Essay published in the November 2021 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, the flagship publication of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Consciousness research, linguistics, neuroscience, and literary criticism all in one.
Consciousness is a hard field of inquiry for science, an intractable problem. Perhaps it’s the polysemic nature of the phenomenon that gets in the way. For over a century, scientists have been looking for a language with which to describe consciousness. Their attempts have taken on both the mathematical-computational and abstract-symbolic forms. The main point: scientists need a language in order to describe consciousness to themselves, and to each other. In a way, though, literature has been offering a hand the entire time—describing what consciousness is like, what self-awareness is like, what being alive is like. Yet, literature ends up at the same dead end: we can describe consciousness only by analogy and representation. Words can tell what it’s like but can’t tell about it itself.