Consciousness & Time: Part 1

Vulcans, zombies, and desert islands

Imagine, for the moment, that at some time in the 1850s a Royal Navy vessel, operating to the south of Samoa, in running from a cyclone, finds a large uncharted desert isle.  Inhabitants are nowhere to be found, but inhabitants there were, at least the analogy of William Paley’s Watchmaker, because the island is replete with the artefacts of a much more technologically advanced civilisation than that of the explorers.  There are buildings of peculiar construction and materials, and most mysterious of all, in all of these buildings are large “moving picture” frames. At one moment they will display scenes as from a play, though switching rapidly between characters who, while speaking, fill the whole frame.  At the next, they might display scenes in strange cities of similar construction, filled with self-propelled vehicles moving at dizzying speed. In the skies are machines that fly. Again, they might show scenes from exotic landscapes, or views from the heavens onto the country far beneath, presumably  from the flying machines. The people are heard to speak in a strange language, and music, often discordant, accompanies every scene.  The people represented in these frames display a moral degeneracy as astonishing as the engineering itself.

Electricity, of which an understanding is forming at that time, is central to their functioning. So, moved from their places, these frames lose their powers, and soon the island, now sealed off by the navy, is abuzz with technology explorers.  Many of them study the frames. Within them, there are tiny complex networks of conductive pathways, and watchmakers are employed to produce new tools for cutting and repairing these paths. Some of the researchers believe that the sights and sounds originate from some remote location, like gravity in a sense.  Others believe that each of the frames is a self-contained library telling the story of the civilisation that made it.

As the destructive and reconstructive experiments progress, a map begins to emerge of the correlation between various parts of the conductive network and aspects of the images and sounds which are produced from the frames. More and more of the experimenters come to believe that the library is encoded into the complex arrangements of the conductive network, and possibly other components of the frames; that the library elements are properties, implicit in the materials of the frame, which only become manifest when complex sets of conditions are met.  The example of a candle flame is offered.  Out of the design and components of the candle, once combustion commences, the complex structure of a candle flame springs into being, sustaining itself and its distinctive shape as long as the supportive conditions pertain. The manifestation of the characteristic candle flame is implicit in the conditions which sustain it. The wax and oxygen for these framed “candles” is electricity.

On The Island, experimenters become convinced that, with artefacts of this world enough and time to explore them, they will elaborate a new understanding of the manifesting, unfolding, or emerging of entirely new properties from complex conjunctions of elements whose simpler properties, in isolation, are well understood. They anticipate something like a physics of topographical conjunctions; a chemistry of patterns.

But of course, this perception could not have lasted. The Victorian world was on the verge of monumental realisations about electromagnetic phenomena, and that the action-at-a-distance characteristic of magnetism had unimaginable corollaries.  These discoveries would realign the thinking of our Island researchers, and they would look farther afield for the sources of the mysterious pictures and sounds. The moving-picture frames would no longer be seen as self-contained generators of pictures and sounds, but as intricate webs constructed to capture these otherwise invisible presences of mysterious origin.

Here endeth the exercise of the imagination.

We are all too familiar with moving-picture frames and the broadcast or piped provisioning of their contents. Nevertheless, the effects of all these things are observable.  Their modes of action may remain somewhat mysterious, but they are characteristics of the observable, external world; the one which we all, whether or not we justify it philosophically, assume to exist.  The mystery which is the actual subject of this fable is, on the other hand, inaccessible. 

The moving pictures with which I am concerned are those which define the viewer, the listener, the perceiver, the experiencer; are those which define me. They are part of the stream of my conscious experience: the panorama of my senses, the ceaseless rush of thoughts, the flares of emotion, the swinging compass needle of attractions and repulsions.  I experience all of this; I experience, therefore I am. Arising out of all this, and determined by it, and contributing to it, are my own actions.  I speak, and hear myself speaking; I move, and perceive my body in movement; I tap on this keyboard to reify my thoughts that they might enter into the experience of another.

Consciousness [1] cannot be observed; it can only be experienced. From my own consciousness, I infer that everyone else has conscious experience. In fact, that is too strong an assertion.  I have never drawn such an inference; it has been the sine qua non of my interactions with other human beings.  Nonetheless, I have never had, nor will I ever have, the experience of any other person’s experience. I know what it is like for me to see the colour red; I can recall it now. I know that red is an excitatory colour for most people, as it is for me, but what is it like for anyone else to see the colour red?  The same question can be asked about the smell of a rose, or the hearing of a musical instrument.   I can never know, because such experience can only be accounted in its own terms. 

