Above us, Only Sky

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Problem of Consciousness

One of the oldest and most intractable problems in philosophy is the problem of human of the human mind- the phenomena of self awareness. Where does this come from, how does it arise, what conditions are necessary to create it, etcetera. It is a difficult problem because for us- the thinking beings for which it is a problem- it's like trying to catch a glimpse at the back of your eyeballs. There are a lot of ways that people have tackled this problem, but most of them are unsatisfying mystical, relying of something like a soul, a thing outside of normal phenomena which somehow comes into and goes out of being.
Like any good philosopher, I don't think I need to actually solve a problem to have something worth saying about it. Call these talking points.
The first is regarding the inexplicability of the problem itself. I think that it's very hard or even impossible to think about this directly because it is US. Beings capable of self analysis don't seem logically impossible, but beings which have features about which they cannot be aware are entirely possible. In simpler language, it is possible that for some reason we are incapable of directly perceiving the nature of our own minds. Certainly any number of other features of what we consider to be our 'selves' are beyond direct perception or control- can you change the beat rate of your heart at will, or your body temperature, or directly control any number of other systems? No- the body is for the most part autonomous of our mind, running smoothly without any deliberate intent. Our brain might have similar features- things which we might come to be aware of but about which we have no control. So the problem on consciousness becomes a problem of why we can't perceive our selves- why do we have this Blindspot in our perceptions?

I propose that the working of a thing like a human mind necessitates this sort of blindness.

The human brain is a thing built of many parts, which have different uses and imperatives. I have no formal, and little informal, understanding of the human brain, but I understand it as a big, massively parallel computer. It has many components, which do everything from regulating organs to making decisions. It is those portion of the brain that contribute to external human behaviour about which we are interested. Evolution designed it just like it designed everything else, trail and error. Random mutation can account for small things like a skin discolouration, but anything as complex as a part of the brain has to have been built up gradually through natural selection because it aided in survival. There would be many different types of things that would be selected for, so each would have some say in the overall balance of the decision making process. Then you have social reality- dealing with others of the same species. A brain as complex as ours allows any one person a vast number of different actions. In order to survive in a complex, communicative society, means would have to be found to discern what actions others might take. With communication, we could have cooperation but also deception. The benefits of cooperation only outweigh the risk of deception if you have some reliable way to discern when a deception is being perpetrated. Likewise, the ability to successfully deceive would also be useful, as would the ability to demonstrate sincerity. An individual who could be categorically trusted would have the great benefit of having many cooperative opportunities, this would generally outweigh the loss of the occasional chance to betray, especially in a group where there were other such individuals. You need a being who has a sense of compulsion to do what it has said it would do, regardless of the consequences. How is this possible? When it comes down to the wire, and your choice lies between betraying your friend for the million dollars, when it is clearly in the best interests of you and yours for the remainder of your life, why does anyone choose the honourable route?
Because we have a sense of honour. A sense that there is something of value in ourselves that must be cultivated at the expense of all else. It doesn't work if we're aware of it as a survival device. We need to be able to say to a friend 'I will do this', and believe it, and tie it to our sense of self in such a way that it would be very painful for us to deny it. If we do not believe our own promises, no one else will, because human beings are very good natural lie detectors. Thus we have a sense of self which can override our hunger and our sexual desire and pretty much every other thing we are capable of wanting for social necessity.
I'm not sure I explained it perfectly, but here is my summary: In order to have group cooperation you need to have individuals who can perceive themselves as existing from the past and into the future. Things do not exist through time, so this perception must be effectively illusory, but the illusion must be indistinguishable from reality or it is useless. Thus we have the problem of consciousness.


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