What does it mean to be conscious within a universe said to have begun thirteen billion years ago, the result of Quantum Uncertainty, a Big Bang, or an act of Divine Creation? The following attempts to answer this question from the point of view of a reductionist who is not a determinist - an unusual pairing, but one whose rationale will, I think, become clear.
Consciousness - especially self-consciousness - encourages persons (`subjects of experience') to regard the universe as a storm of objects and entities located in space and passing through a universe-wide, simultaneous present. Today, thanks to Albert Einstein, we sometimes speak of the relativistic space-time implied by the 1887 Michelson-Morley discovery that the speed of light is the same no matter how fast or in what direction observers are traveling. Any other `fastest possible communication' would have led to identical relativistic conclusions.
These are reasonable approximations, but ones that seem to me to be ultimately false. You and I are `local events' within an overarching event - i.e., the `present state' of the Big Bang - that leaves neither entities nor things behind. Nothing exists except consequences, influences and ramifications. These proceedings have already yielded phenomena termed suns, planets, hurricanes and organic beings.
The emergence of consciousness and phenomenal entities should not distract us from the charm of simple explanations. Whatever creation means, it cannot - at least it need not - involve the common sense world of things and the substances things seem to be made of. David Hume was right. Only recurring associations can be spoken of. The question - “Do bats cause balls to go in certain trajectories?” - becomes: “Does the instrumental value of certain trajectories cause images of bats and balls to behave in identifiable, reliably associated ways?”
Accordingly, the need for causal explanation is as chimerical as the objects and entities they purport to link. Paying attention to what is going on is entertaining and useful, but noticing, naming, discussing ... is about vanished states of affairs. Grumbling that intervals between events and apprehensions are sometimes trivial ignores the significance of the fact that they exist.
There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can't do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.
I recently observed something every driver has seen countless times - a squirrel making its run across a road, reversing direction, reversing again and continuing on. This time the gambit was successful, in part because I slowed to allow the animal time to `make up its mind'. My traveling companion that day had a better description. I slowed enough to “let the squirrel decide”. This is preferable because what was going on was the squirrel deciding - not some specialized part of the squirrel, after consulting information gleaned by sensory organs; information then assessed, evaluated, prioritized, melded with some previously conceived agenda (get across the road) ... and then acted upon.
The reason this is preferable is that the alternative is too complicated. What we observe in road-crossing squirrels is `decision making' in lock step with nearby events. We also see that what counts as nearby is determined by sensory organs - eyes, ears, feelers, olfactory receptors.... Earthworms and eagles have different theaters of engagement.
This is worth thinking about because, if this squirrel had been in the grip of anything like the picture you and I indulge, my generosity would not have saved its life.
In Homo sapiens, two renderings of just such managerial functions have become obstacles to well-being. The one we should be most interested in involves seeing ourselves as `persons within' the bodies we inhabit or ride around upon. The second involves analogous functions within institutions, corporations and nations. We believe that corporate undertakings occur at the behest of managers or administrators. Like you and I, these managers have `inner-selves', and so persons are thought to control corporations and nations through a two-stage relationship - first their own bodies, and then the corporations constituted by these bodies.
Even if an individual does not consider herself `actively involved' in corporate or national proceedings, it is comforting to believe that other persons are at their helm.
Unhappily, this reassurance depends upon prior claims that persons enjoy managerial relationships with bodies. While these claims have been `fleshed out' with talk about sin and virtue and the meaning of voluntary and involuntary, while they are the hinge upon which justice systems, wars and commerce revolve, the issue is not settled. A growing body of evidence identifies biological, sociological and chemical determinants of what human beings get up to. As such explanations accumulate the role of moral and rational agency shrinks - a connection not often thought about. What is never thought about is that the same body of evidence renders indifference to the nature of corporate intentionality correspondingly implausible. When they are `behaving badly', we believe corporations and nations are constituted and controlled by persons and that malevolent behavior can therefore be dealt with as human failures. However, if persons turn out to not be in control of bodies, such feelings of well-being with respect to the human nature of corporate and national intentionality are misplaced. Indeed, since corporations and nations are immeasurably more potent than individuals, the consequences of getting this wrong could be grave indeed.
What does it matter if persons are not in control of bodies and corporations the way we have been imagining? A provocative possibility is that hubris-laden human beings have been amalgamating into de facto alien life forms, and that these entities (corporations and nations) have been evolving into increasingly powerful entities. Events in the 20th and early 21st century certainly look like corporations and nations prowling the world disguised as human beings collectively pursuing profit and prey.
