Sunday, October 21, 2018

Consciousness as the Seed of Artificiality

Consciousness is the feeling of having a thought, and the form of consciousness that distinguishes our species from the other animal species, namely self-awareness, is the feeling of having abstract, higher-order thoughts, or thoughts about thoughts. However, what distinguishes thoughts or feelings from everything else is that the mental states are supposed to carry meaning in the sense of being about that to which they’re somehow directed. Philosophers have puzzled over what that semantic meaning could be, especially since a thought could be intended to refer to something that doesn’t exist such as a fictional character.

If thoughts are supposed to have meanings that add up to a proposition that’s aimed towards getting at a truth, by forming a relation of agreement with a factual arrangement of things, that account runs up against the cosmicist upshot of scientific knowledge, which is that knowledge reveals the extent to which we clever apes are out of alignment with the rest of nature. Far from uniting us with facts, knowledge promotes Faustian arrogance which belies the existential despair that’s the more authentic reaction to scientific understanding. Science itself doesn’t establish a correspondence between thoughts and facts; on the contrary, science is about our instrumental power over nature. Joined with psychopathic pseudo-capitalism (otherwise known as “unfettered” capitalism which, by way of boom and bust cycles, degenerates into kleptocracy (rule by thieves) or kakocracy (rule by the worst of the population) until the aristocrats are overthrown by a wave of populist savagery), science is unsustainable since it opens up paths to our self-destruction, thus again pushing us profoundly out of alignment with the given facts. Talk of the so-called truth of theories that are supposed to be in agreement with facts becomes meaningless. When the facts wipe out the critters that presumed to be lords of the planet, some other, more awesome and horrific process must have been occurring about which even the enlightened haven’t a clue. In that case, our best models must be superficial, at best, but on top of that, our epistemology must be flawed: our distinction between truth and falsehood, between agreeing and disagreeing with objective facts must be wrongheaded.

But if thoughts aren’t meaningful in the way we usually think they are, and the conscious self is defined by the complexity of its thought processes, we must be mysterious; our conventional self-understanding is an illusion. There is, however, a better handle on what’s going on. The notion that a thought reaches out with an invisible hand to touch its referent, as though it were playing a game of tag is only a crude metaphor for the way thoughts actually relate to the world. A thought is a program for causing some behaviour, a conception or a model that leads the creature to align part of the world with the thought. Plato got to the mythic essence of this process with his distinction between the ideal world of Forms, that is, the world of general terms such as the stereotypical or otherwise simplified conceptions of things, and the less perfect material world, which he considered to be a mere copy of the pre-existing ideals. Plato got the order wrong: ideal conceptions or visions of more perfect archetypes emerge from the pre-existent, mindless but living-dead flow of matter. Moreover, our thoughts or ideal forms aren’t mere pictures of things; rather, the way we think of things consists of information and instructions that program us to raise part of the world to the level of our thinking.

For example, if you conceive of your house as being in an idle state of cleanliness, you’ll periodically clean your house to put it in touch with the ideal. By contrast, if you’re lazy or grow accustomed to the mess, you’ll leave your messy house as it is, and this way of living too will follow from how you think of yourself and your home. Likewise, if you’re antisocial, you’ll be skittish around strangers, because you’ll think the worst of them or of yourself. By contrast, if you’re a social butterfly, you’ll assume other people are there to add to your network of superficial associations. And if you’re a scientist, you’ll think of nature as raw material to be studied, to improve our control over resources and our standard of living. How we interact with the world depends on how we think. Even the most empty-headed extrovert presumes the world operates according to certain simplified unconscious conceptions. The world’s a party for the extrovert, and although her experience may train her to react to certain circumstances, instilling in her traits such as garrulousness and outgoingness, she’s happy with those reactions in so far as she approves of the vision of the world she presupposes. She doesn’t reflect much on how she understands social situations, but she knows she wants to have fun and doesn’t want to seclude herself. The prospect of partying excites her because partying is featured in the world that’s ideal to her. That ideal doesn’t subsist in an immaterial platonic heaven of eternal Forms. Instead, the ideal exists as mental programming that causes her to behave as an extrovert.

We should think of thoughts, then, as seeds that blossom into behaviours that branch out and modify the parts of the world they touch. The mind is conscious to the extent that it thinks, and thought is “about” something else if the thought somehow drives the creature to ensure that the world generally conforms to a counterfactual (or at least drastically incomplete) vision of how things should be. Thus, far from being directed towards establishing a relation of agreement or correspondence between propositions and facts, thoughts are measures by which we’re profoundly out of alignment with given events, that is, with events we’re not yet satisfied with because we haven’t worked sufficiently on them to feel responsible for them. What’s crucial to thoughts and thus to consciousness is, as Plato surmised, their often unrealistic, biased idealism—even if this idealism is just the selfishness bred into animals by their narrow-minded genes. Animals presume they deserve to live, because they prefer to continue living, and so they assume that plants are there for the taking or that weaker animals that are lower down the food chain are as good as prey. In an animal’s ideal world, the environment sustains an instinctive way of life with just enough challenges thrown into the mix to foster the animal’s growth.

