A Cup Full of Consciousness

For my birthday this year I have asked a dear friend of mine (and excellent baker) to make not a cake, but a series of nested crusts. I am generally delighted by nested things. (I would go so far as to say that I have a nest fetish if only because of the wonderful way that trips off the tongue.) I guess what I really want is a crust pie, each crust serving the double role of crust and filling for the prerequisite and subsequent crusts.

My fetish is really a fascination with the way things fit together, how large and small versions of the same object relate, how one contains the other and at the same time is the other. Keeping with our theme, the way, in a set of measuring cups, 1 cup contains a 1/2 cup, a 1/4 cup, a 1/8 cup and at the same time is 1/2 of a cup and 1/4 of a cup and, well, 2/8 of a cup.

For the past few months, I have been dealing mostly with the 1/8 cup. Having reached something of an impasse in trying to simultaneously untangle and stitch together the mind and the brain, I turned my efforts toward neuroscience and quantum mechanics. When you reach a point at which you do not know how to proceed, more often than not an answer lies to your right or to your left, and so I altered my course most willingly.

Allow me to digress for a moment and explain. I directed myself to these two disciplines for two reasons. Reason the First: it is my belief that if you’re going to talk about the mind and the brain, it is best to have an understanding of how the latter is built, what it does, and how it does it. Whether or not neuroscience will, in the end, have anything to say on the mind-body problem—or whether it will even be able to provide sufficient answers to the above—has no bearing on my decision to study neuroscience. It is simply a matter of being well-educated on a subject that, at least for the time being, has significance in my fields of interest.

Reason the Second: over a glass of wine and a few desserts one evening, a respected acquaintance of mine suggested that I try my hand at quantum mechanics. It was not immediately obvious to me why this acquaintance—a philosopher of mind—had made this suggestion. But I took his advice anyway and was very pleased to find the connection I imagine he hoped I would find. But that is another matter for another post.

Thus, neurons and electrons and action potentials and wave functions took temporary precedence over thoughts and ideas and computers and language. I studied the former closely and carefully, squinting my mind’s eye, zooming in on those contents of the ? cup.And then, one evening in Paris, chattering away about the quantum mechanics of photosynthesis, another respected acquaintance made a comment that gave me pause: “I don’t mean to suggest that you’re on a wild goose chase, but…?”

Had I lost sight of what I had set out to do? Was I furthering my understanding of the mind and the brain, or hindering it?

A younger me would have been crushed by such a comment, but I had by then become accustomed to, had even come to appreciate, this particular acquaintance’s habit of constantly promoting skepticism and humility. It is one of the things I respect the most in him.

And so, having returned from the whirlwind of Paris, having escaped the city at least for the time being, I am once again directing my attention to the whole cup (notice the clever play on “cupful” in the title of this post?) hopefully better equipped to approach the mind-body problem than I was when I set it aside.

Yesterday, in a bout of philosophical back-and-forth, a friend presented the following dilemma: “Let’s say I’m lying on my back thinking about how consciousness can self-reflect without outside input, like when I’m lying on my back thinking about how consciousness…”

I find myself in this predicament repeatedly as I am lying on my bed, alone in my room, undisturbed by the many stimuli of the world that are forever at the ready to assault my senses. Thinking—musing, contemplating—has always puzzled me. Where do thoughts come from? How does one thought give rise to another thought and yet another and another, ad infinitum? As Douglas Hofstadter, echoing Roger Sperry, repeatedly asks in I Am A Strange Loop: Who shoves whom around in the tangled mega-ganglion that is your brain?

Somewhere in the course of evolution symbolic structures started to emerge. Creatures, at varying levels of sentience, started building and using these structures in conjunction with their powers of perception to survive and make their ways in the world. The more they used these structures, the more complex and sophisticated they became; creatures started organizing the world into more and more abstract categories of higher- and higher-level concepts. And then, at one point, these categories, these symbolic structures, started applying to the categories and structures themselves. The symbolic structure turned from the outside world inward, reflected upon itself, and “I”-ness was born.

DH uses the example of a video camera connected to a TV pointed at the TV screen, so the video camera is projecting onto the screen the image that it’s seeing, and what it’s seeing is the video screen. Nothing non-physical is happening there. When you tilt the camera, zoom in, zoom out, dangle things in front of it, patterns emerge. Beautiful, intricate, unexpected patterns. When your perception is turned inward on itself it will project upon itself and perceive itself in the same way as the video camera pointed at the TV screen. What you get is this constant feedback loop that gets you from one thought to another and another and another. This is how the video camera goes from seeing just the TV screen to looking down an “infinite corridor” as DH calls it. At any point, if you tilt the camera, or move it to the side, or zoom in or zoom out, you’re going to start seeing something very different, and this is analogous to what happens in thinking.

This still leaves open the question of how you direct your perception. What moves my perception, guides it and decides where it’s going to go, decides when it’s going to turn inward on itself? In the case of the video camera pointed toward the TV, DH was behind the video camera; he was turning it, moving it, zooming it in and out, dangling things in front of it, putting his hands in front of it. In the case of my mind, what is doing the guiding? Who is shoving whom?

Perhaps it is the greater configuration, the grand design of your symbolic structure, that guides your thinking. When your concepts are being applied to themselves, patterns will emerge in the same way that patterns emerge when the video camera is pointed at the TV screen. Patterns get applied to patterns which create new patterns to which to apply patterns. If you draw a map of your contemplating, from where you started to where you ended, and every step in between, you may be able to see these patterns, may be able to see the larger architecture of concepts and analogies that guides your mental life.

It’s a funny thing to try to wrap your head around, and it still leaves open the question of how this whole process gets started. Perception applies it’s symbolic structure to and forwards to consciousness those signals that are the most important or most pressing. So if I’m laying in bed, and I’m not freezing or burning to death, I’m not hungry or thirsty, my breathing is fine, my heart is fine, no one’s trying to get my attention, I’m not listening to music or looking at a painting or reading, there are no other stimuli that are demanding my attention, what is the thing that is always there, no matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing?

Maybe in the absence of other stimuli to which to apply themselves, my symbolic structures turn to the only thing in their environment: themselves.