A harm less vulnerable to charges of anthropomorphism, involves media presentations, public debates and many intellectual undertakings. Individuals seized with issues such as global warming or HIV/AIDS typically strive to put their warnings, statistics and adjurations before the widest possible audience. This strategy - exemplified in placeNorth America by Al Gore, David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis - assumes the `inner agent' model. This claim alone makes it possible to hope that yet more arguments, statistics, and predictions … could make a difference. Presenting new data or arguments provide moral and rational agents with an opportunity to revisit decisions already taken, or perhaps consider issues for the first time.
Of course, there is no guarantee that those watching Dr. David Suzuki and Sir Nicholas Stern reprising global warming scenarios, or Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth”, will make `wholesome' decisions. Since nothing determines the sovereign will of persons, the only hope is that new statistics, arguments and pleas will occasion `better decisions' - without, in any way, determining them.
The problem is that this faint hope flies in the face of an enormous body of failed pleas to do better and seize opportunities. Fortunately, this track record may not reflect a lack of prudence or moral fiber so much as confusion over the nature of persons. What if there are no moral or rational agents? What if human beings have been interrupting their enhanced capacity to make timely responses by endlessly analyzing and discussing issues? What if, instead of reengaging and actualizing, we have been preaching to one another under the assumption that we are sovereign sources of moral and rational acts?
What if, while we have been distracted, opportunities to actualize solutions have been knocking in vain?
A clue that the standard view is wrong can be found in our on-again, off-again use of `agent claims'. For example, the public's sense of responsibility for corporate behaviour does not include all the persons involved as employees or consumers. Two exceptions have been bolted onto the notion that every person is a moral and rational agent in charge of his or her body. The first is that the conduct of institutions and nations is credited to, or blamed upon, a few administrators and leaders. The model of distributed responsibility implicit in the standard view had to go because it undermines the subordinate relationships cherished by leaders and followers alike. Distributed responsibility would call into question the disproportionate wealth and power leaders enjoy. As well, followers would no longer get to enjoy perpetual adolescence by leveraging subordination and deference into claims of innocence. In a world rife with inconsistent agent claims, followers get to have their cake and eat it. They are honorary persons; but not moral or rational agents in any way that matters.
Hence, a corollary of the standard view - that responsibility is integral to what it means to be human - is not widely recognized. This may also be because the standard view is regarded as self-evident. Arguments for and against have not occurred, even though an increasing body of psychological and physiological behaviorism demands such a discussion. In the absence of such discussions, Dr. David Suzuki and Sir Nicholas Stern are able to continue recommending improved decision-making by followers to deal with climate change issues. They seem to see themselves as leaders asking followers to be leaders in their own lives; oblivious to the possibility that many of the problems human beings face have important roots in leader-follower relationships.
The inner agent model can be finessed in these ways because there is no advantage to being consistently mistaken. This is why we have little difficulty overlooking the fact that, even with sophisticated stratagems crediting and blaming leaders and villains for corporate and national behaviors, a sense of residual culpability remains. The USA is deemed an evil nation by millions, including many of its own citizens. Noam Chomsky - reportedly the most important intellectual in the world - is certainly of this opinion, although he focuses upon a few individuals, corporations and interest groups. Similarly, when citizens express patriotic feelings, they have something more in mind than the aggregate agendas of leaders and followers. Thus, many continue to be wary of Germany and Japan because of their conduct during the Second World War - the exculpating function of the Nuremberg trials and death penalties notwithstanding. Vague unease seems to be as far as we can go however. Hard-edged questions such as - “Could nations and corporations be agents in their own right?” - would call into question the conceit that persons are lords of all they survey.
Finally, characterizing nations as intrinsically good or evil would be counterproductive in terms of resuming economic and political relationships with once-treacherous nations.
In spite of these anxieties and inconsistencies, and in spite of contradicting what I call the `axiom of distributed responsibility', scapegoating remains Homo sapiens' `one size fits all' defense against moral and rational indictments. In placeNorth America, the first decade of the Third Millennium saw dozens of leaders hauled before courts of law and public opinion. USA President Bush's response to the 9/11 crises was widely criticized. In 2005, President Bush confessed government ineptitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The debacle in placecountry-regionIraq was acknowledged in the fall of 2006 - a mea culpa that probably reflected the Grand Old Party's assessment of its electoral prospect. After all, what's the point of espousing Christian fundamentalism if repentance, confession and absolution are not harnessed to political wagons?
