Life as Singularity

by rsbakker

I’ve had a couple of quite different quotes rattling about in my bean of late, the first hailing from about 150 years ago:

“I do not hesitate to maintain, that what we are conscious of is constructed out of what we are not conscious of–that our whole knowledge, in fact, is made up of the unknown and incognisable.” Sir William Hamilton, Lectures on Metaphysics, p. 348, 1865

And a second from 1999:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to experience a subjective sense of reality. By its nature, consciousness conveys a sense of what is real now as well as what was real in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.” George P. Prigatano, “Disorders of Behavior and Self-awareness.”

I often marvel thinking about the first simply because of the degree to which subsequent social and cognitive psychological research has borne out what must have seemed a mad claim in the 19th century. The second struck me both because of its pragmatic nature–to discuss problems of awareness you need to at least provisionally define what awareness means–and because of the way it makes no damned sense whatsoever, even though it makes all the sense in the world.

Since “experience a subjective sense of reality” means to be conscious of the world, we can rewrite it as:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, consciousness conveys a sense of what is real now as well as what was real in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.”

Since the ‘real’ refers to what lies beyond consciousness, and since ‘sense’ means to be conscious of, “consciousness conveys a sense of what is real” can be rephrased as “consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness,” allowing us to rewrite the passage as:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, [consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness] now as well as what [exceeds consciousness] in the past. It provides a sense of contiguity for the self and thereby mediates how individuals perceive and deal with the external world.”

Extending this logic of substitution to the last sentence yields:

“Human consciousness appears to be an emergent brain function that permits an individual to [be conscious of the world]. By its nature, [consciousness conveys a consciousness of what exceeds consciousness] now as well as what [exceeded consciousness] in the past. It provides a [consciousness] of contiguity [of consciousness] and thereby mediates how individuals [are conscious of] and deal with [what exceeds consciousness].”

Which is to say, a definition that really doesn’t define that much at all. In fact, it brings to mind another old favourite quote of mine regarding the ‘one-dimensionality of experience,’ how “experience is experience, only experience, and nothing but experience” (Floridi, The Philosophy of Information, 296, 2011). It demonstrates, in other words, the way consciousness seems to only have consciousness to go on. In a sense, this is ‘what is it likeness’ in a nutshell, the apparent inability to explicate the experience of experience short of referencing more experience. It’s important to understand how profound a limitation this is, and how it almost certainly generates profound distortions and illusions as a result.

A good part of BBT can be read as an attempt to naturalistically explain this bewildering characteristic of conscious experience, the fact that it possesses the strange Klein bottle structure that it does. What Hamilton is referring to is consciousness as component, the consciousness that you actually have, where each moment of consciousness possesses vectors of functionality completely orthogonal to what you can become ‘conscious of.’ What Prigatano is referring to is consciousness as metacognized, what consciousness becomes when understood through the lens of itself–the only lens that it has. Information that doesn’t make it to consciousness does not exist for consciousness, which has the effect of rendering consciousness everything that there is, both inside and outside. So what Hamilton is referring to is the outside that lies outside the inside/outside dichotomy. And what Prigatano is referring to is simply everything, as far as consciousness is concerned.

Thus the powerful and pervasive cognitive illusion that I’ve been calling ‘noocentrism.’ Noocentrism can be seen as an inevitable consequence of this latter consciousness, the one everyone thinks needs to be explained even though it doesn’t exist. Consciousness only has itself to credit when attempting to access the origins of whatever flits through its lens. Even though they do all the lifting, Hamilton’s orthogonal vectors of functionality simply do not exist. So consciousness credits itself, makes itself central to its own happening. And herein lies the dilemma for the human species: we’ve raised our entire self-understanding, all that is supposed ‘human,’ upon what is almost certainly a metacognitive illusion.

What does it mean to be something ‘unthinkable’?