Section 4

Finite Existence

Chapter 1

Non-finite consciousness

Before we get into the actual consideration of existence as the cause of the way of consciousness as finite, there are two at least possible instances in which the effect would not appear; in the first, the way of being conscious would actually be a case of consciousness as finite, but would not be recognized as such; in the second, the act would not have the effect at all.

To take the first case, it is not possible to recognize even that consciousness could be different unless there are at least two ways of being conscious that can be compared such that both are "my consciousness" and each is "not the other one." Hence, the very first moment of our consciousness did not have (for us at the time) any notion of this problem of finiteness (and so didn't "report" anything but itself);(1) and if that moment had been prolonged without change throughout our whole lives, we would never recognize any "transcendence" of our conscious act, because "this way of being conscious" would exhaust what would be all there is to our consciousness.

That is, of course, trivial. But actually, there is an attempt on the part of certain philosophies, like Buddhism, and especially Zen, to get back to this "undifferentiated consciousness" in which "being is nothing and all is one and I am all" and so on and so on. If you look at what these disciplines are doing, they are an attempt to direct attention away from all relationships, and simply be conscious, without adverting at all to the particular way one is conscious--even to the consciousness as "mine," or as "of" something-or-other.

When this stage is reached, so that the person actually is not aware in the conscious act of its particularity as "this one," then of course all that one is aware of is "consciousness of consciousness," but not even of "consciousness" in some sense where it is distinguished from anything else. Therefore, there is consciousness, but the act has no content at all. It is like opening your eyes in a perfectly dark room, after they have got used to the dark and there are no more negative after-images of what you had been seeing. That black expanse you "see" is simply what seeing nothing appears as.(2) It is the form of your visual consciousness when it is active, but not reacting to any energy; it is the form of "consciousness-of-visual-consciousness-and-nothing-else."

Similarly, this "nirvana" or experience of oneness-with-the-universe, which is completely ineffable (since what can be spoken must be conceptualized, which implies differentiation), is contentless because all contents have been deliberately "thought away" and there is nothing left to be conscious of. Like seeing the blackness, it understands nothing, and is the pure awareness of awareness itself. It is absolutely next door to complete unconsciousness, because all it is is the awareness that your understanding is "turned on" without anything for it to act on or react to.

Needless to say, I don't think this experience is anything to be striven for. Our consciousness-of-our-consciousness is present in all its clarity in every one of our conscious acts, and stripping it bare like this adds nothing to our awareness of it. And the notion that its non-contents is actually the revelation of the "meaning of life, myself, and the universe" is, I think, pernicious, because it leads to the notion that the differentiated universe (and even the differentiated consciousness) is really what the illusion is, and only this experience is "the truth."

If somebody wants to say that you're only really seeing when all the lights are turned out, and that the "messy" forms of seeing we have when in the light are imaginings, then I suppose there's nothing we can do to disabuse him of this; he will simply sniff at us in his superiority and leave us to our "world of illusion." But I don't know why he's talking to us in the first place if he believes this, because in his "real world," we don't exist, of course; and still less do I see why we should listen to him, because in order to do so, we'd have to admit that he has something to say--and how can he if he doesn't exist as an individual and neither do we? But of course, that's because I'm thinking "discursively," like a Westerner.

At any rate, this is where I think the mystical experience of "absolute non-being" fits in our consciousness, why it is possible to have it, why you would think you were actually onto something if you achieved it, and why you are onto precisely nothing at all.

But at the other pole there is another version of the mystical experience which is at least possible, and which I think has happened at times (perhaps even with some Buddhists): This would be an act of consciousness which exhausts what it is for me to be conscious, such that any particular form of my consciousness would be only a finite instance of this.

We didn't handle the possibility that if there are two different ways of being conscious, at least one of them must be finite, but it isn't necessary for both of them to be so. That is, if Way A is contained within Way B, but Way B contains more than just Way A, the two would be different, but there would be no way from this that you could tell that any but Way A is finite, since Way B could encompass all the consciousness that I am in fact capable of; in which case Way B would equal "what it is for me to be conscious" and would not be my-consciousness-as-less-than-itself(3).

If there actually ever is such an act of consciousness, then (like the purely negative version of the mystical experience) it would be completely ineffable, since, though you would recognize your consciousness, and that it was beyond any given way of being conscious (it is your total consciousness "rolled up into one," so to speak), there would be no way you could describe it except as not any particular, finite expression of itself. So the terms used to talk about it would be more or less the same as the terms used for the Buddhist type of mysticism, even though it would be the absolute totality of your knowledge rather than the knowledge of absolute non-knowledge.

I mention this for two reasons. First, we don't want to ignore possibilities and give the impression that they aren't possible simply because they aren't common (or even never have occurred). Secondly, there are those who have reported experiences that seem to be like this one: the Christian mystics, some of whom seem to have had both types of mystical experience, and know the difference. The God these people say they have "seen" in this experience is the absolute fullness of being, and is anything but identical with nothingness.

From what I can gather, people who have this experience seem to carry it with them, as a kind of "taste" for the truth. They learn facts, just as we do; but facts will show up "within" this undifferentiated knowledge they have, and will be recognized somehow as true, while mistakes or falsehoods will immediately be spotted as such. Socrates is reported by Plato to have some sort of experience like this, which he called his daimon, or the equivalent of what we would call a "guardian angel." And if you look at the Gospels closely, Jesus seems to hit upon things as "right" when he confronts them, such as Peter's formulation of who he was, the metaphor of the bread of life, etc., etc. As human, he had to learn by having ways of being conscious; as divine, he had Absolute Consciousness; and the relation between the two was that the finite ways of being conscious "fit" into the Absolute as being true.

At any rate, there are possible only two ways of being conscious that would not be cases of finite consciousness: consciousness with contents removed, and consciousness whose contents exhaust what it is for me to be conscious. Anything else will be a finite way of being conscious, and will "talk about" some existence.



1. I.e. the first moment of consciousness was "all there is" for me, even though in itself it is only a limited case of consciousness. But I could not recognize this limitation until I had at least one other different way of being conscious.

2. Actually, of course, the consciousness of the consciousness is aware of itself (you know that consciousness is going on), even though not as such. And so what you are aware of in this experience is being in that totally undifferentiated sense in which Hegel talks about it at the beginning of his Logic. That is, you are not unconscious in this experience; and so the consciousness is aware of itself as "turned on," but there is no other content to that consciousness. In that sense, you are "experiencing nothing," almost as if it were a "something" to experience. It is obviously a very peculiar experience.

3. In this case, Way B could be the cause of the finiteness of Way A, since it is not a case of "consciousness as less than itself in some definite way." Even if it is just my consciousness, this is a different sort of finiteness from "formed consciousness," and so it would not be identical as effect with Way A. But unless a person actually has this experience (which, as consciousness, would be conscious of itself, so if you had it you would know you had it), then this possibility of solving the problem of the finiteness of a way of being conscious within consciousness is purely academic.