Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letter to Christa

Excavation     De Kooning - 1950

Good Morning Christa…

One of the points you make in response to Michael Graziano’s column, Are We Really Conscious? , is that personal impressions are valid.  The subjective life is real.  Consciousness exists because it is an indisputable part of our experience.  The processing of input through the use of mental models does not necessarily make conscious thought an illusion.  Our minds evaluate an apple’s color, flavor, aroma, depth and weight.  The result is that the mind identifies the object as an apple.  This information is of no practical value to our biological brains without next determining the relevance of the apple to ourselves.  We don’t determine the importance of the apple without also providing further knowledge of the self.  Are we hungry?  Is this item safe for us to eat?  Do we like apples?  Would we prefer eating something else that is available?  The process of absorbing external world information also initiates self-knowledge, self-awareness.  Deprive us of all sensory input for an extended period and we may well lose in time the nature of our own identity. 

Consciousness requires our being able to continually relate with the external world.  Thus it does derive from the processing of information.  It also makes sense for the mind to require preexisting mental models – bundles of information – if it is to be capable of any meaningful evaluation.  Let’s return to our apple.

Of what use is the apple’s color if our minds are not prepared to interpret the wavelength it reflects?  A wavelength is a physical reality of the external world.  It has many properties associated with it.  A particular wavelength captured by the mind’s eye may induce a mental construct we identify as the color red.  There would be no recognition of red without first a model to interpret that wavelength.  So it also holds true for all aspects of the external world.  It isn’t enough to provide the biological equipment for hearing if there isn’t a corresponding model in place to convert vibrations into sound.  Sound is strictly a mental phenomenon, just as is color, odor or touch.  All of these sensations have been created, modified and refined over many millions of years.  The mind needs to know only what is relevant to survival.

A model produces a rough approximation of an entity.  Graziano refers to its product as a mere caricature of the object’s true properties.  Our awareness of the color white gives us no clue that it actually contains all visible colors of the spectrum.  We have no model for this because the information has no relation to survival.  Human reason enables us to acquire information not directly processed by models.

 What if it is true that consciousness is illusion?  Are we then little more than an elaborate information processing organism?  How coldly material and mechanistic this would seem.  It hardly depicts the human spirit as we know it.  The ongoing reasoned exploration of all things physical continually changes our perception of reality.  Copernicus destroyed the notion we were the center of God’s creation.  Darwin made a pleasant fiction of the Garden of Eden.  It seems now that neurological scientists are diminishing the mystique we hold for human existence.  Are we to believe all existence boils down to simple cause-and-effect mathematical logic?

I think not.  It’s tempting for some to misinterpret the overall significance of scientific findings.  There is no shortage to the mystery of existence.  How do we explain the fact of existence at all?  There is simply no need for anything to exist.  Still we do.  What is it we know of the underlying basis of physical reality?  That question actually remains a mystery.  Our explanations of the physical world only unearth more thoroughly puzzling questions – questions that challenge the very usefulness of reason itself.  Imagine that.  The universe we know is extraordinarily complicated from beginning to end – from light years in size to infinitesimally small material elements that appear to travel through dimensions beyond our detection.  Science has reached the point of being able to scoff at the scientific validity of writings by ancient people thousands of years ago.  That’s nothing to brag about.  We actually have far bigger challenges ahead when it comes to deciphering the nature and depth of our existence.  Chances are that if we have to rely exclusively on the reasoning power of our present biological brains we will never find the ultimate answers to the how and why of our being here.  That’s reassuring to me.  I’d hate to think existence is simple enough for the human mind to thoroughly conceive.  What a sad commentary for all of creation.

Every line of pursuit we choose to take ends short of our hopes.  Big deal.  There are so many personal rewards along the way.  Let us focus on living well.  Art is a splendid topic.  It isn’t caged within the narrow framework of scientific or mathematical reason.  It is sensual.  It stretches the vistas of imagination.  It brings to harvest our many emotions.  It is, best of all, just so damned dependent on the qualities of human nature.  Amen to that.


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