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The Nature of Consciousness Part 2: Language and Consciousness

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The Nature of Consciousness Part 2: Language and Consciousness

“At any particular moment during our waking hours (and sometimes during sleep) there are certain things that we would intuitively like to say are in our consciousness. These things appear to be only a very small part of the total range of material to which our minds have access. E.g., the vast amount of material stored away in our memories can be evidently recalled–brought back into consciousness–only a little at a time.”

So says Wallace Chafe, from Berkeley. We can consider the oft-used analogy of the unconscious as that part of the iceberg under water, with conscious thinking and language as the tip of the iceberg above water. But is language a separate medium from thinking?

This is a very old question and consideration, but I have come to believe in relationship far more than in dualistic thinking. Which is to say, language must necessarily be the externalized mode of thinking, in the form of a relationship; not separation. But we can take away from Chafe’s words that language is a limitation, a constrained externalization of the unconscious. Yet it cannot be otherwise because language is, at least for the human being, the externalized mode of thinking.

Of course these externalizations are relative. People in a third world country might not have a version of the words “Google,” “Starbucks,” or “Texting.” Their experience does not provide for such a word. And I believe that language is structured by our experiences. This is to say, you cannot have any word, say “taco,” without having some prior experience of “taconess.”

This is why language is always changing and increasing, in accord with our growing experience. This says to me that the unconscious is elastic, perhaps with infinite capacity for externalization. And yet, that externalization is somehow determined by form. Language has so far been the form taken on by thought.

Consider your computer. Your computer has enormous amounts of data stored in its memory (images, music, text, video, etc) but it can only be presented through one screen. Consciousness functions similarly. You have theoretically an infinite amount of content in the unconscious, but it can only be externalized in a limited form, over time. You could not experience yourself completely in one moment–you would go out of your mind! Just like your computer cannot play all your songs, show all your videos/movies/pictures, and bring up all your documents at once, because it would probably freeze and crash, so too, you cannot experience all of your memories, your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, and your intuitions at once, because you would go insane. Language is the medium towards a semblance of sanity, at least for now. And it too comes with its traps…

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The Age of Silence

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Silence

The Age of Silence?

It is said that towards the end of his life the Buddha gathered his students about him, presumably to deliver what could have been his greatest teaching. He reached down to the grass, picked a flower, and showed it to his students. And he said nothing.

It seems that alongside the dramatic strides in technology and communication in the last 20 years, there has been an increasing and paradoxical presence of silence. Because it is silent, however, it is not so easily noticed. Let me explain.

If you’re a Millenial, you grew up with a landline from which most of your communication stemmed. Along comes the internet (by far the greatest invention of the modern age) and email. Email was a mindblowing novelty. We now had, for the first time, the capacity to communicate with others around the world at incredible speeds, with the touch and click of a few buttons. But this capacity was the first appearance of a new kind of silence. Why utter words through the telephone when you can just use a keyboard to send your message?

Not long after this, Facebook became a sensation. This relegated email for more “professional” use, whereas we could use Facebook to communicate in a much more social way. But while email allowed you to express yourself in full detail, and hopefully with style and ingenuous grammar, Facebook allowed you to post a quick update. Again, why compose a detailed email when you can just post a quick thought on Facebook? This is a further gradation of silence. But it does not end there.

Twitter muted us even further by limiting whatever communication we have to 140 characters. 140! Is the speed of life is so incomprehensibly fast, or our attention so zapped, that we cannot spare the time to read or listen to someone if what they have to say exceeds 140 characters? Isn’t 140 characters scarcely enough space for a one-liner? But wait, there’s more folks. As of August 9th, Pinterest is now open to the public, making the switch from invite-only. Now you can communicate by simply assembling a collection of images. In other words, you don’t have to say anything at all. And while I love images as much as anyone else, I can’t help but think that in other ways we are becoming increasingly silent.

What comes next? Is there a new form of communication emerging? And as it emerges, are we thereby further silenced? I should say that when the Buddha picked the flower, he said nothing. But as he held it in his hand, he smiled. Only one of his students understood the teaching.

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The Nature of Consciousness: Part 1

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Consciousness

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts in which I will explore the question: What is consciousness? For, as I’ve explained to many friends over the years, there is no more fundamental question in your life than this. This is basic, basic. So let’s jump right into it. Things are about to get Matrix-y.

So what is consciousness? This question has been formulated in many different ways since man first kicked a rock and said, “Ow, that hurts.” It would not be too much to say that this question is the background of all further inquiry. Take metaphysics (the study of reality) for example: it asks, what is reality? Let’s suppose we were successful in determining what reality is. How would we know what it really is, unless there were something or someone that is conscious of it?

Some 400 years ago Descartes formulated the inquiry as the Mind-Body problem, and compartmentalized consciousness into separate registers. But this only complicated the matter further, for now we had to contend with the mind as a separate engine, and the body as its own thing as well. And where did the emotions fit in all this?

These days we no longer refer to it as the Mind-Body problem. Instead these questions are the domain of the Philosophy of Mind. For a wonderful introduction to these questions see David Chalmers’ book The Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings http://tinyurl.com/8om6ttj

But perhaps the greatest difficulty in approaching the nature of consciousness, the reason it eludes both the rigor of science and the intuition of religion, is that it is both objective and subjective. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Christof Koch, a neurobiologist at Caltech, said that “consciousness is the central factor of our lives.” He added that “unlike black holes or the Higgs boson or molecules, consciousness has both an external perspective and an intrinsic perspective,” and that “because it has both an exterior, third-person perspective as well as an interior, first-person perspective, it’s unique among all the phenomena in the universe.”

Let’s go over that again in plain language. Consciousness is both inside you, and outside you, at the same time!

Take an example: you see a red apple in the outside world. We generally assume that the red apple exists, and that it is outside us. We can prove this by touching it, smelling it, or just plain eating it. But, do we really know this for a fact? Let’s look at what happens before we ever conclude that what we are seeing is a red apple.

There is an unknown vibration of light that you receive through the cornea of your eyes. This is registered as an impression.
That impression is received upside down in the retina. Think of the retina as a movie screen, except the image is upside down. Yes, we all initially see everything upside down!
The impression travels through the optic nerve to the back of the brain, where it is transformed into a mental concept (in this case, red apple).
This information is sent back through the optic nerve to the retina, except this time it is right side up.
You say to yourself, “red apple.” But you only say this because you’ve been trained by your environment, education, experience, etc that we call it a red apple, and there seems to be a universal agreement about it
So then, we can ask, is the world outside us, or inside us? And how? Try an experiment!

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My New Novel

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Zarathustra

Prologue

This is the story of my life, but not really. I do not intend to write it like a story. That is, my story does not have a beginning, middle, and end. I prefer to think of it as a collection of photographs in words, as isolated snapshots of inner experiences that have been mine, and which have no noticeable connection. A photograph is just a photograph; an image. If there is a story to it you have added it to the image yourself. It is extra. It doesn’t come with it. Same with this: if you sense a story when you read this, it is your own doing, not mine. It is your own mind connecting things, putting them together to make sense of it, but you are doing this. We feel more comfortable when we believe we know or understand something, instead of facing the reality of something unknown. Therefore we connect things. I will not try to connect anything at all, I will just write.

You see, your real life is not outer events, it is inner states. It is not what you are doing, or where you are, but who is the doer, and who is the one there.

But you do not know who you are, do you? Who is reading this now? Can you answer that sincerely?

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Umberto Eco on Lists

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”

–Umberto Eco