Strange Loops and Consciousness

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

“The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure’ experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that.” – William James



Strange loops: an introduction

Arguing in favor of the notion that we live in a simulation, Elon Musk has claimed that video games have become so advanced in such a short period of time – evolving from simple, pixelated Pong to remarkably complex, incredibly realistic games involving millions of simultaneous players around the world – that within a relatively short span on the evolutionary time scale (say, 10,000 years), we could make games involving entire universes of intelligent creatures. Given that there could be many different iterations of the same game, played out across millions of devices, Musk believes that the chances that we live in the base reality are 1 in billions.

This article is not about the theory that we all live in a simulation. (I think it’s a rather senseless question, though certainly interesting to ponder. Even if we somehow figure out, with total certainty, that we live in a computer-simulated universe, this realization doesn’t give us any practical information about how we should lead our day-to-day lives.)

What’s most interesting about Musk’s hypothesis is the strange loop that is implicitly embedded within it. The architects of the game program our universe into existence with precisely the fine-tuned variables that are necessary for the evolution of intelligent life. We evolve in accordance with the game’s plan, eventually becoming sophisticated enough to produce games of equal complexity. Then these games will, in turn, bear new universes of their own. The key point here is that the universe progresses toward a higher-order goal, only to recreate its starting conditions once that goal is achieved. Its purpose is to become more advanced … so that it can return to its original, primitive state.

I call this a strange loop because ordinary loops evolve in both an “upwards” and “downwards” fashion with the purpose of reinforcing the same behavior. The homeostatic loops in your body, for instance, pass through heating and cooling cycles in order to perpetuate the status quo – a balanced temperature, among other features. Even though the body experiences momentary change through these processes, it ultimately returns to its baseline temperature, time after time. On the other hand, Musk’s loop clearly involves an upwards movement in a hierarchy (the different stages of evolution), proceeding further and further beyond the base as time goes on. There’s no downward movement; although it hiccups occasionally, we think that evolution only progresses in one direction. We don’t realize that this forward progress constitutes a loop until it eventually, somehow, ends up right back where it started: at the lowest level.

I’m borrowing this idea from Douglas Hofstadter, an esteemed cognitive scientist who has devoted his whole career to studying these so-called “strange loops.” In his words, “a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop … where, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.”

In his magnum opus Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter found examples of strange loops in everything from logical systems and programming languages to baroque music and M.C. Escher’s art (see Fig 1). Later, Hofstadter argued that human consciousness is a strange loop. Even though I don’t agree with the fundamental assumptions that guide Hofstadter’s claim, I think that a careful examination of his reasoning provides a valuable starting point for my discussion of the mind-body problem, as well as consciousness and its place in the universe. (And that’s what this article is about.)

Maurits Cornelis Escher, "Drawing Hands," 1948. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Fig 1. MC Escher’s “Drawing Hands”, the stereotypical example of a strange loop in art. Now what would happen if you replaced one of the pencils with an eraser? Image taken from here.

 

The self – and consciousness – as strange loops

Hofstadter begins his argument with an analogy. He compares the neurons in the brain to small, interacting marbles (or “sims”) that, like balls in a game of pool, collide into and bounce off one another in a flat, frictionless space known as the “careenium.” These marbles form larger clusters called “simmballs” which react to changes in the external environment. For example, the simmballs will move inward if something pushes on the boundaries of the careenium. Therefore, the configuration of the simmballs encodes the history of all the changes that affect the shape of the careenium. Likewise, in the human cranium, large-scale patterns of neuron firings act as symbols (hence the two puns) that represent the events happening in the outer world.  For example, a population of interconnected neurons – essentially, a neural circuit – will respond to a frightening incident in a particular way, perhaps by triggering certain muscles to become more tense. The activity of the circuit serves as the brain’s record, or symbol, of what happened. Future events of a similarly scary nature will trigger this symbol, thereby activating the brain’s conditioned response.

According to Hofstadter, the human brain has an incredibly vast, extensible network of symbols: the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that we associate with everything from the mundane objects of everyday life to grandiose concepts like eternal love and the cosmos. Furthermore, the human brain is sophisticated enough to develop not only a symbol for itself – the “I”-symbol – but also a remarkably rich symbol at that. We don’t just have conceptions of ourselves – that is, identities or selves that we refer to when we talk or think about ourselves – but also a highly complex repertoire of desires, hopes, fears, and beliefs that we associate with these conceptions. As we age, we respond to the feedback that we receive from other people by refining this “I”-symbol. For instance, in order to fit in with our peers, we adopt new mannerisms, behaviors, and even principles, all of which amount to transformations in our identities.