No instruments of objective measurement exist for such phenomenal experience.   No such instruments can ever exist.  The readings of such an instrument could only have meaning when assessed within my consciousness.  If you and I so assess the instrument’s readings of a third person’s conscious experience of, say, the smell of coffee, how am I to know that you and I now have same appreciation of the other’s smelling the coffee?  Is there another instrument which can assess our assessment?  How would our assessments of the readings of that instrument be assessed?

In a world teeming with other people, I am alone within my consciousness. Who can disagree with the bald assertion of the uniqueness of individual experience? It is immune to contention or controversy.  Recall, from the pericope of the rich man and Lazarus, these words.  But Abraham said, ‘…And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’  These words can just as aptly be applied to the exterior, mutually observable world of objects and the interior world of conscious experience. Yet the simple truth of the gulf between the observable neurophysiological states of “the other” and the personal uniqueness of experience is lost on those who claim that the former “explains” the latter.  The one is a characteristic of the brain, an object, and the other a characteristic of the mind, a subject.

However, such a restatement of the gulf can also act, by the blasé familiarity of its expression, to camouflage the essential incompatibility.  There is just no mode of explanation that can clarify how the objective, observable and measurable activity of neurophysiology can give rise to the distinctly non-physical subjectivity of experience.  The subject is not an object, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Consider, for example, the widespread view that computers will, inevitably, become conscious selves.  [2]   What can this conceivably mean?  It can really only be meaningful by analogy with human consciousness. Will a computer, or a computer network, have a sense of its self as being located within the hardware that makes it up? Presumably, the conscious computer, when its cameras scan a red object, will experience the colour red. How?

A computer is a deterministic machine. Within each one of its processing units, a very fast clock is ticking. Just prior to each tick of the clock, the myriad of circuits and gates within the unit are in a particular state. At the tick, the whole system starts to move into its next state. This new state is achieved before the clock ticks again. Within the machine, everything is determined; only events from the outside world, like a red object passing in front of the cameras, are new, but the response to them is deterministic: it is controlled by the program.  Within the machine, there is no past and there is no future; there is only the almost infinitesimal fraction of a second in which a single state of the machine stabilises, before the next tick of its clock drives it to its next state. It is inconceivable that consciousness – an analogue of our own inner reality – could arise in such a machine.

The logical impossibility of ascribing consciousness to a computer is exactly the same as that of ascribing consciousness to that other material system, the brain.  If this assertion startles you, think carefully about how the logical difficulty could differ between the two physical systems.

That there is an unbridgeable gulf between subject and object, whilst inarguably true, must constantly be repeated, because the ideology of secular materialism, which demands that the universe and we creatures within it are all and only material things that can be explained without residue by the laws governing the interaction of physical objects, is dunned ceaselessly into us as the default and incontestable framework of all discussion about human beings – quite as much as it is for, say, astronomy or physical chemistry. Matters are made worse by what is effectively trolling by prominent adherents of materialism, who prominently advertise “explanations” of consciousness which do not even attempt to explain how neurophysiology generates experience, but whose mere presence in the realm of discourse lends support to the many who wish to remain oblivious to absence of an explanation, whilst arguing from such authorities as these when pressed on the issue.

It was David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher, who brought philosophical zombies (“p-zombies”) back to life in the service of the philosophy of mind.  His “p-zombies” are physiologically identical to human beings, but without any phenomenal experience.  They do not have any experience of the colour red, or of the smell of roses, although the sensory stimuli of the colour red and of the smell of roses enter their nervous systems and are processed in the same way as they are for the rest of us. They have no stream of consciousness. Their brains display the same busyness as ours, but this busyness is unaccompanied by any conscious experience. P-zombies test the limits of the proposition that human beings are, effectively, deterministic biological machines whose every action and thought is neurophysiologically determined.  Thoughts themselves are said to be mere side-effects of this machine, as is my sense of being me, and the whole busy, ongoing whirl of thought thoughts, felt emotions, and experienced sensations that comprise my conscious being. If, then, we are just meat machines with an built-in cholesterol computer, why is phenomenal consciousness needed?

Materialists don’t like p-zombies, and great efforts have been expended to demonstrate that they are not feasible, that phenomenal consciousness is not merely an unnecessary side-effect of the structure of the cholesterol computer. If p-zombies are feasible within the materialist paradigm, then in spite of their best efforts, the inadequacies of a material explanation of human reality become glaringly obvious.

The particular value of Chalmers’ contributions is his understanding that what he and his colleagues call phenomenal consciousness is indeed the hard problem. He is a materialist, who fervently desires a scientific solution to the hard problem. In the absence of explanation, materialists of mind argue from neurophysiological correlation, as Chalmers has pointed out on many occasions.  These phenomenal experiences – the colour red, the smell of roses, etc – are correlated with burst of activity in this or that area of the brain; therefore, the argument goes, that activity is the cause of the phenomenal experience. He, however, has an acute awareness of the difficulty of deriving subjective experience from neurophysiological objects. He knows, and states, that the critical question about the self’s experience is, “How?”  How does that neurological activity give rise to my experience of “red”; how does the constant purely physical and MRI-observable activity of my brain give rise to my sense of myself as a centre of reflection, experience, and action? In this he displays an integrity that is beyond many of his colleagues.

