“Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery. A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about – yet. There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of the origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of the design to be found in nature, the mysteries of time, space, and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them …. With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist — and hope — that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.”
― Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained
I am trying to understand why this is so confusing. I am conscious now. At least I am conscious of many things. I could sit here and meditate on all the things of which I am conscious, like the hum of my computer tower, the feeling of the slippers on my feet, the texture of the air, the sound of the clock, the light from the monitor and the words appearing as if by magic on my screen because I don’t have to think about which key to push to make a letter happen. I am conscious of many things. And all that means is that my brain’s computer is turned on and monitoring the environment, while at the same time monitoring it’s own self generated thoughts. What is so mysterious about this?
The fact that my thoughts are being generated in parts of my brain to which I can have no access? Is this what makes it mysterious?
If I think of my “conscious self” as the CEO running a board meeting. It’s as if there is an indeterminate number of board members setting at the table. Some of them I am aware of, but most of them are invisible. When a thought is required, one of them pops up with it and kicks it down the table, usually in verbal or visual form, as words or as a picture or sometimes as a tightening in my chest and a physical sensation caused by certain muscles tensing on my face, forming a smile or a frown. I then become aware of the thought, and can choose to express it or let it slide by unacknowledged. I can talk directly to these board members, and they can talk directly to me, but in my case it’s like talking from the stage into an audience that is mostly hidden in darkness. I don’t really know whether they hear me when I talk to them, and sometimes I don’t hear them when they talk to me, unless they do something dramatic to get my attention, such as cause tears to fall from my eyes.
Take my current source of sadness: My young lover who never was my lover because at the time we met she was too young and I was too old. Recently she came to visit, and we discovered that she could now be my lover, but I am even older and now unavailable. She has gone away again. Parts of my brain are generating fantasies. Other parts of my brain are telling those parts of my brain to shut the fuck up, or picking holes in the memories and saying “that’s not what really happened” or dissecting the fantasies and saying “that’s not what is likely to happen if you take any action”. And a part of my brain is telling me that I’m not seeing the real person there. I’m just reacting to a reflection of my emotional needs. Yet the heart aches. (What? Where did that phrase come from. My heart is not aching. I feel these emotions in my neck and face.) My conscious mind is riding on this swirling shit storm of emotions, feelings, needs, desires, and drama. I think there’s something in me that is enjoying it all, while another part of me is asking why I am generating these thoughts and feelings when they are not making me happy.
Then there is the part of my brain that keeps reminding me that I love my wife, and that my life is complete with my wife and my friends. I have no real need to complicate my life with romantic drama, fantasies, and regrets about what might have been if different decisions had been made. (Our child, the one that we will never have together, would now be seven or eight years old. Yeah, and you regret that? Really? Are you nuts? Been there done that.)
And then there is the part of my brain that is asking me why I’m putting all of this up in a public forum when I’m supposed to be considering the question of consciousness and surely this is just a distraction from that question.
So what is consciousness? Isn’t it merely the awareness of all of this going on at the same time: The physical sensations being brought in by the senses, the language being directed out through my fingers, and the various parts of my limbic system and amygdula and neocortex competing for my attention by creating fantasies and physical sensations.
Let’s look at consciousness as if it were a computer running subroutines. We are now at a point where we can almost list all the subroutines being run. We have desires and drives, impulses, damping of impulses, fantasies, memories, all the things I listed in the earlier post about what consciousness should be able to do. At any one point one could ask the computer “How do you feel.” Supposedly one would get an answer that would come from the “ghost in the machine”. At the moment I feel sad and conflicted.
And here’s where Dennett nails it.
“Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly. That’s the view. Yes, we have a soul, but in what sense? In the sense that our brains, unlike the brains even of dogs and cats and chimpanzees and dolphins, our brains have functional structures that give our brains powers that no other brains have – powers of look-ahead, primarily. We can understand our position in the world, we can see the future, we can understand where we came from. We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we jolly well know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have and the can-do, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations.
It’s this expandable capacity to represent reasons that we have that gives us a soul. But what’s it made of? It’s made of neurons. It’s made of lots of tiny robots. And we can actually explain the structure and operation of that kind of soul, whereas an eternal, immortal, immaterial soul is just a metaphysical rug under which you sweep your embarrassment for not having any explanation.”
― Daniel C. Dennett
And one more. This one is off topic, but delightful. And apparently quite famous.
“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.”
― Daniel C. Dennett
Bravo Doctor D. Bravo.