Once we’ve reached a certain level of emotional and psychological maturity, the “I” becomes so real to us that we conceive of it as the agent and orchestrator of our will. It’s the “prime mover” that launches all of our behaviors. A single conscious action, even one as simple as picking up a glass of water, is the product of many neurotransmitters cascading down an immensely complicated network of neural pathways. The “I” is what we attribute as the principal entity that triggers this massive domino chain reaction. In Hofstadter’s words, “The body’s molecules, whether in the fingers, the arm, the legs, the throat, the tongue, or wherever, obediently follow the supreme bidding of the Grand ‘I’ on high.”

But it is only because we humans cannot see at the level of the fundamental particles in the brain that we believe in the reality of the “I.” In the careenium, there is no primary causal force governing the movement of the simmballs besides the environmental influences that are pushing against the boundaries of the careenium. To be sure, there is a sort of logic that is apparent in the motions of the simmballs; since the simmballs symbolize ideas, their collisions represent ideas triggering other ideas. While it is appropriate to say that the movement of a simmball is precipitated by an idea, it is nevertheless the case that its motion is produced merely in reaction to its collisions with the other simmballs. There is no conscious will that sets the simmballs in motion – just the physics of action and reaction.

By analogy – and here is the critical logical leap that Hofstadter makes – the activity of the human cranium is determined completely by patterns of neurons that fire at one another in response to stimuli in the external world. However, humans understand the output of the brain not in terms of neurotransmitters and neural pathways, but instead in terms of thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The self, according to Hofstadter, is just an epiphenomenon arising out of a complex set of brain activities comprised of symbols that trigger one another. (An epiphenomenon, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does not causally influence a process.”) Yet because we aren’t familiar with human cognition at the level of neurons, we can’t help but interpret the self as a very real causal agent that drives our behavior.

So, in short, patterns of neurons develop a symbol for the self, and this self then appears to direct the movement and activity of the neurons in order to execute its will. But, in Hofstadter’s view, the self is actually just an illusory epiphenomenon, and hence human behavior is a product of mere neuronal firing, not of some causal agent that we posit to exist in our minds, souls, or elsewhere. Hence the self is a strange loop: dense populations of interconnected neurons, by becoming more intricately organized, seem to give rise to a new entity that transcends and regulates the brain itself, but what they create is really nothing more than a particular configuration of brain activities. Though there’s a sense of departing further from “the origin,” the brain ends up exactly where it started.

 

Challenging physicalism

Therefore, we are left with the conclusion that the self is an illusion, based principally on the assumption, known as physicalism, that mental phenomena can be explained entirely by material causes. Hofstadter, as I mentioned earlier, defines the self to be the “locus of causality” that guides all of our behavior, but his purely physicalist outlook commits him to the view that any sort of “I” – any kind of subjective experiencer that stands apart from and beyond the brain – must be nothing more than a false impression. Thus, in order to be consistent with his own philosophy, he must believe that our consciousness is just a hazy mirage, a secondary byproduct arising out of the supposedly more real, physical patterns in the brain. And indeed, Hofstadter writes, “What we know as our own consciousness is, yes, nothing but the physical activity inside a human brain that has lived in the world for a number of years.”

Here is where I disagree with Hofstadter: I do not believe that consciousness – the “I” – is a purely physical phenomenon. I am convinced that our experience, which is more undeniably real than anything else we know, is more than the interactions of neurons inside of our grey matter. The immediate feeling of pain when we burn our fingers, the sight of a breathtaking night sky that leaves us without words, the flutterings of our hearts when we fall in love, and other examples of the raw sensation of experience must transcend the squirting of chemicals in our brains.

This isn’t just a romantic notion; this claim is supported by many hundreds of years of careful philosophical reasoning. But I’ll start with a more modern example. Many of us think that a computer, no matter how intricately organized, can never become conscious of itself or the outer world. So, it also seems unreasonable to believe that an amalgamation of physical, non-conscious, totally inert, completely inanimate neurons, no matter how complexly arranged, could ever have the incredibly rich, vivid inner life that humans seem to possess. A computer is perfectly capable of receiving information, but, we believe, it cannot perceive information. A programmer might feed it data that describes all the quantifiable properties of a wave crashing against the shore, including the decibels of sound that it makes, the force of its impact, the amount of salt it carries, and so on. But the computer has no conception of what it is like to sense any of these qualities: to hear the rumbling of the waves echo through one’s ears, to feel the splash of the water against one’s skin, to smell its saline aroma waft through one’s nose. The physical material in the computer enables the processing and manipulation of data, yet it doesn’t result in any conscious awareness. Furthermore, no matter how sophisticated the computer becomes at handling data, it’s unclear that it will ever become conscious. To borrow the terminology of the philosopher Joseph Levine, there is an “explanatory gap” between physical matter and the sensory aspects of experience.

