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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/299

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THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

We must begin by accepting the direct evidence of our own consciousness as furnishing the basis. We must further accept the evidence that consciousness exists in other men essentially identical with the consciousness in each of us. The anatomical, physiological and psychological evidence of the identity of the phenomena in different human individuals is, to a scientific mind, absolutely conclusive, even though we continue to admit cheerfully that the epistemologist rightly asserts that no knowledge is absolute, and that the metaphysician rightly claims that ego is the only reality and everything else exists only as ego's idea, because in science as in practical life we assume that our knowledge is real and is objective in source.

For the purpose of the following discussion we must define certain qualities or characteristics of consciousness. The most striking distinction of the processes in living bodies, as compared with those in inanimate bodies, is that the living processes have an object—they are teleological. The distinction is so conspicuous that the biologists can very often say why a given structure exists, or why a given function is performed, but how the structure exists or how the function is performed he can tell very imperfectly, more often not at all. Consciousness is only a particular example, though an excellent one, of this peculiarity of biological knowledge—we do not know what it is, we do not know how it functions, but we do know why it exists. Those who are baffled by the elusiveness of consciousness when we attempt to analyze it will do well to remember that all other vital phenomena are in the last instance equally and similarly elusive.

In order to determine the teleological value of consciousness, we must endeavor to make clear to ourselves what the essential function is which it performs. As I have found no description or statement of that function which satisfied me, I have ventured, perhaps rashly, to draw up the following new description:

The function of consciousness is to dislocate in time the reactions from sensations.

In one sense this may be called a definition of consciousness, but inasmuch as it does not tell what consciousness is, but only what it does, we have not a true definition, but a description of a function. The description itself calls for a brief explanation. We receive constantly numerous sensations, and in response to these we do many things. These doings are, comprehensively speaking, our reactions to our sensations. When the response to a stimulus is obviously direct and immediate we call the response a reflex action, but a very large share of our actions are not reflex but are determined in a far more complicated manner by the intervention of consciousness, which may do one of two things: (1) Stop a reaction, as, for example, when something occurs, calling, as it were, for our attention and we do not give our