Consciousness—A Basic Issue

0. A Few Extra Words (Not Exactly a Preamble):

Before coming to the subject matter of this post, here is a pointing out to you that I have today updated my last post, in which I have now asked a question as to whether an observation independently made by Arjen Dijksman and me has been pointed out so explicitly before. See the last point (i.e. point no. 6) of my last post here [^].

Also, before coming to the main subject matter of this post, let me pause for a moment and think aloud about my method of posting.

Most times, to preserve the “life” or “livingness” in my posts, I write them on-the-fly. I do so at a cybercafe—thus, I have neither my references (books etc.) at my fingertips, nor am I very certain as to when the Internet and the power connection will go off. Naturally, there is an extra degree of “spontaneity” to my blog posts.

Whatever it is that I wish to write about, I am first and foremost concerned with “getting it out the door.” Further, I am not a very natural composer, whether in English or in Marathi. I have to write and rewrite. In a marketing (i.e. application engineer plus marketing) job I did years ago, I had to write a lot of business correspondence.  All my colleagues, but especially the staff in the typing pool—yes, we had typewriters back then—would always make fun of me, because all my hand-written drafts would have many scratches, revisions, arrows going from one part of a line on the bottom of the page to some other line at the top of the page, even to some other page, etc. It is for all such reasons that I often have to update my posts after publishing them at least once, correcting or at least streamlining the content. I think I am now going to discontinue this practice.

However, this post is certainly going to be in my own “traditional” way—written on the fly. I still think that I need to give it some deep thought whether I should not first write my posts at home, and then simply copy-paste and publish them here… I promise that I will think very hard about this matter.

Having said that, let’s try to turn to our today’s topic: Consciousness.

1. Still A Few More Extra Words (and, Again, Not a Preamble):

As I mentioned in a few recent blog posts here, when I reading Ayn Rand about 29 years ago (in the second half of the year 1981), I had already had a few queries that could only properly be called philosophic in nature.

Then, reading Ayn Rand, for many many years (certainly more than a decade), I sort of got swept away from my own queries and thoughts, thinking about what she had to say. Reading/understanding her did clarify a lot of my doubts, and it indeed introduced me to many new issues, even crucial ones, of philosophy. I am in her debt, intellectually speaking, and would always remain so.

However, some time later (starting the I half of the year 1993, and more or less very definitely after the mid-1990s), I slowly began realizing that perhaps some of my original queries did have something more than what Ayn Rand had to say. After undergoing and digesting UO (the audio course), and after thorough reading of OPAR, I was equipped with both a systematized knowledge of Objectivism (thanks mainly to Peikoff) and also a more thorough understanding of the same (in substantial measure, no doubt, because of my own efforts too). Having knowledge in such a form—may I call it a mature form?—had a consequence that I began having more confidence with my queries than what I had in the early years (1980s). In the early years, as students go, one was more concerned with just absorbing what is there; the issue of what to make of my own initial queries could be postponed. Remember here that I am not a professional philosopher. Also note that the issues of life that I confronted back then didn’t require an immediate resolution of these matters. On both the counts, postponing thinking about them was OK. In other words, if I didn’t think about these matters, it was not because I was overawed by Ayn Rand. Certainly not. That’s how many Americans (e.g. of the Brandens’ variety) may approach such issues—not me.

Anyway, beginning 1993 and then in the mid-1990s, I slowly began to realize that some of the aspects of the queries that I originally had (in 1981) were valid ones—even certain supposedly “arbitrary” issues such as certain aspects concerning the nature of consciousness, and of reincarnation. (I also have a bit to add about “arbitrary” etc. … Some other time.)

So, I also then realized that these issues themselves were not arbitrary—not even if both Rand and Peikoff had always indicated these to be so. I could see that I could isolate my viewpoint from almost all the other philosophies, psychologies, and people, believing in reincarnation. I could see that Peikoff’s or Rand’s criticism was not always misplaced. For example, look up Shirley McLean’s Web site. Even today, concerning reincarnation, the first thing she asks you is what you feel about reincarnation! … These Americans!!

