The most mysterious thing in the universe is also the most intimate: consciousness. It’s an inti-mystery, something we experience constantly at first hand and yet cannot describe or explain. We are each a double bubble: a bubble of flesh and a bubble of conscious experience. The second bubble bursts regularly, when we sleep. Sooner or later, the first bubble will burst too, when we die. And that will be it for the second bubble, the bubble of consciousness. Or will it? Can consciousness survive death? Can it exist without a material substrate? Or without a particular kind of material substrate: the soggy, sparky substance of the brain? Can the clean, dry metal of a computer be conscious? Who knows? The double bubble attracts lots of double-u’s: what, where, why, when, (w)how. What is consciousness? What is its relation to matter? Is it king or courtier? Where does it exist? Why does it exist? When? And how?
Where it exists might seem easy to answer, at least in general terms. It’s inside our heads. But is it? I know it’s inside mine, and you might know it’s inside yours, but each of us has direct evidence of only one consciousness: our own. For everyone and everything else we have only indirect evidence: we infer its presence from behaviour. We can’t see, touch, hear, taste, or smell consciousness, we can only experience it or observe its apparent effects. But it is possible that things that seem conscious aren’t and things that don’t seem conscious are. It’s possible that consciousness is everywhere and in everything, or that, in some sense, we all participate in each other’s consciousness. Even when we’re dead. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the dead and departed are still in some sense conscious through me when I think of myself as their proxy. Is there something in consciousness that is not unique to the individual that experiences it, a kind of universal sea-bed beneath the currents of personality and memory that swirl above it? And can I, will I, be conscious after my death through someone in the future who thinks of himself as a proxy for the dead, even if he’s unaware that I ever lived? Or is a more profound and personal survival available when the flesh departs?
The conventional atheistic or sceptical answer to questions like that is supplied by A.E. Housman (1859-1936) in his poem “God’s Acre”:
They shall have breath that never were,
But he that was shall have it ne’er;
The unconceived and unbegot
Shall look on heaven, but he shall not.
The heart with many wild fires lit,
Ice is not so cold as it.
The thirst that rivers could not lay
A little dust has quenched for aye;
And in a fathom’s compass lie
Thoughts much wider than the sky.
(Op. cit., XI of Additional Poems, 1939)
Housman thought that the double bubble did not survive death. When the flesh stops, so do the thoughts. I think the same. He and I are right about half of the double bubble, because we have certain knowledge that the flesh stops working and decays. That’s the definition of death, after all. But what about the other half of the double bubble? Can consciousness survive death? We don’t know. We have no objective test for its presence and perhaps never will. It’s possible that it isn’t necessary: that an apparently normal, fully aware, fully functioning human being could nevertheless be without consciousness. The lights might be on, but no-one might be home. The lights are all we have to go on: we can’t enter anyone else’s head and experience consciousness or its absence there. And absence might not be definitive anyway, because related to the “where” of consciousness is the “when”. I am conscious now, not yesterday or tomorrow. But are we all conscious at the same moment? Is my “now” your “now”, or is my “now” your “then”? Is my “is” your “was”, or your “was” my “will be”? And are these questions even meaningful?
Maybe not, but consider this: like me, you might have become conscious for the first time only at this moment. There is no way to prove otherwise: a memory of having been conscious is not necessarily true. Consciousness is like a stair that crumbles as we climb it. The tread we’re stepping on now is the only tread we can be sure of. We can hear the stair falling behind us, look back and see it falling, but that sight and sound may be deceptive. We’ll know we must have been conscious all our waking lives only if we can prove that consciousness is necessary in some way to some aspect of our behaviour. We certainly don’t need it for many things: the bubble of our flesh is much bigger than the bubble of our consciousness. The brain is controlling all kinds of carry-on and monitoring all manner of metrics without consciousness, the brain’s master (or slave), being aware of it. Think of heart-rate, thermo-regulation, and blood chemistry, for example. Most of that complex control and multi-monitoring takes place below conscious awareness.
