Sunday, April 20, 2003

Jan 22 2004 - I've rewritten this thing more times than I can count. It began as a letter to John Searle in 99(?) It's sloppy but it doesn't bother me anymore. I'm done with it.

What is consciousness? What is pain, as an aspect of consciousness?
Pain evolved as a way to make us aware of damage or disease, and as a mechanism by which our bodies make it difficult for us to engage in things that make that damage worse. If I'm working and strain a muscle, the pain tells me not to use the muscle so that it will heal more quickly, or it allows me to gauge the degree to which the muscle is or is not capable of doing its job. But pain is not a simple signal or transfer of data, it is a kind of gestalt, the result of a bombardment of data which we "experience" as a specific form of "qualia".

Imagine that I'm out hunting and am attacked by a lion, who claws me leaving a deep gash in my leg. I run away but the pain slows me down. If I run I increase the injury, but if I stay I'll be killed. The choice is obvious yet my body continues to experience a division. Endorphins and adrenaline are partial overrides but they're autonomic, and very rarely if ever does the pain or the division go away completely. Pain has a regulating function that has nothing to do with decision-making itself. It's not subject to rational controls and yet it's part of what we call consciousness.

We rely both on rationality and instinct. If we react habitually in a given way to a specific range of situations, but now face a problem that fits largely in that range but logically demands an alternate response, something has to give way to allow us to break the pattern. But it doesn't give way easily. We can't turn off instinct any more than we can turn off pain. Habit is reflex and reflexes have a purpose. A neurotic activity is one that the mind has been conditioned to perform because at some unconscious level it facilitates psychic continuity and by logical extension physical survival. Neuroses continue patterns learned in childhood, affecting our relations with people and experiences that have little to do with those of the past except in terms of structure. We never stop being influenced by this sort of learned response, or by others more benign; everybody is neurotic.

It's common now for people to talk about mental activity in biological terms. There are studies of behavior that link social activities to chemicals and genetics. Yet there are also studies showing that an infant’s brain constructs itself by reinforcing the most often used neural pathways. We're born with an immense number of connections and in the act of living we program ourselves, experiencing not only psychological but also biological adaptation. And once such adaptation is complete it can't be erased. This seems to me to be a more interesting explanation for our linguistic capabilities than Chomsky’s LAD or innate universal grammar. Rather than specific tools that allow us to create and acquire language, and that apparently wither away within a few years if not used, why not imagine a network that may or may not be constructed? If we think of the mind as a glass that can be filled with different sorts of liquids, that blend together each time we add more, then this doesn't fit what we know. But if we think not in terms of liquids but solids this explanation makes sense. If we fill a glass first with sand, then with gravel, and then with dirt, how can we reverse or rearrange the order? Adding more sand at the top will change the ratio of sand to gravel, but the same amount of sand is at the bottom of the glass. A 14 year old without language would have great difficulty picking it up because the synaptic pathways, the foundation of her psyche, will have been constructed without it. It would be interesting to think that in some instances mental disorders which we now associate with chemical imbalances could be reattributed, chemicals included, to learned responses.

We call living creatures sentient, conscious, or aware, but these words only describe the sensations of our experience of ‘consciousness’. We slide quickly into tautology. What separates us from computers is not consciousness, which we have had such a bad time trying to define, but the unconscious. Desire and fear, reflexes and pain stay with us even when they're inappropriate. If we don't follow them we still sense their shadow. Our desires/instincts/neuroses may also be contradictory, or even self-destructive. But all of them are sensory before they're intellectual. Consciousness is the state produced by the body/brain's negotiation of the conflict between conditioned response and reason. That is its beauty and why we find it so difficult to understand. We experience consciousness as one thing, but only can define it as the space between two. We experience it a as a thing ‘being’, but can only define it as the place where it exists.
The first moment of indecision is the first act of consciousness. Any creature capable of indecision is conscious.

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