Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Yet Another Unpublished Goodreads Review of Nicholas Humphrey *Sentience: The Invention of Consciousness*

Hey, I just read that the guy who invented the AR-15 was able to do so because he was unbound by the dogmas of the engineers. I tinker with words, and he tinkered with guns. Weirdly, this gives me hope.

Goodreads has been convenient for me. I've trimmed my bookshelves across too many moves, and I read now mostly on Kindle, mostly from the public library. I was a bit distressed when Amazon took over Goodreads, just as I was a little distressed when eBooks edged into the realm of paper. Of course, I was far more distressed when Internet advertising destroyed local newspapers.

Do you also have a sense that things are falling apart? That something's gonna give? Whether it's climate change, global warming, the chaos of our crumbling democracy or worse, of the autocracies. We keep sucking up oil, and using up water, and our lifespan is now shrinking.

I do believe that such times and such anxiety are also the sign of impending shift. In my little mind, the shift could be of or about consciousness, using the term here in a very broad way. But for sure we need to change something about how we believe and what we believe if we are to change our nasty and often brutish behaviors. 

I have but a few virtual bookshelves here on Goodreads. One of them, I find, is labelled "Consciousness." I guess that must be a main interest of mine. There is no rhyme or reason to my random "bookshelves," just as there is no program to my reading. My actual bookshelves are pretty scattered too. 

Given the virtual sea of good reading available to me, I might even suggest that random is a better program than deliberate choice. In any case, I've skated across too many academic fields and, more generally, too many career paths to have real expertise about anything. Perversely perhaps, I now consider my lack of specific expertise an asset.

Scholars and scientists who know enough to build credible new knowledge can only do it following a massive intellectual investment in some particular disciplinary field. Advantage amateur if we truly are at an inflexion point.

I confess that I don't have any desire to write reviews. I do have a desire to keep notes for myself, and doing it this way is convenient. There is no obligation for anyone else to pay attention, and no desire for that on my part. I simply can't organize myself by myself. Thanks Amazon!

Anyhow, consciousness is far too general as a target for study to be contained by any one discipline. Happily, Nicholas Humphrey skates about in several of them, but lands squarely on the science side of various philosophical divides. I find his overall conception of what distinguishes human consciousness from other sentient creatures to be compelling (I may be deploying the Buddhist usage for sentient here, in place of Humphrey's, which is more specific and restrictive).

I have swung back and forth myself from believing humans to be a special case (as Humphrey does) to believing that humans are delusional about the exceptionalism of what we call intelligence. When I have felt we are special, that has been first because of language, following on an exciting read of Julian Jaynes long ago, but more importantly because of art. Language is surely the sine-qua-non for humanity, and art our proudest production.

Nevermind if there is animal language and animal emotive feeling, there is almost certainly nothing like art beyond humanity here on earth. But what is art "like?" Philosophers and scientists of consciousness like to ask 'what is it like to be conscious.' As in, what is it like to be human. What is it like to be a bat?

We are so strangely poised, because of language, between the identity-free schooling of social species (birds and bees and fishes, right?) and the apex predation of eagles and prides of lions. Language makes us social on a very different level than we started with. But combined with our social context is a lust for recognition which defines the global economy now, even more than ever. We don't want to be part of a school or a flock or a cult. At least I don't.

The extremes of individualism are causing social fracture. Ironically enough, they may also be causing our seemingly increasing cultishiness. Religion gets discredited, and technical language gets inscrutable, and we have to put our faith - our energy, our exhuberance, our anxiety - into something.

My first reason, if there is a reason, for an interest in consciousness is that I believe that our misconceptions about what it is and isn't are a main reason for our social, societal, fractures. We need to fix those fractures if we wish to have a future. I mean, we are wrecking the planet, and I actually think we're doing so because we're living delusionally. We live as though the entire cosmos thinks that we are special.

So my next reason for an interest in consciousness is that there is a kind of consciousness which can change very fast and in a way that spreads equally fast. We used to talk about 'consciousness raising,' which is probably related to woke-ness, except that I think that what we used to mean by consciousness raising was a more cosmic awakening. Not the local political and justice-related awakening (important though that certainly is) but more of a seeing through of all the pandered belief structures by which we are held in thrall.

One can never be too rich or too thin, if you're from the Ivy League, but for sure one can never be too wealthy. And the things that the wealthy do with their wealth are decidedly not what has ever been meant by consciousness raising.

My own entry to consciousness studies was Chinese classical literature, which study I deliberately entered because I felt - no I sort-of knew - that the Chinese tradition must be the only qualified "other" to Western Civ, broadly conceived. Of course, there was also a heavy dose of random, as there always is.

