The Labyrinth

maze-2264_640Last night I had a disturbing dream. I found myself lost in a great maze, trapped amid giant stone walls twice the height of any person. Coming to a small courtyard and sipping from the small fountain within, I suddenly became aware that I had two companions standing nearby. One was a man with a great beard and deep German accent, introduced himself as Mark. The other, an astute looking man with glasses, intelligent smile and the loud, confident voice of an American. He told me his name was Milten. Like myself they were trapped, but in their gaze I found both sympathy and the confidence that hinted they knew the way out.

“I know the secret of the maze”, said Mark, “Let us simply proceed along this wall before us, turning always to our left. We shall soon find our freedom.” Milten didn’t seem happy about that, but Mark was already striding towards the nearest archway exiting the courtyard. So we twisted and turned through the maze, Mark leading the way, followed Milten wearing a frown of deep concern, and then myself, wondering if we would ever find our way out. A pale sun edged across the sky above us, casting afternoon shadows on the walls and stone path.

Finally Milten lept forward to block Mark’s path. Somehow, Milten now had a sword in his hand. “No more! This is not the way” he said. “You’ve turned us constantly to the left, and it’s been a disaster. We must turn right. Only by turning to the right will we ever find our way out.” Mark’s face was red with fury, but not wishing to suffer the sword’s kiss, he stayed silent. We continued on, this time turning always to the right. Milten led us forward as the shadows lengthened and the sun crept towards the top of the walls.

After a time we emerged again into the courtyard in which we had begun. Mark was laughing darkly. Milten hesitated only a moment before pointing his sword to another archway leading away. “Onwards, to the right”. Now Mark stepped forward, this time with his own sword in hand. “No, if we had kept going to the left, my plan would have worked.” Milten was resolute. “Your plan is a fools plan, paved with disaster and our ultimate demise. To the right we must go”. Facing off, neither flinching, I realised only I could break the tension. Their eyes turned slowly to me, “you must choose” they said in unison. They did not look patient.

I began to hear strange distant sounds echoing through the maze, clearly getting closer. With the darkness deepening, I looked around desperately. I sensed this maze wasn’t about to yield to a simple rule of right or left. Perhaps we could try to wander sometimes left and sometimes right, trying to please both Mark and Milton, but unless our path was based on new knowledge, it might only get us lost deeper in the stone labyrinth. Instead, looking upwards, I realised the wall’s top was not so far out of reach. “Together,” as I pointed, “we can surely reach the top, seeking knowledge before choosing our path. Lift me up, quickly.” But when I looked down again, Milten and Mark were standing at two different archways, unconcerned, even as the eerie sounds and darkness grew. “To the right”. “To the left”. As they disappeared into the gloom, I began clawing at the wall. The darkness kept closing in, enveloping the courtyard like a cloud of ink in clear water. I could sense the things grew closer with the darkness. As my vision began to dim and my body was gripped with increasing paralysis, I felt something cold and unyielding, yet alive, begin to take hold of me in the black.

I awoke in a cold sweat, relieved it was all a dream.

But are we really awake from this, you and I? I think in a way, we’re still lost in a maze. You, I and everyone else – humanity’s labyrinth, a labyrinth of broken ideas, crazed voices more concerned with Left or Right than finding our way in the gloom. And there’s something dark lurking in here with us, something that neither Left nor Right will save us from. Our only hope is to rise above it, out of the darkness and out of the maze. Our only hope is up, together, over the wall.

