Friday, January 7, 2011


Daniel Dennett tries to convince all who read or listen to him that consciousness does not exist, that according to a naturalistic account of things it is an elaborate illusion. He does this by showing us that we are not conscious of most of the contents of consciousness, or at least not conscious of them in the way that we think we are. But one has to wonder why there has to be a naturalistic account of consciousness to begin with. Then one has to ask whether it is not rather the fact of being conscious of our consciousness, rather than a detailed inventory of the so-called contents of consciousness, that is the important issue. Self-consciousness is a world away from mere consciousness. And anyway, consciousness is not an all-or-nothing thing. There appears to be an infinite rising gradation of consciousness. We don’t know how conscious we may be on this scale, nor where, if anywhere, it ends. But we do indisputably know that we are conscious and more conscious than our pet dog or goldfish. That is what is meant by being self-conscious. Now self consciousness, although dependent upon simple consciousness is quite distinct from merely being aware of this or that object and so on. Once consciousness is present, philosophers are flogging a dead horse in thinking up arguments designed to convince that consciousness does not exist, because in humans, consciousness is inseparable from consciousness of being conscious and such a consciousness cannot deny its own existence without contradiction. Philosophers may convince themselves of the non-existence of consciousness, but they will never convince ordinary people whose lives are not governed by academic rivalries, the imperative to publish or the need to obtain funding.
The subject is by definition the conscious and self-conscious focus of experience. That is what we mean by the term ‘subject’. From the first glimmerings of consciousness far back in the history of evolution and well down the tree of life, to the emergence of self-consciousness perhaps with the later mammals, and on upwards to the highly differentiated conscious self-consciousness of the modern educated human being, this area of awareness of a world has been expanding. But whether a consciousness expands its awareness of a world that was always there, or whether the expanding world and the expanding consciousness are one, is a conundrum that has intrigued people for millennia without any solution having been given
Bohm wonders what is the relation between scientific theory and reality. He asks the question whether all hope of objectivity has to be ditched, if our theories are no more than metaphors. His reply to his own question is that there is indeed contact with reality made and this reality can be considered as apart from ourselves, but all our knowledge of it must include ourselves, for our sensory-cognitive apparatus determines the type and extent of our knowledge of reality. We can have knowledge appropriate to our experience, which is experience of a world of three-dimensional objects. But our experience and knowledge of a world of three-dimensional objects is the result of our uniquely human participation in the world that involves ourselves, our senses, the instruments and experiments, and the ways we communicate and choose to describe nature. Thus, says Bohm, this knowledge is both subjective and objective in nature. There is no way to prise these two apart: they will continue to determine the character of our knowledge for as long as we are human.
But this attitude to scientific knowledge has nothing at all to do with Logical Positivism or with naturalism. There can be no primacy given to simple description of sense data, since much scientific activity is not concerned with direct sensation but rather with the mental activity of theorizing. The questions of science arise out of previous scientific theories. They do not arise out of so-called direct perception though they may be tested by this. The Logical Positivists adhered to the ridiculous, because incomprehensible fiction of the propertyless observer. They imagined that the world is presented to the qualityless observer at every moment in complete and incomprehensible divorce between subject and object: the brute object experienced without mediation by the empty subject who brings nothing to the encounter. The positivistic subject has to be propertyless, because attributing properties to it would have got the Positivists into the serious difficulty of having to admit mental entities to their vocabulary. That the state of affairs imagined by them to be the act of observation does not exist, never has existed, is evident from the fact that the Logical Positivists’ conception of truth (truth = the manner of its verification) was no more than a prejudice. It relied on the erroneous belief that statements about the world could be validated without taking into consideration the subject of those statements. The simple fact is, there is no separation to be found between subject and object and the two come together seamlessly in language, in the structure and use of language. There is no such thing as completely objective, i.e. subjectless language. The area of language expands and the object-subject reflection gains consciousness.
What then is the subject? Answer: the wave-front of the seamlessly changing universe experienced from a particular vantage-point.
The timeless moment of innovation of the entire cosmos is experienced on the human level as the individual trajectory of one human body through space-time. This body is the focus of influences emanating from the entire cosmos. This vantage-point is more or less conscious depending upon the individual. In some individuals, whose minds are functionalised, it is virtually unconscious. In others, whose minds are in a constant ferment of creativity, it is intensely conscious. Creative intelligence in the human is indistinguishable from the timeless and undetermined creativity of the cosmos itself. Only the creative self is fully human, a truly conscious human subject. Using as analogy the principle of self-similarity, uncovered in chaos-theory, and particularly in fractal geometry, the subject could be viewed as the mirror of the object, where ‘object’ means the entire universe. The subject could be thought of as an analogy of the universe as a whole (just as those little curls in an obscure corner of a Mandelbrot set recall the entire set); and it becomes comprehensible, if that it so, how the subject can generate an infinity of analogies for the universe and for its relation to itself.
