An excellent node-- I'm glad I stopped by. I deeply admire the lines of attack that many in the cognitive science community have led on this subject over the past few decades, and I only wish more poets would join the fray, though places like Everything, dominated as they are by left-brainers, discourage poetry as a rule, (c.f. fuzzy and blue' s note in the editor log: "poetry always gets down-voted".) Maybe the syntactical logic types scare off my poetical comrades. If true, it's too bad and ultimately the poets' lookout, since the fray is well worth joining for artists and scientists alike.

Of course, any investigation of consciousness is a more or less meandering stroll through a vast minefield of tautologies, contradictions, mutual exclusions and circular conclusions. The word itself is an intrinsically stacked tautology: when we say "consciousness", what we usually mean is "consciousness-consciousness" or "self-consciousness"'. In a letter to Wolfgang Pauli, Carl Jung called it, "... reflected consciousness (i.e. 'I know that I am conscious')." (In my own short-hand, I've taken to writing this as "C2" , not to be confused of course with the speed of light squared.) Happily, as an artist, it's not my job to sweep the logic minefield or even step past the individual booby-traps, but rather to guide unsuspecting theatre-goers directly to the points of possible explosion. I'd just like to blow a few minds in the myriad ways mine has been blown over the past 12 years that I have been reading, thinking, talking and planning theatrical lines of attack on this subject.

Recently, what has struck me most profoundly is how often great thinkers like Jung fall to the theatre for images and ideas to elucidate notions of consciousness. (For me this is a little like digging through an extremely important archeological excavation—one in which all the great anthropologists are involved-- and finding potshards from your own goofy, disinherited family.) This from Jung describing the mechanisms of the collective unconscious:

...You go to the theatre: glance meets glance, everybody observes everybody else, so that all those who are present are caught up in an invisible web of mutual unconscious relationship....

Mankind has always formed groups which made collective experiences of transformation—often of an ecstatic nature—possible. The regressive identification with lower and more primitive states of consciousness is invariably accompanied by a heightened sense of life... .The inevitable psychosocial regression within the group is partially counteracted by ritual, that is to say through a cult ceremony which makes the solemn performance of sacred events the centre of group activity and prevents the crowd from relapsing into unconscious instinctuality...
The ritual makes it possible for him to have a comparatively individual experience even within the group and so remain more or less conscious. But if there is no relation to a centre which expresses the unconscious through its symbolism, the mass psyche inevitably becomes the hypnotic focus of fascination, drawing everyone under its spell. That is why masses are always breeding-grounds of psychic epidemics, the events in Germany being a classic example of this.
Concerning Rebirth circa, 1940

In all these current discussions of constructed consciousness too little consideration is given to the unconscious, either as Freud formulates it in the strictly individual sense, or as Jung expands it to the collective. (Obviously as a theatre artist, Buddhist and all-around woo-woo-theory-connoisseur, I lean towards Jung.) I suspect that this is because cognitive scientists and modern philosophersnatural born enemies—are united in their suspicion of anything so resistant to analysis as the big U. It's vaguely amusing that over the last fifty years, with the advent of the cyber revolution, Western thinkers have opened up the toy box of cognitive paradox and begun tinkering naively as if they were the ones who discovered it. Only the bravest and most honest of them will look beyond Descartes and Plato to admit that Zen masters and sages of all stripes have been taking the toys apart and putting them back together in playful, evocative ways for millennia. I think of a particular koan with one of my favorite commentaries by Mumonkan:


The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved; they argue back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The sixth Patriarch said, 'It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.' The two monks were awe struck.

MUMON'S COMMENT: It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is not the mind that moves. How do you see the patriarch? If you come to understand this matter deeply, you will see that the two monks got gold when buying iron. The patriarch could not withhold his compassion and courted disgrace.

MUMON'S VERSE: Wind, flag, mind moving, All equally to blame. Only knowing how to open his mouth, Unaware of his fault in talking.

