Tagged: john mbiti

The Argument From the Impossibility of Singular Consciousness

By R.N. Carmona

The following argument is based on an obvious truth and also on a theistic assumption. The obvious truth comes from John Mbiti who in his African Religions and Philosophy (1975) said: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” This isn’t the Cartesian view many people operate from: “I think, therefore I am.” Consciousness, in other words, isn’t born in and doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It isn’t, as it were, a location on a map that can be identified in isolation of other locations; it is like a location that’s identified only in its relation to other locations. I know where I find myself only because I know where all other minds in my vicinity are. Even deeper than that is the unsettling fact that my entire personality isn’t a melody, but rather a cacophony; I am who I am because the people in my lives are who they are and they are who they are because of the influence of others and the circumstances they’ve faced, and so on and so forth. As Birhane explains:

We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image. Think of that luminous moment when a poet captures something you’d felt but had never articulated; or when you’d struggled to summarise your thoughts, but they crystallised in conversation with a friend. Bakhtin believed that it was only through an encounter with another person that you could come to appreciate your own unique perspective and see yourself as a whole entity. By ‘looking through the screen of the other’s soul,’ he wrote, ‘I vivify my exterior.’ Selfhood and knowledge are evolving and dynamic; the self is never finished – it is an open book.

Most people, given the Cartesian view, look at the self through the lens of what Dennett calls the Cartesian theater. There is, to our minds, a continuity between the self when we are children and the self now as adults. We point to attributes, even if only loosely related: our temperament, our competitive nature, the fact that we’re friendly or not, and so on. Few of us consider the circumstances and the people who played a role in molding these seeming consistencies. Where many of us see a straight continuous line, others see points on a graph, and yet, even if there’s virtual consistency in one’s competitive edge, for instance, there are milieus to consider, from the school(s) one attended, to one’s upbringing, to the media one was exposed to. The self is indeed an open and ever-changing book. The Cartesian theater, like the Cartesian self, is a convenient illusion; there is no self without other selves.

The Cartesian view is problematic on its own. “I think, therefore I am” was Descartes’ conclusion, but one can imagine saying to Descartes: “okay, but what do you think about? What is the content of your thoughts?” So even on the Cartesian view, Mbiti’s truth is found. It is, in fact, a tacit admission contained in Descartes’ view because in order to think one must be thinking about something or someone. Some thoughts are elaborate and involve representations of places one is familiar with whether it be one’s living room or local grocery store. Even the content of Descartes’ thoughts acknowledged other people and things, so Descartes didn’t conclude “I think [full stop], therefore I am.” In truth, it was more like “I think [about x things and y people represented in z places], therefore I am.” He identified himself only through other selves.

The theistic assumption is the idea that the mind of god(s) is like ours. On Judaism and Christianity, we were fashioned in his image. This doesn’t apply so much to our physical bodies, but more so to our minds because on the theistic assumption, the mind proceeds from an immaterial, spiritual source rather than from a physical source like our brains or the combination of our brains and nervous systems.

On the assumption that god’s mind is like ours and given the truth expressed by Mbiti, it is impossible for a singular consciousness to have existed on its own in eternity past. In other words, before god created angels, humans, and animals, there was some point in eternity past in when he was the only mind that existed. Yet if his mind is like ours, then there was never a point in where he existed on his own. The only recourse for the monotheist is therefore, polytheism because the implication is that at least one other mind must have existed along with god’s in eternity past.

Muslims and Jews, if Mbiti’s truth is accepted, will have no choice but to concede. Some Christians, on the other hand, will think they find recourse in the idea of the Trinity. Some might try to qualify the notion that the minds of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from one another. The obvious issue with that idea is that that would undermine the unity their god is said to have. In fact, that has been at the core of much philosophical dispute since the Muslim golden age. As Tuggy explains:

Muslim philosopher Abu Yusef al-Kindi (ca. 800–70) understood the doctrine to assert that there are three divine persons, three individuals, each composed of the divine essence together with its own distinctive characteristic. But whatever is composed is caused, and whatever is caused is not eternal. So the doctrine, he holds, absurdly claims that each of the persons isn’t eternal, and since they’re all divine, each is eternal.

Whether or not these contentions hold is still a matter of dispute and is not our present focus. The Trinity on its own wouldn’t be sufficient because it would require a milieu to exist within. Given this, then there would be other things that also existed in eternity past. Plato’s Forms might be those sorts of things because god’s mind, being like ours, would require a number of things to experience and to assist with maintaining god’s self, per se. Mbiti’s truth applies to cognitive and psychological aspects about humans and other animals even, especially mammals. It also applies, more broadly, to consciousness and as such, the Problem of Other Minds as it is so-called is only a problem if one were to assume that the Cartesian view is the case; other minds and other things are the reasons a self forms and can come to identify itself as distinct. Cognitive and psychological aspects about us don’t exist in a vacuum, but neither does consciousness. The same, on the assumption that god’s mind is like ours, applies to god’s mind.

Ultimately, a singular consciousness could not have existed in eternity past absent other consciousnesses and things. Unless one continues to obstinately assume that Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is true over and above Mibti’s “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,” there’s no recourse outside of polytheism. Either there were two or more gods that existed in eternity past or there are no gods. What should be clear from what’s been outlined here is that a singular consciousness that once existed in a vacuum at some point in eternity past, i.e., the monotheistic conception of god, is impossible.

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