What is Consciousness?

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

I know what I mean when I use the word "consciousness," but I have a very hard time expressing it. My most clear, direct explanations sound like Zen nonsense, along the lines of:

"It is not any experience, thought, emotion, or perception, but it is the empty space in which all experiences, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions take place."

To which you very properly reply:

"Huh! So, ah, what's for lunch?"

As Steven Pinker points out, consciousness is not a complicated concept, painstakingly built up from more basic concepts. It is itself completely basic: you either "get it" all at once, or you don't "get it" at all. So I have collected below a few indirect ways of talking around the subject, in the hopes that one of them will cause you to have the sudden flash of: "Aha! Not a thought or perception, but the empty space in which thoughts and perceptions take place!" I had that flash in 1990, reading Hofstadter and Dennett's brilliant book The Mind's I, and nothing has quite been the same since.

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Reflexes

We learn in high school Biology that our bodies take two kinds of actions: "voluntary" and "involuntary." It's easy to list examples like that. And if I give you other examples (digesting food, taking a walk, etc) I'll bet you can correctly categorize each one.

But now go past the specific examples and describe, in clear terms, the difference between a voluntary and an involuntary reflex. In either case, the body responds to some physical stimulus by sending a message to the brain, which processes, determines a response, and sends an instruction back down to the body. "OK, blood cells, clot over here!" "Hand, lift that glass of water up to the mouth!" When I try to describe what is going on in the nervous system, voluntary and involuntary look identical.

So I want to put this question to you, and I really want you to try to answer it: What is the difference? I don't want this to be a rhetorical question, so I'm leaving a lot of blank space below. Answer this question in the clearest way you can, in words, before you scroll down and read more.

Most people come up with something along the following lines.

"I choose to lift the water to my mouth, but I don't choose to make the blood clot."

or perhaps the following, which I would contend is a bit closer:

"I am aware of the decision to lift the water, but I'm not aware of the decision to clot the blood."

If you're with me so far—if you did your best to answer the question, and came up with something like one of those two sentences—then the "Aha!" experience I'm looking for may be just around the corner. You're not talking about "the brain" and "the nervous system" any more: you're talking about an "I" that is quite different.

Not convinced? Try substituting "the brain" for "I" in either of those two sentences. "The brain doesn't choose to make the blood clot." Well, of course it does. But "I" am not aware of "the brain" choosing.

You may want to stop here, before you read any further, and convince yourself that this is more than a word game. Does it make sense to say "I am not aware of the decision to clot blood?" And if so, what do those words "I" and "aware" actually describe?

That's a thinking process you need to go through on your own. When you've taken it as far as you can, let's move on to another, very similar, thought experiment.

The Human Google

The search engine is a remarkable bit of technology. You type a phrase such as "Felder Mathematical Methods" and it instantly finds every web page that contains those words, in that order.

It turns out your brain can do the same trick.

I'm going to give you five words, and I want you to find a song that contains these five words in this order. The words are not the title of the song, nor are they necessarily the first line, so there aren't any shortcuts: you have to search through every word of every song you know until you find this particular string.

Roll the mouse over the following picture and you'll see the words. Time yourself to see how long it takes to find the song.

Took you less than a second, didn't it? Of course, Google does the same thing in a comparable time. But since you can do it too, let me ask you this: how did you do it? What algorithm did you use? Did you cue on rhyme and rhythm? Did the meaning somehow narrow the search space? Once again, I don't want this question to be rhetorical. Think about it until you have your best answer, and then scroll down to keep reading.

For most of us, the best answer is simply: I don't know. "I don't know how I did it." I read the words, and then suddenly the song popped into my head.

Once again, we have a sentence that is manifestly obvious, but which is nonsense if you substitute a few words: "My brain doesn't know how my brain did it." Well, of course it does. But we can agree that "I don't know how my brain did it."

In both examples, it seems that the "I" gets to peek at some, but not all, of what "the brain" does. But remember that the point is not to carefully analyze the relationship of "I" and "brain," but to try to get the "Aha!" experience of suddenly realizing what the "I" is. I can't get you there. Think about it.

Frank Jackson's "Mary"

In 1982, the philosopher Frank Jackson proposed a thought experiment that went something like the following. (This is not exactly Jackson's original, but I think it is not unfaithful to his point.)

Mary is a neuroscientist of the future. She specializes in the visual cortex. She knows absolutely everything that goes on when a beam of light hits your eye, different cones in the eye send different signals to the brain, the brain sharpens edges and recognizes shapes and colors, and so on. (No one actually knows all that, which is why this has to be set in the future.) Mary has also been blind from birth. Being the geninus that she is, she comes up with the cure for her own blindness. So they anaesthetize her and perform the operation. When she wakes up, they have pre-arranged that the first thing she sees will be a red tomato. So Mary opens her eyes after the operation and sees the color red for the first time. Which of the following does she then say?

  1. "Oh, so that's what red looks like."
  2. "I always knew that was just what red would look like."
If you answered (2), you have a difficult challenge ahead of you. What possible combination of chemicals and neurons would lead Mary to conclude anything at all about "what red looks like?" If red-ness is the last step in her chain of logic, what could possibly be the second-to-last step?

But if you answered (1), you have a philosophical dilemma. Because Mary, by hypothesis, "knows absolutely everything" about the visual cortex. If red-ness doesn't lie there, where could it possibly come from?

You can probably guess now that I'm voting with the "1" crowd. I don't think that all the knowledge in the world about light, and about brains, could possibly add up to what red looks like. No experiment can ever determine if my experience of red is actually your experience of blue.

