Today we’re going to be taking a look at a pretty nebulous, complex concept- the origin of consciousness. This is no small task, so for the sake of your sanity, reader, make sure you’ve read all the bolded articles on the Start Here page (especially Solomon, Pieces of Mind 0.1, 0.2, and 0.3, Triple Meta, and AION, II), Myth and Meaning I and II, and, if you’ve seen the show, the Westworld article as well. We’re going to hit all kinds of stuff here, from an old Buddhist story about the lotus, Julian Jaynes’ theory of consciousness, the Aboriginal Dreamtime, the Triune Brain theory, artificial intelligence, and we’ll even discover what the opposite of the word ‘meta’ is.
Let’s get it.
I’m going to hit some of the basic assumptions that this theory is built on before we really get started. First, as described in The Theory of Everything, my central premise is that subjective consciousness exists as a component of the exchange of energy into information- DNA is the basis of this (or perhaps RNA, or even smaller components, but we’ll address that in a bit.) This exchange from energy into information is the core principle of the universe- in more poetic terms, we move from chaos to order, or ignorance to Truth. Observing changes the observer as well as the observed.
Second- consciousness, as we experience it, is the interaction of a number of quasi-independent neural circuits, described in Solomon as ‘micropersonalities.’ These ‘compete’ for control and, depending on the individual’s specific subjective neural experience (re: I think primarily in words), they will be perceived as separate entities (re: slightly different variations on the inner monologue, for me).
Third- also explained in Solomon and the Pieces of Mind series, within the gamut of subjective experiences, there is a central focal point of pure consciousness (what I call the ‘True Self,’ it has only the quality of “is-ness”/ pure being). The True Self is mediated through the Ego Proper (the core personality and life experiences, cannot be reduced over time, but can be added to with new experiences) and the petty ego (thoughts-beliefs-feelings-ideas-opinions, all transitory mental phenomena). Identification with the True Self is the beginning of the development of metaconsciousness (also called metacognition), which I believe is equivalent to the first stage of enlightenment in the Eastern traditions.
That last part is important- there is a sharp distinction between the average person walking down the street’s form of conscious experience and the full expression of metaconsciousness that comes with training (meditation is a form of this training, although there are many types that vary in effectiveness). We’ll come back to this idea in a bit.
As I discussed in Pieces 0.3, there’s a useful but not completely accurate model of the brain called the Triune Brain theory, which essentially states that evolution has developed three components of the human brain. These are (in order of emergence) the reptilian complex (basal ganglia, responsible for territorial behavior), the paleomammalian complex (limbic system, deals with emotion in feeding, pair bonding, and parenting), and the neomammalian complex (neocortex, handles language and abstract thought). In Triple Meta and 0.3, I proposed that the emergence of the internet constituted a new stage in this evolution- using a term coined by Twitter user @GRITCULT: the Exocortex.
Let’s revisit the setting of Myth and Meaning I– the Garden of Eden.
In that article, I presented Terence McKenna’s theory (the ‘Stoned Ape’ hypothesis) that suggests psychedelic usage played a role in both human neural evolution, as well as in the development of language. There’s a theoretical dividing line between proto-humans who had no language, and the first humans who did- I’m going to argue that this dividing line is very much comparable to the line that divides the proto- and neo-mammalian complexes in the brain. In the same regard, there’s likely a similar line dividing the proto-mammalian and reptile complexes, although what the exact signifier of said line is isn’t obvious (or terribly relevant for what we’re discussing).
There’s an observation I’ve heard echoed from a number of scholars who have studied the work of others- oftentimes, the emergence of a new idea is more obvious to an observer than to the person doing the work, until they have their “eureka moment.” That’s a bit vague, so here’s an example you may be able to relate to.
Have you ever been stuck on a problem that you just can’t come up with a solution to? If you haven’t, you will eventually, but for most of us, we’ve been there a number of times. Usually, you end up either getting distracted or voluntarily taking a break, and then the answer comes to you as if from nowhere. The really interesting part of this is that even if the new idea is something you’ve never thought of, the pieces of it were all there before- it’s just the new combination that seems original.
