In my last couple of posts I have discussed consciousness rather abstractly, even when addressing ambivalence and anxiety, which can only be truly appreciated as first person phenomena. But whenever the word consciousness is invoked, it tends to refer to the processes of consciousness rather than to the actual experience of being conscious. Looking at consciousness in this abstract way can be useful, not only for examining its various modalities and functions, but also for gaining a certain critical distance from our first person experiences which can be deceptive. The report of our senses, which comes from an ongoing stream of sensory data that we must select, organize and interpret for our interests, serves a subject or self that appears to operate on a principle of self gratification. But we seek to gratify not only our bodily urges, we also try to confirm our mental conceptions of things. Moreover, we primarily see what we actively look for and tend to ignore anything that seems irrelevant to our interests. But this doesn't mean that we always experience what our mental constructs prime us to see. On the contrary, sometimes we encounter something completely unexpected which can profoundly disrupt our fixed beliefs about experience. At these times, we might simply fall victim to circumstances as when accidents, illnesses and other random misfortunes descend on us seemingly out of the blue. And if we are fortunate, we not only find the means to cope with such losses, we also learn from them. At other times, though, unexpected misfortunes occur and we may feel there is nothing random about them at all. We may lose our relationships, our possessions or our standing in the world, and though we might be genuinely baffled by these losses, they appear all too familiar to us. "These things always happen to me!" we may then cry. And the sense that we have experienced all these misfortunes before, yet never learned what caused them or how our volitions might have helped bring them about, only increases the helplessness we feel. On these occasions, our experience of samsara, the sorrowful round of rebirth, seems anything but theoretical. It manifests itself as a punishing reality that we feel helpless to escape.
Why we don't see the unexpected misfortunes that we spring on ourselves may be regarded as something of a pseudo mystery, though it is no less bewildering for that. But demanding to have our expectations fulfilled in terms that accord with our prior understanding assures a constancy of frustration. And our refusal to see the impermanent nature of the things we attach to condemns us to perpetual disappointment, even when our affairs seem to be working out in our favour. Indeed, this is when the illusion of permanence becomes most seductive. We forget that impermanence doesn't only destroy the illusory objects that we should never have believed in. It also takes away those things that we believe we would always live for--the people and things we love; the causes that we believe are right; the very sense of being alive and sentient. All of these things, worthy though they may be, are metaphysically certain to perish. Yet, quite understandably, we cling to our cherished attachments as if our very being depends on them. Perhaps in a way we are right. For we understand ourselves through our comportment towards the things we cherish and by losing them we lose our bearings, as well as our sense of being in the world. It is possible to see past our attachments and even let them go. But this is no easy task and it is one that few us would undertake except when some crisis of self compels us to do so. Only then, it seems, are we willing to consider letting our attachments go. But then we often discover that our attachments are not always ready to let go of us.
This goes beyond freeing ourselves of relationships and other commitments, difficult though detaching ourselves from them may be. More difficult is freeing ourselves of the habit patterns, the samskaras, that configure our mentality for our being in the world. Samskaras are not themselves attachments; they are the means by which our attachments are experienced as essential to our being. Even Buddhist monks in the most remote isolation must labour to remind themselves about the pervasive power of their attachments. "This is not me; this is not mine; this is not myself, " they say referring to all the mental and physical phenomena on which the self automatically lays its imperial claim. But when psychotherapy encounters attachments in clients it finds that the hold of samskaras on the self can exert an even stronger, more desperate grip than what renunciates face. For unlike the serious contemplative, someone whose place in the world is in peril does not feel that losing his attachments will lead to spiritual liberation. On the contrary, it seems to herald a dreadful self nullification as the imagination for being appears utterly lost.
This appears to remain true even when an attachment such as an addiction is clearly harmful and the addict yearns to be free of it. Even the most terrible vice can be taken as a refuge when we feel we have nowhere else to turn.
