Death: The Skeleton Key of Consciousness Studies?
Part 1) Consciousness and Death
The role of consciousness in contemporary scientific thought is similar
to the role of death in everyday emotional life. It is usually ignored
or denied outright, frequently obsessed over, and sometimes the inspiration
for uncharacteristic breaches of common sense.
It is time to state the obvious. The problem of consciousness is deeply
interwoven with the problem of death. And yet death is rarely mentioned
in relation to consciousness studies. Consciousness is the thing of consequence
that dies. Surely this explains a great deal of why there is such an energetic
conversation about consciousness, and why passions are so often raised concerning
a subject whose basic nature is so elusive and disputed.
The spectrum of attitudes in consciousness studies is strikingly similar
to the variety of coping mechanisms for the existence of death1. There
are those who imagine they already somehow possess more knowledge about
it than they have means to achieve. There are those who believe nothing
can ever be said about it. And then there are those who seem to wish to
deny its existence. It is these latter who interest me the most.
Life would certainly be simpler without consciousness. If consciousness
did not exist, much of philosophy would not exist. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher
who claims not to be conscious, has already announced the end of ontology,
and there have been numerous predictions from like minds that other branches
of philosophy are mere stand-ins awaiting more developed science.
So why won't consciousness just go away? What gives consciousness legs
is the existence of subjective experience, something persistently elusive
and of unclear consequence. Interminable constructions of thought and image
have been created by countless generations of people in response to what
is nothing more than a perfect point, a thing with no quality and no content.
It is a tale out of Borges. A shelf of mathematics books devoted to one
numeral alone. A vast museum that displays only one pixel.
There is a popular story about a princess who complains that she cannot
sleep comfortably because of a single pea buried under layers of mattresses.
That pea is consciousness in the sciences.
To consider consciousness by itself is entirely undemanding. It is a pea.
There is nothing to describe. An attempt to account for it in context,
however, forces the construction of ever shifting, elaborate adventures
What a temptation it is to dispose of this erratic data point. That is
what any first year student of statistics would be taught to do.
Part 2) Is Consciousness Larger than a Pea?
Denying consciousness outright isn't the only way to attempt to dispose
of it. Sometimes consciousness is redefined as something so vast and complex
that what was originally thought of as consciousness becomes a stray, inconsequential
It might indeed seem that subjective experience is much larger than a point,
containing oceans of diverse quality and content (such as the qualia).
Will it still seem so in a hundred years if neuroscience continues to advance?
The contents of an impenetrable black box cannot be perceived as having
anything but an indeterminate size, and in the case of our minds that size
feels huge. But if we are able to eventually understand the mind with finer
and finer-grained precision, its size will become a known quantity. If
and when we understand the brain completely, subjectivity will appear to
be infinitely small, nothing more than a point which will not go away.
With a sufficiently advanced neurotechnology, it should presumably be possible
to reliably and repeatably construct mental phenomena, such as qualia, in
detail by setting values in neurons. This would be an experience confirmable
by anyone who plays with the gadgets that accomplish it. "Brainoramas"
would no doubt be the new consumer electronics blockbusters; pure experience
machines. These machines would not claim to become conscious themselves,
but rather would allow human users a precise technological route to controlling
the detailed content of their own subjective experience.
A brainorama would consist of three parts. One would be a hat that contains
sensors capable of reading and writing the states of each neuron in your
brain at a rapid rate. There would also be a display that shows you what's
going on in your brain, and allows you to edit it. Connecting these would
be a computer capable of recognizing and synthesizing neural patterns.
I won't attempt to guess at what future century might be capable of producing
A lazy customer could be given an adventurous experience or deep wisdom,
according the current fashion. One can predict that the use of these machines
might follow the pattern set earlier by psychedelic drugs and music synthesizers.
Synthetic experiences that were initially fresh and extreme quickly become
banal, as intensity is maximized in all directions until it becomes meaningless.
Following that will be the realization that "there is no free lunch,"
that the construction of creativity in thought, beauty in creation, or
depth in character requires as much or more work in the purely informational
world of brainorama as it does in real life.
