This Mortal Doyle

Challenger chopped and changed. That is to say, in one important respect, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger lacked continuity. His philosophical views weren’t consistent. At one time he espoused materialism, at another he opposed it. He espoused it in “The Land of Mist” (1927):

“Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”

“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”

But earlier, in “The Poison Belt” (1913), he had opposed it:

“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”

That story was published just over a century ago, but Challenger’s boast has not been vindicated in the meantime. So far as science can see, matter rules mind, not vice versa. Conan Doyle thought the same as the earlier Challenger, but Conan Doyle’s rich and teeming brain seems to have ended in “mere physical constituents”. To all appearances, when the organization of his brain broke down, so did his consciousness. And that concluded the cycle described by A.E. Housman in “Poem XXXII” of A Shropshire Lad (1896):

From far, from eve and morning
  And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
  Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
  Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
  How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
  I take my endless way. (ASL, XXXII)

Conan Doyle and his consciousness are both gone, but the stuff of his former life remains, scattered over the wind’s twelve quarters. The same is true of Housman. And it’s certain, on statistical grounds, that some of the matter once in the brains of those two men is now in the brains of living men and women. Atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron and more exotic elements are once again at work, participating in the electro-chemical patterns that underlie consciousness. Sub-atomic particles like neutrons, protons and electrons are shuttling again on enchanted looms, weaving the warp and weft of consciousness. But Doyle and Housman weren’t the beginning: some of those particles have served in many brains down the millennia.

Do they carry a record of the work they’ve done? Are there memories in atoms? As far as we can see, no, there aren’t. An atom or electron can’t carry sufficient information. Memory, like consciousness, depends on organized assemblies of atoms, that is, on patterns of matter. When the patterns break down, so does the memory and so does the consciousness. Only the particles are immortal, from the human perspective. They participate in brains, but brains don’t break them and when the brain ends they continue unaltered. And here is the great mystery: how does the unitary phenomenon of consciousness arise from individual particles, from neutrons, protons and electrons and the forces that act on them?

The ingredients of a brain will fit in a bowl, but the ingredients won’t be conscious unless they’re cooked right. That is, they have to have a particular structure: the skull is a bowl for the brain-cake. And the cooking is continuous: the brain has to be irrigated with blood, fuelled with glucose, shielded from poisons and pathogens. Much of what it does isn’t in consciousness: the purpose of consciousness is another mystery from the scientific point of view. Why can the machine not run on its own, without sending steam into the attic? That is, why is matter not sufficient, without the addition of mind? But whatever its purpose, consciousness seems like steam or vapour: shapeless, shifting, instantly sensitive to changes in its environment. Consciousness is airy, not solid, something that seems to occupy the body without being truly part of it.

That’s where the word “spirit” comes from: it means “breath” in Latin. And there’s a Latin motto: Dum spiro, spero – “While I breathe, I hope.” Human life depends on breath, on the shapelessness and insubstantiality of air, and consciousness seems to behave like what it depends on. It shifts and swirls, soars and expands. But air is still a material thing, still obedient to physical laws. It might be a good metaphor for immaterial spirit, but in a wider sense, you can’t escape matter when you contemplate consciousness. If consciousness depends on spirit, the spirit isn’t truly immaterial. It must have some kind of substance: some kind of structure and permanence. In other words, some kind of materiality. And structure and permanence require not just matter but two other things: space and time. The ingredients of a conscious brain are threefold: material, spatial and temporal. Matter changes within space over time.

All those three – matter, space, time – are very mysterious things. What are they? Whence are they? Why are they? But we can ask those questions and experience that mystery only through the most mysterious thing of all: consciousness. How do matter, space and time combine to produce subjective experience? Throw in spirit too, if you like: in one important sense, it doesn’t make a difference. Matter alone or spirit-and-matter: consciousness must arise out of something that is not itself conscious. We do not experience our brains directly and consciousness is not continuous. There are gaps in our conscious experience, both natural ones and unnatural ones. Sleep is a natural gap; fainting is an unnatural one.

