LorenzoConsciousness, as we’ve noted before, is a most interdisciplinary topic, and besides the neurologists, the philosophers, the AI people, the psychologists and so on, the novelists have also, in their rigourless way, delved deep into the matter. Ever since the James boys (William and Henry) started their twin-track investigation there has been an intermittent interchange between the arts and the sciences. Academics like Dan Lloyd have written novels, novelists like our friend Scott Bakker have turned their hand to serious theory.

Recently we seem to have had a new genre of invented brain science. We could include Ian McEwan’s fake paper on De Clerambault syndrome, appended to Enduring Love; recently Sebastian Faulks gave us Glockner’s Isthmus; now, in his new novel A Box of Birds Charles Fernyhough gives us the Lorenzo Circuit.

The Lorenzo Circuit is a supposed structure which pulls together items from various parts of the brain and uses them to constitute memories. It’s sort of assumed that the same function thereby provides consciousness and the sense of self. Since it seems unlikely that a distinct brain structure could have escaped notice this long, we must take it that the Lorenzo is a relatively subtle feature of the connectome, only identifiable through advanced scanning techniques. The Lycée, which despite its name seems to be an English university, has succeeded in mapping the circuit in detail, while Sansom, one of those large malevolent corporate entities that crop up in thrillers, has developed new electrode technology which allows safe and detailed long-term interference with neurons. It’s obvious to everyone that if brought together these two discoveries would provide a potent new technology; a cure for Alzheimer’s is what seems to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, though I would have thought there were far wilder and more exciting possibilities. The story revolves around the narrator, Dr Yvonne Churcher, an academic at the Lycée, and two of her undergraduate students, Gareth and James.

Unfortunately I didn’t rate the book all that highly as a novel. The plot is put together out of slightly corny thrillerish elements and seems a bit loosely managed. I didn’t like the characters much either. Yvonne seems to be putty in the hands of her students, letting Gareth steal the Lycée’s crucial research without seeming to hold the betrayal of her trust against him at all, and being readily seduced by the negligent James, a nonsense-talking cult member who calls her ‘babe’ (ack!). I’ve seen Gareth described as a “brilliant” character in reviews elsewhere, but sadly not much brilliance seems to be on offer. In fact to be brutal he seemed to me quite a convincing depiction of the kind of student who sits at the back of lectures chuckling to himself for no obvious reason and ultimately requires pastoral intervention. Apart from nicking other people’s theories and data, his ideas seem to consist of a metaphor from Plato, which he interprets with dismal literalism.

This metaphor is the birds thing that provides the title and up to a point, the theme of the book. In the Theaetetus, Plato makes a point about how we can possess knowledge without having it actually in our consciousness by comparing it to owning an aviary of birds without having them actually in your hand. In Plato’s version there’s no doubt that there’s a man in the aviary who chooses the birds to catch; here I think the idea is more that he flocking and movement of the birds itself produces higher-level organisation analogous to conscious memory.

Yvonne is a pretty resolute sceptic about her own selfhood; she can’t see that she is anything beyond the chance neurochemical events which sweep through her brain. This might indeed explain her apparent passivity and the way she seems to drift through even the most alarming and hare-brained adventures, though if so it’s a salutary warning about the damaging potential of overdosing on materialism. Overall the book alludes to more issues than it really discusses, and gives us little side treats like a person whose existence turns out to be no more than a kind of narrative convention; perhaps it’s best approached as a potential thought provoker rather than the adumbration of a single settled theory; not necessarily a bad thing for a book to be.

Yvonne’s scepticism did cause me to realise that I was actually rather hazy on the subject; what is it that people who deny the self are actually denying, and are they all denying the same thing? There are actually quite a few options.

  • I think all self-sceptics want to deny the existence of the traditional immaterial soul, and for some that may really be about all. (To digress a bit, there are actually caverns below us at this point which have not been explored for thousands of years, if ever: if we were ancient Egyptians, with their complex ontology of multiple souls, we should have a large range of sceptical permutations available; denying the ba while affirming the khaibit, say. Our simpler culture, perhaps mercifully, does not offer us such a range of refinedly esoteric entities in which to disbelieve, but those of a philosophical temperament may be inclined to cast a regretful glance towards those profoundly obscure imaginary galleries.)
  • Some may want to deny any sense, or feeling, of self; like Hume they see only a bundle of sensations when they look inside themselves. I think there is arguably a quale of the self; but these people would not accept it.
  • Others, by contrast, would affirm that the sense of self is vivid, just not veridical. We think there’s a self, but there’s nothing actually there. There’s scope for an interesting discussion about what would have to be there in order to prove them wrong – or whether having the sense of self itself constitutes the self.
  • Some would say that there is indeed ‘something’ there; it just isn’t what we think it is. For example, there might indeed be a centre of experience, but an epiphenomenal one; a self who has no influence on events but is in reality just along for the ride.
  • Logically I suppose we could invert that to have a self that really did make the decisions, but was deluded about having any experiences. I don’t think that would be a popular option, though.
  • Some would make the self a purely social construct, a matter of legal and moral rights and privileges, a conception simply grafted on to an animal which in itself, or by itself, would lack it.
  • Some would deny only that the self provides a break in the natural chain of cause and effect. We are not really the origin of anything, they would say, and our impression of being a freely willing being is mistaken.
  • Some radical sceptics would deny that even the body has any particular selfhood; over time every part of it changes and to assert that I am the same self as the person of twenty years ago makes no sense.

