Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement


How to Become Unconscious

Stephen R. L. Clarka1

a1 University of Liverpool


Consistent materialists are almost bound to suggest that ‘conscious experience’, if it exists at all, is no more than epiphenomenal. A correct understanding of the real requires that everything we do and say is no more than a product of whatever processes are best described by physics, without any privileged place, person, time or scale of action. Consciousness is a myth, or at least a figment. Plotinus was no materialist: for him, it is Soul and Intellect that are more real than the phenomena we misdescribe as material. Nor does he suppose that consciousness depends on language (as Stoics and modern materialists have sometimes said): wordless experience is actually superior. And much of what counts towards our present consciousness is to be discarded. It is better not to remember most of what now seems more significant to us; better to discard images; better that the intellect be ‘drunk’ than ‘sober’, losing any sense of separation between subject and object. The goal of the Plotinian intellectual is to join ‘the dance of immortal love’, but it is a mark of the good dancer that she is not conscious of what she does. There is therefore a strange confluence between Plotinus and modern materialists: our experience at least is transitory, deceitful, epiphenomenal, and ‘reality’ is to be encountered when we have shed our illusions.


Stephen R. L. Clark was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Liverpool. His books include The Nature of the Beast (1982), Animals and their Moral Standing (1997), Biology and Christian Ethics (2006), G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backwards, Looking Forwards (2006) and Understanding Faith: Religious Belief and Its Place in Society (2009).