The Decline of the Republic and the Division of Democracy

The birthplace of Western philosophy - Credit to any serious historian or sociologist and they’ll tell you the ancient world has much to teach us, about society, about power, about the rise and fall of civilizations. Let them go on, and at some point they’ll almost certainly draw a parallel between the modern West and Ancient Rome. As much of a cliché as it seems, I don’t think they’re wrong to do so. After all, many of our institutional and legal principles come direct from our Greco-Roman cultural ancestry. Like the West, Rome was not just one of the world’s greatest economic and military powers, it had a complex and sophisticated society and government. And like the West, Rome was influenced by the unique philosophy of Ancient Greece. These ideas have shaped our laws and our public institutions. They also shaped Rome’s system of democracy, which though flawed and quite exclusive by modern standards, was an indescribably rare achievement in the Ancient World. But Rome’s Republic, including its Senate and People’s Assembly, was destined to fall, replaced by the Roman Empire between 29BC and 49BC. Whatever we might make of the Empire, its hard not to lament the loss of the Republic and the ideals it held aloft.

Now while its fashionable to talk about the later decline of the Empire due to decadence or economics or barbarians or the simple march of time (“what goes up must come down”), I feel there is actually much more to be learned from the earlier fall of Republic. The Empire was an impressive power, but sociologically no more interesting than many other hierarchical civilizations. No, it is the Republic with whom we share our philosophy and system of government. The Republic is our ancestor. And so, it is the fall of the Republic that gives us the stories whose voices ring true for us even today.

So why did the Republic fall? I imagine if we were flies upon the wall of the Roman Senate, we might be more than a little tempted to point the finger at politic failure. Political factionalism in the years leading up to the Fall have a curious similarity to the dismal bickering of our own left and right wings. However, most explanations I’ve seen don’t regard this as a central cause. Unproductive political tribalism might be on the increase today, but it isn’t new in the West, and it was no stranger in Rome. In fact, the plebeians and the patricians had been in periodic conflict for centuries, ever since the kings of Rome had first been overthrown. While it didn’t help the cause, politics weren’t the heart of the Republic’s decline.

Politics is just one of many factors that probably facilitated the fall. If we were flies in the Roman forum or markets, we might have just as easily blamed decadence. But most historians generally agree there was a key event preceding the fall that simply cannot be overlooked – the professionalization of the Roman Legions, known as the Marian Reforms. This decision to fundamentally restructure Rome’s legions is an event worth knowing about, because its probably close to the most pivotal turning points in Roman history.

But before we get to story of Marius and how the Republic was set on a doomed path, let’s go back just a little further.

Greek Hoplite - Credit was heavily influenced by the sophisticated civilization of Ancient Greece that dominated the region in the centuries before Rome’s rise. Unlike the single powerful state of Rome, the Greek world consisted of a myriad of city-states, sometimes vying for power, sometimes engaged in trade, sometimes forming great alliances. In between it all they managed to develop the basics ideas of Western philosophy that are still reverberating through the ages today. The unique feature of the Greek city state, or “polis”, was the direct democracy in which citizens (well some, usually males holding property) had a right to vote on the collective decisions, laws and policies of the polis. However the Ancient Greek citizens weren’t just voters. When the polis became involved in military conflict, the same citizens would become warriors, each holding to their duty for their polis, defending it with force where necessary. Ancient Greek citizens had a special dual status, as warriors, but also as farmers and labourers and craftspeople and traders.

Armed with shield and spear, these citizen-warriors had things to fight for – a community, status, wealth, settled families. On the other hand, they also had good reason to make sure the society they defended was worth living in. A military dictatorship might be quite effective at defending the borders and bludgeoning enemies into submission, but for most of the Greeks, it wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to live or raise a family in. The citizen-warriors of Ancient Greece had a stake in both community and military, and so they had a vested interest in making sure everyone both contributed and received their fair share in both spheres. They also had an interest in making sure one sphere of affairs didn’t dominate or undermine the other.

The early Roman warrior not only inherited the Greek fighting equipment and style, they emulated the Greek citizen-warrior in spirit too. This early Roman military was levied from duty-bound citizens called to answer the call in times of need. Like the Greeks hoplites before them, the Republic fielded warriors drawn from their own population, armed with what weapons their social class could afford, and ready to defend and advance the interests of their home – Rome. The Romans, through alliances and well-organised ferocity, managed to advance themselves within the Italian peninsula, rising to be the dominant force amongst the many tribes and cities.