Talking of these Americans, first, one of them has a stupid idea. Then, another has an opposing, and equally stupid idea. Both are vocal. Stubborn, with without conviction. Usually, by the time one becomes aware of an issue, such two types of stupids have already been slogging it out at each other, most usually, enacting the mind-body dichotomy.

Then, typically, enters an Objectivist—say, Rand, Peikoff, Binswanger, Schwartz, et al. They all have Rand as the basis. She has some idea about the matter—not necessarily covering all crucial aspects, but more often than not, she does have something crucial to say. Most of the times, she has sound reasoning.

Yet—and here is my basic contention (if that’s the word for it)—neither she nor any Objectivist is even willing to entertain a new thought if such a matter had not already been known and discussed in the Western philosophy. The sphere of their thought does not as many times touch upon all issues—even crucial issues—even crucial philosophic issues—as might be supposed after recognizing the nature of the axioms that they do seem to put forth.

Now, since the idea of reincarnation is not a major part of the Western philosophy (i.e. of philosophy, as contrasted with the Western theology), the Objectivists are rather eager to say, in effect: “It’s arbitrary; good bye!”

To Rand, as to Peikoff, the very idea that the ancient Indian writings might have something crucial, something essential, something of objective value to offer, seems to go against their grain—their cognitive fibre primarily (and then, the entailed moral or cultural fibre, consequently). They say that they are convinced about this issue, and also their actions indicate so.

They have it all. Complete. In full. Take it or leave it. No discussions of “arbitrary” points.

The culture seeps through. All Objectivists are similar in this regard. [To my knowledge, only Tracinsky’s piece is an exception. He does have some fine points, but IMHO, he has not put them with the right examples. I am not enthused ever to write on this part, but may be, after 5/10 years or so….]

For instance, recently, I wrote an email to a recent philosophy PhD graduate, a definitely very young guy, who seems to be Objectivist. Regardless of the fact that (these days) I am a member at HBL and that’s how I became aware of him and that’s how I was contacting him, and regardless of what I have written about Objetivism here and elsewhere (i.e. before this piece), he hasn’t bothered to reply. Not even a one liner. None. He is American, you see. And, an Objectivist. What else do you expect?

Note, the issue here isn’t a superiority syndrome on the part of these ordinary characters (sometime very very ordinary—by my standards), even if, some times, a superiority complex is actually the case—“pride,” “arrogance”, “haughtiness,”… you get the idea.

Now, when any guy, but especially such characters (I mean the Objectivists) exhibit their second nature to me—I mean: a man of my achievements, the consequence is a (Marathi) “luLaa” [English translation: paralyzed] attempt; not very efficacious one.

The point is, characters such as these (and Objectivists aren’t the only ones here) are sure that replying back to me, or acknowledging me (or my work), or God/Rationality forbid, doing so on their own, is going to, per their rapid automated calculations, elevate me.

Now, if the person (say I) am not an American, or at least a Westerner (you know the kind who takes dancing tuitions dressing in “black” at the end of an OCON conference, swears by Shakespeare even if philosophically wrong and simultaneously derides Eastern literature—those types), they calculate, doing this—i.e. in their estimate, whether realistic or not, elevating me—could pose a problem.

I am sure they rationalize such a decision only by reference to the virtue of selfishness, and the limited nature of their capacities. (They are right on the first part, and wrong on the second—their capacities are in fact far more limited than they allow themselves to fancy.)

In my experience, not only the novice or the comparatively inexperienced Obejctivists, but even the more experienced or leading ones also exhibit this same trait. The trait remains the same, only the concrete form of its manifestation changes (and some—but not all—times, also the psychological intensity of the underlying process). For instance, Peikoff could easily talk directly to me on his radio show—but only with me as one of the ordinary guys calling in. He could confirm that he does read my emails. But, would he therefore reply back? … Keep waiting.

In the Objectivist circles, the same policy, even if not officially prescribed, does percolate down to everyone—whether a convent-educated (i.e. Jesuits-mangled) Indian IIT/BJMC student, or his “friends,” or a fresh American PhD in his twenties.

And, one is not surprised; one has read enough about the British and the Indian Freedom Movement; all that one has to do is to put the 2 and the 2 together: namely, to note that both British and Americans are part of the same Western culture—the Jesuits’ convent morality included.

