Having hunted through the tons of files in my computer as I sometimes do, I seem to have addressed the issue of ‘consciousness’ many times for one purpose or another. My renewed enthusiasm for pursuing the subject of ‘consciousness’ has been stimulated by finding the writing of haiku dumbed down by the popularity in some circles of a book by Richard Gilbert called Poems of Consciousness which presents the idea that haiku are ‘literary constructs’ (as opposed to what I call ‘Zen constructs’) which leaves people free to write any old twaddle using words plucked out of common or garden ‘consciousness’ instead of becoming reasonably adept at a non-dual (Zen) way of thinking before they ever think of putting pen to paper with a progressively renovated state of mind, focussing on the immediacy of the moment. Here’s what I think of as a rubbish ‘literary construct’ hycoo of which R Gilbert thinks quite highly:-
cherry blossoms fall –
you too must become
At the beginning of his book as I recall (I binned it!) Gilbert says he will define ‘consciousness’ but he never does. It’s obvious that haiku come from some kind of human ‘consciousness’ – they could hardly come from anywhere else – the question is: What kind of consciousness? Zen non-dual consciousness or ordinary shopping list consciousness? Left Brain or Right Brain consciousness? ‘Phenomenal consciousness’ (often referred to in the smart neuroscientific texts as P-C), or ‘Access consciousness’ (often referred to in the same places as A-C)? And so on. The problem is that those poem writers with short attention spans will only have read the title of Gilbert’s book and taken it for granted that if they call something they’ve consciously thought up, possibly with great care and attention, a ‘haiku’ then that’s what it is, without question.
There’s two quite different views of the way consciousness can function then!
Bashō, representing the Zen concept of non-dualism said: ‘When composing a haiku let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy… Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and you do not learn…’
I much prefer to follow Bashō, the master, than R Gilbert, the empire-builder. …‘becoming a hippo’ is a thought that emerges from the writer’s spending time in Left Brain, imposing a silly idea, totally at variance from the first line of the hycoo, indulging in ‘subjective preoccupation’ with self.
In any case, leaving the haiku issue behind, when addressing the subject of consciousness ‘…quick and simple answers are not to be expected when we are trying to understand the product of millions of years of biological evolution, many thousands of years of cultural development, and many days months and years of individual development and learning…’ asserts Aaron Sloman who spends some time explaining that consciousness is a polymorphous concept: you can’t tell anything about what it denotes unless you have additional information. It cannot be taken for granted that when we use the word ‘consciousness’ we all mean the same thing: it might be to do with split second immediacy in Zen or a something-or-other that attempts to span many years, contemplatively perhaps.
As a result of the conversation that developed from my Glob ‘Momentary Enthusiasms’, dated 18th August 2021, I chose to re-read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained to come to terms with his notion of Multiple Drafts once again. I had also just finished re-reading Colin Wilson’s splendid Voyage to a Beginning where I found his version of the way consciousness works and, as is my wont, something deeply embedded in my consciousness as a template for representing ideas visually, converted a couple of pages or so into this diagram which maybe neatly draws a distinction between ordinary awareness and what could be called ‘consciousness:-
In tick-tock time, along which the vertical line moves as a constant up & down possibility, not necessarily acknowledged, we have an unexamined awareness that things are going on around us and that when the mood strikes us we are making some sort of relatively feeble contribution to the way the universe operates; it’s hardly worth the label ‘consciousness’ unless we suddenly notice that it’s happening. Then if we’re smart enough off the mark, and know that it’s possible, we can raise ourselves up to a higher state of Capital C Consciousness; this can have an effect on ordinary awareness; we can be up at the top of the vertical more often when we adopt the habit of acknowledging our higher sense of Being: ‘This is me being me here and now…’ seems to work as a starter – it’s Gurdjieff’s concept of ‘self-remembering’.
Then I got some way into Dennett’s pretentiously titled Consciousness Explained, with all its irrelevant analogical straying into computer-country, and found that quite a few pages in, amongst a lot of superfluity, his drift could be summed up systemically thus:-
The system suggests to me that ‘consciousness’ (which is only a ‘thing’ because language creates the impression that it so) is in fact an emergent property from a lot of events happening round and inside us. Dennett explodes what he calls the ‘Cartesian Theatre’ by pointing out that we are not a docile audience watching action on a stage, senses attuned to something going on out there, watching a static picture of an assumed reality, but participants in an interpretative feedback system: we obviously see/hear/feel things before our very eyes but we are active in making sense of it all and pushing it through pre-existing modes of apprehension.
