Chapter 11


Before getting into that peculiar application of the Principle of Contradiction where we seem to have evidence on both sides of a contradiction (where reality, at least as it presents itself to us, seems to contradict itself), let me finish up this chapter by pointing out something very mysterious that is implied in everything we have been saying:

Conclusion 5: Our act of consciousness is conscious of itself.

I do not at this point want to explain how this can be possible, but merely to point out that it is a fact.

Let me first of all try to be clear in what I am saying. When I have the awareness that could be expressed by, "I know that I am reading this sentence," it is not some "I" outside the consciousness that is "looking at" the "reading this sentence" part and aware of it; nor is it another act of consciousness that is the one that is aware of the one expressed by "reading this sentence."

What I mean is that the awareness which can be expressed by "I am reading this sentence" (my consciousness of the words I am reading as being read) is one and the same act as the what can be expressed by "I know that I am reading this sentence."

Thus, the act that can be expressed as "I am reading this sentence" has at least two "contents": (1) the awareness of what the sentence is saying as read by me and (2) the awareness of the whole of (1).

This would have to be the case. Suppose there were an "I" which was not contained within the conscious act, but which was conscious of it. Then I would be aware of what I was reading, but not aware that I was aware of it, for the simple reason that, on the supposition, the "I" is itself unconscious. Yet we do know that we are aware of what we are aware of; we know what the contents of our consciousness is, and that it is the contents of this conscious act of ours.

Well, but doesn't that just mean that there's another act which is conscious of "I am reading this sentence"? No, because that's the same problem by another name. We are conscious of being conscious of reading this sentence; that is, this "second act" is known to be occurring, and hence either (a) is contained within the act of being aware of the sentence (which was what the "second act" was trying to avoid), (b) is conscious of itself (which is also what the "second act" was an attempt to avoid), or (c) becomes conscious by a "third act" which makes it conscious.

But since we not only know that we are conscious of reading the sentence, we know that we know that we are conscious of reading this sentence (the "second act" is known); this means that the "third act" which makes it conscious is also conscious. That is, if this "third act" were not conscious, we could know what the sentence says, and know that we were reading it, but we couldn't know that we knew we were reading it. But then since the "third act" is conscious, then either (a) the "first act" knows itself (and so can say that it "knows that it knows" however many times it wants), or (b) the "third act" now is the one that is conscious of itself (but this alternative doesn't make sense either if there is in fact a "third act"), or (c) it becomes conscious by a "fourth act" which makes it conscious.

But (to avoid the confusion of repeating the same words over and over) we realize that it makes sense to say, "I know that I am aware of being conscious that I am reading this sentence"--which is just a fancy way of saying that we are fully aware of what our consciousness is doing as it reads this sentence. Note that, if all this has confused you, you are perfectly clearly aware of being confused by what you are reading.

That is, no matter how many times you say, "I know that I know that I know that I know that X," you are aware (once you unpack the language) that the statement expresses what is true and not false about your consciousness.

But if an act of consciousness becomes conscious by means of another act not itself, then this leads to an infinite regress, and we have an infinity of acts of consciousness receding backwards, the function of each being nothing but to be conscious of the one in front of it.

But, in addition to how unpromising this might sound, not even it will work, because the "third act," for instance, doesn't know just the "second act" (that my consciousness is turned on); it knows also what the second act is conscious of (i.e., that it is knowing the awareness of what is on the page); that is, we know that our consciousness is precisely this one and no other; so the "third act" would have to contain within it both the "second act" and the "first act"; and of course the "fourth act" would then have to contain not just the "third act," but all three of the other "acts."

Furthermore, each of these "subsequent" or "additional" acts not only knows the others but knows the relationship between "itself" and the others: that it is precisely the consciousness of the others, (or actually, as we saw just above, the consciousness of the whole act of consciousness). But this means that the "third act" is not just reacting to the "second act," but knows what the second act is doing (i.e. being conscious of reading the page), and (either by itself or through the "fourth act") knows that it knows this.

