who are you and who's in charge?

Understanding and defining consciousness is one of the toughest items on any thinker's agenda.

Dialogues (monologues? soliloquies? multilogues?) of the self, with the self, between selves, can produce mutual understanding, empathy, congeniality, even love. But these solipsistic conversations can also involve a self holding negative emotions towards itself---hostility, confusion, hatred, recrimination, resentment, contempt, and the like.

Consider the example of a drug addict who castigates zerself for committing crimes to get money to satisfy zer habit. Ze sees these acts to be not in alignment with zer personal values. Ze argues with zerself. Ze is at war with zerself. How can this be? Why is this so? And so what?

These days, many if not most philosophers, neurologists and psychologists consider that the meme or concept (call it what you will) of 'the self' (or 'a self') is confusing and misleading mainly because it does not exist in objective reality (whatever that is: let me know if you find out). Quite simply, there is no such thing as the self or a self---an homogenous, indivisible, fundamental thing in itself. There is no homunculus (little person) in the control room inside your skull behind your eyes. There is no-one in control. Consciousness is emergent; it is an aggregation of multiple dynamic processes and sub-processes, sometimes collaborating, other times opposing. In fact, a number of these processes and sub-processes (or modules, if you will) fly low "under the radar", below the threshold of consciousness: we're not even aware of them. Things happen in the mind without the mind's owner (?) being consciously or unconsciously aware of them.

Consciousness is not a thing; it does not live at any particular address in or outside of the brain; it can not be found anywhere in the material world. It is a dynamic gestalt of processes, and it tends to emerge whenever a certain threshold of complexity is reached. See my "manic memes" blog for a pictorial example.

You can't find the spot in the human brain where consciousness lives, because it is not material. In my view, robots/computers can be conscious if the software that runs them is sufficiently complex. The actual substrate on which the process runs or is embodied is irrelevant. Whether it is silicone or carbon, hardware or wetware, is irrelevant.

I believe a planet can be conscious (eg the Gaia metaphor). In fact, I believe that whole of reality, the entire universe, Everything That Is (ETI) is alive and well and aware and intelligent. But how can a lump of rock be conscious? How can a cloud of dust be conscious. Very simple, when a gestalt-based perspective (the whole greater than the sum of the parts) is adopted. My foot is not smart but I am. Or, as the universe might say, "My interstellar dust clouds are not smart, but I am. Intelligent beings reside within me, so I am at least as intelligent as they are all put together. But in fact my emergent cosmic intelligence is greater than the sum of the intelligent and non-intelligent parts of me. My intelligence does not reside in any particular material part of me; my consciousness is not material, it resides in another domain.

Consider, for example, a political party. The party produces new policy and modifications to existing policy through a process in which heterogenous factions and sub-factions battle it out or cooperate, as the case may be. The end product is for external consumption, ie by members of the public (voters, constituents, etc).

In similar vein, the 'self' or 'soul' of a person (or any conscious entity for that matter) is an ongoing, dynamic aggregation that manufactures products and services for public consumption (ie 'other people', other 'selves').

PS: This post reflects the influence of a person I admire for the depth, lucidity and hard-edged robustness of his thought: the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In particular I recommend his book Consciousness Explained, published in 1991. He is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. The Centre’s site is well worth a visit.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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