What Is Consciousness? It’s These Five Things, According to William James


The business of shamanism is to bring about altered states of consciousness. But before we can understand the how and the why of altering our consciousness we need to ask this basic question: what is consciousness in the first place?

For the answer (at least one answer with some scientific backing to it) we turn to the psychologist and philosopher William James. William James was alive in the late 1800s, he wrote a massive book called The Principles of Psychology, and he came up with the idea of “the stream of consciousness”, which I think is a pretty accurate way of putting it. He also set out the five defining characteristics of consciousness, and, in so doing, basically laid the foundations for our thinking about consciousness today.

Anyway, he seems like a qualified enough guy to turn to for an answer to our question, so let’s see what he has to say about it:

“The first and foremost concrete fact which every one will affirm to belong to his inner experience is the fact that consciousness of some sort goes on… [Our thinking] goes on.”

Okay, no harm in starting at the absolute very beginning, I suppose. Yes, consciousness is a thing and it’s going on. And it seems to go on of its own self; that is to say, thoughts don’t really need our active participation in order to go on. And yes, this is the other thing, when we talk about consciousness, for the most part we are talking about our thoughts.

Moving on then, let’s get to these five defining characteristics of consciousness and see if they can give us a sense for how it, in James’s words, goes on:

1: “Every thought tends to be part of a personal consciousness.”

What this means is that every thought belongs to a thinker. There aren’t any thoughts that are just “out there” in the world for us to find. They’re not like objects laying around that we pick up and observe. Thoughts are always and only ever inside a person. Consciousness isn’t outside us; it’s in us.

More specifically, it’s in us as individuals. I can only ever know what’s in my own individual consciousness, and I have no way of really knowing what’s in anyone else’s. I can only know my own thoughts, and I can never be certain that another person is thinking the same thing that I am.

So if I want to communicate with you, I have no way of knowing that my original thought is being passed on in its original form. Even though I’m using words, the meanings to which we think we all agree, there’s no way of knowing that you’re interpreting the words in the same way that I intend.

And so, according to William James, all thought is radically isolated. It’s always in an individual person. Every person has their own unique thoughts–theirs alone. The world is filled with billions of thinkers each with their own world of thoughts. And that’s a lot of thoughts.

2: “Within each personal consciousness thoughts are always changing.”

This is where we get the idea of the stream of consciousness. Thoughts are always on the move. Just try holding to a single thought. Try it. You can’t do it. As soon as you try you lock yourself in to a kind of wrestling match. You try to pin down this thought and keep it still, but it always breaks free and runs off; and before you know it or can do anything about it, you’re off thinking different thoughts.

Again, thoughts aren’t like objects that you pick up, have a look at, and put back down again. Thoughts move in a stream. And the stream is always changing. Here James makes a reference to that famous phrase from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” The river is constantly flowing. Thoughts–consciousness–is constantly changing and evolving.

3: “Within each personal consciousness thought is sensibly continuous.”

What this means is that we feel ourselves to be one continuous person. Though consciousness flows and evolves into new and different things, we feel that we remain who we are.

For example, when you go to sleep and wake up the next morning, you don’t think, “I’m a completely new person now!” with no idea of your past. No, you wake up and you’re still you. You pick up where you left off from yesterday. It’s continuous.

At least that’s the way it feels to us. William James speculates that our consciousness is really a collection of a bunch of different fragments, different “selves” if you like, but our experience is that consciousness is one continuous thing.

4: “Consciousness always appears to deal with objects independent of itself.”

“Appears” is the operative word here. For the appearance that our thoughts are dealing with objects independent of ourselves is, in fact, according to James, an illusion.

When you think about something–say, your coffee mug–it feels like you’re thinking about something that isn’t you. This is wrong. It’s really you. At least it’s your idea of your coffee mug. The thought is in you.

When you’re thinking about your coffee mug, it’s not the actual coffee mug that you see in your head. It’s your thought of your coffee mug. And your thought is your consciousness. And your consciousness is in you.

We think that our thinking is about objects that are outside of ourselves because that’s what it feels like. But thoughts are not the objects, just as the map is not the territory. Thoughts are our own representations of what we perceive to be in the “outside world”.

5: “Consciousness is always interested more in one part of its object than another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks.”

This is to say, simply, that consciousness is selective. We choose what we’re going to pay attention to and the rest we have to just pass over.

Consciousness is a filter. Aldous Huxley called it “a reducing valve.” We can’t pay attention to everything all at once. We have to select what we give consciousness to and what we allow to remain unconscious.

Ever have it where there’s a noise in your house, maybe the heater or the fridge, but you don’t notice it until it stops. While it was making the noise you were totally unconscious of it. But when it stopped, your ears picked up that there was a change, and suddenly you notice that the sound isn’t there anymore.

Consciousness is selective. While tuning in to certain things, it has to tune out other things, which means we can’t be aware of everything all at once.

Moving toward the consciousness of altered states

So there you have it. The five characteristics of consciousness as given to us by William James.

But I feel like the answer still eludes us. What is consciousness? Is it just this stream of thoughts and ideas and images that flows through our heads?

A stream, like a river, that moves through us and carries us along with it. Sometimes we can direct it to where we want it to go, but when we stop paying attention it sort of just goes on, all on its own.

Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to get a grapple on what consciousness is. Because it’s always changing and moving on to the next thing. It doesn’t keep still enough for us to stop and take a good look at it.

Enter the shamans and their techniques for altering consciousness. Maybe the best way to understand consciousness is to leave it entirely, if only temporarily, and get a glance at it from the outside…


Source by Ian Van Harten