Once I proved myself, ahem, correct in my choice, I lost interest in the actual discipline of it, which required, internal to its study, more discipline than even a monk might ever acquire. I wanted to sail. Literally. And I have. Anyhow, as exciting as the study of Chinese lit was - and it truly was exciting - my passions (were they ever really passions?) drew me elsewhere. 

At some point, while living aboard the first sailboat which I'd rebuilt, I combined my passing knowledge of the civilization-jarring reconceptualizations provided by relatively theory and then more recently (for me and for the world) quantum theory, from physics, with the equally jarring insights I'd gained from Chinese cosmology (for lack of a better word here). I did a bit of writing which changed my life. I mean that it happened during writing and in the writing, not that the writing was very good. 

And then I moved on.

The proof of how jarring the physics has been is in the scope and sale of the second world warring. In particular the ending of it. Leading up to that point were the incredibly bloody industrial and then the scientific revolutions. A very WEIRD Western thing. Both in the fighting and in the holding off from fighting, but also in all the technological spinoffs from war. Things do change when we're frantic.

The proof from China seems a bit more subtle. China continues to struggle with its own past, even as it echoes parts of that past even more than it appropriates our tradition. Like surveillance and censorship and the banishment of free-thinkers.

Random stands out as an ordering principle (oxymoron alert!) for physics, for I Ching (English spelling), and especially for evolution, which is Humphrey's concern in this book that I'm not quite actually reviewing.

Random is what human consciousness largely contests. And we're good at it, the contest. Surely consciousness must be our basis. Humphrey pretty adequately proves that consciousness carries evolutionary valence, even quite apart from our problem-solving which really couldn't have flourished until the question of its evolution was resolved. Consciousness seems to be the egg for Humphrey, and problem-solving the chicken. Hmmmm. Couldn't it be the other way around?

In my life, I'm good at only one thing anymore, which is trouble-shooting. Not invention, and certainly not academic scholarship, but fixing things. That's the intelligence I'm stuck with, because I'm not very good in my pursuit of any particular discipline or career. But I can trouble-shoot boats and cars and houses and computers and networks, and I'm pretty good at it. And I've gotten by.

I feel almost physically ill when I can't figure out some system. As happened recently with the electrics of my most recent (OK, it's only the second) decades-old sailboat. The 70's tech hadn't changed much from the 30's tech of the first one, but I never had to trouble-shoot the electricals on that one. I did resolve the trouble this time, and I feel better now, thanks.

Now in my trouble-shooting of consciousness theories, I find Humphrey's to be among the most sound. As in seaworthy! But he remains stuck in a few ways, I think. And I extend this stuckness to all sorts of things about the world which make me feel ill. Our political divides feel like fundamental disagreements about what it even means to be human. And so it seems like the problem of consciousness needs serious trouble-shooting. Even this one.

I even retain the hope that were we to have a better understanding of how humanity works down to that level, we might be able to survive ourselves; we seem pretty hard to survive as we are behaving right now. Wouldn't it be nice to get beyond toxic me-ism and the cultish worship of personality?

I think it would. But we have to get beyond the absurd notion that random is meaningless. For many people, meaningful coincidence is what God means. For many scientists, random is the process behind evolutionary change. And I am certainly not one who would challenge the facts about how random works. But it is interesting to me that computers only do pseudo-random, 

Anyhow, given how much of me is composed of random encounters - many with an uncanny resemblance to meaningful - I can't discount random events as totally random. Or rather I don't discount them, even as I accept that they strictly are mathematically and scientifically random. Wave/particle kind of duality here.

Humphrey remains stuck on the brain as the seat and locus for human consciousness, to which opposable thumbs, recognizeable faces, and vocal apparatuses are but appendages. That's trouble number one, for me. I see brain as being organized by body, and therefore appended thereto rather than body appended therefrom. Let's just say body and brain are of a piece, with body more responsible than mind to sort the random from the meaningful so as to present to the mind, as it were, a pre-sequenced proto-narrative that mind can work with.

I must say that I consider my mind to be spread far and wide; spread most certainly among the books I've read and the people I know and have known, but also among those things and places with which I've interacted. I have no memory at all, most of the time now, without its being prompted by its artifacts, in this case meaning not what I left behind, but what formed me in the first place. Artifacts of the future; all of them outside of me. The artifacts which we are hell-bent on destroying, even if we are a tiny bit more conservative about it than the Chinese are just now (for instance). 

