What Does Consciousness Have to Do with Fiction?


March 28, 2018


We expect fictional characters to be conscious—meaning to have some level of self-awareness—in order that we can understand, believe in, and perhaps identify with their motives. It’s fair to say that the quality of being conscious is the essential human quality, even though we don’t have a very clear idea what it is. We can say that there is something that it is like to be conscious, as opposed, say, to being unconscious. And there is a continuum—from coma to barely conscious to awake to, ultimately, some ideal state of superconsciousness. But we still have no idea what it is.

I brought a book called The Conscious Mind to a recent mountain retreat and was reading it at bedtime. Early on, it offered this definition:

Consciousness: The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of confusing consciousness with self-consciousness—to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.

Got to love that last line. Not so great so far.

As it went on about consciousness and its possible explanation in conjunction with quantum physics, and got even more abstruse as it covered the Wigner’s explanation, the Bohm variation, and the Everett interpretation (whew!), I went cross-eyed and sleepy. At one point, the concept of consciousness as an emergent quality was discussed: a trillion neurons, each potentially connected to ten thousand other neurons, generates a level of complexity out of which something entirely new arises—self-awareness.

The next day, I was sitting in a group listening to a retreat member share. Distracted, I gazed past the tops of the pines at the clear blue sky and my trillion-neuron idea engine generated a vision in which every particle in the universe was like a neuron, somehow connected and firing impulses to countless others, and the entire, massive complexity was generating a single, universal consciousness. It was a fleeting vision, almost feeble in its tenuousness, but still a gift.

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  • A. A. Attanasio on September 13, 2018

    “Nothing worth reading has been written about [consciousness].”

    Not Proust, recording the incense of memory. Not Homer, recalling the warrior’s gaze and the invisible history of home. Not Shakespeare, urging us to “Let be.” Not Rilke, whose angels shoulder our terror. Not you or I, writing what we dream.

    • Earl on September 13, 2018

      Honored to have Mr. Attanasio comment here–his book Radix is the only one I’ve ever read three times (and will probably read again). Very interesting guy. Check out his website.

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