Some two years ago or less when this blog was concerning itself with the nature of consciousness I wrote an entry about the so called "Cartesian Theatre" and the flaws inherent in this dualistic model of the self.

To reiterate: the theatre is based on the idea that all your senses - vision, hearing, touch, smell - are sending signals down your nerves and into the brain. Once in the brain these multiple media are combined by some mental home entertainment system into a presentation for the consumption of the actual Self.  Lord Consciousness sits in a large leather swivel chair at the controls of the brain, waving a cigar around in one hand, universal remote in the other. This feels right. It's how we imagine ourselves, a mini-me occupying the seat of sentience. It's what we feel we really are.

The problem is that what feels right is very often wrong. Flat earth? Wrong. Sun goes round the earth? Wrong.

Perhaps even though it feels that our real self is a pilot homunculus sitting in the cockpit of our head, this too is wrong. Thinking about it, the flaws in the concept become apparent. If it was actually true, then on some level then it would be the pilot, the homunculus,  that was conscious. So where is her or his consciousness located? If the input from our senses are being displayed on screen and played through speakers inside the cockpit then it must mean that the pilot is looking at them, is listening to them. With whatever passes for her or his eyes and ears.

This means that we have to then carry out the same investigation within the pilot's head. Who pilots the pilot? Eventually we end up with an infinite recursive sequence of pilots dwindling down into microscopic infinity like a psychological matryoshka doll.

Generally, whenever we come up against an infinity in science it usually means that something is wrong somewhere - that we're either missing something obvious or including something nonsensical. In this instance it's probably the latter - the Homunculus Argument is nonsense.

But if we're throwing out the infinite recursive pilots, it becomes clear that we don't even need one of them. Our consciousness isn't a being sitting in our head studying the input from our senses; it's far more likely to be a phenomenon emerging from those senses themselves, a self-awareness arising from the establishment of a small model of the universe in one location by the sense organs. The seat of consciousness isn't in the head (somewhere behind the eyes). It exists as a standing wave in the flow of data being collected by the sense organs and being compared with the memory records.

But on some level this also feels right. Our skin is our largest sensory organ and it's one that clearly divides the universe into "self" and "everything else". We are our bodies, our minds a meniscus existing in the boundary between the somatic system and the vast gulf of inter-selfish space.

This has interesting implications when you think of the myriad new channels of communication and sense that are becoming available to us at the dawn of of the information age. The boundary between our selves and everything else is becoming blurred.

This has already been happening for a while. Whilst I am not a driver myself,  I am given to understand that when driving cars some people do experience some kind of an extension to the boundaries of self; it moves from their skin to the paintwork of their car. Enrapt in the process of driving, their hands on the controls and feet on the pedals become the equivalent of nerves and muscles. The only thing missing is the face and a way of communicating. Blowing the horn is about all that's open to them which is why it is heard so often even though the highway code expressly forbids it in all but a very few situations. Perhaps in the future some cars might have holograms of their drivers' heads hovering above the roof, reproducing the expressions and words of the human within. And at such a time the boundary will have slipped; not inwards to another fake homunculus but outwards to a new definition of self, a new boundary.

Spend enough time in your car and you might come to believe that you are a car.

But this evolution need not be confined to the drivers of cars. The tentacles of our communication and subsequently our sensory organs are increasingly becoming remote. Even in a fumbling primitive manner, like the first fish to climb up onto the land and lie gasping on the beach, many of us already have a very distinct online presence if we add up all the services we use; the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Tumblrs, our blogs, instant messaging, email, comments left on forums and feedback left on eBay, the webcams, the Soundcloud, the Audioboos. We are leaving more and more of a trace of ourselves on what is increasingly these days called The Cloud (which when it comes down to it is just a more nebulous and cool way of talking about the internet).

And just as the seat of our consciousness is demonstrably not a homunculus sitting in our head checking all the data flowing in from our sense organs then there is no real reason for it to be our physical bodies sitting at the computer or engrossed in our iPhones whilst on public transport.

Our consciousness doesn't have a seat. If it could be said to exist anywhere it's in our sphere of influence, the arena from which we are gathering information and with which we are interacting. Up until recently that has been coincidental with our physical bodies, bodies which over the past hundred years have occasionally been enhanced with shells of metal and plastic known as automobiles.

But now we have something much more empowering than the car. Our bodies have new insubstantial but nevertheless real extensions into information space. We don't need direct brain implants to experience cyberspace; get engrossed enough in what you are doing and you will no doubt start to believe that you're there. When they subtly change the layout of a familiar web page it's just as disconcerting as when they change the shape of the landscape; our internal model of the universe fails the cyclic redundancy check when compared with the world as observed and has to be corrected.

When you type on a keyboard you're no more aware of the exact sequence of muscle movements being sent to your fingers than you are of the chemicals within those muscles metabolising; eventually perhaps even the use of the keyboard will become as transparent to us as our muscles and it will be the intent, the meaning that matters.

And perhaps with enough of a physical disconnect we will start envisioning a different self image, an attenuated ghostlike databody striding through the information landscape un-noticed until it wants to be, as unaware of the flesh it leaves behind as you are now unaware of the existence of your liver.

You become your avatar.



  1. Pete Menich  

    Great article!

    (I got here from the bbc piece)

    I have to confess though that I still look at the keyboard when I type - although I do use more than 2 fingers.


  2. sitemountain  

    I was listening to Richard Dawkins recently postulating the possibility that something like the internet may gradually become conscious but your article reverses this idea: WE extend OUR consciousness into IT! Just writing this idea to you is like two parts of a bigger entity connecting & perhaps learning what it really is: something MUCH MUCH bigger than our sweaty little egos!

    Well 'maybe'!

Post a Comment