It is about the inner movie, one we call conscious experience! It is unscripted and unique to each of us. It has the trappings of an action thriller, horror, comedy, and tragedy all rolled into one. We all enter the scene naked. None of us knows how it unfolds! How can there be spoiler alerts? We all leave penniless when the lights go out!
In a first-person sense, we all know what experience is. Bertrand Russell described it as the Knowledge by Acquaintance — consider a rose. We may try to describe it as a pink flower with a sweet fragrance, soft to touch. No matter how mundane or eloquent the description, it is superfluous. A litany of concepts tiled over, approximate only to direct raw sensory experience. Consciousness is this mystery of experience. The movie of our lives gets projected on the screen of consciousness.
Imagine a young girl playing with her Toy Story Lego set. Playfully, she assembles the head, limbs, and torso into her beloved character. To her amazement, he winks, waves at her, and greets her, tipping “Howdy!”. This scene may be commonplace on the silver screen, but nothing short of jaw-dropping in reality.
- Why, when, and how did the lights turn on? Was the mere assembly of pieces sufficient?
- Was an immaterial or a divine process required to animate Sheriff Woody?
We all are Sheriff Woody in a sense, or Jessie or Little Bo-Peep, pick your character. The mystery is what animates us? The first set of questions posed are open to scientific or empirical inquiry. They bring the hard problem of consciousness to sharp focus.
The second question hints at divine miracles or immortal souls. Many have learned to doubt such claims put forth by religion. At the turn of the twentieth century, Èlan Vital, a magical life-force, was thought necessary to explain life. No one entertains that idea today. Biologists got on with explaining homeostasis, metabolism, and reproduction, among other characteristics of life, to reveal what it is to be alive! Although consciousness may seem like a divine miracle today, it may not, for long.
Consciousness is what animates us, that much is clear. We can do much better to get a conceptual foothold by recognizing that we are the product of a blind, material process of evolution. That an organism is alive is not fait accompli for consciousness. That raises the question of whether some other entities have conscious experiences too.
In his famous essay, “What is it is like to be a bat?” Thomas Nagel was on to something with this metaphor. We can extend this to span the gamut from a speck of sand to flora and fauna, even super-intelligent AI we may create someday.
Uncovering the mystery requires more pointed questions. Clues obtained may lead us closer to the truth! Let’s explore some.
- Is conscious experience restricted to humans?
- Is it possible to lose and regain consciousness?
- Can we have consciousness without a non-functional body?
- Can we have consciousness with a partly-functional body?
- Can the consciousness dial be dimmed?
- Can consciousness emerge by a mere assembly of matter?
- Can consciousness be altered, or otherwise interrupted?
Is conscious experience restricted to humans?
We don’t know. To find answers, we may look at the source code of life. Bats, like humans, are mammals. They have evolved echolocation to navigate, catch prey, and perceive distance. Our distant relatives, the octopuses, having evolved nervous systems in their tentacles, are remarkable invertebrates. Their arms independently taste, touch, and control basic motions without brain input. Yet, they are so divergent from mammals on the evolutionary tree that we have to go back 600 million years to find a common ancestor. What is it like to be an octopus or a bat?
Forests are complex living organisms. Unlike us, they have evolved an intricate underground network of roots. The trees communicate with each other, shuttling carbon, messaging, and cooperating. Are they all somehow “conscious”?
Is it possible to lose and regain consciousness?
Yes! When we are unconscious, or in deep-sleep, or under general anesthesia, we are in suspended animation. But this suspension is temporary. Whereas, when we enter a vegetative state, we may lose it permanently, even though the body remains functional.
Can we have consciousness without a functional body?
No! A corpse cannot have a mind or consciousness. But as an aside, Brain in a vat is worth exploring.
Given what we know about general anesthesia or deep sleep, it’s not hard to imagine that neurological function is necessary for appropriating experience. Imagine a disembodied brain, suspended in a life-sustaining vat. The experience of having a body, simulated by an advanced entity. Although a philosophical thought experiment, it explores the central issues in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mind. These ideas have been a recurring theme in Hollywood movies like The Matrix.
Can we have consciousness with a partly-functional body?
Yes! in a condition called locked-in syndrome, a person’s consciousness remains intact. The body may be paralyzed by a stroke, leaving the subject imprisoned in their own body. In his moving memoir, Jean-Dominique Bauby recounts his harrowing experience blink by painful blink, after a massive stroke left his body paralyzed entirely, except for little movement in his head and left eye.
Can the consciousness dial be dimmed?
