I planned to write an uber post about consciousness but first I started rambling about minds and decided to write an outline instead of the enormous thing the ramble was turning into. Problem is, the outline became another huge ramble! It's out of control and obviously no one will read either, but here they are anyway.
1. By temperament I am a rationalist, by which I mean I will tend to believe in the products of reason and to dismiss magical explanations. A magical explanation, in the sense I intend, is one that appeals to special knowledge of the world, not available to empirical investigation. Using "see" in a broad sense, magical explanations suggest that the world can be explained by means that cannot be seen. I suppose that makes me something of a verificatonist too, because I would also say that rational explanations can be shared with anyone who has the means of verifying them, whereas magical explanations are only available to those who agree on the magic as an axiom.
Note by the way that I am not saying that explanations are good so long as they are outcomes of your personal experience. I'm not saying that if you can see it, I will believe it. I mean that you have to be able to explain how I could see it too, and then when I pursue your method, I must see what you claim I will.
2. Why introduce a discussion of a concept of human consciousness by talking about rationality vs magic? Surely that's more appropriate to a discussion of, say, the existence of God. Clearly, God is a magical explanation (and now that we understand the composition of the world somewhat, a less and less appealing one, to the extent that it would be surprising if the Christian god survived another century). What isn't so clear is that human "being" is also often explained magically.
3. The thing being explained is what that being is and what it does. I'm going to use "being" here to mean your consciousness, your ego if you like, the thing that seems to be you. Even if we abandon human exceptionalism (and we should, generally) and agree that we are just another kind of ape, it seems clear that we are not quite like other apes, or other animals of all kinds, because we seem to be able to think and consequently direct ourselves to do things. (I am not sure I'm going to be able to demonstrate that this is untrue but I do think it necessarily follows from the explanation I have for human being.)
4. One approach to understanding human being is to say that we have bodies and we have minds. We might then disagree over how distinct bodies are from minds. Some will be dualists, who believe that we have entirely distinct minds that control our bodies: it's important to understand that a dualist is saying that a human mind is a separate substance from a human body--minds are purely mental, bodies are purely physical (and even milder dualisms are only quibbling over the word "purely"). In this understanding, we have no idea what a mind is or how it is able to interact with the physical body.
5. In my view, dualism is a magical explanation. There is no way of perceiving a mind. You may say that you can see outcomes of its actions, and that those actions in some ways define the qualities of the mind. Again, think about God. You may say you can see the outcome of his creating the world and that says something about how he is. But all it says is that he is the kind of being who would create a world like ours and not some other kind of being. So all you are saying about a mind is that it is the kind of thing that would make your body do what it does.
6. Most dualists will say that the mind is obviously within the brain (we do not know of any minds that exist without brains, after all, and if we remove someone's brain, we know their mind also goes away--although it's perfectly conceivable that the mind continues to exist but no longer has the means of making itself apparent). So dualism can shade into physicalism as one moves from believing that the mind is of a different substance from the brain, which it interacts with in a way we cannot recognise, to believing that it is something within the brain that can interact with it physically. However, this seems to be still a magical explanation, although it needs some thought for that to become obvious.
7. Science is a great tool for substituting rationality for magic. We know, for instance, that thunder is not caused by an angry god because we understand how it is caused by charged particles in rainclouds. So science can dispel the notion of a central mind. How? Well, we can wire up your brain so that we can see where there is electrical activity. If you look at a picture, this part and this part lights up; if you move your leg, that part and that part. A problem is immediately apparent. There is no part that always lights up whatever you do, and were there a central mind, there would be.
I had more but that's probably enough to set the scene for the rest of it.
A concept of consciousness
1. There is no such thing as a person. I have discussed this previously. Briefly, I subscribe roughly to Susan Blackmore's idea that the person is concocted by the brain moment to moment and only seems to be continuous. This
essay is an excellent introduction to Blackmore's thought (apologies for having to use Google cache; seems her site is down.) I particularly endorse her very closely argued view that we do not have a rich internal picture of the world. When I "remember" scenes from my past, the memory is vague and impressionistic. It does not "look like" what I see when I look at things. It's just a bit like it. I'll revisit this.