In the end, however, the nature of these exotic new objectively controlled
subjective experiences will still remain a nagging mystery. Why must experience
be there at all? How can one prove if it is or isn't there? Nothing will
have changed in these questions, except that we'll be able to observe the
questions themselves as brain phenomena directly for the first time using
Imagine watching your thoughts on the philosophy of consciousness go by
on the screen2 of a brainorama. Suppose you start to think that maybe consciousness
is everywhere, and that is why you can't capture it- and at that moment
you see a familiar cloudy squiggle in your cortex, above your ear, similar
to the last time you thought the same thing. The pattern recognizer in
the brainorama computer catches it too, and a "Chalmers" alert
starts blinking. Instead of thinking from the inside, you decide to use
the stylus to sketch some narrower loops on your Chalmers squiggle and feel
what the thoughts are like. Suddenly you don't find consciousness credible
anymore, and indeed a "Dennett" alert is flashing on the screen.
But thoughts have a way of springing back to their original form, like
memory metals. Other parts of your cortex are automatically alerted into
action to repair the damage and soon you see your familiar thought squiggles
appear on the screen, just as you find yourself thinking, "But wait
a second, consciousness IS there!"3 I suspect that trying to track
down consciousness with a brainorama will feel like trying to find the butterfly
whose wing flutterings are to be the cause of a hurricane on the other side
of the world.
As you browse through your brain, you are able to see the full extent of
your memory. It is as if, after living your whole life inside a great canyon
of unknown dimensions, you are able to climb to a lookout point on the rim
for the first time. For a moment you are impressed with the vastness of
what you see. But soon an overwhelming sense of the finitude of your own
brain appears as a particularly murky and awkward squiggle. A blinker signals
that you are beginning to think about death.
Part 3) A Very Brief History of Death
The nature of consciousness should reasonably be expected to explain the
nature of death. For example, if Penrose is right, then consciousness simply
ceases when the microtubules dissipate. If Dennett is right, consciousness
wasn't there in the first place, so death isn't such a big deal.
The mysteries of death and consciousness are not the same, though. Death
cannot tell us as much about consciousness as consciousness can tell us
about death. If we knew that consciousness did not survive death, for example,
we still wouldn't know what consciousness was before death.
Consciousness has historically been linked with the idea of the soul, primarily
in order to substantiate an afterlife. This was not exclusively among excitable
religious types. By Plato's account, Socrates' precise mind found subjective
experience axiomatic enough to suggest that it must reside in a realm all
it's own, which must be revealed in death. Among the religious, of course,
consciousness has generally served as an intuitive confirmation of elaborate
articulated fantasies of the hereafter, especially in the West4. The difference
between the religious and the secular has often been no more than the degree
of elaboration and specificity in these fantasies.
Alas, the fear of death has been exploited to create empires. For this
reason, scientists and political liberalizers have often been allied to
combat dogmatic religious authority. The twentieth century saw the rise
to prominence of a culture that was in large part a reaction against the
arbitrary and sometimes exploitative nature of death denial fantasies.
The reaction took many forms, such as Marxism and Positivism. The doubt
in perfect rationality that the existence of subjectivity inspires was driven
underground. Life was understood essentially as a form of technology; something
entirely empirical and subject to manipulation and eventual perfection.
However, this barricade meant to contain human ambiguities and passions
has instead turned out to be the new obstacle to the psychological acceptance
Part 4) Death Denial in the Information Age
In the late twentieth century a bizarre and inverted form of death denial
has been gaining ground. It is the ironic grandchild of an earlier generation
of rational thought that sought to quell all such sentimentality. In this
new fantasy, technology will conquer death.
In the literature of cryonics and nanotechnology one frequently comes across
arguments that we are already within shooting distance of the goal. Nanotechnology
might be used to create a supercomputer that will quickly figure out how
to make nanomachines that can repair the human body and make old age an
anachronism. Or cryonics will preserve our bodies until a happy time in
the future when they are expected to be thawed by gentle enthusiasts of
antiquity. Or, perhaps most tellingly, the contents of our brains will
be read into durable computers, so that our minds will continue after our
bodies cease to function.
Consciousness is at best a wildcard, and at worst an outright affront to
these fantasies. Subjective experience is undeniably present, for those
of us who have it, anyway. (I've proposed elsewhere that some philosophers
just don't have it.) It is the only thing that would be just as real if
it were somehow shown to be an illusion or a mistake; If it is there in
any way whatsoever, it is fully there, undeposable, the most primary thing.
