What a paradox it is that I have had an ongoing sense of identity all my life. The “I-ness” I now experience seems little different to that which I experienced when I was younger. Yet I am substantially a different person from that Ted Scott that existed thirty or forty years ago I am older with the uncomfortable inconveniences of age starting to press on me. But I have had so many more experiences, met such marvellous people, read great books and managed a few small achievements of my own. But apart from the bodily aches and pains, the experience of being Ted Scott has hardly changed.
But what can I tell you about what it is like to be me? Unfortunately not very much! The experience is intensely personal and our language has no adequate tools to describe it. All I can say is that whoever or whatever “I” am is a seemingly continuous experience (perhaps except for those passages of time I am in deep sleep and not conscious of experience). [Some research suggests even this continuity is illusory and my mind conveniently fills in gaps when they occur.]
“I” seem to be the consciousness that affords me the privilege of being aware of this experience. This theatre of consciousness is what we have come to call “mind”.
In the early eighties I chanced upon a book called “The Mind’s I” edited by two famous American philosophers, Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. Included in this splendid collection was a piece titled, What does it mean to be a bat?”, by Thomas Nagel. (If you are interested you can easily access a copy of this paper by googling its title on the internet.) Nagel used this piece to argue against Dennett’s proposition that the mind is simply a phenomena resulting from the electrochemistry of the brain. Dennett went on to write his book “Consciousness Explained” where he proposes that consciousness is a function of the complexity and the recursivity of the brain. Nagel in attempting to refute this explanation wrote:
“Does it make sense, to ask what my experiences are really like as opposed to how they appear to me? We can not genuinely understand the hypothesis that their nature is captured in a physical description unless we understand the more fundamental idea that they have an objective nature (or that objective processes can have a subjective nature).”
Nagel offered an approach which he believed might help resolve the dilemma.
“This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method – an objective phenomenology not dependant on empathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.”
Of course (certainly to my understanding) we have made no progress in taking up Nagel’s challenge. The physicalist, reductionist approach championed by Dennett seems to be in the ascendency. Hofstadter, cleverly avoiding the main thrust of Nagel’s article ridiculed the topic asking why hadn’t Nagel asked such questions as:
• What is it like to work at MacDonald’s?
• What is it like to climb Mt Everest?
• What would it be like to be J S Bach writing the last movement of the Italian Concerto?
• What is it like to be the opposite sex?
• What would it be like to be your mirror image?
He maintained that the image conjured up by the phrase “What is it like to be X?” is so seductive and tempting and our minds are so flexible, so willing to accept this notion that there is “something it is like to be a bat” when there isn’t. He therefore concluded that this was a nonsensical concept.
I think it was Julian Jaynes in his epic “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (even the title was an epic!) who pointed out that one of the problems of understanding or describing consciousness is because there are no real analogies or metaphors we can use to help us. There is nothing like consciousness which is probably just another way of saying what Nagal was trying to say in his essay.
Aldous Huxley showed us that consciousness is the outcome also of a reducing function that selectively eliminates much from mind. To begin with even the sensory inputs that inform our consciousness limit information. We can only see the visual spectrum of light. Our senses can’t detect for example infrared radiation or x-rays. We can’t hear the high frequencies of sound detectable by bats. Our sense of smell is poor compared to dogs. And all this necessarily so. If we were bombarded with too much sensory stimulation we wouldn’t have the capacity to process it and make sense of it.
But this reducing function is more powerful than just filtering sensory inputs. Consciousness is focussed on what we pay attention to. I am sitting here at my computer typing these words and thinking of what I want to say next. I am quite oblivious to the birdsongs emanating from my garden or the beauty of the roses just outside my office window until I stop and reengage with my environment.
Whilst consciousness is hugely important, it is also easy to overstate its importance. There is much going on in the background unilluminated by the torchlight of consciousness that still has a huge bearing on our lives. So much of what we do is greatly influenced by our assumptions and beliefs that are firmly ensconced in our minds outside our conscious awareness. We are all hugely influenced by our subconscious minds.
It is also informative to ask ourselves with the advantage of consciousness what do we know, what do we learn directly. Can you tell me, does the door of your bathroom open from the right or from the left? What is your second longest finger on your right hand? If you are reading this blog in a particular room can you tell me what items appear on the wall behind you? Or even more perversely, imagine the last time you went swimming in the ocean. We believe that we retrieve such information from memory – but of course we don’t. We manufacture our memories. I’ll bet that if you remembered the last time you went swimming in the ocean you saw yourself doing just that. How can that be possible? Your memories should have been of the water in front of your face, your arms cleaving the sea – there is no way you could have seen your body tussling with the ocean.
I know of several instances where people have vouchsafed experiences that are stark in their memories but other people who were there at the time have contradicted them. I know of several people who have told me they were present when various things occurred only to have others tell me they weren’t. We believe what we want to believe and those intriguing stories we’ve told about others inevitably have us as participants even when we were nowhere near.. We tell the stories and identify with them and before we know it we are participants.
And we instanced above some of the difficulties of understanding consciousness. There is of course one major hurdle which I have elicited a few times in my blogs. Here is another take on it by Michael Frayn in his book “The Human Touch”.
“Anything in the world, or out of it, can be perceived or thought about, or both, and represented in our various codes. The only thing that systematically eludes us, whichever way we turn, is the something upon which everything else depends. The conscious subject that gives meaning to the objective universe cannot give meaning to itself. Without it nothing can be understood; about it nothing can be said.”
But the question I now want to put to you is “where is the location of this consciousness.”
In stark contrast I would ask you to relate to one of the following statements:
1. I have a brain.
2. I am a brain.
Obviously, if I relate my identity, my sense of self to my consciousness the reductionists believe that the second statement is true.
Well, I am sorry it doesn’t seem that way to me. I find it impossible to believe that consciousness is somehow prised out of a material entity we call the brain. It is probably why I titled this blog “The Mind of Ted”; but sitting where I sit whilst it seems to me that my brain is a pretty important appendage, just like my heart or my liver and it gives me certain computational advantages, I find it difficult to believe that it alone bestows consciousness on me.
If I were to resume our initial debate and were to comment on what it means to be Ted (rather than what it means to be a bat) I would have to say it is this unique and exquisite experience of my consciousness. I can not see how I could possibly share that experience with you. I infer, merely because you and I share many physical and mental attributes, that you have a similar experience – but I can never be sure. And even if there is some commonality in our experience I know that we will never share the same experience because I have a different biological history, I have had a different socialisation and I have different environmental cues to deal with than you do.
I don’t know and possibly can’t imagine however I would know what it is to be a bat. But I don’t know, and possibly can’t imagine what it would be like to be you. And you have no objective knowledge about what it is like to be me. (You might even prefer to be a bat!)
Yet here is the greatest quandary of all. The subjective experience of each of us is very different. But at the source of it all, it seems obvious to me that there is but one consciousness that we all share in. This experience is mediated by our personal circumstances, but it is essentially the same experience. Brahman and Atman play out their never ending dichotomy. But however different I might seem to be, at the level of consciousness you and I are, at a fundamental level, the same. And rather than our spiritual experience being a derivative of our physical makeup, it seems clear to me, in contrast to whatever Daniel Dennett might believe, that our concrete beings are a manifestation of our consciousness. So you and I might manifest various differences in our physical, spiritual and psychological makeup, but we cannot escape the commonality that emanates from mind and our shared consciousness.