The radical and unwarranted distinction between subject and object is at the heart of all the pseudo-problems that have plagued western philosophy for the past few centuries. Consequent upon the demise of belief in the God-given soul, the subject shrivelled rapidly like a pricked balloon until, at the height of the power and influence of the thing-ideology and the mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic dogma, the subject had no status whatsoever except (absurdly and inexplicably) as the ‘scientific observer’. The position was anomalous because science had to retain the subject of observation as a substantive entity while denying the possibility of its existence. The subject simply was unable to exist in a universe of things, yet it had to exist since without an observer, nothing could be observed and thus known. This queasy state of affairs was maintained by simple flat denials, by burying inconvenient facts in obfuscation and bad arguments or by simply brushing them under the carpet. And this fiction could be maintained in the scientific community because it was an aspect of the reigning dogma.
But falsehood will always be detected when successive generations of people realise that they are being fed unsustainable beliefs and being given very shaky arguments for counter-intuitive ideas merely because they are part of a fashionable consensus. With the arrival of relativity and then a fortiori with the development of quantum physics, the subject was seen as an indispensable part of all observation and therefore of all knowledge claims. Not only could the notion of an absolutely privileged point of view not be retained, the notion of an absolutely objective observer could no longer be sustained either. Truth in the Einsteinian world-view was seen as necessarily relative to a particular frame of reference and that frame was inevitably set by the subject. The old notion of ‘absolute objectivity’ that the scientific observer had arrogated to itself, as some kind of ‘God’s-eye’ view was revealed to be a fantasy: there was no privileged point of view, no absolutely objective standpoint, no unique vantage-point in the universe available to humans from which its universally invariant features could confidently be viewed.
The subject was further implicated in the act of observation by the insight in quantum physics that the observer is part of the large-scale experimental apparatus and that in observing the sub-atomic processes it actually interferes actively with them and determines their nature. It began to seem that just as talk of absolute space and absolute time had had to give way to a less definite notion of ‘space-time’, so absolute distinctions between subject and object would have to give way to a conception of a process that could be called the ‘subject-object’. Truth, in this scheme of things is not the absolute, immutable commodity that nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century philosophy fantasised about. It appeared much more as a stage in a perpetual enquiry, a dynamic interchange between the human subject and the source of the experience that makes it a subject. A subject is a subject of something. Of what? Of experience of that which is not subject, of course. But what is not subject can no longer confidently be pronounced to be ‘object’ in the sense that our everyday experience suggests to us. The subject is the locus of a mysterious interchange, a mysterious exchange between the self with its particular fund of memories, the familiar world as a source of certain notions of invariance, language as a fund of preconceptions about experience, and overarching it all, the ultimate mystery, the unknown world as such, of which all these apparently separate activities are integral parts. The subject is a dynamic exchange, a dynamic relation between foreworld, hindworld, midworld and hyperworld. The emphasis here is on the word ‘dynamic’. It is all process, never stasis. The subject is not fixed any more than the ‘objects’ of its experience are. The subject is more like a flame than anything else, in being an open system; and it is only by means of analogies of this nature that we can inch towards an understanding of it. The flame is a stable process, it is not a thing. This stable process is maintained by a constant stream of input and output within a propitious nexus of circumstances. The old notion of the subject as a thing against which ‘things’ rubbed, causing ‘perceptions’ which exactly matched the ‘things’ of which they were reproductions, has now disappeared entirely. And with it has disappeared the absolute separation that was required by the scientistic dogma.