Rome's expansion - Credit

Rome’s territories over time – Consider that the Marian Reforms occured in 107BC.

Yet sometimes success brings problems almost as bad a failure – or so it was for the Republic. From around 200BC onwards the Roman territory of control began to exceed the borders of Italian peninsula and extend to far-away lands such as Iberia and Northern Africa. The further the Romans went from Rome, the more alien the cultures and the more difficult the task of political integration became. Instead of defeat bringing tribute and pledges of military and economic cooperation, it increasingly brought resentment, resistance and rebellion requiring the ongoing maintenance of force. When new powers threatened Rome’s distant territories, Rome couldn’t rely on these resentful foreign cultures to simply field an army of citizen-warriors on Rome’s behalf. The only other option was Roman muscle. Now further and further away from home, Roman warriors were no longer required to just spend the summer in brief raids. Instead they needed to spend years on campaign and in occupation, away from their families and homes, defending far-flung frontier lands. The citizen-warrior was no longer enough. To maintain and spread its influence, Rome needed something new.

The apparent solution came in the form of Gaius Marius. Marius was a cunning general and politician with enough military and political clout to drive real structural change in Rome’s armies. In essence, Marius responded to the deep problem by professionalising the Roman military. He loosened the entry requirements for the heavy infantry core of the Roman legions, which had previously been limited to the middle and upper Roman classes. Now both the poorest citizens and people from allied Italian nations could join. Instead of requiring them to provide their own equipment, he provided standardized equipment designed around the needs of large-scale warfare and paid for by the state. In return the soldier would have to serve for an extended period of many years, after which they were promised land, some basic wealth, and if they weren’t yet Roman, citizenship. For the first time, being a soldier was no longer just a citizen’s duty, it was a career.

Given that Rome’s unemployment was increasing thanks to a plentiful supply of foreign slave labour, Marius’ solution was a certain kind of genius. He was killing two birds with one stone. He solved the issue of the increasingly unruly lower classes and the supply of military muscle in a single swift act.

Rome's legoins - Credit this reform would have profound consequences, sowing the seeds for the Republic’s downfall. Now there was a class of soldiers apart from the populus, more loyal to the ever-present general than to a homeland they hadn’t seen in years. In time, they developed independent interests and a culture all of their own. For someone seeking personal power, they were also a brilliant political tool just waiting to be leveraged. Meanwhile, in Rome, the poor were falling into dependence, while the rich were falling to corruption, and the greater good of the polis began to drown in decadence and apathy. Rome wasn’t the homeland any more, it was simply a stage on which one made their bid for fame or fortune, no matter the cost.

Now the civilians and the soldiers stood apart from each-other. Rome’s democracy, society and civilization was effectively cleaved in two.

Rome didn’t need to wait long for the inevitable conclusion to this festering conflict. One of Marius’ subordinates, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, became disgusted with the ineffectual political machinations in Rome in response to King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was threatening parts of Rome’s eastern territories (in modern day Turkey). So Sulla marched his troops on Rome itself, forcing the reversal of the policies of the Senate (and ironically his old boss Marius, whose schemes appear to have been thwarting what Sulla felt was a decisive defence). For the first time the Roman military became political leverage over the civilian apparatus of government. Whereas the military and the people were previously one-in-the-same, now the military held its own separate interests and leaders, for whom an increasingly alien (for them) civilian system of government would be seen as a barrier to the effective defence of the nation.

