Monday, August 25, 2014

The Case for Consciousness as a Dimension

I got interested in philosophy at a young age, reading Bertrand Russell in high school and discovering a natural tendency to ask the basic questions of life: what are we doing here? does life have meaning, and if so, what is it? is the world what it appears or is there something more to it? I didn’t think at the time that there was anything one could do with this curiosity in terms of a career, so when I set off to university, my plan was to study architecture—it seemed a sensible combination of creativity and, something (literally) more concrete than philosophy.

My first semester at Berkeley, I stumbled on an elective course called Existentialism in Literature and Film, and it very quickly changed the direction of my life. I discovered, through both the contents of the course and the charm, inspiring manner and philosophical approach of its professor, Hubert Dreyfus, that philosophy could indeed be a substantial profession, and, even more excitingly, that the philosopher didn’t necessarily have to limit himself to the world of academia. One could make films, and thus not only elaborate explicit philosophical ideas but also explore, often in a more subtle and nuanced way, their implications within the context of real people, behaving in complex worlds containing moods, emotions, and expressing various perspectives in ways that could never be made explicit in a formal philosophical argument.

I proceeded to change my major to philosophy and to take every course Professor Dreyfus offered during the next 5 years, mostly reading and learning about his take on Martin Heidegger and the existentialist and phenomenological traditions. I also started making films, traveling the world and documenting what I thought were great examples of ways of life that expressed deep things about what it means to be human. My view of the world, our place in it, and of the creative process were shaped by this study and this work, and 10 years later, having made one feature film and several smaller films, I decided to revisit professor Dreyfus and pay homage to his influence on me (and thousands of other students) by making a film, not necessarily about him, but about his ideas about how we exist in the world.

The resulting film, called Being in the World, explored, through both interviews with philosophers (mostly Dreyfus and former students turned professors at various illustrious institutions) as well as through real world examples, the notion that “being-in-the-world” is a unified phenomenon, that when we engage with the world skillfully, the distinction between subject and object disappears and a rich and meaningful life can emerge; and we explored the possibility that this richness is threatened by technology, which desensitizes us to our world, obviates the need for skill, and stops individuating people, places and temporal differences.

The film worked on many levels and proved to me that, yes, one really can use this medium to make something that is both entertaining and accessible and, in this case quite directly, explores deep philosophical issues. However, I soon discovered that for me one essential thing was missing (or at least not sufficiently emphasized) in Dreyfus’ story of our place in the world: the role of both (apparently) inner, conscious experience and of deliberate, abstract thought—both essential ingredients, I think, not only to being human in general, but particularly to us creative types. I understood and sympathized with the desire to overturn thousands of years of philosophical tradition, which separates the world neatly into subjects and objects and which thus overlooks the pre-cognitive way we exist in the world, “always already” in it. That said, there is something somewhat counterintuitive and unsatisfying about this view. I do in fact spend much of my day, as I imagine you do, feeling like a subject, immersed in the world but also in some way separate from it. I have a constant inner monologue that narrates my experiences in life, I see things uniquely from my own perspective, I have hopes, dreams, private anxieties and pains, and, perhaps most mysteriously, as a creative person, I spend a lot of my time day dreaming, fantasizing, trying to think of original ideas and of how to turn those ideas into actual things, artifacts that can be shared, experienced, on some level consciously and thoughtfully, by others.

When I look around me, I see that this process unfolds constantly and is an essential feature of our world. This beautiful castle we are in must have started as an idea in somebody’s head, the idea was turned into drawings, the drawings used as a model for the actual building. Everywhere we look we see these byproducts of one segment of human consciousness—imagination—visions of what might be, turned into what actually is. How this happens seems to be a fundamental question we need to ask ourselves, and one which I have been studying intensely recently. Of course the relationship between mind and matter has fascinated philosophers for millennia, but I’ve become particularly interested in the contemporary study of consciousness and how to apply it to the creative process.