Thus we are no longer plagued by a view of the human mind as an anomalous hole punched in the material fabric of the universe, through which an anomalous self, that has no place in the fabric of the universe, nevertheless peeps, contemplating in shivering, anxious homelessness that essentially inhospitable fabric. What we have now is a partnership between subject and object such that it is impossible to drive a wedge between the two. The world is no longer the collection of three-dimensional objects that we used to think it was. Its multi-dimensionality confers upon it degrees of freedom that we cannot even begin to grasp with the aid of the imagination. Nevertheless, if these degrees of freedom are real characteristics of reality, then we can expect that there is room in it both for the three-dimensional constructions, that our brain foists upon us and that we call ‘the world of objects’, and for the subject that receives and works upon these constructions. That they are constructions and that they are foisted upon us by our brain is beyond question. We could even call them ‘metaphors’. The old mythological views of the universe arose in exactly the same way and possessed exactly the same power of conviction as ‘scientific’ syntheses. The subject was a subject of ‘revelations’ that came to it in response to its eternally questioning attitude. These revelations then were expressed in various types of formal language. According to current brain-mythology, the brain contains two powerful engines, the left side (in the majority of humans) has a mighty language-device that strives to account for every aspect of experience in terms of a rational story with reasons and coherent arguments. The right side has a device in it that strives to integrate all experience holistically and to represent to the subject the world as a coherent totality. These two mighty engines deliver to the subject tales of origins and destinies, tales of gods and demons, tales of anthropomorphic agencies putting the world together and situating human life in it. But they also deliver tales of universal laws and rules, universal regularity, universal matter and the like. Thus they deliver to the subject any story that the subject can be induced to swallow. Of course, over history, stories fight with stories, memes with memes as Dawkins might say, and some are found by subjects to be more convincing, ‘fitter’ for survival than others. Thus the mythological stories with their inherently unconvincing postulation of anthropomorphic gods and demons as the managers of the world-system, yielded to stories that only spoke of three-dimensional objects and mechanical ‘laws’. Yet the old stories continued to fascinate and to convince on a different level, for the subject knows that to exclude mind-like agencies from the cosmos was a hasty piece of folly. Now that science itself has dissolved the mechanistic story and included the subject in even the precisest observations, the two cerebral engines are beginning to deliver stories to the self to account again for the entirety of the universe. The thought that consciousness may be a unitary phenomenon analogous in that sense to matter did not arise from mythology, but from physics. The average subject in western civilisation, having lost the narratives of the past, is now, open to manipulation by any story that comes along and that can make itself convincing. This is a situation of great promise, but also of great danger since the loss of the old narratives deprives us of our powers of discrimination.
The dangerous and volatile nature of this state of affairs is that it cries out for a new paradigm to make human life in the world possible again. It cries out for a paradigm that will incorporate our genius for technological innovation, our genius for the construction of mechanical models for our understanding, with our craving for holistic meaning to the world that will provide us with values and reasons for continuing to exist, values and reasons that go beyond the simple exigencies of maintaining the body in life from day to day. We are not satisfied with the niggardly Darwinian notion of ‘survival’. The subject requires as part of its make-up a sense of the coherent structure of universal change, a sense of the meaningfulness of history, a sense of the attractiveness of the future and a sense of the trustworthiness of the entire universe. It desires to believe that its boundless curiosity and hope, its questing creativity and optimism are not mere tricks of the struggle for survival. These things were traditionally given to the subject by thoughts of God as an essentially anthropomorphic being. Now that that particular notion has been dissolved by scientific rationalisations, a gaping hole has been left; and though we strive to fill that hole with all sorts of stop-gaps, we nevertheless feel the need of some analogous set of concepts or images to replace it. It would seem that in the insight of modern physics that the world is a co-ordinated and seamless, creative and possibly intelligent whole, we have the beginnings of that replacement. Once the subject is truly integrated by physics into the strange fabric of the cosmos it may just begin to feel itself at home and as having a stake in the future, however distant.