It's tempting at this point to completely dismiss "my experience of red." There is such a thing as electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 625-740 nm. There is such a thing as cones in the eye, neural pathways in the brain...all of these can be measured and agreed upon. This whole "red-ness" thing is unmeasurable, unscientific, and unnecessary for explaining human behavior. Skinner wouldn't need it.

But to me, that kind of logic is completely backward. As I look up from my desk, I see a red doll that one of my children made in school. Now, what part of this experience am I certain of? Well, if I'm dreaming, then there isn't actually a doll. Or a wall behind it. There is no light emanating from the doll to my eye, and in fact no eye to see the doll with. All of these are illusory in a dream, so I can't be certain they are real right now. But the experience of red is absolutely certain. All of science, in fact, is built up on our sensory impressions—that is, experiences in consciousness.

Stop now. Look at something red, or any other color you like. What is that color? Can you describe it in terms of anything more primitive? Who or what is it that sees the color?

Where does all that leave me?

It seems that there are two distinct realms: physical reality, and consciousness. Each has its own rules, and part of the rules is that they interact with each other.

Of course, it's possible that only the realm of consciousness is real. The physical world is an illusion in consciousness. This is the case in a dream, for instance, or in The Matrix. Occam's Razor points that way, I think, as the simplest solution.

But the opposite idea—that consciousness is an illusion, or is an emergent property of physical laws—seems patently absurd to me.

If you find me unconvincing on that point, you're in good company. Philosophers refer to my position as "Cartesian dualism" with the same sort of disdain that Southern Baptists and Unitarians reserve for each other. Hofstadter and Dennett, from whom I originally had my own "Aha!" experience, don't actually believe in it. John Searle, who has made a name for himself by arguing that consciousness cannot possibly be an algorithm, still takes it as axiomatic that consciousness results from (or is identical to) the chemistry of the brain. If any of them ever heard me talk (not that this is likely), they would dismiss me as a rank amateur and a fuzzy mystic.

And the last criticism would not be entirely unfair. I don't feel fuzzy at all about this topic, but it is inherently mystical, and I mean that in two ways. The first is what I have already stated: it suggests a realm beyond the physical. Some people would say that defines mysticism.

But beyond that are the writings of the mystics themselves, from the ancient Buddhists and the Taoists to Gurdjieff/Ouspensky to Richard Rose to Eckhart Tolle. They talk about consciousness in language that is, to me, far more intellectually clear than the philosophers. They understand that consciousness is the seat of certainty. They understand that "I" am not a thought, or a creator of thoughts, or even able to control my thoughts, but that I do get to witness some of my thoughts. And they stress the need to identify "self" with that "I" instead of with the thoughts themselves, as a doorway to finding something infinitely more real.

So let's end with an experiment that is patently mystical. Of all the body's reflexes, there are two that Biologists say can be either voluntary or involuntary: blinking, and breathing. So take a few minutes to make breathing a voluntary activity. Be as conscious as you can of the breath flowing in and out of your body. Watch the change that comes over your consciousness when you do this even for a few seconds. And then ask yourself: what changed? And who was aware of the change?


From: Richard Felder
August 27, 2008

I read and enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I can say that I really understood it at the level I think you were hoping to induce. I'm right with you through the parts about how some things our brains do are more accessible to our consciousness (whatever we normally think of as "I") and others are totally inaccessible to it. I agree that something there is doing the watching of whatever is there to be watched, and that something—whatever it is—is real. But that's all I can say. Just as the concepts of God and no-God are equally incomprehensible to me, it makes no sense to me that a collection of purely chemical and electronic processes can be self-aware, and it also makes no sense that there's some other entity somewhere that's doing the observing (what kind of entity? where is it?) or that everything I think of as real is just a dream (whose? what is that being's reality?). I haven't had the kind of epiphany or mystical experience that makes true believers of people, although I would love to. I've tried to meditate and to be conscious of my breathing, and although on at least a few occasions I became much calmer and felt better afterwards than I felt when I started, I'm not conscious of a more profound change that occurred in me—and I don't have a clue about who was observing. I'm not saying this as a criticism of your essay, which is excellent, or your belief system. It's really more of a self-criticism, because I truly believe that there's something to experience that I just don't seem to be able to get to.

From: Kenny Felder
October 25, 2008

I've not had profound mystical experiences either. My goal in this essay is to convince people, based on absolutely everyday experience, that there is something there.

I have one more argument, which I left out of the original essay because it's a bit more esoteric, but I'll put it here because it's the last weapon in my arsenal.

Here is a picture of a black circle on a white background.


That circle exists in a file called "circle.gif" which exists on a hard drive on a Web server. That is, there are a bunch of magnetic domains, some of which point this way, and some of which point that way. "1"s and "0"s. Those magnetic domains are not arranged in a circle...which may sound obvious, but it is crucial to the point I want to make. Nothing in that file is, in any real sense, round.

When you downloaded this Web page, the server sent a sequence of electronic signals, sometimes on, sometimes off, representing "1"s and "0"s again, to your computer. There was still no circle—nothing round—anywhere in the process.

Now, your browser knows the structure of a .gif file. So it interpreted those "1"s and "0"s and rendered a series of black and white pixels. At this point, for the first time, there was really a circle—there was really something round. There were some black pixels on your computer screen, and they were more or less arranged in a circular shape.

