Happy New Year

Friday, January 2nd, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

The Transcendence Institute Welcomes You To 2009!

We’d like to spend a little time on this, the first Friday of 2009, to consider not only how to improve human consciousness, but also just exactly what it is, where it comes from. Much of this is speculative, of course, but reflects what the Transcendence Institute considers is the closest modern science has to an explanation.

In “Consciousness Explained”, Daniel Dennett posits a “Virtual Machine” running in human brains. He suggests that language, culture and memetic transfer build ‘mind’. That is that consciousness is not something that our brains have by “default”, but that cultural transfer helps to build it in each child as they grow, generally through encouraging them to pay attention to their own minds and learn to manipulate their inner states. We teach our children language. We tell them stories and constantly ask them to examine their mental states, comparing them to each other (“How are you?”, “How does this make you feel?”). These techniques build in them the techniques of self examination. These in turn give them a wider range of techniques to combine, allowing yet more growth in consciousness.

Consciousness doesn’t emerge directly from the neurons and connections in the brain, or from some magical soul or spirit. It isn’t the controlling center of operations where all the brain’s activities come together as Descartes suggested. Instead consciousness emerges from the actions of the software which we learn to run on the neural hardware of the brain.

This ‘virtual machine’ produces our consciousness, our awareness, our will, sapience and cognitive skills, amongst other transcendent systems. But what IS this ‘virtual machine’ and where does it come from?

Dennett compares the virtual machine he posits running in the mind to the software which most computers are able to run to give them new functions. For example, the Java programming language is meaningless to every computer in the world until that computer has loaded into it a “virtual machine” which interprets the Java bytecode instructions and gives the machine the ability to understand Java. This virtual machine essentially fetches the Java Bytecode instructions, one after another, and performs actions based on those instructions and the virtual machine’s own state. The software effectively adopts the hardware to enable it to run Java code.

A virtual machine running on a human brain is obviously not a precision engineered and thoroughly debugged fetch-execute cycle, certainly less so than even the Java Virtual Machine. However Dennett points out that it doesn’t need to be flawless in order to provide evolutionary benefit to the genes that build the brain, or indeed to the memes that the brain harbours (and which build the mind). It doesn’t need to be perfect to build a ‘self’, a centre of narrative, and to help that ‘self’ understand it’s own actions.

The Joycean Virtual Machine

The Virtual Machine which each of us learn to run in our heads Dennet calls a “Joycean Machine”. The name he takes from James Joyce’s famous writing style in Ulysses etc. A “stream of consciousness” made from words, images and feelings, each prompting the next as they produce recollections based on previous associations, possibly especially those from childhood as we learned to build that Joycean Machine through the language, sayings, stories and self-prompting we were taught as we grew up.

Given this, given that human consciousness is not necessarily innate but it learned, taught by the associations built up in youth, it’s clear that each human consciousness is different. That each can be improved through building new associations, self-prompting techniques, learning more closely how our own brains function and can be manipulated. It’s likely that there is no fully ‘transcended’ consciousness, but that each tiny improvement takes us further from reactive animal reflex learning and closer to human, or even trans-human consciousness

This, of course, is essentially the method we’ve been using for most of the last year, and will build upon as we continue our progress during 2009.

It may be a good time, right now, to survey your consciousness, your awareness of your self and your perceptions, your consciousness, See how it seems to you, try to imagine ways in which it can be improved and resolve to learn the new techniques and methods you’ll need to achieve that improvement so that this time next year, should you review your consciousness again, you’ll be able to appreciate exactly how far you’ve come.