Let’s examine the all-important role of attention. Attention is not just another cognitive function. Attention is how our world comes into being for us. The altered nature of attention can appear to abolish parts of the world, collapse time and space, eviscerate emotion, and render the living inanimate. It is a profoundly moral act.

A moral act is the expression of a moral being. It is not just about, or even mainly about, an outcome. What we call a morally good action is not a thing, but the result of the disposition of a morally good being towards the world.

Attention changes the world. How you attend to it changes what it is you find there. What you find then governs the kind of attention you will think is appropriate to pay in the future. And so it is that the world you recognize (which will not be exactly the same as my world) is ‘firmed up’ – and brought into being.

What, then, is attention? Is it really just another ‘cognitive function’ of that supposed ‘machine’, the brain? It’s clearly something pretty special if it takes part in the creation of the only world we can know. Is it a thing? Hardly. Is it something we do? Nearer, but not exactly. Perhaps a manner of doing? Or even a manner of being?

Though attention and perception are importantly different, there is bound to be some overlap, since abnormal attention leads to abnormal perceptions, and vice versa. In turn perceptions inevitably involve making judgments. Judgments are the kind of conclusions that we draw from the basis of what we attend to and perceive.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that it is the manner in which our consciousness is disposed towards whatever else exists. The choice we make of how we dispose our consciousness is the ultimate creative act: it renders the world what it is. It is, therefore, a moral act: it has consequences. ‘Love’, said the French philosopher Louis Lavelle, ‘is a pure attention to the existence of the other’.

Not to love is not fair-mindedness, but unfairness in itself: a bias against. We cannot know anything without attending to it, and the nature of that attention alters what we find: so to avoid bias, our task is not to adopt a peculiarly alienating form of attention, but to be aware of how we attend. We need ‘necessary distance’, yes, but this is neither a closeness that blinds us, nor a distance that alienates. To be aware of how we attend is that for which we should strive.

Attention is extraordinarily important because it helps us construct the world that we live in; to create it. Attention is a moral act because it changes what actually is there in the world for us to find. It also changes us. It has very important consequences. It’s not just a passive process like the exposure of a photographic plate. It is an active open receptivity which is going to meet whatever it is that comes out of that world to which we attend.

You can’t make the creative act happen. You have to do certain things, otherwise it won’t happen. But it won’t happen while you are doing them. They (the actions) create the terms on which the thing will arise. It’s a question of how we dispose our consciousness – that is, how we attend. Attention is a creative act, and creation is really about the induction of a highly attentive state. It is like an ear that is listening and receptive, without actually having anything at all clear yet to hear. You’ve got to have some intimation of what it is that’s coming, however, because otherwise it couldn’t come. On the other hand, you can’t actually close down too precisely on what sort of thing it is, because if you do, you will undoubtedly close down on something else. It involves remaining open, and yet being able to receive something which is, in the end, quite specific and particular. (In this, it is somewhat like prayer, meditation, contemplation…)

[Adapted from “The Matter With Things” by Iain McGilchrist]