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Illusion & Consciousness

September 14, 2010

For an illusion to be just that, it seems that it should somehow reveal the disjunction between a sensory perception and the reconstruction of that perception in the mind.  Otherwise, it is indistinguishable from what one might consider an authentic perception of the physical world. If our senses are occasionally revealed to be supplying us with erroneous input, how much of the rest of the input can we trust?  At what point are the frameworks that we construct to explain the world around us larger “cognitive illusions” as Dan Ariely calls them?  Probably the best we can hope for is a close approximation that delivers on our expectations most of the time, and does not leave us at odds with our fellow travelers.

It is remarkable that we all –or most of us– are complicit in a shared illusion powerful enough for us to function together as well as we do. As a thought experiment, one could imagine a consciousness revolution of such epic proportions that we would be returned to a state close to the collapse of the Tower of Babel.  Julian Jaynes postulates just such a collapse at the transition from the Bicameral Mind to Consciousness, and it is clear from the hints provided by illusions, that consciousness is not a fully aware state.

In his Futurological Congress, Stanislaw Lem describes a terrorist tampering of drinking water that leads to what is first interpreted as widespread hallucination, but later understood to be the revelation of the world in its true state, stripped of the illusions supplied by our sensory perception.  That the true state is so horrible makes self-narcotization an obvious choice.

While possible, this is happily a work of science fiction, and the fact that we are on the whole in agreement about an authentic physical world leaves us with an operational theory that is not too troubling, at the moment.  It is clear, though, that we do typically choose to anaesthetize ourselves to some degree, or put less alarmingly, to screen out peripheral data.  Neal Stephenson makes the same case for operating systems, that most people prefer shells, and really don’t want to get under the hood to develop their own interfaces, whether for computers or most of the rest of the physical world.

Tor Norretranders suggests that consciousness is in some ways a brutal filtering device, suppressing most of the input not immediately essential.  Jaynes’ contention that it is an operator develops the argument along similar lines, and proposes the even more disturbing idea that it does not even have a location.  Typically held to reside within our skulls in our brains, Jaynes makes that idea look like a medieval concept of humors, as preposterous as the notion that affection resides in the heart.  If it doesn’t exist there, though, but rather in relation to the world around us–and spatial analogies continue to dominate understanding–then it calls into question our understanding of self.

Given that we are complex constructions of multiple organs made up in turn of millions of living beings, it is remarkable that regardless how we achieve it, we can operate in anything close to an organized and ordered fashion, much less contemplate this issue in the first place.  Observing social insects such as honey bees might provide some illustration of behavior at the cellular level.  There is a danger of anthropomorphizing their behavior individually, or concluding that their colony behaves like a larger living organism or urban system, but a safer conclusion is that they are closer to biological robots, illustrating cooperation at a cellular level.  Jaynes denies consciousness to this level of existence, but the bees do exhibit a great deal of awareness and sensitivity to their environment.  By the same token, at the cellular level, some reaction to stimulus gave the evolutionary edge to unicellular animals that cooperated over those that did not.  Perhaps it is a cognitive illusion to form an analogy between cellular cooperation and human society, but while small discrepancies can be demonstrated, it is such a strong one that it is difficult to find real fissures: it is extraordinarily difficult to contemplate this cellular cooperation without consciousness.  The analogy at the scale of human society is the theory of group dynamics or crowds.  They “take on a life of their own” and exhibit behavior that many times challenges rational conscious thought.

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