Tag Archives: consciousness

Consciousness is a scale, not a binary

When my son Max was born, my sense of who I am blossomed to include this tiny wet lump screaming flesh. He is me, more important than the part that goes to work in Manhattan.

But he didn’t do a whole lot. Even when he grabbed my finger, it was a reflex operating. There wasn’t much internal life or reflection. Like all of us he was on a journey to develop into a person. He’s on the acceleration part of that trip now, so every week he develops something new, connecting concepts and creating abstractions. Now I can hear him babbling stories to himself where he used to just experiment with the noises his mouth could make. The curve of his growth has a near vertical slope as he becomes aware of who he is and who his parents are. He knows he has a baby sister coming in May and is dimly aware she will be boring at first.

He will watch her grow into her own consciousness and expand his self to his family. If we’re lucky, they will both grow to include something bigger than themselves in their consciousness.

I’m still growing in wisdom and experience, but I’m no longer accelerating. My growth happens in smaller chunks and less often. I have to push myself to learn and escape comfort to grow. My epiphanies are shallower and less frequent. The slope of my growth curve is flattening before it peaks and descends. Then I will be more like my father.

The smartest man I’ve ever met is learning fewer things and his stories repeat and loop and meander. He tells me “You might not be aware of this, but…” and then he tells me something again. He might be forgetting things like what it is to be poor or disregarded faster than he learns his latest passions. Someday I’ll be telling stories to my kids that they already know and I hope they will love me enough to listen closely for what I’m saying underneath my words.

So I see intimately a scale of consciousness, introspection, reflection that flows through my past and future. I was a flat sheet, then the world made impressions on me until I’ve become crinkly enough make new interfering patterns in myself. Some day I will lose my flexibility and start to flatten again.

If consciousness is a scale in people, how conscious is a dog. Sorta? They seem to think and plan. They hide and deceive and love and grieve. How conscious is a kitten vs a cat? How much of a soul does a mouse or parrot or gorilla have? They have some consciousness, as does a mosquito. Consciousness becomes a lot easier to talk about when you can say “sort of” conscious instead of talking about a binary, as Daniel Dennett proposes.

So I’m a self reflecting system, my son is self organizing into a more crinkly experience of the world, my father is smoothing out and my soon to be daughter is barely there. Surely she sits in Sam’s belly as more of a possible mind than the concrete though simple plans and dreams of my neighbor’s dog.

If you’ve stuck through this far, sorry this is how I’m announcing that we’re having a baby daughter in May.  I couldn’t figure out a saner way. So let’s also talk about something crazy but probably true: Pan-psychism. Once you let go of consciousness as a binary, you can realize that everything sorta thinks to some degree.

Most of the pan-psychic folks come at it from a place of duality, thinking that if the meat that types these words has a soul, why couldn’t a calmer version of that soul inhabit a rock or a tree or a table? I come from a different perspective. Any system that reacts to stimulus and then modifies itself or reacts to changes within itself is practicing some sort of consciousness or soulness. That perspective is useful when you think about corporations or economies or earthquake resistant buildings or networks of trees and fungus communicating and sharing resources in forests.

Darrick’s Geothermal Adventure

Darrick is a buddy from up in Rochester. He’s doing something which is the heart and soul of blogging. He’s taking a minor adventure from his life, and chronicling it for the people who care:

I’d like to take a week or two to blog about our experience with researching, and deciding to go with geothermal, and show the process of installing the system. I’ll be posting the numbers that I came up with which showed why geothermal made sense in our case.

There’s two kinds of folks who care – there’s me and the rest of his friends. We want to know what’s happening in Darrick’s life. We care what Darrick is doing because he is our buddy and we bond with people by knowing and talking about our lives. That’s the ambient communication that bonds people over time, and something the internet is good at enabling for folks who don’t live in close proximity anymore.

The other audience is people who are looking for info on geothermal. Darrick talks about how he chose a contractor for his project and how he calculated the payback on geothermal. Darrick’s way of breaking down the numbers is very useful.

According to all of the estimates our calculated payback time was about 5-7 years, with an annual savings of about 60-70% our existing heating cost. This was assuming that heating oil prices continued to rise, the heat load calculations were accurate, electricity prices continued to increase at the historical rate, and the historical weather patterns continued. These calculations assumed that I was replacing an existing heating system, which I wasn’t. None of the calculations used the cost of borrowing the money, and the cost of repairing the lawn after the job was completed. After adding in these additional factors, and removing the replacement cost of existing heater I came up with a more accurate payback time of about 9-10 years. This was still a worthwhile payback as we were planning on living in this house for at least 20 years. After 25 years it was estimated we will have saved about $100k (assuming oil prices continue to rise). Considering these savings, and the addition of air conditioning to our house, geothermal seemed like a great investment!

Here is giving other people the factors he considered and the way he justified the decision. That’s useful and it’s good for people who he might never even meet. This is the great sort of thing that delicious revealed back when it first started. Lots of people aggregating things just for themselves produces a resource that is greater than the sum of its tiny little parts. Like a nation, or a blogosphere, or a person, or a mind…

Books: James Gleick’s “The Information: a history, a theory, a flood”

the cover for "The Information" I just started reading “The Information “, and the beginning has some very interesting passages that support Julian Jayne’s theory in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” – that consciousness did not originate in the pre-literate era, but that we became thinkers only partway through the greeks. It’s madness, sure. But it is increasingly seductive madness.

I am a strange, sordid loop

I am reading Douglas Hofstadter’s amazing and brain churning I Am a Strange Loop, so I’m noticing loops and recursion everywhere.

This dog machine loop is fascinating, I think it is a way for tennis balls to become soaked in saliva. Maybe it is a way to generate dog orgone? Perhaps it is a dog liberation device, a way for you to have a more equitable relationship with your dog. If you had an automatic feeding machine and this ball thrower, would your relationship with your dog be less of a servant-master relationship?

I like music videos with loops. My friend Rafal just recommended to me that I check out Swedish Band “The Sounds” and of course they have a loopy video. I’m a bigger fan of their “Song with a Mission“, but their video of “Tony the Beat” loops in and around itself.

Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots.

I just happened to stumble upon FretDFire’s first blog entry which launched me off into a flurry of searches on Daniel C Dennet. He wrote a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which seems to contain this insightful tidbit:

[I]f you want to *reason* about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I’m eager to [participate]. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenom of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith as a *way of getting to the truth*, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify. Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side. You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their undying faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than by all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land? Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon you tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice? I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign agreement. But we’re seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into the issue that any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself.

This may be why he gets paid bucks to write books about these things and I try not to talk to people about religion anymore. I think that things just get more wonderful when you realize how truly amazing and complicated the real world is instead of closing all that off by saying “I have a magic spark that is hidden in me that powers my body and is where my thoughts come from and thats that.”

When I want escapist fantasy I’ll turn to some excellent fiction that is labelled as such and is well crafted. But more amazing than that is the stuff I’ve been reading lately about neuropsychology. My friend Jaime got me started by handing me a book that I absolutely can’t remember the name of and that I gave to a friend. The author was much inspired by Oliver Sacks. I then picked up Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and am just blown away again by how good these books are. By examining the tales of actual patiants we can get a better grasp on what exactly is the mind that’s doing all this thinking, typing this blog, reading this blog.

Is it a magic spark or is it something even more wonderful, the balance of the most complex and interesting machine ever created?


See the man say it his damn self!