The point of all of this is that there is no way to make sense out of the obvious "explanation" of "I know that I know X" by saying that all this means is that there are two acts involved here.

But there is something much more important involved in this particular issue of consciousness' being aware of itself:

Our absolute certainty that there is something shows that we know that our act of knowing knows its very self, and not a "prior" or "different" act (the one I "just had").

Why would this have to be the case? Because if my knowledge that I know X is a different act from the act by which I know X, then the act "I know X" might have ceased by the time the act "I know that I know" occurred.

But either I would realize this possibility, or I wouldn't. If I realized it, of course, I would know that I couldn't be absolutely certain that there is something, but only that there was something when the "first act" was occurring.

If I didn't realize the possibility, I would be absolutely certain (because I would think that my act knew itself), but this would be subjective certainty based on an error (that my present knowledge thinks it knows my present knowledge, when actually what it knows is the act I had just a second ago).

As I said, this is very important.

But let us look for a moment at the first possibility, that there are two acts and I know or at least suspect it. Then, of course, while the "I know that I know" act is going on there is obviously something, because it is something; but it couldn't know that, because it can't know itself. So "There is something" is objectively true when I perform the act "I know that a second ago there was something," and must be true during that act (because it's something); but it can't be known to be true when that act is occurring.

But of course it can be known to be true when that act is occurring, because we just proved that it has to be true when that act is occurring.

But that means (on this supposition, that there are two acts involved here) that it is absolutely certain that when you form the act of knowledge, "I know that there is something," there is something (the act of knowing) because, even though (by the supposition) you couldn't know in that act that it was happening as you formed it, it would still in fact be happening, and would be something. And by reasoning, we know this. But that would be the result of a reasoning process, and so while we could reason to the fact that "there is something" is absolutely certain, we wouldn't be absolutely certain of it, because our reasoning could be flawed. But we know with absolute certainty that there is something. And why? Because we don't reason to it as a conclusion, but since the act of consciousness knows itself as well as its "contents," so to speak, it immediately recognizes itself as real, as something.

In other words, this line of reasoning leads to the interesting conclusion that the act of knowledge "I know that there is something" ought to be thought of as false under the supposition that it can't know itself (and everything might have gone out of existence by the time it was made); but it can't be false, because while it is happening it is something, and therefore it is true. And since it can be known to be true by this reasoning process, it not only is true, but can't know that it is true and does know that it is true.

Talk about contradictions!

Now then, if we take the second supposition, that the act thinks it knows itself, but really doesn't, and only knows the act immediately preceding, then the act of thinking "I know that there is something" would be thought (falsely) to be absolutely certain, because you would think the act was aware of itself (making you realize that it itself is something), when in fact it was only aware of the preceding act.

But of course, while this (erroneous) act is happening, it is in fact happening, and is in fact something. But it thinks that it is something; which means that it is in fact true, not false. That is, by this supposition, it in fact is, and it thinks that it is; but it has no "right" to think that it is, because it can't really know itself, and therefore, it shouldn't think that it is happening while it is happening, but it (erroneously) does, and so it is falsely true and erroneously correct.

Furthermore, it is absolutely certain (based on this "error") that there is something; and in fact when it occurs it cannot not be occurring, and so it is impossible for it (in spite of the "error") to be actually false. So even though it has no right to be certain at all--or even to think it true--it doesn't realize it doesn't have this right, and so it is certain, and in fact its certainty also is valid, because when the "error" is in fact being committed it cannot be the case that there is nothing (there would at least be the "error"). So the certainty which is purely subjective and erroneous certainty turns out to be objective certainty.

The upshot of this is that neither of the two possibilities based on the act's not being aware of itself does anything except create a mass of contradictions.

Note further that if in fact all that I know is the preceding act, there is no way I can know that it is the preceding act, because I don't know this one. The preceding act as "preceding" has to be unconscious, because in order to know it as such, you would have to know that it preceded something; which by the supposition would be the present act--which cannot be known.

