Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Troubleshooting Reality; A Very Preliminary Review of *Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness* by way of *A General Theory of Love*

I'm a trouble-shooter. I've proven myself quite good at troubleshooting things that I don't necessarily know as much about as others who aren't so good at it. I proved myself good at computer and network troubleshooting, even though my technical knowledge was far deficient from that of many of my colleagues. I'm good at trouble-shooting engines, even lacking very refined design and engineering skills. 

Who knows? Even though my grip on reality may not be as good as yours, I'll bet I'm better at troubleshooting it. You know, I spend my time fixing things. I try to understand things to the extent that I must, to be able to troubleshoot and fix them. I almost always come away with a better understanding by the time whatever I'm working on is fixed. But I don't really remember a time when I thought that I completely understood what I was working on. 

Most recently, I've been troubleshooting the strange electrical situation on my recently rebuilt sailboat. It's a primitive arrangement, meaning pre-digital, meaning pre-WWII tech. The Internet is now full of instruction on such things, mostly among antique motoring fanatics. It is really difficult to parse the valid part from all the instructions, each of which lacks the kind of narrative completeness I require.

At great pain to body and mind, I've gotten this 50 year old single cylinder two-stroke engine to run quite well. Just as I had the old Martin (pressure cooker company) outboard when I was a kid. This sailboat engine is also sparked by a magneto, is easily started by hand, and will even power rudimentary electrics without a battery.

So, to sail the boat I only use the battery to start the engine. For convenience sake. Without even bothering to charge the battery from the dock power, I sailed half the season with a battery read of 12.4 volts. I assumed that the battery was old and weak, and anyhow it worked fine and I talked myself into believing that the starter/generator was vaguely recharging the battery while I motored out. There is also a very small solar pad.

Eventually, I bought a voltmeter to plug into the cigarette-lighter-style 12 v receptacles I placed here and there for iPhoney passengers. That helped me to realize that there was no charging happening, either by motor or by sun, though the tiny solar panel helped to hold the voltage where left it, once I realized I should actually charge the battery now and then.

So having fixed all the little leaks, and having perfected the carb and points and mast wiring and electrics, and all the lights, I turned my attention to this little non-problem of generation. After many trips out and back along a long walk to the boat, to try another conjecture with yet another gizmo, the walk being as far as it is possible to be from the gate of this massive marina, I finally understand what is wrong and what to do about it. 

It is a pleasure to me when I finally get to a totality of how the things I work on work. That's what solving a problem feels like. It feels very different from making something new. Related for sure, but different. All the otherwise disconnected symptoms start to match up and then you know what to do to fix the overall. Ignoring all the irrelevant stuff which might be working poorly or fine but isn't germane to the problem at hand. I'm just not that good at new. I fall for things as they are more than as I wish that they were. Plus new is way expensive anymore,

I am persistent to a fault. And I am really cheap; not by choice, but by necessity. I am motivated. Having money to spend feels like cheating. Indeed, I argue that to get money you have to cheat, but that would be a different essay.

In my experience of troubleshooting, hearing someone express certainty about what's wrong or what to do invites an instant assessment of how grounded that certainty is. If it doesn't feel grounded, then I'm pretty sure that the certainty will be an obstacle and not a help to my troubleshooting. Which is to say that misplaced certainty will prevent my seeing of the actual problem. Grounded certainty is much more welcome, often accompanied by an "aha" from me, or if not, by a quick explanation from the certain party. Indeed my welcome of grounded certainty is grounded itself on the basis of many such previous explanations. That person has become my teacher.

There aren't many teachers on the Internet. Well, OK, there are plenty, but one sure does have to wade through a lot of dross to find them. There used to be more, back in the days of newsgroups. Things degenerate.

So anyhow, maybe I have a right to troubleshoot even philosophy or epistemology or consciousness study even though I might barely know how to define those disciplines. 

Like, OK, when Nicholas Humphrey is going down a track that humans are conscious in ways that other creatures aren't, I find that initially problematical. That's because we're (me and Humphrey) just not using "conscious" in the same way. Consciousness to me is more-or-less what Buddhists mean when they say sentient (in translation). Humphrey's usage for sensation and perception is almost the opposite of my usage. And he never even mentions Julian Jaynes, haha!

