Mens Santa

I wish to discomfit you all. Whether you deserve that is less debatable than you might think, especially if I succeed in convincing any of you that whatever is reading this is not what you all think.

Philosophy is best used when applied to the findings of scientific inquiry. There is no particular reason why the nature of things – an electron or a bald ape – should make sense to us, or fit easily into the cultural narratives so immense and strident we mostly fail to recognise their presence. Science without philosophy is unsatisfying to most, and can employ its techniques to reconcile facts with our corrigible narrative; philosophy without science is plainly dangerous – anyone who has ever wasted their time with an existentialist book should understand.

Human narrative tells us we have rich internal lives, that we have characters which are discrete and persistent, even if they do change over time. Science indicates that we don’t. Consider the following ‘experiment’, which I dimly recall from a psychology study. We know the brain perceives still images or iterations presented to us above a certain threshold as movement. TV works thus. Equally, if we have a row of lights, lit and dimmed sequentially, above a certain threshold we perceive a moving mote of light. This study had such a set up, but with one side of the row with blue lights, the other side with yellow. As the lights lit and dimmed sequentially, not only did the subjects perceive movement, they also perceived a spectrum run through blue-green-yellow-green-blue. Prima facie, that is merely interesting. My deplorable Latin fails me at this point, but a second glance shows this is disturbing.

There is no green light at all. No two lights are on at once, so they do not mix. Furthermore, the same effect occurs when different colours are used, ruling out a subject’s being primed by experience. The initial philosophical treatment I found suggested two processes: Stalinist and Orwellian. In the Stalinist picture, information is filtered and censored before being presented to consciousness: we are given the motion and the mixed light because that is to be the official line based on what we expect. In the Orwellian picture, we consciously experience more directly what is there, but that is open to constant revision and denial of previous versions.  

Once upon a time I felt this was a coin toss as to which may be occurring. It was clear that conscious perception is not the truth of what happens, but it seemed difficult to decide which process obtained.  But it does appear that the Stalinist picture is a closer approximation. Neural scans indicate areas of the brain responsible for action and interpretation activate significantly ahead of any conscious report, experience or decision. The minimal conclusion is that the important processing of the world occurs prior to, and without needing the, conscious experience we almost universally take to be the defining element of our lives. The maximal conclusion, taking its cue from much wider evidence I won’t fit in here, is that consciousness is at worst a pointless accidental rider, and that persons, and our personal internal narratives, are fictitious and empty. At best… consciousness is an ultra-specialised, mostly pointless tool, and that persons, and our personal internal narratives, are fictitious and empty.

This is a conclusion underdetermined by the above writing, so I hope to perhaps expand upon the theme over time. The narrative of consciousness, whatever status we feel the need to assign it, is a dangerous misunderstanding. Philosophy is a palliative treatment only. In a future post I hope to show that this is far better than nothing.


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