Ironically, Sulla was a conservative member of the upper classes, and almost certainly wasn’t out to destroy Rome’s democracy, which was most dearly loved by its old, wealthy and powerful families. He attempted to put in place his own reforms to stabilise democratic rule and limit the possibility of others using similar tactics for less (in his eyes) noble purposes. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of his methods turned a lot more heads than the nobility of his intentions. Only a generation later Julius Caesar marched his own disgruntled legions into Rome, fatally undermining the Senate. And when Caesar was assassinated by alarmed conservatives, his great-nephew Octavian used the chaos that followed to eventually install himself as Emperor. Only decades after Marius’ reforms, the centuries-old Republic, including both the Senate and the People’s Assembly, was effectively dead.

I want to really avoid putting the blame for the Fall on individuals. Marius was apparently quite a shady character, but his reforms were strategically sensible given the problems of the time. Sulla appears to have honestly been attempting to address a serious threat to Rome and the poison of an ineffectual political system. And if we’re generous, perhaps even Caeser and Octavian could be seen as trying to save Rome from its own disfunction. What really matters here is that the structural changes and forces would have probably pushed Rome in the same direction even if these larger-than-life characters had never existed. The fact is that the obvious response to the logistic reality split the republic in two, not physically, but culturally. By becoming ends-in-themselves, the two halves had lost what gave their worth and legitimacy. From that point onwards, it was unavoidable that Rome would declare war upon itself. The Empire still had the momentum of Rome’s economic and military power, but try as the Emperors might, they couldn’t address the decadence and corruption that would now eat away at the civilization from within. Most of all, the civilians of Rome lost their democracy, and the soldiers, to some minds at least, lost something worth defending and coming home to.

The modern West isn’t Rome, and history doesn’t literally repeat itself, but I think there’s enough curious similarities to make the Republic’s fall worth paying attention to.

Emperor Augustus - Credit Rome, we certainly have a disfunctional divide between left and right wings of politics. There’s always been differences of opinion of this kind, in Rome or the modern West, but our current divide seems to have widened far enough to have facilitate a deep descent into manipulative rhetoric, tribalism and opportunism – a mirror to the problems of the late Republic. While we’re singing a cynical song, we might also note Rome’s economy became increasingly intertwined with military overreach, importation of slave labour, and unjustifiably centralised estates in the hands of the wealthy (who were interestingly on the “left” of politics when it came to war in the late Republic, and who fared poorly in the chaotic downfall of Roman democracy). Rome also had the enormous challenge of integrating a massive number of new citizens and culturally diverse populations under its control. When integration fails, coercive rule becomes far more tempting as a way to deal with the hostile population in your midst. Today, we have a whole political spectrum of intellectual failures to choose from – neither cultural relativism, political correctness, economic opportunism and malignant racism will save us if we can’t achieve intelligent cultural integration.

But all this is a sideshow compared to the central threat to the democratic ideal, of meritocracy, freedom of thought, of the rule of law – the cleaving of democracy. Where the military resents civil ideals and freedoms, or where civilians neglect threats to the nation and the seriousness of the world, our fundamental values are undermined. When these two failures become conflicting cultural forces, the resolution will ultimately be internal despotism or external destruction.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I do think that the ancient world has some quiet advice for us. This is the advice I hear as I read through the stories of history: the Republic fell because citizenship became split between civilian decadence and military belligerence. So, it is our duty to learn from this and try to avoid the same fate. We must try to prevent the emergence of the two divided, broken cultures that beset the Roman Republic in its last days. We cannot reasonably expect part-time soldiers to be as effective as a nation’s needs demands, and civilians ridiculously carrying around spears certainly doesn’t address the problem. We must address the problems in our hearts and minds instead.

So, let the soldier and civilian alike elevate the ideal of citizenship. Whatever role we take in life, let us try to assume the citizen’s mantle of responsibility. Like the citizens of a polis in Ancient Greece, let us try to bring the temperance of the civilian and the strength of the warrior to our work, our views, our contributions, to the economy, to the environment, and to our way of life. If our work demands more of one, let our mind focus more on the other. In vigilance we understand the fundamentally serious and dangerous nature of the world, but in compassion we uphold the duty to make that world worth living in. In citizenship we throw off the childish demands that it is others who must set the world right, or the expectation that our fellows ought to bend to our will because we hold ourselves to be mighty. The citizen, free of such things, forges a better future not with the fires of coercion or shame or outrage, but by the virtuous hands of knowledge, hard work, study and leadership by example. It is the citizen that stands at the heart of all civilization, and it is the citizen who must awaken for a worthy Republic to rise again in our future.