Of course I can't know if he uses sentience as he does because he enjoys slamming the benighted Buddhists, or if that's the received and accepted term of art in his field. He announces that he diverges from many who might be assumed to be his colleagues. I'll have to try to find out.

But it does seem as though his usage for consciousness is quite different from mine. I consider lizards to be conscious. And sentient. I'll have to think of a word to describe what humans are. Why can't sapient do? Well, I guess it's not so provocative. To say that humans have invented sapience feels like a trite redundancy. And anyhow, why use the word invent unless you wish to be provocative.

You will never prove to me that there was a Sir Bowline who invented a knot by that name. Knots are in a category of unnatural things which never were invented. They come as close to an embodiment of a Platonic "form" as I can imagine, except that embodiments are precisely not forms in that sense.

Now I wrote recently of discovering books that have stood unread upon my ever-shifting bookshelves. I've had Gregory Bateson there since forever ago. Even or especially knowing that I felt affinity for his thinking, I've left his Steps to an Ecology of Mind untouched for decades. It has sat there as a kind of burden. Like I was never ready for it.

I was reminded of Bateson by way of this Sentience book, who mentions Bateson's slightly more recent book Mind and Nature, which I've now retrieved hard-copy from the library. Cheap, see?

Soulmate. Bateson reminds me that the real is the Platonic ideal. All the rest is perceptual conjecture. Now, I'm no Platonist and certainly no idealist (though Plato's Republic was indeed my first real read. First loves . . .) but there is an essential quality there, now long lost. 

So, what's the difference between a circle and a knot, I wonder. Well, circle refers to an abstraction - a stationary abstraction - and a knot to an actual instance of a procedural form or norm that also happens to work; in just the way that a wheel works, but is not a circle. Procedures are narrative, while forms are eternal, just because forms are abstract. A wheel and a knot both have a temporal and earthly history, Ideas are eternal.

In Humphrey's language, I wonder if perceptions are abstractions from sensation, or if they are procedural and narrative. If they are, then to call them perceptions is inevitably misleading. A photon impinging upon a retina is a perception, precisely analogous to an instrument reading used by a scientist. The reading then becomes part of some narrative understanding or other, which we hope will become useful. 

I rather doubt that much of anything is ever invented so much as discovered. Invention being the proper province of capitalist economics. You find it first; you take credit and get a temporary monopoly on usage, and you brag that you invented it. The actual invention is made by collective resolution, available nearly simultaneously to anyone equipped to interpret newly possible narrative realities.

Nothing springs from the mind, while the mind itself is sprung from all society in which one is invested. So, OK, yes, mind is a manifestation of the collective (if not quite an invention), but not ex-nihilo. And I suppose mindlessness is a function of dividing the social from actual social interaction, which is what communications technology does, which inevitably gives us the mindlessness of the cult of MAGA. For instance.

The mind may apprehend a circle, which is not the same as feeling one.

Though the artist themself might believe they do, art doesn't start with an idea. It starts with an interaction. And then appears something which sounds or looks or feels right for that particular person at that particular time. Artists are makers, but not inventors. I declare! Tools and a medium and experience. Talent, sure. And something new that was never there before. There is no progress to it. 

The "I" in us is an artifact. Art not invention. 

One of the most important, if not the biggest, puzzles that I face now involves wondering why I am so newly clueless about sailing. I felt as one with the wooden boat that I rebuilt in my extreme youth. It was stunningly simple, and though ever the loner, I was much more social then. 

I learned itinerantly how to accomplish the repairs I made, and the sailing of that boat was utterly transparent. No winches, no complex improvements, just basics that I could see and feel. No money, so I restitched the sails and replaced much wood, re-bedded the engine, and sailed for twenty five years in any and all conditions.

Now I'm chicken and dumb. What I can't figure out is whether this is a function of age-related frailty in body and mind, or if it is the actual wisdom of knowing versus thinking that I know. As in I have much more experience of fucking up and nearly eating shit (as my daughter calls it) than I once did. 

