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Mar 26, 2024

On the Mind’s Devotion to Reality

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Mark Delp2 1

Mark Damien Delp

Zaytuna College

Mark Damien Delp’s research interests include logic and the history of Christian philosophy.

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On the Mind’s Devotion to Reality

A Premodern Witness to the Nature of Consciousness

Caspar David Friedrich  Der Mönch Am Meer  Google Art Project

The Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1808–10

Asked to define consciousness, people today would likely turn to several ready-to-hand sources of information. The New Age version, which has so permeated Western societies as to be virtually ubiquitous, is exceedingly broad: consciousness can signify spiritual states of the human mind, the illumined minds of quasi-divine beings, a field of awareness belonging to the earth and to the cosmos itself, and God. Even those who hold that these interpretations are overly vague, theologically inappropriate, or simply “woo-woo” have a general sense of what New Age practitioners principally mean when they attribute consciousness to human beings—it is, for example, something like the “soul” of traditional belief systems, which can be purified and illumined or defiled and darkened.

A more recent source about consciousness is the now popular narrative of the imminent “emergence” of a “conscious” artificial intelligence (AI). The popularity of using consciousness in terms of AI has been growing steadily since the late 1990s, but it has within the last two or three years resulted in the dissemination of an extraordinary number of expert opinions, media equivocations, transhumanist mythologies, and occult eschatologies. And yet, despite frenetic attempts to pin down the meaning of the word, the AI-related definition of consciousness remains no more clear, and quite considerably less coherent, than its otherwise tranquil and complacent New Age counterpart.

The same industry, however, that has both created and marketed the current AI models has not been insensitive to either the need for achieving a rigorous definition of consciousness or the exceeding difficulty of doing so. Indeed, before the possibility of a conscious AI came close to being an actuality, academic researchers of consciousness, even while using the term often and casually in their respective fields, often confessed to not knowing precisely what it meant. The Wikipedia entry on consciousness includes an article from the Macmillan Dictionary of Psychology illustrating a particularly poignant confession of ignorance:

Consciousness—The having of perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means. Many fall into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness—to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world. Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon: it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.1

Other researchers, agreeing as to its intractability, nonetheless press on by providing descriptions of it.

By “consciousness” I simply mean those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one awakes in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one would say, “unconscious.”2

Still others, perhaps aware that the approach of “I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you when it happens!” is not likely a good option to rigorous definition, hold to what may be called the “standard narrative,” which goes something like this: “Consciousness, at its simplest, is awareness of internal and external existence.”3 Quoting that definition now and then, and especially at the beginning of online articles, they nonetheless persevere undiscouraged in their empirical research into the neural activity of the brain, holding on to the belief that this empirical approach is the most important route toward understanding consciousness.

Consciousness in its entirety, they argued, was too broad and controversial a concept to serve as a starting point.
  Instead, they focused on one scientifically tractable aspect of it: visual perception….4
“Consciousness poses a unique challenge in our attempts to study it, because it’s hard to define,” says Liad Mudrik, a neuroscientist at Tel Aviv University who has researched consciousness since the early 2000s.…
  In her laboratory, Mudrik doesn’t worry about sentience and self-awareness; she’s interested in observing what happens in the brain when she manipulates people’s conscious experience.5

But how, one may ask, will researchers know whether or not they succeed in identifying consciousness? Do they really think it will emerge from laboratory experiments and data sets as a visible or tangible thing? And if something does appear that allows them to say, “This is consciousness!” will they find it any easier to define the term? Certainly they are operating under the assumption that a thorough understanding of brain activity will unveil the “mystery” of consciousness. There are, nevertheless, tangential narratives in the consciousness-studies industry indicating that there is a “gap” between empirical research into the brain and the “subjective experience” of everyday human consciousness.