The notion that human bodies contain inner persons or souls set the stage for dangerous conceits and practices. Had the `axiom of distributed responsibility' been consistently applied, these dangers might have proven manageable. Certainly, human beings' propensity to doff caps and tug forelocks has proven far more destructive than greed, selfishness and cruelty. During the 20th century, 220 million people perished in wars as military combatants or as `collateral damage' casualties. Sorting populations into leaders and followers organized the masses for slaughter or exploitation, either as soldiers executing one another or as conveniently arranged, no-alternative workers and consumers. Soldiers under the chain of command continue to regard themselves as persons because they see themselves voluntarily abdicating moral and rational decision-making for the duration of their enlistment or conscription. Similarly, urbanized populations see themselves responding or capitulating to economic realities, but always under the aegis of consent. In every case, accommodation is stamped with the imprimatur of conscious choice. Because of this adroit massaging of the `agent file', the exploited get to bear responsibility for their fate, while their tormenters can claim to be harvesting the fruits of superior moral or rational choices.
With such a history, it should be possible to `suspend belief' long enough to think about the cultural and psychological antecedents of deferential relationships. An important precursor of dictators, Prime Ministers and hubris-addled CEOs is the claim - “I am a person in control of my own body”. This conceit foreshadows the world of institutions, corporations and nations. Every organization is patterned upon the `person in charge' myth. Institution batten upon populations sorted into agent/body, master/slave, and strong/weak relationships ... as `dogs' bodies' for their own hierarchical adventures. Urban populations, the disappearance of subsistence ways of living, the emergence of specialized employments … means that all the pieces necessary for the compilation of virtually alive corporations and nations were in place. Specialization provided individuals `prepared' to function as administrators, communicators, information gatherers, producers, defenders and clean up crews. The same specialization meant individuals had no choice save to make their skills and energies available as component functions, to desire corporate and national prosperity as if their lives depended upon it.
As important as these factors have been, the seminal event opening the Pandora's Box of corporations and nations was the promotion of imagined selves into sovereign responsibilities. We imagine ourselves initiating actions ex Nihilo, vetoing external proceedings whenever we choose. Awareness of `internal resolutions' wherein possibilities are seized and dangers avoided, feel like `decisions made'. Leveraged into claims that conscious beings are not passive subjects of experiences, but agents, souls, persons... these sensations spawned the modern world.
To be sure, not everyone has been so gullible. The Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought that notions of free will were analogous to arrows in flight becoming conscious of their trajectory and thinking that they had chosen the target they seemed to be aiming for
Since skeptics are, by definition, exceptions, they prove the rule. Notions of free will and personhood have been seducing human beings for at least three thousand years. According to Julian Jaynes, consciousness is not an automatically occurring endowment distinguishing Homo sapiens from other creatures. Instead, consciousness emerged out of a communication breakdown between the hemispheres of the bicameral mind. Jaynes believe that this event was recorded during the 7th century BC in the work of the blind Aeonian poet Homer. Homer wrote The Iliad using 3rd person grammatical constructions, then adapted a 1st person stance in The Odyssey. Jaynes thought that the capacity for self-consciousness driving this change signaled a culturally-based threshold-crossing interruption of previously seamless communications between these hemispheres. Although not critical to the hypothesis, a bundle of nerve fibers (the corpos collosum) connecting the hemispheres was thought to channel `big picture understandings' to the `dominant hemisphere' from the other half of the brain. These messages were looked and sounded like pronouncements by deities, angels, devils, monsters … projected upon the `awareness canvas' generated by sensory organs. Pre-literate, pre-oral tradition human beings lacked literary or artistic alternatives to channel information from one brain hemisphere to the other.
These interruptions established a virtual interval that would eventually `house' consciousness - or, more accurately, the images constituting consciousness. This means the hard problem bedeviling neurosciences and philosophy - why it feels like something to be a person - has a simple explanation. Neural events during these interruptions had to `feel like something' if spatially and temporally complex understandings were to be integrated, and the organic significance of possible responses probed in thought experiments. Initiated and abetted by cultural resources, these events soon evolved into a more or less constant stream of awareness. (As Derek Parfit pointed out in Reasons and Persons, this is not difficult to understand. Since one is not aware of being unaware, awareness picks up where it left off and there appears to be no interruption.)