The old boat had the same electrical system as the newer old boat, but I never plumbed it because I didn't have to. In those days you could get your starter/generator locally rewound, which I did, though for the life of me I can't remember why I had that done. Whatever the problem was, rewinding fixed it.

This time, with a lot more theoretical understanding than I had then, in part of because of the Internet, I know that it's not the motor. It's the voltage regulator. I'm pretty sure I didn't know what that was way back then. Knowledge can make a person wary. Seem old.

Progress is a function of problem solving. Not art. An artist might troubleshoot the medium and the tools, though not to make something better. Art is more transformative than that. You end up with something more like a knot than a platonic realization of some idea. The knot was always there, in some sense, as you discovered it.

To me "sensations" are the directly felt responses to what Humphrey and possibly all philosophers call qualia, which are, to me, precisely what cannot be perceived. Apparently to him, perceptions are the indirect or redirected signals from our perceptual apparatus, such that "sweetness" is a perception where to me it's a sensation. 

And in this other book that I'm reading in tandem, A General Theory of Love Thomas Lewis (very properly confused with Lewis Thomas) starts out with what he considers to be the obvious fact that whatever love is, it's in the brain. Thereby cementing the, to me, poor assumption that the mind is all "in" the brain. His certainty immediately precludes other avenues for troubleshooting. 

Tant pis! I can't trust him, though I find extremely useful nearly all that he says about love and about emotion.

In any case, I find the Love book incredibly useful, and ultimately, mostly right. Now Humphrey lands on what I would call a description of the conscious self as derived from narrative social interactions. We are each teachers to each other. It is immensely pleasurable to watch my granddaughter ever so slowly discovering herself. I know that she is not yet, but almost certainly will be, fully conscious as a human being. 

And the narrative construction of the self gives me great hope that despite my existence in the midst of what I might call humanity's most critical existential crisis of all time, we shall effectuate a kind of collective reconfiguration once we identify what is wrong with our collective narrative about reality.

I present here a concise-ish list of misconceptions, so as not to be coy about it:

  • The mind is not, in almost any way, coterminous with the brain.
  • Just because erasing the brain erases the "I" doesn't mean that the narratively constructed artistic self is instantly gone.
  • What is gone is sensation. The responsive "I"
  • To be conscious, consciousness - right down to lizard consciousness - participates in all other life on the planet (and perhaps beyond). Certainly no "I", but also no living thing can exist without the totality of life which came before along with an expectation that the next moment will be similar to the last, meaning that life will persist.
  • The totality of life is not only our genetic heritage, but also our companion living creatures which create the environment which creates us.
  • Intelligence is not severable from emotion.
  • Emotion is directly felt by the mind, no intelligence required.
  • Sensation is also directly felt (what Humphrey misleadingly calls "perception"), but at the remove of preconscious narration. 
  • Humphrey's phenomenal consciousness - the feeling of qualia - is put together by mind's narrative skill.
  • Narration is an ordering in time of what I call "perception" but which Humphrey misleadingly calls sensation.
  • Perceptions are not ordered in time by themselves. Indeed, they could not be. The mind is what does that. Many different perceptions from multiple different senses form a felt "thing" in the mind. Those perceptions don't come to mind in ordered fashion.
  • Artificial so-called intelligence overlaps human intelligence only in the way an encyclopedia might. (The map is not the geography)
  • Emotion is not an epiphenomenon of the brain's function any more than sensation is.
  • Emotion is relational, as is all physical reality, where emotion is both prior to and subsequent to all physical interactions.
  • Physical interactions are perceptual, which also means that forces are exchanged.
  • Emotions may initiate physical interactions, or perhaps they always do.
  • Free will is an emotional and not a physiological fact.
  • Precognition is a recognition of what could be, never what will be.
  • What will be requires an act of will
  • Ownership of actions and decisions always follows after the action or decision was made.,
  • The "I" is a very high order abstraction, always late to the game.
  • Congruence between self-centered prediction and the actual is the basis for the (narrative!) construction of an "I"
  • Feeling ones own "I" happens as an analog to feeling sensations (as a perceptual analog to what Humphrey calls "perception" of qualia, or phenomenal consciousness).
  • This "I" has always been there (think about it)
  • Similarly, emotions are directly felt by the mind in ways that sensations are felt - subsequent to what I call perception. (Who hasn't mistaken hot for cold, for example, based on the mind's narrative errors? Just like I might mistake what I did with the engine on my sailboat just the other day, which I corrected by a modification to my narrative.)
  • Indeed, the mind is mostly composed of felt emotions toward the world all around.
  • This is relational without the forces involved in perception
  • Memory is "housed" in our environment, and prompts our narrative recall. 
  • There are no internal representations residing in our brains. We recall the real.
  • Our brain is a mediator, not an originator, among perceptual and conceptual reality.
  • An artificial brain is quite simply a contradiction in terms.
  • Or else there be no nature
  • Time is a construct of all life. A conspiracy of will, if you will, but not of things as such.
  • God wills forward in time 
  • There is God and always has been
  • There is no lazier word than God
  • We shall soon discover that to participate in the future is far more entertaining than to watch narratives on some screen, no matter how exciting those are. Our entertainments are analogous to blindsight (sight without the "I" of seeing)
  • Capitalism self-destructs upon the realization that the individualism which drives it is the prime fiction. Hurrah!
  • Driving cars, fascinating and wonderful at the outset, shall suddenly become as boring as entertainments projected onto two-dimensional screens.
  • Let us all sail into our future. The winds of reality shall always overwhelm us if and as we challenge them.
So the good news is that since our thoughts are not our own, the collective reconfiguration of those thoughts can happen in a relative instant. Which might be the moral equivalent to God coming down to earth (as distinguished from the childish fantasy that some wise teacher will appear, to tell us what to do).