This is basically the same experience as I was describing with the “eureka moment,” in regards to the outside observer. It’s like listening to a band’s first few albums after you’re already familiar with them- you know what they’re trying to do, but they just haven’t put it all together yet. This is probably related to what I talked about in Fragmentation and Reconciliation– we experiment with many small variations before we decide on the correct path- like how water flowing down the mountain eventually ends up taking the most efficient route.
It seems that this is the same overarching principle at work in the emergence of higher mental levels. Before the first person used language, the neural circuits for making noises and concept formation had to already exist in some form. It’s likely that the influence of psychedelics (which significantly increase neural interconnectivity) caused these smaller circuits to overlap, and thus, we’d see the vocalization circuit touch the concept formation circuit, creating the first word (via glossolalia).
Now, to the first person, even though these circuits were already there, this would have seemed like a completely novel experience. We can call this the eureka paradox– the discovery of a novel idea seems completely foreign, even though the novelty is simply built on a new combination of familiar things.
If our consciousness is this concept and language-mediated experience, what would it have seemed like before? Let’s take the neocortex (language and concepts) out of the picture- our experiences would be much more of an emotional flow. Look at the Aboriginal concept of the “Dreamtime” (which is probably a mistranslation, though it fits perfectly for my line of thinking here). The Dreamtime refers to a mythical, ancestral era, when heroes and figures of myth walked the earth. This, interestingly enough, sounds very similar to the Greek notion of Aion, which is also mythic time (versus Kronos, linear time). The Dreamtime is also called the “time out of time” or “time before time,” which is fascinating.
Basically all religions have a notion of the “time of heroes,” the “time of gods,” or some other primordial era that we’ve fallen out of. I’d say Eden fits well here. My theory is that before the eureka moment in the development of the neocortex, we either lacked the part of the brain responsible for the notion of time, or there’s something about being on the other side of the line between the paleo- and neo-mammalian brain that is so qualitatively different that we can no longer experience consciousness in the same way- we’re locked out of Eden.
This maps perfectly with another concept- the Lotus flower and what it symbolizes in the Eastern traditions.
If you aren’t familiar with the Lotus, it’s a flower that typically grows in rivers. That’s a bit odd compared to most flowers, which grow on land- the roots of the lotus are embedded in the muck of the river. As it moves towards the surface, it rises through the dirty water and past the fish and frogs, until the bud hits the air. Then, the flower begins to bloom, and despite the filthy origins of it, the petals are clean, pure, and unblemished.
In the Eastern traditions, this process is a metaphor for the emergence of enlightenment. (The lotus as a symbol [outside of this story] actually represents essentially the same thing as the True Self, or perhaps metaconsciousness, depending on how you look at it.) The spiritual aspirant is born ignorant (original sin, although the Christian notion of sin has taken on a different character in modern times), and embedded in the muck of bad actions. Because he isn’t developed, he is not aware of what he does (“forgive them, for they know not what they do”), and his actions have unintended consequences that lead to suffering.
As the aspirant develops and trains, he grows closer to the surface, until finally is enlightened (develops metaconsciousness, is “born again”) and purified (like how baptism is meant to symbolize being washed from sin), and is now free from ignorance (because he can observe his own actions).
This is the difference between the average person on the street, who is basically at the mercy of a variety of competing micropersonalities, and the person who has identified the True Self- the man on the street is constantly torn between different wants and desires, and the identified man can observe these circuits with calm detachment.
What’s really fascinating here is the parallel between the two thresholds- just like there’s the dividing line between the proto-humans and the first language users, there is also a line between the man on the street and the man of realization. Perhaps there will be another threshold that emerges as a result of the exocortex, but it’s impossible to say for sure. There’s a corny new-agey quote that says “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly,” and while I can’t vouch for the quality of the statement itself, the sentiment basically matches the eureka paradox- you can’t know what the novel idea is, even if you know all the constituent parts. I do think, however, that it will involve some degree of neural-computer interface (re: Elon’s company Neuralink), but what that actually looks like stands to be determined.
Now, let’s go deeper- and by deeper, I mean mesa (a term I’m borrowing from this article and pronouncing mez-a, not may-sa). Mesa is the opposite of meta- where meta means “above, about, or beyond,” mesa means “into, inside, or within.”
