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Journal of No. 118


July 8th, 2007

Mike's Theory of Consciousness #1 @ 04:19 pm

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All consciousnesses are thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end. That is the theory that I have and which is mine and what it is, too.

Just to prove that I can read books faster than the three months the English history took me, I've just finished Doug Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop. It's hard to live up to having your first book win a Pulitzer, and this is no GEB. Yet, at the same time, there are many similarities, not least because Hofstadter considers Loop to be a retelling of the central story of GEB... how mind can appear from physically interacting particles. (Though I would say his best stab at answering that question comes from his dialogue "Who shoves whom around in the careenium?" which appeared in Metamagical Themas - indeed, the careenium forms a central analogy in the current book.)

Essentially, the book presents Hofstadter's ideas on what a mind is - namely, a strange loop. Since that noun phrase may not excite much recognition, the book helps to explain and expand on the idea using a host of analogies and explanations. We all understand what a feedback loop is, a microphone/speaker system produces something that it itself detects (or observes) and channels it back through the system again. A strange loop is similar, but with an attached set of symbols that react to these observations and change in response to them.

One might object that matter can't mean anything, so how can it be a symbol? Here again, the analogy with Gödel's mathematical tricks is useful. Gödel demonstrated that an integer, subject to appropriate patterning, can bear a meaning. Gödel pushed things even further by showing that such an integer can even be forced to observe itself and its meaning can be about itself. If a numerical pattern can mean something, surely a material pattern can mean something.

I'll borrow my own analogy from the Principia Discordia:

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I acquired
a split beaver magazine. You can imagine
my disappointment when, upon examination
of the photos with a microscope, I found
that all I could see was dots.


Now, clearly it's the pattern of the dots that makes the split beaver. Is the pattern made of matter? Well, if there were no paper and no ink, there could be no beaver. But is that line, or that curve, or that pinkness made of matter? The alternative seems very obnoxious... that there is magical non-material pattern-stuff, out of which the pattern is made. So I take the third alternative, that the pattern is not made of anything. It is a pattern, an arrangement, a scheme. The pattern uses matter as its substrate, but the pattern itself is... a pattern.
Borrowing one of Hofstadter's analogies, consider the rainbow. Is a rainbow made of matter? Surely, if there were no waterdroplets, there would be no rainbow. But if you were standing next to to the water droplets that were casting rainbow light into someone else's eyes, there would be no rainbow there. A rainbow is (pace Heimdall) not a bridge on which one can walk.

To be sure, a rainbow or a split beaver picture is not conscious of itself, but human brains, with rare exceptions - Denise Richards' comes to mind - are more complicated than a beaver picture, and have the sensory apparatus to close the strange loop and observe their own patterns.

So can patterns of neuronal firing have meaning and be the seat of consciousness? Certainly the brain is just made out of meat. But patterns are not made of meat, they are just patterns, and they can hold meaning.

Light impinging on the eyes of a monkey gets converted into a signal that travels to the optics centers of the brain where various filters act upon the message and gets kicked around to other parts of the brain that light up when they recognize a pattern of signals that corresponds to a banana. Other patterns in the brain are coincidentally reacting to the signals traveling from the stomach regarding its emptiness. These patterns interact in a way that excites the motor part of the brain to take action to grab the real banana. Is the banana pattern the same as seeing a banana? Is the pattern started by the stomach the same as the experience of hunger. Sure that latter pattern (a skeptic might say) may coincide with a state of hunger, but surely there's no hungriness there. How can meat be hungry? How can a pattern residing in meat be hungry?

If that pattern leads to changes in objective behavior that result in the monkey seeking out and consuming a banana, it surely coincides with and plays the role of hunger. Maybe it is hunger after all! The typical alternative, some form of dualism, seems a worse explanation - at best it's an unnecessary multiplication of entities, at worst it's nonsense.

People sometimes talk about the idea of a "grandmother neuron": a neuron that fires when you see your grandmother, presumably creating the experience of recognizing one's grandmother. While this is somewhat naive and generally an object of ridicule, something like this seems to actually be the case. When brains are stimulated, unusual experiences are evoked: "It seemed to me as if I was seeing children dancing and that I was carrying my dance shoes in my hands.”

