29 Gennaio 2007

What is consciousness?

For twenty years, interest in studying the consciousness has grown exponentially. Publications and conventions on what seems to be the last frontier of research are multiplying. Let us try to weigh up the situation.

These days, the aforementioned research is entrusted to the field of science as there seems to be no other domain of human experience deemed trustworthy enough to study the consciousness.
Philosophy slipped away and people have continued to listen to only those philosophers who have accepted neuroscientific theories (Dennett, Searle, Thompson...).
But is conscience a subject that the sciences alone or even for the most part have the capability to study?
No, for at least two reasons.
Science is subject to the postulate of objectivity and to the method adopted by the detached observer and not directly involved with the event observed. The postulate of objectivity dictates that we obtain data from a world external to us, the detached observers, and we store and  process it in a strictly logical way. Thus, there is an iron principle of transitivity in force, or rather I  - observe and describe - something (subject, predicate, object) and in such the observer must not be involved in what is observed. 
So, conscience is the subject of knowledge. "Subject: essential syntactic unit indicating the person or the thing that performs or is subject to the action expressed by the predicate establishing with this an inseparable and autonomous link."1
I can further prove that this is true if I doubt that this is true. I, the subject, thus establish, with the doubt itself, an inseparable and autonomous link: the doubting subject.
The same can be said of an observer. But if the observer is facing the observed, that itself, as operator of the observation, is not observable. It is thus easy to deduce that the limit of the canonical scientific approach to conscience is the transitivity of the process of conscience: I observe the world, censure the data collected and formulate answers.

The observer in as much as he cannot, by definition, be part of the observed, without ceasing to be the observer, transforms himself into the observed, thus alienating himself from the true nature of observer.
Science thus assumes, then, a second postulate, that of  homogeneity between subject and object: that what is valid for the object is also valid for the subject. Or rather the subject (the consciousness) would be nothing more than an object amongst others (or function or emergence from objects) called  "subject".
Thus, the insurmountable and irreducible openness of the view on the world is forgotten, a view that you can visit only by coinciding with it and knowable only by being it. And this is attemptable in meditation, not in the transitivity of objective observation where subject and object become confused in the victory of objectivity.

But what is consciousness? What makes consciousness? Above all we ask ourselves this. Then we perceive, we make inferences, remember, judge, make predictions...
These are faculties of the consciousness. Something is missing though: it knows that it is and this is the real divide between science and consciousness.
is not relevant to science in that it is not something specific but regards everything, and is not computable. Sartre wrote about it in La nausée: "You can never deduce existence; you meet it."
To be aware of Being
is basis for all the capabilities of the consciousness. I would go so far as to say: it is consciousness.

Which algorithms do we have to work out in order to calculate Being?
Certainly perception, inference, memory, judgement, prediction are functions that we can hope to see, one day, accomplished amazingly by a machine, but not the awareness of Being, for the simple fact that  it  is not possible to  perform calculations  which give it as an outcome.
Science can afford not to deal with Being, it should limit itself to the functions of surveying, discerning, inferring, recording, representing, judging, making predictions, opening scenarios...

But what does it mean that something is?
It means that it is not missing. What does it mean that there is consciousness? That consciousness recognises its own non-nothingness, its own non absence; that it knows that it is. To deny it, or even just doubt it, would only prove it further, in that doubting and denying are acts of consciousness, that exist for this reason, rather than not existing.
Consciousness knows that it is and that everything is. 
Being, ie the fact of being, finds its most suitable meaning in the definition "the total opposite of nothing".
Being and nothing are not mere concepts in that there are the concepts rather than nothing. This we understand. There is understanding rather than nothing. If we don't understand it: no understanding rather than understanding. Being and nothing are not mere concepts, even if their meaning is expressed via the conceptual.
And if the universe is everything, the lack of a second Universe is not a concept: it really isn't there, there is nothingness.
From this: why is there the Universe rather than nothing?

