Steam of Consciousness

My current read is Ten Sigma by A W Wang, another new author with only one published book. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m enjoying the journey.

A review to follow in due course. The premise of what I’ve read so far is not unique, but certainly very rare in science fiction.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away – it’s right there in the blurb – but the central character is transformed into a computer consciousness, and set to work with many others to fight for their country.

Remarkably prescient, in my opinion, in these days of drones and cyberwarfare.

During the twilight of America, Mary, a married stay-at-home bookworm, is dying of incurable cancer. One wintry night, a mysterious scientist visits. He offers to nullify her enormous medical bills in exchange for transferring her consciousness into a virtual environment as part of a secret military program called Ten Sigma.

I like the writing and the story-telling. Good solid stuff, and it’s worth noting that the author shares billing with their editor, and in a blog post celebrating the launch mentions the various people and beta-readers who have helped. One of the images in the alas-too-sparse blog features The Chicago Manual of Style, an honoured reference amongst writers. So you know the writing is likely to be a cut above the average indie effort.

But that’s not why I’m here. I disagree, and disagree most strenuously with the book’s central premise: that one’s consciousness may be captured and stored in a computer system of some kind.

Consciousness is something we all know intimately. But science has not yet come up with a definitive model. There’s a guaranteed Nobel Prize for the person who works it out first. The mind-body problem is one that has been puzzling humanity for thousands of years.

My own view begins with the brain. Here is the repository of memory, the apparatus we use to perceive the outside world and our own interior thoughts, the computer we use for making decisions, the largely automatic central authority we entrust with routine matters such as breathing, walking, talking and so on.

If we want to do something well, such as play the piano or ride a bike or speak a language, we put it into the “muscle memory” of the brain. Only when we stop thinking about a skill step by painful step do we become really good at it. A musician doesn’t play by thinking about each upcoming note and puzzling it out from the cryptic notations on the score. It happens without conscious thought as the eyes read the music and the hands and fingers move over the instrument.

If a musician is consciously thinking about their music, it comes out as stilted and false.

The physical body, including the brain, is where our personality, our appearance, our memories, and our skills reside. It is what we consider when we contemplate the differences between ourselves and another human being.

But consciousness – the moment to moment awareness we all experience – is, at least to my mind, not something physical at all. It is not something we can put our hands on or measure. Sure, we can measure the workings of our brain. This-bit-lights-up-when-I-think-about-bicycles sort of thing. But our conscious identity is as transient and untouchable as a moonbeam.

We decide to pick up a glass of root beer and take a swig. But what translates the thoughtstuff of our desire into the physical actions of arm and hands and mouth? How does the immaterial thought set the neurones alight?

There’s a famous experiment showing that the brain makes decisions before we do. By looking at brain activity and comparing that to the time of the decision, it is clear that there is a delay. When asked to select one of two buttons to press, brain activity showed which button had been selected before the subject was even aware of making a decision.

This counter-intuitive experiment demonstrates that our thought model is divided into two aspects: the physical realm of brain activity, and the subtle realm of perception, or consciousness.

In other words, consciousness has no part of thinking. It merely observes. It is what we are doing: looking on as the brain processes and handles stimuli. Maybe it’s a noise outside, maybe it’s a memory of a kiss. But our consciousness has nothing to do with either beyond sitting back and watching.

Life is a movie we have no control over, in other words. We observe the decisions and thoughts of our brain, but the notion that we have any part of them is an illusion. The experimental subject reports the time the decision is made, but the brain made the decision before that point.

Sure, the brain does lots of things. Even when we are asleep, it is full of activity, making sure that the lungs and the heart keep working, monitoring digestion, moving the extremities, doing whatever interior movie-making it is that makes dreams.

But our consciousness isn’t part of that. It is part of the universe, for sure, because we can experience it and know that it has a reality. But it is part of the universe.

There’s a word game one can play. The universe is conscious, because we are conscious and we are part of the universe. I say that it is not seven billion human consciousnesses, and an infinite number of those that have been and those that are yet to come of humans and other creatures in every far corner of the universe.

I say that consciousness is singular. Like gravity.

Yes, we can make maps of gravity. It may be measured in depth and direction. It flows down to the centre of the earth until we get most of the way to the moon, and then it flips around. We may chart the moving, three dimensional vectors, at least until we get to the boundaries of black holes, and it’s all “here be monsters” after that point.

And we can make similar maps of consciousness. Lots of it in the big cities, not so much in outer space, and whatever consciousness the moon has, it’s not something we can relate to.

Consciousness, I say, is the movie screen that perception plays upon. We experience it as an individual process, because all of our perceptions come from within. A noise is transmitted through the ears, and if low enough, through the body, and is then processed in the brain. Likewise the light rays that impact our retinas are turned into neuronic impulses and dealt with by our brain. If a memory bubbles up, it comes from the brain and is handled by the brain.

Every sensory perception is filtered through our sense organs and our thinking apparatus. We might be a disembodied consciousness made of nothing that we can get a handle on, but everything perceived comes from one particular embodiment, so of course we see ourselves as distinct personalities.

I subscribe to the Eastern tradition, underscored with a neo-Platonist view of the universe. We are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, and so on.

We are consciousness alone.

And consciousness is not something that we generate out of our minds. Where and how, I ask. Nobody can tell me where in the brain it happens. I say it is inherent in the fabric of the universe.

So I reject the central core of this particular novel. This doesn’t mean I cannot suspend disbelief and enjoy a good story well told. After all, I adore Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter books, and they are full of the most unlikely fantasy.

And this is not to say that I cannot swallow some elements. If there were a way to scan a brain, gather together all the memories, the habits, the skills, the intelligence, then why couldn’t one sit that on a computer, feed in perceptions including images and sounds of other people, and have the same effect of consciousness?

In my model of the mind, the effect would be exactly the same.

Right. Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’m off to read the rest of the book. Expect a review in a day or so.


philosophy, reading, review, science ,

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