Let me be clear about this distinction. The original file on the Web server contained all the information, or instructions, to draw a circle. But the file did not actually contain a circle itself. This distinction would become important, for instance, if we all lost the software that knows how to interpret the "1"s and "0"s in a .gif file. In that case, the file would still exist, but there would not be a circle any more.

It's very analogous to the word "circle" written in letters, or spoken as two auditory syllables. That word is not round in any sense, but it refers to roundness, if you know how to interpret it. It is roundness in potentia.

But once the black-and-white pixels are on the screen, you don't need to interpret them into a circle: they are a circle, round, in reality.

Hopefully, you're thinking "this makes perfect sense, as far as it goes, but I have no idea what point you're making or what it has to do with anything." Just bear with me a moment longer. When does a potential circle become a real circle? When something in the physical universe is actually arranged in a circular pattern. That something might be as insubstantial as pixels on a screen, or it might be much more substantial like ink on a printer page, but it exists in a real position in space. An alien from Mars could see the circle on the screen or on the page, but not in the file or in the word.

Now, close your eyes and imagine a circle. See it as vividly as you can. See exactly where it is in space, how far from you, how big, what thickness, what color. Focus on the image for a while.

Then ask yourself this question. That circle that you see: is it really round, or is it only instructions for round-ness? Does it physically exist, or does it only refer to something physical?

As you stare at it, I think it's impossible to deny that it is really a circle, right now. It is round. No interpretation is needed. It exists in a certain place in your visual universe, and it traces out a circular pattern there.

But of course, unlike the computer screen or printed page, your imagination contains nothing at all in the physical universe that is arranged in that circular pattern. Your neurons aren't. You can answer the question "where is the circle?" but never the question "what is the circle made of?" And yet, you can't deny how gosh-darned circular that circle is.

Does that prove anything? Does it prove that consciousness is a separate entity, distinct from all physical reality? To me it does. But it is not a logical Geometric proof that you can't argue your way around, and it isn't meant to be. Remember that my whole goal here is to induce an "Aha!" experience. I know at least one student for whom none of my other thought experiements worked, but this one did.

From: Henry Rich
February 2, 2010

Since you have taken the trouble to make your points so vividly, by right I should be expected to offer my own analysis of consciousness, so that if I disagree with you it will not be from behind a mask of non-commitment.

I think that consciousness is simply the name that we give to behavior of a certain type. Specifically, it is the behavior exhibited by systems that are complex "enough" and have "enough" internal feedback that they can form models of the world and reason about those models and possibly other internal states.

If a machine exhibits that behavior, we say it's conscious.

When we say that, we are making a slight misstatement, which I would like to stress here. It's not really right to say that a machine is conscious (or course, in this essay 'machine' includes humans). It is only right to say that it is exhibiting conscious behavior. Consider: when a person is apparently sleeping, are they conscious? Who can tell? Maybe they're dead, or have just lapsed into an irreversible coma. We mustn't say a machine is conscious, only that it exhibits consciousness.

That focuses us on the important point: consciousness is not a thing; it is an attribute of behavior. The misunderstandings about consciousness have generally arisen because people try to make a thing out of it.

An analogy: you have seen how, at the inside corner of a building, a little vortex will form when the wind blows right. Leaves are picked up and they whirl around for as long as the wind keeps blowing. Is the vortex a physical object?

I say no. If it were, we could talk about what its components are, but it doesn't have any really: it is made up of leaves and air that happen to be moving before the vortex starts; and of course, the building is essential to make the behavior happen, but we don't think of it as part of the vortex at all. No, I say the vortex is a behavior, something that is happening, a name we give to a pattern we see. It appears while the behavior is happening, and then it's gone.

The vortex can be large and persistent, and we call it Maelstrom; it can be huge, and we call it Hurricane Katrina. But when the wind stops, it ceases to exist. Consciousness is exactly like that.

Another analogy: what is music? I say it is the vibrations in the air. It is NOT the notes on paper, or the mp3 file, or the intuited memory of the music: these things are just records of music that once existed. It is not the feeling we get from hearing the music: that is behavior of the body that hears the music, not the music itself. The only actual music is the music in the air right now. It is behavior, and when the vibration stops, the music is over. It ceases to be music. It is no more. It is ex-music.

Here's my epigram: Consciousness is the music of the brain.

I arrive at my opinion about consciousness mostly because it seems to me to be the simplest explanation to fit the facts. I find that it leaves me unperplexed about many cases that seem to vex some other points of view.

For one thing, I feel no need to nail down precisely what conscious behavior is or isn't. Does a dog have a Buddha nature? I don't really care. Does consciousness set us apart from other animals? On the evidence I see right now, I'd say no, that apes and maybe even some birds exhibit enough feedback in their behavior that I would call it minimally conscious. (That doesn't make me think they deserve political rights.)

Is a drunk conscious? Does he cease to be conscious only when he passes out? I have no problem with the concept that his consciousness is diminished gradually by drink, and that long before he flops into the gutter his behavior has become less and less conscious and is probably unconscious before he is totally unresponsive.

Is a newborn conscious? Clearly not, I say—consciousness develops only as the brain gets enough structure for it to feed back and think about itself.

Is a severely autistic child conscious? Yes, but differently from normal children. Its behavior exhibits most of the hallmarks of consciousness but show a gap in feedback relating to internal modeling of other people.

Is a schizophrenic conscious? Yes, terrifyingly so. They have lost the normal controls on feedback and are exhibiting, if anything, an excess of consciousness.