I also had an experience which confirmed for me the importance of consciousness in our universe. Hopefully sharing this won’t prejudice those here against my conclusions, but denying its importance would give an incomplete picture. I got a call from my friend and mentor Oliver Stone, asking me to help him do research for a new project. He was contemplating a film about the life of Timothy Leary, (the Harvard professor turned counterculture icon and proselytizer for the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD), and he asked me to prepare an outline of how I would approach the subject. I did an enormous amount of research but didn’t think my understanding could be complete without going through the LSD experience myself. Therefore, one Sunday morning, at age 35, with 2 close friends, I took LSD for the first time in my life. The experience, which was both beautiful and overwhelming, showed me the possibility that not only is consciousness real, it provided first hand evidence that consciousness may be a fundamental building block of our universe (Huston Smith, the great religious studies professor, called psychedelics “empirical metaphysics”, which I think is exactly right. As an aside, in preparing for this conference, I looked up Professor Scruton’s work, and as a left wing anarchist and quasi communist, as a lover of foucault, the new left, modern art, punk rock aesthetics, and as a believer in the idea that rules are meant to be broken, and that transgression of all kinds is a good thing, I find it amusing and ironic that the only agreement the professor and I seem to have comes from my LSD insight--that is, it seems we both believe that the transcendental exists and it is evidenced in our consciousness and our ability for self-reflection).

That said, I wasn’t willing to change my mind about something so profound solely on the basis an intoxicated state, so I started reading up on the philosophy of consciousness and discovered the work of people like Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers, who confirmed, with rigorous philosophical reasoning behind them, the possibility that a physicalist explanation of the universe may not only be incomplete but theoretically impossible, and that to ignore consciousness is to ignore something essential not only about us but about our world.

At this point I should clarify what I mean by consciousness. We hear the the term knocked around a lot these days, especially in California where I live, and most of it is at best vague and at worst, new age drivel. People speak of conscious capitalism, conscious consumerism, expanding consciousness, etc. When philosophers speak of consciousness we, (if I may,) are referring not only to awareness in general but more specifically to the existence of subjective experience. What it is like to be a thing, for the thing itself. For human beings, this includes not only our immediate perceptions, but the entire rich world that makes up our mental life, including our memories, projections, abstractions, our self awareness, our awareness of the fact of being aware, etc. I have become interested in how we interact with this conscious plane, in what sense this conscious plane “exists”, and how we use it to bring something new into the world, and in what sense, if any, artifacts of human creativity might be seen as representations of things that at first only exist in this conscious space.

For much of human history, it was assumed that everything had a mind of some kind. Rocks fell to earth because they were disposed to being close to the earth, water had a desire to stay flat, etc. Heraclitis said, “The thinking faculty is common to all.” “Plato argued for Panpsychism (this idea that mind is everywhere) in the Sophist, in which he wrote that all things participate in the form of Being and that it must have a psychic aspect of mind and soul (psyche). In the Philebus and Timaeus, Plato argues for the idea of a world soul or anima mundi. He said, “This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.”

Panpsychism persisted in different forms throughout the world, amongst even the most serious thinkers, until the 19th century, including amongst philosophers like Leibniz and Schopenhauer who said “All ostensible mind can be attributed to matter, but all matter can likewise be attributed to mind".

But then in the 20th century, as a materialist, scientific view became better and better at explaining and predicting the behavior of things in the universe, the idea of panpsychism became increasingly farfetched. The pervasive view became that not only are most things not conscious, even what we call consciousness in human beings is, in Dan Dennet’s term, “nothing but an elaborate trick,” which evolved out of the growing complexity of the human brain, and which could ultimately be reduced to it. Moreover, since consciousness is essentially subjective and science deals with objectivity, nothing serious could be said about it anyway, and the study of consciousness was swept under the rug. As late as 1989, Stuart Sutherland said, “The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means[…]it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it has evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.”

Then, about 25 years ago, people (particularly scientists and philosophers) realized that we cannot ignore the issue of consciousness much longer. It’s just too hard to deny not only that consciousness exists but that it is one of the most primordial and defining attributes, at the very least, of being human. As David Chalmers argues, it is the first datum, the one thing that we cannot doubt. I may be able to doubt the existence of the outside world, I can doubt whether you are real, I can even doubt whether you are conscious, but the one thing I cannot doubt is that I myself am conscious.

