The future of consciousness.
Consciousness is a curious topic to consider, because it at once places us in the realm of self-reflexiveness. It is the mind thinking about the mind, which is very much akin to the blind leading the blind. I am at once reminded of the biologist Lyall Watson's self-reflexive paradox that "if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." (1) It is a basic tenet of systems theory that you cannot completely understand a system from within. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and you have to step outside of the system to see that whole. (2) I try to think of this whenever I am coming over the George Washington Bridge to New York from my home in New Jersey, and I find myself stuck in what appears to be a completely random and unexplainable traffic jam. After all, you have to do something to pass the time when it is bumper to bumper. So I try to imagine a distant, bird's eye view of the system of roads and highways that surround my position, knowing that I would in all probability see a rather orderly traffic pattern, a rhythmic pulsing along the arteries of New York. Of course, if I could just step outside of the system, I would not be stuck in traffic and forced to contemplate these things in the first place. The problem is that sometimes there is no way to get outside of the system, sometimes you find yourself on a highway with no exits, truly an existential dilemma.
And that is why it is impossible for us to imagine or truly understand death. We cannot step outside of our own existential system. So many of us cling to the notion of life after death because we cannot imagine death after life. We cannot leave the system, so we imagine more of the same system, more or less. But to insist that there is no life after death would be equally unimaginative, as we can neither confirm nor deny what lies beyond our system. The only certainty is uncertainty.
The problem we face in asking the mind to reflect back upon itself in these various ways also relates to the mathematician Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem, which shows that no mathematical system is entirely free of contradiction or capable of proving its own validity--there must always be recourse to something outside of the system. (3) And this also brings us back to Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's theory of logical types and the premise that a category cannot be a member of itself, unless you want to invite paradox. (4)
So to avoid paradox when we think about consciousness, we need to move from inside the category to outside of it, to consciousness about consciousness. But how do we "go meta," as Douglas Rushkoff puts it, how do we get outside of ourselves? Now, I raise this familiar question as a ploy to gain your sympathy and to impress upon you the difficulty of what I am attempting to do in this essay. General semantics asks us to maintain an extensional orientation, that is, an orientation based on observation of the outside world, not on our own internal logic or feelings or prejudices. However, consciousness is an entirely internal, intensional phenomenon. Our understanding of consciousness is based on our subjective examination of our own consciousness and on inferences and logical reasoning in lieu of empirical evidence. In other words, there is no way to avoid applying an intensional orientation to an intensional phenomenon.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that the term "consciousness" refers to a number of different concepts, therefore we would be well advised to use the general semantics device of turning singular terms into plural ones and speaking of consciousnesses. For example, one type of consciousness that is popular in the New Age movement is the idea that consciousness extends throughout the natural world. (6) Even a stone may have a consciousness of sorts in terms of its own integrity as a stone. This idea about consciousness is an updating of paganism and animism in which the whole of nature has a spiritual dimension so that stones and rivers and trees and the sun and moon have minds and affect us by force of will and supernatural agency. This understanding of the world, by the way, should not be dismissed too lightly. It is a highly efficient form of theory-making, a theory of mind. (7) Thinking of lightning as having a mind of its own, as being an agent who is angry and threatening, is actually a pragmatic and effective way to relate to a natural phenomenon. It has survival value, which is why the anthropomorphic view of the world has served us well for most of the history of our species.
Related to animism are other notions of supernatural consciousnesses, spirits, nymphs, gods, and other conceptions of the divine including those that appear in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and the rest of the organized religions. There are also various ideas about human consciousness surviving death and continuing on in a disembodied state on earth or in heaven, not to mention related concepts of psychic phenomena. Further, there are variations on the Gaia hypothesis in which the earth is seen as not only a living organism, but one possessed of its own spirit and consciousness. It is not my intent to ridicule or dismiss matters of the spirit or to endorse them; I only mean to describe them as one approach to consciousness.
A parallel can be drawn between the universe of the spirit and the equally ethereal universe of information. Information is not a material thing, but, rather, as conceived of by Claude Shannon, it is the quality of negative entropy, that is of order in the face of chaos. (8) Information systems process data with the effect of increasing the organization and differentiation within a system. This is a property of all living organisms. It is also a property of advanced technological systems that employ feedback loops, as Norbert Wiener explained over a half century ago in his books on cybernetics. (9) Since then, we have grown accustomed to the idea that certain types of computer programming are called artificial intelligence, and we have come to refer to certain technologies as smart--smart bombs, smart houses, smart clothing, etc. It is not surprising to learn, then, that within the relatively new field of cognitive science, cognition is seen as a function of any information system, be it human, computer, or insect. Even the immune system can be described as employing a form of cognition as it goes about its task of differentiating which cells do and do not belong. While cognition is not exactly the same thing as consciousness, the presence of one implies the possibility of the other. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, famously posed the question of whether artificial cognition constitutes artificial consciousness. And the same question can be directed towards the communal functioning of an ant colony and the autonomic functioning of an organism.