As someone who, on the whole, prefers to look for a tenable account of the reality of the self, the richness of the sceptical repertoire makes me feel rather unimaginative.

19 Comments

  1. 1. Vicente says:

    like Hume they see only a bundle of sensations when they look inside themselves

    I would have liked to ask Hume, who looks where? who feels what? Is it possible to consider the problem of the self, whithout a self?

    “If the conscious self is an illusion – who is it that’s being fooled?” P.H.

    I don’t see so much richness in the sceptical repertoire, just variations on a single theme i.e. materialism. The only conclusion for strigent materialism is that: there is no more selfhood in your than in a meteorite. But you see, meteorites don’t question their own selfhood, bizarre!! isn’t it. The only way forward, keeping some coherency and without denying their own self experience (difficult to do), is to claim for an illusory effect of some kind, like in a Dynamo trick, yeah… it’s an illusion, but how!?

    Then, why must the self be constant in order to keep selfhood? Panta Rhei… be like water my friend. Experience, e.g. new memories, determine inexorably an evolution in the self.

    Having said this, mind you, because in the Subject/Object and Subject/Subject interactions there could be many illusions operating, but that is another story.

  2. 2. Arnold Trehub says:

    Back to the key issue, self and subjectivity.

    I say:

    1. No core self, no subjectivity.

    2. No subjectivity, no consciousness. ( John Searle would agree. See: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jan/10/can-information-theory-explain-consciousness/ ).

    3. No consciousness, no self-image or, as Metzinger would put it, no “phenomenal self model”.

    So what is the core self? The core self is a real biological part of the human brain, and as such, an integral part of the human body in the physical world. It is made up of a cluster of autaptic neurons at the perspectival origin (the 0,0,0 coordinate) of retinoid space. (See Trehub (2013), *Journal Of Consciousness Studies*, No. 1-2, pp. 207-225.)

    Our core self is constant throughout a normal lifetime. We experience ourself as the same person each time we wake up. But our phenomenal self model (our self-image) changes as we mature and undergo new experiences.

    How does this fit into the repertoire of selves?

  3. 3. Vicente says:

    Arnold, one question, let’s say you could transplant the cluster of autaptic neurons at the perspectival origin (the 0,0,0 coordinate) of the retinoid space, from one person to another, would that cause any significant change in the latter’s self experience? I don’t think so, for the same reason that if you could transplant the retina, or the spinal cord, it would make no significant difference. Now, go and transplant the frontal lobes and see.

    Your cells probably play an important role in consciousness, but I don’t believe they constitute consciousness, or fully support the self.

  4. 4. Arnold Trehub says:

    I think it is important not to confuse the fundamental state of consciousness with the moment-to-moment and person-to-person contents of consciousness. The fundamental state of consciousness is simply a transparent brain representation of something (anything) somewhere (anywhere) in relation to our core self (the retinoid locus of perspectival origin — coordinate 0,0,0). So if you transplant the neurons of the core self from the retinoid space of one person to the retinoid space of another you would not change the fundamental state of consciousness of person-2. The experience of the core self in person-2 would not change, and the phenomenal self model (self-image) of person-2 would remain as it was. However, if you transplant the neuronal structure that embodied the self-image of person-1, then person-2 would experience a different self- image.

    Vicente: “Your cells probably play an important role in consciousness, but I don’t believe they constitute consciousness, or fully support the self.”

    What cells are you talking about? The autaptic cells of the core self *alone* cannot be conscious because there would be no representation of the space within which the core self exists. In other words, your self would be *nowhere*. A self that is nowhere doesn’t exist. So the core self needs the neuronal machinery of retinoid space to give us subjectivity/consciousness.

  5. 5. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    I think it is important not to confuse the fundamental state of consciousness with the moment-to-moment and person-to-person contents of consciousness

    This is my concern, I don’t think it is a confussion. I believe it is not possible to dissociate both concepts. Maybe in very especial states, in which consciousness is the content of consciousness, if this makes any sense. As you have explained many times, the retinoid system needs to be activated: “A self that is nowhere doesn’t exist”. Now, “somewhere” has to constructed somehow, not only in geometrical terms, if you want it have any meaning…..