It seems that a popular way of making sense of this is to talk about ‘Phenomenal consciousness’ (P-C), or ‘Access consciousness’ (A-C): being aware of various phenomena in the ‘real world’ and then manipulating the upshot in various more or less spooky ways.
Some pages later Dennett elaborates the initial system into something a bit more complex and introduces the concept of ‘Multiple Drafts’ – many different temporary concurrent versions of actions & points of view that could be called ‘consciousness’. (Incidentally, I found something relevant I’d made a note of some time ago out of a book by Ken Wilber (recorded later in this Glob) where he points out that it is a mistake to regard ‘consciousness’ as a noun or static thing; rather we should think of it as a verb, a doing word – it’s an activity we engage in, a reconstruction of what we might think of as ‘being in the world’…) Anyway, here’s how I diagrammed Dennett’s rather tortuous pages:-
The ‘draft’ we work with at any one time can affect the viewpoints we adopt in future; it’s a constantly changing set-up: we write the script, arrange the scenery and direct what happens. In summary, we’re wrapped in a feedback system.
To come to terms with this model experientially I thought I’d look at the somewhat traumatic event I referred to in my previous Glob about the ‘witch’ who accused me of ringing her doorbell. I repeat myself.
I was standing innocently outside a shop that sold Meccano and similar upmarket toys, looking in the picture window, fascinated, waiting for my mother who’d been off somewhere, shopping I dare say, when a woman who seemed like a witch grabbed me by the arm and dragged me through the door of her flat above the shop round the side. Still holding me she bellowed upstairs, “Have you heard the bell ring?” The answer came down from a shadowy figure of what was probably another witch, “NO!” but she persisted in accusing me, cowering in a corner, of ringing her bell with such vigour, that I began to wish I had done so. Adults were not at all trustworthy. A moment of terror and imprisonment.
Going round the system, to start with I recall a range of P-C stimuli: the sight of the contents of the shop window which fascinated me, the sound of the passing traffic, the feeling of contentment – that my mother would turn up soon, that I might sometime in the future possess at least some of the things in the window. That’s a series of ‘drafts’ long after the event but gathered from being in it after getting there down my time-line. The moment was shattered by the arrival of the ‘witch’ – to describe her thus is an addition to my recollection of the event because I don’t think I constructed her like that then – it’s a decoration, a response perhaps from a (simplified) model of evil in my mental repertoire now – another ‘draft’ modifying the event in recall. Same with the person I called a witch upstairs.
I have no doubt edited the bits of the event itself: the words I chose to describe it now make it more ordered than it ever was; in eighty years I have developed a facility with language that I never then possessed – then it was just a seamless flow of things happening to me. But subsequent refinements in the way I construct the world, right or wrong, give the event an apparent clarity it didn’t possess at the time. Another ‘draft’. Other later brushes with human beings come into play and the very likely different response from the one I imagine I made in earlier days! Draft n.
I’ve put the event into a more or less coherent narrative form and am now able to recognise at least some of the multiple drafts, revisions of ‘consciousness’, involved which, in turn, have affected the way I construct contretemps with fellow-beings ever since which in turn influence the stimuli or phenomena I pick up and respond to in future. It’s a feedback system.
And now I wonder whether the ‘multiple drafts’ might not find their origin in Multiple-I’s. What if there is never a single unified consciousness but as many consciousnesses as there are Multiple-I’s? Rather than multiple ‘consciousnesses’ perhaps it boils down to many different ways of arriving at an internal construction of the way the universe might be.
Standing-innocently-by-a-shop-window-I (conscious draft 1)
Coveting-the-contents-of-the-window-I (conscious draft 2)
Waiting-for-my-mother-to-turn-up (conscious draft 3)
Being-grabbed-by-the-woman-who-came-to-be-called-witch-I (conscious draft 4)
Being-physically-assaulted-I (conscious draft 5)
Being-in-a-dark-stairwell-I (conscious draft 6)
Hearing-the-loud-voices-of-the-stairwell’s-owners-I (conscious draft 7)
Wondering-what-was-going-to-happen-next-I (conscious draft 8)
Feeling-terror-&-imprisonment-I (conscious draft 9)
Adopting-an-attitude-of-mistrust-of-adults-I (conscious draft 10)
Being-slightly-disappointed-with-my-mother’s-lack-of-response-I (conscious draft 11)
And so on… Multiple constructions. As Dennett is rightly at pains to point out all these ‘drafts’ occur in split seconds and run variously together at the same time and subsequently in memory as modified, decorated, edited, simplified, during intervening experience.
That’s a temporary ‘draft’ of my conscious experience since the previous Glob. I could do it all differently.