Perhaps this argument isn’t persuasive to you because you don’t think that computers will ever rival the complexity of the human brain, at least not for the foreseeable future. You may believe that the configuration of matter in the brain, having been refined through billions of years of evolution, is uniquely poised to create conscious awareness. In fact, you may say, we still know so little about the brain that it is simply presumptuous to conclude that consciousness does not originate from matter.

This thought experiment by the philosopher Frank Jackson may be effective at countering your skepticism. Jackson asks us to consider a scientist named Mary who has been confined to a black-and-white room for her entire life. By studying black-and-white images, books, and films, she devotes herself to learning everything that the physical sciences can teach her about color: its range of wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, the various neural pathways that the brain employs to recognize different colors, etc. When she is released out into the world one day, she discovers that she did not, in fact, know everything about color, because she did not understand what it is like for herself to see color. There’s a qualitative aspect of the color red which can only be apprehended through direct experience. And because there are features of the universe that cannot be fully described through physical theory, physicalism is at best an incomplete account of the nature of the world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sums up the argument quite well, in a way that’s very difficult to refute:

Premise 1. Mary (before her release) knows everything physical there is to know about [colors].

Premise 2. Mary (before her release) does not know everything there is to know about [colors] (because she learns something about them on being released).

Conclusion. There are truths about other people (and herself) that escape the physicalist story.

By claiming that consciousness – and by that I mean our qualitative, experiential awareness of ourselves and the world – is not a physical phenomenon, I am excluding one potential answer to the famous, centuries-old “mind-body problem.” The problem has been circulated throughout Western philosophical thought ever since René Descartes declared in the mid-17th century that the mind (or soul) and the physical body are two fundamentally different entities. It essentially posits the question that I have implicitly stated above: how is a physical substrate in the brain (body) capable of producing the subjective experience of sensation (mind)? 

The physicalist will claim that the brain gives rise to the miracle of consciousness through its highly organized network of information, which is more organized than any other collection of matter in the universe. But Jackson’s “Mary the Color Scientist” thought experiment quite effectively captures the fact that not all knowledge is physical; there is some facet of our sensory experience, and therefore the perceptive faculties in our bodies, which is not rooted in anything material.

So, if consciousness isn’t physical, then what exactly is it? Cartesian dualism, the perspective named after Descartes, postulates that the mental – consciousness – has nothing to do with the physical whatsoever. In every human, there is a material substance, the brain, for processing and handling information like a highly sophisticated computer; and another immaterial substance, the mind, which is responsible for creating consciousness. Levine’s explanatory gap, which I mentioned earlier, is more like an unbridgeable chasm: there is simply no way of relating physical matter and the sensory aspects of experience because they belong to categorically different realms of the universe.

Cartesian dualism has fallen out of favor in philosophical circles, and understandably so, because it is impossible to deny the existence of some causal relation between the brain and consciousness. If I were to slice my brain in half, I would immediately lose consciousness. Alzheimer’s patients, who are, arguably, significantly less conscious than mentally normal adults, show significant losses in grey matter as the disease progresses. As far as we can tell, we humans are more conscious than bumblebees simply because our brains are far more sophisticated than theirs. And shifts in consciousness, like those that occur when we faint or take potent recreational drugs (1), usually coincide with fluctuations in brain activity. (2) Many scientists have been able to establish some of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs): the changes that happen to the biochemistry of our brains during altered states of awareness.  But it is very important to emphasize that NCCs are mere correlations and therefore do not – and cannot – account for the nature of the causal relationship between brain and mind. A neuroscientist might be able to describe, in very accurate detail, the changes in brain waves that coincide with sleep, but he will not have explained how a seemingly arbitrary rearrangement of the chemicals in our brains causes a diminished awareness of the world. It makes perfect sense to state that the secretion of melatonin can impact other physical processes, including the activation of certain high-frequency brain waves, but it’s unclear how any of that causally influences my mental, subjective experience. Why should a non-conscious chemical have anything to do with a reduction in my consciousness? (3) (If this line of questioning doesn’t really resonate with you, then imagine snapping a wire in your computer. The computer might become slower, or even shut down, but it’s not going to say “Ow!” or actually feel drowsy in the way that we do.) We are back to the problems with physicalism.