Even casual introspection discovers that agent-initiated events do not occur in the hurly-burly of life. Words, sentences, images, intentions, decisions appear in consciousness unbidden. Creative people talk about consulting muses, of characters taking control of narratives, of insights delivered in dreams or as waking gestalts. Consciousness is the result, not the cause, of images and intentions.
What leads us to ignore such experiences and intuitions in favour of an unquestioning belief in objects, artifacts, and creatures? Why do we believe that we are persons riding our bodies through the world and having our way with things, creatures and one another?
The answer is that when cognitive and cultural resources became available human beings found it seductive to talk about `persons within' - souls, beings, and selves. In The Origins of Consciousness, Jaynes argued that this awakening had been foreshadowed by a long period, perhaps one hundred and fifty thousand years, during which self-consciousness had little or nothing to do with the way life proceeded. Awareness consisted of nameless events, some of which were eventually promoted into the objects, entities and processes of common parlance. Before this happened, anthropological research suggests that gods and demons were everywhere; robust, tangible entities with which human beings had visceral, occasionally intimate, relationships.
On Jayne's account, these entities were manifestations projected upon the `virtual world retina' established by interrupting brain hemisphere transfers. Intuitions and apprehensions were conveyed to the `hands-on' hemisphere tasked with navigating the world. During the thousands of generations before self-consciousness became a feature of cultured lives, `big picture' communications were accomplished via hallucinations that seemed as real as real could be. These mirages were ancestors of the dreams occupying present day Homo sapiens during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The difference is that early human beings did not have self-conscious lives to wake up to. REM sleeps shaded into daily life. Gods, demons, fairies and hobgoblins continued to carry often-lugubrious messages from the furnace room of the brain (Freud spoke of the Dream Factory) to the dominant hemisphere `machinery division' where responses were hammered out.
My proposal takes this a step further. The world of common sense objects, creatures and entities is no less imaginary than the gods and demons that once populated and orchestrated human lives. Objects and entities are the results of reifications identical to those fashioning images out of inkblots and transforming boulders and trees into monsters on dark nights. Of course, most images are the results of unambiguous proceedings. Since they appear to be `rock solid', since they never make figure-ground reversals, the `phenomenal world' of objects and events seem tangible and real. This is illusory. An image of a mountain is neither more nor less than a snapshot of a (very) slow moving event. Divine encounters - including sexual encounters with flying saucer crews - are more of the same. The flowing nature of our consciousness of faster moving events is the result of a profusion of images melding seamlessly, images fished out of the stream of being underlying awareness.
In the culture-rich post Homerian world, once seamless communications between the hemispheres of the bi-cameral mind transformed into discussions of things, objects, incarnation (birth), death and reincarnation; with supernatural destinies explaining anything not otherwise accounted for. As cultural resources evolved, communication with Gods, demons and familiars came to require rituals, totems and chicken entrails. Driven by rationalism and skepticism - and self-serving opportunism by nascent communities of beautiful people - the rich, horizontal tapestry of gods and demons transformed into far simpler, hierarchical and monotheistic structures. Communication with these increasingly remote, omniscient and omnipotent beings now required shamans, necromancers, oracles, Ouija boards and Tarot cards.
Another consequence was a decline in community-centered conversations and independence. Previously mediated by Gods, fairies and witches, community life collapsed into obeisance to a small tribe of beautiful, wealthy and powerful individuals. These de facto icons serve as secular replacements for the vanishing pantheon of household, community and forest gods. Their sacred images can be seen on magazine covers at grocery store checkouts.
Today most human beings are utterly dependent upon leaders, athletes and beautiful people. We hang upon their words of wisdom. We depend upon them for work to do, for security, for cargo-cult provisioning and entertainment … with the patience of newly hatched birds.