-Note: I’ve done my best to be very accurate, but I’m not a historian, so please feel free to correct me on any minor errors I may have made.

Visualisation of Social Modulation and Social Replacement

Social Modulation and Social Replacement

I’ve taken my concepts of Social Modulation and Social Replacement (click for article) and visualised them as a simple diagram/infographic. I hope you find them useful when thinking about how the social and technological worlds interact and how we can optimise our technological direction to maximise the benefit to humans.

Cooperative vs Dominance Based Status

Social-status is an extremely powerful part of human social life. High status individuals are usually protected and/or privileged by the group and its rules, and often receive extra resources. High status also tends to increase sexual desirability (though not universally so and only in combination with other factors). However, status is largely in the minds of the group members. There is little, if anything, that we could call status that is independent of the perception of other group members. So what kind of things work to establish social status in the mind of group members?

One way to approach this question is to identify two basic categories of status. They are Dominance-Status and Cooperative-Status.

Dog barkingDominance-status arises out of a group member’s ability to present a threat of some kind to other group members. In simple terms, it is about the “pecking-order”. It is about the strongest wolf in a pack. The dominant member of the group is not necessarily nice or fair to other members, because they can ultimately resort to some form of force to maintain their superiority. It should be noted, however, that by “force” we mean any legitimate method of presenting a threat. This could be physical force, or it could be the means to influence others to exert physical force, by sexual influence, charisma, official mandate, or any other means.

It should be noted, however, that this is also a distinct concept from power, because in dominance status the methods of force must be accepted by the group as a whole. Only certain legitimate methods are accepted by the group – a murderer, for example, may be feared, and may be powerful, but they do not usually have any social status. Ultimately the dominance still occurs “within the rules”, though these rules are generally a much looser version in comparison to the commonly held moral standards of the group.

Examples of high dominance-status

  • Leader of a warlike tribe
  • Charming life-of-the-party (though perhaps they are viewed as providing entertainment)
  • Sexually manipulative person

Cooperative-status arises from the ability to offer the group or members of the group something as part of membership. For example, this might be a strong warrior that fights for the group, or it might be a doctor that heals members of the group. They perform some role in the group for which they are respected and elevated in the group’s eyes. They win acceptance and a place in the group by contributing in a positive way. Others are able to recognise the role they play. Their contribution is admired.

Examples of high cooperative-status:

  • Brave warrior
  • Intellectual/wise elder
  • Inventor or successful trader
  • Healer

Both types of status are usually zero-sum – there is only so much status to go around. There is only so much respect available in each group member’s mind. There is still some room for positive (or negative sum movement) – people can have overall less or more regard and respect for others in the group. However, there is probably an upwards limit.

So, how should we feel about these two forms of status, normatively speaking? Well, in a group where most status opportunties are dominance based, group members are going to try to become very good a presenting a threat to others. This skillset is not neccessarily useless to the group (eg. ferocity in warfare with opposing group), most of the time the harm to group members is going to be greater than the benefits. Groups who are too focused on dominance will lose out to cooperative groups who spend less resources fighting themselves.