There is one more concept that we have to deal with before we can fully come to grips with consciousness: the concept of the self. It is an illusion in the same way that consciousness is an illusion. There is no self. There are brains, and they do things, and there is some continuity in what they do, but there is no self, really. The 'self' is only behavior, a name we give to a vortex, something that is gone when the music stops.

Do I really believe that? Yes, I do. I use the words 'I' and 'you' as much as anyone, and I make promises and keep them, and I believe that people exist; but those are simplifying approximations. I use 'Barack Obama' as shorthand to mean the behavior associated with that body, and if there is strictly speaking no consciousness in the body there is likewise no 'self' there.

Of course I don't live my life thinking that way. It's too hard, and too convenient to imagine selves. It the same way, I normally act and think as if things fell because the earth attracts them, even though I know from general relativity that it really doesn't—the true explanation is too complex for daily use. But I know I'm making an approximation, and I know I'm making the same kind of approximation when I use the concepts of selves and persons.

Again, this point of view matches well with reality. Even folk wisdom might agree with me.

When we say a drunk or a deranged person is 'not himself', I think we are saying nothing but the literal truth. Their brain has changed so much that it is misleading to hang the same label on it.

I have been reading Mencken, and I find support:

Am I actually the same mammal who, [at 16], was a baseball fan, and knew all the players without a scorecard? It seems incredible—some outrageous fable out of history, like that about Washington and the cherry tree.

No, he wasn't the same mammal. His brain was wired differently. Legally it was the same brain, but it was a very different self.

In my own life, I can hardly believe what a jerk and a child-hater I was before my children were born. Am I the same mammal? It seems to me to stretch the definition of equality to answer yes.

As with consciousness itself, the invalidity of the 'self' concept is best shown by pathology. I am reminded again of Mencken, who wrote 5 million words for publication and read a novel a day in addition to keeping current with science, politics, and the arts. In 1948, at age 69, he had a massive stroke that left him unable to read or write. Alistair Cooke recounts a visit in 1955:

[He spoke] of his particular affection for Edgar Lee Masters... I asked how long Masters had been dead. He was puzzled... and I suggested... 1948. "Yeah," said Mencken with no guile at all, "that's right, I believe he died the year I did."

Wasn't Mencken simply speaking accurately? The Mencken of 1955 was not the Mencken of earlier days. Much—most—of the self had vanished.

We have an old friend who has Alzheimer's. Six years ago she was witty and vibrant. Three years ago she was forgetful and quiet. Now she remembers no one but her husband (just barely)—not even her children. She speaks not at all, and barely responds to stimuli. Where is the self? Isn't it correct to say that her self has disappeared, or almost all of it? This would pose a real problem for someone who thought of the self an a real unit, wouldn't it? If her self is there, is it still there when she lapses into the final coma? That would make the self a useless term, nothing like the thing that cracks jokes and loves the kids. But if her self is not there, when did it cease to be? For me, it is not a conundrum—I just say that the 'self' seemed to be there and just dissipated until it was all gone, or almost. It was an illusion anyway.

So much for my opinions. You didn't ask for them. But they will help you understand my responses to the essay you pointed me to.

Here is my summary of your argument:

1. The brain can do things that it doesn't understand. The key section, for me, is this one:

"I don't know how I did it."...

Once again, we have a sentence that is manifestly obvious, but which is nonsense if you substitute a few words: "My brain doesn't know how my brain did it." Well, of course it does. But we can agree that "I don't know how my brain did it."

In both examples, it seems that the "I" gets to peek at some, but not all, of what "the brain" does.

2. "[T]here are two distinct realms: physical reality, and consciousness...consciousness is the seat of certainty."

About (2), I have said all I can. I think you have one realm too many. You dismiss this as patently absurd, but I can assure you its absurdity is not patent. As I have tried to show above, it seems to me to fit the facts pretty well.

Nor do I agree that consciousness is the seat of certainty. I would say that the brain is the seat of all thought. But in any case remember that certainty often turns out to be delusion.

The only thing I want to add regarding point (2) is that generalizing about conscious behavior is difficult, because we really only have one specimen of machines exhibiting conscious behavior, namely humans, and so generalization about consciousness usually turns out to an analysis of human behavior. If you want to put your theory of consciousness to the test, you have to stress it: make sure it embraces mental illness, dementia, early childhood, drunkenness, mental retardation, severe handicap, consciousness in other species, and computers that pass the Turing test.

Concerning (1), I agree with most of what you say about the phenomenon of limited self-awareness. Yet, this phenomenon seems significant to you (though you don't say so explicitly) as evidence of a difference between 'I' and brain. I disagree with that last part, and I would like to analyze the case.

The key point is where you say:

"My brain doesn't know how my brain did it." Well, of course it does.

No, it doesn't. For the brain to 'know' something, it has to have access to that something. Here, the something is 'how the brain did it', and that information is as unavailable to the brain as it is to the 'mind'.

An analogy: when the CPU does a memory fetch and it hits in L2 cache, does the CPU 'know' how the data was fetched? No. It gets the data, but the complex process of tag-matching is totally unavailable to it.

The brain is still largely a mystery, but we know that it consists of massively interconnected neurons that seem to be organized into centers that perform specific functions. Some of the states of the machine feed back into other states. That feedback, in my view, underlies what we call conscious behavior. But there is no reason to expect all the internal states of the brain to feed back to other parts.

Instead, the neurons are organized into functional blocks that perform a function, with most of the processing inside the block being hidden from the outside. The visual cortex is the prime example: several layers of neurons whose function is consumed entirely by other layers and never made available to the rest of the brain. The world 'seen' by the brain is a highly-processed extract from the retinal image, and 'consciousness'—or even unconscious reflex—has no access to the raw data.

