I admit (again) to being bugged by things found on YouTube — a miserable proxy for the marketplace of ideas — many of which are either dumb, wrongheaded, or poorly framed. It’s not my goal to correct every mistake, but sometimes, inane utterances of intellectuals and specialists I might otherwise admire just stick in my craw. It’s hubris on my part to insist on my understandings, considering my utter lack of standing as an acknowledged authority, but I’m not without my own multiple areas of expertise (I assert immodestly).

The initial purpose for this blog was to explore the nature of consciousness. I’ve gotten badly sidetracked writing about collapse, media theory, epistemology, narrative, and cinema, so let me circle back around. This is gonna be long.

German philosopher Oswald Spengler takes a crack at defining consciousness:

Human consciousness is identical with the opposition between the soul and the world. There are gradations in consciousness, varying from a dim perception, sometimes suffused by an inner light, to an extreme sharpness of pure reason that we find in the thought of Kant, for whom soul and world have become subject and object. This elementary structure of consciousness is not capable of further analysis; both factors are always present together and appear as a unity.

Let me reinforce Spengler’s assertion that consciousness is unitary, a concept that resonates from a perspective of immanence but is anathema to the scientific, materialist perspective, the latter of which seeks continuously to bust things apart to reveal their material, functional, and/or conceptual elements. Examination and discovery of inner workings ultimately lead to manipulation and exploitation (pejorative terms, those, but applicable). I’ve often bitched that so-called “consciousness studies,” a field of inquiry that has taken off in the past decades and now includes its own society and journal, takes for granted its neurobiological approach, discarding Spengler’s more poetical definition. It’s a mistake.

Whereas I’m in no position to dispute scientific findings, it’s obvious that humans don’t experience the world primarily through logic, reason, and dispassion. Rather, consciousness is experienced as story or narrative — one that we tell ourselves, in fact, thus, self-narrative or inner voice. The story comes loaded with inaccuracy and emotionalism precisely because perception is faulty and emotions are encoded in memory. They’re basic, inescapable functions of cognition and transform storytelling and decision-making into a heuristic. Moreover, self-narrative is not a fixed form like books or films but is instead a moving target, a never-ending story (at least until death). Acquisition of consciousness in childhood (socialization, if you prefer) is aided by an innate disposition toward storytime, which has distinctly repetitious and dreamy qualities. This accounts for high susceptibility among children to believe in talking animals and magical beings before transition to mature cognition is complete (assuming one gets there). Even in adulthood, people are easy marks for propaganda, conspiracy, groupthink, and outright falsehood. In contrast, well-educated individuals typically develop the ability to think critically and adopt a pose of objectivity, temporarily setting aside emotion and phenomenal experience. (According to Spengler’s characterization, Kant was toward that end of the continuum.) But that style of structured, disciplined thought is only a guise over profoundly irrational experience and is neither easily obtained nor sustained. Even further, in extreme old age, mental acuity diminishes; some experience a second childhood. Sadly, it sometimes gets so bad that, to use a euphemism, there’s no one home.

In an earlier blog post (Consciousness as Canopy), I pointed to Iain McGilchrist’s discussion of consciousness being like the forest canopy, which when viewed from above (i.e., via executive function) obscures the activity of the whole (the entire forest realm, or all of consciousness). The forest extends both from the ground up to the canopy and to subterranean depths, but our blinkered, bird’s-eye view sees only the branches and leaves of the treetops — a partial or obstructed view of the whole. Further, we employ an exhausting, confusing array of terms to describe not only the whole (consciousness, conscience, mind, soul, spirit, self and self-awareness, psyche, identity, etc.) but also its supposed constituent parts (unconscious, subconscious, preconscious, nonconscious, autonomic, proprietoceptive and interoceptive, and of course, Sigmund Freud’s three-part division into Id, Ego, and Superego). We know all sorts of thought is hidden, out of awareness, operating under the hood until something promotes some portion to primacy and awareness.

These top-down, bottom-up concepts of how the mind (or human psychology) works still fail to account for how collective consciousness (mass mind, mob mentality, or nodal consciousness, if you prefer) functions in a highly sensitive, interconnected, networked style of cognition we humans possess as a social species and/or superorganism. (See also Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance to get lost down a rabbit hole.) Even further, each individual possesses multiple personalities or identities projected outward as public personae or façades as distinguished from the private, core self. If an inner self truly exists, it’s often a reflection of how others see us (for those other-directed) or fundamentally alienated from others (for those inner-directed) using David Riesman’s terms from The Lonely Crowd. Considering that many of us adopt online avatars (often multiple ones) and adjust our public personae to fit varying social contexts and social media platforms, it’s easy to understand why R.D. Laing’s description of the divided self struggling to achieve coherence and cohesion has manifested in growing incidence of dysphoria along the lines of gender, sexual orientation, racial affiliation, etc. It’s no accident, for instance, that more people are becoming transgender or gender fluid.

The three paragraphs directly above are pretty damn dense and confusing yet point to how identity tends to fracture and disintegrate under the conditions of modernity. We now contend with disorienting hyper-awareness and recursive over-analysis of our selves. Moreover, the entire world intrudes via global media, demanding constant attention and eroding a sense of community. For those who lose their bearings, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world of our own making. As a result, the world we inhabit feels surreal, schizoid, and alien compared to older, traditional, stabilizing styles of embeddedness within social and cultural contexts that anchor a person to kin, kith, and place through continuity of experience.

Scientific inquiry into consciousness overcomplicates the issue rather than elucidating or resolving it. Consider this TedTalk by Anil Seth, who argues repeatedly that one’s consciousness is “a sort of controlled hallucination”:

 

Seth is plenty entertaining, showing how perception is faulty and predictive as it feeds the construction of consciousness or the telling of the story of self. (Incidentally, I’ve blogged about the postdictive illusion.) Using the term hallucination, however, even with the hedge “a sort of controlled …,” is a misleading rhetorical trick, not unlike the various perceptual illusions he presents. Thus, Seth suggests that hallucinated consciousness is fictional, unreal, or conjured by the brain (as opposed to being a heuristic) and not to be trusted or relied upon. Do we really have a choice? This prospect invokes a fundamental paradox: if there is no authentic self, no fundamental inner experience, and no objective outer reality, how is the life we all experience even at all possible? Good luck convincing others that their emotions and suffering and joy are only some trick of the brain. The experience of having a self and/or being conscious is not fiction; rather, it’s phenomenology and it’s unitary.

If others have managed through study and excessive compartmentalization to conclude that the mind is merely a hallucination of sorts or that we — oh, I dunno — live within a computer simulation, well, have fun. While it’s absolutely true that quite a lot of what we understand about the world is mistaken or actively falsified by others seeking to control our perceptions and thinking, the very existence of the body, the mind, and their experiences can’t be waived away. Thus, the irreducible Cartesian dictum “I think, therefore I am” (Latin: Cogito, ergo sum). It’s often said reductively that we really know nothing about the nature of consciousness. That’s only partly true, as Spengler (requoted from above) indicates: “… consciousness is … the opposition between the soul and the world … This elementary structure … is not capable of further analysis ….” Science has failed thus far to penetrate the mystery much further than that — other than the radical conclusion that it doesn’t really exist. If the detached ambivalence of scientific inquiry toward what is ultimately discovered (or invented, such as the hydrogen bomb) obviates anything resembling a positive humanist agenda or purpose, then what’s the point? Idle fascination is not enough to justify being the destroyer of worlds.

Comments
  1. leavergirl says:

    I didn’t realize how much of what I took a dip into is really something you’ve been looking into at depth. I hope you share more of your thoughts.

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