One of things that’s hard about these questions of consciousness is that we are ostensibly very close to the evidence. We are conscious. We are having the experience of consciousness. Why should we listen to anybody else? What could they tell us that we don’t already know by virtue of our very experience?
If I am eating a peanut butter sandwich, and somebody says “peanut butter sandwiches taste bad,” I am probably going to ignore them. Since I have all the evidence I need, why listen to anybody else?
Say that somebody comes along and says, “peanut butter sandwiches are bad for you because they have too many carbohydrates.” That’s different. Do I actually know how many carbs are in two slices of bread and some peanut butter? If I don’t, can I get with relative ease?
In this case, I am probably still going to ignore the other opinion. It will take a little time and effort, but I can get the evidence myself.
But that still leaves the question of whether those carbs are good for me. That’s trickier yet. I’m probably going to need to read up on that. What’s the latest research on carbs? What other issues are entailed? What is my confidence level in the material and my understanding of it?
If the person telling me peanut butter sandwiches aren’t healthy is a licensed nutritionist, I might skip the research and trust them. If they’re a professional clown, then maybe not.
But hopefully, if I don’t know the answer to the question, then I will admit that and take steps to either learn the answer or find an expert I trust to give me the answer.
Generally, evidence trumps experts. Say I hire a woodcutter to help me cut firewood. She says “those six maple trees will produce twelve cords of wood.” We cut them down, split and stack them and end up with . . . nine cords. In this case, the evidence has rendered the expert’s opinion null. I don’t need it – I’ve got the evidence right here.
All of this nudges us in the direction of trusting ourselves when it comes to consciousness. We can’t be in greater proximity to the evidence!
Trusting ourselves is fine so far as it goes. The question is how far it goes.
Say a doctor shows me an MRI of my brain and says, “that looks like a tumor. We’ll need to do some more tests.” I tell her, “actually I feel fine. Haven’t had a headache in weeks. More tests aren’t necessary.”
In that case, I should trust the expert more and my experience less.
Between knowing that this peanut butter sandwich tastes awesome and what’s going on with our brain cells lies a vast spectrum. Somewhere along it we have to say: “I don’t have all the evidence” and then decide how to handle our ignorance. If we really need the evidence to function than we need to either a) get it ourselves or b) find a trustworthy expert or, perhaps ideally, c) some reasonable combination thereof.
The key is to recognize those instances when rather than rely on our own data we should update with new or revised data.
We are inclined to say – or believe others when they say – “consciousness is infinite and eternal” because that’s how it feels to us upon inquiry. But what if we’re wrong? What if “infinite and eternal” is just how it feels – or seems – when observed by a human being?
Most of us, when asked if we are below average, average, or above average, respond that we’re “above average.” But this is mathematically impossible! Some of us must be wrong.
We overestimate and misunderstand all the time. Why should our understanding of consciousness be any different?