In this sense, we can add to the ideas of consciousness as spirit and consciousness as information a third concept of consciousness as life. Life is at once the combination of spirit and flesh and a process that is fundamentally negentropic, cybernetic, and cognitive. Consciousness can be understood in terms of life force and in terms of the basic functions performed by all living organisms. In particular, consciousness is associated with the organism's observable responses to outside stimuli. If the organism reacts to stimuli, it is conscious; if not, even if it is still technically alive, it is thought to be without consciousness. Consciousness also tends to be associated with some type of purposeful activity, even if it is the simple movement towards light and away from darkness.
The more typical approach, however, is to limit consciousness to those living organisms that have nervous systems. It then becomes a living function of nervous systems in general and specifically of the brain. In this way consciousness becomes localized to one subsystem of the larger system we call an organism. Consciousness then can be operationalized and measured in terms of neural activity. Organisms with nervous systems require a minimal level of neural activity to keep their autonomic systems going and remain alive. But consciousness is especially associated with a high degree of neural activity as well as responsiveness to outside stimuli. As neural activity decreases, and responsiveness is reduced or disappears, we say that the organism moves from a state of consciousness to one of unconsciousness.
This introduces an insoluble problem into our understanding of consciousness. If we base our concept of consciousness on responsiveness to outside stimulation, where do we draw the line between consciousness and unconsciousness? At what point do we say that responsiveness has been so reduced as to have crossed over from consciousness into unconsciousness? And at what point does unconsciousness cross over from something like dreaming to something more like death? Even if the organism is completely unresponsive, the presence of a nervous system suggests that consciousness could possibly persist internally. We look for answers by measuring neural activity, but measurement holds no answers about cut off points; quantification cannot help us answer qualitative questions. Certainly we could operationalize and say that a given level of neural activity is the definition of consciousness, but it would be a mistake to reify or idealize a relatively arbitrary definition. In truth it could be argued that whenever there is some level of neural activity, or even whenever there is a living being that responds in some way to stimuli, there is some form of consciousness. This is no small problem, as the recent controversy concerning Terry Schiavo brought home. As in the case of coma victims, the conceptions of consciousness based on neural activity, on information processing, and on spirit are difficult to separate from one another.
It does seem that consciousness is connected to biology but at the same time not the same as biology. The metaphor that is sometimes used, and that I find resonant, is that of fire. Just as wood can serve as the material base of fire without actually being fire, the brain serves as the material base of consciousness but is not itself consciousness. And those whose minds have lost their fire are called deadwood. The fire metaphor is particularly apt when you consider how the brain is entirely dependent on oxygen, so that a brief interruption causes us to "lose consciousness" while a longer interruption snuffs out the flame of life. The fire of consciousness also seems much like the burning bush of Moses which burns but is not consumed. Perhaps it was actual fire that ignited consciousness, for we often consider the taming of fire to be a defining characteristic of human evolution, the moment when we master technology and also the principle of transformation. According to Claude Levi-Strauss, fire not only represents the transformation of nature into culture but as such represents our entry into symbolic communication. (10)
Sigmund Freud separated consciousness into the conscious and unconscious minds. Unconsciousness in psychoanalysis becomes an alternate state of consciousness of the sort we associate with dreaming or hypnosis. Put another way, Freud viewed the unconscious as actively engaged in information processing and cognition as well as being a biological and neurological phenomenon. For Freud consciousness was associated with the ego that emerges during the waking state while the unconscious mind is always lurking in the background and leaking into the foreground in the form of slips of the tongue, neuroses, and such. (11) Viewed from another perspective, however, we can recognize that consciousness encompasses the unconscious as well as the conscious mind.
Sleepwalking occurs when the unconscious mind takes over the body, but sleepwalking is also a metaphor. Being asleep symbolizes a lack of awareness and attentiveness. Along these lines, consciousness can be associated with our ability to actively think about phenomena, to actively pay attention to our surroundings, and to actively respond to stimuli from our environment. It is a state of being alert and mindful.
It is a short step from awareness to ideology and the Marxist notion of consciousness. (12) For traditional Marxists consciousness translates to a political understanding of the world. The consciousness of the ruling class naturally rationalizes their good fortune and views the subordinate classes as getting exactly what they deserve. This type of consciousness is called a false consciousness. And it is transmitted to the subordinate classes as ideology through institutions such as schools, churches, the arts, and the mass media. In this way the subordinate classes adopt the false consciousness of the ruling classes. The answer to this problem is to teach them the truth, teach them about the reality of their oppression, and thereby raise their consciousness. The idea of consciousness raising was adopted by feminists as well to describe their efforts at ending gender discrimination. I should add that over the past half century neo-Marxists have abandoned the dichotomy between a false consciousness based on ideology and a true consciousness based on reality. They replaced it with the relativistic notion that all consciousnesses are a function of ideology. It is all false in the sense that it is all a social construction, and all that matters is whose side you are on. (13)
Notions of false consciousness and raised consciousness, while broad in certain respects, appear shallow in contrast to Freud's depth psychology. Certainly, they are closer to the surface than notions of altered states of consciousness. As pioneered by Timothy Leary and his followers in the psychedelic sixties, hallucinogenic substances were ingested in order to alter sense perception and thought processes. From this perspective on consciousness, different states carry with them different modes of awareness so that by experiencing a greater variety of states of consciousness, opening the doors of perception as it were, we can increase our overall level of awareness. Often this involves moving from a linguistic, intensional mode to a perceptual, extensional one. Again, my purpose here is not to endorse or condemn, but only to describe.