If you think I overstretch the case, note what Peikoff has once noted, in discussing the difference between Dominique Francon (a supposedly beautiful (i.e. thin etc.) and thoroughly spoilt brat, a scatter-brain in a certain basic sense) and Gail Wynand (the prime ideal of all materially successful Indian businessmen). He says (something like) that Wynand has sold his soul, but Ms. Francon is better—metaphorically, she has joined, wonder of the wonders, implicit good of the implicit good, the Convent. Marathi: “karun karun thakali, …” [English translation: Shrikant Rangnekar? Sam Udani? IITians? Times of India?]

So, if you are like me: Indian, talkative, open, and with achievements, and a man who can think—a man who can not only agree but also disagree, a man who can not only absorb the existing material but also create and invent something new, and worse, a man who can not only think but also articulate back replies—and then, if you then approach such characters (Americans and/or Objectivists), initially, there is this apprehension, in their minds, of keeping you at a distance, of not replying back, of being curt types (in their mind: with a firm knowledge of where to draw the line, etc. types). That is the case, initially.

So, that’s initially case. If you are like me, the case remains the same even after years—nay, decades. Note again, I am talking about men like me—not the usual spineless IIT/BJMC idiots flocking to the USA, esp. to the San Francisco Bay Area (and also New York, San Diego… you get the point.

In a general sense, that’s how all Americans behave—with a man like me.

Then, as a new movement especially proud of being proud (etc.), Objectivists could only be expected to accentuate this particular trait. For instance, in showing that men like me are not worthy of their replies, etc. And, similar types.

Now, from my side, I do understand about the limited time and energy that public personalities (such as intellectuals, politicians, etc.) can have at their disposal. In the case of Peikoff, I was willing to make an exception. The tense of the last statement is right—I was willing to do so, but I no longer am.

Today, despite all my achievements (see my resume on my Web site) and all my “follow-up” (12 years and counting)—which I have for years made sure the ARI knew and directly saw (at least as it unfolded since I came back in 2001)—I cannot take so generous a view of these “self-concerned” people. The Grand Old Man of Objectivism Dr. Leonard Peikoff included.

I no longer do. … Indeed, I wish I had come to this view earlier—after all, you don’t have to have as many achievements (in real terms) as mine, to keep that expectation to be treated as a human being—so long as you are of a serious thinking type.

But yes, I do observe that, to transcribe a Marathi saying (metaphor? idiom? proverb? you decide), it is as if these Objectivists’ fingers “luLe paDataat” [English: fall paralyzed] or “mahaarogyaasaarakhe zaDun jaataat” [English: fall off as is the case with a lapor], as soon as it comes to making an email reply, listening to ideas, thinking about them, appreciating the work of someone like me, etc.

I know that many of such characters (Americans and/or Objectivists, and further, also the non-Objectivist Americans/Westerners) are going to try and draw an analogy between me and, say, David Kelley—and do they know any better? So, in anticipation, let me hasten to add that I don’t care for Kelley. Not at all. My concern is with my things, my ideas, my life. And, God [also Rationality] knows (and so do you) that I have enough of other stuff to care about.

Which, brings us back to the title of this post. Consciousness.

The reason I didn’t directly go to the subject matter is that, it occurred to me that, ideally, I should have already discussed this with these Objectivists. But of course, now (after years, even decades), I know better.

… After all, if even a post I make about the philosophy of mathematics (in reference to calculus) does not get posted at the HBL (for whatever reason best known to Jean Moroney- and Harry Binswanger, et al.), what chance, do you think, would I have to have it discussed with Objectivists some 13–17 years ago.

But then, I have waited long enough—longer than I should have but without regrets (again, as indicated above, I didn’t mind postponement). So, I am going to begin posting about these things.

While reading, keep just one more thing in mind. There is this matter as to what view I should take when they (Americans and/or Obejctivists) would read it, as, undoubtedly, they would, and, as evidently (over a space of almost or two decades if not more) they have been giving an array of evidence of their superiority and their not willing to discuss.

The view of these characters (Objectivists and/or Americans) that I take here is exactly similar to the view I took of MIT and the American Scientific Establishment.