In my previous post I argued that ambivalence can lead to an expanded sense of possibility. But we usually feel little hope of finding any such possibilities in the throes of dealing with a painful or stubborn attachment. Struggling with such conflicted feelings can be likened to wrestling with self consciousness. At its worst, it's like facing an opponent whose resourcefulness and endurance are certain to defeat the most determined efforts to find an escape. People often turn to psychotherapy or some other psychological treatment in order to find an escape that they can't find by themselves. And though this is often certainly the right thing to do, finding an escape is not necessarily the best that can be hoped for. Moreover, therapy may not offer any particular insight into any given case of self conflict. Sometimes, self conflict is a sign of self development, intensely painful though it may be. The contradictions of self experience which had once lain quietly buried and dormant may now be emerging into conscious awareness with burning intensity and can no longer be ignored or dismissed as mere curiousities. Nor should they be too swiftly categorised as pathologies which require treatment, pills or the talking cure. There are times when just bearing witness to the client's painful ordeal of wrestling with self consciousness is the best that therapy can do. But we should not underestimate how beneficial such bearing witness can be.
I believe that the communication of self experience is at the heart of all true psychotherapy. Recognising psychological conditions and having strategies to deal with the problems of living may figure importantly into therapy, as well. But therapy achieves its deepest effects when it goes into the depths of the client's self experience and finds those occasions of self reflective wonder that precede every act of volition. I have expressed this in temporal terms in order to convey how fleeting and transitory these opportunities for self reflection are. Usually, in fact, we aren't even aware of them as we go into the future as if destiny ordained our passage. We hardly ever notice that we are obliged to make up our paths into the future as we go along. However, once therapy discovers the hidden source of our actions, meaningful change based on our true possibilities and most conscious intentions becomes possible. But we should not overlook that it was only by virtue of wrestling with self consciousness that we felt any need to make such a liberating discovery.
My friend Simon Schwarz responded to my last post with a pointed question. "Could you explain how the inherent ambivalence of consciousness may be one of the essential properties of higher consciousness?" he asked. I should say at the outset that perhaps I can't explain it and even as I made that assertion I qualified it by using the verb phrase "may be". But Simon seems to be calling my bluff so I shall try to defend my position here even though I have to confess that I make my defence with some uncertainty. I suspect that what he finds most questionable is my use of the term "higher consciousness" which is often used as a synonym for mystical consciousness. But I don't mean to imply that ambivalence--feeling divided in thought and emotion-- is a characteristic of mysticism, though I am inclined to think that experiencing a certain profound ambivalence may be a prelude and perhaps even a precondition for mystical experience. But my more basic point is that ambivalence is intrinsic to being human and is one of the attributes of consciousness that distinguish us from other animals; hence, my claim that ambivalence is a property of higher consciousness. I assume that this claim is fairly uncontroversial. What is more questionable is my implicit suggestion that ambivalence not only distinguishes us, but also discloses higher possibilities of experience for us. After all, feeling ambivalence is often experienced as confusion and anxiety and once ambivalence crosses a certain threshold of intensity it becomes an affliction, as well as an impediment to conscious functioning. How then can ambivalence be seen as a property of higher consciousness when it is experienced as little more than a vehicle of anxiety and confusion?
Anxiety, of course, is one of the main reasons people come into therapy and I know from experience that most clients would gladly abandon any claim to higher consciousness in order to be free of the worry and confusion they suffer. But as Sartre argued, anxiety is an attendant feature of the freedom to choose which is imposed on us by being human and conscious. We are condemned to be free, as he memorably put it. But although I agree that freedom does entail anxiety from not knowing how our actions will ultimately play out, as a Buddhist I believe that I have some sense of how things will unfold, even if my ability to foretell the future is as dim and as limited as everybody else's. Moreover, anxiety itself can act as a harbinger of the necessary, but painful truth that nothing we can apprehend can last forever, least of all a self that desperately fastens to a false perception of permanence as a means of preserving its claim on existence. Even so, a moment of anxiety may seem to offer little more than a demonstration of the inadequacy of consciousness. Far from being a preparation for realising a difficult truth, anxiety, it seems, only makes us yearn to be free of its grip. But anxiety reveals to us the depth of our ignorance.
