Categories of consciousness

Infinite recursion using mutually-facing mirrors. Source: Serendip.
I wanted to share with you today the draft of an idea that I have been thinking about recently. Please keep in mind that this is a draft and, as such, I may change my opinion about it going forward. The idea is to explain the different categories of conscious experience that seem to exist. The first category is what I will call (1) folded consciousness: This happens when you experience something while being aware that you are experiencing it; in other words, when you are conscious that you are conscious ... that you are conscious, as if consciousness were folding in on itself. In Jungian terminology, this would correspond to egoic consciousness, which Jung referred to simply as 'consciousness' (an over-restrictive and now outdated use of the word). It is the main modality of consciousness that we experience in our modern lives. The second category is what I will call (2) unfolded consciousness: That's when you have experiences but are not immediately aware that you are having such experiences, like the feeling of moving specific muscles when riding a bike. One could imagine, for instance, that animals like cats and dogs have more of this kind of unfolded conscious experience than we do. The third category is what Jungians, perhaps inappropriately, call (3) the 'unconscious.' These are experiences that seem to happen outside of consciousness altogether and to have a life and history of their own. However, when 'unconscious' experiences emerge into folded consciousness, we register them as familiar memories, not as new experiences; like forgotten dreams that, when suddenly remembered, are unambiguously known to have been experienced in consciousness. This shows that these 'unconscious' experiences were, in some way, taking place somewhere in consciousness all along, even though we weren't immediately aware of them. As such, the so-called 'unconscious' is in fact merely a strange category of consciousness. What I want to briefly explore in this article is a geometric idea that attempts to explain how these three categories of consciousness emerge.

Let us start from category (1): Folded consciousness. What is peculiar about it is a kind of infinite recursion of self-referential awareness: When you read this article, you are not only aware of what you are reading, but you are also aware that you are aware of it. As a matter of fact, you are aware that you are aware ... that you are aware of the article. This infinite recursion takes place in finite time in our minds, much like Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Another metaphor for this is the effect you get when you place two mirrors facing each other and reflecting each other's images: The images seem to immediately form a tunnel of ever smaller mirror frames forming arches into infinity.

The mirror metaphor suggests a geometric analogy for what is going on: The 'surface' of consciousness seems to fold in on itself until it faces itself like two mirrors facing each other. Indeed, we could think of consciousness as an ocean of reflective liquid mercury. In this analogy, experiences would be ripples, waves, or any form of disturbance on this otherwise perfectly calm and flat mercury ocean surface. Now, imagine a segment of this mercury ocean rising as a thin and flexible sheet of mercury (a la the alien water probe in the movie The Abyss) that can bend, twist, and fold; imagine it coiling up around itself so each part of its surface faces another part of its surface head-on, the same way that each point on the internal surface of a hollow cylinder faces another point of it. Now, since liquid mercury is reflective like a mirror, these mutually-facing surfaces will infinitely reflect the ripples and waves propagating through each other. This is folded consciousness, which represents our normal state of egoic awareness. The folding of self-reflecting consciousness is an amplification mechanism for certain classes of experience. Not only that, it allows us to think about our thoughts; a unique form of awareness. Unfolded consciousness, on the other hand, corresponds merely to the ripples and waves propagating through unfolded surfaces of the liquid mercury ocean, which are not reflected; not amplified. These ripples and waves are still conscious experiences available to each one of us, but without the reinforcement of infinite recursion and without self-awareness.

Liquid mercury. Source: Wikipedia.
The question now is: In the context of this analogy, how do we explain the 'unconscious,' our third category? My thinking on this hasn't quite converged yet; I'm still studying, pondering, and experimenting with myself. The hypothesis I have been playing with is this: There is no fundamental distinction between categories (2) and (3); perhaps only a difference in degree. The contents of the 'unconscious' are indeed in consciousness. However, the strength of folded consciousness, when present, is such that the 'unconscious' fades away, analogously to how the stars, even though still in the sky, fade away when confronted with the glare of day. The infinite recursion in the opposing mirrored surfaces of a fold acts like a light canon pointed straight into the eyes of awareness: Its glare makes everything else nearly impossible to see, even though the 'unconscious' is right there, fully conscious, all the time, just as the stars are still just as bright in the middle of day.

When different parts of the ocean of consciousness fold in on themselves, creating the glare of infinite recursion, every ripple in the ocean of consciousness that is not captured into a fold fades away in comparison. In ordinary language, these other ripples become 'forgotten.' The glare of infinite recursion, while shinning light and reinforcing particular, localized ripples in the ocean of conscious experience through self-referential awareness, also causes the amnesia that makes all other ripples as invisible as the stars at noon. This way, the folding of parts of the ocean of consciousness in on themselves provides a localization mechanism for consciousness; it creates localized and limited points-of-view in the ocean of Mind, which is perhaps the very source of individuality. Perhaps we are each a small part of the ocean of consciousness that rose up as a thin sheet and coiled around itself. The tighter each coil folds around itself, the more limited and localized experience becomes, but the more clearly it is perceived. Such notion ties in neatly with the hypothesis that our brains are like whirlpools of consciousness, which I discussed extensively before. Indeed, a whirlpool is a folding of the stream of consciousness in on itself, along a specific dimension. To make this analogy more solid and complete, one would have to postulate a hyper-spatial, most-likely fractal geometry to accommodate a sufficient variety of hierarchical, hyper-spatial foldings that accounted for human experience. I have been thinking about that lately.

So there you have it: A first, draft, partial attempt to interpret the different categories of conscious experience according to a single, coherent, metaphorical framework that also explains the emergence of the individual; the emergence of particular points-of-view in a single ocean of reflective Mind. Then you might ask: If our individualities are just illusions caused by the amplifying effect of local folds in the ocean of consciousness, how do we regain awareness of the Whole? I could see two possibilities: Either all local folds and coils disappear, so we return to a flat and undifferentiated ocean of consciousness where all ripples of experience are equal in lacking local amplification and self-awareness, or the entire ocean of consciousness takes on one single mega-fold where all ripples in it are equally amplified through infinite recursion, and global self-awareness becomes possible. I, for one, like to imagine the latter as the universal telos.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

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