2. There is no such thing as a mind. This is a magical belief that we hold to try to explain why we seem to be conscious. It can't be found in the brain when we measure the electrical activity that corresponds to things the brain is doing because although different areas of the brain light up when we do different things, there is no single part of the brain that always
lights up and there should be if the mind is seated in the physical brain. What we do see is that conscious activity echoes electrical activity (some experiments have, rather alarmingly, found that some things we take to be controlled by our "minds" occur earlier than the corresponding control--this is the experimental basis for my belief that we do not exist, and I believe that any theory that we do exist must
successfully explain it). Things that cannot be found in the physical world are by definition magical, and it's a feature of magical explanations that they are circular. Here's an example. You may believe thunder is created by an angry god. But if you do, you must claim that the angry god is simply invisible, and the way we know he exists is that there is thunder. Here's another: we can ask why there is a universe. One explanation is God created it. What reason do we have to believe there is a God? Well, there's this universe... So the cause of the effect we are attempting to explain is not visible, measurable or verifiable, and the only evidence of its even existing is the effect we are attempting to explain. It's clear to see that "God" is as magical an explanation as an angry thunder god--he is just used to explain more. However, although I prefer rational explanations, I am going to allow that magical explanations may
turn out to be true, simply because the way that they operate is not known to us. Magic simply becomes less and less probable the more completely a rational explanation describes the effect we are looking at. So angry thunder gods probably don't exist because we understand so well how thunder happens. (If you know any philosophy of science, you recognise that I am invoking Occam's razor while making explicit that it is an aid in deciding between explanations, rather than axiomatic.)
3. If we do not have a mind, what is doing all the thinking? Well, nothing. I've always said that the thinking is just like echoes in a well. A stone is thrown into the water, and the echoes are the outcome. They are shaped by the shape and size of the well and the shape and size of the stone.
4. But what is "hearing" the echoes? Nothing. Stones make echoes whether you hear them or not. Wait though. Surely there are no echoes if no one hears them? Wrong. To make this clear, I am going to define noise and sound as different things. A noise is made when something makes air molecules move. A sound occurs when something captures that movement of air and makes it amenable to interpretation. So trees falling in forests always make noises, but they do not always make sounds (this is not a technical discussion of that question but it does correctly, if not wholly, answer it--of course trees always move the air, but that movement is not always captured).
5. The difference between a noise and a sound is key. Noises in nature tend to be very rich: they contain frequencies across a broad range. However, not only do we tend to experience them as reasonably simple sounds, we also "ignore" differences in detail between noises we interpret as making the same sound. What I'm saying is, we are more likely to say thunder is just thunder than we are to say that there are different types of thunder. It just is true that we only distinguish noises in as far as it's useful to us.
6. Let's take a noise that is very rich, yet we represent it to ourselves as very simple: the crash of a wave. The noise of a wave's crashing is close to white noise: it includes many frequencies. But we hear it as quite a simple sound. It doesn't seem to have much structure at any given point (although we hear it change as it progresses--a crack, a roll, some hiss). Note at this point how simply we describe this rich noise: crash. We can evoke it with one word! And when I say "crash" to you in the context of waves, although you may well "hear" a different sound from the one I do, the difference is entirely unimportant (without going all Wittgenstein on you, when you say you have a beetle in your box, it's immaterial what the beetle in your box actually looks like because when you say "beetle" I use my beetle as a proxy for yours).
7. The noise of the wave contains information (at least I believe it does but I'm not by any means an expert in acoustics--I'm going to ask you to accept that it contains the information I say it does at most
because it doesn't matter to my discussion if it has less). It says what volume of water the wave contained and what the shore it broke on consisted of. This information would be hard to interpret and is not available to us within the sound (if it was useful to us, I daresay that would not be true--our senses diminish or increase the natural world to fit the use we make of the information within it).
8. Let's say we were to digitise the noise of the wave: to write it out so that it was fully described in numbers. Here's the key to understanding what I'm going to say: the sound of a wave and the digitisation of a wave are two different representations of the noise the wave makes. Neither is the same as the noise but neither is different.
