Monday, June 27, 2016

Consciousness (For Sale)

Image result for mind

- You know, I think you and me both have had enough of politics. Remember the times we met each other and one said to the other, 'Let’s go to a café and philosophize?' We were young. We’re still young. Let’s go to a café and philosophize.

                 * * *

- The human species is contemptible, wouldn’t you say?*
- That’s how you want to start?
- I’ll tell you what I mean. We're not to talk about politics. Could something be further from politics than philosophy of mind and body, of the connection between the two?
- I suspect you’re going to tell me there’s politics there too.
- If we think we're all machines isn't it more likely we’ll accept an economic program that demands we see ourselves as workers in a system of work that has its own mechanical form independent of us? But we agreed to leave politics out of it today.
- You got some politics in. Go on.
- What kind of person is a lifelong student of Buddhism but at the same time is a proponent of the idea that our bodies are machines, and what goes on in our consciousness is formally similar to what happens in the body and is in a circular causal relation to it, body affecting consciousness and consciousness affecting body?
- The neuroscientist/philosopher Franscisco Varela** from Chile. He worked in Paris until he died in 2001. As far as I can understand he believed we were special kinds of machines that were capable of caring about other machines like ourselves, which caring he called intersubjectivity. Our consciousness is inextricably entangled with that of others.
- And what is consciousness?
- Thinking that had the shape of what went on with the machine of the body.
- So mind is a machine for thinking "about" or shadowing what happens in the body which is connected to the body in such a way that the thinking changes what the body does.
- Yes.
- I take it that mind must be a summary of the body, and it is that summary that effects the physical changes.
- Yes.
- But the mind shares a form with the body.
- Yes.
- But does not share the summary?
- Well, it does. It’s just that that summary is the mind.
- How is a logical, narrative relation like summary anything like consciousness? A thought is not like a neuron, or a brain region, or a bodily interaction with the world.
- Our consciousness is said to be nothing more than a logical relation, a system of relations between parts the brain and body. Yet it is obviously not. We agreed not to talk about politics. So explain, in some other way this absurdity.
- Are you happy now? With this conversation?
- Yes.
- We’re freely considering this subject, this problem. Nothing is in our way. Varela went deep, we’re going to follow him and perhaps go deeper. Varela saw life as a system of self creation, self maintenance, in response to the world and its disruptions. A living thing changes the world in responding to it, and changes itself in response. Even if we use language and give something in the world a name, once it has a name we change in relation to it, and if it is also capable of response it will change in response to our own change. Because we and the world are constantly in change and changing each other, a definition of ourselves and the world as things does not work.
- We define ourselves as regularities of responsive action. As systems. The way our thoughts and feelings follow each other in consciousness seems to follow what happens in the body in a systematic way.
- That is Varela’s view, with the addition that consciousness exerts a power over the body in its role in the system as summary.
- But that doesn’t make any sense. If the summary is already in the body what is consciousness for? And if it isn’t already in the body, where else could it be?
- Nowhere.
- Buddhist nowhere?
- Buddhist nowhere. In Verela's systematic explanation where we are always responding to the world and the world responding to us, we have no clear definition as things, nor are there things in the world.
- So experience of meditation reduces experience to system, and system exists in the body which is not a thing just like mind is not a thing. Mind and body are identified, system to system.
- Except that consciousness looks to us nothing like the body.
- We are deceived, Buddhist fashion, by illusions. What do you think?
- I think it's all politics.
- You do, do you? Alright then, I’ll issue an exemption. Talk.
- What interests me is why the very smart, very philosophical Varela chose to start from machines but didn’t go into the question of what a machine is.
- What is a machine?
- A machine is an arrangement of parts, of things...
- Which Varela says are not real.
- Of things put into movement by force or energy.
- What is energy?
- That which sets things in motion.
- A thing that sets things in motion?
- A different kind of thing. A thing we can’t see or describe.
- Like consciousness!
- Since, in Varela’s analysis things don’t really exist, a thing which sets things in motion doesn’t really exist either.
- So consciousness for Varela is a kind of energy (an imaginary thing) setting in motion the body (also an imaginary thing).
- Yes.
- Well, at least his view is consistent. It makes sense. Buddhist sense. It’s all illusion out there, and in here too in my head!
- But is it science? Our consciousness holds a lot more than that which parallels bodily systems of response to the world.
- For example?
- Love.
- Which Varela called “intersubjectivity”. Which is a summary of our interaction with others in our lives in response to them, that then the body responds to.
- Is that how consciousness looks to you?
- How does it look to you?
- When you learn something, when you fall in love, you see the pattern of your experience, see that your experience indeed has fallen into a pattern that unifies it, makes it into a whole. And you take your stand outside the whole, concluding 'that is that', and turn your attention everywhere else, to the rest of the world that now is put in relation to that whole in a wonderful, indescribable way.
- The way of being in love. I’ll go with your description.
- Is there a bodily equivalent to the experience of openness, of being unlimited?
- Since the body is a machine, a collection of parts each with a limit, I don’t see how.
- But in our consciousness, we do have this feeling? Perhaps it’s an illusion?
- Then both things and no things are illusions? What then wouldn’t be an illusion?
- System.
- I choose love and the infinite. My consciousness is not of systems, even of system of relation to other people.
- Varela claimed that the body’s response to destablization, an attempt at recovery of stable state, was formally like emotion.
- Therefore “intersubjectivity” was the emotion of all together, love.
- Except that it is not love.
- Why not?
- It is limited. It is of the body, a finite relation of its finite parts.
- Maybe that is enough. Love is an illusion too, infinite in the sense of being indefinite.
- Then the correspondence between mind and body would be faulty. But leave that. Consider for a moment that there is such an experience of the infinite. Every time we learn a word, speak a sentence to its conclusion, learn anything or love someone, we experience the infinite in relation to that summary of experience achieved. Our consciousness is that very sense of infinite. Our consciousness is in every word, sentence, discovery, and love.
- It is the energy to our body-machine.
- Yes. But if it is not the energy, where does the energy come from that moves the machine body?
- A living thing makes its own energy from metabolizing the world around it.
- But doesn’t that imply that the body in making its own energy does its own thinking?
- Which is part of Varela’s theory: mind affects body, body affects mind.
- The levels of metabolism and of perception are very different. Formal agreement breaks down.
- Then what? You say – we’re not to talk about things - the element of the pattern “energy” fits better body to mind if we identify it as a standing back from a whole, in a perception of the infinite rest-of-what’s-out-there, whatever it is. Consciousness feels different from the pattern we observe in the body, consciousness is more than a pattern, because it includes intervening moments of energy.
- Yes. Not a mere pattern. Not a constant flow of emotion. Rather movement and rest, open and closed, whole and undefined: a list of experience-elements made possible by allowing the infinite into the picture. Emotion not only in recovery of stasis but in resting love and love become foundational for play. What do you think?
- Where’s the politics?
- We said it already. Varela’s insisting the body is a machine making itself and its own energy is equivalent to insisting the body makes consciousness. And since the man making the theory lived as we do in a world dominated by the production and exchange of things, consciousness becomes a product to be bought and sold along with everything else.

Further Reading:
The First Loser
Machines & Consciousness
Noam Chomsky & Mental Things
If You Can't Program It, It Isn't Real
How Do You Make A Computer Not Want To Be A Computer?
Killer Metaphysics
Language & Leaders
Animals Talking, Animals Thinking
** See: Francisco Varela (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch), The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. 1991, MIT Press