So does most of what’s involved in understanding and producing language. Take these three words: cat, dog, mouse. What are the plurals? If you’re a native speaker of English, you don’t have to think: they’re delivered to you automatically by the subconscious, even though each involves a different rule. And that’s a general truth. The better you are at something, the less you have to think about how you do it. Native speakers don’t have to think about the mother-tongue we use and even if we know some of the rules governing its behaviour, we don’t know how those rules are embodied in the brain and we can’t observe them in action as they extract meaning from, or insert meaning into, the hisses, buzzes, and bangs of speech or the lines, curves, and dots of text.
If we did have to think about speaking and listening, or about walking and swallowing, or any of the many other things we do without conscious effort, we’d be paralysed. It would literally be too much information: too many things to monitor and adjust. And what about the senses in general? Seeing, for example, isn’t a passive activity. The brain focuses the lens of the eye, adjusts the size of the pupil as light changes, directs the saccades, or little jumps of attention, as we scan a scene or read a line of text. And we’re not consciously aware of any of this. Next the brain processes the nerve-signals from the eyes, classifies them, matches them with memories, labels them, air-brushes out the imperfections, and so on. And we don’t observe or oversee any of that, we just enjoy the finished product: an apparently seamless and highly detailed image of the scenes around us. Ditto for the other senses: we consciously do very little, consciously receive very much. If consciousness is king, it’s a very lazy king and knows very little about the workings of its kingdom. But is it king? Is it necessary at all? We don’t yet know: there may be shell-people, or shell-species, that seem fully conscious from the outside but aren’t experiencing consciousness at all on the inside.
But we can say that consciousness is necessary in one sense: without it, there is nothing. A rich, complex and activity-filled universe that does not contain consciousness is effectively equivalent to an empty, inactive universe. That is, it is effectively equivalent to nothing at all. U – C = 0. Universe – consciousness = zero. If you were given the choice to continue living, but not continue being conscious, how would that differ from being dead? It wouldn’t, except in the effect your walking, talking shell would continue to have on the world and on other people. From your point of view, that world and those other people would no longer exist, because your point of view – and of sound, scent, taste, and touch – would no longer exist. But is it possible to continue living and not be conscious? Can a normal, fully functioning brain lack consciousness when it is apparently awake and in receipt of sense-data? Could an electro-magnetic field, suitably tuned, interfere with or smother consciousness and leave the physical brain unaffected?
Perhaps, but if such a thing is possible, anyone subject to it would not know he’d experienced a black-out. If the physical brain were unaffected, he’d have memories of being conscious when he wasn’t, because memory is a physical, or electro-chemical, process. That neural electro-chemistry, and the possibility of interfering with it, are raised by George Orwell in one of the most frightening prophecies of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Whether or not consciousness is king, we feel as though it is and believe ourselves sovereign within our own skulls. Winston Smith, the Everyman protagonist of Orwell’s novel, is taught otherwise in the Ministry of Love, the giant Inquisitorium in which he is imprisoned and tortured. But his inquisitor O’Brien, unlike totalitarians in the past, doesn’t have to get at Winston’s mind through his body and its peripheral nerves. He can take a more direct and much more disturbing route:
Two soft pads, which felt slightly moist, clamped themselves against Winston’s temples. He quailed. There was pain coming, a new kind of pain. O’Brien laid a hand reassuringly, almost kindly, on his.
“This time it will not hurt,” he said. “Keep your eyes fixed on mine.”
At this moment there was a devastating explosion, or what seemed like an explosion, though it was not certain whether there was any noise. There was undoubtedly a blinding flash of light. Winston was not hurt, only prostrated. Although he had already been lying on his back when the thing happened, he had a curious feeling that he had been knocked into that position. A terrific painless blow had flattened him out. Also something had happened inside his head. As his eyes regained their focus he remembered who he was, and where he was, and recognized the face that was gazing into his own; but somewhere or other there was a large patch of emptiness, as though a piece had been taken out of his brain.
“It will not last,” said O’Brien. “Look me in the eyes… Just now I held up the fingers of my hand to you. You saw five fingers. Do you remember that?”
O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand, with the thumb concealed.
“There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?”