The visual system is thought by some to be preconscious, but this same processing goes on in parts of the brain that contribute to conscious behavior. Memory is the foremost example, that massively interconnected system whose subtleties you allude to in your essay. But memory is so vast, let's look at a smaller example: grammar recognition.

You know more about this than I do, but it seems that there are parts of the brain that get devoted to recognizing speech. This is a fantastically complex process, drawing on memory, knowledge of grammar, and pattern-matching. The grammar processor must be heavily connected to the rest of the brain.

But even so, most of its processing is performed locally. It handles the incoming phonemes, consults other sections of the brain, and announces a result, after processing on a scale that supercomputers cannot keep up with. The processing that was performed is local to the grammar center and is not available to the rest of the brain. In other words, the brain doesn't know how the brain did it. To 'know' something is to have that something available as an input for analysis. This the brain does not have. The grammar center doesn't know how it did it either. The record of processing simply isn't brought out to where it can be known by anything.

How could it be otherwise? If consciousness could know about how sentences are understood, it would be overwhelmed with the input of what is going on in matching grammar to sound. As it is, the brain has to discard most of the stimuli that come in so that it can devote its meager resources to processing the important ones (meager compared only to the rest of the brain, not to other machines). If the inner working of language processing were available to consciousness, it would be like having a brass band in your head that started playing every time you heard a word. The first thing the brain would have to do would be to ignore the details from the grammar center.

This sort of thing is very familiar to me from my days as a machine designer. In modern machines, it's not the processing that causes design headaches, it's the interconnections between the blocks. Vast amounts of internal state must be left hidden from the outside. The resulting machine is a set of black boxes, each taking inputs and producing results, but each opaque: no part of the machine knows how any other part, or even its own part, works. Does the CPU know how a floating-point multiply was performed? No. It knows only the inputs and the result.

Even in biological machines, where the capacity for making connections is two or three orders of magnitude denser than in electronic machines, a machine that is fully self-aware is not possible. To be fully self-aware, a machine would have to have connections from all the internal states back to wherever awareness happens (that is, it has to feed back to a point where it can be an object of introspection). But then that introspection itself must also feed back...I think you might be able to prove formally that total self-awareness is an impossibility.

But it's not worth the trouble to do so, because it is obvious that a self-aware machine is going to cost a factor of at least hundreds more, in terms of energy used and neurons required to tap out all the internal state; and that the payback for that added self-awareness is trifling. In this world, where every added bit of brain must justify itself in the combat for survival, such a machine could not evolve. Remember, the human brain was a longshot to survive, and most members of its family didn't.

So: I don't know how I did it, but my brain doesn't know how it did it either. I am not fully self-aware, but neither is my brain. To the extent that you think lack of self-awareness is evidence for the existence of something other the the brain, I disagree.

From: Kenny Felder
February 4, 2010

I re-read your email this morning, and I think it's wonderful. It's a very clear, logical, thoughtful, and even personal elaboration of exactly the position that I hope to dispute. I only wish I could be as clear and logical in my refutation, but I can't. All I can do is wave my arms a lot.

I should stress that I have no desire to defend the existence of a permanent "self" or identity. In fact, I have made much the same point in one of my own essays, immortality.html. I suspect you would find little to disagree with there: only an alternative statement of your own argument. Until the very end, when I briefly discuss consciousness again.

So, the point where we disagree, of course, is your definition of consciousness as a behavior. I find that perfectly adequate in discussing H.L. Mencken, or a drunk, or a computer, or Henry Rich, or human psychology. But I find it completely misses the point in one specific case, and that is when I am discussing Kenny Felder. Right now, my hands feel cold. I do not mean "I am acting as a cold person acts" (for instance, rubbing my hands). I do not mean "my body has detected cold and sent an electrical signal to my brain" (although this is of course true). I mean I have a feeling of cold in my hands. You know what I mean, only because you have had the same feeling: if you had never had it, there is no possible way that I could describe it to you. Words do not encapsulate experience, they merely evoke it. That's why I can only wave my figurative arms in an essay like this one. You have experience of a conscious being, every moment. I'm not trying to prove that to you, just trying to get you to notice it. Alas, it is significantly more difficult than explaining the gradient.

From: James Ingram
March 22, 2010

This is, of course a minefield where its very easy to get lost amid the red-herrings. Some questions have been answered (to my satisfaction at least) long ago. On reality, for example, I agree with you and Descartes entirely "I think therefore I am."

The best way out of this jungle is, I think, simply for me to state my position as tersely and as clearly as I can. Writing down what one thinks is also a good way to iron out the inconsistencies, so I'm also doing this for my own benefit. :-)

I think of the Universe as consisting of a manifold, and of brains being a special part of that manifold having the capacity for self-reflexion. Brains are special knots in the Universe's structure, where it is able to observe itself.

By "manifold", I mean the complex stuff which brains separate into space and time [objects and processes, particles and waves]. I dont think we can have any way of knowing how complex this stuff is. Brains probably have a blind-spot somewhere. But since we are (time-)conscious we can make hypotheses, and see where they lead us. This is a pretty orthodox, scientific attitude. But we should never forget that we are ourselves part of the system we are watching. This is, I think, especially important in experiments in which the act of observation apparently disturbs the observation itself.

