ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George Lakoff, Thomas Nagel, Antonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.
I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.
He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.
Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:
There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.
I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).
Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.
Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.
Alan Watts can always say it better: