20. Farther Out on a Limb
In all this talk about consciousness and intelligence, I see now, another word has been waiting to be brought into the discussion. That word, that notion, is the self.
One reason it’s hard to think about the question of whether consciousness and intelligence must be connected is that when I mention those two qualities it’s inevitable that I am also talking about the self. Thus I am messing with the most personal of stuff, and of course resistance pops up at once. As soon as one gets a hint that a threat to the self’s integrity is approaching, the mind starts to push the new thought away. And there definitely could appear to be a threat to the self in the making when I start asserting that we have to change our vision of how intelligence and consciousness connect.
So let me go farther. There’s no point in stopping now; in for a penny, in for a pound. The great challenge is to see how secondary a role consciousness plays in the incredible complexity that is going on in the moment, right now. The difficulty of seeing this inheres in consciousness itself. This is how Julian Jaynes puts it in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:
Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere.
. . . The flashlight would be conscious of being on only when it is on. Though huge gaps of time occurred, providing things were generally the same, it would seem to the flashlight itself that the light had been continuously on. (23-24)
It’s not easy to hold in mind the understanding that consciousness is just one aspect of our being and not necessarily at the center of it. The very act of holding something in mind contradicts that thought.
Because we believe consciousness is at the center, and identify our selfhood with it, we intuitively resist the notion of separating intelligence, or mind, from consciousness and we resist entertaining the idea that it can exist around us, in the ecosystem. That seems to contradict our lived experience of getting through the day. Undoubtedly we humans respond effectively to our environment because consciousness intervenes and chooses our response – some of the time. But not all of it, and that’s what is hard to appreciate. Consciousness is always telling us that consciousness intervenes because that’s what consciousness does, inherently. It’s telling us “I work the way I work” because that is the only thing it can tell us. Meanwhile, the whole human being, seen as a whole, works differently from the way consciousness represents it to us as working.
Perhaps the canonical example of this is our inability to perceive the eye’s blind spot (where the optic nerve emerges from the retina). There are many other examples having to do with vision, such as our not perceiving that our eyes are constantly in motion over the field of vision, or the Ames experiments described by Bateson in Mind and Nature, which I alluded to near the beginning of #18. The point is that we can’t know, subjectively, in the moment, that our consciousness is presenting us with its own special version of “reality.” Consciousness confirms itself as the center, and there is no other input, in the moment, to compare it to or to suggest that consciousness isn’t everything. That other input has to come from experimentation, from reflection over time, from an awareness of the history preceding this moment, from noticing how things unfolded, from noticing patterns in my experience or the experience of those around me. Sooner or later some such awareness makes me stop and step back. Hmm, that didn’t happen because I thought something, that didn’t happen in an explainable way or an intentional way, it seemed that I “just did” that or that “just happened,” the body acted without me, there was a situation going on which I was somehow responding to without being aware, until after the fact, that I responded to it.
One small everyday example of this is the human capacity to feel, somehow, that one is being looked at. This even includes being looked at from behind: we turn and look back at the person who is staring at us. The experience is always that I turn to look back before I know why I’m turning. It doesn’t happen intentionally; it definitely is an effective response that doesn’t require conscious awareness.
Or I think of myself following the trail along the north side of the Little River. It isn’t heavily traveled, and most of it isn’t marked in some obvious way; I have to make out the slight differences that add up to the Gestalt of “there’s where the trail goes.” Sometimes I lose the trail, try a direction, pick it up again . . . it’s an unfolding experience. When I congratulate myself on detecting the trail amid all the plants and branches and dead stems and fallen leaves and whatnot, the self-congratulation comes after I’ve done the noticing. That is awareness of being aware. The actual recognition of the trail is something that happens, I think, below the threshold of conscious processing. Like recognition of a face, it occurs in an instant that has no interior, no thought process. “It clicks,” as we say, and consciousness is not what makes it “click.” Consciousness comes along afterwards and realizes that “clicking” has occurred.