You could suppose that we are continually conscious and merely forget parts of what we experience, but Occam’s razor and experiment say otherwise. Yes, some conscious experience is definitely lost to memory. For example, we tend to forget our dreams unless we are woken during them – during a REM episode, where REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement.

But there are periods of sleep that appear to be genuinely unconscious. If we’re woken during one of these and asked what we were experiencing, we have no answer. Dreamless sleep seems to be a definite gap in the stream of consciousness, when the stream dives underground into the black. Or rather: into the void, which has no colour, taste, sound, smell or tactile sensation. We say “It all went black” to describe a sudden lapse into unconsciousness, but that’s a convention from cinema. The screen goes black to symbolize that a character is no longer experiencing anything. But “black” is an experience, like silence, numbness and anosmia, or inability to smell. True unconsciousness contains nothing and we remember nothing of it. Only the generator of consciousness is continuous: the brain or the brain-and-soul. There is some mechanism, material or psycho-material, that generates consciousness only under certain conditions. And that mechanism is not transparent to consciousness. In short: consciousness arises out of unconsciousness. Mind arises from matter.

But there’s more. Mind doesn’t merely arise from matter: the mind’s unity arises from matter’s plurality. Suppose that the mechanism of consciousness is, in Challenger’s words, composed of “four buckets of water and a bagful of salts”. Those are the ingredients of a human body containing a brain and nervous system. Chemicals are arranged in a certain way, particles interact, and consciousness appears: a unitary phenomenon in what is, from one perspective, a collective phenomenon. The atoms that make up a human body will one day go their own way. There are many atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, iron and so on that presently form part of a conscious human brain. There are many that once did so. There are many more that have not yet done so. But is there any mark distinguishing these three sets of atom?

It appears not: whether they’re in a brain or out of a brain, atoms are atoms. And those atoms have finer structure: elementary particles like neutrons, protons, electrons, quarks. It is the arrangement of these elementary particles that distinguishes an atom of oxygen from an atom of carbon or iron. But it’s a basic principle of physics that elementary particles of a particular class are identical. There’s even a theory that all electrons are one electron. Either way, an electron in a butterfly’s brain is effectively identical to an electron in a human’s brain, or in a rock or a star. What distinguishes the particles in a brain from the particles in a rock or star is their arrangement and interactions.

But if elementary particles can participate in a brain and then go their way unaltered, does this mean that consciousness can arise in mechanisms that mimic the behaviour of a brain and yet are not brains? Can consciousness arise in a sufficiently elaborate system of clockwork or hydraulics? Could a brain be imitated by a series of sluices and stopcocks? Could it be imitated by cards? That is, could a giant game of patience be conscious if it were governed by the right kind of rules?

Intuitively, one would think it couldn’t. For one thing: real brains are wet. But wetness is a statement about the macroscopic behaviour of microscopic particles to which terms like “wet” and “dry” do not apply. That behaviour can be mimicked by computer programs, electronic models of reality. Indeed, you could say that water itself mimics wetness. Hydrogen and oxygen are gases at room temperature. In combination, as H2O, they’re a liquid. In interaction, they behave quite differently than they do apart. And in interaction, they behave differently at different temperatures: water can be a solid, a liquid or a gas. All these labels are statements about inter-action, that is, about an exchange of information: molecules of water differ from isolated atoms of hydrogen and oxygen because the atoms are supplying information to each other in a different way. Indeed, some physicists would argue that physics is ultimately reducible to statements about information. Matter melts into math. So do time and space.

Which raises another question about the brain. If its components are not altered by their interaction, can those components be separately widely in space and work at a much slower rate? Could parts of an imitation brain be placed on different planets around different stars or even in different galaxies? The interaction of these parts would be limited by the speed of light, but so long as the interaction accurately reproduced that in a real brain, why should consciousness not arise in the same way? After all, in a real brain, any given particle is in immediate contact with only a tiny fraction of all the other particles in the brain. And yet a unitary consciousness arises. To say that consciousness depends on a particular kind of matter interacting in a particular kind of way is to make a mathematical statement: information is being exchanged like this, not like that.

