What is this … consciousness? The word is formless, it grasps for meaning. We experience it everyday – we are conscious – yet we know nothing of its meaning. Define consciousness, and our conscious mind scrambles to make sense of – itself. Yes, consciousness is the awareness of our experiences. But what is our mind doing? How is it doing? What is conscious? Is a stone conscious, or a plant conscious or an ant conscious or a jellyfish conscious? Or are you conscious?
The crudest approximation to describing your brain is the evolved triptych of your stacked reptilian, mammalian and human brains acting in concert. But whence consciousness? Does your lizard brain possess consciousness? Lizards certainly possess some minimal functional consciousness. They respond to stimuli. Does this means there are levels of consciousness? Are we somehow more conscious? Perhaps if we defined consciousness in terms of ability, then yes.
This hit home one day. I was thinking about consciousness, and I was thinking about how philosophers had ceased to regard language as transparent. In that, language affects the way you think. That suddenly lead me to this thought for the first time – how would I think if I didn’t have language. Try thinking, but do not use language. Can you even form a thought? At best, you can sense pain, pleasure, and other emotions. But you cannot put a thought together. Without language, would you consider yourself conscious? Perhaps then, examining language will clue us into what consciousness is.
What is a word? My simplistic view is that a word is a mental construct, and represents repeated association with certain experiences. The sense of a word is dredged from repeated association with the experiences it is meant to represent. That forms a mental construct. Which means our mind can assemble associations between experiences, note the common patterns, construct casual relations and generally glean the nature of phenomena through repeated exposure.
Perhaps then, this is somehow intertwined with consciousness? Perhaps consciousness is simply to be conscious of these experiences? You can be conscious of eating icecream, and then conscious of being conscious of eating icecream, and conscious of that too. Then, you can be conscious of the entire process of being conscious of being conscious of eating icecream. This ties into the self-loop ideas. But to be conscious, you need to be able to put things in a sequence that makes sense. Extend that, and consciousness is also the ability to glean patterns in the world around us, to make associations between phenomena, to pick up on casual relations through repeated exposure. And the greater this ability, the greater the level of consciousness inherent. Perhaps, language is simply the outcome of a need to order mental constructs. Without language, there is no framework to manipulate the things that make up consciousness. The objects that consciousness acts upon are words, or mental constructs, each word drawing upon a tethered gestalt of experience. Strings of taste, vision, colour, touch, sounds, emotions, reactions link to each word. Indeed each word may be tethered through myriad linkages to other words, that mental constructs build upon mental constructs. You might imagine a rainforest of words, the ground composed of simple ones, and complex concepts building upon and drawing from the simple ones. And the topmost canopy would be the deepest, profoundest hardest to appreciate words. Words that require depth and breadth of experience, that they draw upon so much.
Then consciousness is as simple a matter as that of making associations? Isn’t that what we do? We read patterns, we connect dots, we dredge meaning, we constantly try to make sense of a world alien and unknown through intuitive yet measured understanding. Through repeated exposure to phenomena, our brain will abstract the rules of that phenomena. This is, as I understand it, consciousness. Symbol manipulation. This is why language is so fuzzy, because language captures range.
Merely mentioning the fuzziness of language invites a digression into math. Math is a language. Two plus two or 2+2, it’s the same thing. What sets math aside is rigour. Math casts aside language’s inborn fuzziness in favour of precision and care. Or, it is simply language with no fuzziness. When the simplest words, or axioms, are defined rigorously, and more complex words, or lemmas/theorems, are precisely connected to the simpler axioms.
People talk about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, that is, the uncanniness with which mathematics is able to describe the real world. To me, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. Think of it this way, clearly math gets at some very fundamental in our natural world, hence its effectiveness. This, for me, is that our universe is discrete. All that physically exists in this world is discrete. You cannot have an irrational number of, say, electrons. Mathematics is similarly discrete. Numbers are discrete. Mathematics then covers every single operation possible between discrete sets. Our world is only one instance of these possible operations. Then it is obvious that one instance of mathematical operations will describe our world because our world is essentially a set of rules governing interactions between discrete objects. In other words, mathematics is fundamental because it is the ultimate abstraction.
I’d like to talk about finding patterns and building models a little more. This ability is an important facet of our consciousness. We abstract information about our environment to create a model of our environment. That is, we learn. Neural networks demonstrate this property in general. But, perhaps, consciousness gives this property a fillip by using words to better define and remember models of the environment. A language and the consciousness to manipulate that language mean we can formalize models much more easily. This is just speculation but the interaction between consciousness and learning abilities of neural networks is interesting.
Because a mental construct or word is built up through experience, words are context dependent. The word ‘rain’ has a host of associated experiences built into it, as does ‘ice-cream’ or ‘childhood’. This is the fundamental barrier to communication. That you will never know what another person’s context. All you know is that it is different from yours. Thus, you can never know what another person is thinking precisely, even if there are a hundred percent honest with you. Not that you can ever be sure someone is being honest with you. Thus, these two represent fundamental barriers to communication. One, context dependence, and two, an inability to discern honesty.
Cogito Ergo …
This has been a rather meandering, but I didn’t see a good way to tie together disparate threads of thought in math, language, consciousness and thought; yet I felt they belonged to the same domain. I personally believe language is intrinsically intertwined with consciousness, words are mental constructs, math is language minus the fuzziness and reason is the manipulation of discrete objects via consciousness and rules, which lets us think in abstraction.