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On consciousness as an illusion

What is consciousness if not an illusion of the mind? Perhaps the mere result of a growing need by a living organism to construct intricate responses to external stimuli in their struggle to survive. This requires an acute sense of existence in time, giving rise to both the notion of an indefinite present and the perception of itself as it operates in this state. Has it been a survival trait for complex organisms to develop this real-time figuration of its behaviour towards a moment where consciousness arises in the mind almost as a side effect of its own activity?

For most living organisms, instinct seems to suffice as the inherent inclination towards a certain behaviour in response to a particular situation. Yet, eventually in the history of a complex being inherent inclinations are no longer enough to determine actions because the plurality of the scenarios faced becomes too vast. The responses need to be shaped in the very moment the behaviour occurs, it needs to draw from its own accumulated experience to figure out new action paths. Instincts cannot be the ruler of general behaviour anymore because they are not effective guiding it. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if this capacity to construct behaviour (of transforming instinct into active reflection) might be what ultimately gives rise to what we understand as consciousness?

As such, our decisions and intentions may not proceed from a sense of identity, but actually precede it — and only eventually give rise to it. Is sentience and recognition of this subjective state a characteristic of a sufficiently complex consciousness that now also needs to extend its understanding through time? That is, extend its attention to both the past and the possible future as it figures out how to act in the present, with the side effect that extending such an attention to the past and the future creates a notion of permanence through time — of something that persists through change. This identification of the consciousness with its own operativeness as a permanence may be the root of the illusion of us being the consciousness. (While consciousness might have been nothing but an evolutionary tool of the mind). The result is the illusion of a self, an intangible notion of permanence, a product of the mind acting in a state of present awareness that makes consciousness spring.

The representation of the self as an effect of the mind processing and acting on the world also forges one the most primeval assumptions of understanding: cause and effect. Our understanding seems to thrive in this reality, one which can be dissected in terms of causes and effects as it directs its own behaviour. In such a world the active consciousness is able to reflect on the outcome of its actions to figure out how to act, all of this coalesced simultaneously in a sense of present time and eventually harbouring the notion of will. It is perhaps a necessity of a sufficiently complex mind in a sufficiently complex organism that this simultaneous activity produces the notion of a conscious being.

The ancient problem of free will against a predefined fate for human actions may become, in this sense, a false dichotomy — free will is as much an illusion as predefined actions are spurious.

At a time of concerns around the possibility of humanity creating machines with a resemblance of sentience and intelligence, understanding the development and nature of what we call consciousness is not just a philosophical or speculative effort, but a fundamental background for any conversation around the topic to make any sense at all. Considering consciousness may not be more than an illusion created by the history of the mind as it grew on top of instinctual behaviour, where do we actually place the notion of being? The invention of consciousness may have been a bright spark in time (one which seems at times to hold itself eternal), but nevertheless, nothing more than a moment in our brief existence. Understanding its nature — the reluctance with which it exhibits its illusion — could be another step in our knowing of reality.

The presentation on React + WordPress that Gregory Cornelius and I gave at WordCamp US earlier this month is available online at WordPress.tv. Check it out if you are interested in some of the whys of Calypso or how React could work with WordPress in general.

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