A Greater Understanding

Your existence is familiar, like your breath. But despite your familiarity, your existence is far from insignificant. It is not obvious how something like you could ever exist. What are you? How did you come to be? Could a sandstorm produce a being like you?

You are a peculiar kind of reality. You are a conscious being. You can think. You can feel. You can decide to read this book. But how can there be something that thinks, feels, or decides, anywhere, ever?

When I reflect on the familiar reality of my own existence, I sometimes have the thought that reality is too strange. It would be simpler if there were just nothing at all. But if there is going to be something, surely there would never be conscious beings, like myself. Here is a simple argument for that conclusion:

  1. If conscious beings can exist, then there is some possible explanation of their existence.
  2. There is not a possible explanation of the existence of conscious beings.
  3. Therefore, conscious beings cannot exist.

Ah, simplicity. The mysteries of reality are now solved. Not convinced?

Well, maybe we could explain conscious beings in terms of conscious-being-makers. A conscious-being-maker is something that has powers to sprinkle into our world thoughts, feelings, desires, hopes, and other contents of consciousness. But the existence of conscious-being-makers would only deepen the mystery. Why and how could reality include any conscious-being-makers? Suppose some clumps of matter can make conscious beings. Still, how does matter like that exist? If conscious beings are mysterious, is the existence of something that can make a conscious being any less mysterious?

Suppose we appeal to a supreme being. We say, “A supreme being made consciousness!” Then we push back the mystery all the way down into the foundation of reality. If the foundational reality is a supreme being, then this being is itself capable of consciousness (at least analogically). So, what explains its consciousness? If we say “nothing,” then there is no explanation of the existence of consciousness—which presents its own mystery. (We will return to the question of what, if anything, could be an ultimate explanation of consciousness as we approach the end of our inquiry.)

So, we have a great mystery. There are conscious beings, like you and me. Yet it is not obvious how any such beings can exist. How can any reality—big or small, simple or complex—unfold into real, conscious beings?

To seek insight, I will investigate the nature of a reality that can give rise to conscious beings. My investigation will organize around this question: Who are you? I will divide this question into two big questions. First, what are you? Second, how could you have come to be? For convenience, I shall call the sort of being you (and I) are “a personal being.” My quest, then, is to pursue a greater understanding of the nature and origin of personal beings.

In this quest, I aim to put light on a path leading, step by step, to a greater vision of our existence as personal beings. By highlighting the steps, I hope travelers from a wide range of perspectives will see a greater vision of who they are by their own clearest light.

A thesis that will emerge from this inquiry is that our existence is deeply rooted. I have come to believe that the roots of personal, perspectival reality go deeper than many people imagine. In fact, it is my conviction, forged through my research for this book, that personal reality has its roots all the way down into the fundamental nature of reality. By tracing these roots to their foundation, I hope to bring into greater light the nature of a world in which beings like you and I can exist.

I do not believe I can overemphasize the significance of the question at hand. The stakes extend without measure. On some theories of personal beings, you are the sort of being that can live perpetually, without end. On other theories, you are more fragile. For example, some theories analyze personal beings in terms of specific configurations of matter—such as molecules organized into a functioning brain. On these theories, either “you” flicker out of existence as soon as any molecules are replaced, or you are able to persist through a wider range of molecular changes. Either way, a time is coming when you will experience your last act of awareness. When the light of your consciousness goes out, you will never be aware of anything again, not ever. The differences between these theories are infinite in their ramifications.

It is not just your future that is at stake. It is also the meaning and value of your life. Does your life have purpose? What is a life? What is “purpose”? If the path of your life reduces to the paths of point particles, can you have any assurance that your future is bright?

These questions point to the value of our quest. We may want certain answers to be true, but only certain answers are actually true. Embarking on the quest to understand the nature and origin of persons will position us to discern answers to these questions for ourselves.

Not only does one’s theory of consciousness have immense practical and philosophical implications, but the inquiry into consciousness is also interesting in its own right; to unravel the mystery of consciousness is to unravel the mystery in all mysteries. After all, to understand consciousness is to understand the realm in which all understanding is possible.

Finally, consciousness connects to everything you could ever care about. Without consciousness, you experience nothing; you see nothing; you know nothing. Without consciousness, nothing matters to you; nothing is significant to you. In consciousness, you experience all your thoughts, your questions, your sensations, your emotions, your intentions, your hopes, your dreams, your fears, your imaginations, your visual images, your pains, your inferences, your memories, your feelings of curiosity, your feelings of doubt, the sense that something is true, the sense that something is wrong, your every feeling of purpose, and every other sense you ever have. Your consciousness is the storehouse of everything significant in your life.

Excerpted from Who Are You, Really? By Jason Rasmussen. Copyright (c) 2023 by Joshua Rasmussen. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.IVPress.com.