Saturday, 12 June 2010

Art and the conscious mind: The artistic contribution to our understanding of human nature

I will argue one reason the nature of consciousness is so deeply mysterious is because there is much more at stake than the relatively local issue of how subjective experience is supported by the biology of the brain — crucial though that question is. I want to explore the possibility that our conscious experience is synonymous with reality itself. For without awareness of ourselves and of the world there is no reality, at least not in the sense we habitually experience it. Take away our self-knowledge, our sense of presence in the environment, our access to immediate memories, thoughts and beliefs, and the condition of existence in which we are immersed from moment to moment disappears.

If conscious experience and reality are synonymous, as I will argue, then we must consider the consequences for our understanding of human nature. For one thing, we may need to think less about a reality that pre-exists us — one that we are passively conscious of — and more in terms of a reality that emerges simultaneously with the dawning of subjective experience — a reality we are actively conscious with. The implications of this for our view of mind, nature and existence will be considered in this paper.

I contend that art and artists have something useful to contribute to questions about mind, nature and existence — questions that have traditionally been addressed through the disciplines of science and philosophy. Using examples from the history of art I will show how artists have explored many of the same essential problems as metaphysicians and scientists, even if they have done so by different means and with different outcomes. Art, therefore, offers a way of investigating metaphysical questions about the mind and reality that richly complements other disciplines and so extends and deepens our understanding of these vital questions.

Paper at Consciousness and Experiential Philosophy Conference, Oxford, September 2010