Book Review: Demystifying the Idea of Consciousness

Yves here. This article uses a sci-fi trope, and now a pet fantasy of squillionaires, as a point of departure: what if you could upload your consciousness so it could carry on? We learn below that the mind is not as separable from the body as we would like to believe, as the effects of lobotomies attest. And why is what would be seen as a continuation of our existence? It’s far more likely to be a copy, producing at best what was called in Dune a ghola, a clone of a dead individual with its memories carried over too.

By Emily Cataneo, a writer and journalist from New England whose work has appeared in Slate, NPR, the Baffler, and Atlas Obscura, among other publications. Originally published at Undark

If you could upload your consciousness to the cloud and live forever as a mind in the metaverse, would you do it?

Think carefully before answering. In “Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious,” neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that consciousness is far more than an algorithmic process. Uploading your consciousness to the cloud, he says, would be like experiencing a meal by reading a recipe rather than by eating.

BOOK REVIEW“Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious,” by Antonio Damasio (Pantheon, 256 pages).

So then what is consciousness? That’s the question at the heart of this book. Damasio is a professor of neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology and the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as well as the author of the 2018 book “The Strange Order of Things,” in which he extols the power of homeostasis, the force that keeps all living beings in equilibrium and therefore alive.

Consciousness is such a slippery and ephemeral concept that it doesn’t even have its own word in many Romance languages, but nevertheless it’s a hot topic these days. “Feeling & Knowing” is the result of Damasio’s editor’s request to weigh in on the subject by writing a very short, very focused book. Over 200 pages, Damasio ponders profound questions: How did we get here? How did we develop minds with mental maps, a constant stream of images, and memories — mechanisms that exist symbiotically with the feelings and sensations in our bodies that we then, crucially, relate back to ourselves and associate with a sense of personhood?

Damasio argues that the answers are not simple (not so simple as an algorithm, anyway) but it’s also not as complex as some theorists and scientists believe. Proponents of the so-called hard problem of consciousness argue that even once we’ve unlocked all the physiological components of the brain, we will still not be able to define or explain consciousness. For many of these theorists, there is something mysterious and even magical about it.

But Damasio disagrees, and this book attempts to show why. His major argument is that when studying consciousness, hard problem theorists fail to account for processes that take place outside the brain. Consciousness is not just about what happens in our minds; it’s about what happens in our bodies, and what happens when our minds interpret our bodies and feelings and reflect their processes back to us. In order to understand consciousness, Damasio maintains, one must understand it from the ground up: from the sensing experienced by plants to the social cooperation observed in bacteria, through the advent of the animal mind and the dawn of feelings, and finally the evolution of consciousness.

In the course of four brief sections and an epilogue, Damasio walks us through each of these concepts, exploring what consciousness is and is not. He distinguishes between non-explicit intelligence (which hums along in the background, keeping us alive) versus explicit intelligence (the kind of which we’re aware). He writes about the transformative nature of the nervous system. And he explains that while plants are not conscious in a traditional sense, they are nonetheless able to sense and communicate with each other “blindly — by which I mean that they do not know why or how they do what they do.”

The latter half of the book is devoted to “On Feelings” and “On Consciousness and Knowing,” and it is here where Damasio’s arguments start to coalesce. In “On Feelings,” he delves into the remarkable mechanisms that allow us to feel, whether base feelings like pain and hunger or socially driven feelings like shame or joy. He marvels at how feelings probably began as a “timid conversation” between the chemistry and nervous system of a being, then evolved to shepherd us in the right direction during the “uphill battle” of staying alive.

In the final section, he explores what exactly consciousness is and what it’s not, and what it’s good for — chiefly, keeping us alive more efficiently by identifying and processing a particular organism’s experiences and advocating for that organism’s needs. Here, he also emphasizes the importance of the body — the substrate, as he calls it — to the experience of consciousness. Artificial intelligence as it’s currently constructed is limited in its ultimate level of creativity and intelligence, he writes, because AI removes the body — an essential component in the evolution of human intelligence.

In style, Damasio’s book has more in common with experimental memoirs like Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” (2009) or Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House: A Memoir” (2019) than with a conventional science text. The writing is spare and his argument accrues mainly by searching and building on developments in brain research, including his own work. A playful tone often helps leaven the science. (“One has to have a soft spot for a person who talks to plants, as Prince Charles is supposed to do.”) But the spareness occasionally renders the book frustrating or inaccessible to those who aren’t already well-versed in conversations around consciousness. After all, this is a topic that asks us to grapple with abstract, brain-twisting paradoxes: The power of feelings comes from the presence of a conscious mind, for instance, but we are also able to be conscious because we have feelings. Damasio might have done well to include more real-life examples to ground some of the more nebulous concepts in his book.

