Starbucks, South Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
- What are you writing?
- About a philosopher I found on the internet.
- What about him?
- Are you interested in philosophy?
- Yes. As much as I can understand.
- I'll explain, but tell me when I lose you. A while back I'd used the idea of emergence in something I'd written, and it occurred to me to look on the internet to see what others had done with the idea. I write stories - here, this my site - and bring in ideas along the way. I don't go into ideas in depth. Not when I'm writing. But afterwards I often do, having become more deeply interested because I've used the idea. Does that sound the wrong way around, self important?
- No. You don't force yourself to be interested in what you aren't.
- Are you familiar with emergence?
- I don't think so.
- In one form, it is when a whole is more than its parts, and the parts create the whole by doing nothing different from what already they do as parts. A flock of birds is created by each bird following the rules, keep a distance from other birds, and don't keep too far a distance. A democracy, another form of emergence, is created by individuals with power over their lives coming together and finding that seeking power together increases their power, gives them ability to do things they couldn't do alone. Understand?
- Pebbles can accumulate to form strata. Strata can build on top of each other to form sedimentary rock. A pile of strata can be twisted up into becoming a mountain. The collective activity of mountain, pile, strata involves no new behavior of the individual pebble. But in a democracy, the other form of emergence, individuals, thinking and acting cooperatively are able to individually do things they'd not been able to do before. In the case of ancient Athens, produce the greatest theater, architecture, philosophy. Do things, for example, like I had a chance to do last night, talk with a physicist at UCLA and test my ideas about consciousness on him.
- What ideas?
- Defining consciousness by what it does: produce something original. Emergent thought and action. Still with me?
- Really? Good. It was at one** of those Art + The Brain get-togethers I'd been going to. Last week it was more about science using the tools of art. One scientist was making artificial brains, following the path pointed out by a philosopher.*** But this time it was more about science being thrown into art, with ludicrous results, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. A performance art piece was underway, a dinner party where we dressed in lab coats and were given stick-on labels to wear identifying ourselves as members of different animal species, monkeys, pigs, sheep. I was a sheep. The performance was supposed to be an illustration of the Hox genes which guide the development of the basic top down form of many animals including us, heads, arms and legs, etc. Sitting down to a meal of each other's meat we were acting out the possibility of communing with each other on that genetic level we had in common, the artist explained afterwards, we were imagining a recognition of common origins. I was supposed to stay within my own species, but I could hear a physicist explaining research into how plasma under controlled conditions could be made to register something done to it, have a kind of memory. I slipped over and joined his species, the monkeys. As our party was broken up and we were herded out to the lecture part of the evening I asked the physicist if he was specially interested in how material systems resembled mental ones. We'd stopped outside in the hall to let the crowd pass. He said he was very interested in the subject of consciousness. I said, did he mean the relation of mind to body? Yes. What would he accept as an explanation? What kind of description? Mathematics. What element does mathematics involve? Functions and variables. What if I could give him one such a mathematical description? Then I'd be the most famous man who ever lived in history. I'd accept the honor I said, begin work on my acceptance speech. To do the mathematics, I went on, I have to use a description of things of the mind that includes the things of the world, not the other way around, because physical description can't do anything with mental world. It can, he said. You mean prod the brain in a certain place and a certain thought results? Yes, for example. Imagine, I answered, that we figured out how to prod the brain in one place after another until we assembled a complete sequence of thought for ten seconds. This would be like what Plato described a prisoner in a cave sees when his captors parade puppets outside before the sun and the puppet shadows are projected on the cave wall the prisoners face. The description would be like a memory. When we do this thing called remembering, we are there doing the remembering. We who are not identical with the remembering, because we do also other things like feel passions of fear and anger, feel emotions like love and loss; they lead one to another, and are the background to our remembering. The alternative experiences are lived in the real world of people outside the cave. I asked the physicist, how in prodding the brain would these other experiences be prodded into it?
- What did he say?
- That he didn't have an answer. Did he still want me to give him the math? Yes. Ok then: it happens that in our mental world every thing the physicist does is included, all the actions he performs and the experimental result all appear to the mind. It makes sense to find in the "data" of mental experiment the material with which to define function and set variables. The variables, in the rough model I worked out decades ago, are: self and world, each defined or undefined, in two states of rest and movement. That's much too schematic, the words can't mean anything to you. What I want to say is I think consciousness always involves the infinite. I tried this idea on a philosopher once.* He wouldn't accept the infinite as data. What about this physicist? Would he? No, he wouldn't. He had to go soon.
- Me too.
- I'll be quick, I said to him and say to you too. Start from one set of variables, you can expect another set of variables to follow. You can establish a law of change from one to another. You can observe two basic "functions" of one set of variables being replaced by another set. And those two kinds of change describe two kinds of consciousness.
- What are they?