What could be more myself than recognizing a face, a voice, a smell I haven’t encountered in years? My mother took me with her to Paris when I was eight years old, and a certain smell that I every once in a while encounter is that experience. I can’t identify all the components, but for a start, it’s made up of air exhaled from the subway through a vent in the sidewalk, plus smoke from a cigarette, plus coffee. These resonances are deeply buried within the heart of what I call me. But like the creations of the imagination, with which I’m sure they are intimately connected, they aren’t within the lit-up circle of my consciousness until something causes them to surface there. I’m not attacking the idea of selfhood; I’m trying to tease it apart from consciousness. Though consciousness inevitably represents itself as the center, the seat of self, it plays a smaller part than we think. What follows, for me, is that the self is bigger than we tend to realize, more expansive, more inclusive, more connected to the “wider intelligence,” less separate than we believe it to be from the world around us. I don’t want to say “self is an illusion”; rather, I want to say “a certain limited conception of self is an illusion – one that we’re all set up to have.”
Instantly things get really tricky. In saying that I want to get past a limited conception of the self, it could seem that I’m only a step away from delusions of grandeur, when actually that’s exactly what I want to argue against. This train of thought can only proceed through several paradoxical turns.
There is a part of reality that is up to us to create, and a part that isn’t. The key is being able to tell the difference and deciding where to draw that line. As Maturana and Varela argued, human beings are self-defining, and we don’t have direct perception of the thing-in-itself that surrounds us. In one sense we have no choice but to live in a dream world, a “reality” that we create and reconfirm incessantly. Yet – and this is where I wouldn’t go as far as Maturana and Varela do – while the reality we create through our cognition may never allow us access to the thing-in-itself, there must be some reliable correlation between the two, because the thing-in-itself, or nature, really is out there and is not synonymous with our idea of it. It is possible to be mistaken about the nature of the world surrounding us, and for those mistakes to have serious consequences. An example would be the mistake of thinking there’s no price to be paid for creating a monoculture of some crop that we value, like potatoes. Such a system becomes ecologically “brittle”; the uniquely maximized plant is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, like the late blight that caused the Irish famine in the 19th century. There are indeed limits to how far we can carry our domination, and they exist whether or not we like them, or are ignorant of them.
At the same time, we ourselves are self-defining within the theatre of our awareness. Whatever way we create ourselves is self-confirming. If we imagine ourselves confined within a demoralizing prison of mere mechanism, in the style of behaviorism or the “selfish gene,” then so be it: that’s all we are. If we imagine ourselves imaginative, capable of creation, of origination, if we imagine ourselves self-transcending, more than the predictable, then that’s what we are – or at the very least, have an opportunity to become. Though we create our personal reality, that doesn’t mean it’s a hall of mirrors. We can experience being part of something much more expansive and open and fruitfully mysterious, a reality that we are constantly discovering. In that sense, but only in that sense, we are subject only to the limits we put on ourselves, the “mind-forg’d manacles” that William Blake warned us of.
The limited conception of self that I’m saying is an illusion is like what Buddhism calls “ego,” using that term in a non-Freudian way. It means the notion that I am my will and the contents of my will, that I am my conscious intentionality, that I can be right, that I must be right, that I am right all the time, that I am in control . . . it’s exhausting just to contemplate having to be this way, let alone actually being it. As of course I, like many people, have been too much of the time, throughout my life.
Though this ego is a narrow and confining mental space in which to live out one’s life, it manages to cover up that fact with a grandiose fantasy of limitlessness and omnipotence. The ego is trapped within its own self-confirmation but conceives of this trap as the essence of life, incessantly telling itself that just because it has not yet achieved total control, that’s no reason to stop thinking it can. This version of the self butts its stubborn horns against reality and demands to be in charge, as if somehow, finally, after all this evolution, all this “progress,” all this technological invention – or for that matter after all this grasping hungrily for spiritual self-aggrandizement – one would finally break through every known limit and become . . . well, to put it bluntly, like a god. As if that is what should happen, in the grand plan of the universe, when cosmic rightness finally prevails. In our human dream world at its extreme, there is an efficient cause at work and I am it, period.