The evolution of monotheism also set the stage for new forms of human conflict. For the first time, populations of any size - millions, perhaps even billions - could be organized along ideological lines. Individuals appear instinctively disposed to subordinate themselves to experienced, powerful individuals - an excellent strategy when every generation started from ground zero and making the best use of nearby experience and strength was an excellent strategy. The same propensity means we are eager to submit to hierarchical systems proclaiming the one true God on their banner. Of course, since there can only be one Supreme Being, competing ideologies have no alternative except to do battle. All the talk in the world about different religions being the same because they just have different names for the same God carries no weight with the faithful. Moreover, doctrinaire issues cannot be debated. If logic chopping, hair-splitting intellectuals are lucky, they will be ignored because the alternative is to be put to death. Certainly, faithful populations must either convert or exterminate one another. The alternative is so unspeakable that even suicidal terrorism or genocide is preferable. Many humanists and agnostics fear that Christian and Muslim nations are (temporarily!) putting aside `domestic differences' and girding themselves for Armageddon. The doomsday weapons both ;now possess may well write finis to messages passing between dominant and non-dominant hemispheres both within and among individuals.
As if these consequences were not trouble enough, self-consciousness constituted a vantage point from which worries about the meaning of life and death were inevitable. Self-consciousness also meant human beings had difficulty regarding themselves as part of the natural order. Instead of `nothing held back engagements' (like squirrels crossing roads), culturally constructed and disseminated images preempted organic and community experiences. Indeed, we have traveled so far down this road that our capacity to be occupied vicariously appears to be drying up. At least in the developed world, an organic vocabulary consisting of neurological representations of what hot and cold, effort, hunger, friendship … feel like are no longer being achieved. Restricted to spectator sports and mass media entertainment, circumscribed by specialized educations and employments, enfeebled by relentless consumption and conveniences … urban populations are stillborn to all intents and purposes. If an individual has never been hot, cold, hungry, tired … never experienced effort, work, companionship … how can their linguistic or visual depictions evoke empathic feelings? How can information about tragedies or atrocities evoke significant responses? How can predictions about the human consequences of, for example, global warming or aids be expected to resonate among urban populations?
Self-consciousness is the sine qua non of everything. Without self-consciousness, recognition of remarkable events (indeed, of any events) would not exist. However, while making life exquisite possible, consciousness undermines well-being by setting up `agent within' conceits and catalyzing hierarchical machinations. These machinations - whether local or corporate - always involve consciousness-obliterating proceedings. To appreciate the irony of this, we need to recognize that self-consciousness is not a reliably occurring evolutionary achievement. Self-consciousness flows from the simultaneous existence of cognitive machineries and cultural resources. To be sure, cultural resources only exist because of cognitive activities, but they are late-blooming, have a short shelf life and must be constantly renewed. If this does not happen, human beings collapse back to their biological `factory settings' - to ways and means of living characterized by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish and short”. This was, after all, mankind's lot for 98% of the one hundred and fifty thousand years Homo sapiens have existed, and continues to describe the circumstances of more than half of us.
All Homo sapiens, past and present, are as capable as you and I of complex memories, of points of view integrating experiences and taking note of recurring images. These capacities have existed for something like 150,000 years but, aside from burial customs and cave drawings as such places as placeLascaux in southwest placecountry-regionFrance 17,000 years ago, there is scant evidence of self-awareness. Only during the last three thousand years have cultural fires been burning brightly enough that some of us glimpsed ourselves. Without this insight, we could not have imagined a world of object and entities, and then capitalized upon opportunities for profit, power and, occasionally, understanding.
The irony is that self-awareness has dark consequences as well. Notions of identity and agenthood are analgesics for the frights suffered when experiences are parceled into objects and entities. We have named many of these apparitions. We have attempted to explain the comings and goings of some of those we have named - the easy ones with homely explanations, the subtler with `scientific inquiries'. We have been anxious indeed about such issues as identity through change, about what happens when objects and entities pass out of existence. This is why self-hood and notions of `agents within' are such seductive conceits. The sense that we are persons that somehow survive change, the associated sense of separateness from the vertiginous world (cf., Immanuel Kant's noumenal realm, Plato's Realm of Forms)... reduces the terrifying significance of the ebb and flow of existence.
Unhappily, these anxieties and responses have also been fueling wealth and power acquisition projects convened by the gifted and energetic. For leaders and would-be leaders, self-consciousness's existential conundrums meant wonderful opportunities. Most human beings are not really interested in wealth and power, at least if its acquisition involves expending very much time and energy. At the same time, we are disposed to follow anyone boasting that they have a plan - especially if the rewards of work or spoils of war are on the table. Even if no booty gets shared, we are glad to pay attention to leaders, media stars, and fabulous athletes.... And there must be a suitable proportion of villains and thieves - enough to underscore the need for homeland security and standing armies; for corporations to offer us work in exchange for the goods and services resulting from this work.