And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed. He saw five fingers, and there was no deformity. Then everything was normal again, and the old fear, the hatred, and the bewilderment came crowding back again. But there had been a moment – he did not know how long, thirty seconds, perhaps – of luminous certainty, when each new suggestion of O’Brien’s had filled up a patch of emptiness and become absolute truth, and when two and two could have been three as easily as five, if that were what was needed. It had faded before O’Brien had dropped his hand; but though he could not recapture it, he could remember it, as one remembers a vivid experience at some period of one’s life when one was in effect a different person. (Op. cit., Part 3, ch. 2)
The brain is an electro-chemical organ that seems to strictly obey the laws of physics and chemistry. Science is giving us more and more power over physics and chemistry. Will it one day give us complete power over the brain, and so over consciousness? Will a future tyranny be able to make even mental rebellion impossible, be able to detect any heretical thought the instant it occurs, to impose any lie or lunacy on the minds of its subjects? Perhaps it will. That is the prospect Winston faces in the Ministry of Love: that the Party will control minds and torment bodies for ever, making its subjects behave and believe exactly as it pleases. It will make them rebel purely for the pleasure of crushing their rebellion, turn them into heretics purely for the pleasure of torturing them. Strapped into a pain-machine, Winston is lectured by O’Brien on the nature of the Party and its ideology IngSoc:
“We are the priests of power,” he said. “God is power… If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” (Ibid.)
Winston, “with nothing to support him except his inarticulate horror of what O’Brien had said”, attempts to argue back, but O’Brien swats all his objections aside. There is no principle or spirit in the universe that can defeat and overthrow the Party’s tyranny: Winston does not believe in God and, as a materialist, has no way to argue against O’Brien’s materialist logic. If the Party has absolute control over matter, then it has absolute control over the brain and over the mind, including consciousness. Without God, there is no Bigger Brother to put Big Brother in his place. Which is not to say that God must exist, or that Orwell’s nightmare cannot come true. It can and perhaps will. Wishful thinking will not create a Deus ex nihilo. But there is an interesting aspect to theism: it justifies and explains consciousness in a way science does not. From a scientific point of view, there is currently no good reason to prefer a universe with consciousness to a universe without it. Matter can and does behave in hugely complex ways without apparent conscious intervention. And I’m not talking just about the gigantic drama of inanimate nature: spiral galaxies, sun-kindled comets, and the rings of Saturn. We can see matter performing incredible feats without looking at the sky. Looking into a mirror is quite sufficient. Human existence is much more complex than consciousness. Brains are bigger than minds and we do not oversee and control the activity of all the trillions of inter-connected, inter-active cells in our bodies. Thoughts, feelings, and the stuff of the senses are the tip of a very big iceberg. So why shouldn’t the material sea be able to swallow the iceberg entirely and leave nothing but matter and energy performing an infinite, eternal, unobserved dance?
No reason at all, it seems to me, from the current scientific point of view. From the theistic point of view, there seems an insuperable reason. Nothing in Christianity, for example, would make sense without consciousness. Heaven is a sensorium: a place to experience things, that is, to be conscious in. So is Hell. We get to one place or the other by making conscious choices. Or not, as the theology may be. But whether we go to Hell by being bad or by being born bad, there is no point to an unconscious afterlife and God could not have created a universe without consciousness. And He Himself presumably has it – or It – in the purest, most powerful form of all. But our own, inferior form supplies an argument for His existence. The argument from consciousness is that we can know God exists because, in a material universe, we are conscious and consciousness – so the argument claims – is not a material phenomenon and could never be produced by matter alone. This is the most interesting and perhaps the most formidable of all the arguments for God’s existence. But I don’t regard it as conclusive, in part because I can’t see how supernaturalism ever manages to escape the problem of matter. Instead, I would claim, supernaturalism compounds the problem. If flesh, the natural substance of humanity, is like a bubble, then spirit, the supernatural substance of divinity, is like a rock. It endures unchangingly for ever.
In other words, if Nature is material, then Supernature can only be super-material, because all the attributes of matter – permanence, stability, quiddity – exist in heightened form in the supernatural realm. In The Great Divorce (1945), C.S. Lewis’ allegory of Heaven and Hell, the substance of Heaven is described as being like diamond, or rather super-diamond: it’s harder and more enduring than transient earthly matter. Infinitely harder and infinitely more enduring. The problem of consciousness doesn’t disappear in a Heaven like that: it gets, well, harder. On earth we face a big question: how does consciousness, which is apparently immaterial, arise in a material brain? The problem doesn’t disappear with the body, because even on the spiritual plane something must still generate consciousness without itself being conscious.