And yet it has no definitive measurable effect on anything else. The coincidence
of these two qualities makes it awkward. It is utterly unclear how consciousness
"binds" to the empirical universe.
There is absolutely no way to know what the subjective experience of having
one's brain state transferred into a computer, leaving the body to be disposed
of, or even of being frozen and thawed, would be. Even if these things
were tried, those who hadn't themselves had the experience would only be
able to rely on the reportage of the purported survivors who did, and the
readouts of their brainoramas. The cold truth is that you have to die to
test these ideas5. The living are unable to know if technological reductions
of consciousness are valid.
We have come to the fundamental problem for the new death denialists: If
consciousness exists, then technological forms of avoiding death are absolutely
as uncertain as old fashioned death itself. The "hard problem"
kind of consciousness is the enemy of the new death denial fantasy, and
there is no stronger source of passion than the defense of such a fantasy.
So consciousness is made to not exist. Here is the engine under the hood
of consciousness denial. A literature already exists of the new death denialists.
The theorists are Minsky, Dennett, Hofsteder. The authors of new romantic
liturgies are Tipler, Moravec, and Drexler. (<<<please check authors'
The tragedy of traditional death denial based on a religious fantasy is
that the fantasy must have specific, yet ultimately arbitrary, content.
Therefore it is frequently the case that people find themselves holding
mutually exclusive death denial fantasies. This is why traditional religion
is divisive. Christianity and Islam cannot both be true in their most literal
sense. This provides a potential ethical advantage for the new death denialists.
If people can agree on one simple tenet, that subjective experience, the
pea, does not exist, then they can share in the objective world of empirical
confirmation on all the other points that matter. They can agree, for instance,
on whether a brain has survived its cryo-, nano-, or cyber- transition into
Nonetheless, the new and old styles of death denial are even more in disagreement
with each other than any old-styled pair have ever managed to be. The chasm
between death denial fantasies provides a worthwhile approach for understanding
some of the most frustrating current events. Is it a coincidence that
religious fundamentalism is experiencing a resurgence at just the time that
science is starting to touch some of the most intimate aspects of human
identity? Today's social conflicts are more likely to be about technologies
that challenge our definition of death, such as abortion, than about the
distribution of wealth.
Although the consciousness community is obscure in the larger scheme of
world events, I believe we are on the front lines of a fundamental conflict.
The political and social future will be largely determined by the provisional
outcomes of conflicts over what are essentially popularized variants of
the hard problem.
While I am certainly not claiming that everyone who is not religious is
hoping to have their minds transfered to computer disks, I do think that
in the consciousness debate we have the most purified form of a new dialectic
formed by two opposing death denial fantasies. One is traditional, sentimental,
hysterical, and divisive. The other is bland, mechanical, and potentially
suicidal. No synthesis has yet appeared, however; in the gap discernible
between the two is found only a lonely vacuum requiring the superhuman discipline
of permanent irresolution.
1 Certainly the fear of death has been one of the greatest driving forces
in the history of thought and in the formation of the character of civilization,
and yet it is under-acknowledged. The great book on the subject, "The
Denial of Death", by Ernest Becker, deserves a reconsideration. Even
as the psychoanalytic tradition seems to be on the wane, this book holds
up remarkably well.
2 The screen is what we are most familiar with in 1997, but make no mistake,
any upmarket brainorama will actually have a virtual reality interface,
so that you find yourself inside a three dimensional representation of your
3 You might wonder how you avoid becoming lost in an infinite regress of
watching your thoughts of watching your thoughts. That is simple. The
brainorama computer is programmed to filter out this kind of resonant feedback.
4 Christianity, a post-platonic religion, was primarily founded not on
the exceptional emanations of burning bushes, demons, or other extraordinary
objects, but on the reports of people of apparently ordinary form, Jesus
and Lazarus, who could confirm the continuity of consciousness after death.
(While reports of Jesus' life do contain some other supernatural events,
like walking on water, these are surely not as vital to the religion.)
In Christianity the physical world became more ordinary and the hereafter
more baroque, especially as the religion developed over the centuries.
5 Note that you do NOT have to die to test a Brainorama, so long as you
use it gingerly.
6 This only provides a potential unity in the understanding of facts- it
certainly doesn't suggest any unity of motivation. In fact, the cliche
would seem to be that conciousness-free people face a crisis of meaning
and lack grounds for motivation in any direction.
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