So, it’s obvious that consciousness and the brain are dependent on each other, but not at all how they are dependent, and even the direction of causality is uncertain (do will the brain to sleep, or does my brain will me to sleep?). Nobody really knows the answer to these questions, and many have raised doubt that they can ever be resolved in a meaningful way. These so-called “mysterians” are content with the notion that consciousness will forever remain a mystery to humans. Unless…

 

Beyond mental and physical: a potential solution

So far, we have established that any event we perceive, such as a bee-sting, is manifest to us in two ways: 1) the subjective experience of sensation (e.g. pain) and 2) the corresponding changes in brain activity. In a sense, we can understand these as two different aspects of the same event: the bee-sting. The sting presents itself in a mentally accessible manner and in a way that we can physically understand. Both are essential for providing a full description of the event, yet observing one of the modes in a particular context precludes the opportunity to experience the other. Thus, the aspects are said to be complementary. The physical picture of the event is essentially external to me, the mental one is internal, and it is impossible for me to have access to both of them at the same time, although my understanding of the situation is incomplete without both. I, the person who underwent the bee-sting, cannot look into my brain and analyze the parallel changes that are occurring to my neural circuitry, and a doctor who is examining me doesn’t actually experience my pain (although he can imagine what it’s like, based on his own past). Furthermore, according to this view, the mental aspect is not reducible to the physical aspect or vice versa, nor do the two of them belong to fundamentally separate categories of being. Thus, this theory stands in opposition to the ones that we have considered so far. Here, the physical and the mental are depicted as two opposite sides of the same coin, two complementary perspectives on one and the same, underlying reality, which is neither physical nor mental. Hence the theory is known as dual-aspect monism (monism is the belief that there is only one thing in the universe) (4).

This concept might sound like a total cop-out. It may appear that I have simply avoided the question of the causal relationship between brain and mind by claiming that people interact with only one thing – pain – in two different ways, and the two modes themselves are not related to one another in any fashion. Additionally, I haven’t given any account of the nature of the underlying, monistic reality apart from describing it as the events which present themselves to us through dual aspects. In the words of the mathematician Karl Pearson, it may be better to “directly confess our ignorance” about the relation between consciousness and matter than “to fill the void of ignorance by hypotheses which can neither be proved nor refuted.” He continues, “Thus if we say that thought and motion are the same seen from different sides, we make no real progress in our analysis for we can form no conception whatever as to what the nature in itself of this thing may be.”

Is it possible to find out what this one thing is, which is the same seen from different sides? Well, we might be able to know it conceptually, but it’s very difficult to know it directly or perceptually. When a particular event happens, we cannot, as I have argued in a previous blogpost, know the event in of itself. We can only know it as it is related to us mentally or physically. For instance, I am aware that a bee has stung me because there is a certain exchange of toxins on my skin, which my mind then interprets as a visual image of a bee inserting its stinger into me, followed by a feeling of pain. In other words, I know that the bee-sting has happened to me because my awareness has related the physical effects of the event to the corresponding mental sensation. Without my awareness serving as this crucial bridge, I would have no knowledge of the events happening in the outside world, since they would have no bearing on my internal, subjective state.

Awareness, according to this view, is not some kind of diaphanous, immaterial substance that nevertheless manages to coexist and causally interact with our bodies in a mysterious fashion. It is not a “ghost in the machine,” the term given to Descartes’ depiction of consciousness. Instead, it is the relation between the perceiving subject (the mental) and the objects, or events, that are being perceived (the physical). Critically, the two things that awareness relates to each other are either mental or physical, but awareness itself is neither mental nor physical. This might appear to pose a contradiction, since earlier, we defined awareness to be the same as mental, subjective experience. When I talk about awareness in this particular context, I’m referring to a more primordial level of experience than what is typically involved in the perception of mental phenomena. When I consciously perceive something in my mind, I’m not just experiencing it; rather, I’m experiencing an experience (I made a similar argument in my previous blogpost). When a bee stings me, I become conscious of it by noticing the experience of pain that it has caused me. Since the act of noticing is itself an experience, I am essentially experiencing the experience of pain (see Fig 2). If I experienced the pain without noticing it – if there were an exchange of toxins in my skin that somehow escaped my conscious attention – then it would be as though the pain had never happened to me at all.

