Another silence is upon me. Advance and retreat, like the sea and like the sea always restless.
Happy Brand New Year.
I’m reading Christopher Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness and finding it a revelation. Although intended for a general audience, his book goes into great depth and detail on the nuts and bolts of neural processing, primarily of visual stimuli as processed by the primary visual cortex, as a means of attempting to locate the neuronal correlates of consciousness. His idea, developed in his work with James Crick (of Watson and Crick, dna) is that not only is there no difference between the brain and the mind, there can’t be, and therefore there must exist a physical, tangible, identifiable collection of neurons and their specific activity that correlates exactly to one particular conscious experience. Whether he’s on the right track with this or not I can’t say, but I am having the time of my life exploring in such detail the physical processes of stimulus through-put, especially when I keep in my mind Dennet’s idea of the impossibility of some sort of Cartesian “inner theater of the mind” where these signals are finally “displayed” on a conceptual stage for the little man in my head- the movie of the external world, as it were.
These signals, and I’ll stay with visual input since that’s what Koch is laying out so beautifully, begin when individual photons of light strike individual cells on the surface of the retina. The eye does not see anything, it’s more like a big grassy field upon which light falls like rain. There is a small, hard-focus area dense with cells, the fovea, where visual input is the sharpest and clearest, and it falls off towards the periphery dramatically. There’s a blind spot where the optic nerve feeds into the retina where no visual input exists at all. We don’t notice this blind spot because the primary visual cortex fills in the missing data from the adjoining input. We also move our eyes around the visual field constantly, bringing things into focus one at a time- but again we have the experience that everything is clear and sharp because of the signal process blending the primary visual cortex does for us.
On and on.
The point is, that with Dennet in Consciousness Explained and Norretranders in The User Illusion, (among others) is that I have a pretty good grounding in the philosophy of the neurobiology of consciousness, but Koch is providing a hands-on, nuts and bolts tour of the factory, as it were.
It’s helping me shape and process my own conception of what’s happening inside my own bony vault, what the physical processes are exactly that make up my own deeply personal experience of consciousness, of the world both inside and outside my ‘self’, whatever that is.
It’s seriously, deeply, wildly enjoyable to me.
What is trying to coalesce is a synthesis of the concepts of physics, geology, biology, evolution, neurology, philosophy, etc. into a whole that makes sense to me. What I’m imagining is a frothy, thrashing sea of tiny random fluctuations in potential energy that momentarily coalesce into complex assemblies that then explode with unanticipated emergent properties that give rise to something we’d call “real” and “tangible.” Stars appear when minor variations in the density of helium and hydrogen atoms are acted upon by the gravitational force and those atoms get gobbed together, tighter and tighter, more and more, hotter and hotter, until something reaches a triggering point, et viola, you have a star. Similar processes are at work in the creation of planets, including our planet. Find the right location, where liquid water can exist on the surface of a planet, and you set up the conditions for the basic chemistry that results in completely random, but ever more complex molecules to form and grow. Give them enough time and you get the building blocks of life, and we’re off to the races. The engine on our planet is DNA, and it moves through every living organism- meaning we’re all basically the same thing- little biological experiments conducted by the completely random reassembly of Adenine, Thymine, Cytosine and Guanine, over and over, world without end, amen.
Our consciousness, our experience of ourselves and the world, also arises organically from this same process. If we look at the animal world we can see approximations of our own sense of being alive all around us. Look at the great apes, the chimps and monkeys. Look at dogs and cats. Look everywhere. It’s a continuum. Jesus Christ, look at the wild variety of pre-human experiments in the fossil record- all the hominid species that came before us, or even existed with us- Homo Neanderthalensis fled the scene a scant thirty-thousand years ago.
We are a naturally, organically occurring physical process.
Now go look out at the stars again. Probably three hundred billion of them in this galaxy alone, and maybe a hundred billion galaxies altogether (although keep in mind we only can account for approximately five percent of the total mass in the universe with the stars and galaxies we know of- there’s all that pesky dark matter and dark energy we can’t account for.) Every five minutes scientists are finding another planet orbiting a star, just last week they announced they’d found one that was in the right location to support liquid water on its surface, and I’m left with the inescapable conclusion that life exists throughout the whole of the universe, in unimaginable variety and complexity and strangeness, but also in utterly familiar forms- because it’s the same everywhere you go! I mean, still its true that the vast, vast, vast majority of space is utterly empty, and so are the vast, vast, vast majority of planets empty of life, but there are so many many many many of them that there are probably effectively numberless iterations of earth-like planets that support life something like what we’ve got here, and therefore, since the processes are everywhere guided by the same physical laws, consciousness is alive everywhere. Not everywhere, but scattered throughout the whole of the universe, just like light, just like matter, just like energy.
It’s all one, man.
So, my plan is to relax.
Have a good time. Eat good. Drink wine. Walk on the beach and in the woods, in the sunshine and rain and all forms of weather. Hold hands, kiss, embrace, get all skin-on-skin. Make art. Stand in the street and scream. Chase bad guys. Shoot guns. Drive fast. Fight. Write books. Doodle and dawdle.
Push away from the table with all the chips or flat busted.
I wish you the very best year ever.
Go kick its ass!
(PS- Go read this essay by Oliver Sacks on what neuroplasticity can mean to you this year, today, right now!)
I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t spend all their time trying to figure this shit out, man. New facts have come to light… I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about… I’ve got information man! New shit has come to light! And shit… man, she kidnapped herself. Well sure, man. Look at it… a young trophy wife, in the parlance of our times, you know, and she, uh, uh, owes money all over town, including to known pornographers, and that’s cool… that’s, that’s cool, I’m, I’m saying, she needs money, man. And of course they’re going to say that they didn’t get it, because… she wants more, man! She’s got to feed the monkey, I mean uh… hasn’t that ever occurred to you, man? Sir?
“No, Dude, that had not occurred to us.”