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Exploring the edge.
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The Global Brain
"It is not guilty pride but the ceaselessly reawakened instinct of the game which calls forth new worlds." (Heraclitus Reloaded)
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    Reshaping Consciousness
    Project: Polytopia
    (Part 5 in the series: Mind, the need for a new model)

    Does consciousness have a shape?

    It might sound a strange question at first since what immediately come to mind are the various figures of experience, of imagination, of memory and the abstract shapes of thought. All these seem to have a shape but they all appear in consciousness; none of them is consciousness itself. Paradoxically consciousness is never given, but it is always that by which anything given is given; always hidden and covered by that which it brings forth.

    Trying to discover the nature of consciousness and realizing how shy it is, many have reasoned that one could glimpse its shape by carefully removing from consciousness all obstructing objects: sense impressions, figures of thought, images etc. If all is removed, they reasoned, consciousness will finally be exposed in its own nakedness. Special meditation techniques were invented and perfected just for this very end. This is definitely a feat far from trivial, as anyone who might try it, will soon discover. However, accomplished dedicated practitioners of meditation eventually succeeded and could indeed remove all mental objects from their conscious mind. In historical perspective, one cannot overestimate the huge resources that were invested in this project. So many humans have invested the best of their lives just to gain a glimpse into that mystery behind mysteries… Fortunately a few of those who made it came back to tell and were willing to share their discovery: consciousness was found to have (at least figuratively so because mere words could hardly capture that) a nature of mirror-like space, of absence itself. Consciousness - not even shapeless but beyond both shape and shapelessness.

    appearing disappearance | 0:35 min | d 2007 | Advanced Beauty from Robert Seidel on Vimeo.

    For years I was fascinated and in a way still am by this simple yet ultimately profound discovery: Nothing is hidden behind the objects of consciousness, and nothing is the shape of consciousness. But… there is a ‘but’. There always must be a ‘but’. A suspecting thought slowly formed sending thin tendrils of doubt all over that immaculate mirror-like absence. To make this somewhat obscure thought a bit more concrete let me phrase as a question: wouldn’t it be correct to say that the answer was already given by the very way the problem was initially approached? After all, it is where philosophical investigation and scientific grand programs often fall (if indeed it is falling with all its negative metaphorical connotations). They tend to find what already was subtly implied in the very method. They discover that which is already shaped by the exploration itself. They are getting lost in the hypnotic labyrinth of searching and finding with its paths ever looping upon themselves. Also here, starting with a method of progressive meticulous subtraction, what one could come up with other than absence – that which cannot be subtracted…?

    At this point, either one admits (as many do) that it is impossible altogether to continue, as all seem to shift into kind of solipsistic dream land, or…, let me ask again:

    Does consciousness have a shape?

    If consciousness does have a shape at all, it seems that indeed we cannot see it directly; much the same as we cannot see our retinas, or taste our tasting buds, or smell our olfactory epithelium (the tissue responsible for our sense of smell). Nevertheless, much can be learned indirectly on the inner structure of the eye by observing certain visual effects, especially at the limits of our visual capabilities, where visual illusions appear that originate not from the objects of our vision but from the visual apparatus itself. By analogy, if we observe carefully, we might discover certain special effects rendered in our conscious experiences that imply on the shape of consciousness itself, like a signature of sorts or a watermark, present, yet, not overtly so.

    The word ‘shape’ itself is used here figuratively of course but it is much more than a loose metaphor. Shapes are actually topological entities that preserve within themselves certain abstract properties and relations that extend and expand what we recognize in our everyday experience as spatial geometrical forms. So even though consciousness is not geometrical or spatial, we can imagine consciousness to be a process that continuously transforms one shape into another. It is a shaping process rather than a proper shape. In other words, the shape of consciousness modulates the shapes and forms that constitute our mental-emotional inner lives. While we are used to think about shapes as spatial configurations, the shaping process of consciousness can be thought of as a spatiotemporal shape – a shape that extends to the temporal dimension as well. With this conceptual twist we can use the terms ‘shape’ and ‘shaping’ interchangeably we only add the time dimension to the description. Last but not least, consciousness does not possess a fixed shape of course. It is rather a variety of shapes with a common, more or less, stable attractor. So when speaking of the shape of consciousness it is this representative common attractor that we address.

