Awareness and Consciousness and Mind, Oh My!

Squeeze past the BIG CONCEPTS blocking the view and watch the absolutes of objective reality melt away before the wondering gaze of awareness

Johnny R. O'Neill
7 min readDec 4, 2021


[Partial profile headshot of small black and white dog, eyes wide, gazing intently at something off camera]
‘What’s that, Tuesday!’ 2021, by author

I remember as a youngster trying to capture the moment when I went to sleep, trying to be aware of that moment.

It didn’t work, of course. As soon as the moment arrived, I wasn’t aware, so, no awareness I’d gone to sleep. Nice try, kid.

A corollary of that conundrum is to try to be aware, now, of something you’re not aware of now. As soon as you think of something you’re not aware of, you are aware of it. So, just like you can’t be aware of not being aware, you can’t not be aware of what you are aware.

That things exist outside our awareness is an assumption. You can’t prove they do; you have to assume they do. And therein lies the irony of objective reality.

Objective reality is the concept that reality is independent of awareness of reality. But since there is no way to prove reality exists apart from an awareness of it, the concept that it does exist apart requires awareness (of the concept).

Awareness is required, in other words, to believe that awareness isn’t required.

To assume a thing can exist without the need of anything other than the assumption (or faith) that it does is more or less a bedrock presumption of science. Which may not seem like a big deal.

Painting of God, in the sky, surrounded by angels, reaching out to touch the languid hand of reclining, earthbound, Adam
God granting awareness? From a brain-shaped, flying pod? Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam,’ 1508–1512, image Wikimedia Commons

But it is.

To presume to not assume

What would a world without an assumption of objective reality look like?

Things pop into and out of our awareness all the time. A bus goes by, a bird chirps, the phone rings. If we don’t assume things outside our awareness contribute to our awareness, how would that work? As Albert Einstein once asked of a friend, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?”

But that still leaves us with the observation that the only things we are ever aware of are things we now are aware of. So, simplistic or not, let’s tuck that little observation under our belt as we explore a world sans the assumption of objective reality, and consider how it is that we are aware…of anything.

Detecting Awareness

We could get all philosophical about it: ‘awareness and consciousness and mind, oh my!’ But we’re not concerned with scary BIG CONCEPT awareness; we’ll start with small concept awareness. Awareness as detection.

Pressure variation in our ears transferring energy to our eardrums, light waves transferring energy to our eyes, chemical reactions transferring energy to our tongue or nose, neurons transferring energy via electrical signals in our brain: we don’t directly detect ‘stuff.’ We detect transfers of energy.

To detect anything anywhere, something somewhere has to change.¹ That change manifests as a transfer of energy. It is via the detection of transfers of energy, in our eyes, ears, gut, that we become aware of the ‘stuff’ of our world, the things we see, hear, feel, and so on.

All of which is to say that there is a physical component to all awareness.

Awareness of thoughts, the imagination, expectation of the future, knowledge of the past: even if ‘only’ in the head, these exist, physically. Emotions physically manifest in the form of chemical reactions in the brain, gut, or elsewhere. Even illusions ‘exist.’ We might misinterpret what we’re detecting — what we’re aware of — but we are detecting something: the illusion.

So that’s the next thing to stick under our belt. Right beside ‘the only things we are ever aware of are things we now are aware of,’ we can place, ‘there is a physical component to awareness.’ Two observations which, combined, become:

The only things we are ever aware of are things we now detect.

Intentional change

Like the ringing of a bell or the orbit of the moon, a transfer of energy — change — could be simply back-and-forth rhythmic, or cyclical. It could also be mere ‘noise,’ random, incoherent changes that manifest in our senses like static on a radio or ‘snow’ on an old, analog television with a broken antenna.

However, in looking at the arc of humanity we can see that while, yes, there is rhythmic and random change in our world, there is also directed change.

It wasn’t that long ago that for a king in his castle, ‘central heating’ was a place near the fire. Certainly, our ancestors were more intelligent and resourceful than we often give them credit for, fashioning tools and developing skills and techniques not just for surviving but for thriving in harsh environments. And that is precisely the point.

