Writing Right with Dmitri: Thinking About Thinking
This month's Create theme – artificial intelligence – was proposed by the Core Team. (Thanks, Robbie!) Somebody (FWR, artists, seriously) responded by telling your Post Editor to lay off the catnip. But actually, I'm glad the CT came up with this topic, even though it's made me work a bit. Because now, I get to rave on about the problem of consciousness.
Sherlock has a mind palace. So do I. Mine is compounded of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, Neuschwanstein Castle, and some weird places you've never seen, such as old churches and rural cabins. You'd be surprised what's in there. So am I, frequently. (How did that train in Yugoslavia get there?)
But where is the mind palace? The brain? Or somewhere else entirely? Did Einstein prematurely reject the aether? What am I talking about?
I believe our modern thinking about consciousness is seriously hampered by the false dichotomy between what trendy thinkers regard as 'religion', usually meaning a vague version of churchy Christianity, and 'secular humanism', an equally fuzzy term that is usually equated with the just-as-loose idea of 'it just happened'. Bosh. There's not much room to manoeuvre – meaning, think – in that oversimplification.
What most of these fuzzy thinkers seem to be saying is that:
- Modern powerpoint Christianity is dumb (no argument there),
- We reject their cartoon image of 'God' (ditto),
- Therefore, this world is the only reality there is, there's nothing else 'out there', and when you die, you're dead. So make the most of this brief, meaningless existence. It's your own fault if you don't eat right and exercise. You snooze, you lose.
That doesn't compute. To me, that's not only a deeply pessimistic view. It's sloppy thinking. This kind of reasoning ignores all the other possible ways of looking at reality. Heck, it ignores the discoveries of quantum physics. And it disregards the problem of consciousness.
You see, this 'one universe per customer' idea assumes that consciousness – all of it, not just personal experience and identity – is purely epiphenomenal. It's like the bloom on the flower: doomed to flourish and die. Or like all those data you've lost, time and again, whenever your hard drive dies and you don't have a backup, and you have to buy a new computer with a different bleeding operating system.
I defy this definition of consciousness. I believe that there is a first law of thermodynamics for consciousness. That it's not an epiphenomenon. I believe that thought isn't so easy to get rid of. Where would it go?
That's why I believe there are worlds beyond this one. That we go somewhere else, because we have to. The thinking won't stop just because it isn't attached to a physical object1. I agree with William Peter Blatty:
Every man that ever lived craved perfect happiness, the detective poignantly reflected. But how can we have it when we know we’re going to die? Each joy was clouded by the knowledge it would end. And so nature had implanted in us a desire for something unattainable? No. It couldn’t be. It makes no sense. Every other striving implanted by nature had a corresponding object that wasn’t a phantom. Why this exception? the detective reasoned. It was nature making hunger when there wasn’t any food. We continue. We go on. Thus death proved life.
Blatty said it better in Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, but I couldn't lay my hands on the text as quickly. The point he's making is that our consciousness demonstrates the idea that this limited and flawed reality can't be the end. Because otherwise, there is no point to the complexity of consciousness. Take that as a starting point, and you might get somewhere. But assume that consciousness, like the flower, is a pointless flourish on the surface of a happenstance, one-time-only accident, and you're left drifting rudderless on the sea of existence. Dissing consciousness (and flowers) is, to me, arrant stupidity. I think we need to keep thinking.
What you think about consciousness informs everything you write, from a note to your child's teacher to your most profound essay. You can't help it. What you think about how you think finds its expression in everything you do, and every decision you make. Do you strive to make yourself memorable, because you believe you'll cease to exist when your name is forgotten? (If that is the case, why hide behind a username?) Do you build bigger and gaudier monuments that scream, 'Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair?' Or do you try to help the others along, feeling that our shared consciousness is an opportunity for growth? That someday, we'll meet again under more promising circumstances? That maybe we're helping the universe build that better place?
Would making a sentient AI prove that consciousness is purely epiphenomenal? And thus ephemeral? Of course not. No more than cataloguing the process of biological evolution proves any theological point at all. Discoveries along the way help us think about these things. They don't give us the answers, just more questions.
When are we going to start thinking about these things again? When we have a new Goethe? A new Schiller or Beethoven? Schiller wrote, and Beethoven set to music, that
Brüder – überm Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Translation: Brothers – above this tent of stars
A loving father must live.
An die Freude
What if we screw it up? What if it all goes to hell long before we get our collective acts together? Well, your guess is as good as mine. Since that also works in reverse, I'll tell you what I think about it. I think the universal consciousness is a lot smarter than we baby consciousnesses think. I think there's a Plan in the works. I think the next one's going to be a surprise. I think I've worked this out through a lifetime of study, meditation, and thinking about it. At least, that's what I think I think.
What do you think?
P.S. This essay was written with the 'help' of Buzzardina Pussycat, who wishes to remind us that cat philosophy begins, 'I purr, therefore I am in your way.'