So I currently think of experienced time as a brain strategy for reducing complexity. No conciousness, no time. No time, no conciousness. In deep sleep, time ceases to exist. In dreams, causality can be a little confused. Experienced time is not mechanically measurable, but we do think of it as changing in speed (density?) in various situations (boredom, extreme concentration, danger, trance etc.). Experienced time and consciousness are, for me, pretty much the same thing.

So that's my answer to your question. Consciousness is the Universe watching itself. The self-conscious Universe separates space and time in order to do so.

And who am I? Well firstly, I'm part of the manifold. And secondly, in my self-created time, I have a cultural history. My brain has a cumulative state in which my memories and everything I have learned is stored. Techniques, languages, prejudices etc.. "I" am stored in this particular glob of jelly. But this brain believes that a lot of the assumptions it makes about the Universe are time-sensitive and probably wrong, so its not particularly concerned with what happens when it ceases to exist.

The fun part comes NOW. It is deeply satisfying to discover that one's world-view is incomplete. This is the sense of awe and wonder necessary for any productive Art and Science. For example, it is obvious to me that love has a positive influence on any action. One works better, and life seems to make more sense, if one loves what one is doing. Why? Is love an attribute of concentration? As I said above, concentration is closely connected to experienced time... Classical physics ignores love, but somehow it must also be part of the manifold.

From: Alex Dilalla
April 30, 2010

I really enjoyed this essay and I think I understood most of it. I read the other comments as well and I feel some of their points were lost on me. Now, allow me to state my philosophy on the matter. Hopefully I end up addressing the topic and not creating some new debate.

My first proposal is that there are two different lives:

  1. Being the physical biological cycle that every living thing goes through. My crude example being a baby is born, grows up, becomes and adult, reaches old age, and then dies.

  2. Being the life we live inside our active brain, or as I propose to be synonymous with the "awake" brain, our consciousness.
I'm going to try to explain my view the best I can, bear with me please.

A person can physically be living. But, to me if a person is not conscious then they cannot be aware of the fact that they are living and as such whether they are physically alive or not is a moot point.

An example: A patient in a hospital is brain dead but the rest of their body is fine, they can stay a vegetable for the rest of their time. To me this body is alive, but the person, the consciousness in that person that I could have had the ability to intellectually interact with is dead.

Placing myself in this situation: My body is fine, my brain is dead, I am a vegetable. "I" am dead. The ability to interact with myself inside my brain, the ability to be self aware, to reason and rationalize, those things are life. To me, Descartes was spot on.

I think the reason death scares most people, or the reason it scares me, is that it is the end of myself. My consciousness will have ended for eternity, something I feel I'm too immature to even begin to try to grasp, Without self consciousness nothing else exists. Not only "I think therefore I am" more "I think therefore everything exists!"

I am sorry if I was not very clear in my explanation or if I was just repeating what you or other people have written. If you have any questions about what I have written that might help me to think things through a little better.

From: Kenny Felder
April 30, 2010

Perfectly clear! I am particularly fond of the phrase "Not only 'I think therefore I am' more 'I think therefore everything exists!'"

I think your next step is not to try to get a better understanding of death, or "My consciousness will have ended for eternity"; rather, I think what you really want to explore is the "myself" in the middle of all that. What is it, really, that you don't want to lose? If Alex Dilalla still exists, but his hair is a different color, is it still you? What if he still exists, but he doesn't remember the events of April 30, 2010 at all? (*How well do you suppose you remember April 30, 2007? How about 2000?) What if he still exists, but his political opinions have changed drastically? Can you pin down, at all, what you're trying to hold onto?

From: Alex Dilalla
May 2, 2010

I want to hold on to my self awareness if that makes any sense at all? I want to hold on to the ability to know that my hair color has changed or that I seem to have forgotten the events of yesterday or the events of a year ago. I am in complete acceptance that life is organic and I will change. Above all else I am trying to hold on to my ability to think and to rationalize situations. I am my thoughts if that makes any sense. I am trying to hold on to the ability to have those thoughts. I feel like I may have strayed off of your question but after a few days of thinking that is what I have come up with.

I'm a big fan of Descartes. A number of people have criticized this passage as being too focused on thoughts, but I think they're missing the point. He is not saying "I am my thoughts." He is saying "Even if I can be fooled about everything else, there must be a me to be fooled in the first place."
You said this in your conversation with Alex Dunham over knowing things for sure.

I said to you in the paragraph above that "I am my thoughts." Reading your reply to Mr. Dunham I feel like I did not think it through enough. I firmly believe that I can only really know that I exist. I am trying to hold on to the me to be fooled. Does that make sense?

From: Kenny Felder
May 2, 2010

"I am trying to hold on to the me to be fooled."

What I'm trying to get you to do, as much as is possible, is to define what the "me to be fooled" consists of. (Warning: I am not claiming that this is easy, or that after you struggle for a while, I will give you the simple, back-of-the-book answer! I am claiming that your own personal struggle to look for it honestly and define it clearly is a tremendously valuable and important process.)

In my previous email, I threw out a few "straw men": things that obviously don't define the "me to be fooled." But if it isn't hair color or the memory of today, if it isn't a set of opinions about politics and music and movies, if it isn't a preference for swimming and philosophy, what is it?

From: Aralia
November 6, 2010

excellent essay. my thoughts (yes there is an "I"), are that we will never know anything about us as it is beyond our capabilities. It is only the infinite why that makes us fools of the infinite search of us. It is infinite knowledge.

From: Kenny Felder
November 7, 2010

I had a teacher who said "The finite mind can never understand the infinite, but the finite mind can become infinite."