There is an “explanatory gap” between our scientific knowledge of functional consciousness and its “subjective,” phenomenal aspects, referred to as the “hard problem” of consciousness.6
“[T]he hard problem” [is] to challenge the presumption that we can explain the subjective feeling of consciousness by analyzing the circuitry of the brain.”7
[I]n fact there are no scientific theories yet conceived that address the nature of consciousness as opposed to its neural substrate.8
The phenomenal aspect of consciousness is the first-person answer to “what it’s like” question, and it has thus far proved recalcitrant to direct scientific investigation.9

What is here called a “gap” may more appropriately be called a chaos (“the nether abyss, infinite darkness; any vast gulf or chasm; the gaping jaws of the crocodile”10) between the scientific method and the lived life of a human person. In time, the chaos may even serve as a message to people on the outside of this impenetrable consciousness-studies industry that they may have to turn to themselves to answer the most profound questions about consciousness—that is, about a lived experience of something that, however hard to define, is ultimately personal and individual, absolutely one’s own. Although there are researchers who hold that consciousness is, overall, an individual possession, in almost every such case the thrust of their research shows that it originates not from a “spiritual source” but from one’s brain. In short, the academic institution of consciousness studies, whatever the discipline involved, is overwhelmingly materialistic.

The most remarkable fact about the universe is that certain parts of it are conscious. Somehow nature has managed to pull the rabbit of experience out of a hat made of mere matter.11
This theory is a molecular-compositional theory which posits, at the simplest level, a brute causal power of the brain to produce elementary “units” of conscious experience.12
I refer to the size of the brain states that are assumed to be sufficient for consciousness (extended to large parts of the brain vs. focalized to specific and small brain areas, respectively).…13
A theory of consciousness should provide a mechanistic explanation….14

Some philosophers object to their theories being interpreted as materialistic or dualistic,15 but as long as they derive consciousness from the brain, or from some other biological function, or even from a subtle energetic phenomenon like a magnetic field, there will result the same effect of distancing or even removing consciousness from the self or soul, notions to which the majority of people still adhere, even though they do so as one who clings to his raft after a shipwreck. Ultimately, it seems, people will continue to feel a natural repugnance to identifying consciousness with any material phenomenon.

It is significant that researchers still feel obliged to define consciousness according to what I have called “the standard narrative,” which is the intuitive account of consciousness as awareness of experience. While that definition is or at least seems to be circular, everyone can understand it and “relate to it,” as is the case with the New Age version. Even more significant, however, is that to the degree researchers rely on the intuitive account as a touchstone of human experience by which they can measure the relevance of their empirical work, they tacitly acknowledge a need for a rich store of information on that experience itself. They are, in other words, in need of articulate, systematic, and profound philosophical accounts on the nature of consciousness. Why indeed should scientists rely on such a rudimentary formula equating consciousness with awareness, including various other qualities thrown in for good measure, when there are available hundreds of years’ worth of the most detailed and exacting accounts deriving wholly from contemplative inquiry into that intuitive experience? Might not a rich store of such insights be a better guide for the empirical researcher, and even perhaps change the direction of some influential trends? What makes this option even more appealing is the de facto acknowledgment by contemporary researchers that the intuitive account speaks of the real thing, whereas neural activity in the brain, though correlating with particular states of awareness (e.g., memory) has proved to be more a mechanism of control than of understanding.

Consequently, if all accounts of consciousness, the scientific as well as the philosophical, must begin with the intuitive version, the one that is present to everyone but just outside the range of verbal expression, then it follows that the consciousness-studies industry as a whole should pivot toward investing time and money in studying premodern accounts of mind. I am not forgetting that philosophy departments have produced a great deal of writing on the subject, but, not having time here to treat of their contribution, I can only say that philosophical research since the late nineteenth century has adhered to, and been fully driven by, scientific advances in the study of the brain. More relevant to this essay, however, is the fact that the philosophical worldview of the last 150 years or so has been utterly and inflexibly materialistic. As a statement of fact, this state of affairs radically curtails the range of intuitive experience, described and analyzed in premodern texts, that can be acceptable to academic research communities or to the schools of philosophy that consider material science as the sole arbiter of truth about reality.16 Nevertheless, to entertain at least portions of an “outdated” worldview seems to be the price of admission for gaining access to the greatest store of intuitive accounts of consciousness.