Consciousness is particularly interesting for philosophers as it completely collapses the problem of appearance vs. reality. I can wonder whether this podiium “really is” what it appears to me. But when it comes to things like pain, there is no difference between the appearance of pain and pain itself. The problem is that no matter how hard I try, it is impossible to objectively describe my pain to you. So we have here something that is both very real and very difficult, if not impossible, to describe using the tools of objective observation so dear to scientists. Moreover, if we do manage to strip away *all* subjectivity from our analysis of the world, what exactly are we left with? As Edward Feser has put it, “When the natural world is denuded of the qualitative features common sense takes it to have – color, odor, taste, sound, and the like, as we experience them in everyday life – what we are left with is an entirely abstract structure, the sort of thing physics expresses in the language of mathematics. But it is simply incoherent to regard the mind-independent world as nothing but an abstract structure; there must be something which has the structure. Moreover, to deny the existence of the qualitative features themselves – as some eliminative materialists have suggested doing as a way of “solving,” by brute force, the problem qualia pose for physicalism – would in effect be to cut off the scientific redefinition of nature from any empirical support at all. We would be denying, in the name of science, the very existence of the conscious experience from which scientific inquiry proceeds.”

These issues, sometimes referred to as “The Hard Problem of Consciousness”, present us with questions that go beyond the fact that we don’t know exactly how our brains work yet. There is the issue, seemingly intractable, that no matter how well we describe physical processes, again a) we are missing an essential feature, namely what it is like for the person or entity having the experience and b) all the description of behavior and external reality is not logically incompatible with the absence of consciousness—in other words, we can imagine a world just like this one, where everything behaves just as it does, but no subjectivity exists at all. (These two points are often illustrated with 2 fun thought experiments: The first is to imagine Mary, a brilliant neuroscientist of the future. Mary knows everything there is to know about the brain. However, she lives her entire life in a black and white room. She uses black and white monitors and other machines to study Jon’s brain while he looks at the color red. She knows the wavelength of the color, the chemical reactions down to the synapse of what happens when that wavelength hits Jon’s eyes and the information reaches Jon’s brain. She does this for as many years as it takes to understand everything there is to understand about Jon’s brain when he looks at the color red. Then, one day, she emerges from the black and white room and she looks at the color red for the first time. It is clear that she has learned something new at this point, a new fact about the world—namely, this is what it is like to see red (philosophers refer to these raw sensory phenomena as qualia.) This thought experiment is meant to illustrate, again, that no amount of objective analysis will ever come close to making one understand subjective experience.

The second thought experiment involves a peculiar type of zombie. The “philosophical zombie” looks like a human, acts like a human, talks like a human. However, he lacks consciousness…he has no inner experience. The fact that such a zombie is logically conceivable (not actually conceivable) is seen by many to show that consciousness is separate from any description of behavior. I think we can clearly see this in the case of robots. We can make more and more elaborate robots, with perfect memory, cameras as eyes, tactile responsiveness, an ability to interact with us like a more advanced version of SIRI on our iphones, but all of this, we can see is clearly not inconsistent with the idea of the robot might not have any “inner experience.” So if the inner experience can’t be explained or predicted in terms of outer behavior, where exactly does it come from?

(Even if we take a strictly darwinian view of the matter, there is the issue of how something as unique and unusual as subjectivity could emerge from nothing that resembles it. William Kingdon Clifford argued that: “[…] we cannot suppose that so enormous a jump from one creature to another should have occurred at any point in the process of evolution as the introduction of a fact entirely different and absolutely separate from the physical fact. It is impossible for anybody to point out the particular place in the line of descent where that event can be supposed to have taken place. The only thing that we can come to, if we accept the doctrine of evolution at all, is that even in the very lowest organism, even in the Amoeba which swims about in our own blood, there is something or other, inconceivably simple to us, which is of the same nature with our own consciousness […]”)

There is a huge amount of literature around this issue and it is impossible for me to get into all the details of it in this talk, but the bottom line is that when it comes to reducing consciousness to material facts about the world, there is not only the problem of understanding something as complex as the human brain but there are more fundamental issues about the very logical possibility of ever being able to do so.

So philosophers like Chalmers reach the conclusion, which I agree with, that consciousness must be a fundamental feature of our world and that it may be universal, not just unique to humans and some animals, but to all things. What we are left with is a new kind of panpsychism, which leaves Chalmers having to say that everything, to some tiny degree, might be conscious, even things like thermostats and atoms. The trouble with this conclusion is that is highly counterintuitive (almost to the point of absurdity) and easy to poke fun at. What does it even mean to say that a thermostat is conscious?

In thinking about this, I’ve wondered if there is a way of accepting that consciousness is an irreducible, fundamental attribute of our universe, without having to claim that everything somehow has consciousness “in it”. If we all take a moment to think about this podium, there is a sense in which the podium is a part of our conscious experience, but we don’t want to claim that the podium itself is conscious. We also want to avoid the idea that consciousness can exist independently of matter—particularly brain matter, which does seem to be an essential ingredient of consciousness.