Here it would be opportune to introduce the genial intuition of Heidegger on the ontological difference between Being (Sein) and beings (Seiendes) .
Being is every thing that is, and, intended the whole which is, is grasped in its Being, or rather in the fact of being, expressed by the verb "to be": the truth about everything is  "that it is".
Knowing that what there is, is there! seems a banal comment, whereas it is a overwhelming truth. 
In the words of Heidegger in Fundamental questions of Philosophy: "... the pure sobriety of thought is after all just the most severe restraint in itself of supreme emotional disposition, ie. that which has opened up in the face of that single monstrously disorientating fact (dem einen einzigen Ungeheuren): that beings (Seiendes) are, rather than not being."2 

That Consciousness should be shaken by this awareness seems to me to be its main aim. To reduce consciousness just to the mental functions such as obtaining, storing and representing, tests the limits of those who believe their consciousness capable only of this. I understand the scientists, albeit with difficulty, because of their professional inclinations, but much less so the philosophers. Or rather, sad to say, philosophy is simply finished, consigned to the domain of the object, the function and the use.
The real discrimination in the investigation into consciousness lies in the difference between those who appreciate the profound sense of being aware of Being, and those who don't. In fact mankind is divided into two: those who know of the 'ungeheuerlich' (the monstrously disorientating) of Being and those who don't, and the subsequent directions of investigation continue down completely different paths; what provides a satisfactory answer for those for whom Being has that meaning  will not be satisfactory for others, and vice versa.
The Turing test3 should be completed by the following requirement: that the answers, in order to be correspondent to those provided by humans, also include koan solutions, otherwise rather than having to accept that a calculator has risen to the level of human beings, we will have to resign ourselves to the opposite: that man has declined to the poor level of capability of a machine. 

"Everyone knows the sound of two hands clapping. What's the sound of one hand?" quotes a famous koan by Hakuin (1686-1769).
If it is possible to explain in causal terms, as it surely is, the sound produced by two hands clapping, what is the answer to the sound of one hand only, the sound of the mystery of its existence? It is certainly not possible to arrive at an answer via logic and science has its own essential way of proceeding logically. 
It is without doubt relevant to science to study certain functions of the mind and certain states of consciousness (wakefulness, sleep, hallucinations, pathology, etc...); it falls within its transitive and objective specificities and this brings benefits to medicine and  to the instruments  that make life easier, but with this it cannot even touch the surface of the essence of the consciousness itself of the person carrying out the research: in order that they may be reawakened to the tremendous and fascinating mystery of Being


Devoto, Oli. Dictionary of the Italian language.
(ed. Le Monnier)

"Fundamental Questions of Philosophy" (italian ed. Mursia) La filosofia da venire e il ritegno come disposizione emozionale fondamentale del riferimento all'Essere (Seyn). Our translation. 

"Pure sobriety is not nothing, much less just the lack of an emotional disposition, nor is it the simple coldness of a rigid concept; the pure sobriety of thought is fundamentally just the most severe restraint in itself of a supreme emotional disposition, ie. that which has opened up in the face of that single monstrously disorientating fact (dem einen einzigen Ungeheuren): that beings are, rather than not being.
This fundamental emotional disposition of philosophy, or rather of philosophy to come, assuming that it is possible to say something about it immediately, let's name: restraint (Verhaltenheit).
In it are originally united and belonging one to another: the shock (Erschrecken) when faced with the closest and most invasive fact, that  beings are, and at the same time the awe (Scheu) when faced with the most distant fact that inside beings (Seiendes) and before any beings is essencing (west) Being  (Sein). Restraint is that emotional disposition in which that shock cannot be overcome and put aside, but is, on the contrary, preserved and guarded through that shock. Restraint is the fundamental emotional disposition of reference to Being, in which the secrecy (Verborgenheit) of the essencing of Being becomes the most worthy thing to be asked for. Only those who throw themselves into the all-consuming fire of questioning surrounding this most worthy of facts to be asked for, have the right to say of this emotional disposition something more than simply its name."

The Turing test takes its moves from a game, known as the imitation game, with three participants: a man A, a woman B, and a third person C. This third person is kept separate from the other two and via a series of questions has to establish which is the man and which is the woman. For their part A and B also have tasks to complete: A has to try and trick C and lead them to make an incorrect identification, whereas B has to try and help C. Since C is given no clues to help them (such as the possibility to analyse handwriting or voice), the answers to C's questions must be typewritten or communicated in a similar way.
The Turing test is based on the assumption that person A can be replaced by a machine. In this case, if C didn't notice any change, the machine would have to be considered intelligent, from the time that  - in this situation  - it would be indistinguishable from a human being.


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