- Being conscious or unconscious, when acting or at rest. Creative action involves seeing ourselves in a deliberately chosen habit or movement, which, based on past success, we try out. And if it gets us where we're going, we become unaware of ourselves, and see the world as beautiful. That's one set. The second is intoxicated action and vain thought. Being unaware of ourselves in action, only aware of the world we are trying to make, and when succeeding in getting the world as we like it, aware of ourselves as powerful and paying no more attention to the world. The first function is conscious thought and action, the second unconscious thought and action. It turns out that a function of a third set of variables, regularly moving from action to rest, gives us a description not of consciousness, or unconsciousness, but of the behavior of doing science. It is not a kind of consciousness because it is discontinuous. It involves a gap in description, where nothing is defined so no story continued. It is: limited self, limited world at rest; unlimited self and unlimited world in movement. In the other "functions" of consciousness, either self or world is defined in both states of rest and movement. You can tell a story. But in this third "function" of consciousness, definition vanishes in movement. Before movement things were here. After movement things are there. What happens in-between no one knows. Philosophers call this the mind body problem, how the mind and body affect each other. Scientists don't give the problem a name. They ignore it. They ignore the problem because they can, because physical theories work despite the confusion about what a thing and movement really are.****
- Why do they work?
- The best I can come up with is they work because of an obscure relation to one of the staked out possibilities in how we think and act, that "third function" of consciousness. But I'm not sure that means anything. Anyway, to go on. The citizens in a democracy gather together with other citizens and pass a law, funding public theater for example. Attending that theater will be something new for the citizens, teaching them something about themselves perhaps, changing them as individuals. But the pebble is still the same old pebble when assembled together with other pebbles in layers. Nothing new in what a pebble itself can do arises from its arrangement in layers or within a mountain. How then can it be possible to do what the physicist is trying to do, discover the emergence of mental things like democracy from "natural" things like particles and atoms in movement? Instead, the discontinuous physical world trying to emerge into the mental world provides a function and variable description of all major categories of insanity. Depression and catatonia: being locked in the defined world and self. Mania and psychosis: being locked in movement with undefined self and world. Schizophrenia: the passage of one to the other, depression to psychosis, losing history crossing the gap in undefined movement between world of defined things before movement and defined things after movement, where the origin of our own thoughts is forgotten and our own thoughts become outside voices.
- I never thought going into Starbucks to look up something and send my daughter a message I'd be hearing anything like this.
- There's more, if you have time.
- Yes. But I have to get the information my daughter asked for to her soon.
- Everyone is in a hurry.
- Not you.
- No. As you see. I outlined what I just said for the physicist who was more in a hurry than you. I told him I wouldn't go into the details of the different kinds of conscious and unconscious thought and action. What I wanted to know, he'd already told me he didn't like the idea of infinite as data, was would he accept such a mathematics? Really more like formal logic as it didn't involve quantities, but it was what he asked for. I was sure, I said, he wouldn't accept it.
- He said he wouldn't.
- Why not?
- I asked. He said he really had to go and he went. Now the philosopher I was writing about when we met and I said I'd tell you about. I found his name in footnote to an article related to emergence. I'd heard him mentioned several times before by people who didn't particularly inspire confidence so I hadn't looked him up. This time I did. I was astonished to see he wrote about many of the same subjects I had, and was coming up with similar conclusions. Like me he was particularly interested in the problem of why we can't have a political debate. He said he didn't have an answer. I felt some satisfaction when I read that because I did have an answer. I'll get to that. I read through the first half of his new book, some of his older books, then played a few of the videos posted on his site. I couldn't believe this guy: pompous, false, affected. How could he have come up those ideas which include anarchist economics? How could anything good be produced by a professor for forty years at Harvard University, that institute of social conformity? Had this guy been reading my stories maybe? Seemed unlikely, though Google told me when I checked that I have readers in Cambridge where the professor lives. I was curious what people had to say about him, went to an recent interview he gave to a reporter at the Financial Times. Somewhere in the middle of the interview his wife came home and jokingly asked the interviewer if her husband is using her ideas without giving her credit.
- Yes. Better late than never I woke up to the fact that he'd coauthored a book with a physicist who uses ideas of emergence, that he'd coauthored another book with a French philosopher who wrote about the emergence of democracy. This guy who looked on video like he couldn't be the originator of his ideas wasn't. Of course not. They'd been put together out of other people's ideas. But to get back to the problem why we can't have a debate. The Harvard professor says he is neither a dogmatic leftist who want to change the economy in accord to a blueprint, nor is he a dogmatic rightest who want to let to things go further along the same path. He wants to experiment with different economics. But, as his French coauthor explained, people are immobilized, they have unconsciously learned to accept that only existing political alternatives are possible.
- Like the physicist.