Or without itself being consciousness. Whatever consciousness actually is. We observe it all our lives, but we’re no nearer understanding it at the end of our three-score-years-and-ten than we were at the beginning. We devote endless time and energy to enhancing and altering it – Darwinian ontogeny aside, what is art, in all its forms, but a way to woo and win consciousness? – but we don’t understand it and don’t know what it is. Most of the time, unless we’re trained in Buddhist awareness or a similar technique, we take it for granted: we’re not conscious of being conscious. And being conscious of being conscious is an odd experience. If consciousness = C(W), or being conscious, C, of the world, W, consciousness of consciousness would be C(C(W)), or C2. And what about being conscious of being conscious of being conscious? That would be C(C(C(W))), or C3. How high can the hierarchy of haecceity go? C4, C5, and higher? And what does C2, being conscious of being conscious, actually involve? Is it like taking a copy of the mind’s contents, or part of them, and examining them, or it, from a new perspective? That is, does the mind copy itself and become part of its own contents? I can sometimes feel my mind squirming when I ask myself these questions and try climbing the ladder of awareness: being conscious of being conscious of being conscious… And I wonder whether it’s possible to sprain the mind, as it were: to pull a mental muscle by straining to contort the mind in ways it’s not meant to be contorted.
Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern religions do treat the mind like a muscle, or a set of muscles, and try to give their practitioners techniques for controlling, strengthening, and calming consciousness. But they still don’t explain the inti-mystery of consciousness and its relation to matter. And you don’t need the lotus position or high spiritual purpose to observe and wonder about the heart of the inti-mystery. In some scientific accounts, consciousness is an epiphenomenon: it rides on matter like a surfer on a wave, but it doesn’t affect matter. The wave does what it wants whether or not the surfer is there. Ditto for the brain and its ghostly inhabitant. But if that is the case, how is it possible to be conscious of being conscious? Consciousness is an immaterial thing that cannot be sensed, only experienced. But it can nevertheless affect itself and so affect our material behaviour. We talk and write constantly about consciousness, directly or indirectly. How does that fit into a materialist account of the brain?
Well, is it possible that consciousness of consciousness is an illusion? If the mind is generated entirely by the brain and the brain is entirely material, echt electro-chemical, the subjective experience of C2 – being conscious of being conscious – must correspond to some pattern of brain activity. So being conscious of being conscious would translate, at the material level, into the statement that a region of the brain observes another region of the brain, or observes itself. The brain changes and consciousness changes. We’re never actually conscious of being conscious: we’re conscious of one brain region being influenced by another. The loop is not in conscious awareness, but in unconscious matter, at the level of brain-cells and their electro-chemistry.
It certainly doesn’t feel like that: being conscious of being conscious seems extra-sensory and extra-material. And does the mere fact of wondering about the illusion mean that it isn’t an illusion? Namely, that consciousness does directly impinge on consciousness? The claim that consciousness itself is an illusion seems to me nonsensical. As Descartes concluded, it is the only certainty of existence: Cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” Even Ambrose Bierce’s cynical re-wording – Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. – can’t dethrone consciousness. If it’s there, it’s there, whatever lies it may be telling us about reality or about itself. And if it’s there, you have the key to everything, because without it you have nothing. But with it you have nothing too. I am not my consciousness: my consciousness is a screen onto which “I” – my experiences and my memories – are projected. When I look for myself in consciousness, I find nothing there. In David Hume’s words, there is only a bundle of sensations, emotions, and memories to which we give the label “I”:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate, after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is further requisite to make me a perfect nonentity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudiced reflection, thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continued, which he calls himself; though I am certain there is no such principle in me.