For further contemplation here’s something I wrote June 2013 for some purpose long forgotten… Another ‘draft’…
WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS?
There is this word ‘consciousness’, just one among so many that we imagine we know the meaning of; so many we all use in the belief that they really do signify something. It’s true that words do always signify something but unless you are a medieval realist philosopher you can’t possibly believe that words are identical with the things they are supposed to refer to; so ‘consciousness’ and whatever we imagine it to mean or be connected with it in some way are never one and the same thing; it of course makes it simpler to deal with experience in a short-hand kind of way, supposing that my awareness of words appearing on the screen now as a result of fingers dashing around on the keyboard in front of me is something that happens ‘in consciousness’ but what does that mean?
As the great Professor Joad would have said, “It all depends on what you mean by ‘consciousness’…”
The word ‘consciousness’ interposes itself between the action of seeing/hearing/feeling and the construction of events that happens as a result of that action; ‘consciousness’ is an unnecessary label that gets attached when (do it now!) you grasp your self in the act of being aware with all the senses of the world around you.
On this invented abstraction a huge amount of explanatory verbiage has been expended and neuro-scientists and mind philosophers bust a gut in a vain attempt to concoct theories about how electro-chemical impulses in the brain get converted into ‘conscious awareness’. How does purely material activity convert into intangible thinking or spiritualising? The notorious Binding Problem. At what point in the process does this happen?
The fashionable materialistic tendency in philosophy, with strong neuro-scientific backup, is that, at some distant time in the future, mind and therefore ‘consciousness’ will be understood in terms of purely physical processes. Some direct causal link will be established once and for all between synaptic firings and what causes what we now call ‘consciousness’ to have you act in a particular way. Since there will then be no gap between neuron activity and observable behaviour, the word ‘consciousness’ will be superfluous.
This happy simplification of the description of the connection between brain & brawn is sometime in the future but its optimistic supporters take it that just the words ‘there will then be no gap between neuron activity and observable behaviour’ somehow (magically perhaps) guarantee the connection already. If philosophy is about believing in magic or what is fashionable then we need go no further.
However, assuming that sometime or the other ‘consciousness’ will be understood in terms of purely physical processes leaves intact the long history of questions posed by philosophers in the past.
For instance, will the scientific connection prove beyond a shadow of doubt that I am not just dreaming all this? Feeling, smelling, tasting, hearing the sound of the keyboard as I attack it – these things seem to tell me that I am consciously here with all this activity going on just for me. But my senses are sometimes mistaken – how do I know I’m not mistaken now? How do I know that this is not part of a long dream? After all, although there is perhaps not quite the same sense of ‘presence’, my dreams are often just as vivid as waking life. But how do I know that ‘presence’ is not just an integral part of this long dream of life?
Experience seems to depend on the successful alerting of the senses which depend on brain processes – how do we know that we are not just being prodded in the brain by some transcendental neuroscientist to make us behave in ways that please the Master? Maybe the puppet-master in the sky operates us; maybe we really are the proles in a Matrix-type film…
Things are not always what they seem to be; how can we ever assert that things really are just as they seem to be on the evidence of our senses? It’s not necessarily the case that we can’t know anything; everything we say and do is predicated on the assumption that we know what we’re talking about. Do we?
Unless you are a sceptic (person who systematically challenges everything: “I maybe sitting at the computer copying out something I wrote with a fountain pen one cloudy afternoon in July 2011 or it might be a hallucination…), your response to this question will probably depend on common sense which tells us that though it’s always possible that we are mistaken we can always go back to square one and correct impressions that turn out to be mistaken. In this way our knowledge of ‘Reality’ is a gradual approximation to ‘things as they really are…’ (or might be…)
There’s certainly a gap between appearances and what we like to think of as ‘reality’.
Since the senses can always be mistaken, there has to be something else that can help to convince us that things are more straightforward than the mental morass into which this kind of thinking can lead. ‘It stands to reason that it can’t be as complicated as that…’ That’s what a rationalist might say: the certainty of knowledge comes from our being able to separate ourselves from the evidence of the senses and make a reasonable assessment of things.
We do have a certain something-or-other we call consciousness. What tells us we have ‘consciousness’? Why, consciousness itself!
It’s there – we take it for granted like a frog in water – and the proof of it is in the way it somehow captures ‘things out there’ – grey cloud sinking down into the west followed by a clear blue evening sky; silver birch leaves quite still in the gathering windless darkness – words spun out of consciousness.
This thing called ‘consciousness’ is always set against the vast outside. Walt Whitman does the cataloguing of what consciousness might contain so well. The great sweep of potential in huge rhetorical gestures.