Of the many possible examples of premodern inquiry into consciousness, I have chosen to spend the rest of this essay analyzing passages from the work of the thirteenth-century philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. To begin with, of all the premodern studies of consciousness, or of the aspects of mind that most approximate what we today conceive consciousness to be, Aquinas’s work is, to my knowledge, the most detailed, articulate, and rigorous. Adhering to the best of the scholastic period’s cultivation of deductive reasoning, he had an almost religious dedication to the strict definition of terms, but also a rare sensitivity to the intuitive life of the mind. His achievement, far from being a piecemeal assessment of diverse traits that may be associated with consciousness, is to identify and define consciousness as an integral part of the whole human person.


Because the study of consciousness, far from constituting its own field, was at Aquinas’s time one of many by-products of the general interest in “mind,” we will need to preface our discussion here by saying a few things about the latter, and especially about the mind’s capacity to reflect on its own acts. In fact, that power to reflect and introspect, to know that one knows even as one is engaged in knowing things, has been at once the most constant and the most controversial attribute traditionally associated with consciousness. It has, in short, been the last resort for those who believe that human consciousness involves more than mere awareness of things, perhaps even explaining, or being explained by, one’s normal sense of self-consciousness. And yet, for reasons stemming from the ambiguities inherent in the notion of “awareness,” academic researchers, as witnessed in the Macmillan quotation above, have resisted including “self” in “consciousness.” Since this controversy, which was already heated in the late nineteenth century, is critical to address at the outset of any inquiry into the subject, let us start by quoting one of Aquinas’s characteristically concise accounts. Note that he uses the term soul almost interchangeably with mind, which was considered to be the human soul’s principal power.

Concerning habitual knowledge I say this, that the soul sees itself through its essence, that is, the soul has the power to enter upon actual cognition of itself from the very fact that its essence is present to it.… The essence alone of the soul, which is present to the mind, is enough for this, for the acts in which it is actually perceived proceed from it.17

Typical of his time, Aquinas conceives of the human soul as the principle by which human persons are capable of knowing things universally—that is, apart from their individual and material conditions. The soul knows them, therefore, “immaterially,” which is to know them through concepts. The mind, for example, acquires the concept of “bluebird,” which is a mental object through which we know the nature of a certain kind of bird. The same relation between universal concepts and particular things holds in all other acts of knowledge. Even in the realm of ideas, we have concepts that tell us what individuals are; for example, the definition of a “geometrical circle” tells us about this circle drawn on the page, and the definition of “justice” measures this or that human act. But in saying that “the soul has the power to enter upon actual cognition of itself from the very fact that its essence is present to it,” Aquinas means that the soul, in order to know itself, has no need for a concept or any other mediating means of knowledge, requiring only its awareness of its own existence. In other words, it does not require a definition, or any other rational account or explanation, to finalize an act of knowledge with respect to itself. In contrast with “objective knowledge” acquired by scientific inquiry, “knowledge by presence” is available at will—hence Aquinas’s calling it “habitual” knowledge, which, like acquired disciplines or habits, exists in the soul as a settled disposition. For example, a mathematician need not learn his discipline each time he must solve a mathematical problem; he simply draws on the fund of knowledge he has acquired, and that has become second nature to him.

Self-knowledge, therefore, is attainable “at will,” but unlike acquired habits, it never had to be learned in the first place. (We will see this same pattern of the “natural habit” when we consider below the first principles of human knowledge.) This self-knowledge of the soul by its essence has, therefore, the same advantage as sense knowledge has—namely, that what it knows is actually present to it; it is not present, in other words, as an image of the imagination is, which is a likeness of the real thing. For the most part, the only kind of knowledge we readily affirm to be self-evident, even more so than axioms of mathematics, is the knowledge of things that are present to the senses, that are, as we say, “there before us.” Most people, at some point in their life, have had to insist to others that what they happen to be seeing “is actually there.” Your friend may have responded, citing expert knowledge, “But that bird can’t be there; it’s out of season!” You, on the other hand, can cite no authority but “my own eyes.” Your friend represents the authority of science, while you represent “knowledge by presence”—that is, “it is true because it is there.” Now, the intensity of the presence of things can vary, as is shown by the fact that living beings produce a greater affective impact on us than nonliving things—when we know this little object is a beetle and not a pebble, a perceptible change comes about in the quality of our attention to it. And so it is that, when the soul knows immediately its own existence, the life principle in us becomes self-evident as well. The philosophical equivalence between knowledge of oneself and knowledge of one’s life goes back to the very earliest theories of the soul or self, which, in premodern times, were practically interchangeable. A paradigmatic example of the complexity of this knowledge by presence can be found in Saint Augustine’s City of God:

But it is without any deceptive play of my imagination, with its real or unreal visions, that I am quite certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love this being and this knowing.18

“I know that ‘I am’” is a typical way of expressing knowledge by presence; but here, Augustine adds what we discussed above—namely, an affective response to this knowledge. This affective response, however, is exactly proportionate to this act of knowledge. Love, in other words, is the proper response to one’s self-conscious possession of being, as well as the possession of life. Augustine was insistent on including love in the soul’s self-presence in a way that became typical in Christian psychology and can be found in philosophy as early as Socrates, whose famous maxim, “Know thyself,” conforms more, it seems to me, to the notion of knowledge by presence than to the speculative or “objective” knowledge of rational inquiry.

As we have mentioned, mind is indeed first and foremost a power; then, when reflecting on its essence, it must become present to itself as a power. And because there is no quantitative limit to the mind’s capacity to know things, the mind’s presence to itself is effectively one of infinite power.

For an intellective power in a certain respect is itself infinite inasmuch as it is not limited by matter. This is why it can know the universal, which is also infinite in a certain respect inasmuch as it belongs to the universal by nature to contain infinites potentially.19

The philosophers called the mind the “possible intellect,” and, as we have mentioned above, conceived it to be an ever-vital readiness to enter into intelligible relations with any object whatsoever, be it real or imagined. And while the mind’s “power” to know things was not usually listed alongside the attributes that it knows by presence—namely, existence, life, and love—its self-evident infinitude (there is no numerical limit to the things the mind can know) moved them to consider the human mind as a likeness to the angelic minds.


Let us now move on to Aquinas’s account of consciousness, which, as we will see, he unfolds by philosophically developing the two primary senses of the Latin conscientia—(1) “consciousness, knowledge, feeling, sense” and (2) “consciousness of right or wrong, the moral sense, conscience”—and during the course of which he will show how the latter is a natural extension, a sort of modification, of the former, thus bringing them into mutual organic relation as fundamental acts of the mind. We will also find close similarities here to his development of mind, especially with respect to his views on mental self-reflection.

The first attribute he mentions is that conscientia is cum alio scientia, “knowledge with another.”

For conscientia, according to the very nature of the word, implies the relation of knowledge to something: for conscience may be resolved into “cum alio scientia,” i.e., knowledge applied to an individual case.20

This attribute of conscientia matches the first listing in Latin classical dictionaries as well as the definition of consciousness given by the Wikipedia article—that is, the simple awareness of an object, whether material, mental, or psychological. It does not specify what is known, but simply that something is known. That the relation is characterized by the term with indicates a reflective act of knowledge, a knowing that one knows such and such a thing. Aquinas then adds to this “primitive” account the aspect of conscientia bearing on the universal and infinite power of the mind to make anything at all an object of its knowledge.

[W]hen I say conscience [conscientia] I do not imply scientific knowledge21 (scientia) alone, taken strictly in so far as it deals only with things which are true, but taken in the broad sense for any knowledge (notitia). In this sense, according to the common use of the word, we say that we know (scire) everything with which we are acquainted (novisse).22
Caspar David Friedrich  Abtei Im Eichwald  Google Art Project

The Abbey in the Oakwood, Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1809–10

In this passage, knowledge, or scientia, is linked with notitia, which conveys the sense of something remarkable—that is, something that draws our attention, thus implying a gradual process through which we come to know a thing better and better. In short, he inserts into the simple act of “being conscious” a consideration of qualitative degree, which bears on how well or how thoroughly we are aware of things.

Next, Aquinas expands the definition of conscientia by saying that it is “an application or inclination to something” (applicatio scientiae ad aliquid) that “is done by some act” (fit per aliquem actum). He then begins to do that which scholastics of his time did so often and so well: draw distinctions.