I should note that to some extent religion has always been concerned with altered states of consciousness and with generating higher levels of awareness. Mystical experiences fall into this category, but we can also see the activities of prayer and contemplation as attempts to mold the thought processes and consciousnesses of adherents. Art also can be a means of achieving new modes of sense perception and alternate states of consciousness, a point that Marshall McLuhan was fond of making. (14) And Neil Postman would remind us that teaching is most certainly an effort to shape thought, perception, minds, and modes of consciousness. (15) Education is a consciousness raising activity, as is general semantics itself, as we seek to raise awareness of language and symbol use. Of course, general semanticists are also known to say, "get it into your nervous system!" which reflects an additional biological perspective.
Many of these ideas relate consciousness to uniquely human modes of thought and to higher mental processes. And more than a matter of simple awareness, a distinctively human consciousness can be viewed as an awareness of one's own self, an awareness of one's own awareness. We are self-aware, self-conscious, that is we are conscious of our own consciousness.
Awareness of our own consciousness is intimately caught up with awareness of the consciousness of others, with theory of mind, the theory that others have a mind that works more or less like our own. A classic example of theory of mind goes like this. I tell you that two individuals, let us call them Stuart and Wendell, are in a room together. Together they put a fifty dollar bill in a box and close it, and then they both leave the room. A little later, Stuart sneaks in on his own, removes the fifty, closes the box back up, and leaves. Then Wendell returns to the room. The question that is then asked is where does Wendell think the fifty dollars is located? The answer we typically give is that he will think it is in the box. We assume he has a mind just like our own, we empathize with him and understand what he can and cannot know based on his limited point of view, and we understand the act of deception committed by Stuart. Individuals who are blind and cannot visualize the scene still come up with the same answer. Individuals of limited mental capacity also understand the difference between what they know and what Wendell knows. It is only individuals who are autistic who will answer differently and say that Wendell will know that Stuart has the money. (16)
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, autistic individuals are characterized by mindblindness, his way of referring to the failure to develop theory of mind. They do not see others as having a mind like their own and have relatively little or no self-consciousness. (17) Does this mean that they do not have consciousness altogether? I have to admit to a certain lack of impartiality on this matter, as my daughter is autistic. From what I have observed, she thinks, she plans, she plays, she jokes, she gets angry, sad, and frightened, and she loves. She even constructs novel sentences despite a very limited capacity for language. However, her self-awareness and her understanding of others have not developed the way it has for typical children.
Donna Williams, a high functioning autistic, describes her own view of the world as follows:
Up to the age of four, I sensed according to pattern and shifts in pattern. My ability to interpret what I saw was impaired because I took each fragment in without understanding its meaning in the context of its surroundings. I'd see the nostril but lose the nose, see the nose but lose the face, see the fingernail but lose the finger. My ability to interpret what I heard was equally impaired. I heard the intonation but lost the meaning of the words, got a few of the words but lost the sentences. I couldn't consistently process the meaning of my own body messages if I was focusing in on something with my eyes or ears. I didn't know myself in relation to other people because when I focused on processing information about "other," I lost "self," and when I focused on "self," I lost "other." I could either express something in action or make some meaning of some of the information coming in but not both at once. So crossing the room to do something meant I'd probably lose the experience of walking even though my body did it. Speaking, I'd lose the meaning of my own sounds whilst moving. The deaf-blind may have lost their senses; I had my senses but lost the sense. I was meaning deaf, meaning blind. (18)
What Williams describes can be considered an alternate state of consciousness, one that typical individuals might achieve by artificial means. Altered states of consciousness achieved by meditation or drug use often involve the retrieval of a prelinguistic state of mind, and in this respect it is instructive to consider how Temple Grandin describes her condition. Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, a designer of livestock facilities, and probably the best known autistic individual in the world today. In her own words,
I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage. (19)
When it comes to intelligences, autistics defy normal categorization, as they may be savants in one or two isolated areas and far below average in others. Based in part on this phenomenon, Howard Gardner arrived at his theory of multiple intelligences, and I would suggest to you that autism can help us to understand that there are many forms of human consciousness as well. (20) This multiplicity may also account for the many conceptions of consciousness that I have reviewed with you.
