Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pharaoh's Tombs, Movie Theaters, and Consciousness

The ancient Egyptians would pile a dead pharaoh's personal belongings into his tomb, just in case he might need them. Hey, they're his things! They're important! Of course, cracking open these rooms centuries later, we see the truth. It's just a bunch of inert junk. The ancient Egyptians seem adorable, with their juvenile fascination with mere stuff. We moderns seem to know better. Not everyone's gotten the memo, but, still, it's hardly an advanced insight these days to recognize that our stuff isn't ours. It's just....stuff!

Meanwhile, cognitive scientists, perennially on the brink of understanding consciousness and creating artificial intelligence, continue to feed their computers rules and facts. Stuff! Soon it'll happen! Boom...intelligence!

Any time you hear the term "artificial intelligence", someone's lying. We're no closer than we were in 1950, and it's just not going to happen (sorry, Ray Kurzweil). They're still focusing on the stuff, and stuff - physical or mental - is just....stuff. Stuff has nothing to do with consciousness. And consciousness is what we are.

You are the watcher; the intelligence peering out of your eyes. You are not your house or car or bath towels, or your thoughts, memories, or mental narration. Those are all, at some level, objects, and consciousness is the perceiver of objects, not the objects themselves. To misunderstand this is to be as naive as ancient Egyptians. In 3500 years we've learned a fantastic great deal about things, but remain confused about the intelligent awareness which contains those things.

The most human characteristic of all is one seldom discussed. It's so intrinsic, so all-consuming that few of us even notice it. We identify. Stare at raindrops dripping down a window for long enough, and you'll have constructed mental mythologies for families of droplets, and find yourself mourning noble generations past. If we indulge ourselves only a little, we can easily work up deep emotions over the progress of beads of water down a window.

I challenge you to watch a movie while registering for even five minutes that you're in a movie theater. Our inability to maintain perspective - i.e. a persistent awareness of where we actually are (and who we actually are) in the presence of, say, lights flickering across a screen - would leave an alien race convinced that human beings are completely unhinged.

We love music and films and poetry and stories and gossip - and we watch raindrops, cheering their progress - because we live to identify with stories about mental and physical stuff. We literally can't resist it.

This obsession with identification is what makes the consciousness at our core the universe's preeminent storyteller. The universe itself is our trademarked creation.

The truth, once again, is not such an advanced insight: stuff isn't ours; isn't us. So we're not the heroes of any story, including the stories we've chosen to make our own. We assign importance to the things we perceive, and we identify with it, because that's what consciousness does. It's fun! But if a story turns overly tragic or traumatic, just remember where and who you actually are. It all happens around you, not to you. Your bedrock consciousness has been peering out from your eyes all along; the stories have never touched it, the things have no actual relationship with it. Beyond the compulsive identification with things, it all simply is.

Save yourself years of therapy, meditation and/or hard-won wisdom by simply mulling over this indisputable truth: if someone wonderful just kissed you, your entire town seems fantastic. And if someone wonderful just left you, your entire town seems ghastly. Yet you must concede that the town's the same. Only your perspective changes.

Only your perspective changes. Perspective is always entirely elective. See also this and this.

Interesting parallel discussion on Facebook, FYI.


Seth Godin said...

Except it's not called "artificial consciousness."

The blog continues to be great, especially lately, but the semantics matter.

Consciousness is an illusion, a bug, a story that's floating around... (See Dennett et al)

But AI? We've had it for a long time. We imagine what the chess computer is "thinking". It is intelligent in that it's doing tasks that a squirrel can't do.

My favorite definition: AI is everything a computer can't do--yet.

Jim Leff said...

Semantics matter, but to fully define terms and thoroughly outline all connections would require a book, whereas this is a blog post, aimed at making a pragmatic point rather than the establishment of an intellectual theory. I hate your definition of intelligence, but am too tuckered out from the FB discussion linked at bottom (plus my latest Sisyphean project I'm still in the middle of) to directly address it.

And I think there's a meta issue here. I'm trying to cut through the imprecision of language and the heavy kludge of conceptualization to make a deeper point, but my efforts, ironically bog down in fine points of language and conceptualization.

My focus is on cutting-through intellectualization rather than grappling directly with the very stuff that (in my view) warrants transcendence. I'm certainly not aiming to line up next to Dennett et al! What's interesting to me is at a higher level than language and concept, even if a lot of my stuff reads intellectual, conceptualized, and wordy (especially on ideas that are not long-baked). In other words, I"m not working up from intellect, I'm working down from intuitive understanding (which is actually harder, as there are no maps). Hopefully the poetry get grokked nonetheless.

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