Moreover, knowledge is applied to an act in two ways. According to one way, we consider whether the act exists or has existed; according to the other, whether it is correct or not.23

This application of knowledge adds to the simple recognition of an object a judgment of existence by which the mind confirms that such and such an act has actually taken place.24

According to the first mode of application, we are said to have conscience [that is, consciousness] of an act inasmuch as we know that the act has been placed or has not been placed, as happens in the common manner of speaking when one says: “As far as my conscience [consciousness (habere conscientiam)] is concerned, this has not taken place; that is, I do not know or I did not know whether this took place.”25

This criterion of acknowledging whether something has happened cannot be ignored in any application of knowledge that intends to judge acts with respect to right or wrong—one of the most common errors in moral reasoning is to rush to judgment about something that has either not really taken place or has not taken place as one imagines it to have done. This consideration then takes Aquinas to the second mode of application, according to which knowledge “is applied to an act, so that one knows whether the act is right or not.” At this point it becomes clear that conscientia, no longer signifying consciousness alone, now signifies more on the side of conscience, a fact that is supported by his reference to past and future acts, each of which must elicit the same “conscientious” discernment between right and wrong.

But as Aquinas continues to draw distinctions, he comes to address another act of the mind that, while being speculative rather than moral, nonetheless involves an act of reflective judgment that, as we will see, is very similar to moral judgment. The purely intellectual judgments of the mind, therefore, which may have nothing at all to do with right or wrong in human acts, become “the process by which through scientific knowledge we look for what should be done, as it were taking counsel with ourselves.”26 This reflective act of the mind, though limited to speculative reasoning, would contain an element of “conscientiousness” that is not merely analogous to moral conscience, but rather specifically akin to it.

In the history of scholarship, it has always been expected that one would be conscientious in every facet of one’s research, implying both a habitual internalization of a debt to the community of scholars and a zealous devotion to discovering the truth.

“It is the duty of the scholar to demand as much certitude in his investigation of each thing as the nature of that thing permits.”27

Let us go even further along these lines by bringing into consideration the broader scholastic understanding of truth, according to which the mind, in its scientific propositions, not only attains the truth but also becomes true by corresponding to things—that is, by knowing what they really are. Truth, then, is the mind’s correspondence to reality; but to attain such a correspondence, one must consciously adopt proportionate methods of inquiry. Indeed, Aquinas speaks of this “correspondence theory” of truth as much in his moral as in his metaphysical writings.

Truth follows the operation of the intellect inasmuch as it belongs to the intellect to judge about a thing as it is. And truth is known by the intellect in view of the fact that the intellect reflects upon its own act—not merely as knowing its own act, but as knowing the proportion of its act to the thing.28 (emphasis mine)

Metaphysically considered, truth involves taking a stand, as it were, in one’s intellectual relations with things, an intention that constitutes an almost religious devotion to coming into right relations with the world. This is the scholar’s debt to the truth itself, an obligation that, in order even to be felt or acknowledged, requires a certain reverence for reality. Clearly, this understanding of conscientia is more than we normally attribute to consciousness; and yet, given that we normally use the term as implying degrees (e.g., we may not be fully conscious when we get out of surgery, or we may not consciously offend someone) and that Aquinas was typical of his time in defining cognitive faculties according to their peak efficiency, then it is reasonable to seek a definition of consciousness that captures its own typical excellence. We can do anything well or poorly, but when inquiring into the nature of the human faculties or virtues, we look to none but the paradigmatic example; so too, Aquinas would hold, ought we to inquire into the nature of consciousness by seeking not just any instance of it but rather the true type. At any rate, Aquinas argues (1) that there is a relation of kinship between the practical judgment in acts of moral reasoning with respect to right and wrong and the speculative judgment in acts of theoretical reasoning with respect to the truth or falsity (or validity and invalidity) and (2) that while the former constitutes a proper act of conscience, the latter, for lack of a better expression, constitutes an act of the “conscientious mind,” understanding conscientious according to its principle dictionary definition: “governed by or made in accordance with the dictates of conscience; marked by or done with exact or thoughtful attention.” In short, while there is a kind of speculative judgment that rises to a level of responsibility to the truth that approaches a moral act, it nonetheless falls short of the full act of conscience required in the moral act itself.