What climes? what persons and cities are here?
Who are the infants, some playing, some slumbering?
Who are the girls? who are the married women?
Who are the groups of old men going slowly with their arms about each other’s necks?
What rivers are these? what forests and fruits are these?
What are the mountains call’d that rise so high in the mists?
What myriads of dwellings are they fill’d with dwellers?
Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens,
Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east – America is provided for in the west,
Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator,
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends,
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it does not set for months,
Stretch’d in due time within me the midnight sun just rise above the horizon and sinks again,
Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands.
What do you hear Walt Whitman?
I hear the workman singing and the farmer’s wife singing,
I hear in the distance the sounds of children and of animals early in the day,
I hear emulous shouts of Australians pursuing the wild horse
I hear the Spanish dance with castanets in the chestnut shade to the rebeck and guitar,
I hear continual echoes from the Thames,
I hear fierce French liberty songs,
I hear of the Italian boat-sculler the musical recitative of old poems,
I hear the locusts in Syria as they strike the grain and grass with the showers of their terrible clouds,
I hear the Coptic refrain toward sundown, pensively falling on the breast of the black venerable vast mother the Nile,
I hear the chirp of the Mexican muleteer, and the bells of the mule,
I hear the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque
I hear the Christian priests at the altars of their churches, I hear the responsive base and soprano,
I hear the cry of the Cossack, and the sailor’s voice putting to sea at Okotsk,
I hear the wheeze of the slave-coffle as the slaves march on as the husky gangs pass on by twos and threes, fasten’d together with wrist-chain and ankle-chains,
I hear the Hebrew reading his records and psalms,
I hear the rhythmic myths of the Greeks, and the strong legends of the Romans,
I hear the tale of the divine life and bloody death of the beautiful God the Christ,
I hear the Hindoo teaching bis favorite pupil the loves, wars adages, transmitted safely to this day from poets who wrote three thousand years ago.
What do you see Walt Whitman?
Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?
I see a great round wonder rolling through space,
I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, palaces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface,
I see the shaded part on one side where the sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side,
I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade,
I see distant lands, as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.
I see plenteous waters,
I see mountain peaks, I see the sierras of Andes where they range,
I see plainly the Himalayas, Chian Shahs, Altays, Ghauts,
I see the giant pinnacles of Elbruz, Kazbek, Bazardjusi,
I see the Styrian Alps, and the Karnac Alps,
I see the Pyrenees, Balks, Carpathians, and to the north the Dofrafields, and off at sea mount Hecla,
I see Vesuvius and Etna, the mountains of the Moon, and the Red mountains of Madagascar,
I see the Lybian, Arabian, and Asiatic deserts,
I see huge dreadful Arctic and Antarctic icebergs,
I see the superior oceans and the inferior ones, the Atlantic and Pacific, the sea of Mexico, the Brazilian sea, and the sea of Peru,
The waters of Hindustan, the China Sea, and the gulf of Guinea,
The Japan waters, the beautiful bay of Nagasaki land-lock’d in its mountains,
The spread of the Baltic, Caspian, Bothnia, the British shores and the bay of Biscay,
The clear-sunn’d Mediterranean, and from one to another of its islands,
The White sea, and the sea around Greenland….
Two pages from Salut au Monde!
And this last bit is what Ken Wilber contributes to the discussion, taken from something I wrote in July 2015.
I found some notes on Ken Wilber’s concept of consciousness contained in a 192-page notebook from five years ago, nine such notebooks between then & now, seventeen hundred pages back full of stuff about political chicanery, food advice, warnings about the end of the world, mass demonstrations unreported in the capitalist press, flower photos, cartoons, cats, appeals, duckling rescues from drains, the waste of money on war fiascos, people dancing and so on. A potent metaphor for what we call ‘consciousness’ which flits endlessly from thing to thing.
Possession of the word ‘consciousness’ programs us to imagine that such a thing exists; it’s an interesting case of reification – because there’s a word there must be some thing it connotes. What Wilber says is that ‘consciousness’ is not, as the word might suggest, a thing, open to scientific analysis, but a PERFORMANCE – viz, like ‘memory, not a noun but a verb, a DOING word.
This is how I depicted Ken Wilber’s exposition [I’m not at all sure it works but no doubt you get’ll the idea]:-
A multi-dimensional conscious DOING which I rather fancifully started trying to unravel thus:-
It is the task of Capital ‘C’ Consciousness to take up a meta-position which enables it to observe the whole Rigmarole.
In Room 8 there’s another long rigmarole called ‘Consider Your Normal State of What You Might Call Consciousness…’
white as morning
CB (in Zen mode in the moment)