who are you and who is in charge?

Understanding and defining consciousness are perhaps 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 negative emotions---hostility, confusion, hatred, recrimination, resentment, contempt, and the like.

Many a person who believes ze is overweight, for example, experiences inner conflict. Part of the person wants to stick to zir diet; another part wants to feast on fast-food. This kind of conflict frequently involves a person arguing with zirself, castigating zirself for being weak and unable to resist temptation. But how can this be, that a person can be in conflict with zirself? To be at war implies plurality. Yet personhood is a singularity. Or so we believe. Or so we are taught and encouraged to believe. But is it true?

In my view, the concept (meme, if you like) of 'the self' (or 'a self') (selfhood, personhood) 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. There is no homunculus (little person) in the control room inside your skull behind your eyes. There is no-one in control. Consciousness is an emergent property, a gestalt, an aggregation of multiple dynamic processes and sub-processes, sometimes collaborating, other times opposing. Some 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 cannot 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.

You can't find the place in the human brain where consciousness resides, because it is not material and thus does not have a material home in the material domain. But is identity, selfhood, personhood defined by where it lives, it's hardware? I think complexity is more relevant than residence to this particular discussion. "Artificial intelligence/awareness", for example, in my view is virtually inevitable once software reaches a threshhold of complexity. But the substrate on which the software runs is irrelevant to the issue of whether the software can be said to be alive, aware or intelligent. Likewise re the thing we call "life". Complexity correlates with life, irrespective of the substrate, whether silicone- or carbon-based, hardware or wetware.

In a real sense, 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 is at least equal to if not greater than the sum of the parts) is adopted. My foot is not smart but I am.

In other words it depends on what you include and what you don't, in the set theory sense. It depends on where you draw the boundary. The food I ingest is not part of me until digestion is complete, at which point some of the molecules of the food are indeed part of me, or are they? It depends where you draw the boundary. Humans define things all the time. We categorise things. We say, "this is part of that", and "this is not part of that". We are very good at creating definitions of what it means to be a member of this or that particular class of things. But we often forget that the definitions we create are arbitrary. We create definitions to serve a particular purpose at a particular moment in time. But the definitions we create are relative not absolute.

Vegetarians for instance will not eat fauna but will eat flora, on the basis that fauna are somehow more worthy than flora, and therefore deserve not to be eaten. Flora are categorised as being eatworthy for homo sapiens sapiens. Consider a belief-system in which both fauna and flora are categorised as being off the menu. Let's say that in that system, believers eat only minerals on the basis that stuff that is not alive is less worthy than stuff that is alive. Let's call those believers "mineral-arians". Clearly mineral-arians, vegetarians and omnivores draw the boundary separating the worthy from the non-worthy at very different contours. It all depends on where you draw the boundaries.

The thing we call "intelligent life" can be found on at least one planet in this universe. So, 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 the sum of all the intelligence given to parts of me. 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. And that other domain is also part of me."

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 the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. I admire Dennett for the depth, lucidity and hard-edged robustness of his thought. 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.


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