Yes, nature can take away or alter the conscious experience — diseases, disorders, genetic mutations, accidents, or just general wear and tear! Helen Keller, a world-renowned author, activist, and teacher, lost her sight and hearing to scarlet fever before she turned two. She learned fingerspelling from Anne Sullivan, her instructor and life long companion who was partially blind herself. An excerpt from a beautifully written autobiography illuminates her mind.
If the mental consciousness of the deafblind person were absolutely dissimilar to that of his fellows, he would have no means of imagining what they think. Since the mind of the sightless is essentially the same as that of the seeing in that it admits of no lack, it must supply some sort of equivalent for missing physical sensations. It must perceive a likeness between things outward and things inward, a correspondence between the seen and the unseen. I make use of such a correspondence in many relations, and no matter how far I pursue it to things I cannot see, it does not break under the test.
— An Excerpt from Chapter XII, The Larger Sanctions. The World I Live In, Autobiography by Helen Keller
Can consciousness emerge by a mere assembly of matter?
If consciousness is merely a matter of matter, then one has to explain the mystery of its emergence. Or if it’s a fundamental property of nature, akin to mass or the electrical charge of a proton, wouldn’t that be something?
When you lock gaze with an infant, you may feel something, perhaps a set of complex emotions, unless you are a zombie. You may also feel the reciprocity of its gaze on you. Something is happening to both. This something that is happening doesn’t necessarily need to happen.
Imagine a future in which sentient AGI entities exist. Can anything be said about their consciousness? Can an arrangement of matter become conscious merely by its assembly? Testing their intelligence à la Turing Test may not be sufficient for at least two good reasons.
- An inkling they are conscious opens a Pandora’s box of moral, social, and ethical implications of their enslavement, happiness, or suffering.
- Say, they passed for humans by displaying a broad range of human behaviors, emotions, and superior moral clarity, to speak nothing of its superintelligence. What, if anything, do we make of their consciousness?
Can consciousness be altered, or otherwise interrupted?
Yes, our neurological apparatus is imperfect, and our perception of reality, tenuous. As physical phenomena unfold in perpetuity, a continuous stream of sensory data impinges our brain at varying rates.
The brain edits and fills in the gaps, and binds them into a coherent story. It is not instantaneous. Modern neuroscience shows it can take up to half a second. What does it all mean?
We are always catching up to reality! Consciousness witnesses only the edited version of this story. It comes along for the ride. It is the last to know. It is also a silent accomplice to our behavior.
Say you lift a finger, all on your own. There are ways to sneak up on this innocuous gesture to reveal what’s behind the scenes. We may believe it occurred due to our volition and free will. Except, neuroscience experiments can detect this impending movement. Many may be familiar with optical illusions, rubber hand illusion, and synaesthesia. Exciting research in neurophenomenology is ongoing in understanding aspects of perception, volition, emotion, and other facets of conscious experience. They allow us to peek into the inner working of the brain to prop, edit, and render physical phenomena, and serve it on our movie screen of consciousness.
We don’t yet know how matter could give rise to consciousness. We may never know, but we are trying nonetheless. Whatever it is, it cannot be an illusion. Nor can it be a miracle, even if it seems so. Even so, it should never take away the awe and wonder of experiencing and participating in the movie of our lives. To appreciate how inextricably interconnected our shared experience with nature is.
It should also humble us in our appreciation of winning the evolutionary lottery to have become conscious. And encourage us to fine-tune our moral and ethical code, should we end up creating sentient AI! Everything we care about plays out on the stage of our consciousness. So matter must somehow matter, for it makes it all worth the movie-going experience!
I thoroughly enjoyed Conscious by Annaka Harris and the reference material she painstakingly collected over the years. Many thanks to her for this amazing book. This post led me down many a rabbit hole and detours of how scientists and philosophers are approaching the problem of consciousness and exploring solutions to explain it.
- Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind — Annaka Harris, 2019
- The Problems of Philosophy — Bertrand Russell, 1912
- “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”. The Philosophical Review — Thomas Nagel, The philosophical Review 83, 1974
- Facing up to the hard problem of consciousness — David Chalmers, Journal of Conscious Studies 2, 1995
- The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Solitude of the Poet — Rebecca Goldstein, Tin House 13, 2013
- How Trees Talk to Each Other —TED Talk, Suzanne Simard, 2016
- Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality — TED Talk, Anil Seth, 2017
- The Brain: The Story of You — David Eagleman, 2015
- The Mind’s Past — Michael Gazzaniga, 2000
- Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne, 2009
- Consciousness And The Self: A conversation with Anil K. Seth, Making Sense Podcast #113 — Sam Harris, 2018
©️ Venkat Kaushik 2020. All Rights Reserved.