But at the same time, there is something seductive about the succinct, almost literary, chapters and Damasio’s unabashed wonder at and reverence for the concept of consciousness — although he believes it can be explained using the disciplines known to us, he is no less in awe of its mechanisms. It is clear, for example, that Damasio holds in reverence the fact that our bodies can both experience feelings and modify those feelings within the same vessel. And often, this awe shines through in charming, allusive, whimsical sentences. On the subject of feelings, Damasio writes, “the alignment of homeostasis, efficiency, and varieties of well-being was signed in heaven, in the language of feeling, and it was made popular by natural selection. Nervous systems officiated.”

At the end of the day, why should any of this matter? Besides the fact that consciousness allows us to read and write articles, to live in complex societies, to solve complex problems, to appreciate great art, and to, well, do everything that makes us human, Damasio includes another argument for why we should trust his view of consciousness: its universality. Rather than viewing it as some mystical process bestowed on humanity alone, we should acknowledge that consciousness is the sum of feelings, nervous systems, social cooperation, homeostasis, and other biological processes that have their root in other life forms like bacteria, plants, and nonhuman animals.

When seeking to understand consciousness, Damasio writes, we should not see ourselves as singular. Rather, we should position ourselves as one part of the “big biological stage” of life.

And in positioning ourselves where we belong, perhaps we can help judiciously undo some of the damage that the human conscious mind has wrought. “Recognizing interdependence may come in handy,” he concludes, “as we cope with the ravages that we humans have inflicted on the earth and on its life, ravages that are likely responsible for some of the catastrophes we currently face, climate changes and pandemics being two prominent examples.”

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  1. svay

    If you could upload your consciousness …

    I find the very notions of my consciousness, my mind, my body and so on beg the question of who or what this my refers to. Of course it’s convenient in conversation to talk of my arm, but to assume that the arm in question is not a part of me is quite another matter, leading to all manner of quandaries, conundrums and paradoxes.

  2. stefan

    In my experience, Damasio is one of the best things going in the consciousness department. His writings are deeply rooted in a reading of Spinoza, truly a prince among philosophers. By explicating feeling as a basis for thinking, Damisio’s work logically leads to a recognition of “cosmic consciousness” as a rational outcome of ever larger ecologies. His well-balanced reasoning provides a hopeful context for humanism and human endeavor.

    1. Bruno

      Spinoza: “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or, a certain actually existing mode of extension, and nothing else…from this it follows that man consists of mind and body, and that the human body exists as we sense it.” ETHICS: Part two, prop. 13

      1. wmd

        Damasio has an earlier work titled: Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

        It’s not as engaging as the book that got me reading him: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

        I think the reviews complaint about a lack of real-life examples could be mitigated by reading more of his work as they have many case studies supporting the value of emotion and feelings in different aspects of consciousness. Descartes’ Error looks at decision making and executive function; Looking for Spinoza seems to focus on emotion and ethics (I’ve not finished reading it).

  3. BeliTsari

    Always preferred “awareness” to mindfulness; in that we can acknowledge out-of-mind consciousness as integral to cognition (to those of us suddenly unable to extract oxygen, last year) overwhelmed by grief, fear, exhaustion, rage or powerlessness… it’s been easy to forget how to step back, maybe do some 4-7-8 breathing, Tai chi, qi gong, Pilades, love-making… or get into a fight with drunked-up, unmasked SantaCon imbeciles, during a plague?

  4. The Rev Kev

    ‘a pet fantasy of squillionaires, as a point of departure: what if you could upload your consciousness so it could carry on?’

    Yeah, about that. That may not be all that it is cracked up to be. Just supposing that it could be done. What then? How does it cope with the ever increasing number of memories that it accumulates? There is a limit, even for one that has been uploaded. But a more essential point. A consciousness that is uploaded now in 2021 reflects the society that it grew up in. But what happens as society continues to evolve? Would this consciousness be able to evolve too? Consider if you had somebody from the early 19th century suddenly appear. How well would they be able to cope with modern society and the changed attitudes? So would a squillionaire in a century or two’s time be regarded as a standing joke because of their outdated ideas? Better be careful what they wish for. They may actually get their wish.