First Principles

The debt of intellectual integrity of which we have been speaking and the obligation to evaluate and judge human acts for their moral rectitude each require an authoritative rule in light of which alone they can conform, on the one hand, to the truth and, on the other hand, to the good. The precepts or principles from which right reasoning begins and at which it finds its resolution were, in the scholastic age, commonly believed to be found not by any process of reasoning, calculation, or theoretic inquiry but rather in the “natural light” of the mind itself. We cannot argue our way to self-evident truths but must assume them before we can posit even the most rudimentary premises; and if we fail to do so, we will be led into an infinite regress, ever seeking the ground of our thinking in the sky of endless possibility. And since our intellectual life is both speculative and practical, we must be furnished with principles that conform to each direction of our thought.

We cannot, in this short space, argue for the existence of first principles—the literature on them is vast and ancient, and few people have ever been convinced of their existence by reading about them. Indeed, I only mention the first principles of understanding and of moral reasoning because the tradition Aquinas followed required them as integral elements in the functions of both senses of conscientia that we have been discussing. Without them, no one would possess the certitude needed to work confidently toward integral acts of the mind or the conviction required to work prudentially toward virtuous acts in society. Nevertheless, until we actually engage in speculative or moral judgments, our understanding of the principles remains in a state of readiness that, as mentioned above, is analogous to the settled dispositions, or habits of the sort we call “second nature,” which can be actualized at will once they are thoroughly possessed.

[T]his knowledge must be in man naturally, since it is a kind of seed plot containing in germ all the knowledge which follows…. Furthermore, this knowledge must be habitual so that it will be ready for use when needed.29

As the conscious mind must correspond to nature or reality before it begins its theoretical inquiries and arguments, so conscience, while also requiring this correspondence, must in addition correspond to the reality or natural law of human acts before it can apply knowledge to concrete circumstances. Articulating the natural propensity of the human person toward “right reason,” these first principles are, then, the first and most authoritative guides of the mind within the relative spheres of its proper operations.

Now it is clear that, as the speculative reason argues about speculative things, so that practical reason argues about practical things. Therefore we must have, bestowed on us by nature, not only speculative principles, but also practical principles.30
Thus, just as there is a natural habit of the human soul through which it knows principles of the speculative sciences, which we call understanding of principles, so, too, there is in the soul a natural habit of first principles of action, which are the universal principles of the natural law.31

Far, then, from being adventitious traits of “human behavior,” the first principles exist in a presence-to-mind that is comparable to the mind’s presence to itself through its essence.

The “light,” moreover, by which we seek to know and act rightly—in our thoughts with respect to the true, and in our acts with respect to the good—is the same light by which the mind knows that it exists, lives, loves itself, and possesses an infinite power to know things. And as a natural extension of its power, this light is the source of self-evidence, or certitude sine inquisitione (e.g., axioms and principles that are proper to the individual sciences). We cannot explain this capacity in us by appealing to material causes, nor say why it is, for the principles must be assumed in any demonstration, explication, or account of causes. Nonetheless, we can appeal to the authoritative teaching of religion as a testimony to the existence of such an innate and radical illumination of the mind.

In matters of natural cognition God teaches us interiorly in this way: that He is the cause of the natural light which is in us, and He directs it to the truth.32

Notably, failure to conform to the first principles usually lies not in the will but in the more fundamental condition of one’s conscious mind, for errors in our application of the principles to circumstances ultimately stems from a more profound and habitual disregard of reality itself. Hence the observation that moral corruption inevitably follows intellectual negligence.

Conscience Binds

Aquinas, in his writings on conscience, devotes a full article to whether conscience binds us—that is, exercises an internal authority compelling us to obey the first principles or precepts of moral acts.

For conscience [conscientia] is said to witness, to bind, or incite, and also to accuse, torment, or rebuke. And all these follow the application of knowledge or science to what we do.33 (emphasis mine)

Here we again encounter Aquinas’s emphasis on conscientia being an application of knowledge. More to the point, however, he now emphasizes the force, finality, and authoritative power of that act. As a witness of acts, a healthy conscience can seize the entire psyche of a person with decisive and terrible effects. Aquinas does not mean to say that the binding power of conscience lies solely within us as a kind of subjective conviction of our perspective on things; in a healthy society, it must necessarily be present as well in the institutions of the civil authority, the internal and external sources of moral authority deriving from the same natural law. It is nonetheless true that conscience (and in general, the conscientious mind) exerts an unrivaled force with respect to keeping us attentive to our obligations toward the common good. The binding power of conscience, far from being merely a tug on one’s mind, constitutes a kind of gravitational force within the human psyche, at once moving us toward the most authentic human interaction with others and holding us, with an almost physical weight, to a faithful pursuit of the true end of human existence.