With our intellectualism, that is, with our love of thinking, we imagine that ideals govern not just our parochial life cycle, but the whole of natural reality about which most creatures are in the dark. We slip values and meanings into every level of our dealings with nature, which is to say our brain contains an abundance of programs that unfold a world-shaking plan of action. Much as the animists presumed the world is full of spirits, we act as though the world ought to be governed by the galaxy of human conceptions. The complement of human mentality is thus our obsession with artificiality, with improving nature according to our “guiding lights.” We’re supremely aware animals in that we impose our ideals onto all manner of facts, and so we turn the wilderness into intelligently-designed habitats, into cities, corporations, nations, into myths, fantasies, and theories. Our awareness consists of thoughts which are so many encoded neural firings that motivate us to change the world for what we consider to be the better.

Of course, our attention is assaulted by many conflicting thoughts from one moment to the next, and responding to one conception has consequences for related conceptions, since thoughts have associated, not just directly-related contents. Thus, our relation to the world is holistic: what matters isn’t so much whether one isolated action conforms to a particular conception—although that too can be put to the test—but whether a whole life conforms to a worldview. For example, just because you happen one day to think about dogs doesn’t mean you’ll automatically go out and buy one. Your thought of dogs in general is indirectly related to many other thoughts which likewise have some hold over your behaviour. Your thought of dogs may remind you that you’re allergic to their fur or that your landlord doesn’t allow pets in the building or that you can’t make up your mind which kind of dog you prefer. Likewise, if you value cleanliness, you’ll need to spend some money on cleaning supplies, in which case you’ll need a job to pay for them—unless the thought of getting a job in a certain society conflicts with your other values, in which case you might have to steal the supplies. But then the thought of stealing might conflict with your religious values, and so on and so forth. We reach equilibrium when we decide how to act, negotiating a compromise between conflicting visions of how the world should be. And all conceptions are normative in so far as they’re necessarily simplified models that leave out information we consider to be extraneous or irrelevant for our purposes.
The point I wish to emphasize is that the relation of intentionality, of the aboutness of our thoughts or their directedness towards some external content isn’t a ghostly relation but a concrete process of humanizing the imperfect facts. Likewise, the meaning in raccoon thoughts is that their mental states stimulate those creatures to raccoonize their environment, to turn situations to their benefit as though their happiness were metaphysically paramount. We see intentionality play out in behaviours that aren’t just physical reactions, because unlike the latter, intended responses stem from a misalignment between life and world. The primordial conflict is just the obvious one: the world doesn’t care whether any of us lives or dies, whereas each of us insists on the benefit of our continued life (or rarely on our being better off dead). Instead of reconciling ourselves to nature’s indifference, we presume to alter the universe’s mindlessness, to inject ourselves into the alien other via the artificial extensions of our mind. We artificialize the physical, the chemical, and the geological; we go to war against the world’s indifference, eliminating it from our presence as much as possible to avoid having to dwell on that deepest mystery of our being in a “fallen,” alienated condition.

So the next you wonder whether you need an immaterial spirit to make sense of your conscious experience, remember that the miracle hides in plain sight. The miracle isn’t supernature but artificiality, and consciousness isn’t a divine homunculus but a way of life stemming from arrogant normative presumptions and extending to mere-fact-altering activities.


  1. What can be seen is all I can trust, the invisible is unseen and cause of immeasurable suffering, from cognitive lessening of health to outrageous war ( when it is placed before the principle of physicality ) None the less I can see in reality the object and can in the unseen or mind. Geometry and property are the only common nature of the two and it is by far the common thing about these things. But mind is limited by its situation in the geometry, but its properties can be shifted.

    1. Well, even the seen is unseen, as the philosopher Kant showed. What we see are phenomena which depend on our modes of perception and conception. So knowledge has an ineliminable subjective component. This isn't to say we occupy solipsistic bubbles, but we interpret the external world even at the level of our brain's processing of sensory information. We have a human view of the world, so by trusting that world we're trusting ourselves, which I suppose is the spirit of humanism.

      Contrary to Plato, geometry and math don't fall from the sky or from some abstract, immaterial realm. Mathematical concepts are extreme generalizations from human experience or fictional notions we "evoke," as Lee Smolin says, to see if they're useful in modeling natural processes.