Along with immediate benefits, the presence of excellent and villainous individuals lends the rest of us direction and purpose. They define one end of the economic/political gradient. You and I establish the other. They live large - we dream of doing so. Because of their contribution to our sense of well-being, the famous and infamous are sanctioned to harvest as much as they can. The more they succeed, the more ordinary lives are reduced, the more exciting the prospect! In the grip of this picture, we forgive leaders, executives, villains ... for extorting wealth and power. We prefer to fund their accomplishments, participate vicariously in their lives as fans, spectators, victims ... than see what we can manage ourselves.
These difficulties need to be put in a broad context. Whether we are squirrel or human, the world is constantly changing. That is to say, the state of affairs responsible for whatever is in consciousness has moved on before awareness occurs. The phenomenal universe conceived in this way generates the apparent need to speak of space, time and causality. This is reminiscent of the debate between Leibniz and Newton in 1715-1716 (http://www.friesian.com/space.htm). Newtonian believed that there was an absolute space containing objects and substances, and a universally simultaneous present. Leibniz argued that notions of time and space were generated by relationships among objects and apparent causal connections - some objects precede others. Immanuel Kant offered a third possibility: space, time and causality were the a priori contributions of human minds, without which no experience was possible.
In the proposal sketched here, all such explanations address an imagined, always belated, phenomenal world. Kant's and Leibniz' explanations work equally well. Leibniz said “I hold space to be something merely relative, as time is; . . . For space denotes, in terms of possibility, an order to things which exist at the same time, considered as existing together." The change needed is to notice that, since the perceived need for causal explanations involves illusions, such explanations may have predictive value, but no further significance about actual existence. The need for Newtonian space and time to `contain them' is similarly illusory.
What also falls out of this is a way to account for the liveliness of consciousness. The celerity of thought has two sources. Concepts are derived from the memory traces (however achieved) representing active proceedings. These representations are not inert because they are representations of events, not things. The second source of liveliness involves unresolved tensions inherent in images. Since sensations have been parceled into images, much had to be cut away, ignored, overlooked. As a consequence, images are inexplicable in and of themselves. Explanations must be fashioned bridging between and among them - stories about origins and fates, causal explanations during phenomenal existence, and then bi-lateral relationships among substances, particulars, mass and energy.
To the extent that causal explanations are useful, they capture something of the teeming proceedings generating the phenomenal universe. For this reason, they are best thought of as second-order processes bridging phenomenal entities and objects. Because they are not crystallized into images, causal explanations embody more of the explosive nature of being than the entities and objects they are called upon to explain. In this sense, they come closer to capturing the pre-reflective life of squirrels and bi-cameral human beings.
With so much on the table, it is not surprising that we resist experiences and discussions wherein fundamental convictions are at risk. What could be more fundamental than the claim that we are individuals sharing a universe with other entities and objects? We acknowledge that processes cause objects to come into existence, to endure as identifiable and reidentifiable entities and then vanish. In spite of these important functions, processes remain unwelcome guests at the party - worrisome proceedings that must be guarded against and compensated for. We accommodate our underlying reality with talk of catabolism vs. anabolism, entropic degradation, rusting, wearing out, aging... and death.
What we should ask is whether the notion of reality as a succession of thing-laden moments is not mistaken. Why worry about such arcane questions? To the extent that we live under the aegis of false notions, the likelihood of prosperous, wholesome existence is diminished. Preoccupied with the comings and goings of images, with explanations, fates, purposes ... human beings risk being distracted by images of life already lived. There are obvious benefits to cataloguing expectations, strategies ... to distilling laws of nature from recurring patterns and central tendencies. The litmus test is whether doing so assists or obstructs the quality of lives.
Contrasting today with yesterday adds poignancy and depth to consciousness. The downside is the risk of living in a world of imagined objects and entities. In Being and Nothingness: an essay in phenomenological ontology written in 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre described authentic individuals as those with the courage to project goals (changes to being-in-itself or the world of facticity) and then struggle to achieve them. The only time authentic beings cease to strive in this way is at the moment of death, when pour-soi (being-for-itself) collapses into en-soi. People who refuse to dream and struggle are living in what Sartre termed bad faith. They are pretending to be dead.
Those preoccupied with chasing imaginary objects and pursuing leader/follower possibilities are no less remiss.