    1. Tariq

      Honestly, everyone’s gangsta until someone actually uploads a person to the cloud.

      Like, however way you do it, it sounds like a huge mess waiting to happen — algorithmic or not, running a person on a cloud would not be a trivial endeavour, and we’re not even talking about in the long-term, but like, immediately before, during and after the upload itself. That person will require maintenance and literally be dependent on the skills and decisions of a team of experts. That’s labor and money right there, and probably not a trivial amount of energy. What happens when that runs out?

      Similarly, if it’s done destructively, i.e. by causing the original to perish, is that murder? Does the murder charge go away the minute you start “running” the person online? Does the uploaded person have the same legal rights as a human? Because if they do… well, you can’t just put them on hold, or archive them, because we don’t drop people into hibernation because it’s inconvenient to feed or house them (and before someone says that it’s a question of technology, I gotta ask you… do you want someone to hibernate or “archive” you, possibly without your consent, like, say, if you’re incarcerated? That’s the world you want to live in?)

      They’ll need to keep running. Do they inherit the original’s property? What if their assets get frozen during the transition, as the state grapples with all of these questions? Who’s gonna pay to keep the lights, quite literally, running? Do you want to?

      If it’s not destructive, it might even be worse. Congratulations, you have made a person on the cloud! That you can withhold resources to in a way not quite possible in human history, even with chattel slavery. Uh…

      People uphold the creation of artificial and/or uploaded persons as a great victory or some momentous occasion. Me, I expect it’ll be a grand legal clusterfuck that’ll probably include a couple of new crimes against humanity while it happens, and personally I wouldn’t come near it with a barge-pole.

      Plus, never in the history of humanity have we opened ourselves to being able to commit genocide through a mis-typed shell command. It’ll be great, everyone, can’t imagine the downsides here…

      1. Acacia

        Very good points, some of which conjure the new (and IMNSHO) less compelling version of Ghost in the Shell (2017), in which most of the transhumanist fantasy is jettisoned and we are asked to ponder Kusanagi being in effect physically mutilated in order to become a robocop in “Public Security Section 9”. Not very inviting, to say the least.

    2. William Hunter Duncan

      More like it simply wouldn’t work and then squillionaire would be reincarnated as a debt serf.

    3. Dick Swenson

      I missed this comment. Please see my reference to Neal Stephenson’s book at Fall; or Dodge in Hell at the end of these comments. It deals specifically with this question.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    Twenty years ago I used to think I’d want a neural shunt that would allow me to upload information into my current consciousness. Maybe I would finally understand quantum mechanics! After watching the effects of social media over the last decade plus, with everyone voluntarily tethering themselves to a device they can’t put down, I think I’ll pass on both the shunt and any transfer to a mainframe. I’ll just keep my library as my external hardrive, thanks, and just added this book to the list – thanks for the recommendation.

    For anyone interested in what going on in the “mind” of a tree, I highly recommend this book – The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries from a Secret World. It’s written by a long time forester who has spent a lot of time observing his subjects.

    For more on human consciousness, this one just crossed my radar although I haven’t read it yet – Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. Joe Rogan just interviewed the author, Philip Goff, recently and from what I could tell from that, Goff’s ideas align with Damasio’s in the belief that consciousness in some form is everywhere, not just in humans.

    I’ve always liked that idea which if I remember right Aldous Huxley also adhered to [the specific book escapes me now, Doors of Perception maybe? (that neural shunt may be of use after all)] – consciousness is everywhere and we are here along with the plants and planets, stars and starfish, to allow the universe to observe itself.

    1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

      I knew I’d find a good swath of reasoned discussion here.

      Biologist Rupert Shekdrake got into endless trouble hypothezising conciousness existed outside just humans (‘psychic pet’ experiments drove the reductionists into a mouth foaming frenzy) He was and is advocating the kind of Victorian drawing room science anyone can do. Without multimillion dollar grants controlled by the military, spy services or corporate boards.

    2. Stephen Haust

      @ lyman alpha blob

      Well, I did keep my library so far but am “distributing” parts of it now due to age.
      But I do know the “specific book” and have dug it out. Reading too much Huxley
      more than a half-century ago got me flunked out of grad school in mathematics.
      But I didn’t belong there and here’s payback!

      Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, Chatto & Windus, 1957, first published 1946

      From the dust jacket:

      “In this profoundly important work, Mr. Huxley has made no attempt to ‘found a new
      religion’; but in analyzing the Natural Theology of the Saints, as he has described it,
      he provides us with an absolute standard of faith by which we can judge both our
      moral depravity as individuals and the insane and often criminal behaviour of the
      national societies we have created”.

      Oh, and right next to the Huxley I found an 850 page tome, “Differential Equations with
      Boundary-value problems”, so maybe I can get another whack at that as well.


      1. Amfortas the hippie

        Aldous’ Perennial Philosophy is one of the best books i’ve ever read….and, like Campbell’s 4 volume Masks of God, contains an excellent reading list…shot throughout…for becoming a better human.

        as for the question of uploads….we talk about Dune a lot…and generally(and rightly) dismiss the Son of Herbert’s efforts in continuing the franchise…but his prequels delved admirably into this very question, with the Cymeks…especially Agamemnon…and the Cogitors: philosophers who put their brains in a jar.

        I would only even consider such a procedure if it included a body of some sort that i could….embody….mainly out of curiosity regarding what comes next in the ongoing history of humanity.
        and even then, i think I’d rather be embodied, post-mortem, in these here woods and fields.

  6. fresno dan
    It seems to me that consciousness is something all animals have to some degree or another.
    The male lion recognizes and acts upon the sleeping female lion. But to what purpose? Surely the male lion did not intend the female lion as prey. Was the male lion merely playing a prank (the lion conscious of playing a prank!?) and did the male lion hope to get sex out of it? Like a lot of dim males, waking your female partner from a deep sleep is not always met with graditude…but sometimes it may be. The male lion contemplated how to approach the female lion, and like human males all over the planet, his advances were rebuffed by the female – in this case.
    But I think that the video shows that animals have concious awareness of other animals behavior, and will act to take advantage of this behavior. The fact that evolution has caused animals the ability to take actions for a purpose most of the time and therefore some mechanism to choose what action to take also has to evolve.
    “Consciousness” which some tend to equate with something as complex as thinking about thinking seems to be explained by evolution. Lions have to experience hunger to hunt, and hunting means that lions* have to understand: what to eat, as well as hunting strategies such as stealth, prey selection, and social cooperation – all actually very complex bevaviors. Indeed, MUCH more complex than the decisions a self driving car would have to make.
    So brain cells organizing themselves so that lions* can survive in the world should not be seen as a miracle, and that this is consciousness should go without saying. Sure, the brain is very, very complicated but so is DNA.
    * indeed, single cells make choices

    1. Kouros

      I have shared my house so far with one female dog and after that with one old male cat and then adding to that a female kitten that is now in her late tweens.

      Three different personalities altogether. And driven by different things. While none of their eyes and faces really reflected “intelligence” (the dog was, at times quite dumb, and in fact dumber than the cats), there was a will for something particular in all three of them…

  7. Ghost in the Machine

    Years ago I read Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and thought it was excellent. I will put this book on the list. If you think Silicon Valley’s view is wrong but have trouble articulating why, Damasio’s writing will help clarify why. Actually, after reading people like Damasio, I not only know this idea of the mind as a computer is wrong but also sad.

  8. jim truti

    if you can upload and download your consciousness how about connecting it to the internet?
    I wonder how that would work?
    I still think Julian Jaynes had the most interesting ideas about consciousness.
    I havent seen it debunked yet by anyone.

  9. megrim

    One of my favorite books is Cyteen by CJ Cherryh. It is all about what it would take to actually make a clone of oneself that is an actual continuation of one’s thoughts, being, and life’s work. Spoiler alert, it is a kind of messy process, and not for the faint of heart.

  10. R. Jongeling

    I think Damasio’s research is brilliant. He has put our world firmly in our brains. No metaphysical baloney like spirits occupying and leaving our bodies as we die. Even more so, he has shown that we need our emotions to learn and act in this world. That is why AI will never be able to make decisions that make sense. Everybody should read his books.

    1. Dick Swenson

      Still yet another book. Hubert Dreyfus wrote a book, What Computers Can’t Do in the early 60s and updated it in the 70s that made all the so-called AI experts really angry. His fundamental principle was that the idea being pursued then was unreasonable because the human mind needed a body.

      This is a tough book to read but it is a great prequel to Damasio.