But once again I must enlist your sympathy by reminding you of the impossibility of stepping outside of the system of consciousness, so that on this meta level we are all subject to mindblindness. And this brings to mind a story that is popular with general semanticists of all ages: the story of the blind men and the elephant. As you may recall, the story has one blind man touching the elephant's trunk and saying it's a snake, another touching its tail and saying it's a piece of rope, another touching a leg and saying it's a tree, and so on. Each one only senses part of the whole, and so they argue about what the true nature of the elephant really is. And for us, consciousness is the six ton elephant in our room, and there is no way to get him out of there. And it may be that the many conceptions of consciousness that I have reviewed with you are bits and pieces of some larger whole that we are unable to fully grasp, some phenomenon that exists in more dimensions than we can perceive. There is no way to know, of course, and so I return to the futility of my task and recall the words of Ecclesiastes: "vanity, all is vanity." So perhaps I ought to give up at this point, but I am also reminded of the book title used by the renowned psychotherapist and communication theorist Paul Watzlawick: The Situation is Hopeless But Not Serious. (21) SO let me now suggest some basic points.
First, I believe it is important to acknowledge that consciousness is not a thing. We think of it as a thing because the word "consciousness" is a noun. The fact that Indo-European languages such as English are especially noun oriented was made clear a long time ago by Benjamin Lee Whorf's study of the language of the Native American Hopi. As he put it, "Hopi, with its preferences for verbs, as contrasted to our own liking for nouns, perpetually turn our propositions about things into propositions about events." (22) So, for example, our word lightning is a noun, and essentially we think of lightning as a thing, whereas the Hopi would speak of lightning as a verb and an event. And they would be right. Lightning is not an object or substance; it is a dynamic process, the movement of electrical energy across the sky. But if you have the mistaken idea that lightning is a thing, you might just conclude that lightning can be captured, controlled, and manipulated. And you might just get some old fool like Benjamin Franklin going out in a thunderstorm to catch lightning in a bottle. And that bottle becomes Thomas Edison's lightbulb, and John Ambrose Fleming's vacuum tube, and Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce's silicon computer chip. Sometimes the wrong map can take us into important new territory, as Christopher Columbus could tell you.
On a personal note, one evening when my son was about three years old, he looked out the window and said to me, "It's darking out!" And I said to myself, "Oh my God, my son's a Hopi." But once the initial shock wore off, I realized that his linguistic creativity brought him closer to reality than my own use of nouns such as "dusk" and "evening." Languages give us maps to guide us, but they do not dictate how we are to navigate. Moreover, the maps can be redrawn through linguistic invention, which is exactly what general semantics tries to do through techniques such as the elimination of the verb "to be."
So let us redraw our mental maps by thinking of consciousness as something we do rather than something we have. Consider the words of Buckminster fuller as he self-reflexively considered his own consciousness: "I live on Earth, at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing--a noun. I seem to be a verb." (23) So I ask you to keep in mind that consciousness is a verb but at the same time to retain the option of treating consciousness as if it were a noun. There is a certain utility in mistaking it for a thing if we want to catch lightning in a bottle or catch a glimpse of the burning bush.
Understanding consciousness as an event and a dynamic process rather than a steady state, it then becomes possible to view it as an "ecology of mind," to use Gregory Bateson's happy phrase. (24) This means that we can view it as a system, and according to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, the interdependent parts that make up the system of consciousness are thoughts. (25) In other words, we do not begin with a fully formed consciousness but rather with individual thoughts. As our thoughts become fruitful and multiply, we lose mental equilibrium and move toward the edge of chaos until consciousness as a system emerges. We begin by thinking and as thoughts proliferate, we start thinking about thinking. In this way, consciousness emerges and gives us the means by which we may manage, organize, and perhaps control our own thought processes.
In referring to thought here, I want to make it clear that I am not only talking about rational ideas. Instead, I take as my authority the great philosopher of symbolic form, Susanne Langer, who argued that human symbolic activity has as much if not more to do with feeling than with reason. (26) For Langer thought is not just a product of discursive symbols such as words but also presentational symbols such as pictures. She would have recognized that Temple Grandin engages in a different but equally valid type of symbolic activity in her thought processes. Moreover, Langer explained that presentational forms begin with the senses, that the activity of perception is also a symbolic activity. In general semantics we understand that perception is the first rung up on the abstraction ladder, and that we abstract or pull out of the world some of the sensory data from all that is available out there. (27) And then our nervous systems process the information and create mental images, theories, or maps of the world. Through this active process we construct a view of the world as orderly, stable, consistent, predictable. This view is pure illusion, of course, the reality being a chaos that we cannot live with, at least not and retain our sanity. So our senses filter out a large part of the data we take in, and the part that remains stands for the whole. Out of that limited form of chaos we construct a worldview. This parallels the emergence of consciousness from chaotic thought patterns.
Of course, we do not actually process data from the outside world. Rather, outside stimulation excites or irritates various nerve endings, causing them to transmit electrochemical signals through the system and on up to the brain. The process is the same when we register internal sensations such as a headache, back pain, or leg cramp. While we tend to speak of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, biologists also note the presence of such internal senses as the proprioceptive, which tells us about the movement and position of our joints and muscles and the vestibular sense, our sense of balance, of gravity, of movement and position in relation to the earth. In fact, without proper development of the internal, intensional forms of perception, we have trouble developing our external senses, our thought processes, and ultimately our consciousnesses. The dichotomy between mind and senses, thought and perception, logic and empiricism is a false one. In the end, external perception and internal feeling, reason and emotion, all are based on neural activity, on the nervous system as information processor.