Surely that patient was conscious of this faux experience. Was an electrical discharge somehow upsetting her immaterial soul? Or was it addling the meat of her brain? Or was it diddling the patterns in the brain? I think the last is the closest to the truth of the substrate of consciousness. Certainly it was messing with the meat, but the experience she was experiencing was due to the perturbation of the pattern.

Clearly there are lots and lots of patterns in a brain simultaneously. As I hopped out of the shower this morning, I was humming a snippet of Wagner, feeling the cool sensation of air on my wet skin and thinking about writing this monster blog entry and, in particular, this very sentence. I find myself wondering if the human instinct and neural machinery for language contributes to the illusion that there is an indivisible "I" that lords it over the body from its soular plane. Although I can be conscious of several different sorts of stimuli, I find that I can only have a single internal monologue. I can't hear myself thinking two different 'verbal' thoughts. In fact, I can only imperfectly get my internal iPod to play well-known music while also carrying out 'verbal' thoughts. Maybe this is a result of the linearity of speech and the inadequacy of the verbal chunks of the brain to handle more than one 'train of thought' at a time. And this contributes to the idea of a one individual "I" that runs the body. If there is a single train of verbalization, it obviously has one speaker. And that speaker is "I".

I'm sure we've all had the experience of driving down the street along a familiar path and then suddenly thinking to oneself, "Whoa! Where have I been for the past fifteen minutes? I don't remember anything. I was, like, totally on autopilot!" Of course, you were right there, driving the damn car with (presumably) as much skill as usual. You didn't need the verbal part of the brain to drive the car, so it powered itself down for a bit. Then some random stimulus poked at it, and it got back to work. Maybe we've identified too strongly with that verbal talker part of the brain as what the "I" is. You (inasmuch as you are anything) are all of those things, the driver, the cool-feeler, the Wagner-hummer, the talker, the rememberer, etc. All of these things are just a few of the simultaneous patterns bouncing around inside your brain.

Okay, let me spiral back to Hofstadter and his loops. He spends rather a lot of time in the middle section discussing the idea that we also exist in other people's heads. As imperfect copies obviously, but just as one represents oneself internally, one must represent the others that one deals with. And the closer you know someone, the more fidelity your mini-loop has to the original. In some ways I'm amenable to what he's saying, and it is the only sort of immortality I have to look forward to, but his grander claims are not quite convincing. It feels like kicking a man when he's down, but these sections are also intricately tied to the death of his wife. I believe him when he says his ideas are not merely "the passionate ravings of a suffering individual who had expediently modified his belief system in order to give balm to his grief." Nonetheless, I don't think these are the strongest chapters of the book.

On the other hand, the later chapters are some of the best, where he provides a summation of all his foregoing ideas and a useful critique of other alternatives. He dispenses with zombies and the inverted spectrum almost too rapidly, as though they're hardly worth his time, which (possibly) they aren't.

One last analogy to ponder (originally due (as I read from a footnote) to Bill Frucht) is that consciousness is not a power moon-roof. Consciousness is not an optional feature that needs to be acquired in addition to the complexity inherent in a strange loop. It's as if, says Hofstadter, one were to buy a car with 12 cylinders and 450 horsepower and then ask... "How much more would I have to pay in order to get Racecar Power (TM)" Racecar power is not an option, it comes with the territory once you've got enough horsepower under the hood. Similarly, once brains and their patterns get complex enough, one gets consciousness "for free".
 
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From:hagdirt
Date:July 9th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure I agree with the idea of once you have enough horsepower, you get consciousness. I think consciousness as we understand it is a good deal more specific, and less generally useful, than we give it credit for. Consciousness is: "I think, and I know I think." It's the internal monologue; it's the self-monitor that, by telling us what we are doing, gives us insight into what others are doing. And it's only a teeny bit of what your brain is up to at any moment.

How many times have you made a decision without thinking about it? A glass gets knocked off the table and you grab for it; you glimpse a kid running and you find yourself braking; you meet someone and immediately know they're up to no good. If you stopped to think, consciously, about these things, you'd never have the time to act. We call it reflex, but that's an insult to the huge portions of your brain dedicated to real-world physics, to defense of self and others, to picking up interpersonal cues... and so on down the line.

Your brain is always doing something. Consciousness - what we like to think of as "I," as the verbal, deciding self - may oversee things, but it seems to be at best a hands-off kind of manager; one who doesn't always get there in time to get the real work done, or to prevent a mistake. However, it's really, really good at explaining things afterwards. "I knew the glass was too near the edge." "That woman was a little too interested in my finances." Or, for that matter, "I thought I was doing the right thing." (Well, you do now. At the time, you were more concerned with something else; once you got caught...) We call this "rationalizing" for a reason; the conscious, "rational" brain is trying to make sense of our own actions, in the same way it makes sense of the actions of others. That's what it does, and that's all it does. A person without verbal thinking can still have a self.

Decision-making, no matter how we "reason" out our choices, is dependent on internal emotional cues; people who have damage to the emotional centers of the brain can reason fine but they can never decide on anything. Moral judgements likewise; when most people are confronted with a complicated moral dilemma they make their choice rather quickly and explain it all later. If the conscious mind is the executive branch, it's beholden to a rather large, powerful, and opinionated legislature composed of all those other brain functions (chunks, sub-routines, what-have-you). Consciousness has got veto power, it can plot strategy, and it can suggest action, but the heavy lifting of thought is being done elsewhere.

Would this happen in all circumstances where a brain gets to a certain complexity? Perhaps from a mathematical perspective, but we don't fall under only mathematical constraints. Our brain has evolved to do things - to keep us alive in the complicated and shifting social circumstances that our species works in. Pure consciousness does not always further that end. Sometimes, in order to work in a social network, you have to lie. "Sure, that's a great project!" "I really love you!" All up and down the spectrum. However, you deceive best if you believe what you're saying. Sure, the project is terrible, but if your own personal career can benefit, well... that's what hindsight is for, right? Or your girlfriend's not that hot, or smart, or fun, but she's the best you can do at the moment.... And so on. (My personal favorite lie: "I'm a special, important person whose presence in the universe is not only required, but destined! I matter! Whatever it takes to get you through the day, I say.) Sometimes we operate best when we are not aware of what we are doing, when we act counter-rationally, as it were.

Basically, I can go along with any theory of mind that takes into account not only that we are smart, and conscious, but that our smartness and consciousness is dependent on the particular circumstances of our life as bald, belligerent monkeys. Not sure I'm grasping that here, from your review; it seems to be a good deal more abstract. Can you define thought without understanding the physical structure under it? Can you understand a brain while using one?
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I agree with the idea of once you have enough horsepower, you get consciousness. ... Would this happen in all circumstances where a brain gets to a certain complexity?

I didn't do a very good job phrasing it. Certainly I agree with Hofstadter's explicit statement that the success of Deep Blue in beating the world's top chess-player tells us little if anything about 'thinking'. Surely Deep Blue is complex, but complexity alone is not enough. So I guess the emphasis is on "certain" in "a certain complexity".

Hofstadter would certainly agree that brains have evolved and that consciousness is an unplanned result of evolutionary action, particularly on social animals like us. Indeed part of the point of having little mini-strange loops representing others inside one's head is so you can outwit the other monkeys. And maybe if your loop is the loopiest, you are devious and hard to model in other brains. And thus brains have gotten loopier and loopier.
However, given his training and career, biology or evolutionary psychology is not really the level at which he's interested in discussing the problem.