The brain may organize and generalize all of my perceptions and conceptions, but I don't think that means that the brain in any way holds them. The brain extends throughout the body by way of much more than feedback loops, just as the overall self extends well beyond the body-boundary of our skin.

As sick as I am about how se humans are collectively behaving just now, I also feel sick about the bees, until I learn that the very human reaction to shepherd more honeybee hives is killing more pollinators than it rescues. That's how well our evolved media helps us to understand what's going on. So I withhold judgement just a bit when Bill Gates, who believes his mind is his brain which is a CPU, denounces planting trees as idiotic.

Because honeybees are husbanded creatures, under the control of industrial-scale farming, and most pollinators aren't, the honeybess aren't what needs saving. It's like we're solving problems with inhumane pig farming by raising more pigs. Um, something like that. I suppose Pulitzer was no better on paper than the Googles are now with the web.

Yes, sure, I am losing my mind. For the very best of reasons, which is that I've lived so long. But I do find the equation between the brain and mind to be an almost entirely Western conceit. It's an analytical conclusion that we can't seem to escape. This is related to our certainty that random means meaningless. And so we can't really conceive of evolution, for instance, as but a roll of dice. And it certainly is that for any given individual creature, but something still takes shape which endures.

Brain as mind is of a piece with God as teacher and it's time we moved beyond both misconceptions. If we don't, we'll never find a personal locus; the way we conceptualize it now is blasted physical impossibility. Not just God, but the self as existing in the brain as physical medium for mind. Dennett is quite right that the self is an illusion. I can't always find where Humphrey would disagree.

But it's a kind of real illusion, not unlike - I mean philosophically now, and not as an equation - the real illusion of God.

Now I'm sure you know that those Chinese sure do love to gamble. It may descend from throwing yarrow stalk readings of reality beyond the mind; what the I Ching is about. We all do know in our heart of hearts that hitting the jackpot is always by way of lady luck and almost never by way of merit. But we'll claim merit when we can, and especially when it's sanctioned. We pray when we're desperate, or we throw dice, or pull yarrow sticks. We keep the winnings because that's how capitalism thrives.

It could be that it strikes me that Humphrey's "attractor" in the brain, his "ipsundrum," upon which his theory of phenomenal consciousness depends, is also abroad in the world; that we have innered something already out there. My candidate for what gets innered would be whatever it is that drives evolution "forward," or rather attracts it so. A thickening of time, as he calls it.

We seem shy to confess that we, and even each of us individually, are cosmic wonders well beyond whatever we might discover in the vast wastelands of "outer space." Shy to confess that accidents which tend toward a complexity that cannot be likened to physical entropy aren't the same as accidents which might disorder and destroy.

Mind is microcosm and not some ex-nihilo production from some original creator.

Now I know that there is likely no scientific program which can pursue this line of thinking. And I hardly wish to undermine anyone's livelihood. Well, except for those who lie and cheat their way to the top, claiming credit not just for their fortune, but for the complicity of the rest of us.

Once upon a time, we did think that the mind could be imitated by a machine, so enamored were we with our machines. And now we think we've finally done it, by way of silicon-based logic engines. 

And I say nope, the brain may be a good imitation of a machine, but it's a lot more like the innering of a cosmic process which still does and likely always shall exceed our grasp. Else what's a meta for?

HaHa. Chinese poetry isn't so centered around metaphor.

. . . in that we are more alike than different from all that lives. But confessing that we cannot order the natural world better than it orders itself would make the finest form for progress, don't you think? There is a boundary beyond the skin - the body surface, in the words of this book - which can be our rightful limit. That proper limit is defined by way of clothing and housing and even communication. By means of tools. 

But don't you think, also, that our ordering goes too far when it wishes to take over from the natural order? I sure do.

Consciousness was never invented. But it's trivial to destroy. 

Well, I'm picking nits. Which is a very social behavior. But I do think that understanding consciousness is critical now, because if we get it right we might be motivated to stop doing so many bad things to that natural order which is also our order. If only we knew how we know. We'd know that the sophomoric division between nature and artifice is, well, artificial. We have never been apart from our ends.

Anyhow, it seems useful to imagine what post-human might look like. I sure don't wish to imagine the kind of techno trans-humanism to which so many libertarian tech-enthusiast youngsters devote themselves, though I have no real objection to their fantasies. The fantasies of the young are always fascinating.

I imagine us ever-evolving in the same direction that all life evolves. Which is in the direction of love. I am confident because I know that time's very direction is the direction of love. Time has no physical direction. But I've used up my words.

Not all of life's difficulties can be addressed by technology. And technology can't control the flow of evolution. I imagine humanity as more loving in our future. It's inevitable!

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