Blame the philosophers for the fact that I’ve been blogging less lately. I had no idea philosophy could be such a heady endeavor. Seriously heady, like I’d smoked some really strong intellectual dope and set my mind reeling.
Blame two philosophers in particular. The first is Thomas Nagel, who asked the question “What’s it like to be a bat?” in a famed article that’s included in his book Mortal Questions. That particular question is just about a perfect Zen puzzle. We may know how sonar works, and how a bat flies, but we’ll never know what it’s like to be a bat. Yet we’ll keep asking nonetheless (or at least Nagel and many others will). How human is that?
(Personal aside: The bat question is of particular relevance hereabouts since the resident cat occasionally catches one and brings it indoors, half-dead but still far too alive, creating an eerie panic in me. My latest purchase is a bat net. And yes, that’s Batwoman to the left. Now back to Nagel…)
He’s a leading philosopher of consciousness (I’ll make that PoC for short) — the idea being that human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, i.e. the brain. Not only are we aware (some of us, anyway), but we have the ability to reflect on that awareness. That is, we’re graced — or cursed — with meta-consciousness.
The margins of my copies of Nagel’s books are full of my scribblings, many of them admiring (multiple exclamation marks!). But an increasing number of grumbles began to show up (question marks and disputatious comments). Then I saw that Nagel himself had a grumble or two with another PoC called Colin McGinn, and I had to see what they were about.
So thanks to Nagel, I am currently smitten with McGinn, on whose head (in whose head?) lies full responsibility for the questionable state of my mind these days. In one book, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World, he posits that “consciousness has a hidden structure, a covert essence.” It’s “like an iceberg, where the water line corresponds to the limits of introspection.”
How big an iceberg? He spends several pages speculating as to the manifold ways in which our conception of space (and specifically, the mind as contained in the physical space of the brain) may be entirely off:
Space might objectively be quite other than the way we take it to be. The word ‘space,’ from this viewpoint, is just a label for whatever is out there as the containing medium of all things; it carries no substantive implications about the properties of the thing it denotes. Accordingly, we might have a very partial — or even erroneous — view of the true structure of space… We experience space in a certain way, by means of our senses, and think about it in that way, but that may not represent what space is really like in itself…
We have a kind of folk theory of space, a view of it that we grow up with and take for granted. It is based on the evidence of our senses, especially vision, and it reflects our specific viewpoint as beings roaming around the surface of one small planet in one corner of a mind-bogglingly large universe…
Citing relativity theory and quantum theory, he argues that this folk theory of space “has been hung out to dry repeatedly.”
If space is just that which connects all causally interacting things, then conscious minds must be in space in some sense. But understanding the manner of this containment defeats us. We would need a new conception of space to comprehend how minds can slide into its welcoming folds… We know it cannot depict space as simply the repository of objects with shape, size, and solidity, because consciousness is not like that. It must be capacious enough to house entities of another kind entirely… To put it dramatically, brains are objects that carry their own space with them.”
It gets weirder (I’m tempted to say it gets infinitely weirder). In fact the next several pages made me feel as though I were reading David Foster Wallace on infinity, or one of Samuel Beckett’s novels (Watt, perhaps, which as I remember it makes ‘Waiting for Godot’ seem lucidly straight-forward). And then comes a line break — time to breathe — and McGinn starts off the next section with this:
It is extremely difficult to get one’s mind around the picture I am suggesting. We are on the outer edge of the sayable. I can really only focus on these ideas for a few minutes every month or so.
Oh. On the one hand, this was delightfully reassuring. It was good to know that McGinn’s head was spinning too. On the other… well, I’d been reading him every day for just about a month or so…
And I can’t seem to stop. In fact this whole PoC business is such strong dope that instead of a soothingly empty trash novel, I’m taking Nagel and McGinn on the plane to Edinburgh, where I’m giving a talk next week at TEDGlobal. I’m not sure if this bodes well or poorly for the talk, which is on the essential interdependence of faith and doubt, and the adamant refusal of fundamentalism to recognize either. I guess you could call that another kind of heady endeavor.
I kind of wish McGinn (whom I’ve never met) was going to be there to hold my hand.