Life is capable of directed change — of changing things for its own benefit. And not just human life, but life in general. Species of all types seek to improve their environment for their own benefit.

Ontologically speaking


The only things we are ever aware of are things we now detect.

That’s our first observation, which we could further simplify to…

There is only awareness of what we now detect.

Since to be aware is to detect a transfer of energy (change), we could put it this way:

There is only awareness of change.

But as life seeks continually to change the environment for its own benefit, on a big picture scale it’s not just ‘change’ we are aware of; it’s intentional change, created change. And that gives us the ontological (regarding being and existence) statement:

There is nothing but ‘awareness of creation.’ (Simplistic version, ‘detection of change.’)

Vice versa actually works as well.

There is nothing but ‘creation of awareness.’ (Simplistic version, ‘change of detection.’)

That’s it. That’s all.

That’s what a world sans assumption of objective reality looks like: the awareness of creation of awareness of creation of awareness… Never-ending.

That’s what ‘is.’

Killing objective reality softly

It might seem strange that a statement about being and existence doesn’t affirm ‘existence’ (in that it uses the phrase, ‘there is nothing but…’ rather than, ‘all things are,’ or, ‘everything is’), but so is conceptually placing boundaries between things that can’t be separated without changing both — which is something we do all the time.

Partners in a marriage, mind from body, art from its medium, or even just one side of a coin from another: we wonder, inanely, as we habitually divide our world into bits and pieces existing solely as inherent to a wider whole, if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But if one side of a coin doesn’t exist, then the other side can’t exist, so where is the boundary between ‘them’?

And that’s actually a good way of conceptualizing ‘awareness/creation,’ as flip sides of the same coin, because without awareness there is no creation, and lacking creation there can be no awareness.

Which might seem an argument for assuming objective reality, because without awareness of the thing, the thing isn’t there, but if the thing isn’t there, how can we become aware of it? Conundrum?


To assume objective reality is to grant an extrinsic quality to all objectively existing ‘things.’ It is to assume they exist on their own. And that’s how we tend to think of it. A coffee cup floating in outer space, for example, out there on its own, is still a ‘coffee cup’ to us, despite that without gravity to hold any liquid it can’t function as a cup…at all.

If any ‘thing’ it is to exist ‘on its own,’ as objective reality demands, then that thing must have an intrinsic property of some nature that ‘makes’ it ‘be’ whatever it ‘is.’ Otherwise it’s not ‘on its own.’

In the mind of many of us, a coffee cup ‘is’ a coffee cup regardless of context. But now we’re back to the irony of objective reality, in that it is only via awareness that anything can exist sans awareness.

Is a coffee cup a ‘coffee cup’ to an ant? To a cat? To a tree? If humans go extinct because fungi take over the planet, is a coffee cup a ‘coffee cup’ at all?

Or is it a coffee cup because we make it a coffee cup? Our awareness?

The ‘intrinsic property’ that makes a coffee cup be a ‘coffee cup,’ isn’t it actually intrinsic to us, to our awareness? So, lacking our awareness, it isn’t a coffee cup. This is not to say it doesn’t exist. It just doesn’t necessarily exist as a ‘coffee cup.’ ‘It’ exists as the awareness of ‘it.’ Whatever that awareness is.

As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so a ‘coffee cup’ exists in the eye beholding it. Put still another way, it exists ‘as’ whatever it is detected ‘as.’

And not just coffee cups. You. Me. Everything. The universe. All…

We are what we detect ourselves as.

So, what does a world without an assumption of objective reality look like?

Look, and see…

Although I rarely use the term, I have begun calling my take on Life ‘awareism.’ It’s the notion that the ultimate building block of our universe is the continual awareness of change — the awareness of creation of our ever-new ‘reality.’ All my posts on Medium are ultimately about just that. There is also a book, Life, the Universe, God, and All that Stuff, available on Amazon.


1: Any ‘thing,’ as I’ve argued in previous posts, itself must change in however small or innocuous a manner if there is to be awareness of it.