The nervous system is close to being a closed system, and it requires that closure in order to allow a worldview and a consciousness to form. If it were any more open, too much chaos would come in, and consciousness would not be able to organize itself. By the same token, the nervous system is not and could not be an entirely closed system. It needs that limited amount of chaos to allow for growth and increasing complexity. And while our sense of being in direct contact with the outside world is a false consciousness, it is still true that our perceptions are a response to outside stimuli, a reflection of the world. Even if they are just shadows on the cave wall, they are directly and immediately connected to what they represent: objective reality. As complexity theorists Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela put it, we are structurally coupled with the world. (28)
Perception, as a form of thought, is part of what gives rise to consciousness, and it guarantees that consciousness is not an entirely closed system. That is why the situation is hopeless but not serious. Certainly, it is not so serious as modem philosophers made it out to be when they introduced the problems of subjectivity and solipsism. In the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted from the isolated individual to the disconnected group and the problems of intersubjectivity and the social construction of reality. We may indeed be stuck in a room with no exit and with that six ton elephant to boot, but we can crack open a window. Our social constructions are structurally coupled to the outside world, at least if we let them be.
Social construction is a very important idea, however, because we do construct our views of the world, albeit not out of whole cloth, and we construct them as a group, not individually. We tend to look at consciousness from the inside out, as an individual, internal, intensional phenomenon. However the word "consciousness" implies that it is a property of the group not the individual, that is, a social phenomenon. The "con" in consciousness tells us that it is about shared knowledge, shared awareness. What accounts for this commonality?
Certainly, there must be an underlying basis in the coding of our DNA, which then manifests itself in our bodies and nervous systems. But biology alone does not account for the development of consciousness as a group phenomenon. Rather, it is through interaction with others, through communication that we are bound together in a community of consciousness. The formation and development of the individual consciousness is triggered and shaped by relationships with parents and other significant persons in our environment. I would go so far as to say that communication is what enables human consciousness to form in the first place. To return to the metaphor of fire, consciousness is not a matter of spontaneous combustion, it is a spark traveling from one mind to another, a torch passed from one generation to another. Or to use a more recently coined term, it is a "meme" replicating itself in one brain after another. (29)
A basic point in systems theory is that systems are in a sense self-reflexive. Systems can exist within larger systems and those systems within systems that are larger still. It follows that the individual consciousness, which can be understood as a system of thoughts or ecology of mind, can also be seen as an interdependent part of a larger system, a group or collective consciousness if you will. This is not necessarily a spiritual concept, as collective consciousness corresponds to some extent with the concept of culture. However this theory of metamind, the idea that we are part of a larger whole, is difficult to accept because we remain inside the system, unable to get out. Moreover, western culture's emphasis on individualism leads us to think of ourselves as alone and unique in the world. But on the biological level, we all share the same basic genetic code. And on the social level, members of the same culture use the same linguistic and symbolic codes. We think with forms of communication that are community property. We think with tools that are not of our own devising. As much as we would like to think otherwise, our thoughts are not ours alone.
Central to my understanding of consciousness is the counterintuitive idea that consciousness begins with communication. This means that consciousness begins externally with interaction and then becomes internalized over time. This process of the exterior becoming interiorized has been discussed by scholars such as George Herbert Mead (30) and Walter Ong. (31) Of course, the process of internalization is largely an unconscious one, so that we are not aware and cannot recall the formation of our own conscious minds. But an example of internalization that you ought to remember occurs when we learn to read. Reading begins as an external process, as we sound out the letters to produce sounds, syllables, words, and sentences. After we learn to read out loud, we are then taught how to read silently, which is an internalization of reading. This is not an automatic development, and some children have great difficulty making the transition. Historically, silent reading was a rare and unusual practice in antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The internalization of reading and writing, I would suggest to you, parallels the interiorization of language that occurs much earlier in our development. The fundamental form of language is sound, and from the beginning we listen to the speech of others in our environment and make sounds of our own. Typically, this leads to speech acquisition. We learn language by speaking out loud and listening to others as they do the same. Only later do we internalize these voices as memory and other forms of thought. Talking to one's self, then, reflects a temporary or perhaps chronic lack of interiorization. On the other hand, auditory hallucinations may represent a misrecognition of the same process. In this respect Julian Jaynes offers some fascinating speculations about the origins of consciousness. He suggests that the first stirrings of full consciousness, that is, the early interiorizations of speech, were mistakenly interpreted as voices from the outside world, communication from supernatural beings. When thought itself was brand new, no one knew what to make of it, and they therefore concluded that it must be a god or spirit that was speaking to them. (32)
The same process of interiorization works on all levels of symbolic activity. Even perception is interiorized as imagination, as visualization by the mind's eye, and as mental maps, phantom pains from lost limbs, hallucinations, memories, and dreams. Especially significant is the fact that our relationships with others are iteriorized as well. Eric Berne, founder of transactional analysis, argued that we all have an internalized parent as part of our own psyche. (33) Alternately, according to George Herbert Mead, we internalize not only specific others such as our parents but a generalized other through which we can try to see ourselves as others see us. In this way we gain a measure of self-reflexiveness, self-awareness, and self-consciousness. We also can internalize others when we imitate them and learn how to play roles. From the perspective of Mead, Hugh Duncan, and Erving Goffman, the internalization of role-playing is the way that we form a sense of self, or rather selves, for they see us as the sum of the roles that we play, the selves that we put on. (34) From this point of view, consciousness is an act we perform in the theater of the mind. Put another way, individual consciousness is an interiorization of collective consciousness, an internalization of our relationships with other pre-existing consciousnesses.