For this mysterious private reality, this experience of self, is the only source of meaning for each and every one of us. To the neurophysiologist attempting to chart the brain states correlated with certain experiences reported to him by his subject, the entire inspiration, meaning, and motivation of his own exploratory activity is hidden within the opacity of his own experience, yet he elides, ignores, denigrates, or outright denies, that very fount of meaning.  Chalmers, always aware of this, now speculates that consciousness might be a fundamental property of the universe, like the physical forces themselves; a property whose contours may be sketched, but which must be appreciated and explored on its own terms.

In speculating about consciousness as an independent property, he is drawn to further speculate that, like mass, it is a property that everything in the universe has, to a greater or lesser extent.  Humans just have “more” of it than anything else in the physical universe. It is not clear from these hints that he has escaped the paradigm of our Island Victorians.

He seems to be of the opinion that our consciousness, even if “consciousness” is a fundamental characteristic of the universe, only emerges out of biological complexity.  The network of neurological traces is what calls it forth.  In that case, asserting that human consciousness can exist independently of its particular biological home is still a heresy.

Yet it is a basic belief of Christianity that we are dualistic creatures.  Our minds, whilst tied in most of our experience to our bodies, are not limited to them, and do not cease to exist when our mortal bodies perish.  This is basic belief is found also in the Judaism which preceded Christianity and Islam which followed.  If this is the case, then the fable takes on an added dimension of richness.  For the relationship of the brain to the inner activity of mind, with its acute consciousness of self, must be one of receiver to transmission.  Whilst the Victorians were on the verge of great discoveries in electro-magnetism, there are no developments in our toolkit of scientific understanding which shine even a dim light unto the path of a non-spiritual understanding of the phenomenon of self.

There is one area of investigation with the potential to completely disrupt the materialist paradigm: that of near-death experiences (NDEs) and out-of-body experiences (OBEs).  By the nature of its subject (so to speak), investigation of OBEs attracts charlatans and sensationalists, but OBEs are most frequently experienced in a medical, and generally a hospital, environment, so there is a core of sober reporting.  Such sober observers are often drawn to the study of these phenomena by being inadvertently involved as witnesses to such an event.  One such observer is Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, who became involved in one of the most comprehensive studies of NDEs and OBEs, primarily in cardiac patients. His book, Consciousness Beyond Life, discusses his and other studies in the U.S. and the U.K.  Among the most startling episodes are OBEs in which a comatose patient observes the emergency scene from a viewpoint outside the body, and elements of these observations are confirmed by staff who were present.

Whilst, strictly speaking, one well-attested instance of an OBE is enough to destroy the materialist paradigm, this has not obtained in reality. Belief, especially ideological belief, has a stubborn persistence.  The flimsiest refutations, the most unreasonable aspersions cast on the methodology, the most egregious ad hominem attacks on the reporters, will buttress the resistance.  However, the accretion of such instances will erode confidence in materialist rejections.  I await developments with acute interest.

As Man’s worshipful relationship with God cooled, he began to dream of elevating himself, piece-meal, to God-lite – or may be it was a resurgence of Gnostic ambition. In any case, one of the dreams, expressed in science fiction of the past century, was the breaching of the walled garden of phenomenal experience by that ultimate alien, the interior experience of another person.  From the telepathic influence of Count Dracula, to the repellent mind-broadcasting of Muller in Robert Silverberg’s “The Man in the Maze,” to the merging of consciousnesses in Mr Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld, the longing for an abandoned communion seeks fictional solace. There is, however, no human way to overcome the isolation.  The unscalable walls of the garden taunt us, and we examine them minutely with all the tools at our disposal for clues as to what is happening on the other side.

Before the cooling of our ardour, though, this concern carried little weight, for we were aware, not of the secrecy of the garden, not of its utter and ultimate privacy, but rather of its frightening transparency.  I, for one, grew up with the knowledge that not a single thought of mine was hidden from God.  And this is the truth.  We are not alone, but the minds that survey our minds do so with the most deft and delicate of touches, and with a respect for our privacy so great that we are free to destroy ourselves.  No matter what our fate, there is a meeting of minds that awaits us. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”


[1] I am indebted to Dr Richard Cocks for his excellent survey in the essay “Consciousness: What is it, and Where is it Found?” published by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum.  See also the discussion at The Orthosphere.

[2] Although, if self-consciousness has the same effect on computers as it does on humans, we have nothing to fear.

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