What’s the Difference Between Consciousness and Experience?

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John Dewey, philosopher of anarchist democracy

For far too many years I have been on a fool’s errand. I am reminded of the time in high school when I started working in the maintenance department at a local factory. My first assignment was to find a left handed monkey wrench. Of course there is no such thing, and the guys all had a good laugh at my expense. Consciousness is my left handed monkey wrench. There is no consciousness apart from experience.

Since that time in the late ‘60’s I have puzzled over the nature of consciousness, thinking that this knowledge would yield the secret of the universe. When I was 18, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi proclaimed that knowledge was structured in consciousness. All we had to do was practice transcendental meditation to achieve that supreme level of consciousness where all the secrets would unfold.

This has been my fool’s errand. In recent days I have stumbled on the reason. John Dewey, in his writings, has pointed out over and over again what should have been obvious to me ever since I studied American pragmatism in college, in 1976. I have erroneously assumed that consciousness is only what it is known to a conscious knower; that knowing, or the experience of knowing, is the only thing that give us knowledge of Reality. But reality is far more than what a thinker thinks in his faculty office surrounded by books.

As John Dewey puts it: “unless knowing is the sole and only genuine mode of experiencing, it is fallacious to say Reality is just and exclusively what it is or would be to an all competent knower.” (see article on John Dewey’s essay “Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”) Knowing is but one type of experience. 99.9% of our experience of reality is about something other than knowledge. We are human beings struggling to survive Covid-19 and economic collapse.

I board the R train to Union Square. I am not thinking about the fact that the train moves because of electricity, or what powers the lights; or the steel tracks on which the train moves. An engineer knows the structure and function of each constituent part of the R train. Is that a deeper knowledge of Reality than the commuting experience of the random passenger? My experience as a passenger is that this ride to Union Square costs money, but is a comfortable part of my journey to my final destination. My use of the train is real too and is as deep in it’s own way as the reality of the train’s material composition.

My fool’s errand is to seek the illuminating consciousness that offers us a glimpse into the ultimate Reality, the reality of the unseen world, behind the curtain. The pragmatists say there is no such thing. There are only experiences, which are as they are experienced as. The engineer’s knowledge of the train is a real experience that stems from his goal to construct a most effective vehicle for passengers. The passenger’s knowledge is a real experience that derives from his intention to reach his destination. Both are equally real experiences, but cannot be placed in a hierarchy of ultimate truth.

My foolishness has been to assume there is a consciousness that is a comprehensive experience which somehow embraces the entire cosmos. Cosmic consciousness. Enlightenment.

There is no ultimate Reality, there is no consciousness that is a self-luminous vision of the Absolute. There are only experiences.

In a way, this means the universe is open ended, and we are invited to endless adventures.

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