In contrast, cooperative status requires someone to adopt behaviours that (appear to) increase group welfare. While the status equation is zero-sum, group welfare is not. As group members optimise to gain status, the group benefits more and more. The main risk is then that group members are less habituated to fierce competition, and so are less prepared for intergroup conflict. Now if you artificially train the same combative skills in a contained, efficient and less harmful way, you’re group is looking good…

Filtering the filters

Scott over at SSC has made an interesting post on how people are beginning to create lists (and potentially more sophisticated heuristics) of people with views who they find offensive and using tools to block those views from their feeds on social media. That might be innocent enough in isolation, and I can totally understand the desire to block trolls and disingenuous interlocutors, but taken as part of a broader internet trend, it is a little disturbing. Taken to its logical conclusion, the direction of this trend seems to be towards walled gardens and echo chambers, where we are exposed only to the opinions with which we are in comforting agreement with. So our views (or the views the filter allow) are always reinforced, magnified, and never truly challenged.

While I admit that on occasion a sheltered garden can grow something beautiful, the potential for filters to fragment our society into a series of warring echo chambers is quite horrifying. Filters have always existed, but this systematisation of them is certainly unprecedented. I’m not sure it’s automatically going to favour the powerful (a Scott suggests), because historically they’ve already had filters that regular people don’t have access to. This might just give everyone access to the same kind of sheltered stupid. It depends if the filters are open or not, how they work, and who controls their content. But no matter who controls them, I think they have the potentially to be incredibly harmful to us all, because the truth is complex, and if a filter hides that complexity, then it’s hiding the truth from you, even if its doing so with a voice of comforting agreement.

I think there’s a significant group of people (including quite a few over at SSC) that don’t buy into the infallibility of any particular political camp. We don’t want to be limited to the narrow mantras of this echo-chamber or that one. We want access to the most eloquent versions of all reasonable arguments, so we can assess and synthesise them all. We want to see all relevant evidence, not just the evidence that suits this agenda or that one. For us it’s an effort to generate a true understanding of the world and to use logic and reason to decide what political “recipes” actually result in beneficial outcomes. In a world that increasingly favours convincing over learning, and rhetoric over logic. we’re going to have to fight to keep that project alive.

We don’t want to filter opinions, we want to filter quality. We don’t want to wade through an endless swap of fallacious reasoning, rhetorical tricks and irrational rubbish. We want reasons, arguments, and evidence. We want intellectual pluralism, because the truth need not fear lies if the fight is fair.

If filters are creating echo-chambers, then let’s filter the echo chambers. People that deviate from the tribe’s rhetoric aren’t suspect, it’s the people that don’t. If someone wants to critique a view, a good sign of authenticity is the ability to eloquently and comprehensively describe what they oppose. So for intellectual pluralism, an acceptable filter eliminates not the plurality of views, but the distorted straw men, the gross misrepresentations, and above all dogma that lives only in the absense of alternative views. A stream of information that contains the language of only one school of thought is less reliable than one that contains several, because if someone is smart enough to propose an idea, they should be smart enough to describe competing arguments in an eloquent manner. This is the kind of heuristic that we should use to create the anti-filter.

The truth is larger than all of us, and if we are to see it in all its majesty, then we must cooperate to create the biggest, clearest lens we can.

The troubled circle of consciousness (philosophy of mind)

I’ve been concerned for a while that consciousness, used by many as a starting point for fairly important moral reasoning, is a shaky concept when we try to utilise it outside its traditional dualist home. I recently voiced my concern to an online acquaintance, saying that outside a dualist framework, there doesn’t appear to be strong justification that “consciousness” is the correct schema to use in tackling important philosophical questions. Sure, I get the feeling of what this is intended to get at. That feeling, that awareness of myself. But I’m into philosophy – I’m not willing to just go on a feeling – I want to see evidence this is the best concept for me to use. And if you strip away the complex obfuscations of us rhetorically nimble philosophers, the basic definitions of consciousness and awareness look suspiciously circular:

Circular logic - miles of fun with little effort!

Awareness – the state or condition of being aware; having knowledge; consciousness:

Consciousaware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.

