positive state of affair that is thirst is not defined in positivity, but in terms of how it appears within the framework of appearances, that is, as its meaning in terms of how it is defined within the series of meanings. In itself, thirst is nothing. There is no “singular conscious state of thirst”. It is never the mere positive state (such as the thickening of the blood, etc.) that is defined as thirst, but instead, it is the meaning of the phenomenon of the positive state that is defined as thirst. This is why thirst—as a phenomenon—can call forth for its satiation. It is because its meaning is defined exactly in terms of this satiation within the framework of all other experiences. But then, even if satiation is achieved, this does not mean that satiation itself will then be a psychological state, a so-called “final fulfillment” of thirst. As it is always fleeting, the being of the phenomenon means that even this satiation is defined in terms of any other experience (just like an inkblot is never defined strictly by its neighbor, but instead, by the picture as a whole). And thus, it too will pass, and the next string of experience will come to replace it.
From this, we can see that the positive state, while it remains to be something that helps to support the experience of thirst (if our brain is somehow damaged, it might be possible that we might lose the sensation of thirst, or hunger), is never that which comes into play and defines thirst in its entirety. The phenomenon has its own efficacy which the inert does not have. The phenomenon is supported by the inert, only for the phenomenon to then engulf the inert and give it a new definition.
And thus, we are well equipped to answer the next question: is the phenomenon just an attachment to the body that is without any power whatsoever to influence the body? The question, at first glance, might be a justified one. After all, if thirst is just how it appears in the overall framework of phenomena, it is then perfectly conceivable that the decision making is done by the inert structure (i.e. certain brain parts) while the phenomenon is then left to helplessly “watch” the process. Better yet, perhaps the act of deciding itself might just be an illusion, since, if consciousness is a phenomenon, then what is happening in the phenomenal realm might actually just be the result of material determinism hiding beneath the seen phenomenon, accompanied with the illusion of free will. But these two ideas are based on the idea that the phenomenon can be separated from the body, a misconception that has eluded our eyes for centuries. This misconception has been the basis for the mind-body distinction. As we have seen, once the mind and the body are separated and treated as two distinct objects, it is impossible to put them back together again. We must return to our everyday experience that tells us that the phenomenon and the body are just two moments belonging to a single unity, the living construct. The act of willing is done insofar as the process of deciding involves the nothingness of a phenomenal relation as the appearance of the positivity underneath it. In other words, it is never the positivity of thirst itself that leads a person to grab a drink. Instead, it is thirst as a phenomenon that prompts a person to grab a drink, insofar as thirst is a meaningful experience within the framework of phenomenal experiences. To continue, the act of deciding, or even any other conscious actions, do not happen and are not defined strictly on the positive states of the inert (i.e., the states of our brain).On the contrary, they happen and are defined based on the nihilation that is our consciousness, insofar as it nihilates positivity and gives a new dressing and meaning to the materiality which supports it. In short, what is seen forms the reason for a decision, not the positive states of affairs, and the act of deciding itself is significant as such only if it is defined as a phenomenal experience within the framework of conscious experiences. It is these strings of phenomenal relationships which dissolve into our consciousness that allows us to call a conscious decision as one. Without it, there would be no difference between a decision and blind convulsions thrusting into the dark. Such is the infrastructure of our cognition that it is made possible both by the material structure and the phenomenal relations within it.
We have finally solved the question of transcendence, and with it, give some plausible accounts on what makes actions made by a conscious living being different from movements created by mere rudimentary machines. However, before we finally finish this essay (and the series), there is one final question which we have to address, a question that comes from the logical implication of our ideas: can a machine be sentient?
The answer to that question, for me, would be yes, it is possible for machines to be sentient, assuming their construction is complicated enough. After all, even humans are essentially made out of seemingly uninteresting building blocks, such as carbons and other organic compounds. To exclude machines from the possibility that is granted gratuitously to humans appears to be unjustified.
It goes without saying that I do not think that just all machines could be sentient. Perhaps if we are able to construct a machine that is comparable in complexity to that of a dolphin, a dog, or even to that of humans, and also if it is capable of moving and acting with a certain complexity, then I would like to think that perhaps that machine is just another lifeform like all of us. An artificial one, to be sure, but still one that warrants equal treatments to its organic counterpart.
Some philosophers have given some objections to the possibility of a sentient machine. However, as far as I could see, such objections usually depend too much on a stringent definition of the word “sentience”, definitions that are at times even too strict to be applied to human lives. Following Wittgenstein, I believe that for such debates to be fruitful, it might be beneficial to return to the application of the words themselves, and to call machines that can act in ways which are comparable in complexity to that of a human being as “sentient”.
Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington: Washington