There are myriad theological dimensions of the binding power of conscience and the conscious mind, but more important to pursue here is the theological virtue of faith, in which can be found the clearest evidence of the rigorous obligation on the part of the mind to adhere to reality—in this case, reality itself: God. Aquinas defines faith as “a habit of the mind through which eternal life begins in us, making the intellect assent to things that are not apparent to us.”34 What greater binding power could there be than that which compels a person to accept, with the full force of his will, things that he cannot understand, and what is more, to consider these things to be more certain than the most settled theories of science? Remarkably, in Aquinas’s question on the origin and nature of religion, he outlines two of the principal attributes of consciousness and conscience. On the one hand is the natural obligation to respond proportionately to objects:

[R]eligion is a special virtue in the acts of all the virtues, considering a special aspect of its object, namely, that which is due to God.35
Caspar David Friedrich  Man And Woman Contemplating The Moon  Wga08271

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich, ca. 1824

And on the other hand is the binding power of spiritual authority on the mind:

But religion implies a certain “binding, back” according to which man obliges himself in some manner to this worship of God; wherefore Augustine says in his book, De vera religione [On true religion]: “The word ‘religion’ is thought to be derived from the [word] religare (‘to bind back’), or from recte eligere (‘to choose rightly’).”… For it is by proper choice that a person binds himself to do something that must be done.36

What makes faith so critical to the religious life is that, more than any other virtue, it embodies the mind’s capacity to feel a total obligation to its object, and to do so with respect to not only the external but also the internal dimensions of human life. Most importantly, however, is Aquinas’s position on the will’s role in faith: it exceeds even reason with respect to achieving certitude about its objects—that is, God, His existence and attributes, His providence with respect to the world, and so on. That the will can or even should play a role in the mind’s attainment of certitude in rational matters must be considered both absurd and dangerous to modern philosophers and scientists who consider the scientific method as the ultimate standard for acquiring knowledge. Even Aristotle, who held that there is nothing save matter that is intrinsically unintelligible, taught that the mind can attain unqualified perfection by knowing and understanding the most “noble objects,” which he calls “divine.” Aquinas agrees:

For, as the intelligible object which a person understands is more noble, so the more noble is his intelligence. For this reason, the Ethics says that the most perfect activity of understanding is the activity of that understanding which is well ordered to the best intelligible thing.37

For Aquinas, however, the highest object, and the one that affects us beyond all others, is exactly the one that, at least in this life, we will never comprehend. In faith, therefore, we encounter the strange case of will taking the lead in knowledge, not by commandeering thinking itself but rather by being the source for its certitude.

But, in faith, the assent and the discursive thought are more or less parallel. For the assent is not caused by the thought, but by the will.38

When God becomes the object of our thought and profoundest desire, reason loses the capacity to reach a satisfactory end to its inquiries, which is to know the essence of its object; though never ceasing its inquiries, our mind, “restless” (inquietus) and remaining ever in a state of inquisitio, must yield to our will, which thrives not on rational clarity but on authoritative testimony.

[S]ince the understanding does not in this way have its action terminated at one thing so that it is conducted to its proper term, which is the sight of some intelligible object, it follows that its movement is not yet brought to rest. Rather, it still thinks discursively and inquires about the things which it believes, even though its assent to them is unwavering.39