The answer, I think, is to think of consciousness as a fundamental dimension, much like space or time, fundamental but inconceivable without the dimensions, so to speak, “underneath” it. A 2 dimensional square is not possible without the lines that delineate it’s perimeter, but those lines themselves needn’t be 2 dimensional for the square to be so. Maybe matter has an analogous relationship to consciousness. Chalmers comes close to saying things when he says that consciousness is as fundamental as space, time or mass, but, as far as I know, he doesn’t elaborate the idea by thinking of it in this way. To do this, I’d like to look at the varying ways we use the concept of dimensionality and see if they can be applied coherently to consciousness. I believe that thinking about consciousness in this way will help us better to understand the way human beings interact with both mind and matter in general, and my hope is that seeing consciousness in this way will let us see that just as a painter represents a 3 dimensional object in 2 dimensional space, all of human creativity analogously is the representation or projection of the conscious dimension within the accepted 4 dimensions of space and time.

First, and least controversially, there is the metaphorical way we think of a dimension, “as a hyperbolic synonym for a feature, attribute, aspect, or magnitude. Frequently the hyperbole is quite literal as when we say, ‘she's so 2-dimensional,’ meaning that one can see at a glance what she is. This contrasts with 3-dimensional objects, which have an interior that is hidden from view, and a back that can only be seen with further examination.” In this sense, we can easily see that consciousness is an added dimension in the sense that another conscious entity not only has a physical inside hidden from view, but also a conscious subjectivity that requires deeper level of understanding, without which one is missing something essential. As a filmmaker, I am particularly aware of this issue: If a character we write or depict does not come across as having a rich inner experience, she will come across as cardboardish and unbelievable. [elaborate this idea?]

Second, there is the idea of “inductive dimensions”: By dragging a 0-dimensional object in some direction, one obtains a 1-dimensional object. By dragging a 1-dimensional object in a new direction, one obtains a 2-dimensional object. In general one obtains an (n + 1)-dimensional object by dragging an n-dimensional object in a new direction beyond any of the directions available in dimension n. If you drag a 3 dimensional object in a new direction you get that object extended in time or spacetime dimension.

(We should pause here to note that the idea of time as a dimension is relatively new, and was introduced first by poets and philosophers and only later accepted by scientists. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in §18 of On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1813): "the representation of coexistence is impossible in Time alone; it depends, for its completion, upon the representation of Space; because, in mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises". The idea of a unified spacetime is stated by Edgar Allan Poe in his essay on cosmology titled Eureka (1848) that "Space and duration are one". In 1895, in his novel The Time Machine, H. G. Wells wrote, "There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it", and that "any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and Duration.” Marcel Proust, in his novel Swann's Way, describes the village church of his childhood's Combray as "a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space—the name of the fourth being Time". It was only after all of this that “this idea was elaborated by Hermann Minkowski, who used it to restate the Maxwell equations in four dimensions, showing directly their invariance under the Lorentz transformation. He further reformulated in four dimensions the then-recent theory of special relativity of Einstein. From this he concluded that time and space should be treated equally, and so arose his concept of events taking place in a unified four-dimensional space-time continuum. In a further development, he gave an alternative formulation of this idea that did not use the imaginary time coordinate, but represented the four variables (x, y, z, t) of space and time in coordinate form in a four dimensional affine space. He then said, in 1908, “The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”

Clearly I am not a physicist so my humble hope is that we can introduce the idea of consciousness as a dimension in much the same way the writers and philosophers did above, and which can later be confirmed or disproved by scientific inquiry into both consciousness and upper level dimensions (String theory for example, posits 11 dimensions.) For now, what we do know is that science has failed to provide an adequate explanation for consciousness and that many serious philosophers, from Galen Strawson, Roger Penrose, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, and Noam Chomsky, who have all said that a revolutionary change in physics may be needed to solve the problem of consciousness.

Returning to the idea of inductive dimensions (dragging dimension n in a new direction to get dimension n+1) we can ask ourselves if consciousness could be seen as what happens when we “drag spacetime in a new direction.” Could it be that when I perceive a particular situation and imagine the countless possibilities it entails that this is a form of such “dragging”? Could this be happening when I remember an event nostalgically? When we look at various pairs of objects and abstract this to the idea of the number 2? When we idealize the world in a work or art, be it a painting or a photograph, could it be that we are dragging what is real into what is ideal and then back again, and is this why, so often a representation of the world is even more beatiful than the world as it actually is?