A recurrent theme of this blog is the nature of avidya or ignorance. Avidya is not intellectual ignorance of something like string theory or even the more obscure points of Buddhist doctrine. It is, rather, more of a disposition that blinds us to a truth that would be apparent if only we bothered to look for it. Why we don't bother to look may depend on a number of karmic factors, but at bottom it may come down to our wilful refusal to see the truth of things if they fail to accord with our predilections. Always looking for things that will satisfy the cravings that sustain our sense of self, we overlook the possibility of finding lasting freedom from those cravings. Moreover, once we base our personalities on our predilections, we fall easily into the delusion that they constitute an inner truth that lies beyond our powers to change it. The Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, James Low, expresses this insight with an apt metaphor. "The self" he said in a workshop I once attended, "is going to sleep inside a habit." Sometimes, though, the self is shaken so violently from its slumber by circumstances or events that remaining serenely unaware is no longer possible. The question then is how to respond to it?
It is all too easy to say the best response to anxiety is to go into therapy or follow Buddhism. Indeed, these are the paths that I myself have taken and now encourage others to travel. But they aren't the only good responses to anxiety; moreover, without reflecting on the possibilities inherent in anxiety we may overlook what it is that makes Buddhism and therapy so potentially liberating. As I wrote in my previous post, we tend to go through our lives in a state of forgetfulness and respond to our circumstances automatically. We forget that our intentions not only preprogrammed our automatic responses, but also mapped the world in such a way as to serve our prior interests. But when the world as it is begins to cave in on the world as we expect it to be, our impending sense of doom can be overwhelming, And we are not always to be blamed for suffering such anxiety. Even our best, most worthy and selfless intentions can be cruelly rubbished by the caprices of a heartless world. Old age, sickness and death, the three marks of existence which Buddhism identifies as ineradicable features of the conditioned world, will always undermine any designs for achieving perfection that we can conceive. And although we know that uncertainty and anxiety come with being alive, such wisdom hardly helps us unless it actively informs our thoughts and actions.
This is where ambivalence can serve to expand our consciousness of the possibilities that the world holds. Indeed, the world as we experience it hinges on the understanding that we have of ourselves as participants in it. Although circumstances limit what we can do, ambivalence suggests how much we can do within our perceived limits. The self does prefer to fall asleep within its habits and usually reacts to being rudely awakened with anxiety or anger. But by becoming awake to our ambivalence we find ourselves on the pivot of wonder from which we find meaning for ourselves in the world.
There was a small item in the news recently which would seem to deserve more attention and consideration than it has received. It appears that many newspapers, including prestigious ones like the Los Angeles Times, are now using computer programmes to write stories for their financial pages. I gather that these articles are, for the most part, dry, statistic laden reports about movements on the stock exchanges and other commercial activities, which would be of interest only to those who follow financial markets in order to make investments based on financial trends. Yet, these articles are said to be surprisingly well written and convey complex information with a clarity and precision that many human writers would be unable to match. Although there is nothing in the way of personal expressiveness to be found in such reports, this can hardly be considered a defect for the requirements of this kind of journalism. But the obvious question lurking behind this development is could programmes that generate texts for this type of news reporting also be used for other kinds of writing? Software designers are only too confident to assure us that they can. But even for computer illiterates like me, it's quite easy to imagine all sorts of texts being produced by computer programmes. For something which strongly resembles a computerised style based on stylistic predictability already affects many other forms of journalism and popular fiction, to say nothing of political speeches. And the so called predictive texts that serve so well for sending messages from mobile phones could easily be extended to more complex kinds of writing. Indeed, such programmes could become so proficient that the labour of writing would come to seem an increasingly pointless activity. But this raises the important question that prompts this post. If computer programmes can do our writing for us, who or what is supposed to do our thinking and feeling for us?