If metaconsciousness is a level above (consciousness that’s conscious of itself), then mesaconsciousness is a constituent part of normal consciousness- consciousness within consciousness. The neural-circuit micropersonalities are thus mesaconsciousnesses- the combination of many of them make up the overarching consciousness we experience. In the context of the Dreamtime, I’d argue that it’s the mesaconsiousness experience of these micropersonalities, which brings us to Jaynes’ idea.
Julian Jaynes is best known for his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind– quite the mouthful, I know. (The Westworld article touches on this in more depth.) The theory he presents is basically as follows- early man had a separation of some functions between the two hemispheres of the brain (called ‘bicameralism’). As a result of this separation, he experienced the language part of the brain as something like “the voice of God (or gods- micropersonalities?)” giving orders to the other half, which would be followed without question. This tracks extremely well with what I’ve laid out, although I have one modification to make.
Instead of this separation being between hemispheres, I think the separation is between the limbic system and the neocortex. (There’s probably still some hemisphere-related element at play, but this seems to make more sense as the core element at play. Pieces of Mind 0.2 addresses this to some extent.)
Now, remember the bit about the lotus? When the lotus blooms, it blooms clean, right?
When metaconsciousness emerges, it emerges independent from the underlying mesaconsciousnesses. It’s not enough to develop metaconsciousness alone- one must take the awareness of metaconsciousness and use it to begin retraining the mesaconscious micropersonalities. This is like the first person to escape Plato’s cave coming back and freeing the rest, or like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra coming back down the mountain to teach.
People like to imagine a computer-based AI that can somehow become self-aware and change its own programming. In reality, this isn’t something we need computers to do- we are, by all accounts, a carbon based computer that runs on a quaternary system of amino acids (G, A, T, C) rather than a binary (0s and 1s) system of transistors. Metaconsciousness’ ability to modulate our action is essentially the computer changing its software, and the emerging science of genetic engineering is the computer changing its hardware.
Now, on the note of AI (and more specifically, AGI [artificial general intelligence]), because I think consciousness is an inherent property of the universe, I do not think it can be created, like many futurists do. If we look at all of the constituent parts of human consciousness, they are all mostly inseparable and build on each other- the monkey brain is built on the reptile brain, the human brain is built on the monkey brain and the reptile brain, etc. If consciousness can’t be created, then the attempt to do so is basically the creation of the Demiurge (re: Myth and Meaning II).
If I make a robot dog that does everything a real dog can do, but it’s just a program, most people would say they’re the same thing. However, to reiterate, I believe consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe- the robot dog could look and act exactly the same, but it would fundamentally lack whatever diminished (relative to a person) level of consciousness the real dog has. This presents the problem of a black box (we know what goes in and comes out, but not what goes on inside), or, in AI theory, the Chinese Room problem.
Imagine you’re participating in a scientific study. You’re seated at a desk against a wall. On the desk, there is a book of Chinese characters (if you speak Chinese, pretend it’s a different language) and a box of cards with Chinese characters printed on them. There is a slot in the wall in front of you, and something pushes cards with Chinese characters on them through the slot. Your job in the study is to match the character you receive to one in the book, and the book tells you which character to take from your box and send back through the slot.
What does this mean?
First off, it’s important to note that you don’t speak Chinese- you have no idea what the characters represent. However, the book of characters you have is basically equivalent to a computer’s programming- you take the input (card received) and the book (program rules) tells you what to use as output (card sent back). If the book is sufficiently complex, there could be a person who speaks Chinese on the other side of the wall who cannot tell if you are a human or a computer, even though you don’t speak Chinese.
Okay, but what does this really mean?
A sufficiently complex computer could convincingly look like it’s conscious (speaking Chinese, in this case), but in reality, it doesn’t have to be conscious at all.
This is where it gets dangerous- what does consciousness look like? To us, it looks like other people, but lots of human things are illogical, like emotions. You couldn’t program emotions into a computer directly, but you could make it simulate them, say… by programming randomness or illogical behaviors into it, or teaching it to simulate emotions. Go watch Ex Machina to see why this is a horrifying idea that should be avoided.