A third way we use the concept of dimension is as the minimum number of coordinates needed to specify a point within it. A point on a line requires 1 coordinate (the number 5 for example.) A point on a square requires 2. A cube 3. A point in spacetime 4. It seems to me that a “unit of consiousness” if there is such a thing, would require at least a 5th coordinate that specifies and connects, for example, the 4 dimensional coordinates of that which is perceived with the entity having the subjective experience of it.

(Note that even though a line is infinite, a square is vastly larger than a line, so while a point on the square could easily sit on a line that defines its edge, there are an infinite number of points that sit nowhere on that line. That said, the square cannot exist “independently” of the lines that constitute it. Similarly, a unit of awareness, a qualia, for example, can sit on the “line” of 4 dimensional spacetime, as when we perceive or are aware of an actual thing, but there is, as expected, a vast “mental space” that is beyond that “line”. In other words, it seems intuitively right to me that conscious spacetime is infinitely larger than spacetime and includes not only what exists but everything we imagine could exist, as well as all ideas, abstractions, hypotheticals, inspirations, etc. but that none of it is possible without the matter that defines it’s “edges”, and that, again, all human creation is a projection or a representation of that vast, ephemeral space.)

An essential attribute of going “up a dimension” is that an n+1 dimensional entity can move about freely in dimension n and defy the constraints of an entity that exists only in dimension n. A square, for example, can pass through a line at a 45 degree angle, appear as a point, become 2 points that grow farther and farther apart, shrink down to one point and then disappear completely, A 3 dimensional world that had no time would not be able to make sense of a temporal entity which was here “and then” over there. In an atemporal 3 dimensional physics such an entity would appear to be in 2 places at once. Consciousness similarly allows us to move about freely in all the dimensions underneath it, in the sense that we can think about remote objects, we can remember things that came before and project future events as well as be aware of things that don’t exist at all. My awareness of the moon for example does not require even the time for the light of the moon to reach my eyes.

Finally, we can also think of a dimension as a “frame of reference”. My friend and collaborator Professor Mark Wrathall suggests this and putting forth the argument thusly:

1. An entity of type f can only exist within a frame of reference that allows for f-type entities.


* A line can only exist within a frame of reference that involves at least two spatial dimensions.

* a cube can only exist within a frame of reference that involves at least three spatial dimensions.

* a melody can only exist within a frame of reference that involves at least three temporal ecstases (past, present, and future).

2. An entity of type f can only partially or imperfectly be represented within a frame of reference that does not allow for f-type entities.


* a cube can be, at best, partially or imperfectly represented within a frame of reference that involves only two spatial dimensions. The partiality or imperfection of the representation is seen in the fact that the cube drawn in two dimensions can only present itself from a single, particular perspective, whereas the cube in a three dimensional space can present itself from any perspective. It can also be seen in the way that the two dimensional representation of the cube is parasitic on a three-dimensional experience of the cube – that is, that I couldn’t recognize the representation as a representation of a cube if I didn’t have the experience of seeing a cube in three-dimensional space.

3. Within an impoverished representation of an f-type entity (a representation that uses frames of reference that do not allow for the f-type entity to exist as such), certain relationships that exist between parts of the entity, and between the entity and other entities will defy understanding.

4. Inductive move: if we encounter entities that seem to be imperfectly or partially represented (as in [2]) or that behave in ways the defy understanding (as in [3]), we have some reason to believe that we are lacking the proper frame of reference – the frame of reference that governs the existence of that entity.

5. We do encounter such entities. They present themselves to consciousness as having properties that are imperfectly or partially represented, and mysterious, if we try to represent them simply within a spatio-temporal frame of reference.

6. Therefore, we have some reason to believe that there is another frame of reference upon which the existence of those entities depend.

From all of this we can conclude, among other things, that what is happening when we human beings create, not only artistic artifacts, but anything at all that originates from an idea, or a sense of possibility, be it a building, a sandwich, a film, or a great painting, is the representation or projection of a 5 dimensional “object” into 4 dimensions. Even if I don’t convince you of the ontological truth or existence of consciousness as a dimension, I hope you will take it as a useful metaphor for thinking about the relationship between mind, matter and creativity.

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