Along with bad faith worries, we might consider an even more primitive problem. As linguistic resources replaced community-centered conversations about hallucinations, the tendency has been to focus upon acquiring things and achieving power. Not only are these proceedings insatiable, they amount to an ironic form of suicide. A photographer preoccupied with acquiring and cataloguing images is unlikely to live authentically in the quicksilver world.
Having lived a long time with intimations of my own mortality (and unsolicited observations regarding other shortcomings), I eventually realized that the reifications behind personhood and agency claims are themselves forms of death. Every concept is the corpse of an event. Awarenesses are snapshots of events tracked along trajectories. Such awarenesses sometimes participate in the emergence of `subjects of experience' enjoying a sense that they have life not yet lived.
In all of these proceedings, it is important to keep in mind that persons are the spawn of processes, and necessarily lag them. It matters not whether the lag is measured in picoseconds or years. Just as the sun could have vanished 8.5 minutes ago with no one on earth the wiser, so you and I may have already ceased being generated, although selfawareness continues for a few milliseconds. This seems irrelevant because we are unaccustomed to thinking about what is meant by `the present'. Heraclitus (c. 535 - 475 BC) observed that no interval is sufficiently short that it cannot be divided, and so the notion of a present interval collapses. (Calculus provides a way of summing such divisions, so hares overtake tortoises mathematically as well as in practice.)
What does this leave us? Human awareness is sufficiently wide and deep that a focal point is needed to integrate the representations constituting consciousness. (Jacques Lacan described the sense of self as the hole at the centre of awareness.) Had awareness remained at this level of sophistication, organic life would have continued in comparatively innocent and pristine ways. Indeed, anthropological investigations suggest that matters so proceeded for most of Homo sapiens' one hundred and fifty thousand year history. However, cultural resources combined with cognitive endowments and promoted points of view into internal entity claims. Since we already had the habit of naming one another, we gave these points of view names as well: self, soul, entity, essence, noumenal being.... All that remained was to associate cultural names (Tom, Dick, Jane, Maxine) with soul names. Before long, Tom, Dick, Jane, Maxine …, now fully equipped with conceits about both corporeal substance and spiritual essence, spawned the modern world.
What we have not admitted in all of this is that human beings cannot apprehend themselves, for the same reason a yardstick cannot measure itself. No matter how well endowed, we can only infer from the fact of awareness that generative events occurred a millisecond or a century ago. It is not hard to grasp how a series of such selfreferential events could yield a sense of duration, expectations of more life to live, and premonitions of mortality.
Do such expectations, even when complemented with phenomenal objects, entities, and causal relationships, demonstrate that there corresponding junctures or partitions in the processes underwriting these events? Any such claim would require explaining how these processes came to be organized or partitioned ... and how this 3rd realm came to be in its turn and so on ad infinitum.
For such reasons, we need not talk about the universe as a fait accompli, even using such words as `evolving' or `unfolding'. During the last two centuries, deterministic, thing-based analysis has given way to probabilistic models, signifying an increasing sophistication of understanding. Object-centered equations are also being amended with progressively fine-grained information from both macro and micro frontiers. All of this suggests that whatever is going on is increasingly being seen as a `work in process', with entities and objects no longer enjoying pride of place.
In other words, none of the standard cosmologies require notions of substances, never mind substances parceled into things. Such questions as...
- Does the world exist?
- How do I know you exist?
- What is the meaning of causality?
- How can identity and change be reconciled? …
can be seen as attempts to understand the origin, interaction and fate of phenomenal objects. They occur because human beings are occasionally conscious enough to worry about what is going on beneath the surface. Carving objects and entities out of The Event generates phenomena that seem to come into existence, endure for a time, and then vanish. The need for such explanations is a by-product of the phenomenal world. Sartre's notion of prereflective awareness - the sense we sometimes have of footsteps in an adjoining room - is useful. Such episodes may or may not become images or apprehensions, depending upon whether some `organic agenda' enlivens them.
When image-centered agendas are sufficiently commonplace that experiences of recurrence become significant, conscious beings are at risk of perceiving themselves as agents imposing volitions upon nearby phenomenal processes, objects and entities. The apparent simultaneity of the objects and events (storms, lightening strikes, eclipses, the reliable presence of trees and creatures) comprising consciousness ... should not surprise us. This simultaneity (the so-called specious present) reflects nothing more than the proximity of underlying processes. The occupants of vehicles traveling at the same speed and direction on multilane highways generate a tiny universe of simultaneity. More of the same does not require a more complicated explanation.