Hence, the preceding act would be known as the "present" one, because the "present" one (the one that knows it) is precisely out of consciousness, or is unconscious. But if it's unconscious, then in what sense is it the present act of consciousness, especially since the preceding act of consciousness would necessarily be known as the present act of consciousness, and would in fact be the only consciousness we have at present.

So if the present act of consciousness can't know itself but only the preceding act of consciousness, the present act of consciousness is not an act of consciousness at all, and the preceding act of consciousness is the present act of consciousness. And that act would be the one known as "the present act of consciousness" and it would be in fact the only act that could meaningfully be called the present act of consciousness. So the present act of consciousness would know that it is the present act of consciousness.

So if the present act of consciousness can't know itself, then the present act of consciousness does know itself as such. Again the supposition leads to a contradiction.

All this is by way of saying that there is no way you can make sense out of the act of consciousness' not being able to know itself and still account for how we can make statements like, "I know that I know X."

There are actually three reasons for engaging in this description of the act of consciousness as conscious of itself. First, its denial, as I just got through showing, would undermine the absolute certainty we have, in spite of the fact (as I tried also to show) that the denial confirms that the certainty is valid. Second, it is an attempt to "soften you up" for the kind of thing that is going to make up the bulk of the first part of this book; and it gets much, much worse than anything we have gone through so far. And finally, we need to be aware that facile "explanations" that seem to resolve mysterious issues only make matters worse if taken seriously. The hardest thing by far in what follows will be to see that there is a real problem, that the problem we will discover is not a trick of language or a misuse of terminology, and that the simple, "Oh, well, all that means is..." type of "solution" only satisfies those who don't want to be bothered to think.

So to return to sanity, we know with absolute certainty that there is something (not that there "was" something a minute ago), precisely because we know that we know it, and that our knowledge is not nothing.

The upshot of all of this is that in practice, our knowledge that there is something contains within it our knowledge of our knowledge that there is something, and so when we are conscious, the very act of consciousness is immediately (i.e. without any "intermediary") conscious of itself.

As I said in introducing this, how this is possible, in the sense of how an act can contain the whole of itself within itself, is not the issue here, and will be dealt with much, much later. But the fact that we do perform such an act is shown both by our spontaneous experience, and by the mess you get into in supposing we can know that we know by means of something other than the act itself.

But that is enough, I think, for this propaedeutic. We have not proved, but shown (1) that there is something; (2) that it is absolutely certain that there is something; (3) that some facts can be known with absolute certainty; (4) that not everything depends on your point of view; (5) that what is true is not false in the respect in which it is true; (6) that what is is what it is; (7) that there is no middle ground between being something and not being; and now (8) that our consciousness is conscious of itself as well as whatever it is "about."

Not a bad harvest, when all is said and done.

--Note, by the way, that I haven't really proved anything in this chapter, because to "prove" actually means "to show that X is true when X is not immediately evident and needs something else to establish whether it is the case or not."

All I have done is show the truth of what is immediately evident by pointing out what it is we are talking about and indicating that if one denies it, one has asserted it. That's not a proof, because the facts I enumerated just above are self-evident facts (and therefore need no other facts to prove them), and in fact would be presupposed in the proof, because you would have to know that the facts you allege to "prove" them are what they are and not what they're not (the Principle of Identity), and so on.

But because in the history of philosophy since Galileo, people have gotten more and more involved in complicated theories that seem eminently reasonable and deny various of these self-evident truths, it turns out that it is necessary in our skeptical age to show what a mess you get into when you deny them--how you are asserting what you are trying to deny.

So I'm not denying that something like the Principle of Contradiction can't be proved (how could you prove it without presupposing it?); but if people do in fact deny it and what they say sounds reasonable, then showing them that they're wrong is essential, it seems to me. Of course, they will counter, "You're not allowing me to have my own opinion!" No, I'm just pointing out to anyone else who isn't an idiot or pig-headed that your opinion just doesn't make sense. If that insults you, I'm sorry.