This seems to be the most philosophically relevant sense of “conscious” that get’s thrown around too – we’re not talking about the word in the sense of concentrating hard on something; and we’re not talking about the opposite of “unconscious”. Yet this definition is obviously circular. Without independent evidence to justify them, it seems to be a classic if subtle case of begging the question – sneaking the answer into the question itself. Of course, I don’t think that’s the same thing as consciousness being false, but it is, I think, an indication we might be using the wrong concept to approach the subject matter.

Perhaps even more worryingly, this problem isn’t limited to this concept. I began to suspect that we could populate similar circular structures with whatever philosophy-of-mind-framework we like (physicalist, dualist, dual-aspect etc). We could, for example, talk of qualia as evidence of the dualist’s mind, neglecting to identify that qualia’s definition actually revolves around experience, and that’s experience requires an experiencer. The mind hidden at the start of the chain of reason becomes a discovery of supposed evidence later on. Or if we’re in a physicalist mood we could swap experience for neuroscience, and the mind for the brain. Or perhaps idealist language appeals to us. Hide your assumptions in the language, and suddenly anything is possible (like calling everything “physical” or “mental”, and expecting those word’s to retain their original meaning).

Concerned about this development, I was compelled to consult Broad’s well-known list of philosophies of the mind for other options (hint: near the end of the paper). However, even here I was dismayed to recognise that horrid circle subtlety etched into Broad’s language. He chooses to talk about unjustified entities as “delusionary” and uses this language to declare several forms of neutral monism invalid. Change not using concept X to “concept X is a delusion”, and you’ve planted the seeds that imply a certain philosophy of mind. It’s then trivial for Broad to exclude several ideas – if concept X doesn’t include the possibility of “delusions” as you frame them, then its contradictory. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh to Broad here, but I can’t help but see the same kind of language trick at work.

So what if all philosophies of mind beg the question in some subtle way? Are various forms of dualism and monism at first glance internally valid, but without real justification? What if the whole field is just a room of linguistic smoke and mirrors?

My friend, a dual-aspect neutral monist wasn’t yet convinced by my circularity argument. He points out that even if the definitions appear circular, it doesn’t rule out there being empirical evidence that independently justify the concepts:

“If Sarah has evidence that Sarah is aware of Sarah’s own existence, then Sarah has evidence that Sarah is conscious”

Ok, so showing circularity is necessary but not sufficient for my argument. But I wonder if this evidence is as sound as it appears? Or more specifically, is this evidence also linguistically flexible. For the sake of argument, let’s try an interesting substitution here:

“If a camera has evidence that the camera is aware of the camera’s own existence, then the camera has evidence that the camera is conscious”

camera-mirrorSo say we take a camera and get it to take a photo of itself in a mirror (ie. while taking a photo). Is it conscious? In a sense, it does have evidence that it is aware of its own existence – easily shown if we use the awareness definition above that includes the phrase “has knowledge”. In that case, the above statement as true – the camera is really conscious. Still, perhaps we’re being uncharitable – maybe “awareness” of one’s own existence is more than simply having information of one’s own existence. In this case, a simple snapshot in the mirror is not enough.

We might instead say, being conscious, or self-aware, is more like the modelling of thought within thought (a collection of thoughts thinking about itself). So we are aware of ourselves as thinking entities. For you and I, that means thinking in sufficient detail about our own feelings, intentions etc. I think anyone would be hard pressed to deny they do that from time to time.


RIP – all the conscious entities that died here

Yet how often does this occur? Certainly not when I am sleeping. And for most of the day, especially when I’m not doing philosophy or being reflective, I’m not thinking about my own thoughts. I’m thinking “look out for that car” or “that food looks tasty”. And if I’m not “aware” of my own thoughts, and if my self-awareness thoughts are the fabric of my consciousness (whether that consciousness lies upon a physical or mental substance), then I certainly do not have an ongoing coherent object called a consciousness. At best a single conscious entity only flickers into existence briefly, a fleeting moment of self reflection, and then is gone. It’s not even clear that we have justifcation to treat more than one conscious episode as connected – they could be entirely separate objects that cluster around a person in space and time.

