Saturday, November 17, 2012

In the Dark About the Only Light We Have

In the past month or so I've developed a new pet peeve, one which can make me grit my teeth. I've noticed how often some variation on the phrase "we're hard wired to," gets said among the mid-high brow folks in the media. I've yet to start counting but my sense is that I'm hearing or reading it at least once a day in some form of media communication. That communication can turn a metaphor into a deeply entrenched habit of thought that becomes an effective and possibly damaging basis for actions.

The idea that we are "wired" is to reduce an incompressible  phenomenon, our consciousness, our perception, our thought and our analyses into something that we believe we do understand, the computer. With that comes the comfort of believing we have a handle on something in service to the professional interests of the people who start off that chain of reductionist credulity. It's sustained by the desire of time-pressed and rather superficial academic and media scribblers to give their utterances a false caché of what they take to be cutting edge and exciting science. From there it goes on to be an unconsidered fashion accessory of superficial thought.

The idea that we are machines has become so widely believed and entrenched in what passes as the intelligentsia, that pointing out that the metaphorical and ideological substance of the phrase isn't backed up by anything but an ideological interpretation of extremely fuzzy science will get a pretty strong reaction.

The fact is that no one has anymore an idea of what consciousness is than they do what time is. Anyone who has tried to wade through the philosophical attempt to deal with time will inevitably confront the fact of the incomprehensibility of our consciousness, of the reality that the most basic of our our realities is undefinable and incomprehensible.

There is no reality that isn't intrinsically bound up with consciousness, "reality" is the word we use for what our consciousness perceives and understands. Time, in the only way it can have meaning to us, would seem to be intrinsically tied up with those problems but what we're doing is trying to conceive of the undefinable with something we don't know enough to even come up with the rules for doing that. We don't know how we know or what it means to know, we don't even know what it means to construct the product of our perception to create the limited image of the universe available to people. And we do construct the aspects of our sensory perceptions that we think about. Our thoughts are made by us.

I believe it was Richard Lewontin who speculated that for whatever consciousness which bacteria could have, gravity is essentially nonexistent, Brownian motion being entirely relevant to them in its place. Of course, that's all speculation. Though the idea that our perception of the universe and our place in it rules our most basic thinking about it seems to me to be the most sensible of statements. How a bacterium perceives the universe and its place in it is unavailable to us in any real way, but we can imagine how such an alien consciousness, so limited to its peculiar situation, would concieve of its existence in its habitat.* Perhaps that habit of thinking, the belief that our thinking about something like bacterial consciousness is understandable, is what's at work when we think about our own consciousness.

Computer science gives us some intellectual hold on the functioning of machine processing - which is no huge surprise since it was invented by computer science - which we use to organize and sift enormous amounts of information at great speed. The results of it, presented to our senses, seems like a form of consciousness and we are duped by that despite our knowing that human beings have done whatever was done. It tricks even some very bright people into pretending they don't know that it's a machine set into motion by very fast and very efficient but basically inert mechanics, prevented from doing some things and made to do some things by our mechanical and logical ingenuity. It doesn't reflect anything about whatever process consciousness is, about which we know nothing other than that it's there, without which no other aspect of existence is known, without which we don't exist. And we have no knowledge of what it is and where it comes from. Unlike the computer, our consciousness was not made by us to our specifications. Neither it's schematics nor its operational manual is available to us, we don't even know if it is linear or random or incomprehensibly unlimited in its ability. We don't even know if the analogies of schematics and operations are relevant to whatever consciousness is. We do know that our rational processing of information and even our most basic perception we use to think about such things is limited and that our metaphors really aren't identical to what they are used to describe.

The number of people who have an emotional reaction to pointing out that, whereas the machine is known to be he result of physical processes and phenomena brought out through our intentional design, is suggestive of a habit of our thinking, in itself. The fact is we don't have any real knowledge of any actual analog of consciousness in the physical world. The vehemence of that emotional reaction leads me to conclude that it's got motives apart from the mere defense of a scientific position, which the "hard wired" one really isn't. At its foundations and throughout its use, it's an assertion of dogmatic materialism.

