And yet, it moves

Milky WaySomething that I’ve been struggling with for a while is the idea that consciousness is just a physical function. Like farting, but different. This is the logical conclusion of the ideas in “Reincarnation, a critical examination” a book I read on anticant’s recommendation.  It’s a book I found to be cogent, coherent and all too probable.

For the sake of amicable discourse let us accept that I couldn’t find a logical flaw in the book’s argument that consciousness is a function of the brain and that there is no evidence for any part of us surviving after death. You are of course as entitled to your own views about the immortality of the soul as I am; I am not going to try to persuade you of anything one way or the other and I’d appreciate it if you’d show me the same courtesy in return.

DNAI’ve been struggling with the idea that I’m just a by-product of my own existence ever since I read the book, and today I could finally articulate it :

Consciousness – our sense of self – isn’t an entity in its own right, it’s an effect, a result, it is ends rather than means. In fact, it’s less than that: it’s a side-effect, a by-product. As the DNA store puts it: DNA is life, the rest is just translation.

It is lurchingly disorientating to realise that consciousness is  incidental. Dawkins of course is explicit that evolution is about survival on the level of individual patterns of genes not on the level of entire genomes, still less on the level of consciousness or any other abstract idea. I’ve been able to accept that we are Bede’s bird, flying though the firelit hall out of darkness and back into darkness, but I find it hard to hold on to the idea that the bird itself is, as I said, a side-effect.  I’ve been like a dog trying to catch its own tail for weeks.  I find it almost as hard to understand this idea (and not just the words it’s expressed with), as I’d find it to see the back of my own head without a mirror.

This is an idea as subversive, maybe even more subversive, than the heliocentric solar system, and it’s an idea of the same kind.

Oh well.

11 responses to “And yet, it moves

  1. “…consciousness is just a physical function. Like farting, but different. ”
    Laughing. Not the least bit of difference!

    Sentience is – for me – what the Universe does, or let me paraphrase you; Sentience is what the Universe farts.

    I like that one better.

  2. One book recommendation deserves another. You could do worse than to try Doug Hofstadter’s “I Am A Strange Loop” to explore consciousness as an incidental effect. Worth reading…

  3. Happy New Year, Aphra. I’m pleased you found Edwards’ book stimulating. Maybe Descartes got it back to front – he should have said “I am, therefore I think”. Just a thought…..

  4. I don’t have a huge problem seeing consciousness as a function of how we are constructed – how consciousness works is a thing that I am happy to simply not know – I don’t see how anyone can really understand it, at least, not yet. Bede’s bird is flying from the unknown to the unknown. I’m not even really sure that ‘DNA is life, the rest is translation’ – it seems the more that is discovered the more complicated it gets. I don’t think you can take some DNA and generate the organism yet – don’t you have to start with existing cells to get it all to work?

  5. “Sentience is what the universe farts” – I like that too Doug.

    I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list, Geoff.

    And happy New Year to you too, anticant. I like your inversion of Decartes, but… just how many of us think? It took me six months to get from reading the book to understanding its implications in the way I’ve written about here.

    Ah, Sarah, I’m deeply curious about how consciousness works. We are far less conscious than we think we are, (see Derren Brown’s games with advertising executives, for a start), and I think if we understand consciousness then we’ll understand all sorts of other stuff like religious belief and falling in love.

    Thanks all for reading and commenting, and doing so so politely. I was wary of flamewars.


  6. I wonder if it really matters how consiousness is produced, rather that it is in fact there. It must be, I’m conscious of it.

    Ultimately, of course, we are in the conundrum whereby we can only think/understand to the extent that our consciousness allows, so it will never be possible to take a view which negates the effects of consciousness itself.

    Much as I agree with most of what clever scientists say (well, what I understand from Science for Arty Types books), I simply cannot bring myself to say, ‘They are 100% right’ on anything. This is for similar reasons, i.e. we can only think within the confines of what our brains allow us to. If there’s more to it than we can comprehend, it doesn’t make it wrong, it makes us inadequately brained. (Unless, of course, reality is only a construct of our brains and senses, in which case everything is our own creation and ‘understanding’ is more about decoding than discovery. Or something like that. Sorry…I’m thinking as I type…I have enough trouble with just one at a time usually. I’ll stop now.)

  7. Another interesting angle on the relationship of consciousness to the body is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought” [(ISBN 0-465-05674-1, obtainable from Amazon].

    This holistic, anti-dualist approach will doubtless be dismissed by theists as “materialistic”, but it makes a lot of sense to me and chimes in with much fresh scientific evidence. As I said earlier, poor old Renee put Descartes before the corpus [so to speak], and his fantasy of a disembodied “soul” has wreaked much philosophical and religious havoc.

  8. There’s a great bit in the opening section of “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, where the author, Julian Jaynes, first defines consciousness by references to what it is not. In this section, he lists a whole bunch of things we do which, when you think about it, don’t involve consciousness AT ALL.

    He then, of course, goes on to espouse a seriously wacky idea of why, and more importantly when, it arose (hint: he considers consciousness to be a byproduct of complex society – i.e. he places the beginning of consciousness as he defines it AFTER the invention of writing). That’s not important though.

    What’s important is the realisation of how little of what we do from day to day has anything to do with our conscious sense of self – how little, ultimately, WE (our “selves”) actually DO, as opposed to how much is simply done by our bodies and spinal cords without any significant involvement from “us”. That’s the “cripes” moment for me – not that my consciousness had a beginning or will have an end, but that it will spend so much of the intervening time not actually doing very much worthwhile, while deluding itself that it matters…

  9. The you would like the followoing reading:

    In a show-off of synchronicity, like I am ready for this, I am finding many articles (like yours) where things like this are discussed seriously.

    I think we are beginning to understand something we never dare study before.

  10. Mmmmm.

    Thanks anageli.

    I’m not sure we agree here. The thing that I am beginning to understand that I never dared studied before is that there is no god, there is no hereafter, there is no immortal soul, and consciousness itself is – as SoRB so eloquently explains – is pretty slippery and largely illusory. There’s no such thing as synchronicity, it’s just the human mind’s selective attention which filters what we observe and which gives us the illusion of coincidence.

    By the way, the phoenix article has some significant errors in it – not least the suggestion that epigenetics is about mind over matter – it isn’t, its about environmental pressures. There’s a worrying lack of self-awareness throughout the whole thing: Lipton even says that he lifted his description for the cell membrane from his computer manual but seems to consider that to be a coincidence, not a piece of subliminal self-programming.

    I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so snippy to a visitor to my blog. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I just wanted to confirm that I am writing this from an atheist and naturalist point of view.

    SoRB, I will read that book. One day. I promise.


  11. Pingback: Doing unto others « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

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