Many thinkers, including my hero Raymond Tallis, believe that computers merely process information by human design and can't actually be said to think at all. Others, such as the MIT computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil, believe that computer technology is rapidly approaching what he calls a singularity after which computers will completely surpass the conscious capacities of humankind. According to this line of thinking, computers will no longer follow our commands, we will obey theirs, as ever more comprehensive programmes will take over and determine our affairs. If this sounds like a scenario out of a science fiction horror movie, it is plausible enough to alarm Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, none of whom can be described as ignorant techno-phobes. But perhaps the important concern for these informed observers may not be about whatever debatable consciousness computers might possess so much as it about our increasing reliance on computers in virtually every sphere of human activity. Even now, we are beginning to see and experience the world only through the portals that computer technology provides. Computers, then, wouldn't have to be truly conscious in order for them to determine the consciousness that we have of the world. But the question that inevitably follows on from this is how will the advance of computer technology affect the consciousness that we have of ourselves?
Craftsmen have always identified with the tools that express their skills. A carpenter manifests his will through his hammer. A soldier may see himself as his rifle. And even if he uses a more sophisticated instrument for writing (as I'm doing now with my laptop), a writer often identifies with his pen. But computer technology is so pervasive that it influences almost every human activity and penetrates deeply into our understanding of how we act in the world. Identifying with computer processes, then, is by no means restricted to the professionals who devise them. For even if we reject the notion that computers are conscious, it is all too easy to regard them as identical to the consciousness that we possess. It almost requires a deliberate effort to remember that human consciousness is not a programme which comes packaged in flesh and bone hardware. Still, any conscious activity that we happen to engage in can appear to be the true purpose of consciousness itself, particularly when doing seems to attain to being. But of all activities, thinking takes pride of place when it comes to both being and doing. "I think, therefore I am," Descartes asserted. So does this mean that if computers think for us and do it better by being more logical and precise with vastly more information at their disposal, then they could also take possession of our being?
Because almost everything we do requires information and because information can be processed much more efficiently by computers, many people believe that any information we possess can serve no higher purpose than to meet the biological requirements that our genetic inheritance imposes on us. Information, according to this view, only serves the interests of individual survival and the perpetuation of the human species. Yet, few, if any of us actually experience ourselves in this way. Of course, biological necessity drives our instinctual urges to eat and have sex and it is these drives that sustain us both individually and as a species. Yet our drive to be is hardly arrested by the satisfaction of these base desires. For our urge to be is also an urge to create. And while our creations may not always satisfy us and may even cause us great misery and regret, making something actual from the merely potential is perhaps the most distinctively human thing we do. Moreover, we must create, not just cities, institutions, machines and works of art; we also need to create reasons for doing what we do. And those reasons may have nothing to do with our survival. But we don't usually think of the matter in this way. We usually think that needs descend on us from our circumstances and drive us to action in a straightforward causal sequence. We overlook that we might have responded differently and could have created other possibilities for ourselves. We forget that our intentions lie buried within all our experiences of the world. And before we acted on those intentions there was indecision and perhaps even doubt.
Will computers ever become sufficiently conscious to experience such indecision? Or is indecision itself a sign of a feeble consciousness, uncertain of its foothold in the world? One of the attractions of computers appears to lie in the belief that some day they will become so hyper-conscious that they will never face indecision at all. Presented with a problem, computers will simply arrive at the correct solution with relentless logical force. Unfortunately, what constitutes both a problem and its solution depends on the values upon which any judgement is made. In the beginning (the biblical echo is intended), these judgements must be made by human programmers, presumably to serve human interests. Later generations of computers may, however, arise without direct human intervention, which could, conceivably, terminate their interest in human affairs. But could computers ever generate their own interests, independent of the instructions of human programmers? And if they have their own interests, could those interests ever conflict? Finally, if computers ever become truly conscious, what would they want to become conscious of?
These are questions that have stimulated science fiction writers ever since Karel Capek first conceived of robots almost one hundred years ago. And as in science fiction, my questions about the consciousness of computers are really about us. Arriving at solutions with relentless logical force is widely considered an ideal, particularly by people who believe that computers will surpass us in their capacities of consciousness. But although computers will undoubtedly help us advance in knowledge, trying to eliminate the ambivalence inherent in being human may not represent an advance of consciousness at all. Indeed, recognising the inherent ambivalence of consciousness may be one of the essential properties of higher consciousness. Rejecting that ambivalence on a dream of reaching absolute logical certainty then would hardly be an advance. It would only be an abdication of being human.