    It wouldn’t be far from immediate intuition to see why marrying something as abstract as consciousness with shapes might bring us closer to understanding. Instead of removing shapes from consciousness to expose it, we should observe carefully the shapes rendered by consciousness and seek for special effects, abnormalities and distortions, something like visual illusions that might give us clues about the shape behind all shapes.

    E3 | 3:00 min | d/uk 2002 from Robert Seidel on Vimeo.

    Surprisingly or not, there are plenty of such effects. One need not reach too far from one’s everyday consciousness to find an abundance of clues across the whole spectrum of experiences and mental events. Let me mention here just a few that I find particularly disturbing from an otherwise a very long list: Consciousness highlights simplicity while hiding complexity. It highlights separation while hiding connectedness. It emphasizes unity and duality and deemphasizes diversity. It prefers the stable upon the variable and identity over difference. It is acutely attentive to variation and difference but only for the purpose of quickly equalizing and canceling them. It imposes a single uniform temporal dimension upon concurrent multi-temporal happening (measuring everything by the same clock). It highlights repetition of the same and hides evolution. It highlights order and dismisses chaos. It strongly prefers ‘discovering’ linear relations between effects and their supposed causes upon complicated dynamics. It prefers the immediate just upon anything else. It separates ‘inner’ from ‘outer’, ‘self’ from ‘other’, ‘true’ from ‘false’, ‘correct’ from ‘error’, ‘past’ from ‘future’, ‘reality’ from ‘illusion’. It favors stories moving in lines and circles (ones and zeroes?), upon those developing in fractals or other strange forms. Above all, it abhors the open ended in all shapes and things: questions without answers, paradoxes without solutions, paths with no destination, actions without purpose… (The reader may add freely …)

    Does consciousness have a shape? Of course it does and by now it is fairly clear that the shape of consciousness is necessarily reflected in ALL our conscious activities, in all our perceptions, memories, dreams, ideas and modes of reasoning. Particularly, it is reflected in how we see (or do not see) our future. It would not be an overstatement, therefore, to say that the shape of consciousness shapes our world; subtly, perhaps, in the manner it operates, but profoundly so nevertheless.

    Coming to think about it, it could not be otherwise. In all things alive, in everything shaped by natural selection one principle is always apparent: the reciprocal determination of form and function. Form determines function and function determines form. From the shape of proteins and other molecules in living cells, to the shape of cells in organs (neurons, blood cells, bone cells, skin cells), to the shape of organs (blood vessels, bones, hearts, eyes), to the shape of whole organisms and their functional adaptations to their environment (fish, mammals, birds, trees, corals…). Consciousness is no exception. It is primarily a product of natural selection and its shape is determined by its function: to ensure the survival and reproduction of a complex organism in a complex environment. Many of the modulating effects of consciousness mentioned above make a lot of sense in view of such function. Everyday consciousness is utilitarian, economic and ultimately goal oriented. Consciousness therefore has evolved to bring forth a representation ultimately fit to its function in the context of the organism and the organism’s interactions with the environment.

    Yet, there are quite a few interesting cracks in this picture. Evolution takes care mostly of the middle, or, in other words, it takes care of the average performance of the organism. It is the norm and the mediocre in every function that ensures stability, robustness and continuity. For natural selection this is all that matters- strength in numbers and redundancy. It is therefore on the edges and margins of every evolved phenomenon that we find the interesting bits and pieces that are not present in the middle and mediocre. So is the case for consciousness. It is stable in the middle, in what we call everyday consciousness and there it has a definite normative shape. But there are quite a few interesting ‘loose ends’ and ‘rogue’ potentials to be found on the edges.

    _grau | 10:01 min | d 2004 | HD premiere from Robert Seidel on Vimeo.

