This essay is divided into two parts, deeply intermingled. Part I examines not only the origin of conscious experience but also how it is possible to ask of our own consciousness how it came to be. Part II examines the origin of experience itself, which soon reveals itself as the ontological question of Being. The chief premise of Part I is that symbolic communion and the categorizations of language have enabled human organisms to distinguish between themselves as actually existing entities and their own immediate experience of themselves and their world. This enables them to reflect upon abstract concepts, including “self,” “experience,” and “world.” Symbolic communication and conceptualization grow out of identification, the act of first observing conscious experiencing and intimating what it is like, mimesis, a gestural protolanguage learned through imitation, and reflection, seeing oneself through the eyes of others. The step into actual intentional speech is made through self-assertion, narrative, and intersubjectivity. These three become the spiral of human cultural development that includes not only the adaptive satisfaction of our biological needs, but also the creativity of thought. With the mental-conceptual separation of subject and object – of self and world – the human ability to witness the universe (and each other) is the ground of our genuinely human quality. Consciousness gives human life its distinctively human reality. It is, therefore, one and the same ability that enables us to shape planet Earth by means of conceptual representations (rather than by means of our hands alone) while also awakening us to the significance of being.
Looking beyond human self-consciousness to investigate the origin and nature of awareness itself in Part 2, reductive objective materialism is found to be of little use. Direct experience also falls short in that, in order to be transformed into objective knowledge about itself, it must always be interpreted through and limited by the symbolic contexts of culture and the idiosyncratic conceptualizations of the individual. Awareness-in-itself must thus be considered ultimately unexplainable, but this may more indicate its inexpressible transcendence of all symbolic qualifiers than its nonexistence. It is suggested that awareness is not “self-aware” (as in deity) but is instead unknowing yet identical with the only true universal: the impetus of creative unfolding. Our human knowledge, as an expression of this unfolding, is seen to emerge from our conscious experiencing and, in turn, to have the power – and enormous responsibility – of directing that experience. Our underlying symbolic worldviews are found to be autopoietic: They limit or open our conscious experience, which, in turn, confirms those worldview expectations. As we explore a future of unforeseeable technological breakthroughs on an ailing planet who patiently copes with our “success,” truly vital decisions about the nature, meaning, extent, and future of conscious experience will have to be made.