  6. 6. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Now, “somewhere” has to [be] constructed somehow, not only in geometrical terms, if you want it have any meaning…..”

    I know this is hard to grasp, but when retinoid space is *first* activated (as in awakening from a deep dreamless sleep), the “somewhere” is simply the dim sense of *being here in space*. Nothing else is constructed. This is the minimal state of consciousness, your most primitive phenomenal world. There is *no meaning* at this stage of consciousness. This primitive “empty” world is quickly filled with all kinds of perceptual/cognitive phenomena — somatic pressures, sights, sounds, moods, inner speech, goals, etc. This development is the normal phenomenal world in which meaning is found. One’s perceptual-cognitive contents of consciousness come into being only *after* one becomes conscious — the initial activation of retinoid space, which is the fundamental state of consciousness.

  7. 7. Vicente says:

    Arnold, I knew what you meant. I am not sure about the feasibility of such a PURE experience. Have you ever had such a feeling?

    I believe that mental space, and time, are created all together with the experience contents, there are no pure space or pure time based experiences. Time for sure not.

    If the awakening experience you propose, could be possible, a real ZEN climax, the self and the ego would be totally absent. A similar experience is getting concentrated and completely focused on a certain activity, the self faints away.

    the initial activation of retinoid space, which is the fundamental state of consciousness

    To me, consciousness must have an intellingent component, awareness, meaning, so this state you refer to could be a consciousness enabler, precursor, precondition… I don’t know. What would be the real difference (experience wise), between a non-conscious being and a being in such fundamental state? to me none.

  8. 8. scott bakker says:

    “I would have liked to ask Hume, who looks where? who feels what? Is it possible to consider the problem of the self, whithout a self?”

    That’s Kant’s answer to Hume. TUA, baby!

    Here’s a puzzle for you Vicente. Consider a Nietzchean/Sartrean version of the Cartesian cogito:

    IT THINKS, THEREFORE ‘I’ WAS

    Now how, in introspective qualitative terms, would this differ from the classical ‘I think therefore I am’ cogito, were it true?

  9. 9. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, a conscious being would have a sense of being here. A non-conscious being would not have a sense of being here. As simple as that. Intelligence/meaning is a cognitive add-on.

    I agree that there is no pure phenomenal experience of space-time. The phenomenal experience of space-time must be something in relation to the core self, the perspectival origin of space-time.

  10. 10. Vicente says:

    Arnold,

    a conscious being would have a sense of being here

    “being here” is already an extremely complex concept and feeling to fit into the fundamental state you propose. The state seems to be a sort of “simple harmonic” feeling of unknown frequency and amplitude, no here, no nothing, just some sort of ineffable homogeneous monochromatic feeling refered to no self. There is no information at all.

    This is one of the problems about consciousness, how to differentiate between the fabric of consciousness (if any) and its contents, the canvas and the image are the same thing.

  11. 11. Vicente says:

    Scott,

    I don’t know… the “IT” is a common position, from Russel to the “aggregates” notion of Buddhism…

    From an introspective point of view, there is an “instrospective point of view” wich makes difficult to deny that there is some kind of “thoughts owner”. The “I WAS” relating to time lagging due to memory effects?

    It would differ in trying to grasp the absolute introspective present and denying the self except for its history. Both maintain thought as the guarantee of existence.

    I stand by Descartes (like Damasio) 😉

  12. 12. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “‘being here’ is already an extremely complex concept and feeling to fit into the fundamental state you propose. …. There is no information at all. …. This is one of the problems about consciousness, how to differentiate between the fabric of consciousness (if any) and its contents, the canvas and the image are the same thing.

    Simply *being here* is cashed out in the 3rd-person objective aspect as an activated retinoid space with no perceptual content. And, as you know, the neuronal structure and dynamics of our brain’s retinoid system is conceptually complex. From the 1st-person subjective aspect, a pure “being here” is the simplest conscious experience one can have, even though it is normally the briefest experience one has. Something like the very brief life of some fundamental particles created in the super-collider. In my theory of consciousness, the “canvas” (activated retinoid space) and the “image” (subjective experience) are indeed the same thing in the real world beyond human access.

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Arnold, to understand: “I am here” you have to know about yourself, about being and about here and there… but in that primordial state none of these concepts are available. I believe we have to learn about space, it is clear that it is an innate idea.

    Of course, if you go through such state, record it, and the recall it, you could interprete those memories, in the appropriate mind frame. While you are in that state, you are not even you.