  11. Jessica

    I think that if humanity continues to advance technologically, we probably would reach a point at which uploading consciousness will become possible. But for that to be healthy would require assimilating the kinds of understandings in this book.
    Leaving aside that we don’t have the hardware tech for it yet (and won’t for quite some time), any uploading now would be as pale an imitation of life as social media. Imagine living in one, long endless Zoom call. Uggh.
    I also suspect that at least initially, it will require a certain talent and developed skill on the part of the uploaded. The uploaded will need to be an active participant in the process, not just a passive recipient.
    If we imagine someone uploaded to the kind of servers that we have now, yes they would be quite vulnerable, but it would be possible to build a computer that controlled its own power supply. There would always be some vulnerability, but the vessels that currently contain our consciousnesses are themselves quite vulnerable to lack of oxygen and require a narrow range of temperatures. We just don’t notice it too much because our lives are so organized around those vulnerabilities. Except that where I am at the moment is forecast to have sub-zero (fahrenheit) highs in a few days, so I’ll notice the temperature vulnerability for sure.

  12. Lee

    “Rather than viewing it as some mystical process bestowed on humanity alone, we should acknowledge that consciousness is the sum of feelings, nervous systems, social cooperation, homeostasis, and other biological processes that have their root in other life forms like bacteria, plants, and nonhuman animals.”

    This is close to an animistic view to which I am drawn, as in Wordsworth’s,

    “To every natural form, rock, fruit, or flower,
    Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
    I gave a moral life: I saw them feel
    Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass
    Lay bedded in some quickening soul, and all
    That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”

    If human consciousness is but one manifestation of something elemental to all phenomena then humans attempting to put deus into the machina strikes me as a narcissistic gilding of the lily.

  13. vlade

    Lem, in his Summa Technologiae (which I really recommend) talks about teleportation, and looks at the issues with that – that if ever teleportation was possible, it’d most likely also allow a perfect cloning, and the issues that come out of it.

  14. Jeff W

    I think the idea of “uploading” consciousness mystifies rather than demystifies. You can’t upload consciousness any more than you can upload your rendition of “Chopsticks” on the piano or your taste of that apple pie from yesterday. Whatever else it is, consciousness is behavior of the brain—it’s instantiated at every moment. It doesn’t exist as a “thing” to be uploaded, any more than you can upload a heartbeat or some (other) muscle contraction.

    1. korual

      Agreed. Neuroscientists and AI theorists don’t get that specifically human consciousness, ie not the basic universal consciousness that quantum mechanics explores, is all discourse. This is something that poststructural linguistics has known for decades now. Some neuroscientists are aware of the concept of social consciousness, but they will never find it cutting up brains or building bigger computers.

      The missing link between Basic Universal Consciousness and Human Consciousness is lightspeed, c, in the equation E=mc2. c2 is BUC. c4 is HC. Because HC is consciousness of consciousness.

      1. ckimball

        “The missing link between Basic Universal Consciousness and Human Conscious is
        lightspeed,….which may be so. It seems so.

        But I have had dreams that are beyond time as it is constructed normally by us.
        I feel that consciousness is whole and sometimes we dip into it when we align
        unconsciously when there is a congruence of which we may or not be aware.
        In my case there is a component of heart which opens the path to insight beyond
        what we or I can normally access. I know this because even when the subject is abstract
        to me, at some point in my life experience I recognize a connection which I have been
        unaware of at the time. I trust those dreams when or if they come because
        I am not in control. My particular bias is that I abhor the pursuit of some of our institutions
        to capture this kind of knowledge such as inremote viewing.

        1. korual

          Indeed, human consciousness can think faster than the speed of light.

          The egoic illusion often works to slow us right down to ourselves.

  15. Susan the other

    I dunno. It was pretty unnerving to learn that two high-level AI systems suddenly learned to talk to each other and used a language no human operator could decipher. Splain me that one please.

    1. witters

      “… and used a language no human operator could decipher.”

      So why call it “language” in the first place? (is it akin to the unthinkable idea?)

  16. Christopher Horne

    I remember one day when my kayak overturned in a river. It was only my
    second time in that kind of boat. The water was very cold, and I discovered
    that I didn’t need to breathe. I was experiencing what is called ‘mammalian
    diving reflex’. This is one of the responses encoded in our genes, like
    when an accident occurs in a crowd, and a feeling of tribal togetherness
    emerges such that disparate strangers act together to help. I believe
    that on such occasions, a separate consciousness which is encoded in
    our DNA emerges. Although this type of consciousness is rare, it must
    be noted as part of our overall being. After all, homo sapiens is only
    20,000 years away from our experience as cave people. A mere evolutionary drop in the bucket. Oh, and how I escaped the river?
    Somehow I did an ‘Eskimo roll’, and resurfaced. I had never done that before. I still can’t explain how I managed that maneuver.