Screen Shot 2018-07-27 at 2.57.16 AM

Fig 2. A brain that is experiencing (diagram A) vs. a brain that is experiencing an experience (diagram B). Only the latter is consciously aware of what it is perceiving. Taken from an essay in this book.

I’m making this distinction because, while a mental percept is an experience of an experience, the kind of awareness that is neither mental nor physical – the “one thing” that we are trying to identify – is just experience. To adopt William James’ terminology, it’s pure experience. Pure experience is the immediate relation between mind and object that precedes mental categorization and interpretation. It is pre-verbal, pre-rational intuition. It is the instant jolt of sensation that we perceive before our minds can conceptualize it. In pure experience, there is no such thing as a mind that feels a bee-sting because “mind” and “bee-sting” are labels that we attach to the event after the experience has already occurred. In other words, pure experience is the state in which the perceiving subject and the perceived object have yet to be separated from each other by the mind. It is a state of total unity which is only later divided into its mental and physical aspects, into self and other, and into more dualistic conceptual categories, as William James explains in the passage below:

The paper seen and the seeing of it are only two names for one indivisible fact which, properly named, is the datum, the phenomenon, or the experience. The paper is in the mind and the mind is around the paper, because paper and mind are only two names that are given later to the one experience, when, taken in a larger world of which it forms a part, its connections are traced in different directions. To know immediately, then, or intuitively, is for mental content and object to be identical.

So, to sum up, mind and matter are two different aspects of one thing which is neither mental nor physical, and that one thing is pure experience.

 

Pure experience as the whole of reality

In other words, I’m claiming that everything is pure experience. This might initially seem like a totally bizarre notion. Does that mean that I believe inanimate matter like rocks and electrons have some kind of inner life, a sense of what it is like to be in the world? No, that’s not quite what I’m asserting. I certainly don’t believe that rocks have the remarkably rich and vivid conscious experiences that humans do. Rather, I think that all matter has at least a very basic level of experience. It is impossible for humans to directly understand what it is like to have this elementary kind of awareness, simply because everything that we know in the world is experienced from the viewpoint of our significantly more sophisticated consciousness. At best, we can approach a conceptual understanding of it, which I’m going to try to explain now. (5)

Pure experience, by definition, is the experience that is taking place right now, as opposed to the experience that is consciously processed and labeled afterwards. Thus, pure experience is always occurring in the present moment. And, as I discussed in my first blogpost, every moment is the present moment, so in other words, pure experience is happening all the time.

And indeed, experience is essentially, intrinsically temporal. It is always manifested as an unending stream from one event to another, which thereby implies a before and an after (i.e. past, present, and future). By its very nature, it occurs across time, and never at a particular time. If experience were ever to get stuck at a single instant, it would immediately cease. It is impossible for experience to exist without time. Just think about it.

Yet traditionally, matter is not viewed as essentially temporal. According to the metaphysics of many ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, the most basic units of matter are permanent and fixed, so matter does not evolve with time. Rather, the essence of matter is spatial; it is defined by the block of space that it takes up in the universe. Furthermore, matter is spatially but not temporally divisible. Dividing a physical material by space will cut it into smaller pieces, but dividing it by time will not change it, since it remains the same from one moment to the next. Therefore, as the philosopher David R. Griffin writes, “matter as traditionally conceived … can exist in an ‘instant,’ meaning a slice of space-time with no duration whatsoever.” If matter is purely spatial, and not temporal whatsoever, then it’s very difficult for us to imagine that it could possibly have some sort of experience.

However, as I mentioned in last January’s blogpost, contemporary science has verified that the most fundamental particles of the physical universe are undergoing perpetual, internal change. Particles like bosons have a mean lifetime of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second, before they turn into other types of particles. In other words, matter is constantly engaged in the process of internally becoming something else. Therefore, being is becoming. A certain physical substance doesn’t have an identity at a particular instant because, at every given moment, it is in the course of transitioning from one form to another. Even at the macro-level, where the objects of our perception appear to be totally stable, permanence is just an illusion of timescale, as Nietzsche once argued. If we sped up time, we’d realize that a thousand-year-old tree is better described as a process that is currently evolving from a seed to decayed bark. Even once it becomes bark, it will still be rearranging into something new. Thus, although matter obviously does occupy space in the universe, its essence is deeply temporal; it lies in the act of changing over time between different states, not in the states that it changes into.