    If I may insist in my metaphore, you need to modulate a carrier to transmit information. The carrier could represent your fundamental state, but in your case you cannot even extract the amplitude and frequency (minimum info provided by the carrier).

    This thread leads directly to the need of “intentionality” (aboutness) as a precondition for consciousness. To me, if there is no knowledge, no information involved, there is no real operational consciousness. But your primordial state could be a first step, a ramp up phase.

    I was quite positive that consciousness was an all or nothing condition, an on-off function, but now I am suspecting there could be intermediate planes, like the state you refer to, that maybe accounts for the proto-consciousness that evolutive biology looks for.

    Anyway, I am aware that it is very difficult to reconcile a strict materialistic approach, with any other kind of approach.

  14. 14. scott bakker says:

    Vicente: The question is one of the difference between actually *apprehending* a self in action versus *positing* a ‘self’ post facto. Between being a metacognitively ‘sighted brain’ versus a ‘blinkered’ one.

    There’s no introspective way to settle this question. So the dilemma faced by Self Realists is one of substantiating their case outside appeals to introspective intuition.

    According to the Self Antirealist, you are simply a brain that congenitally misrecognizes itself for something far, far simpler, viz., a ‘self.’ And indeed, when we crack open the brain, all we find is brain and more brain, lot’s of ‘what’ with nary a ‘who’ to be seen.

    Their case, it seems to me, is by far the far stronger one. It just happens, like so much else in science, to be counterintuitive. Whoville has always been empty.

  15. 15. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “If I may insist in my metaphore, you need to modulate a carrier to transmit information.”

    OK. Using your metaphor, think of consciousness as the carrier with its fundamental frequency and amplitude (autaptic-cell activity around the perspectival origin of the self-locus, I!). The volumetric plenum of the conscious carrier is spatio-temporally modulated by input from our preconscious sensory modalities to give us the rich informational content of our phenomenal world.

  16. 16. Callan S. says:

    I would have liked to ask Hume, who looks where? who feels what? Is it possible to consider the problem of the self, whithout a self?

    Sure it’s possible to evaluate a false reading of something existing, without that non existant thing existing. I’m sure self guided missiles occasionally lock onto the wrong target occasionally. Just extend that to a missile that chooses its target, and chooses a target which is really just an error derived from an inadequacy/anomaly in it’s sensors.

    I mean, it’s also hard to argue that automatic doors don’t experience a moving object near them as well. They certainly open. Why does a reaction to an input have to be anything important enough that someone not denying experience is a proof of something else?

    it’s an illusion, but how!?
    Lack of information, like most illusions.

    I mean, surely no one is going to argue you need a self in order to process information? The computer in front of you is processing information right now. Sure, it tends to blue screen when information is suddenly lacking or not what it expected. But nature doesn’t have much use for creatures that blue screen/stop surviving. So the system is made to keep processing past a point where it’s actually lacking data or getting data it didn’t expect.

  17. 17. Arnold Trehub says:

    I think its important to distinguish between *kinetic information* which you find in photo-diode switches, computers, and robots, and *manifest information* which is some kind of feature of our subjective world. Manifest information can exist only in a subjective/conscious system.

  18. 18. Vicente says:

    Callan,

    But here the question is if we can lock a missile onto a target, without actually having the missile, not the wrong target.

    I agree that most illusions are created by depriving you from information, or providing you with misleading information. But how is that actually done? I want to know the trick performance details.

  19. 19. Callan S. says:

    Vincente, I think I ended up making reference to definate knowledge in my post, and it suffered for it.

    If I may make an ambiguous example instead, there’s this thing that is used to locating objects that are quite some distance away, targerting them and launching itself at the thing it designates a target, by use of materials that are much like that you find inside your home computer. New event: Recently along with the other things it treats as target, a new thing it could treat as a target comes up. This thing is unusual, because instead of a distance away, it’s a distance inward.

    However, definite knowledge for our conversation: the thing it’s targeted is a false reading.

    The crux – this thing has had this internal target for some time and because it reads as a distance inward, this thing attributes the target as being a component not of itself, but IS itself!

    This thing would then ask: How could it lock onto a target, without itself to do the locking on?

    A circular logic grips it – where it’s unable to discard the false targeting, for reading that false target as the very way it targets.

    This circular logic is compounded by the as discussed fact that materials inside it (the ones much like those materials in a home computer), do the work of guiding it toward objects these materials end up designating as targets.

    The reading of an object at an inner distance is then blended with this – when it comes to discarding the false inner reading, the thing not only discards the notion of the inner reading, but of all materials in itself. Thus leaving it to ask how would it lock onto anything, without existing to begin with?

    Within this two fold circular logic and synecdoche reference, a number of false readings could reside, free from various levels of critique.

Leave a Reply