From: Cheenu Tiwari
October 9, 2011

I read your consciousness essay today and it really inspired me to think about consciousness from my viewpoint. In my opinion, consciousness includes decisions and awareness. It encompasses morals, emotions, reasoning, logic, senses, decisions, and more. Using consciousness, you make decisions in life (ex. eating cake vs. eating pizza, or something). It is also used to look into your environment and process it. However, this is not like life instincts!

Take for example a random food-eating bacteria. If it senses food in its environment, it will stop moving around randomly and will head towards the direction of the food. Though that shows decisions and observations, it is fully computerized with proteins and DNA and whatnot being the individual chips. That is not consciousness. What I really think consciousness is about is being aware of yourself (like what you talked about when you were showing I verses the brain) and possessing opinions, morals, feelings, and more.

When I talked about the bacteria, that pretty much shows how the earliest life forms (from a scientific belief point) had no consciousness (because they were all cells). When, then, did consciousness appear? I guess the best way to answer this is to look at evolution from a scientific viewpoint. The key time period in life's evolution, where consciousness arrived, was when multi-celled life forms took care of their young after they were born. Wouldn't it be necessary to become more than just a bacterial robot? So far, nobody knows how this all came to be, and what I said is probably very controversial, but this evolution to caring for young seems to make sense to me. I mean, don't we all have family ties and love? Don't animals have that, too (at least, some of them do!)? Sure, I know animals like sharks don't care for their young (in fact, if their young don't get away quickly, their mom will eat them!), but it would have to require a superior thinking process with morals and emotions to take care of young. I'm not sure whether my bias from my biology interest is helping with my argument, but I think that's one thing to deliberate about: whether consciousness includes morals, etc. or not.

From: Asher Witkin
June 21, 2017

I greatly enjoyed your essay, and in terms of agreement and understanding, I'm with you all the way until you describe consciousness as something that doesn't stem from our physical brains. I tend to agree with Richard that "it makes no sense to me that a collection of purely chemical and electronic processes can be self-aware, and it also makes no sense that there's some other entity somewhere that's doing the observing (what kind of entity? where is it?) or that everything I think of as real is just a dream (whose? what is that being's reality?)"

While I cannot begin to fathom how consciousness could come from the physical brain, it seems simply absurd to me that it could come from anywhere else. To me, it's rather like not knowing how an earthquake works and jumping to the conclusion that a god is jumping up and down. Hasn't the pattern generally been people not knowing how something works and therefore assuming some mystical element only to later discover the missing mechanics? 

More broadly, I found myself reading most of your essays on spirituality and being confused about why you seem to look at the existence of something spiritual as likely. We seem to agree that one can neither prove not disprove the existence of the spiritual, but as someone once pointed out to me, one can also not prove nor disprove that there is at all times an invisible elephant over your left shoulder. We all live as if we are fairly certain the elephant doesn't exist. What has led you to the conclusion that the mystical (consiousness unrelated to brain chemistry, a Truth to be found about one's purpose and identity and known with certainty, etc.) is more possible than the elephant? 

I absolutely agree that there are questions we can never know the answers to without the mystical, and that these are questions worth answering. But what gives you hope that answers are probable, more probable than an invisible elephant? Until I understand why these questions are worth pursuing, and I would love to believe that they are, I simply cannot begin to imagine dedicating the time required to answering them. It feels like finding gold in my backyard: technically possible, but not likely enough to be worth the effort. 

Thank you for continuing to add to the blog, I greatly enjoy it and it has challenged and fascinated me over and over again. 

From: Kenny Felder
June 22, 2017

Your email made two different analogies, and I want to address them one at a time.

1. Why isn't saying "we don't (yet) understand consciousness" like saying "we don't (yet) understand earthquakes?"

A: Earthquakes are inherently a physical phenomenon. Even when we didn't understand their physical cause, they were a clearly physical phenomenon, so it is reasonable to assume some as-yet-undiscovered physical mechanism. Today of course we do understand that mechanism, but we there is still plenty we do *not* understand—say, the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. Right now absolutely no one knows what is causing that. But I assume we will find some physical explanation.

Consciousness is, it seems to me, of a very different nature.

As you may be aware, if you believe that consciousness *does* have an underlying physical cause, you are in good company. The vast majority of working scientists and philosophers today agree with you. But it seems to me that they are all taking a huge leap of faith. They have seen physical explanations for a wide range of phenomena—the stars circling in the night, flowers blooming from the ground, lightning bolts from the sky—and they are so dazzled with the explanatory power of science that they now take it as an article of faith that the same kind of mechanisms must be able to explain *everything*. It's not clear to me that faith is justified.

2. Why isn't saying "We don't know if there is a transcendent reality so we should be open to the possibility" like being open to the possibility of an invisible flying elephant, or gold in my back yard?

A: Because I can live my life just fine with or without the elephant. I can even live my life just fine without the gold, although it would be nice.

But suppose a doctor told you that you have an illness, and you're going to die in a week unless you can find the cure. And he heard a rumor that the cure might be buried in your back yard, but hey, that's probably not true. But the one thing he's sure of is that without that cure, you're going to die this week. Is that shovel looking a bit more appealing?

Here's where I'm going with that analogy: without some kind of transcendent truth, life has no meaning. The word "meaning" itself has no meaning. People try all kinds of remarkable philosophical gymnastics to get around this stark fact. "I will make up my own meaning, and it will be meaningful because I made it up." "I will find meaning in having children or helping others, and conveniently ignore the fact that their lives also have no meaning." Let's cut to the chase: it's all just a bunch of protons, neutrons, and electrons, flying around according to the laws of Physics. Life and death have no more or less importance than a pile of sand. And just like the doctor, the only certainty is death. End. Of. Story.

