When we pay attention to our moment-by-moment experience, what do we notice?
I notice that what I call “I” seems to be awareness or consciousness that is constantly experiencing sensory impressions. Some of those sense impressions are real, that is, they come from the senses, while others are imaginary, that is, they are simulated in the imagination.
For example, if I hear a clock ticking, that’s an example of a real sensory impression. It seems to come from “out there” somewhere. When I focus on my thoughts, what I notice is an imaginary voice speaking them aloud. The voice just recited the statement, “When I focus on my thoughts, what I notice…” as if dictating and I typed it out. Then the next one (“The voice just recited…”), and the next one (“Then the next one…”). Someone sitting beside me would not hear the voice, but it’s quite clear to me — that is, the awareness that I am.
So the simplest description of human experience (mine, anyway — I’m guessing that yours is similar) seems to be: awareness containing real and imaginary sense impressions. Everything else can be built up from that. Thoughts for me are usually spoken by an imaginary voice. Perhaps for some they occur as imaginary images. I have never found a imaginary experience that consisted of anything other than a simulation of one of the physical senses. I can imagine smells, tastes, sounds, sights, tactile sensations, and sensations of movement or pressure in the body. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything that is not in essence a simulation of one of the physical senses.
So human consciousness has taken imaginary and real sense impressions and used them to convey meaning (Don’t ask me to explain how — that’s way above my pay grade). That is, the experience of seeing or hearing a word can have a meaning. The spoken or written word can point to a concept beyond itself, distinct from itself. Using this fundamental tool of meaning, consciousness operating in many brains over a great deal of time has constructed an amazing edifice of thought that includes religion, philosophy, science, technology, literature, poetry, recipes, and the like. By connecting spoken and written words, consciousness has made it possible to record thoughts so they can be shared with other consciousnesses in other places and times.
A reductionistic view can be very useful for understanding the phenomena of biology, chemistry, and subatomic physics. The reductionistic approach has been very successful at explaining why the world works the way it does. It has been completely unsuccessful at explaining phenomena that emerge from the interaction of large numbers of particles at a higher level. Indeed, the reductionistic view tends to pretend that the higher levels don’t exist at all. Thus, behaviorism denies mental activity or consciousness as worthy of study because it is not directly observable. Psychologists and neurologists have at times ignored emotions in their efforts to understand the brain. Physicists say that chemistry is just applied physics while chemists say biology is just applied chemistry. (see http://xkcd.com/435/)
Ash Jogalekar explains why reductionism has such a struggle trying to explain phenomena that depend on historical contingency and accident. A different perspective is needed for understanding and explaining things like how brains work, how economies work, how all kinds of complex phenomena that emerge from the interaction of many elements, even when the interaction between any two elements is relatively simple and easily described. A higher level description is required to make sense of such patterned phenomena.
So we can recognize the beautiful simplicity of the awareness / sensory impression description of experience, and it’s also important to recognize the varied richness of experience that grows from meaning and the cultural diversity that consciousness has created.
The computer scientist may know that fundamentally the computer only deals in 0s and 1s, but when he wants to write software, he uses a higher level language because doing anything significant in 0s and 1s would be prohibitively difficult. The neurologist may know that the human brain is just a bunch of neurons sending signals to each other, but to understand how the brain functions, she examines higher level structures in the brain than just neurons. And so forth.
Reducing experience to sense impressions in awareness can be useful for realizing what’s going on when experience happens. However, to function in the human world, we have to take a higher level perspective. We understand words effortlessly. We easily track our own emotions and others’. In an instant we can decide whether a financial transaction is in our interest or not (“Should I buy the lime green Yugo for $10K or the royal blue Toyota for $17K?”)
The very ease of functioning at the higher level makes us forget that fundamentally we’re just awareness experiencing sense impressions. We begin to identify with the sense impressions rather than the awareness “taking delivery” of them. We think that “I” is a physical being when what is actually experienced is a set of sensations in awareness that seem to indicate the existence of a body. (That’s not to say that the body doesn’t exist, just that what awareness experiences is not a body but sense impressions that seem to indicate a body.)
In science, reductionism is good at understanding and explaining interactions at the lowest levels. That kind of understanding facilitates the development of technology. Holism is more helpful in understanding the overall behavior of complex and chaotic systems like human beings and other animals, populations, hurricanes, traffic in a large city, economies, epidemics, and so forth.
When life is complex and stressful, it can be helpful to remember that all I really am is awareness full of sense impressions.
When boredom sets in and a desire arises for meaning and satisfaction in life, it can be helpful to notice the diversity of patterns and remember what is important to me, to notice both how I’m different from everything and everyone around me and how I’m connected to everything and everyone around me, even though it really all boils down to sense impressions in awareness.