The Anatomy of Awareness, Part Two: What Is Consciousness?
This is the second excerpt from The Anatomy of Awareness, my 260-page book illustrating a groundbreaking, mindbending new theory of human consciousness known as Wave/Containment (recently completed, and currently seeking publication). Be sure to read Part One, entitled “Notes on Dying”. For more information, look here.
An old master was once asked, ‘What is the Way?’
‘The Way is right before your eyes,” he replied.
“Because you are thinking of yourself.”
Flustered, the student continued. “What about you: do you see it?”
To which the master responded: “So long as you are double, saying I don’t and you do, your eyes are clouded.”
The student nodded and departed, apparently satisfied with the answer. Yet after several days, he came back to the masters home and asked: “When there is neither I nor You, can one see it?”
The master smiled and shook his head in amusement.
“When there is neither I nor You, who is the one that wants to see it?”
For much of human history we have believed in the existence of “mind” as a separate entity–a belief repeated by the intelligentsia and religious leaders of many early societies, including the Greeks and Muslims. This belief, that the mind is immaterial and separate from the physical constraints of the body, has been named after Descartes: it is called Cartesian dualism.
Long before Descartes, however, Plato had insisted that there must exist an external realm of “pure thought”, separate from the physical, a realm one had to make direct contact with in order to arrive at mutually acceptable communication with others. Sir Roger Penrose, professor of mathematics at Oxford,reminds us that when two people successfully communicate, the words most often used are “Oh,I see!” But what is it that we see? What is the substance of, for example, a flash of insight?Penrose goes on to describe how Plato’s theory might explain these flashes of insight between two mathematicians, who are having totally different thoughts and who have experienced totally different and unrelatable lives:
When one ’sees’ a mathematical truth, one’s consciousness breaks through into this world of ideas and makes direct contact with it. [...] The mental images that each [person] has, when making this Platonic contact, might be rather different in each case, but communication is possible because each is in direct communication with the same externally existing world.”
Even if we were to take a leap and assume that Plato is right, and that there is some kind of external “idea world” out there, the real problem is in how our wrinkly little brains (resembling, as Alan Turing once said, “nothing so much as a bowl of cold porridge”) could somehow access and interpret it.In other words, even if we are to take a huge leap of faith and claim that the mind as we know it is cavorting around in some other dimension, there’s still the problem of why it’s so easy to get there.
But we can make this even more complicated! Consider, for example, how or why said porridge might claim to have an identity, a personality, a set of beliefs about itself and anincommunicable, subjectiveexperience of being alive, yet have absolutely no awareness that the entire time it does so, it’s really just a seething, gurgling bowl of porridge.
So we return to the question of consciousness, which has now become two: what is it and where is it?
The persistent and unavoidable roar of consciousness can be thought of as a ghost in the machine; it is not strictly our sensory perceptions, our decisions as to what to do next, our memories, or our emotions; it is, instead, the sense of single-pointed organization; the feeling that I am feeling, or remembering, or hearing; consciousness is a sense (right or wrong) that these are not separate and unrelated processes, but a single combined feeling of being me.
Roger Penrose argues that consciousness cannot merely be the image of oneself within oneself: a video camera aimed at itself in the mirror forms an image of itself, within itself. Does this make it self-aware?2. Consciousness, then, is not the content of your thoughts, nor the fact that you are aware of having them: it is the unification of these thoughts into a mysterious coherency, a raw awareness, that calls itself I. I is the one aspect of human experience that is intrinsically personal and totally incommunicable: you can talk all you want about how you felt, but no one else will ever be able to feel it the same way.
Evan Harris Walker, in his groundbreaking Physics of Consciousness, compares consciousness to the image on a television screen: the physical TV is analogous to ones body while the electronic circuitry within it represents ones brain (it is interesting to note that the Chinese characters for computer signify electric brain). Walker goes on to say that the image is the consciousness that lights up the set. The image is not the picture tube, not the phosphorescent screen, not even the light radiating from the screen [or the light that strikes our retinas]. Of course, there is nothing else there, and in fact the image exists only in our mind, which is why it serves our analogy (153). Its a better analogy than he may even realize, which well get to in a momentbut for now, think about this: if consciousness could be found to exist independently from any one persons brain, then logically it would exist independently of all brains.
If we are to use this analogy effectively and compare our brains to a television set, then we must understand where the channels come from (and, perhaps more importantly, whether weve paid our bill on time). A television set does not create a reality; it displays a subset of possible (previously-created) realities which vary due to the physical constraints of the set, the mood or tastes of the viewer controlling it, and of course, the availability of the channel in the first place.
Now were on to something!