When they cared not to reply, I told the then Dean of R&D of MIT (via my official email) something like this (I mention here not the exact words but the essence of the whole thing):

Since you (Americans etc.) do not bother to reply me back because even the act of replying might imply acknowledging that such work as mine exists—and the nature of my achievements, and still, since you do take care to show to me via indirect means that you do read what I have to say (my research etc.), what this makes of you? You, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The University of California at Berkeley, The Stanford University, etc.—is that you are, objectively speaking, beggers.

You beg for the knowledge and achievements that I create, that I have created, and that I will go on creating, all, out of my own life and my own interests.

Possibly, as is fashionable in your Western culture (which also put to death not just a Socrates but also a Galois—comparison of scale not intended), you would begin to appreciate me and my work, after the elapse of a “safe” period of time—say, after my death.

But know that I knew this while I was still living—and that I had called you a begger.

My position with respect to Objectivists is not much different from the position I took with respect to those MIT etc. researchers.

Indeed, essentially, it is identical. The difference is that I still think that MIT etc. people are more devious, and less proud (though Objectivists aren’t always as good as their pride, displayed through both their words and actions, goes). But, the principle is the same. And, the comparison is close enough.

Having said what had to be said, let us begin with the topic itself.

Indeed, I had anyway thought of only broaching up the topic today, by way of a question. I will begin covering aspects of the possible/definite answers via randomly posted series of posts at this blog.

2. Consciousness—A Basic Issue

I assume that you are thoroughly familiar with Objectivism. (It is not necessary that you have an acquaintance with the various Indian ideas concerning consciousness. However, it will be helpful in the sense that if you are acquainted with these ideas, you could easily catch my drift right on the first go.)

A basic issue concerning consciousness—which was solved by Ayn Rand by not at all addressing it—can be approached thus (this description is written on the fly; can be arranged in a better hierarchical order later on):

Point 2.1:

Sit quietly in a closed room, with eyes closed for some time. (It’s OK even if the TV is on.) Then, open your eyes and, for a few seconds, take a stock of the objects present in the room. For instance, you see a flower-pot, a desk, or some program on TV. Again close your eyes, and ask yourself one question:

Who observed those objects?”

Note the object of our query. It is not: the physical objects in the room, or the place where the observations were made. It is not even your experience of having observed something.

Here, we are talking about the observer, the “who,” not the observed, the what.

When people seek an answer to this question, many of them often experience confusion. The thing is, apart from saying that “I observed it”, they have nothing more to add. And, they are not sure if the answer is either to the point (or, if they are advanced enough, whether the answer is complete). After all, apart from telling the questioner that yes, one is aware of “someone” “in here” who does the observing, hardly anything else can be added.

Incidentally, a teacher of the “Art of Living” (i.e. Sr^2) courses thought that this ability to isolate the observer from the acts of observations is something that most people have never done in life, before coming and attending their course! I disagreed!! I always knew people right from my primary-school time. (I attended the Basic or Part I course some time back, and am not sure if I want to recommend it to anyone . But, yes, there is something to performing the Sudarshan Kriya, and that thing may be right for you. … You decide, on your own.)

So, to come back to our present discussion, be sure that you know the “thing” that we are talking about here. It is: that “I” within you, that “someone” within you that (primarily speaking) only you can be directly aware of. It is that particular instance of the “I-ness” which you infer by external (physical) observations of other men that they, too, possess it, even if, no one else’s “I” can you be (in the primary senses of the terms) be directly aware of.

It is that “I” that we are talking about here, that’s the main subject matter for us today (and for some time to come).

Ok. Now, answer this question: Where is this “I” of yours located in the real world? (Binswanger’s “Metaphysics of Consciousness” lecture may be helpful here. [You see, I am unlike them.])

Can you say that this “I” of yours, which you can experience any time, but which seems to be the same at any time of your observing it, is located in your brain? Is that so?

Is that really so? Can you really say that this “I” of yours exists “in between your ears,” to use a popular way of putting it?

In answering this way, are you only repeating what scientists/psychologists have told you?

Or is it that you do have a direct experience of your “I” being physically spread, say from this ear to that ear (or enclosed by the boundaries of your brain, your head, your brain + brain-stem + spinal chord, etc)?