Feminism, daily and inevitably, confronts entrenched ways of thought based in the selective and self-interested view of reality on behalf of men, obviously there but almost entirely unacknowledged. Most of it happens on the same, barely thought, level that "everyone knows we are hard wired" holds in our lives.

That ur-level view defines women as being less than and other than men and that, by nature, men are the default form of humanity, if not all of life which has gender. The denial of that orthodoxy causes an extremely emotional reaction which will grasp at any straw to deny women their person hood, their intellectual integrity, their most sacred rights as a human being. And what is thought and said about and done to women can be done to any other group of people whose intrinsic rights are ignored or denied. It is what allows the obnoxious banter of the "Market Place Report" about matters that dole out death to the many and even the biosphere to be so horrifically peppy.

Taking in a panoramic view of the reductionist ideology in scientific (and in a related way, non-scientific) thought and their resultant declarations, what that ideology frequently says about women is, I believe, intrinsically related to the idea that we are machines made of meat, meat which happens to come in two varieties, based in gender. The assertion is that women are "hard wired" differently than the way men are. Instead of being a light that illuminates an infinitely more complex reality of human beings it reduces us to a lower status than is ours by right. That reduction is an opaque cover for an ideology that reduces everything to the status of inert matter. And it reduces some more than others.

I believe the way out of that is to admit the unknowability of our consciousness, about what we really are. I believe the way out of that is to fearlessly assert that we are more than objects, that we are all more than objects with a higher status than the merely physical world our limited reason defines. We are undefinable and ineffable and our experience and human history shows us more than physics or mathematics or any other science is competent to tell us what the results of our collective, experienced life mean. History proves that the results of reducing any or all people to the same category of objects leads to them being considered in terms of commerce and use and exploitation. We must demand that people be treated better than that and there is no scientific method that can find the basis of that assertion. Our human experience can't make the connection between the subatomic structure of matter and our total experience of human beings living in a community and on the Earth. We have to find the basis of a decent life elsewhere.

The level of our conscious experience is not negligible or ignorable. The convenient and professionally and ideologically opportunistic reduction of it doesn't change that it is the real, effective higher level of existence that we actually live is that by which everything we know of the lower levels of matter is known. All of that is known only by an analogy and extension of our earliest, inarticulate, conscious experience, it literally can't escape that dependence on the humblest and simplest facts of that experience. All things we talk about are only inferential, in all their impressiveness.

* A niche is, in a fundamental way, created by the organism, the organism creates the niche. But I won't go into that today.

Note, also, that as far as we conceive of them being removed from us and our experience, a bacterium shares a lot with us, living on the same planet, having a physical existence in the same way we do. Any attempt to conceive of a conscious life even farther removed from that would completely exhaust our attempts at imagination.

First posted in slightly different form at Echidne of the Snakes, May 21, 2011


  1. Apologies To Archie:

    Once I was a bacterium
    in Cleopatra's armpit--

    That was an interesting
    woman to live with

    (like being downstairs from an endless
    tragic nightclub sports-arena!)

    She had ordered a bath
    with an asp to go
    when I and several hundred thousand of us
    were gently carried off
    in a cozy rose-soapy flood
    into a river of richer scents

    and at last we could sleep
    without plots and terror and rages
    or too much of that fun
    cats and primates make such a fuss about!

    While we missed the nightly news
    of what was happening in Egypt
    there were crocodiles and fish and hippos
    with their own stories going on.

    [me, 2009]

  2. "...
    I'm making fun of some very smart people here. If I wanted to design a machine for the purpose of mimicking human behavior, some of their ideas might be very close to how it should be done. So far as we can tell, it seems to be the way Nature does it!

    "What I find bizarre about this is that people have constructed an elaborate, well-reasoned, even creative explanation for human consciousness... that ignores their most fundamental data: the fact that they experience themselves as conscious..."