As an aside, think again about the tree in the forest. Let's say that a mad professor taperecorded the tree's fall, then transcribed the noise it made into a code that faithfully but esoterically represented it, put the code into a sequencer that made it into music, then handed the music to an interpretive dance troupe, which interpeted it into dance. The troupe performs the dance and you watch it on TV, with the sound turned down. Are you hearing the sound of the tree? If you don't think so, why not? How exactly is this process different from air molecules striking your eardrum, making it vibrate and those vibrations being transferred through bones to nerves that carry electrical pulses to a part of your brain that interprets them as a sound?
Note that no matter how the noise of the tree's falling is conveyed to us, it only exists because of the tree's falling. Even if we had some means of faking the tree fall noise, it would still depend on some
tree's falling. I don't want to get bogged down in philosophical bullshit here, but the point is simply that when there is a sound of a thing, there is a thing making the noise at some point.
9. Say you looked at the digitisation of the wave and saw patterns in it, but those patterns were purely the outcome of your interpretation and did not correspond with the information the noise of the wave actually conveys. The patterns seem to convey information but they do not. They are artefacts of the representation of the noise of the wave. Like the sound of the wave, they exist because the wave exists. Even if they are not part of the information that the wave conveys, they are still outcomes of the wave's conveying the information that it conveys.
We are saying, if it's not clear, that the patterns are something you may or may not see but if you do, they are entirely artefacts of how you are looking. Particularly, we are saying that they are artefacts of using your interpretation of the numbers that you used to represent the noise. Whether numbers are real is an interesting question in itself (my next post will concern this question because in the process of figuring out what consciousness is, I inadvertently solved the universe, but typical of a humanist, I'm still doing human being first), and I tend to feel that they are something we use as a lens to view the world through, rather than part of the world itself, but that's less important than recognising that the patterns we would see in them are to do with how we look at the numbers. Although the noise contains information, which our representation captures, we are suggesting that what we see in it does not reflect that information.
The reason is that the noise is too rich. As it approaches white noise, there is just too much of it and that swamps the information it contains. It should go without saying that if a noise becomes sufficiently rich, it can no longer contain information.
10. We are not saying that if we change how we represent the noise, we will be able to uncover information. The reason that white noise cannot contain information that we can extract is that it happens all at the same time and the information is swamped. Even though a representation in figures is not bound in time, so we can look at any part of the numbers at any time, there is just too much information. However, the wave's noise is not white; it is merely very rich. This means that because it is not completely saturated, it can appear to contain information (even though the information that it does contain has in fact been swamped).
11. The point of this is to say that first we would not hear information in the sound of the wave, because we simply discard richness when we process the noise and second if we represented the noise differently we might then interpret it as having other information it does not in fact contain.
What does this have to do with human being?
12. What I've said about waves will be true of anything that makes sufficient noise to mask the information that it contains. How much masking the information will need depends on how apt we are to recognise it. The chatter of neurons in your brain creates a type of noise. We are almost entirely incapable of interpreting that noise and even if we were able to trace all the electrical activity in a brain accurately, we would not be able to figure out what it was actually doing.
If you have followed this ramble, you realise that what I am saying is that you are nothing more than the chatter of the electric activity in your brain, which simply does what it does without your input, which somehow is reflected back to your brain, represented to it as a different kind of process. Just as the patterns we might see in digitised wave noise are not "really" there, our thoughts are also not "really" there. They are simply artefacts of how the chatter represents itself in our brains.
The chatter is noise. When we monitor it, we discard the information it actually does contain, and reinterpret it as containing information it does not. So as I type this piece, my brain is shifting messages at huge speed, controlling my fingers and making them say what it wants. I cannot even begin to understand the process that makes that happen. My brain is making it explicit to itself but it is too rich to represent faithfully. Instead, it reflects it much more simply, representing it as the equivalent of a sound to its noise--thoughts instead of the very complex mechanical processes that are actually occurring.
Boom! I just made you cease to exist. I have removed you from the universe of discourse. Don't worry though. In my next post, I'm going to give you the possibility of God.