Provisional definitions of ‘know’ and ‘consciousness’

To explain things clearly, fundamental words must be carefully defined.

I’m toying with the idea of writing a book about enlightenment. To help sort out my ideas, from time to time I may write chunks of that potential book on this blog. One of the ways we can clarify ideas is by choosing technical terms and defining them carefully.

The word “know”

I’ll give “know” a special meaning so I can piggyback my definition of “consciousness” on top of it. I’ll use “know” as a general term that refers to any type of perception or awareness of any kind of phenomenon whatsoever. That sounds confusing but actually it’s a simple idea.

In English we say I heard a sound, I smelled an odor, I understood an idea, I felt pain, I remembered a memory, and so forth. All those verbs — heard, smelled, understood, felt, remembered — have something in common. We can say that each one describes a kind of knowing: a knowing of a sound, a knowing of an odor, a knowing of an idea, a knowing of a pain, a knowing of a memory. I propose to use the word “know” in that general way.

To help make this clear, here’s an analogy: animal is to tiger, dolphin, bee, lizard, elephant, etc. as know is to hear, smell, understand, feel, etc.

I hope this idea is clear. If we already had a word like this in English, the idea would seem very simple and natural, something little children could understand. But since we don’t have a word like this, it’s a little hard to explain.

The word “consciousness”

I’ll define “consciousness” as the ability to know, with “know” defined as described above.

By using “consciousness” in this way, I’m not only creating a definition but also suggesting the hypothesis that such a general ability exists, i.e., that there is a single faculty or power than does those various things. It might be the case, instead, that there are multiple consciousnesses each of which perceives a different category of phenomena. For most people, subjective experience is so chaotic and fragmented that they cannot settle this question through observation. Perhaps we can say that one of the outcomes of enlightenment is that we become able to settle this question by observation.

4 thoughts to “Provisional definitions of ‘know’ and ‘consciousness’”

  1. Hey Freddie. Riccardo here.
    In philosophy there is the idea of intentionality which seems to account for your proposed definition of knowing: it’s basically any act of consciousness which stay is in relationship to anything other than consciousness itself. It’s also the defining and integral property of any consciousness to do so (at least in western philosophy, consciousness is held to only exist when in relationship to something other than itself).
    Still in philosophy consciousness is thus defined as the great, unknowable negative which is on the other pole to objects and can only know itself sincerely as not-them.
    Phenomenologically though, I think it’s interesting that while we can voluntarily exert our function to know, thus “knowing” knowing though using it, can we really do anything with consciousness as a faculty? We can neither “use it” actively nor know it directly can we? (In the western sense).
    Therefore, isn’t “knowing” (as the only thing we can really have control upon) as a function the only thing we can actually do something with? (Like using attention in different ways)
    This is just my 2 cents, it’s an open comment.

    1. Hi again. I was trying to make a definition of consciousness that average people can understand. A definition in terms of experience that is familiar to them. They know only knowledge-of-objects. They haven’t yet noticed knowledge-without-an-object (i.e., pure consciousness). That’s the only reason I refered exclusively to knowledge-of-objects. I didn’t intend (no pun intended) to imply that pure consciousness does not exist. I agree, it exists. But your reading of my definition is natural — if I define consciousness in terms of objects, the reader will of course assume that consciousness requires objects — so I have to find another way to say this.

      In philosophy there is the idea of intentionality which seems to account for your proposed definition of knowing…

      I’m going to read Brentano’s 1874 book today in which he introduced this idea. Maybe I’ll reply at more length after I read it. I’ll say now that I didn’t mean to imply intentionality. I think we need to distinguish mind and consciousness, and I would say that it’s mainly mind not consciousness that is intentional. In general I think Western philosophers fail to distinguish those two things.

      We can neither “use it” actively nor know it directly can we?

      I don’t think we can do anything to consciousness but I think the mind makes use of consciousness, something like plants make use of sunlight. I think consciousness is known directly but whether “we” know it directly, I’m not sure how to answer that.

      What I’m saying here is basically Advaita Vedanta (mind is active, consciousness is the passive knower, mind is to consciousness as waves are to the ocean, etc.) but I’m not satisfied with Advaita Vedanta as a theory of consciousness and mind. I think this theory is too simplistic, and one of the things I would like to do before I die is help create a better explanation.