The internalization of the external is the process by which human consciousness is formed and by which it changes. We can also say that consciousness changes because it is a dynamic ecology of mind, one that adapts to changes in its environment. For the individual consciousness there is a process of growth and development, a process that may continue over the entire course of our lives. Paralleling the change that occurs on the individual level, we can also say that collective consciousness changes, that human consciousness evolves, as Walter Ong, Julian Jaynes, and many others maintain. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that it is through a process of interiorization that human consciousness evolves.
And if consciousness changes and evolves, we can say that it has a past and a future. Some of you probably thought that I was never going to get to the point of my talk, the topic that Allen Flagg assigned me, and others of you may have forgotten what it was in the first place. All I can say is that it is in the nature of consciousness to wander. But the meandering path I have taken has, I hope, led us into important new territory and brought us to the point that we can consider the road ahead. The media ecology perspective has at times been associated with futurism, but we have to begin by acknowledging that we are blind to the future, that all that we can really know is the past, and perhaps the present. This is what McLuhan called the rearview mirror effect. (35) So, once more I seek the kindness and forgiveness of strangers and friends alike as I indulge in some speculation and extrapolation in the performance of a task that is hopeless but not serious.
First and foremost, I would say that if we want to understand the future of consciousness, we need to study the new ways that we communicate in the present. And, if we want to understand the present, we need to put it into historical context. At some time in the distant and unremembered past, we or our evolutionary ancestors developed spoken language, and at some later point we interiorized speech, which became a new form of thought and the basis of a new form of consciousness. We internalized speech, and we also internalized the speaker, the other human beings that we interact with. When writing was invented, at first it was just a means of recording the spoken word. Eventually it was interiorized, giving rise to a new form of consciousness, a literate consciousness. This is a point I made earlier, but let me expand upon it. Before writing, words existed only as energy, as dynamic, ephemeral sound. After writing, words became fixed static objects, nouns instead of verbs. In this way we stopped talking and thinking like Hopi and became westerners.
As Eric Havelock put it, writing separates the knower from the known. (36) As we put our words and therefore our thoughts down on paper, they become separate from ourselves, distanced and frozen, available to be viewed and reviewed. We can examine our thoughts as if they belonged to someone else, we can actually study our own minds in this fashion. Writing leads to entirely new levels of self-consciousness but as Freud argues, at the price of repressing other parts of our consciousness into the unconscious mind.
Literacy is isolating. When we listen, we listen all together, as a group, but when we read, we read alone, even if we all read the same text. Literacy disrupts our sense of tribal identity and leads us to see ourselves as individuals, unique, alien, and alienated. We come to think of consciousness as a private affair and lose touch with the concept of collective consciousness. Only a highly literate mind could conceive of consciousness as an isolated island of subjectivity or a hopeless prisoner of solipsism, and it is no accident that these philosophical movements materialized after the printing revolution in Europe. Literate consciousness distances us from the human lifeworld and from our fellow human beings. As writers and readers, we confront the paradox that in order to communicate in this fashion, we require solitude, isolation. Literate consciousness also involves internalizing new roles, creating new selves. As Ong liked to say, the writer's audience is always a fiction, which is to say that the writer must construct a new kind of generalized other, the reader. Ong also notes that the reader's writer is equally fictional, as we construct our own sense of the writer that we are reading and internalize the role of the writer for ourselves.
As literacy becomes fully interiorized, writing turns more and more inward towards the exploration of the mind. This is what the development of the novel is about, the shift from telling stories about agents performing actions to the interior examination of the individual consciousness. As Ong has noted, it is no accident that Freud's depth psychology follows the development of the novel, that Freud discovers the unconscious and analyzes the complexities of consciousness only after fiction writers have turned inward. Freud was a product of the high point of literate culture, the moment when it was about to be overthrown by the new electronic media.
And is it any wonder that Korzybski was introducing his non-Aristotelian system at just about the time that radio and film had come to dominate our collective consciousness? Aristotle was very much a product of the old, literate consciousness, which is also characterized by highly abstract thinking. His teacher Plato was one of the first to think in so highly an abstract a manner. And in the same way that the first thoughts were mistakenly thought to be voices from beyond, the first high-level abstractions were mistakenly thought to be more real than our everyday reality. Plato was unable to recognize the figments of his own literate imagination, and that is why he arrived at his notion of ideal forms.