- Yes. But how do you wake people up out of their unconsciousness? At the end of his life the French philosopher went back to studying ancient Athens. Actually he was a Greek spending most of his life in France, as the Harvard professor was a Brazilian who spent most of his life in the U.S.
- What are you?
- Me? American American. You won't catch me making affected gestures, I've got being cool down cold.
- You're funny.
- Glad you think so. In his video, the French Greek coauthor, seen arm pounding an invisible mallet on the table, goes back to his Greek roots and the famous funeral oration of Pericles as reported in Thucydides. I quote the speech a lot myself. I'll get it on the computer. Athenians, according to the funeral oration, thought of themselves like this:
Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics—this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.
- The Athenian example explains how laws and ideas that are against the interest of the majority of people are supported by them without their knowing why. You can't know how and why laws are made if you don't participate in making them. The laws don't emerge from your own activity, they are not part of your history. You learn them without attention, unconsciously imitating the behavior of those around you, And the laws don't respect your interests because they were not produced as a function of your power. When you don't exercise power, participate in politics, when you delegate authority to a leader the emergent laws don't represent you. In the course of debate the Athenians change in their character to the kind of people who can understand the law they are instituting. Making a law establishing a festival of theater they become the kind of people who are the understanding audience to the performances produced at the theater. Still with me?
- When you stop moving in a democracy, you give up your power to participate in what is constantly emerging, and at the same time lose understanding of what emerges; the resulting laws don't respect your interests, you unconsciously learn to obey laws you don't understand by imitating of the behavior of those around you. The only way to maintain power, knowledge, consciousness, avoid becoming a slave is to keep moving.
- But I don't understand. Democracy is good, isn't it?
- If it isn't a democracy without beauty like ours! When you remove beauty from a society of emergent laws you get modern times. Freud built his psychology on democracy without beauty. What we thought was love, he said, was regressive memory of the security and pleasure of being in the womb. The life of the mind was a constant fight against blockages that appear the moment you are inactive, blockages caused by unconsciously followed laws continually produced without you and against you. In Athens laws were not constantly being made. People had other things to do with their lives. Remember what I said to the physicist: prodding the brain he might succeed in creating a story of consciousness that was like a dream or a memory, a puppet show in the cave. It would leave out all the rest of life: love, art, imagination. In democracy without beauty you get philosophers who can't stop talking, texts and performances that are ugly, even self consciously so. The French philosopher says in the introduction to his big book that he is setting out his ideas as he creates them, that there is no finished order, that the book is not art like a completed building, but is more like a construction site. To pause in the exercise of power is to have the continually emerging power go on without you. When you step off the path of power you step on the path towards slavery. There can be no rest. The philosopher of democracy without beauty speaks in a self perpetuating way: every sentence produces a new foundation to be built upon. He speaks not to please an audience, not even to please the audience of himself, the first audience of any creator. Instead, one idea emerges after another, the pebble and sediment layer way, not the way of Athenians whose voting into existence a theater remakes them into the audience of that theater. The philosopher of democracy without beauty pounds into your head his idea: the self directed activity he calls autonomy creates the thing autonomy which is itself creating the thing autonomy, etc, expressing the fundamental incoherence of the physical world left to itself: thing, movement, thing, movement. Layer laid down on layer. No story. No exit. No rest. But think about the words of Pericles. They're beautifully expressed, wouldn't you say? Speaking with art takes the audience along the path the words travel all the way to the beautiful result. There the audience rests, conscious and empowered, having followed successfully in the footsteps of the artist. Beauty is where people meet. The arrival of beauty was the criterion used by the Athenian to makes their decisions, the sign that something done better had emerged.
- Are these your ideas or the ancient Greeks?
- The ideas were in the air. Expressed by Parmenides in form of a poem, they were to be found also in the Jewish religion, the day of rest after six days of creation, god stopping to say it is good after every individual act of creation. Let's leave it at that. But before you go...
- I think I saw you before. Twice before.
- Today, when I was on Beverly Drive walking to the market. You, or your double, looked at me as I looked at her, or you. And then your double or you passed me again when I was sitting outside the market and even threw an over the shoulder glance back at me. I called after but wasn't heard, I guess. I wanted to meet her, your double. I thought she and I had the same kind of power, to put it in language we've been using. Something might come of it. And I liked your double's looks.
- It wasn't me. I didn't go to the market.
- I'll know if you are your double by your walk when you leave.
- I'll walk now. Well?
- It's you.
- But I didn't go to the market.
- I didn't see your double actually in the market. Were you walking down Beverly Drive at all?
- Are you sure?
- Yes. No. Maybe. I've got your site's address. If I remember I'll let you know.
- Do that. It's been a pleasure.
- It's been beautiful.
(The mathematics of consciousness in more detail here)
My Wife Who Throws Me Out
* Noam Chomsky & Mental Things
** Bird Song & Machine Talk
*** We Make Brains
**** Machines & Consciousness