Finally, why are causal relationships so interesting? Paying attention to associations is how Homo sapiens harvest recurring sequences. This is also how we differ from creatures whose behaviour is driven exclusively by local events and physiological states; that rely upon camouflage, fecundity, ferocity or strength for survival. This is why squirrels crossing roads or birds flying ... are not aware that they are aware. Consciousness - reification of objects, entities, and processes - is not necessary for these adaptive strategies and thus there is neither need for, nor possibility of, being subjects of experience. Squirrels have no idea that they are part of a world full of trees, prey and predators. Feelings of opportunity and alarm occur in us on their behalf, as images of their passing take up a second life in our consciousness.
We certainly make just this argument whenever we transmogrify creatures into pets, herd them into abattoirs or cause species to become extinct. As magisterial beings, we count the extinction of a species as equivalent to the death of one human being. 1st world communities regularly pass animal cruelty legislation, not noticing supermarket shelves groaning under the weight of slaughtered creatures. Fetuses are aborted because they do not meet `immigration quotas' into the `land of the living', if they are not yet developed enough to be viable. People are executed for crimes deemed sufficiently heinous that they forfeit the right to live. Slavery was sanctioned in Canada, Britain and the United States because blacks were regarded as nonhuman; a bigotry pursued even more devastatingly today in the guise of globalization strategies brutalizing 3rd and 4th world lives.
Unfortunately, hypocrisy, malevolence and usury are not the most important problems confronting us. The issue is what lies behind such events; and whether repairs are possible. Forensic analyses, reductionism, determinism ... examine images of birds, squirrels, human beings with a view to exhuming `flight recorders'. This is sometimes useful, but the data is always limited. The factors breathing life into objectified understandings all fall under the rubric of causes and consequences. Another example of the harm of objectification is the way understanding of nations and corporations is restricted to the conduct and personalities of leaders. The role of foot soldiers, followers and consumers is ignored, even though they are the sine qua non of every corporate and national project. Adolph Hitler would have remained a harmless megalomaniac with a bad haircut had millions of Germans not invested in his fantasies.
More importantly, if `the universe' is not a creation but a creating, human beings need to rethink ideas about moral and rational agency. Analyzing, proselytizing, adjuring … cannot reclaim spilt milk, although doing so may prevent further incidents. The most important realization is that conversations occur ex post facto among phenomenal beings. A strong case can be made that brutality, irresponsibility and missed opportunities ... flow from fancying ourselves agents striding through a world full of things, entities and events, then defending our imagined selves and possessions to the death.
We need to repair these understandings; and we need to rethink the way intimations that `something is rotten in Denmark” are invested. Letters to editors, marches, and learned disquisitions ... are messages passed back and forth among ghosts. This is useful if and only if better responses result. This means realizations must translate into responses through the local events generating them. If moralizers and proselytizers have established anything it is that passing insights along to others to put into practice does not work. No matter how excellent deliberations and discussions may be, “planning is not planting”, and “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride”.
For one hundred and fifty thousands years, human beings prospered on the merits of singular cognitive endowments. However, we have yet to demonstrate that we can survive the company of the selves we have been imagining, never mind the behemoths we have been fashioning using these selves as building blocks. Because corporations and nations are primitive forms of life, they not crippled by magisterial conceits. Blind, avaricious and often immensely powerful, corporate and national projects are attempted without second-guessing, without seeking consensus, without consulting components.
To the extent that you and I function as wings, claws and organs, corporations exist. Are they alive in more provocative ways? Since I have been reworking the notion of `living entity', I hope the question is no longer outlandish or anthropomorphic.
Higher life forms are organizations consisting of thousands, millions, sometimes billions, of amoeba-like cells. Human beings crossed a threshold when these arrangements became capable of consciousness. Corporations and nations assembled with such beings easily become large and powerful.
Corporations and nations enjoy another advantage. They are virtually immortal because urbanization and specialization guarantee a reliable supply of replacement cells. (This simply means they are no more likely to perish tomorrow than today.)
What is perhaps fatally important is that, while corporations and nations may be considered forms of life, they are more like cancers than anything else. This is why they have no interest in moral and rational issues. This is why they are not good at self-preservation.
We need to remember how we used to be when we were even better than squirrels at crossing roads.