If, despite deep thinking and making isolating kind of observations, you still say that you do have a direct experience of that “I” of yours as being spread to a definite location in space, I ask you that you remain on the side-lines and simply watch the further questions and answers. (Eventually, you may want to revise your answers here, or leave this blog altogether.)

The fact of the matter is: No spatial relation can at all be established between that directly experienced “I” of an observer on the one hand, and the material or the physical universe that we directly perceive around on the other hand. None can be.

The reason is: that “I” of yours is beyond both space and time. No attribute, characteristic or relation of the physical universe applies to this “I” that you have. None. Just as equally well, no material thing can primarily be said to be conscious. The two are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive isolations—of man, together with the rest of the universe in which he lives.

This “I” of yours, is (I think) what Ayn Rand had in mind when she said that Consciousness is an axiom—a self-evident primary.

… Objectivists immediately go next to establishing the metaphysical primacy of Existence, which we will not do here—we do take it for granted, though! But having discussed enough, it is no longer interesting in its own right, for our present subject matter.

Just the way the referents of the concept of “Existence” include not only the observed physical universe but everything else, that is to say, just the way the concept “Existence” goes beyond space and time (and beyond: physical form, physical materials, physical substances, aether, etc.) , just the way it goes beyond all spatial and temporal measures, similarly, also the concept of “Consciousness” goes beyond space and time.

… A lot of people have no issue accepting the first, but they do feel hesitant to accept the second. But, it is true. Consciousness has no spatial-temporal measures—qua an irreducible primary, qua a most basic or fundamental fact, it cannot have these measures. (For that matter, it cannot even have contraries—which, again, comes as a shocker to, who else but, Objectivists (and I guess would do so to a greater measure if these Objectivists are Americans).)

Point 2.2:

Let’s do one more experiment.

Catch hold of a friend/family member or so. Ask him to keep a distance of about 5 or 6 feet between you and him, and then ask him to attempt to clap very lightly with his hands, at random intervals. The clapping should be barely audible. Now, close your eyes. Concentrate hard and try to predict the time of the next clap—when it occurs. Do not speak it aloud, just keep that prediction all to yourself. However, do make that prediction, whenever you feel like doing it, silently, within your mind.

Then, once a clap does actually occur, try to find if and how you could determine the fact that there was a clap!

Once you become comfortable with this procedure, get a sound-proofing headphone and wear it. I mean, the headphone should isolate out as much external sound as possible—therefore, it’s OK if you wear your iPod etc. headphone at a loud volume too. Now, try to predict both the timing of the next clap, and its perception by you—by the “I” of you who “is there” to perceive. It gets hard to perceive the clap if it is faint (and if the headphone volume is high). If the conditions are right, you no longer perceive the clap by its sound. This stage forms the basic condition of our experiment.

Now, you seat in a chair facing a wall, close your eyes, wear the external “sound-proofing” headphone, and ask your friends to slowly come towards you, without making any sound, and making a clap. (The experiment works better if there are more than one clappers who might approach you—with only one of them clapping at a time.)

As the friend(s) approach closer, eventually, they are permitted to physically touch you in their clapping. (However, they should approach you with as much stealth as possible. For example, turn the room fan on, so that you don’t feel their breath as they approach you. Again driving the sensory signal out with another large signal.)

If you now do this entire experiment (silently predicting the time of the next clap and then trying to actually perceive the next clap), you will find that, eventually, you are able to perceive the clapping only when there is an actual touch—a direct physical contact, effected to your physical body. Not at all otherwise.

Agree with that empirically established fact? OK? Now think about what kind of an abstract fact is implicit in it.

The implicit fact is: You cannot perceive anything unless it establishes some kind of a physical or material contact with your material, spatially delimited body.

In other words, your perceptions—and therefore also your consciousness—is  delimited in space, time, and in general by the material universe.

3. The Basic Issue:

It is obvious by now that there seems to be a very basic contradiction between the Point 2.1, and Point 2.2 above.

In Point 2.1, we concluded that consciousness—that “I” of yours who does the perceiving/observing—cannot be ascribed to any specific region of space.