According to this view, first proposed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, we arrive at the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that matter is not a substance but rather an event. Matter, at every moment, is an interior change.  Change implies duration rather than stillness. At any given instant, matter is not a still point in space and time; the notion of a “frozen snapshot” is a mental abstraction that occurs only once the instant has already passed away. Rather, each moment is an infinitesimally brief duration in which matter is changing from the inside. In other words, matter has an internal duration at every moment. And furthermore, as Griffin notes, “We have no way to conceive of this internal duration except by analogy with the duration we know in our own experience.” If a stream of experience is at its most basic level the conception of one event passing into another, then matter does have a stream of experience because it is the act of passing, of having a duration. Thus, because matter is temporal, it has an (extremely rudimentary level of) experience.

It might be very difficult for you to wrap your head around this idea, and even I am reluctant to fully embrace it, perhaps because it’s so counter to everything that we think we know about the universe. It’s the sort of concept that appeals to pre-rational intuition. Let it sit with you for a while, and perhaps it might make sense.

 

Strange loop redux

We are still left with a big question: how does consciousness arise out of a primitive level of experience? Are rocks more conscious than electrons because they are larger aggregates of matter? According to Whitehead, no. Higher-level experience emerges only from very particular arrangements of matter. Organic cells, animals, and humans have progressively more complex degrees of organization that gives rise to richer and more intense conscious experiences. Thus, while the origins of experience are a philosophical question, the creation of human consciousness is actually a scientific issue. Which biological structures have the right patterns to produce consciousness, and why? Scientifically, what exactly happened during the evolution of biological life that gave birth to the miracle of inner, mental life? This is a mystery, and I predict that it will stay that way for a very long time. I can’t tell you how consciousness depends on the brain, but I do postulate that consciousness is derived from a very basic kind of experience that exists in the universe independently of the human brain.

However, it does bring me back to the topic that I started with: evolution. Evolution progressed in such a way that it created more and more sophisticated arrangements of animate patterns of matter, or the building blocks of life. Some of the more advanced arrangements included cognizing animal brains, but their intellect was constrained mostly to making simple decisions about indulging their primal needs and maximizing their survival in competitive environments. By far, however, the pinnacle of evolution is the human brain, which not only has a much broader and more profound level of experience but also has the ability to think deeply about its own experience. As Hofstadter noted, our conception of “I” is a vast and extensible network of symbols; we have very elaborate mental images and stories that are associated not just with our names, our occupations, and other mundane details, but also with our insecurities, our principles, our value and worth as human beings, etc. Over history, certain philosophers and monks, contemplating their own experience in novel ways, have noticed that none of these identifications and labels are effective at capturing the full reality of who we are. They discovered that our essence lies in our awareness, or the felt presence of what it is like to be here and now. It is most fully realized by shifting our attention to the immediate aspects of sensory experience and away from the mind’s subsequent efforts to conceptualize or judge them. This condition of “pure experience” is a pre-rational state in which no thought occurs, but it takes tremendous cognitive ability to intellectually conceive of it and then consciously realize it. Electrons participate in pure experience, since it’s an inherent feature of the universe, but they obviously don’t have any awareness of this fact. In other words, evolution has advanced to the point where its greatest outcome – the human being – has enough cognitive power to become consciously aware of a state that precedes cognition. So, evolution is a strange loop.

And you may have noticed that this essay is a strange loop too.

 


(1) The incredibly strong effects of psychedelic drugs on the conscious states of their users have mystified scientists ever since they became prevalent in the 20th century. Many DMT users, for instance, report remarkably similar out-of-body experiences, usually involving contact with some form of higher intelligence, and expanded states of awareness in which their consciousnesses are extended across space and time, culminating in a feeling of cosmic oneness with the universe. It’s very tempting to extrapolate from these stories and claim that consciousness exists beyond the body, but we need to be careful of making positive statements about the nature of reality based on experiences involving drugs. It’s possible that something entirely mundane is happening in our brains when we take DMT, but it’s also hard not to feel a sense of awe and wonder at the profound secrets that human consciousness may have to offer.

(2) Even Descartes could not deny some sort of interaction between mind and body. He believed that the union of these two entities was a miraculous product of divine intervention; he wrote in his Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion, “I believe that God has united my mind to my body so that in consequence of this union my mind and my body can act reciprocally upon one another, in virtue of the natural laws which God always follows very closely.”

(3) My line of argument here begs deeper questions about the nature of causality. I hope to discuss this in a later blogpost.

(4) The way that I describe dual-aspect monism makes it sound more like one of its close cousins, neutral monism. However, I think that the term “dual-aspect monism” more effectively captures the complementarity of the mental and physical aspects inherent in all experience.

 

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