Moreover, as letter follows letter, word follows word, and line follows line, writing fosters a linear, one-step-at-a-time mode of thought. And this linear approach is the basis of Aristotle's logic. Also, his efforts at categorization are another example of the interiorization of writing's properties. Imagine that we began by making lists to keep track of things in our environment, for example the king's property. At a certain point, a single list becomes unmanageable and someone says, "Let's break the list up, subdivide it into smaller, more specialized categories, so that one list is for livestock, another for pets, for example." And this works just fine until someone says, "Well, this particular duck belongs in the category of livestock, but the king also treats it like a pet, so I will list it in both categories." And this double listing messes up our accounts, so someone else says, "If you list the duck twice, and someone else takes inventory, they'll think that there are two ducks, and that one of them is missing, and the king will think that we stole it and have our heads chopped off. So, no double listing, either you put an item on one list or on another, but not both!" From this concrete circumstance we then interiorized the laws of noncontradiction and the excluded middle that are included in Aristotle's logic.
The future of consciousness, then, lies in the interiorization of contemporary communication technologies, specifically the electronic media. The effects will be felt not only in what these media do but, as Neil Postman liked to say, in what they undo. (37) For example, writing and especially printing have had a tendency to enforce a certain uniformity of mind, to go along with the uniformity of words fixed on a page, and the uniformity of the mass produced text. Our new media environment is characterized by a kaleidoscope of technologies, by a heterogeneous mix of oral, literate, visual, and tactile modes of communication and perception. This has been undoing the homogenizing effect of print media and, I would suggest, is opening the door to the coexistence of alternate modes of consciousness. This is reflected in Timothy Leary's experimentation with psychoactive drugs in the sixties, however dysfunctional that may have been and in his embrace of virtual reality technology in the nineties. It is reflected in the popularity of transcendental meditation in the seventies and the ongoing interest in New Age spirituality. It is also reflected in what main are now calling an epidemic of autism. While we parents look upon this with alarm, high functioning autistics object to the idea that their condition is a disease that needs to be cured, or even a disability that needs to be overcome. Instead they argue that theirs is a different mode of consciousness.
Although we may find a greater variety of consciousnesses in the future, not all will survive. Certainly, it seems that the tribal consciousness of oral cultures will continue on its march to extinction in the face of advancing technologies. But, as some of literacy's effects are undone, we may see a return to a more oral-like consciousness, for example, in the tendency to think less abstractly, more concretely and visually, and to become less distanced and objective, more emotionally involved with our world and our fellow human beings. I would also expect to see literacy's extreme individualism undone. We will not return to the simple group identity of oral culture, however. Instead, many of us now find ourselves in numerous relationships as we maintain contact with others through telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones in addition to more traditional modes of communication. We have more relationships with more individuals today than at any time in our history. This creates more selves for each of us and a more fragmented and complex inner life. Postmodernists talk about the decentering of the subject, and psychologist Kenneth Gergen calls it the saturated self, (38) but in another sense we are internalizing the heterogeneity of today's collective consciousness. The result is a less homogenous and uniform individual consciousness. I do not mean to suggest that the outcome will be some form of schizophrenia but simply a new form of consciousness that reflects the chaos of the electronic media environment. It is a consciousness built upon constant, rapid stimulation occurring along multiple sensory channels simultaneously. McLuhan argued that the old linear mode of thought could not meet the demands of this new environment and that we needed to develop new modes of pattern recognition to make order out of chaos. Pattern recognition, along with an internalization of the phenomenon of multitasking, would be integral to a new type of electronic consciousness.
I also believe that the electronic media have removed many of the repressions that literate consciousness put into place. Certainly, we do not seem to be motivated by guilt or shame, at least not in the same way that literate and oral cultures were in the past. In particular, I believe that the undoing of literate repression is putting us closer in touch with the unconscious mind both individually and collectively. In oral cultures there was less of a barrier to the unconscious, allowing individuals to retrieve archetypes and enter the dreamtime with relative ease. But they did so in a relatively unreflective, unconscious manner. Having strengthened the conscious mind through literacy, we can now use the electronic media to engage the unconscious in a self-conscious manner. We are continually exposed to our dreams and our nightmares through television, film, and the Internet. And we are discovering that there are many more monsters from the id out there than we ever suspected. But we are confronting them with full awareness. I therefore think it possible that we may find a way to integrate the conscious and unconscious minds, to embrace and absorb the shadow, the anima and animus, as Carl Jung referred to the components of the unconscious. Jung believed that such integration would lead us to the next stage in the evolution of consciousness, and it may be that this will happen as we interiorize our electronic communications. (39) However one feels about Jung, it does seem that our survival as a species may depend on our ability to raise our consciousness to some higher level.
The evolution of consciousness is not a job for a lonely mystic isolated on a mountaintop. Rather we are all in this together, not just as passengers on spaceship earth and citizens of a global village but as part of a collective consciousness more interconnected than ever before. We are rapidly approaching the point where we will be online all the time and wherever we go. Within a generation, I believe that people will start to feel panic at the thought of going off the grid, of not being connected or having their vital signs monitored at every moment. Another generation and that very possibility will become unimaginable. We seem to be moving rapidly toward a new form of collective consciousness. I do not think it is quite the same as Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, (40) although there does seem to be a spiritual dimension involved, at least as reflected in the renewed interest in spirituality in our time. But rather than a noosphere, it is a networked consciousness that we are creating and internalizing as a new ecology of mind.