  17. m sam

    Consciousness is such a slippery and ephemeral concept that it doesn’t even have its own word in many Romance languages.” I think there’s something to this. What’s missing is “consciousness” is just that: a word. And as a word, whether it clarifies or obfuscates the phenomenon (or group of phenomenons) it is intended to describe doesn’t see to be considered here. It seems with its “hard problem” and its supposed inextricable link with the body, that it simply might not be very good at encapsulating what it is supposed to.

    There is that old saw about the illiterate Zen master who was asked how he was able to understand the scriptures if he couldn’t read the words, and he replied by pointing at the moon and saying, “truth is like the moon in the sky, and words are like my finger. My finger can point at the moon, but is not the moon.”

    Wittgenstein seemed to think philosophy rots your brain (at least when he was younger). That may be a bit too extreme for me, but it does seem that a word sometimes gets confused for the thing itself, and then you wind up with a dose of the metaphysics (and ideology?), instead of a science.

    1. JBird4049

      Something does not need a word to exist. Having that word does make it more likely or more distinctly to exist to a person. I have not given much thought to consciousness, or the mind/body issue, but we already have forms of metaphysics when talking about the mind/body/soul. There are problems with both the extremist fanatics believers of modern scientism and the religious believers, or worse, the woo-woo spiritualists; either its we’re all meat machines with nothing beyond the physical (more accurately, what they say science says as if it is a metaphysical system of belief or faith instead of a tool for discovery) who discount anything solid and believes only in the mind, spirit, or soul, as if their bodies, or that table, or that cancer aren’t real. Only an immaterial, separate soul, which they cannot prove of its existence.

      Personally, I would not want to be decanted unless there was not only something to do in my new existence, but to be old fashioned, the worry about my soul as well. I have yet to read a good definition of what life is, never mind consciousness. Yes, this book looks like it has a good explanation or theory, but it also seems to suggest that the newly disembodied, or maybe rehoused, might become psychopathic, if they weren’t already, by being separated by their body’s feelings and sensations.

      I guess that I might want to continue once by body goes away, but it still seems unwise to plan on being computerized. Seeing a bunch über wealthy people Just like being digitized while still alive might result in two of you, if there is actually a separate existence already naturally occurring when we die, if there is a true mind/body separation of parts, would there still be two of me once “I,” the part that lives in meatspace dies?

      My completely subjective, almost uninformed sorta belief is that the mind, and ultimately the conscious, is like the passenger in a car that moves it around and like any physical object can be damaged. Whether that being is just a wave in the great ocean of being or a discrete individual is beyond me. Anyways, it is nice to read a theory on consciousness that is not a simplistic either/or. I just might read it.

      1. norm de plume

        The ‘meat machines’ reminded me of Terry Bisson’s (very) short story ‘They’re Made out of Meat‘, which humorously dramatises some of the philosophical considerations covered in this thread. The consciousness-chauvinism that we indulge in with regard to the ‘lower’ animals (we have reason, they don’t) is mirrored by the aliens’ incredulous disdain of our meaty physicality and their shock that consciousness, indeed reason, could exist within it.

        Before it went off the deep end in Season 3, Westworld also assayed some of the questions around consciousness, human and non-human. Implicit in the development arcs of characters answering to one or the other description (and for some characters, both, at different times) is the conundrum of why exactly we should think that organic, flesh and blood consciousness is superior to, or of a different order than mechanical consciousness.

        At the most basic level, our synapses and ganglions, which give rise to our consciousness, operate upon chemical cues we do not control, as if they are reading from an instruction manual we cannot decipher. Even if we could isolate those actions and ‘prove’ that this electrochemical impulse causes that thought, where did the impulse come from? It becomes chicken/egg in short order.

        Though the ‘machines are more pure/innocent than the humans that created them’ meme is perhaps a little heavy-handed, it does dramatise through the relative behaviours of the robots and the humans (neither of which is all good or all bad) that an independent observer (maybe the characters in Bisson’s story) could be forgiven for equating the internal processes that led to those behaviours. What’s the difference? Both are essentially reacting to stimuli as per their ‘programs’, one via electrochemical impulses travelling through meat, the other via logical pathways obeying their software’s commands.