I'm not so sure that the conscious mind is like the executive branch. It's much closer (I think) to the after-the-fact rationalizing you discussed earlier. Libet's famous experiments seem to demonstrate that "unconscious electrical processes in the brain ... precede conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts, implying that unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject." The feeling that "I" is the decider with veto power may be an illusion.
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From:notjenschiz
Date:July 9th, 2007 04:11 pm (UTC)

"most comment-generating post evar" award

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I think this perspective is interesting, and it raises several interesting questions:

1) How does this impact the idea of immortality, or life-beyond-the-body?
2) How does this impact the idea of AI, or life-without-a-meat-body?
3) How does this impact the idea of brain transfer? (see above)

Actually, though, I am a dualist, because I am unable to comprehend how a purely material (or materially-based) consciousness could be non-deterministic. I choose to believe in non-determinism either because
a) I have the option to do so (in which case I'm right), or
b) I don't have the option (in which case I'm wrong, but it ain't my fault).

If there is a god, or a way that a non-material entity could affect the material world, it is hidden within the "random" and the unobservable. For you quantum physicists out there: God hides in h-bar over 2*pi.
Less poetically, but more clearly, it is only possible to simultaneously measure some quantities--like momentum and position--to a finite accuracy. This is not because of lack of instrumentation, but simply because the act of measuring itself changes the state of being, necessarily. This is what allows particle/anti-particle pairs to occasionally pop into existence out of "nothing."
Given the ability to affect "randomness" within these constraints, a lot of information, and a really good grasp of chaos-theory (butterflies flapping their wings and all), you could leverage impossibly small changes into enormous outcomes. You could probably even prod a universe to come into being from "nothing."
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)

Re: "most comment-generating post evar" award

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1) How does this impact the idea of immortality, or life-beyond-the-body?
2) How does this impact the idea of AI, or life-without-a-meat-body?
3) How does this impact the idea of brain transfer? (see above)


It's not exactly on topic, but I'll work it around there, but there's an interesting discussion in the book, particularly since most sf readers are already familiar with it. The old teleporter gambit. Suppose it scans your body and reassembles it somewhere else (the moon, say). Well, since "you're" going to the moon, the copy of you that's still on earth is superfluous, so the transporter guy back on earth then presses the button that releases the rotating knives and the acid bath to get rid of that superfluous body.
Okay, I've been somewhat prejudicial in my description, but I do think such a mode of travel is a personal death sentence. Sure, I agree that the person on the moon is fully me in every particular, and has a continuous mental experience that would extend my own. But. Of the two me's, I'm the one who's still (briefly) on Earth.
Similarly, downloading my brain pattern into a computer that could 'run' the Mike-software with perfect fidelity would create a duplicate me that was theoretically immortal, but the only I I'm really attached to is still stuck in the meat.
The only kind of immortality I can really see is a gradual replacement of neurons with hardware equivalents. It might take 100 weekly operations, each one replacing 1% of my brain with silicon equivalents. The end result would be the same pattern that is me, and there would have been a certain physical continuity of that pattern.

A more uncomfortable side of this is thinking about the time evolution of the "I". Selves are not like social security numbers where you're issued one at the start and it stays the same all your life. Clearly "I" am not the same "I" as I was when I was 6 years old. Or even the same "I" as last week (although the difference is very small). Is the 6-year-old Mike dead? Well, he sure ain't around anymore. I don't mourn, because I at least imagine the continuity. I'm sitting inside the same cranium he did, so I must be him. Certainly this body is the same as his... wait, but is it? It's a different shape and probably none of the atoms in his body are still in mine. But if this body isn't his, whose is it? I don't see any usefulness in denying the continuity of body, so I don't with the consciousness either.
But maybe 6-year-old Mike is dead. Maybe when you're placed under general anesthesia, your consciousness dies. Maybe everytime you sleep, your "I" dies. Maybe everytime you drive like a zombie, your "I" dies just as much as the body that gets chopped up and eaten by acid in the teleporter. Since the you that wakes up is like the you that arrives on the moon, you don't notice anything. But the you that decided to take a nap committed suicide.
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From:servingdonuts
Date:July 10th, 2007 03:34 pm (UTC)

Re: "most comment-generating post evar" award

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Some of the econ stuff I've been reading lately has been about the relationship between your present self and your future self. You can look at time preference (aka the interest rate, aka ipod today versus rent next month, aka cigarette today versus not having lung cancer in twenty years) as a negotiation between your present self and your future self.

