One of the delights of comments is that people occasionally toss in something that sends me off exploring topics that I never normally consider. And it was a comment by Some French Bloke a couple of nights back, which sent me first in the direction of Guy Debord, and then via related French intellectuals to the website of the late Richard Webster, and in particular his essay on Lévi-Strauss’s theology. The result is that I have been thinking about soul and intellect and mind and consciousness for the past day or two – which is very unusual for me.
The underlying thrust of Richard Webster’s essay was that Freud and Lévi-Strauss had both constructed psychological theories that were founded upon a lost (or at least obscured) Christian understanding of human life being made up of a duality of animal body and divine soul. I found this idea particularly attractive in a time when Christianity is being denormalised, along with smoking. And it also reminded me of those many religious education lessons that I received from my Benedictine teachers, and which I found completely incomprehensible. I could, for example, never really make head or tail of the idea of ‘soul’.
But reading Webster’s essay yesterday, I began to wonder whether ‘soul’ and ‘intellect’ and ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ were all really words describing the same thing, which was the conscious experience of thinking and feeling and imagining that is unique to each person.
And I also wondered what I was using as my own model to describe this duality of body and soul. And realised that as a computer programmer for much of my life, I have come to think of my brain as a computer, and my ideas and beliefs and and memories as being the software that runs inside this computer (something that touches a little on SFB’s original comment). Brain (and body) were the hardware: mind or intellect or soul were software. The one was visible and tangible, and the other invisible and intangible.
There are however some problems with this computer model. The first of which is: how did the software get written? And the second of which is: how does this computer manage to attain consciousness?
In addressing the first problem (or at least slowly ambling around it), I remembered the many occasions when I’d had to write some initial “Hello world” software for microcontrollers. These little programmes consisted of a few bytes of code which would, at initialisation, display or print “Hello world” on some device, and do nothing else at all. Very often these microcontrollers were to be used to read keystrokes off keyboards, turn on LEDs, display characters on LCD screens, and send and receive messages to external devices. And so from my little “Hello world” I would gradually build up a much larger programme that would do all these things using input and output ports on the microcontroller. One might say that the code would evolve over time until it reached maturity, and was shipped off to the customer.
And I wonder if the software in a human mind might also grow and evolve over time, gradually adding extra capabilities after its own initial “Hello world” stage. We’ve all had the experience of learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car, and they both entail responding to inputs (sight, sound, touch) with outputs (pressing on pedals, turning steering wheels). When I first learned to programme computers, and my very first little “Hello world” programme ran in the university’s vast computer, it was a moment of truth or even revelation.
But I also remembered many earlier learning processes, such as when I was taught first to read, and then to write, and also to add and subtract and multiply and divide. And before that, although I do not remember them, there was also the process of learning to walk and to speak, all by an evolutionary process of trial and error.
Indeed, thinking about all these various evolutionary developments, I began to wonder whether, before learning to walk and talk, I first had to learn to see and to hear. And perhaps before that, I had to learn how to think. And also to remember. I seem to have no memories before the age of about 2 or 3.
It seemed, for example, plausible to suppose that when a baby first opens its eyes, it sees absolutely nothing at all, and that the process of creating a picture of the world out of a chaos of thousands of different coloured blobs might have been akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle, by a process of moving the pieces around by trial and error until, all of a sudden, a complete and coherent picture jumps into place.
The same applies to walking or picking things up. You try 100 times, or maybe 1000 times, and then finally you manage to pick something up with your hands, and walk upright across a room. And after that initial triumph has been achieved, the process is refined and developed until you have the close motor control to be able to draw pictures with crayons, or write words or numbers, or balance on one leg, or climb trees.
From this perspective, the development of consciousness is something that starts with a little “Hello world” capability, to which are added layers and layers of further capabilities, and consciousness grows like a plant from an initial seed.
And then, in old age, these various capabilities are gradually stripped away, one by one. I can, for example, no longer stand on one leg. And the last time I climbed a tree, it was a terrifying experience, during which I wondered if I’d ever manage to get back down.
In addition, the software can often get stuck in loops, going round and round in circles. It’s been my experience of grief or depression to think the same thoughts over and over again, until I somehow break out of the repeat loop.
Consciousness, or mind or soul or spirit, is something that seems to emerge ex nihilo, and to eventually return ad nihilum. When the computer is switched off, the invisible programme evaporates. In that respect, the model departs from its Christian forerunner.
To these thoughts I added the extra idea that the internet is something that hooks together all these individual consciousnesses into a sort of emerging superconsciousness, which is itself also evolving and learning. This blog is itself a primitive example of an emerging superconsciousness, in which ideas – like SFB’s – are tossed around, and either accepted or rejected.
And we are still trying, as a species, to find a global political consensus, much like a little baby is trying to learn how to walk. In this respect we may have something to learn from our own bodies’ political organisation, which seems to entail a minimum of coercion, and also a strict egalitarianism (my little toe is as important as my heart), in a body that is made up of countless millions of growing, dividing, and dying cells.
In fact, given all those cells, I sometimes wonder how I ever manage to be uniquely ‘me’, and don’t wake up a different person every day. In fact, I think I actually consist of a whole range of rival opinions that get expressed in a sort of parliament of my own mind, with debates raging for days or weeks or months, arguments mounted and resisted, evidence presented and scrutinised and re-interpreted or discarded.
The odd thing about all this is that, about 10 years ago, Richard Webster emailed me to express appreciation for Idle Theory (which is of course yet another evolving project). There was something that he found useful about it, although I was never sure what. One constructs these elaborate ideas, and launches them like paper sailing boats onto the river of public discourse, where they capsize at the first weir, or get captured by branches along the banks, or sunk by raindrops.