But the “this” is achievable in other ways. And why should the speed of the interaction be important? Suppose that there were some superhuman power that could freeze in time all the particles in our universe relative to those in another universe. Suppose that the power began to stop and start the particles of our universe, as though it were turning a light off and on or slowly strumming a harp. Each second of subjective time for human beings might be separated by an indefinite period of frozen time of which the human beings were unaware. A day of frozen time might elapse between each second of fluidity, or a century, or a millennium, or a kalpa / कल्प (a unit of Hindu time equal to 4.32 billion years). Or much, much longer than a kalpa. If that were actually taking place in our universe, what difference would it make to our consciousness? None at all, one would assume. So long as the activity of the brain were unaltered before and after each universal freeze, consciousness would, one assumes, continue as it does in a never-frozen universe.

Either way, we step continually over great gulfs of time and never notice them gaping beneath our feet. We can’t perceive very small units of time, so we aren’t aware of what’s happening from, say, one microsecond to the next:

Subjective experience of time is just that — subjective. Even individual people, who can compare notes by talking to one another, cannot know for certain that their own experience coincides with that of others. But an objective measure which probably correlates with subjective experience does exist. It is called the critical flicker-fusion frequency, or CFF, and it is the lowest frequency at which a flickering light appears to be a constant source of illumination. It measures, in other words, how fast an animal’s eyes can refresh an image and thus process information. For people, the average CFF is 60 hertz (ie, 60 times a second). This is why the refresh-rate on a television screen is usually set at that value. Dogs have a CFF of 80Hz, which is probably why they do not seem to like watching television. To a dog a TV programme looks like a series of rapidly changing stills. (Small creatures with fast metabolisms see the world like an action replay, The Economist, Sep 21st 2013)

So a human being can’t see faster than 60 hertz. That’s not even a centisecond. To see each millisecond’s worth of reality, we’d need to see at 1000 hertz. That’s utterly impossible at present. But a lot can happen in a millisecond. Or a microsecond. To see each microsecond of reality, we’d need to see at 1,000,000 hertz. We can’t and perhaps never will. But if we’re never conscious of any particular tiny unit of time, how are we conscious at all? Indeed, if the units are fine enough, the living matter of brains and bodies begins to seem like crystal or stone: altering slowly and autonomously, quite beyond and below conscious control. And perhaps consciousness doesn’t have any control, being an epiphenomenon that rides on matter but does not influence it, like foam on a wave or the glitter of moving parts in a machine.

Machines also make noise, but the noise is an epiphenomenon, not an essential part of the machine’s activity. Flocks also make noise: it can be an eerie experience to see and hear a vast number of birds swirling and shifting like a single organism. Does the flock have a super-consciousness beyond the individual consciousness of the birds taking part in it? It can seem so, but flocks of birds, like schools of fish, are governed by relatively simple rules that can easily be mimicked by computers. They are far less complex than the flock of cells composing the body of an individual fish or bird. And composing its brain. A flock is actually a flock of flocks: the phenomenon is as old as multi-cellular life. Or it’s a flock of flocks of flocks, because an individual cell can be regarded as a flock too. Atoms and molecules are not existing in isolation or within the relative simple structure of a stone or star, but in complex interaction.

Life is a mathematical phenomenon, or rather a particular sub-set of mathematical phenomena. And consciousness must be a sub-set of that sub-set. A liver or heart isn’t conscious; a brain is. But the atoms of a brain have no ontological superiority to those of a liver or heart: it’s their arrangement and interaction that are important. They’re a certain kind of flock within the greater flock of the body and somehow they have the ability to fly on a different plane: a mental one, an immaterial one. Doyle flew there and we can still fly with him through the medium of language. That is all that remains of his consciousness. And of Housman’s:

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.

(Additional Poems, God’s Acre)


Consciousness
At the Mountains of Mathness

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