Except it's not much of a negotiation, really, because your present self has all the power. The only leverage your future self has is the warning that "you know, someday you're going to be me."

There's something called the time consistency problem, which I posted about here. In a nutshell, my present self wants to do something later, but everyone knows that my future self won't want to do it when the time comes. You solve the problem with a commitment strategy. Your present self today does something that binds your future self to the course of action your present self desires.

That raises the question of "future self paternalism". Some of us object when the government (or our moms) say "wear your seatbelt - we know what's best for you." But if you use a commitment to bind your future self to an action that you suspect your future self wouldn't otherwise do, you're saying the same thing to your future self. "Stay married, even if you don't want to - I know what's best for you." A natural question arises: what makes you think that your present self is any better at making decisions than your future self?

My view is that part of your present self's job is to make decisions on behalf of your future self. Your present self determines what your future self will be. Your future self can be a doctor or a street mime depending on what your present self chooses... but your future self can't make that choice.

More interestingly, not only does your future self not get a vote, but your present choices can even affect what your future self's vote would be! If you choose to be a doctor, you'll probably later be happy you chose to be a doctor. If you choose to be a street mime, you'll probably be happy you chose to be a street mime.

I see it as similar to raising a child. Yes, it's another person, but you get to make a lot of decisions about what that other person is going to be like. If we had brain uploading, I would still be myself and my uploaded brain-sim would be someone else who just happened to be a lot like me - and the only reason I'd have for doing that is more-or-less the same reason I'd have for creating a child (with fewer poopy diapers). The difference is that there is a sense of continuity between my present self and future self, or at least there will be over time. Between myself and my child, or myself and my brain-clone, there's a discontinuity, so they will forever be someone else and I will forever stay myself.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)

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Actually, though, I am a dualist, because I am unable to comprehend how a purely material (or materially-based) consciousness could be non-deterministic.

Roger Penrose appears to believe that non-deterministic quantum mechanics is at the heart of consciousness. Although he's smarter than both of us put together, he's almost certainly wrong.

Number one, neurons are bigger than electrons; Quantum decoherence seems to fuzz out any quantum wackiness once we get to the level of 'macroscopic' objects like neurons. Given the efforts that experimentalists go to keep a few atoms in coherent quantum states, it's hard to imagine that the meat in our heads can do the same.

Number two, if my choice of strawberry over chocolate ice-cream is due to the random collapse of a wavefunction, have I really gained free will? (Since you seem to be advocating dualism, you can have your spirit choose which way the 'random' event will occur, so this point only argues against Penrose. But Point one affects your idea, I think.)
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From:notjenschiz
Date:July 9th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)

Re: "most comment-generating post evar" award

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It's just that my point also includes chaos theory. If a butterfly can flap its wings and make a hurricane, then my dualist spirit can collapse a wavefunction that will, somehow, in turn affect the "macroscopic" little neurons in my meatbrain.

And how about this: computer chips are now getting small enough where quantum effects must be taken into account. Do you think that when we create AI, not only will it be smarter than we are, but that IT might have free will (due to quantum effects) and consciousness, but WE will not!?!
I think I have to go write a story now...
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)

Re: "most comment-generating post evar" award

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Saved by Captain Chaos! But your soul would have to be pretty well-informed to be able to adjust the initial conditions to get the result you want.

Quantum mechanics is not the answer... but you can go write a story.
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From:notjenschiz
Date:July 9th, 2007 06:28 pm (UTC)

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Well, the beauty of positing souls is that we can't examine them, can't prove anything about them, so we can assign them any qualities we like!
Seriously, though, I don't really think it would require a sophisticated soul to prod the meatbrain into acting through the collapse of wavefunctions, anymore than you have to do extremely complicated calculations to remain upright while walking and chewing bubblegum. You don't have to know HOW to do something in order to do it.

Now, of course, to some extent this only puts the question of free will at one remove. Why does my soul "want" chocolate ice cream? I don't know.
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From:notjenschiz
Date:July 9th, 2007 04:17 pm (UTC)

there's no "I" in "TEAM"

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oh, and on the topic of the verbal mind identity and the "I," I definitely think this is true. What's interesting is that ones brain is clearly a massively parallel processor, which one interprets through a single track at a time. So when inspiration "pops out of nowhere," it's actually this massively parallel machine creating connections and filtering it down to one comprehensible idea.

