Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Confronting Sentience

The very nature of language makes discussion of consciousness difficult.

For instance, consider the question, "Are you conscious?"

Break it down: "Are" - form of verb "to be", or the state of existence.

"You" -- the "second person" pronoun that describes your own "I".

"Conscious" -- having this consciousness, this sentience, this
self-awareness that "I" know that I have & experience -- and that, through
this shared experience, I assume you have, too.

Hopefully you can get the gist of the sentence, because its very structure
is an exposition of the nature of our perceptions: that there is me -- "I"
-- here, and everything else is "out there".

The zen philosopher Alan Watts was a man before his time, and we would do
well to consider his discussions of consciousness. He considered this
duality of "I" v. "everything else" an illusion of our senses, and that we
are all the same (Buddhist-esque concept of) "Big Self", only separated by
various eddies of decreasing entropy, of which "everyone" includes "their"
"own" perceptions.

To paraphrase Watts: an apple tree "apples". And so too, the Universe
"peoples". In his model, we "people" have in us aspects of the Universe, in
the same way an apple has the seeds to make other apple trees. Further,
there are "principles" of the apple tree, from which these "apples" grow.

Again, we are stretching the limits of language when discussing these
matters. An apple, until it falls, is part of an apple tree...but clearly it is not
the apple tree.

In the same way, our Universe is awash with grandiose forces that almost
defy human comprehension -- yet we live in a miniscule eddy of these
swirling forces, which is calm enough for an emergent principle of the
Universe to have emerged: Human beings, our little sub-eddies and pockets of
"self" that peer out at the Universe, perceiving in "own" particular ways.
We are sensor-pods and brains, connected to the Universe in ways that allow
us to _experience_ the Universe, as well as remember these experiences, and
contemplate them.

Now, Alan Watts may have gone out on a limb when he postulated that even the
very rocks of our world are conscious, but "just at a lower level"
(paraphrased) -- I'm a bit too sentience-chauvinistic to consider rocks
"conscious", even a little bit. Maybe this is a limitation of my own
perceptions, which (say) if regarding rocks at the proper time scale, would
observe this elusive emergent property of parts of the Universe --
consciousness -- from even the very rocks themselves.

But Watts, in his genius, did give us one of many neat turns of phrase in
these speculations: "...but Watch Out! The rocks will come alive!"

And you know, he's right. We know for a fact that evolution happens, and it
starts with "rocks" of various sorts being formed in stars, from which
eventually we have -- at least here on Earth -- ended up with organic
compounds, for which all scientific evidence indicates has produced human

BUT, the face that us human beings are "I's" -- conscious individuals --
continues to perplex science. I submit that those who have said that
consciousness is deeply intertwined with, and an integral part of, our
Universe, are indeed on the right track. Further, if we admit to ourselves
that the only way we "know" our neighbor is "conscious" is through our
shared experience of this noumenon, then we would do well to consider
other "shared experiences" that seem to be part of our Human Condition.

This is all lead-up to my speculation: "Consciousness" -- that is,
"Sentience" -- is only known to us through perceptions of the behaviors of
us packages of brains and sensory equipment that we call "sentient beings".

But it is clear that consciousness is also, at the very least, an emergent
property of our Universe. I wonder if it doesn't make sense to decouple
this "counsciousness" from our organic packages, instead regarding it as
part of the Universe itself, from which we gain the illusion of being
"individuals" through the nature of our own particular organic packages, our

_I_ certainly don't know how we would design an experiment to determine if
that is the case. But if we broaden our notions of science to include
"share experiences that are difficult to measure", we might have a start at
understanding from where this "consciousness" arises...and if any part of it
persists beyond the destruction of our own packages of organic matter.

Wishful thinking? Maybe. But definitely worth exploring, if only to push
the boundaries of a fundamental essences of our Human Condition: the
Science of Mind.

Thank you for reading.