Dry November: Day 25

November 25, 2018

Yesterday evening, during an invigorating and exhilarating exploration of Kew Gardens with a dozen of London’s best and brightest, after steaming chestnuts in the cold, I was thinking about that old impenetrable chestnut: consciousness. We had in tow enough provisions for a small army, lugged through the laserlit pines and before the aqueous projections, and onto fairground rides amidst bewildered children.

Pattern recognition

Three things struck me. The first was the infinite detail of reality, at every level, from the microscopic to the cosmos. It has patterns which hold up to infinite scrutiny, and the patterns repeat from the smallest drop of water to the largest galactic sprawl. We, of course, made of matter ourselves, partake of these patterns, and embody them as much as things much bigger and smaller than ourselves. The feeling of being one part of a pattern, but one that can appreciate the pattern itself, is a strange and disorientating blessing.

Who exactly is conscious?

This relates to the second strangeness, which is the question, in consciousness, of who is watching. In meditation, one can see, for example, physical pain, not only as a signal, but also the reception of the signal. One can witness both the object and the subject of the experience, as it were. When this happens, a question arises: if the subject and the object, taken together, can become the object of consciousness, of meta-cognitive awareness, then who exactly is doing the watching? Who is the subject?

A friend and I discussed it; consciousness requires a differentiation of qualities. Undifferentiated input could not be called consciousness. It seems, therefore, that consciousness itself is inherently aesthetic, because for consciousness to arise, there must exist differentiated objects of consciousness, as well as an observer to experience this differentiation. That experience is aesthetic, and almost immediately (possibly concomitantly) arises the judgment of better or worse. (“The Tao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two, Two gives birth to Three, Three gives birth to all things” might refer to this judgment of better/worse leading to reality, and almost certainly eating of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is about this.) 

This differentiation seems itself to tied to subjectivity, which is why I can’t dismiss out of hand the idea that matter could be conscious. But even if you think only humans have consciousness, the question of exactly who, in a human, is conscious remains mysterious. The obvious answer (“me?”) is unsatisfying, because as the Buddhists have long pointed out, we cannot reliably point to any single stable entity that represents this “me,” and even if we arbitrarily choose some shifting aspect or attribute to consider to be our “true” selves, we can, in our mind, also observe that self from another vantage point. So in that case, who exactly is the observer? I have various thoughts and experiences that could point to an answer, but they are probably too strange to discuss here.

The show of force

The third also arises from this differentiation between subject and object, self and world. The idea relates to something that Sam Harris has pointed out, which is that human communication can only really be conducted in two ways: through conversation or through force. We have two ways of interacting with the world or achieving anything, and those are to speak to others, or to physically manipulate the world (or people) with our bodies.

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.

The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. — Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness”

I’ve long thought that, in terms of physical activity, there’s little enough difference between Hitler and Gandhi. They mostly impacted the world by standing around and talking. Hitler may have killed a few French soldiers in the First World War, and Gandhi may have stood in some inconvenient places, but mostly they did not directly, personally, physically enact their consequential “actions.” Instead, they compelled change through words, and indirectly through the threat of force.

It occurred to me last night that this latter “show of force” is almost always more show than force. Force is expensive and dangerous, and is, as it ought to be, a last resort. It therefore requires a “show”. But any show of force risks becoming a farce. There is something inherently funny about people doing their utmost to look powerful. This is why dictators sometimes veer from fearsome to comic or pathetic, and military parades have the faint ridiculousness of children dressing up, right until the violence starts. Maybe it’s also why the funniest jokes often push into grim territory, or why it can be extremely menacing if one cannot tell whether someone else is joking.

I was thinking that maybe there’s always a fine line between the camp and the deathcamp, and that is an aspect of what is so disturbing, for example, about the arbitrary nature of sending people to the right, to work, or to the left, to be killed, as Viktor Frankl described in Auschwitz. It reminds us that every confrontation, and perhaps even life itself, has this arbitrary nature. Most of the time, missed by a bus, we laugh it off. But eventually the joke will not land, but become a matter of life and death, leaving no time for laughter, nor for any appeal or explanation. Even if a heated argument no longer leads to a duel like it once did, there’s something that links confrontation, jokes, deadly seriousness, threats, and force. There may also be something linking the show of force to art as a fitness display.

Kew was beautiful, and in the evanescence of its luminous beauty one could see the nature of life’s multitudinous pains and pleasures: first consciousness, then object of consciousness, then the dualistic illusion, and instantaneously the clinging to the beauty—which is always fleeting—but rarely as palpably so as in the vacillations of tissue flowers in the night breeze. And yet, since consciousness is aesthetic, there is a sense in which beauty is not something out there to be grasped, but some fundamental aspect of having the lights of awareness on, so to speak. The lights were on last night.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.