I think not. The tragedy or comedy of the human race is that we are able to imagine being something, living some way, that never can be. This makes for exciting and distracting emotional drama, but there are consequences of a frighteningly practical nature for acting as if there are no limits on planet Earth and we can control every aspect of the reality around us. On May 15, 2008, the Mauna Loa Observatory reported 387 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Around the same date, James Hansen of NASA and eight other climatologists submitted to Science a paper which concludes that the target long-term CO2 level should be 350 parts per million, to avoid passing a number of irreversible tipping points, such as loss of ice in the polar regions leading to a rise in sea level that would inundate coastal cities. If their analysis is correct we are already operating in the danger zone, and since a new coal-fired power plant goes on line in China at the rate of approximately one per week, since Tata Motors of India is introducing a $2500 car . . . I don’t need to belabor the point.
Ultimately the fantasy of limitlessness and total control is a confinement, while the recognition that we’re not superior to this world we live in is a release. The only way we can comprehend a world of formal causes, like ecosystems, is by giving up the fantasy that we are in control of it. It makes no sense to adopt an attitude of “I will only learn those things that leave me feeling I’m in charge.” Mind is brought about by “a certain sort of organization of parts”; it arises by formal cause. If I artificially subtract myself from the larger organization by walling myself up in the fortress of the ego, I cut myself off from the wider intelligence; in short I make myself stupider. This option is always open, but just because we can do it doesn’t mean it’s to our advantage.
The ego’s dream of perfect control is aided and abetted by the fact that consciousness inherently makes it hard for us to tell that there is a difference between our personal reality and the rest of the surrounding world. Not too surprising, then, that we could become blind to the existence of limits. For the last two centuries at least, we humans have tended to believe that our actions vis-à-vis nature could be unilateral and without constraint. Perhaps we always wanted to believe that, but we didn’t have the power to carry out such a program all the way until recently. Maybe now we’re starting to see differently, because we have to; the jury is still out on that. Maybe we’re learning the hard way what I think the Tao Te Ching may have meant all along about “non-action”: not that human beings should be passive or fatalistic, but that we cannot ultimately live in this world by stubbornly, and to the exclusion of all other strategies, trying to wrench it into some desired shape. “Non-action” doesn’t mean no action at all, it means not that kind of action.
In a world of formal cause, the kind of action that works is collaboration. There’s a dance improvisation technique that embodies what I mean. If two dancers are told to improvise as a pair and mirror each other’s movements, without talking to each other, what will happen is this: at first, without saying anything, they’ll trade the lead role back and forth between them a number of times. One will always be aware of following and echoing the other. Then there will come a point when both dancers will realize that no one is leading and no one is following; after that they will mirror each other, period. At that point, larger mind, incorporating both dancers, has taken over. The same thing happens in a jazz group, perhaps in any musical group, when the music takes flight. A very good musician said to me once, “It’s more important to listen than to play.” That doesn’t mean you don’t play your instrument; you play it differently.
Can we work with nature in anything like this way? Again, the example of John Todd at Harwich says we can. One could say that nature thought through him – he set up and populated his artificial wetland making use of all of his education and experience – but he also thought through nature. When he collected the organisms and established them in his tanks, he in effect said to them, “Please work on the problem of eliminating these pollutants and show me whatever you come up with.” Nature, which thinks by doing, proved to have some pretty smart thoughts on that topic.
The question is not whether such an attitude is possible or reasonable, but whether we humans as a species can adopt such an attitude before we irreversibly plunge ourselves into an emergency of our own making. If such a tipping point comes, we’ll have to deal with the natural world differently and so, perforce, we will. But at this point, our hope, our denial of death, our bid for immortality seems to be invested in an absolutely sovereign self – a misunderstanding of our sovereignty, which is absolute within a certain sphere, but not truly absolute; yet this dream of omnipotence is apparently about to carry us over the falls, into what sort of radically altered world we can’t be sure, dashing the very hopes we’re trying to protect. In the end, hope resides in conceiving the self as less sovereign, because giving up the illusion that we can have complete control makes it possible to learn how things really work. And we have a lot to learn. Fast.