Of course, the question of where consciousness comes from or how it shows up is so frustrating that many scientists simply refuse to bother with it, insisting that its an intrinsic property of the brain. While this might seem like a good place to start, its fraught with problems: what organ, neuron, or membrane actually creates consciousness? What chemical reactions give rise to it? Is something conscious as long as it contains those processes? Is it conscious only because of them? Weve seen the effects of pharmaceuticals and brainwave entrainment on ones sense of well-being, mood, even (potentially) their personalitybut these things are all part of an objective, analyzable and describable person and not the subjective me who inhabits that person. The subjective seems to vanish as soon as we start poking around. Where could it be hiding?
We cannot pretend that consciousness somehow bubbles up from a chemical soup within our brains; the chemical processes in our neurons are simpler, in fact, than those that burn sugars in our body. By the same token we cannot derive consciousness from the brains sheer number of calculations and simultaneous tasks. Even the most powerful computers in the world cannot achieve their higher-level functions without softwarecreated by othersthat allows for such a capacity. It is equally obvious that those tasks that handle digestion or the muscles of the heart, for example, are not conscious no matter how complex, frequent, or important they may be.
No, the conscious mind must arrive in some other form, some other software, separate but intimately linked to the workings of the brain. Many have posited the existence of an external force that creates consciousness3and cite electromagnetism as the most likely example. While these ideas might prove to be more accurate than previously thought, they have significant shortcomings as a theory of consciousness. In regards to the electromagnetic theory, it is important to note that the electromagnetic activity in our brains is far too specific, far too local, to result in any kind of grand unificationits more a splattering of isolated twitches than a roaring storm of activity. And electromagnetism is created by virtually everything in our bodiesfrom chemical reactions to the electrons in our cellswhich means that one cannot rule out any one of those processes as being the root of consciousness. The electromagnetic theory leaves us in that strange situation of concluding with less information, and more possibilities, than we started with.
One of our biggest problems in handling the so-called hard problem is that consciousness can be thought of quite literally as all things. I am not referring here to that postmodern belief, that all things are subjective; what I refer to is the inability of our consciousness to include any elements that exist outside itself. By necessity, all our sensory and intellectual information is processed by, and therefore includes elements of, our consciousness. That consciousness, however it arises, is in essence responsible for the existence of such information as information. We cannot talk about consciousness without our discussion being, at its most basic level, the result of consciousness. Yet Alan Wallace writes that science understands none of the central aspects of consciousness what it is, how it evolved, how it is generated by the brain, or even what is is for. In fact, if all we had to rely on for our knowledge of the universe were the theoretical and empirical tools of science, we wouldnt even know that consciousness exists in the universe.
But we know consciousness existseven if only through our discussion of it. As we conceive of and measure cosmic background radiation, Wallace argues, we thereby create the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe as we presently understand it. In this way we create the reality of human experience with the questions we ask.
Perhaps, then, weve been asking the wrong questions.
The roots of what we now refer to as scientific materialism received substantiation, and perhaps first suggestion, through the Biblical assertion of a God who created the universe before He created human beings7. This led to two implications: one, that the world human beings experience and inhabit exists prior to and independently of the human mind, and two, that man was created in the image of God and therefore his mind may be assumed capable of comprehending Gods universe. Understandably, the desire to understand such a universe requires ridding oneself of as much internal experience as possible and adopting a Gods-eye view, an objective lens through which one can attain a so-called divine perspective.
From there, the progression is clear. Modern science has given us a sequence of revolutions both large and small, all steeped in the close examination of individual, isolated processes. This examination has allowed us to land on the Moon, to feed more people than naturally possible, to communicate over great distances, and to see further and further beyond our planet. Through carefully documented experiments, we can discover new qualities of our world and share them with others, who can reproduce our results or find new ways to disprove them. Over the course of its enviable track record, we have become convinced that sciences external validity has made it virtually fool-proof something we certainly cannot say of ourselves. We can say that, in terms of the aforementioned divine perspective, science strives in slow and methodical steps to understand Gods universe as thoroughly as possible. But these steps, of necessity, involve severe reductionism: an experiment can test only one variable at a time. And in practice, external validity is not utilized to the extent we commonly believe: researchers must trust the work of their collaborators, or all scientific progress would cease.
Throughout the ages, numerous doctors and scientists have tried to find the so-called seat of consciousness. Francis Crick8, while being rushed to the hospital mere hours before his death in 2004, was busily drafting a theory that implicated the claustrum as the source of consciousness. Rick Strassman, like Descartes before him, postulated that the pineal gland11 was responsible for experiences of transcendence, oneness, and self-actualization. OKeefe (1986) believed that the hippocampus was what created the sensation of an ongoing consciousness, as it is used in the laying down of long-term memory. Each theory has come and gone, each ultimately failing to provide us with that secretive glow of consciousness.
At this point, I could stop to summarize the research involving neural correlates of consciousness, that is, the search for a neural activity within the brain that directly creates consciousness. But all such searches seem doomed to fail, confined as they are to an objective lens. Such searches will never tell me where in the flashes of my brain I am, because I am not there.
I am here.
And I am one half-second ahead of my brain’s attempts to know me. Forever.
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