Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Nature Of Conciousness

Inner Nature of the Mind Not Revealed by Introspection.


We are not to be too greatly discouraged if, even by introspection, we cannot discover exactly what the mind is. No one knows what electricity is, though nearly everyone uses it in one form or another. We study the dynamo, the motor, and the conductors through which electricity manifests itself. We observe its effects in light, heat, and mechanical power, and so learn the laws which govern its operations. But we are almost as far from understanding its true nature as were the ancients who knew nothing of its uses. The dynamo does not create the electricity, but only furnishes the5 conditions which make it possible for electricity to manifest itself in doing the world's work. Likewise the brain or nervous system does not create the mind, but it furnishes the machine through which the mind works. We may study the nervous system and learn something of the conditions and limitations under which the mind operates, but this is not studying the mind itself. As in the case of electricity, what we know about the mind we must learn through the activities in which it manifests itself—these we can know, for they are in the experience of all. It is, then, only by studying these processes of consciousness that we come to know the laws which govern the mind and its development. What it is that thinks and feels and wills in us is too hard a problem for us here—indeed, has been too hard a problem for the philosophers through the ages. But the thinking and feeling and willing we can watch as they occur, and hence come to know.


Consciousness as a Process or Stream.


In looking in upon the mind we must expect to discover, then, not a thing, but a process. The thing forever eludes us, but the process is always present. Consciousness is like a stream, which, so far as we are concerned with it in a psychological discussion, has its rise at the cradle and its end at the grave. It begins with the babe's first faint gropings after light in his new world as he enters it, and ends with the man's last blind gropings after light in his old world as he leaves it. The stream is very narrow at first, only as wide as the few sensations which come to the babe when it sees the light or hears the sound; it grows wider as the mind develops, and is at last measured by the grand sum total of life's experience.


This mental stream is irresistible. No power outside6 of us can stop it while life lasts. We cannot stop it ourselves. When we try to stop thinking, the stream but changes its direction and flows on. While we wake and while we sleep, while we are unconscious under an anæsthetic, even, some sort of mental process continues. Sometimes the stream flows slowly, and our thoughts lag—we "feel slow"; again the stream flows faster, and we are lively and our thoughts come with a rush; or a fever seizes us and delirium comes on; then the stream runs wildly onward, defying our control, and a mad jargon of thoughts takes the place of our usual orderly array. In different persons, also, the mental stream moves at different rates, some minds being naturally slow-moving and some naturally quick in their operations.


Consciousness resembles a stream also in other particulars. A stream is an unbroken whole from its source to its mouth, and an observer stationed at one point cannot see all of it at once. He sees but the one little section which happens to be passing his station point at the time. The current may look much the same from moment to moment, but the component particles which constitute the stream are constantly changing. So it is with our thought. Its stream is continuous from birth till death, but we cannot see any considerable portion of it at one time. When we turn about quickly and look in upon our minds, we see but the little present moment. That of a few seconds ago is gone and will never return. The thought which occupied us a moment since can no more be recalled, just as it was, than can the particles composing a stream be re-collected and made to pass a given point in its course in precisely the same order and relation to one another as before. This means, then, that we can never have precisely the7 same mental state twice; that the thought of the moment cannot have the same associates that it had the first time; that the thought of this moment will never be ours again; that all we can know of our minds at any one time is the part of the process present in consciousness at that moment.

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