Unless it's not the end of the story. It seems to me that possibility is worth digging for, anywhere you can find to dig.

And that brings me back to the doctor and his "rumor" of a cure in your yard. There's a rumor that if you dig enough, you will actually find something. That rumor has been spread by Moses and Jesus and Lao Tzu and the Buddha and Mohammed. It is being spread today by many great men whom I admire, and a few of whom I have met. They say they have found something, and they beckon us to follow. So let me end with one more analogy—this crazy guy says that across the sea, he's found a new land. Reasonable men doubt him, but a few might take his word and head off to the adventure. His name might be Marco Polo, or it might be Columbus. But there is a difference between those who say "No such thing has ever happened, so it might not be true" and those who say "Maybe. Let's find out."

From: Asher Witkin
June 24, 2017

Thank you for taking the time to respond! Your email definitely helped clarify your reasoning for me. I do, of course, still have some more ideas and questions.  

I agree that consciousness, unlike earthquakes, isn't inherently physical, which makes assuming a physical cause harder, and I appreciate the distinction between clearly physical things like the acceleration of the expansion of the universe and things which have no clear basis in the physical. 

I guess the reason I am willing to take the leap of faith to assume a scientific, physical principle as the cause of consciousness is because while there are definitely questions which science has not found an answer for, even questions which it can never answer, there has yet to be a question conclusively answered using a different mechanism. While people assuming mystic causes and later finding scientific ones occurs all the time, I have not once heard of the opposite happening, which leads me to consider it far less likely. 

Yes, perhaps the reason for this is that the mystical simply cannot be conclusively proven, and that the kind of evidence for it that exists is not a kind which could convince me, but at some point I have to believe that what has held true in the past will continue. 

Moreover, if we're going to agree that it's possible scientific principles cannot answer the question of consciousness, and that mysticism is a possibility, I think it's fair to say that we must admit that any other principle is equally as likely. Some mystical principle that answers questions about Truth and Identity seems most often considerred by you as the alternative to science, or an addition to it, but what makes it more likely than us being a game of sims, or dropped unto Earth by the Christian God and given a piece of his consciousness in the form of a soul? To me, all those things seem equally likely as alternatives to science. If you disagree, I'd love to hear your reasoning. 

But I understand why you might not be comfortable lumping consciousness in with gravity and the like, and I can see your viewpoint as far more rational than I could before. It is undeniably true that I am making a leap of faith when I say that I believe there is a physical cause for consciousness. 

As for the question of why these answers are worth pursuing, I can definitely understand your thinking. I'm guessing I probably feel similarly to you in my curiosity about identity and morality and the like. For years after reading Harry Potter I picked up twigs just to make sure I wasn't passing by the one that could grant me magical powers. I still do that sometimes, despite the fact that if asked, I would quite honestly tell you that I believe with absolute certainty no twig I pick up will ever grant me magical powers. 

I think the difference between our thinking comes from a couple different things. 

Firstly, while I was raised to adore Harry Potter, rumors of the mystical were usually presented to me with heavy skepticism. My family and community never took meditating seriously, and the idea of some transcendent truth to be found may first have been brought up by you or Grandpa, long past the time when I had formed ideas of norms and possibilities. Judaism was the only alternative to science that I knew, and I decided pretty early on that it didn't hold water for me. 

Secondly, whether because of my age, or some enduring personality trait, I have a very hard time changing my ideology. (Upon further consideration, I'm not so sure that I'm in the minority here.) Even when science tells me something unexpected, I have difficulty internalizing it. For years after I was told that some small unit of matter acted randomly, and that this meant that the universe could not be entirely predicted by an equation, I was sure that some later discovery would reveal the actual cause of the perceived randomness. I wasn't ready to give up that kind of certainty. Rationally, I know that there is no way to know for sure whether or not the mystical exists, and yet I am absolutely certain that it does not. I suppose an admission that this is faith, and not inherently more rational than others' positions is a good place to start.

Relatedly, while I think we have a similar hunger for questions we cannot find answers for through science, mine is somewhat diminished by my certainty that my positions are correct. I would love to know what happens when one dies, and rationally, I know that I cannot answer that question conclusively, but I also feel with certainty that I already know the answer. 

I would love to understand who I am, but I just simply do not think mystical methods will get me there. I can't even seriously entertain the idea. 

I am so far from believing in the possibility of intrinsic Meaning and Truth that I am not even really curious about them.

But I'm also not sure why the idea that we are all simply chemicals interacting and then fading from existence affects meaning. What changes if some Meaning is found? Suppose you found some Truth which told you that we had all entirely missed the meaning of life, and that letting millions of starving children die was the most meaningful thing you could do? Would you listen to it? It seems to me that even without being certain of meaning because of some undeniable Truth found through mysticism, we all know what the meaning of life is. We might disagree, but I don't think we need anything mystical to become more certain about our positions. 

So those are my thoughts in response to your ideas. I'd love to know what your think, as well as any places you feel I've mischaracterized your position. 

Again, thank you so much for being willing to talk with me about these things. You are one of the only people I know who has so many similar ideas and ways of thinking as me, and yet sometimes reaches vastly different conclusions from the ones that I have found. It makes it easier to understand and think critically about positions I might otherwise reject out of hand, and I appreciate that opportunity. 

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

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