    If we consider the so called ‘exotic’ states of consciousness, as for example, under the influence of psychoactive substances, we can find in the very presence of the so called ‘altered states of consciousness’ and in the undeniable contrast of their ‘otherness’ a sound affirmation to the proposition that ‘normal’ everyday consciousness does indeed have a distinct shape. Not only that; considering these altered states of consciousness and their irregular strange shapes, it seems that the attractor that is normally responsible for the stable normative shape of everyday consciousness is not fixed. Under certain extraordinary circumstances, having to do with its neuro-dynamic roots, the shape of consciousness becomes plastic and reconfigurable.

    From here it is only a short leap to contemplate the profound reshaping of consciousness in the same manner that contemporary progressive thinkers consider the radical alteration of human morphology, physiology, genetic makeup and even a seamless merging with machines. Perhaps even prior to reshaping our bodies, and becoming intimate with machines we have to attend to the unfathomable hidden potentials of reshaping consciousness.

    So here is an idea, or rather a problem: the problem of consciousness and its shape.

    How, in what manner, according to which principles and towards what end(s) if any, might we engage in (radically) reshaping consciousness? (given that augmented fitness is really a boring option).

    What might be the consequences of developing such a capacity/technology?

    What are the relations between this problem and the future of individuality, of personhood, of human identity at large?

    These question marks are of course only preliminary access points, little provocations, nothing more. The problem itself goes way beyond what mere questions marks can possibly render.

    It is quite clear, I come to believe, that no contemplation of a posthuman future can possibly make any interesting sense without tackling this problem.

    (To be continued…?)

    Remark: Thanks to Robert Seidel and his experimental videos that inspired some of the thoughts expressed here and greatly enhance their presentation.

    Tue, Oct 19, 2010  Permanent link

    Sent to project: Polytopia
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    rene     Sat, Oct 23, 2010  Permanent link
    Thanks, Spaceweaver, for this provocative post and the introduction to the work of Robert Seidel, who counts many of SpaceCollective’s friends among his contacts. One of them is Casey Reas, who in the past did a Project on this site, and just co-wrote an essential book on computational aesthetics with Chandler McWilliams, called Form + Code, which you might want to check out for further inspiration.

    Spaceweaver     Sun, Oct 31, 2010  Permanent link
    I got this comment on my FriedFeed from Gregory Lent:

    to say consciousness is a product of natural selection is toooooo tooo too narrow of a view ... and if your goal is to create a new understanding of mind, just test out as a hypothesis that maybe consciousness is primary, that it exists prior to mind, is of n-dimensions ... you may find your work speeds up

    Spaceweaver: Whether consciousness is universally primal,, or, an emergent phenomenon arising from the function of brains is of course an interesting metaphysical question which is hardly decidable at present especially because we do not have a clear definition of what consciousness is (obscurity is sometimes a merit). Moreover, since conscious experience stands at the basis of every knowledge that we can possibly have, it is really hard to properly formulate the problem. Once we try to make consciousness itself the object of observation we find ourselves in a recursive loop where the observer and observed are one and the same. Once in this loop, asking what comes first, the world of phenomena, or, consciousness (as a universalized observer) is a question that leads to infinite regress.

    Even more strangely, it seems that both propositions are true and non contradictory. Here is why: from the standpoint of natural science, consciousness emerged from the brain in an evolutionary process. But once it emerged, it was already and always there; omnipresent! We can say that, because time itself is synthesized and conceived within consciousness and is inherent therefore in the shape of consciousness. Starting from the second standpoint that, metaphysically speaking, consciousness is primal, the reasoning can be rephrased as follows: the only reason why we can conceive of the idea of a primal consciousness at all is because consciousness has a localized expression (shape), or, a localized manner of knowing itself (here again the circular aspect becomes apparent). It is because the primal consciousness is immanent in all its particular expressions and not transcendent to them. Whichever is our initial assumption we can discover a deeper and irreducible picture of consciousness.

    At any case, in writing this post, I preferred not to address this problem in developing the idea that consciousness, whether primal or emergent, has a shape. We can try to conceive of this shape indirectly and by that escape the circularity inherent in trying to observe consciousness directly. The shape of consciousness and the possibility of (re)shaping consciousness are both concepts that are consistent with either approach even without showing, as I tried here briefly, that the two approaches are only simplified facets of a more profound picture.