With respect to the first principles, Aquinas’s conscientia is not only an act of the mind but also an application of its natural light, through which a healthy human person knows self-evident truths about himself and the world. Moreover, the principles of the practical intellect must be supplemented by the principles of the speculative intellect, for before we can act morally in the world, we must understand the things in it. The principles, Aquinas argues, constitute the mind’s first intentional orientation both to the truth and to the good. The desire to know things as they are is demonstrably present in the mind of any person who is fully awake to the world; hence Aquinas’s general position to the effect that there is no such thing as mere awareness—that is, knowledge devoid of affective response—since concern for reality is itself a desire to correspond to it, and the “good” is defined as the “object of desire.” Further evidence that consciousness, as developed in premodern schools of philosophy, is by nature intentionally interested in reality is found in the related tradition according to which the mind’s “natural light” is essentially a participation in “divine light.” Aquinas held that the only true self-evidence is in and through this light—it is the beginning of the mind’s sense of the world and is indistinguishable from the mind’s self-evidence of its own existence. “God teaches us interiorly in this way.”40

God continually operates in the mind since He causes and governs the natural light in it, and thus the mind does not carry on its own function without the operation of the First Cause.41

Human consciousness, therefore, or, as we have sometimes said, the conscientious mind, is the “seedbed” for more developed acts of consciousness involving both a reflective awareness of our duty to know the truth of things and a reflective deliberation aimed toward discovering their goodness. For Aquinas, as well as for the Platonic tradition, the mind is a pendant power—it is as an ornament hanging from the light of God; and it is only because of this that it can wake to the world equipped with the guidance of the One who created it. And thus, in our first and most primitive states of knowing things, we must participate in the same created order that gives all things their being and their perfection. Human consciousness, unlike that of any other animal, not only participates in but actively translates the divine light by telling the story of creation in its arts and sciences.

Evidently, I have not heeded the warning of the Macmillan dictionary passage I quoted at the outset, for I seem to have fallen “into the trap of equating consciousness with self-consciousness” by denying that “to be conscious it is only necessary to be aware of the external world.” Nevertheless, if we consider the definition of self-evident in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged English dictionary—“evident by itself, evident without proof or argument: producing conviction on a bare presentation or statement”—we find a testimony to the very criteria according to which Aquinas establishes the core conditions of primitive human awareness of the world. The “bare presentation” in this case is not only the soul’s knowledge of itself by presence but also the mind’s capacity for self-evident certitude through the light of first principles. It follows, then, that if consciousness both begins in that light and constitutes an application of it, then every one of its reflective judgments, speculative or practical, is an application of that most certain of intelligible relations. Whenever I witness myself in the act of thinking, I am thus capable of reflecting, by an act of the will, on the primordial self-evidence of my own soul.

Throughout modern philosophy’s extensive concern with the existence and nature of consciousness, the weight of consensus has presumed that it is a subjective phenomenon, that it does not necessarily constitute a real relation to the world. After all, we can register objects that are mere feelings or imaginative creations; the greater interest has been rather in its reflective nature, its self-awareness. In Aquinas’s writing on the subject, however, we find that the structures of consciousness, while not guaranteeing an accurate portrayal of things, do guarantee an orientation to achieving such certitude. As discussed above, the soul or mind is knowable by scientific inquiry, but it also knows itself in a way that is, by definition, inaccessible to the form of knowledge in which science exclusively consists. This leaves knowledge by presence open to be appreciated, augmented, contemplated, developed imaginatively, and, as intellectual history shows us, used as the immediate datum of mystical modes of knowledge. In any case, Aquinas’s work informs us that consciousness is never mere awareness, as though it were possible for it to be unaffected by its objects and the affective states they arouse in us. The disinterested, cold observation proper to scientific method is wholly an artificial posture of mind, adopted for specific purposes and never meant to become our primary view of the world.

Yet, great as is their disparity, the two things, soul and air, have a certain similarity, enough to let us say without impropriety that the incorporeal soul is illumined by the incorporeal light of the simple wisdom of God, just as the corporeal air is illumined by corporeal light. And as the air becomes dark when this light abandons it—for what is called darkness in any corporeal region is nothing but air minus light—so the soul becomes dark when deprived of the light of wisdom.42

From the time we first open our eyes onto the world till the moment we last close them, consciousness is “shot through” with affect. When fully awake, our consciousness not only knows but feels every object, delighting like a child, even when the body is old, in the sheer regard of the world. Possessing it even while being possessed by it, we grasp the first sense of our self. Hence you can at least be certain that nothing is more your own than your own consciousness.  


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