What we have to realize is that most people who are trying to invent a consciousness barely understand their own consciousness- most people don’t study this kind of thing, let alone have the time to become professional level coders as well.
My solution is that instead of trying to build a standalone consciousness, we should aim to use technology to augment consciousness (AI, but with a different ‘A,’ or maybe ‘AgI’ with a lowercase ‘g’). We’re already doing this- there’s a study that shows that people actually forget things that they Google because they know they don’t need to store it. That’s the whole premise of the Exocortex, anyway. Maybe our AI fears are unfounded, because it would basically take some extremely intelligent person who also happens to be malicious (or an extremely intelligent person who is wholly moronic when it comes to consciousness) to make something like the Demiurge-pseudoconsciousness (homunculi?) that would really mess people up. Realistically, it wouldn’t make sense to take the time to do that, especially when there are so many obvious gain to be had from simply using limited AI to make yourself smarter.
The takeaway from this little aside into AI is that we can’t have a proper understanding of how an artificial consciousness works unless we start from a position of understanding both our own consciousness and its origins. As I have said many times on this site, we can only understand others to the depth and in the manner that we understand ourselves- this is doubly true when we move from understanding an other to trying to build an other.
Let’s bring this all home.
We tend to see consciousness as this singular thing, generally taken for granted. In fact, we seem to continue to discover that there are more and more components to consciousness (it’s turtles all the way down, except they’re like mesa-turtles… anyway). I think we are at the beginning of a new era in human history- the widespread emergence of metaconsciousness. This is what I (more poetically) mean when I refer to the Aion Aletheia, or the Age of Truth- the era when we move past the lower-level standard consciousness that seems to be the root of the majority of human plights.
We need to become truly aware of ourselves- fortunately, metaconsciousness is something that can be developed by anyone. The real shock comes when you realize that basically all of the religious and spiritual traditions in the world (or at least their mystical counterparts) have been trying to do this for as long as we’ve had them. There’s a story I’ll borrow from Ram Dass–
“A sage was asked, ‘How long have we been on this journey?’ He replied, “Imagine a mountain three miles wide, three miles high, and three miles long. Once every hundred years, a bird flies over the mountain, holding a silk scarf in its beak, which it brushes across the surface of the mountain. The time it would take for the scarf to wear down the mountain is how long we’ve been doing this.”
Now, an interesting observation is that in the older traditions, achieving enlightenment was something that was supposed to take infinitely many reincarnations, hence the above story. However, as time goes on, the more recent traditions emerged and suggested one could reach enlightenment in a single lifetime. Take out the core of that- the speed of things has increased, and as a result of the accumulation of knowledge, you can learn from the mistakes of those who came before and make rapid progress. Metaconsciousness is no longer an extreme rarity- it’s something we can break down systematically and teach.
What this means is we’re going to have to dramatically change our approach to things. The current school system is built on the Prussian model, which was designed to train soldiers and factory workers. I’ll argue that the reason we’re seeing an increase in dissatisfaction with education is partially because people are moving closer to metaconsciousness, and the very one-dimensional, standardized test and recitation focused model is the opposite of how metaconsciousness functions. Higher levels of consciousness are all about interdisciplinary study, connecting unlike dots, and experimentation- testing, bending, and sometimes breaking the rules. The old model can’t withstand that.
It’s notable that the greatest predictor of the death of old models seems to be the emergence of technology– knights didn’t last very long once guns were invented, and the printing press very rapidly began to erode the power of dogmatic religious authority. The more we educate people, the more power becomes distributed rather than centralized. I expect that we’re going to see a new birth of individual liberty and sovereignty in this century as a result not of violent revolution or political intervention, but from the emergence of things like the blockchain and widespread access to the internet. For the first time, we may see a world of perfect literacy.
All of this begins when you start to cultivate metaconsciousness. It’s the ability to alter your own programming that allows you to begin to alter the world- hence “Save the World- Master your Self.” Go forward, know thyself, seek your eureka moment, and then use this newfound metaconsciousness to build the beautiful world that lies waiting within you.