But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change: nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40, Book I, Part 4, Section 6, “Of Personal Identity”)
In short, I don’t exist and you don’t exist: only consciousness exists. For the moment. Or for two moments, or for as many moments as there are sentient beings. Until we understand what consciousness is, we won’t know which option is right. One moment or many? Consciousness only in humans? Only in humans and the higher animals? Or in insects and micro-organisms too? In all matter? In all being? Are numbers and literary characters conscious, for example? Those latter possibilities seem increasingly unlikely, but the inti-mystery is the biggest mystery of all and contains ample room for surprises. In the end, it is the only mystery and the only thing that matters. And it seems likely that the double bubble will puzzle scientists and philosophers for some time yet. Perhaps for ever. But even if it does puzzle scientists and philosophers for ever, politicians and their policemen may nevertheless gain control over it in ways foreseen by Orwell and beginning to be realized by science. This is a frightening story:
Using Precisely-Targeted Lasers, Researchers Manipulate Neurons in Worms’ Brains and Take Control of Their Behavior
ScienceDaily (Sep. 23, 2012) — In the quest to understand how the brain turns sensory input into behavior, Harvard scientists have crossed a major threshold. Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers have been able to take over an animal’s brain, instruct it to turn in any direction they choose, and even to implant false sensory information, fooling the animal into thinking food was nearby. Original Story
This is a frightening story too:
Mind Reading from Brain Recordings? “Neural Fingerprints” of Memory Associations Decoded
ScienceDaily (June 26, 2012) — Researchers have long been interested in discovering the ways that human brains represent thoughts through a complex interplay of electrical signals. Recent improvements in brain recording and statistical methods have given researchers unprecedented insight into the physical processes under-lying thoughts. For example, researchers have begun to show that it is possible to use brain recordings to reconstruct aspects of an image or movie clip someone is viewing, a sound someone is hearing or even the text someone is reading. Original Story
But another possibility is that power over our brains won’t be wielded by others against our consent, but by ourselves with great delight:
What I’m planning is a psychopath makeover, to find out firsthand, for better and for worse, what it’s like to see the world through devil-may-care eyes… Transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS) was developed by Anthony Barker and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in 1985. The inaugural application of TMS by Barker and his team comprised an elementary demonstration of the conduction of nerve impulses from the motor cortex to the spinal cord by stimulating simple muscle contractions… The basic premise of TMS is that the brain operates using electrical signals, and that, as with any such system, it’s possible to modify the way it works by altering its electrical environment. Standard equipment consists of a powerful electromagnet, placed on the scalp, that generates steady magnetic-field pulses at specific frequencies, and a plastic-enclosed coil to focus those magnetic pulses down through the surface of the skull onto discrete brain regions, thus stimulating the underlying cortex.
Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren’t wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are — and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain’s emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty. In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down. Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and you’re well on the way to giving someone a psychopath makeover.
The Deus Ex Machina, or electronically enhanced superhuman who is now in preparation, may turn out to be a self-created psychopath. Or he may find ways of pleasuring himself that surpass by far the joy-jolts of crime and cruelty. The “wireheads” imagined by the science-fiction writer Larry Niven directly stimulated the pleasure-centres of their brains. That is the purest and cleanest imaginable form of pleasure. Heroin and cocaine pick the lock of ecstasy; science will shortly hand us an entirely safe key. And when we use the key, we may cease to puzzle over the inti-mystery of consciousness. We may cease to care what it is and become willing slaves of its endless, ecstatic enhancement. That is a happier prospect than the empire of torture imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but seems a bathetic way to burst the bubble of life’s billion-year experiment in consciousness. Or seems so at the moment. Such judgments may cease to matter when we’re plugged into our pleasure-machines and perhaps we’ll bless the birthdates that have allowed us to become slaves of science. A.E. Housman was born in 1859 and died in 1936, far from any chance of joining that legion of lotus-eaters. But he wrote constantly about consciousness, its enhancement and endrearment, and whether to value it or throw it away. And he may have written mankind’s epitaph here:
Ho, everyone that thirsteth
And hath the price to give,
Come to the stolen waters,
Drink, and your soul shall live.
Come to the stolen waters,
And leap the guarded pale,
And pull the flower in season
Before desire shall fail.
It shall not last for ever,
No more than earth or skies;
But he that drinks in season,
Shall live before he dies.
June suns, you cannot store them
To warm the winter’s cold;
The lad that hopes for heaven
Shall fill his mouth with mould.
XXII of More Poems, (1936).
• At the Mountains of Mathness