The subject is a focus of conscious awareness of a world that is apparently not subject. It is entirely obvious to anyone who thinks for a moment about this state of affairs that there can be no absolute distinction between subject and so called ‘object’. The re-integration of the subject into the world that generated it and that sustains it would seem to be the sine qua non of the subject’s well-being. Why should the subject give in to stories that pronounce it non-existent? The subject remains the receiver and focus of these stories. The brain delivers them to it, but it is, in some sense that we have yet to understand, ‘beyond’ them all and in a position critically to assess them all. Whatever conceptual structure the brain presents to the subject as a story concerning the nature of the world, the subject is able to assess whether it is convincing. The fate of every story ever presented to the subject has been to be found ultimately unconvincing by the subject. The subject therefore appears to be a very powerful agency in its own right, endowed with a vantage-point that is above and beyond the logic of any systematic construction on the world that the brain might generate. It seems therefore that the subject would do well to relax and to be at ease with itself, be confident of its own status, sit back and ‘enjoy the show’. This process of the generation of new constructions on reality will doubtless continue for as long as there are subjects. Why then should the subject imagine that at some point in the process, an end-station is arrived at? Knowledge has turned out not to be a process of approach by the subject to a definite limit called ‘the truth’. It has turned out to be a series of constructions that combine ever greater quantities of complexity in unity. These constructions do not simply add to some fund of acquired knowledge, some fund of absolute cognitive possessions obtained in the past; their chief effect is rather to overturn all previous conceptions of knowledge and truth in a completely new angle on the world. This new angle on the world is a new type of self. It seems obvious that this process will continue for as long as there are subjects, for as long as there are right-brains delivering visions of totality and left-brains delivering rational ‘explanations’; and since there is no end-station, no ‘end of history’ in sight, there is no reason to believe in one. Our craving for stories with not only beginnings and middles, but also ends, final consummations, is perhaps something we have to give up. We have always been besotted with our own models of reality and frequently convinced that they represented the final word. They never did and they never will. The subject is in constant change as is the world. This change is coherent and co-ordinated, not random and chaotic. The common invariant feature of change in the subject and in the world may simply be what we understand as that most indefinable of properties, ‘intelligence’. How this intelligence is to be characterised is a very deep and difficult problem because it involves talking about the indeterminate and we have simply no vocabulary with which to do this. Thus all talk of intelligence is going to be a matter of hit-and-miss analogy.
The subject is intelligent, of that there is no doubt; but its intelligence is expressed in many different ways. Nevertheless, one can home in on one aspect of its intelligence that seems more intrinsic to it that any other: its critical faculty. The subject has the strange ability to stand outside of all its structures, all of its methods and to view them from some indeterminate point of view from which it is able to spot the weaknesses, the lacunae, the shortcomings of any of the structural features of knowledge and of the methods and processes by which the subject obtains the same. We have, therefore to attribute to the subject a portion of its functioning at least that is beyond all obvious modes of reasoning and methodological criteria. This ‘beyondness’ of the subject puts it altogether out of the domain of things. The subject is precisely not a thing; from a thing perspective, it is no-thing, it is ‘nothing’. With this thought we seem to have taken a step backwards and to have joined the alienated scientific mind whose status as observer was precisely the status of nothing at all. But in saying that the subject is no-thing, we do not deny it reality, we simply demonstrate that we cannot account for it in terms of the language of things. We can account for the brain in the language of things and to a large extent account for the functioning of much of the brain in the language of things. But in regarding the subject as ‘not-a-thing’, we can attribute to it an indeterminate status and a pivotal role therefore in the perpetual process of creation that is the human mind. The brain generates stories to account for the experience of the subject, but the subject perpetually subjects these to criticism and destruction and opens up a void for the emergence of further, improved, more capacious stories. The subject itself, however, remains beyond all of these stories, that one can quite legitimately regard as configurations of material states of the brain, whether they are codified in language and written down as part of the fund of ‘knowledge’ or not.
It is the subject that is the locus of the new configurations that arise in response to the critical destruction of all previous stories about reality. These new stories stream into the world via the subject; they achieve presence as incarnations only through the subject. They obviously depend to some extent on input from the brain of the subject, some factual or theoretical input, but for the radically new character of the new insight, they seem to depend upon a dimension of reality that we have to consider as indeterminate. This is a dimension of the subject, but it is no less a dimension of the world, since the subject is inseparably an aspect of the world. The indeterminate zone of the world and of the subject, we call ‘intelligence’. Intelligence is the sole authority of the human mind and the sole authority in the world. It is that which makes us individuals. It is that which makes us self-conscious. The fact that it is intrinsically indefinable should not bother us (‘energy’, too, is indefinable), since we intuitively know what it is. What it is, is an inexhaustible ability to conceive possible worlds when faced with apparent worlds and to perceive the possibilities of congruence or divergence between the two. This latter congruence is what is often hailed as truth, which is why truth is always the possession of a subject, why ‘objective truth’ is a contradiction in terms. The divergences from the apparent worlds are often decried as fictions, but it is frequently from these that new forms of congruence arise.
The subject may be a sort of quantum-computer, in touch with an infinity of possible worlds whether understood as actually existent or merely virtual. It cannot be formalised or understood in terms of any procedure, since it is itself the origin of all such procedures and preserves a distance from them that puts it above them. There is no way in which this intelligence can be regarded as a thing or as an aspect of a thing and treated according to the logic of things. Other aspects of the subject, however, can be so treated.
One such aspect is the structure known as the ‘ego’. For a few reflections on this structure, see the two posts archived under 'January 2011' and 'February 2011'.

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