This is the greatest miracle we know of.
If this sounds strange, please read on. I picked pain for my example rather than sound or sight or blueness or impatience or orgasm or affection or a billion other phenomena which are equally miraculous only because English happens to have a peculiar word, ‘hurt’, which allows me to easily point out the miracle. I’ll explain later why the word is odd but for now, let me explain the main idea.
To appreciate how miraculous this is, think for a moment how you would construct a machine that can feel pain. Nobody on earth has the slightest idea how to do this. Not even the smartest engineers and scientists at the world’s greatest universities know where to begin. This means that pain depends on some aspect of the universe of which we are utterly ignorant.
The fact that pain hurts is miraculous.
In the same way, the fact that we hear the sound of an insect is miraculous.
In the same way, the fact that we understand “2 + 2 = 4” is miraculous.
In the same way, the fact that we taste food is miraculous.
It is consciousness that enables pain to be felt, sounds to be heard, thoughts to be understood, and food to be tasted.
It would be helpful if we had a verb that has the general meaning of all those sorts of actions. It could be used to say that we feel/know/understand/perceive/sense any kind of phenomenon. English has no such word. Instead we must say “I hear” for sounds, “I understand” for ideas, “I want” for desires, and so forth. In this article I’m going to assign that general meaning to the word ‘know’. Therefore when I say “I know a sound” it means I hear it, when I say “I know pain” it means “pain hurts me,” when I say “I know fear” it means I’m afraid,” and so forth.
Knowing (as I use the word here) is what consciousness does.
Consciousness is the power or faculty of knowing (as I use the word here).
This is what the ancient Indian rishis meant when one of them wrote in the Kena Upanishad:
It is the Ear of the ear, the Mind of the mind, the Speech of the speech, the Breathing of the breathing, the Sight of the sight. (I, 2)
The upanishad goes on to say that this Knower behind the knowing is Brahman. As you probably know, in some Indian traditions our experience of the Knower is called jñana which is a cognate of ‘know.’ That is to say, both jñana and ‘know’ are derived forms of the same ancient Proto-Indo-European word *ĝneh3 which, like the two younger words, meant ‘know’. To put that still another way, when we say the word ‘know’, we are saying an approximately 5500-year-old word with a funny modern pronunciation. (For all we know, it could be much older.) When the ancient rishis said jñana they were doing the same thing except their funny pronunciation was only about 2000 years old. Of course the meaning of the word changed a bit too, and I’m ignoring parts of speech, and *ĝneh3 is a reconstruction, but I’m oversimplifying to be amusing.
By the way, this explains why ‘know’ has a K in it. That letter is a variation of the consonant that is represented as ĝ in Proto-Indo-European and j in Sanskrit. The K was still pronounced in English as recently as the late 1600s, and in some regional dialects it survived until the 20th century.*
That’s why I chose the word ‘know’ when I defined a special term for this article. I was making the same choice as the ancient Indian rishis. We all picked the word *ĝneh3 but they pronounced it in Sanskrit (jñana) and I pronounced it in English (‘know’).
I said a moment ago that pain depends on an aspect of the universe of which we are utterly ignorant. That aspect is not consciousness. We’re not ignorant of consciousness. We know consciousness intimately because we are consciousness. The aspect of which we know nothing is how to connect consciousness to a human body or to a machine.
The ancient Indians thought about these issues more than people do today, and they asserted or theorized that consciousness connects to the body in a structure that they called a granthi which means ‘knot’.
It is sometimes said that one of these knots causes bondage by creating the illusion that the mind is conscious. Dissolution of the knot is liberation.
*See Otto Jespersen, Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, Part I, section 12.71.
Photo from a YouTube video by The Slo Mo Guys.