Or in other words – if we’re honest with ourself, self-awareness, and therefore being conscious, is a part-time occupation at best.

It seems to me that an object’s defining attributes aren’t a part-time affair. If someone were to say “I am a homo sapien”, then we’d expect them to be a homo sapien all the time. If they briefly altered their DNA to be homo sapien for a brief period a couple of times a day, we wouldn’t accept that label as accurate. Yet that is what appears to occur when we talk of being conscious. We are briefly self-aware, but then our thoughts move on. Perhaps that’s because modelling your own thoughts, your own mind, is pretty darn complex; and the more complex you are, the more complex the modelling you require to create a meaningful representation. Full-time self-awareness is beyond us – even a meditating monk dedicating their life to achieving “consciousness” still has to eat and sleep. Therefore, it’s simply not a defining attribute. It’s more more like something we do from time-to-time.

I suspect some people would attempt to amend consciousness rather than simply discarding it. The chief argument of this kind I have seen is saying consciousness is the unique ability to be self-reflective, even if we’re not actually doing that all the time. Yet, I can’t help but think – is somebody a soccer player because they have the ability to play soccer, or because they actually play soccer? Again, if it’s just something we do from time to time, it’s not worthy as a defining attribute of who we are. Hoping to mend this broken concept simply feels like we’re clutching at straws.

Perhaps using consciousness as the defining human characteristic (especially outside dualism) just isn’t meant to be. Such a problematic starting point throws the while chain of moral reasoning into doubt. Rather than searching for the core of who we are, it seems like we’re taking one of abilities (important though it is), and pretending that ability is literally what we are. Even in the most generous definition of “conscious” I can find, it’s seems inevitable that being conscious is either a completely empty circular tautology, or at best a rare, fleeting, human state. Such disparate flickers of self-reflection don’t seem like justification for the existence of a single coherent entity we can call “consciousness”. It certainly doesn’t equate to a single entity that encompasses “who we are”. You and I are not consciousnesses.

Yet if consciousness has played a role in so much moral reasoning – are we just to discard it? Certainly unpleasant consequences don’t negate logic, but if we are to loosen our grip on this bond, this moral link between you and I, then what can we reach for?

No doubt that topic is beyond a brief article like this. But a logical starting point, I think, is life. Straight-forward, biological life. By seeing ourselves in that context, I think we open the possibility of imbuing all our greatest inventions, our most noble endeavours, our technology, our civilization, our reason, with a purpose. We connect our existence not just to the hedonistic whims of the moment, but with an intricate, awe-inspiring story, that I hope is just beginning to unfold. A story whose central concept is true and sound, requiring no philosophical balancing-act atop a circle of broken logic. Whether you’re a Dualist or Monist, whether Buddhist, Christian, Atheist or whatever else – we’re all living creatures, living together in a difficult universe. If we are to consider moral questions, perhaps this is the best place to begin.

This week is a bit sci-fi

I’ve been a bit slack with the blog posting recently but I have been in the mood for science/futurist/sci-fi, and I’ve been reddit posting accordingly:

  • Could vertical farms significantly reduce impact on the environment? My answer – probably not due to energy constraints. But this other guy on reddit disagrees.
  • Is actively trying to signal aliens dangerous? – Despite objections by some, some scientists have in recent years started sending a signals of our presence to other star systems, in case aliens are there and listening. Dangerous/useless/great? You decide.
  • I discovered that warning people “colonising other planets won’t prevent extinction” in a discussion about a recent article where Stephen Hawking is saying the opposite is exactly as popular as you might imagine.
  • And right up the speculative end on thought – Does Earth need an emergency directed panspermia program? – Basically a dead-man’s trigger for the planet Earth, to shoot out artificial asteroids carrying single-celled organisms, so that life carries on even if it dies on Earth.