The other question I didn't raise in my last comment: how the hell did pre-verbal humans think? In pictures? In emotions? It seems like it would drastically alter the idea of "I."
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)

Re: there's no "I" in "TEAM"

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The other question I didn't raise in my last comment: how the hell did pre-verbal humans think? In pictures? In emotions? It seems like it would drastically alter the idea of "I."

Maybe it's like driving while you're not 'aware'. Clearly, you're aware of the road, avoiding danger, approaching a goal, etc. I agree with hagdirt that non-verbal 'people' can be conscious, they just have much lower cel-phone bills. I confess it would be strange.
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From:hagdirt
Date:July 9th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)

Re: there's no "I" in "TEAM"

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I very often have the sensation of thinking without words. It's usually when I don't understand something very well; it's a mental sensation of force without progress, something like trying to push a stalled car. Comprehension and vocabulary arrive simultaneously, like popping the clutch back in. Obviously my brain is doing something in there while this is going on, but the lack of tidy, sequential words is a little creepy. (That, and the loud whirring noise in my head.)

I would propose that consciousness is linked with the verbal apparatus because the two are both used primarily in the social framework. One person I know of who does not think verbally is Temple Grandin, who has heavy-duty Aspergers and writes about that and animal cognition. She says it's common with the Aspergers folks, which certainly aren't the most social.

The other question I didn't raise in my last comment: how the hell did pre-verbal humans think? In pictures? In emotions? It seems like it would drastically alter the idea of "I."

It would alter your idea of "I," but theirs? Everybody defines their own; that's the beauty of it. (As they define what isn't; there's a mental disorder where one's sense of physical self gets corrupted. People with it often damage themselves because they can't believe that their leg is "their" leg, or arm, or whatever. Often they try to get parts amputated, much to their doctors' dismay. Brains are fun!)
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 9th, 2007 11:04 pm (UTC)

Re: there's no "I" in "TEAM"

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hagdirt's reply to my other comment reminded me (somehow) of a detail from my post. When I feel a cool breeze on wet skin, I don't have to tell myself, "My skin is cool." I just experience it directly.
I think it's fair to say that our pre-verbal ancestors were not directly experiencing logical syllogisms, but they had what they needed to be aware of their environment and make appropriate mental reactions to it. They could know that a game animal was hiding in that bush without telling themselves that. Or a cat can know that the laser spot is prey.
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From:notjenschiz
Date:July 9th, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)

Re: there's no "I" in "TEAM"

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I suppose, for that matter, when I'm playing a sport (say, oh, ultimate frisbee, for example) I'm not thinking with the verbal self, but just reacting and thinking like "over there" without using the words. It's a fairly self-focused and time-present mentality, though.
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From:servingdonuts
Date:July 10th, 2007 03:07 pm (UTC)
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I may not know what I is, but I know it when I see it.
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From:servingdonuts
Date:July 10th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Also, Patterns!
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:July 10th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
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Lovely!

(as was the present/future self discussion, but for different reasons.)
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From:aaronjv
Date:July 11th, 2007 08:11 am (UTC)
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How does getting really, really drunk figure into the equation?

I can, apparently, still talk and make (supposedly very funny) jokes while in someone's garage, but I am not thinking of what to say, not really aware that I am talking, and certainly, cannot remember what was said (often) just seconds after I said it.

I do agree, however, that if brain power reaches a certain level, consciousness appears, perhaps not strongly, but the most basic aspect of sentience that I consider is knowing a difference between "I" and "Not I" is present.

I also think that our consciousness DOES shut down at times; sleeping being one of them, and dreaming being the most interesting, because although I know my mind is interpreting various real world signals in strange ways, I don't know if I am aware of me being me. I think I take off my identity like a suit while dreaming.

Great discussion; let's drop acid and continue!

Journal of No. 118