The big trouble which needs to be shot is trust. Most of the astounding bounty we've collectively gotten from oil now defines the trust (im)balance which desperately needs to be improved upon. It is certainly not clear to me in which direction that balance might plummet or soar. What is clear is that we are at a tipping point.

Well, aren't we always?

Our politics and our economic reality now reward not only narcissistic me-ism, but practically demand it. Instead of debating political lines, we might be better off focusing on some basics: Getting the money and ad-copy out. Hiring for trust as much as for competence. But not forgetting the competence.

It's not that hard for me to see why those who have supported Trump mistrust the politics of those whose rhetoric they either don't understand, or feel is a front for some sort of elaborate and self-serving scam. In whose pockets does this politician live?

I am inundated on a daily or hourly or often minute-by-minute basis by China-originated email and text scams, based on their patriotic deconstruction of our surveillance capitalism. That cannot be the basis for war. It is a call for education and a prod for unity. But it sure feels like they - the artificially intelligent "they" - know exactly what I'm doing on the Internet, and so can prey on me as though they read my mind. There is no better definition for asshole, innocent though the human bit-players are.

Trump represents, of course, a cult. But cult is almost built-in to our global society now. There are no other convincing arguments on offer. We demand a personality that's bigger than life. What we need are more quiet amateurs, who know a lot about everything, but not terribly much about anything in particular. We need leaders who know which experts to trust, not which wannabe personalities will support the one in the middle. 

We need people who will paint and repair our houses rather than people on Tik Tok pandering their personalities.

Well, so I'm alone here. But I have practiced that all my life, and so it not only doesn't bother me, I would be terrified to be recognized. I lack the skill. I am persistent but slow in my trouble-shooting. I am proud, yes, of my accomplishments. A full life, well lived.

But know this: Perceptual and conceptual reality both lead to feeling (which the vehicle and which the tenor of that metaphor? Which is the real feel?), and all feeling is direct, mediated though it may be among nerves and words and cultural imperatives. The brain may be our personal mediator of feelings, but all of what we know exists outside the brain. Ideas, our memories, our love interests, our narrative reality. None of those things belong to any particular "I". 

I am what I am, says Popeye the sailor man. I am so glad that Chinese literature isn't built on metaphor as the main figure. I would otherwise have to prioritize emotion over sensation. Or is it the other way around? A rose by any other name. An asshole is always an asshole. A prick by a rose not so sweet. Time moves forward but metaphorically and not for real, says Plato. 

Basta! Till next time.

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