And this brings me to the end of my speculations and extrapolations, and the end of my talk about the future of consciousness. But at the end, I cannot help but introduce one last possibility: that the future of consciousness may be the end of consciousness. We may not be able to step outside of the system and fully imagine the end of all consciousness, both individual and collective, but we can imagine the possibility of the end. And having done so, we must be guided by that possibility. Alfred Korzybski saw the possibility of the end of consciousness when he was a soldier during the First World War. We here in New York City saw it just a few years ago, a few miles south at the World Trade Center. And like Korzybski, we have to use the forms of consciousness that we have at our disposal today to try to insure that there will still be forms of consciousness tomorrow.
(1.) I originally came across this quote in Patrick Hughes, More on Oxymoron. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983). 145. The quote was only attributed to "a philosophically minded biologist." but a quick internet search revealed that Lyall Watson was the biologist's name, although I was unable to find a specific bibliographic citation for his quote.
(2.) See, for example, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York, G. Braziller, 1969; Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1996; and Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. (New York: Anchor Books, 1996).
(3.) Douglas R. Hofstadter provides an insightful and entertaining discussion of the incompleteness theorem and Principle of Self-Reflexiveness (using instead the term "recursion") in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. (New York: Basic Books, 1979).
(4.) As presented in Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell's three volume Principia Mathematica, published by the Cambridge University Press over the years 1925 to 1927.
(5.) Douglas Rushkoff uses the phrase in his new edition of Playing the Future, published under the title of Screenagers (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006).
(6.) This idea can be found in the interview book "by" Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
(7.) Theory of mind is discussed in the context of autism by Uta Frith, Autism: Explaining the Enigma. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). See also Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
(8.) See Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949).
(9.) His most popular and accessible work being The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950).
(10.) Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (Translated by John and Doreen Weightman). (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
(11.) Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (Translated and Edited by James Strachey). (New York: Norton, 1989).
(12.) See, for example, Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction. (London: Verso, 1991).
(13.) See, for example, Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature. (London: Routledge, 1999).
(14.) This idea can be found in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964); see also Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
(15.) See Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching As a Subversive Activity. (New York: Delta Books, 1969); and Neil Postman, Teaching As a Conserving Activity. (New York: Delacorte, 1979).
(16.) See note 7.
(17.) See note 7.
(18.) Donna Williams, Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct. (London: Jessica Kingsley, 1998), 33.
(19.) Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports From My Life with Autism. (New York: Random House, 1995), 19.
(20.) See Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. (New York: BasicBooks, 1983). See also Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. (New York: BasicBooks, 1983).
(21.) Paul Watzlawick, The Situation is Hopeless, but Not Serious: (The Pursuit of Unhappiness). (New York: Norton, 1983).
(22.) Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, and Reality. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956), 63.
(23.) R. Buckminster Fuller, with Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore, I Seem to Be a Verb. (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), 1.
(24.) Gregory Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).
(25.) See, for example, Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication (Translated by John Bednarz, Jr.). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
(26.) Susanne K. K. Langcr, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (3rd ed.). (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).
(27.) See, for example, Wendell Johnson's cogent explanation of the process of abstracting in People in Quandries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment. New York: Harper & Row, 1946. Of course, Johnson's study is based on Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (5th ed.). (Englewood, NJ: The International Non-Aristotelian Library/Institute of General Semantics, 1993).
(28.) The two Chilean biologists provide an accessible introduction to their perspective in The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (revised ed., translated by Robert Paolucci). Boston: Shambhala, 1992).
(29.) The concept of the "meme" was introduced, as a mental analogue to the biological notion of the gene, by Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene. (London: Oxford University Press, 1989).
(30.) George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Charles W. Morris, Ed.). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).
(31.) Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967); Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (London: Methuen, 1982).
(32.) Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976). See also Walter Ong's critique of Jaynes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (London: Methuen, 1982).
(33.) Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy: A Systematic Individual and Social Psychiatry. (New York: Grove Press, 1961).
(34.) See George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Charles W. Morris, Ed.). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934); Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Communication and Social Order. (New York: Bedminster Press, 1962); Symbols in Society. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968); Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1959).
(35.) See Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 1967).
(36.) Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963).
(37.) See Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); and The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).
(38.) See Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. (New York: BasicBooks, 1991). See also Mark Poster, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
(39.) See C. G. Jung's The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (2nd ed., R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969). See also his Aion: Researches Into the Phenomenology of the Self (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).
(40.) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Translation by Bernard Wall). (New York, Harper and Row, 1965).
LANCE STRATE *
* Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics. He is the Past President of the Media Ecology Association (1998-2009), the author of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and co-editor of several anthologies, including The Legacy of McLuhan, and Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment. This article is based on a presentation given at the Envisioning the Emerging Future Colloquium sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics, following the fifty-third Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, April 23, 2005.
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|Publication:||ETC.: A Review of General Semantics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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