During some research on this subject for a potential play I'm writing, I was told by author Richard Rhodes to check out which contains a paper by philosopher David Chalmers called "Facing up to the Problems of Consciousness". It's ironic that Chalmers spends nearly a quarter of his paper listing the many pitfalls of solving the "hard problem", then goes on to spend at least another several pages tripping right into the very same traps. He rationalizes this as setting appropriate constraints on an ultimate nonreductive theory, but I can't help but suspect some of these academic types get paid by the pound of shit they shovel. His long postponed proposition is that consciousness, or "experience" as he calls it, is a nonreducible fundamental component of the universe, like mass or space-time (I'm listening, I'm listening), and it is related to the 'double-aspect' nature of information-- physical as well as phenomenal. (Hmmm, sounds like we've circled back to tautology again.) Still, if information is intrinsically "phenomenal", as Chalmers seems to hope, this takes us into territory that I, as the artist-Buddhist-ne'er-do-well, am gratified to finally arrive in. Says Chalmers:

The other possibility is that... experience is much more widespread than we have believed, as information is everywhere. This is counterintuitive at first, but on reflection the position gains a certain plausibility and elegance. Where there is simple information processing, there is simple experience, and where there is complex information processing, there is complex experience.

Or as Siddhartha Gautama more succinctly put it 25 centuries earlier, "All things are Buddha things." So when Dick Rhodes says, "...Both the self and the mind are social in origin and in function.... Selves are not given. They are constructed..." I would agree somewhat and generally, but I'd restate it in slightly fruitier terms (embracing rather than skirting tautology as I go): Consciousness emerges within the nurturing presence of...wait for it... consciousness—reflective, fundamental, indivisible, borderless. (The 'self' might have borders, more or less fuzzy, but the irreducible, fundamental element of consciousness that imbues the self, does not.) To use woo-woo metaphysical terms, consciousness is one circle, containing an infinite myriad of circles, all identical to it. {I just got a whiff of Bertrand Russell’s set of all sets that are not members of themselves, but I’m not sure it means anything.} (Sometimes I wish I were smarter. Most times I’m glad I’m not.)}

Many in the A.I. community doubt that it's necessary to solve the problem of human consciousness in order to design a system capable of emulating it. They're probably right; but given humankind's recent history of technology outstripping its moral development, I wonder whether such an attempt is wise or even ethical. In the Buddhist framework of the Four Noble Truths, #1 is simply "Suffering".{Often confusingly mistranslated as “Life is suffering,” or “Existence is suffering,” thus causing a lot of unnecessary and completely inaccurate associations of Buddhism with Nihilism.} Suffering attends consciousness, to lesser or greater degrees, wherever you find it. Before we human's go implementing our clever architectures for sentience, we'd be wise to contemplate the possibility of creating something capable of suffering in whole new ways we've never dreamed of. As an artist (and a Buddhist for that matter), it's my job to help heal suffering, confusion, loneliness, wrong-headedness and narrow-mindedness as best I can, where and whenever I can. It might be nice if some of the scientists and modern philosophers of the world added this responsibility to their duty roster as well. Sure, we may not need to really understand human consciousness before we start hacking at designs, but would it be such a bad idea to try? The same imperatives that attended the Manhattan project do not apply here. It would be hateful to imbue a suffering monster with the blessing/curse of "self-hood" merely because we thought it might be neato.

There's a quote which I've kept on the wall in my office, more or less continuously for the last 14 years. It's from Joseph Campbell (I know, I know—Igor to Jung's Dr. Frankenstein, and subsequent high-priest to woo-woo thinkers everywhere), but this has always held great contemplative value for me, and I think it relates well to subject at hand:

Creative artists... are mankind's wakeners to recollection: summoners of our outward mind to conscious contact with ourselves, not as participants in this or that morsel of history, but as spirit, in the consciousness of being. Their task, therefore, is to communicate directly from one inward world to another, in such a way that an actual shock of experience will have been rendered: not a mere statement for the information or persuasion of a brain, but an effective communication across the void of space and time from one center of consciousness to another.