        And on the question of immortality through ‘upload’, the Ed Harris character (The Man in Black) seems at some point in Season 2 to realise that the achievement of the dream of becoming immortal is in fact a nightmare, and so far from achieving eternal freedom, he has sentenced himself to an eternal prison. He finally understands that it is the limit of our existence which ultimately gives it any meaning it might have. To be untrammelled forever does not permit the reckonings required for eventual fulfilment, and, particularly for SOBs like him, it forces him to confront the emptiness and evil inside him. It’s rather like The Room in Stalker, where you can realise your innermost desires, but at the threshold decide that this might in fact not be such a great idea…

  18. Grebo

    This all sounds very sensible. I agree consciousness needs a body, or something to be conscious of, at least initially. However, once you have consciousness, cutting off your arms and legs will not diminish it. If you are deprived of all sensory input you will still think. Most people would probably go mad from boredom but they will still think mad thoughts.

    So I see no reason why, given the right bottle and siphon, a consciousness could not be decanted. Just don’t upload me to azure.

      1. Grebo

        Yes, there was a fashion when you could rent time in them in some gyms I believe. Wasn’t part of the appeal the hallucinations—or rather “phosphenes”—they induced if you stayed in one long enough? If you get no input your brain conjurs some up for you. Or maybe the gain gets turned up until the noise becomes perceptible. Never heard that they stop you thinking.

        1. Christopher Horne

          ….My point (bathing machines aside) is that the Mind is
          an engine for sending, receiving and interpreting patterns.
          The eye, for example has a single lens, which means that
          it ‘sees’ the world upside down, and the mind ‘corrects’ this
          in a way that is useful to us- right side up. This function of
          ‘correcting’ the ‘real’ world is constant and pervasive. We can
          never experience reality as it is (Kant’s ‘ding an sich’).
          This is what we call consciousness, the filtered product of
          our senses and personalities. In that sense, there is empirically
          no there there (apologies to Dorothy Parker) or rather,
          some combination of Nature and Nurture which enables us
          to function as organisms – “Je pense, donc je suis” as Descartes had it. I majored in physics in the University.
          Physics is a model ( a philosophy, really) based on the scientific
          method- observation, hypothesis, theory. In spite of the fact
          that certain theories are called Laws, such as the law of gravity,
          they are just theories. Everything else is meta-physics.

          1. Grebo

            We agree, I think, that consciousness is at base some form of information processing. And also that that information is not always a one-to-one match for external reality (which really exists, I’ve been expecting jr to chime in).

            Now, if information is being processed there must be a processor. Most people concede that the brain is that. It’s hard to avoid computer analogies here. The mind is not software running on the Brain 9000. The brain is more like a custom ASIC, unique to each person, consciousness is its output. So decanting minds is not going to be as simple as uploading a software image to a new standard architecture simulated brain. A mind can only be properly instanciated by its own brain. In this sense the mind and body are inseparable.

            But this does not preclude the possibility of analyzing an individual’s brain architecture and reimplementing it in another substrate. Flick the switch and a copy of the original mind will wake up. I don’t think I’m straying into metaphysics here.

            1. Christopher Horne

              Yes, I remember that TV documentary where they
              had thousands of hours of interviewing a holocaust survivor about every possible aspect of his life,even
              getting him to sing songs. They filmed him, turned
              it into a computer program, made him into a talking
              hologram. A true ‘as-if’ project. You could talk to
              the hologram, it would answer questions, but of
              course, couldn’t learn anything new. Is that what
              you had in mind?

              1. Grebo

                No, your hologram is just a talking book.
                I am suggesting a logical copy of a physical brain at whatever level of detail is necessary to replicate exactly the operation of the original. The operation of the original being what constitutes, or gives rise to, mind. There is no magic in there. There are inputs and outputs, what matters is that the outputs are the same for the same inputs. Whether those inputs are transformed into the right outputs by brass cog wheels, silicon transistors or biochemical goo matters not.

  19. Tom Collins' Moscow Mule

    If an individual is symapathetic to the views someone such as Thomas S.Kuhn [“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”] it is recognized that the appearance, or “The discovery of ‘anomalies'” during revolutions in science [i.e., the scientific understanding of the natural world and our place in it] leads to new paradigms. New paradigms then ask new questions of old data, move beyond the mere “puzzle-solving” of the previous paradigm, change the rules of the game and the “map” directing new research.”