      Therefore, isn’t “knowing” (as the only thing we can really have control upon) as a function the only thing we can actually do something with? (Like using attention in different ways)

      I’m not sure how to answer this but maybe the answer is, “We have only a little control over knowing, and the name we give to that control is ‘attention’.”

      Years ago I noticed two empirical facts that made enormous impressions on me. The first was that when I think, I lose consciousness. (Today that’s not always true, but I’ll write these facts in the present tense to make the description more clear.) The second was that because I lose consciousness when I think, whenever I understand a thought, I am actually understanding it in retrospect, after the thinking finishes, by shifting to a different state and examining the thought retrospectively. In other words, the creation of thought and the understanding of thought are separate activities, and the second takes place in a more conscious state.

  2. Hey Freddie, sorry for the late reply but I didn’t get notified of your follow-up comment.
    I referred to Western philosophy only in the hope we can find some definition to help with the task at hand of defining the matters of consciousness. I don’t mean to sound academic or make a lecture, and forgive if sometimes I may be long-winded.
    I agree that western philosophy does not conceive of a pure consciousness, even though I suspect many thinkers did come close to it (especially Jean Paul Sartre in “being and nothingness” where he speaks of a “pre-reflective consciousness”). I believe that Western philosophy did a good job to describe the forms of mind, therefore in the realm of subject-object consciousness. Since they had no comparison to make with a “object-free consciousness”, swapping the terms mind and consciousness became easier.
    From now on I will use the terms of consciousness with the meaning you defined above, as opposed to mind.
    I think what you are trying to do is important, since I think that there is a global lack of precise definition of the matters of consciousness which can be actually grasped by western-thought (or “unawakened” thought in general). The task with consciousness is of extreme difficulty because, as you said, humans seem to know only subject-object consciousness, and therefore are driven to try to grasp at objects, especially the most subtle ones, when trying to find consciousness. I even think that the term “objectless consciousness”, as much as it is descriptive of pure consciousness, still contains the idea of a dual relationships, hence the attempt to “empty the mind” or so on. Even “pure” consciousness, while it seems to point at a consciousness purified of anything else, still somehow fails.
    For the same reason, I did “criticize” the idea of consciousness as a faculty of knowing because I think that a faculty is not really a direct experience but rather an abstraction, at least for me. Like, we can say that a magnetic fields exists, but in truth we can only experience some bodies attracting or repulsing each other, from which we can calculate the strength of an abstract magnetic field, which we can compare to other fields, which are still only experience as attraction/repulsion phenomena. I feel that the problem of the concept of “capacity to know” is that is not only not impossible to experience directly, but it also creates some sort of subtle object to be grasped.
    I suggested the idea of function, because, at the end of the day, as much as consciousness is a passive knowing, still the seeker must use his attention differently to get there, and so the focus on “action” so to say seems fundamental.
    I think what’d be interesting would be a precise definition of the means to get there (so that I know if I am using the mind or attention) and of what’s the experience of recognition, so that it can be separated from the confounding effect of mind objects, even when it takes place correctly.
    In any case, I think that the problem is that language itself is in the subject-object realm, and that probably a clear definition of consciousness can only be useful for someone who already had already a somehow clear experience of it, as to confirm his experience of push him over the edge of it. For the many who do intuit “something else” beyond experience, it’s harder. I personally think (and saw in my experience) that many failed attempts of finding “it” in the realm of mind were needed before I realized they were futile, and so what would maybe useful would be a clarification of this, so to speed this up. Unfortunately too many “gurus” do not spend enough time on this, I think, or take it for granted. Moreover, mind is very seductive, and elusive, in the sense that I found that at first anything else than mind is very dull and boring compared to it, and also the subtle objects of mind become increasingly more refined and easier to confound with consciousness, when the grossest ones are transcended. I think a map of the “path” to get there, including its obstacles, could be very useful.
    Ah, last. I remember your articles of Vasanas and I think it hits home here. I personally found that when many psychological layers are solved, there emerges more calm to explore this matters, which was impossible when the psyche kept pulling me into all these other directions.

    This is again only my 2 cents.

    Riccardo

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