Though we didn’t touch upon it, there also are many further examples. For instance, loboctomy patients do not report of a partial reduction of their “I,” neither do patients who develop a cancer of the brain, report a partial enlargement of their “I.” Consciousness is independent of space and time, it seems.

Then, in Point 2.2, we concluded that consciousness is necessarily delimited to a region of space—namely, in broad terms, your (own) body. If your friend bangs a table, it doesn’t hurt you; if he bangs your body, it does. So on and so forth.

Of course, even if we didn’t make explicit all parts of the logic in the Point 2.2 above, by itself, it was also logical. The logic goes this way:

The only way you can think of having an “I” is if you first observe something (in reality apart from in your consciousness), and then, (chronologically and logically) some time later, catch (literally) your self while you are in a process of observation, and then become aware of the possibility of being self-conscious—i.e. of isolating the basic fact of that “I”ness.

Implicit in such a process of discovering the ability to be self-conscious is the fact that perceptions do matter—without them, you couldn’t have isolated your own “I.” Yet, having done that, you know the answer to the question: “who does your perceving (something in reality);” the answer is: that “I” of yours. Which is beyond space and time.

If you must have me cite Ayn Rand, let me do so (purely from memory, will check accuracy later):

“Existence exists, and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms, viz. that something exists, and that you exist possessing consciousness; consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.”

Of, in Peikoff’s words:

“There is something that I am aware of.”

Consciousness is an axiom; the “I”ness is there right from the first sensation of your life.

And, qua a philosophic axiom, it is outside of space and time.

4. The Issue in Summary

So, let us now summarize: Observing (or perceiving) requires the body; the body is spatially delimited; the conscious observer which is an aspect of you the person, cannot be isolated by you except after having made (enough number of perceptual and at least implicitly conceptual) observations; yet, the basic fact of there being you the observer—the “I” of yours—has always been there in fact and therefore is an independent axiom; qua axiom, it is beyond space and time.

In short, what is delimited by space and time is beyond space and time. Or “better” still: what is in the space (and time) is beyond it. Good enough?

The basic issue then is: where, logically, does the transition occur from that dependency on the physical world (say with space-time measures) to that independency that the “I” display?

If you go through Ayn Rand, you would know that apparently, the thought never occurred to her.

If you ask Objectivists, they will go away, say “good bye” (for the sort of reasons mentioned above). (I have not given it a thought whether the begging concomittantly in logic and in time.)

Let me disavow my Objectivism, if this is required (as it does seem to), and address ideas and issues touching upon the above basic issue, at this blog.

Indeed, the above issue was one of the points with which I had begun studying Objectivism.

No, the query was not so clear to me, and certainly it was not expressed in such terms at all. Certainly not with this generality. But the query was there. See if you can detect the above basic issue in the query that I actually had.

5. A Bit Personal/of the Past

My query (of around 1981 times and may be a few years before it) was something like this:

The eye is regarded as “some sort of” a “camera.” The eye-lense forms an image; the nerves get excited in an isomorphous sort of a manner (not a word I had back then!). Then what? The nerves send the signal the brain. Then what? The brain “interprets” in such a way that we “become” “aware.” Meaning: a physico-electro-chemical process, and the “I” that I always have, gets affected. Even if the “I”, as consciousness, is not made of anything material. If so, how does the affectation occur? How does the material connect with the “I”? And, further: Is it OK to restrict the process “in reverse,” by asserting that the converse also is true—namely by saying that the only way the “I” can, e.g., “see” is if there is a material process/reaction in my body?

Since I still do admire Ayn Rand, let me end this long post on a chuckle:

Too bad Ayn Rand didn’t think of this issue.

Or, may be, she at least didn’t fully think, or, possibly, as a “good” Russian/American/Westerner, willfully refused to think, of this issue, and of many of the issues touching upon it. For instance, “soul,” “reincarnation,” etc.

Aren’t these ideas near-by—in the sense, closely related?

* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “duniyaa kare sawaal to hum”
Music: Roshan
Lyrics: Saahir Ludhianwi
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

[May be I will streamline a bit a few days later; more likely is: I will add separate entries here on the topics that are off-shoots from this one.]