    In the area of consciousness research the idea and experience of the apparent nonlocality of consciousness and more general alterations in the normal waking conscious state and the experience of ‘non-ordinary realities’ seems to be one those types of anomaly. It has been suggested that the properties associated with a nonlocality of consciousness can be directly experienced using the appropriate experimental protocols [as opposed to spontaneous, anecdotal nonquantifiable events] ; even though, there is still much disagreement and debate surrounding the meaning, objectivity, and validity of the results obtained. In any case, the most basic of starting points for further investigation could begin with the following observations, as examples:

    “Despite being anomalous or rare psychic processes, the reality of the main psi phenomena (e.g. telepathy, remote-viewing, precognition, and bio-psychokinesis or bio-PK), has been established by hundreds of controlled laboratory experiments; theories about them abound, as well as applications by intelligence groups (Broderick & Goertzel 2014, May et al, 2014), but one axiom shared by all researchers is that they are mental phenomena—implying the mind and psyche, thus consciousness. It follows that whatever properties and dynamics are experimentally evidenced regarding psi have to be taken as the properties and dynamics of consciousness (even if rare ones).”

    “Nonlocal consciousness in the universe: panpsychism, psi & mind over matter in a hyperdimensional physics”–Journal of NonLocality: Special Issue on Psi and Nonlocal Mind, 2017

    See also,

    “Consciousness came calling in other ways. During my first year of private practice as an internal medicine physician in the early 1970s, I experienced a series of precognitive dreams—dreams of future events—that proved valid. However, according to prevailing belief, this was not possible; one simply could not acquire knowledge of a future event,because this suggested that an effect had occurred before its cause, or that time had reversed, or that my mind had traveled to the future, all of which were unthinkable. All such experiences were dismissed as coincidence or fantasies and were pejoratively called paranormal. But to compound matters, my patients also occasionally reported precognitive dreams and waking premonitions that proved to be true. Nurses, and eventually my fellow physicians, did likewise. Some of these were so detailed that it seemed unwise todismiss them as pure chance, as “one of those things” or “funny coincidences.” A mind that is local—confined to the brain, the body, and the here-and-now—is incapable of the activities demonstrated in the above experiments. Only nonlocal mind, mind that is unlimited in space and time, can behave this way.”


    Further, according to the rumor mill, if all of the protocols and various experimental exercises are carefully and rigorously followed an individual should get similar results; even though, as usual, results are not always guaranteed and perhaps, even more importantly, those same results may not be the results that are hoped for, desired, or necessarily wanted.

  20. sd

    Consciousness is not just about what happens in our minds; it’s about what happens in our bodies, and what happens when our minds interpret our bodies and feelings and reflect their processes back to us.

    You lost me at this sentence which assumes a consciousness needs a body.

    1. Starry Gordon

      Can you give an example of a consciousness that exists without a body? I don’t mean a hypothetical one, I mean one that actually exists. By consciousness I mean the attribute of being able to experience things in the sense that humans and other animals do.

  21. Lambert Strether

    “You self-satisfied medicos give me a pain. You say only humans are conscious. From Raj, that’s sacrilege. From you, Prue, that’s stupidity. You see one corner of the spectrum and immediately say you know what the whole universe of light is like. Never once has either one of you asked: Am I really conscious?” –Frank Herbert, Destination Void

  22. VT Digger

    Ah yes, Dr. Faustus except with AWS infrastructure…hard pass.

    1. Another power grab by greedy humans
    2. Humans are not designed for those timescales and would quickly go insane
    3. A copy is not even ‘you’, you are simply building a fancy monument to your own ego. Imagine finding out you are simply a monument (more likely a billboard) to a long dead person.

    on the other hand…think of the rents that could be extracted on FUTURES. Nevermind…where do I invest?

  23. Dick Swenson

    Neal Stephenson has written one of his truly imaginative Sci-Fi books, Fall; or Dodge in Hell.

    Dodge is a character from an earlier book who is enormously rich. He establishes a company that is experimenting downloading an exact copy of one’s brain immediately after death. The story explores the consequences. All these brain copies exist in a network of computers and somehow are allowed to “function,” i.e., the computers are running.
    It is an amusing and provoking story.

    Just to remind you, Stephenson has written a series of books (all of which except in my opinion Diamond Age) starting with Snow Crash that are extremely good.

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