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The hidden layers of consciousness

Published on 15 December 2015
Updated on 18 June 2024

We like to speak of the Zeitgeist – ‘spirit of the times’ – the formulated visions and ideals that a social group holds at any given period. Ideas sweep up people, carrying them before them.

Foregrounding ideals and visions may hide deeper analogies, unspoken yearnings, and even fears. The ‘dog that did not bark’ gave Sherlock Holmes the clue to the murder in Silver Blaze. What is unspoken may provide a key to understanding social movements and human action.

While enduring the speeches of great leaders, diplomats might learn to ask the critical question: ‘What is left unsaid? What is all this verbiage hiding?’ For this, one needs training, listening intently to what is not there. Below is a small (and primarily didactic) contribution to this end.

Consciousness is all the rage at the moment. It has been said that if the 20th century was the ‘age of physics’, the 21st would be the ‘age of the brain‘ (I shall tread gingerly on the fact that the statement puts the – oh, so Western – emphasis on a dead structure rather than its living function).

First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer. (I Feel Therefore I Am, Margaret Wertheim)

The differentiation between ‘feeling’ and ‘registering’ misses the point. Most living beings feel in the sense that they instinctively react to an external stimulus. Even a bacterium will not worry about the ‘boiling point of alcohol’; instead, it will either move closer or farther away from the source of heat (it reacts to a difference, not a status, or an objective reference).

Representation of consciousness from the seventeenth century
Representation of consciousness from the 17th century (Wikimedia).

We do not need consciousness to ‘feel hot’. Any living being has an instinctual reaction to temperature. Humans withdraw their hand from fire well before they have formulated the conscious thought: the sensory perception and response to ‘it is hot’ is hardwired within our unconscious sympathetic nervous system. If we become conscious of ‘feeling hot’, something else must be in play.

Reaction plainly does not require consciousness: automatic mechanisms suffice. The key novelty element is the awareness of temperature. The subject takes a step back from the event and consciously compares the difference in temperature with a norm of what subjectively a comfortable temperature is. In so doing, the subject generates information about his perception of the temperature. What is the purpose?

The whole point of producing information is its diffusion and sharing with other living beings. Consciousness points to an extrinsic purpose. Consciousness looks to sharing and social behaviour. Subjectivity would only make sense in the framework of intersubjectivity. Subjectivity is a precondition for shared or common intentionality, which defines us humans.

We don’t know how consciousness emerged. The phenomenon is diffuse (albeit in rudimentary form) among animals (and possibly even plants). Fuller consciousness is the privy of hominids. I would conjecture that consciousness is an emerging property of complex neuron systems – but I’ll leave this to neurobiologists (to me, the networked system of the brain is a tell-tale sign, but I’m an ignoramus). I would suspect that consciousness and sociality co-evolved.

I point to a possible relation between emergent properties of complexity and consciousness. In so doing, I finesse the issue as to whether consciousness is a secondary byproduct of physical laws (physicalism) or inherently separate and different from the physical world. Today, emergence is an unexplored material halfway house where the mechanical laws somehow remain incomprehensible to us.

Some doubt physicalism. But physicalism (including emergent properties) allows us to imagine the world without consciousness – a ‘zombie world’. And indeed, for 13.82 billion years, our universe evolved without consciousness. If consciousness were an inherent non-physical property, it should have been there since the universe’s inception.

There is a fad among progressive thinkers linking consciousness to quantum physics:

With the advent of quantum mechanics, they found that, in order to make sense of what their theories were saying about the subatomic world, they had to posit that the scientist-observer was actively involved in constructing reality. (I Feel Therefore I Am, Margaret Wertheim)

I cannot follow this. Any appropriate (and automated) piece of equipment can create a quantum mechanics reality. Scientists observe such phenomena only with the help of unconscious apparatus. In fact, there is a non-mediated connection between the scientist’s consciousness and the quantum mechanics reality.

John Wheeler proposed a series of thought experiments to test if an observer could affect whether light behaved as a particle or a wave and, in 2007, the French physicist Alain Aspect proved that they could. Just this April, Nature Physics reported on a set of experiments showing a similar effect using helium atoms. Andrew Truscott, the Australian scientist who spearheaded the helium work, noted in Physics Today that ‘99.999 percent of physicists would say that the measurement… brings the observable into reality’. In other words, human subjectivity is drawing forth the world. (I Feel Therefore I Am, by Margaret Wertheim)

Please note that the ‘measurement’ points to an instrumental interface separating the observer from the phenomenon. We do not have a scientist willing, by the strength of his consciousness, a quantum effect.

So why do we have this fascination?

Here is a quote from the same article:

Not all physicists are willing to go down this path, however, and there is indeed now a growing backlash against subjectivity. That has brought into being the so-called ‘many worlds interpretation’ (MWI) of quantum theory. According to this interpretation, every time a subatomic particle is confronted with options – does it do X, or does it do Y? – the Universe splits into two identical copies of itself, in one of which the particle does X and in the other it does Y. Given that physicists estimate that there are around 1080 subatomic particles in our Universe, and most of them are confronted with options many times a second, it means that, according to MWI, gazillions of copies of our universe are sprouting off one another every nanosecond.

This fissiparous seething is one of the few ways to interpret quantum behaviour without awarding consciousness a central role, and when I was a physics student, the MWI was widely seen as a fringe concept. Today, it is becoming mainstream, in large part because the pesky problem of consciousness simply hasn’t gone away. (I Feel Therefore I Am, Margaret Wertheim)

What one reads between the lines is the heady vision of individuals creating their universal reality: to each his zillion multiverses of which they are the centre. By comparison, Karl Rove was unabashedly modest when he argued: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left just to study what we do.’

What does the analysis tell us about silences?

First, it is the suppression of the link between consciousness and social reality. The second is the elevation of the conscious subject to being the creator of (his) universe.

In this light, we are all subjective. Unlike in the Epicurean system of Lucretius, we are not the chance product of swerves. Each of us creates its own swerves.

Silence is sidereal.

The post was first published on DeepDip.

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