The brain as a knot of consciousness

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

A small, natural whirlpool.

As regular readers know, I am an idealist; that is, I subscribe to the notion that reality – despite being solid, continuous, and apparently autonomous – is a projection of mind. I also subscribe to the notion that the brain is a kind of filter of consciousness: It localizes consciousness – which itself is primary, irreducible, and unbound  to the space-time location of the body. I've explored these two notions separately, not only in my books, but in several articles in this blog. So, here, I will not repeat the argument (logical or empirical) for these two notions, but will instead focus on how they can co-exist.

The idea that the brain does not generate consciousness, but instead limits and filters it down, seems to require dualism and contradict idealism. After all, if all reality exists in consciousness, how can the brain – which is a part of reality – filter down that which gives it its very existence? A water filter is not made of water; a coffee filter is not made of coffee; how can a consciousness filter be made of consciousness? It sounds like a self-referential contradiction. Yet, unless this apparent contradiction is resolved, idealism cannot be reconciled with the consciousness filter theory of the brain. Below, I will argue that, although this is a self-referential problem, it does not imply a contradiction.

The first step in resolving this apparent conflict is to emphasize that the word "filter" is used metaphorically here. What is meant is an image in consciousness of a process by means of which consciousness limits and localizes its own breath and depth. Since idealism is far less worked out as a philosophy than realism, we do not have an explicit and unambiguous terminology to articulate its ideas. Indeed, for the time being, we're limited to analogies and metaphors. So here is a metaphor to help one at least gain some intuition about how this could take place.

Think of consciousness as a stream. Water can flow along the stream through its entire length; that is, water is not localized in the stream, but traverses it unlimited. Now imagine a small whirlpool in the stream: It has a visible and identifiable existence; one can locate a whirlpool and delineate its boundaries precisely; one can point at it and say "here is a whirlpool!" There seems to be no question about how palpable and concrete the whirlpool seems to be. Moreover, the whirlpool somewhat limits and localizes the flow of water: The water molecules trapped in it can no longer traverse the course of the entire stream unbound, but become locked, swirling around a specific and well-defined location.

Now, there is nothing to the whirlpool but water itself. The whirlpool is just a specific pattern of water movement that reflects a partial localization of that water within the stream. When I talk of the brain being a structure in consciousness that reflects the self-limitation of consciousness, I mean something very analogous to the whirlpool in a water stream. There is nothing to the brain but consciousness, yet it is a concrete, palpable reflection of the localization of that consciousness. You can point at it and say "here is a brain!"

Let us try another analogy to deepen our intuition of this. Think of the brain as a "knot" that consciousness ties on itself. Indeed, a whirlpool is a kind of single-loop knot that water "ties on itself" and thereby restricts its own movement along a single, simple, circular trajectory. A single-loop knot is the smallest there is. Perhaps one could imagine the nervous system of a roundworm (C. elegans), with its 302 neurons, as a single-loop knot of consciousness that is extremely restrictive to awareness; the flow of consciousness in it is trapped into the simplest and smallest trajectory possible. As nervous systems become more complex, the constraints of the filter relax; more loops are added to the knot; complex tangles emerge. Although consciousness is still restricted to the localization system, it has more room to flow through more complex trajectories.

Knots. Source: Wikipedia.

Extrapolating this line of thinking, the broadest nervous system would be one the size of the universe, so the trajectories entailed by the countless loops of its unfathomably complex "knot" would be co-extensive with the degrees of freedom of existence itself, known and unknown. But this amounts to saying that such ultimate nervous system would be the universe (a whirlpool the size of the stream would be the stream), which brings us neatly back to our starting assumption: The ultimate nervous system  as far as the freedom, breath, and depth of consciousness in it – is no nervous system at all. The ultimate breath of consciousness is achieved when it is not limited by the brain that captures and "filters" it down.

To the idealist, everything exists in consciousness. So even a process by which consciousness limits and localizes itself should also produce an image in consciousness. It is thus not only unsurprising, but expected, that an image of the consciousness localization process should exist. And it so happens to be what we call a "brain." The very structure of the brain evokes an image of a complex knot and self-referential loops that somehow capture consciousness in a "closed tangle," as opposed to allowing it to flow freely. Carl Jung intuited this almost one hundred years ago in powerful, poetic words. The passage he wrote, and which I quote below, is from his personal diary, published in 2009 under the tittle "The Red Book" (the quote is from page 321). It takes the form of a conversation between his ego-consciousness ("I") and an autonomous psychic complex from his unconscious ("The Cabiri"):
I: Let me see it, the great knot, all wound round! Truly a masterpiece of inscrutable nature, a wily natural tangle of roots grown through one another! Only Mother Nature, the blind weaver, could work such a tangle! A great snarled ball and a thousand small knots, all artfully tied, intertwined, truly, a human brain! Am I seeing straight? What did you do? You set my brain before me! Did you give me a sword so that its flashing sharpness slices through my brain? What were you thinking of?
The Cabiri: The womb of nature wove the brain, the womb of the earth gave the iron [of the sword]. So the Mother gave you both: entanglement and severing.
I: Mysterious! Do you really want to make me the executioner of my own brain?
The Cabiri: It befits you as the master of the lower nature. Man is entangled in his brain and the sword is also given to him to cut through the entanglement.
I: What is the entanglement you speak of?
The Cabiri: The entanglement is your madness, the sword is the overcoming of madness.
Note: I'd like to thank the participants of the Skeptiko discussion forum for the spirited debates that inspired some of the articulations above.

Our modern madness

Engraving of the eighth print of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress depicting inmates at Bedlam asylum.
Source: Wikipedia.

A fundamental metaphysical dichotomy for at least the last few hundred years has been the question of whether reality is objective (i.e. realism) or a projection of the mind (i.e. idealism). Here is a brief analysis of how these two lines of thinking emerge:
  • An idealist takes his immediate experience as the starting point, and builds from there. To him or her, perceptions in consciousness are the primary data of reality, requiring no reduction. Everything else are abstractions of a different ontological order, including the concepts of matter, energy, and space-time. In other words, we invent the notions of matter, energy, and space-time to create stories that tell us what is going on, but the primary data of reality are perceptions themselves, not the concepts we attach to them;
  • The realist, on the other hand, takes concepts and abstractions as the starting point, like the notion that the perceptions in his own consciousness are caused by objects in an imagined, autonomous reality outside of his mind, even though he or she has no direct access to that reality. He or she then tries to reconstruct consciousness itself from those abstractions, like the notion that it is a particular arrangement of matter (i.e. a brain) that generates consciousness. Notice that there is a forward and then a backward motion here: First, the realist projects outward the independent reality of an imagined model (i.e. matter, energy, space-time); and then, he or she tries to reconstruct the primary data of experience back from that abstraction!
Clearly, the realist position not only entails a seemingly gratuitous back-and-forth, but also a tortuous attempt to substitute stories for reality. If you can take some distance from the assumptions of our cultural paradigm and read the above clear-headedly and without bias, you may be amazed that realism ever caught on at all, let alone become the reigning worldview of an entire civilization. I find it truly astonishing.A realist may reply to this by questioning how it is possible that a seemingly autonomous and continuous reality, consistently experienced by so many different people, could emerge from voluble, unstable, and different minds. After all, if I park my car in my garage this evening and go to sleep, tomorrow morning my car will (hopefully!) be exactly where I left it, even though I was (apparently) unconscious during the night. The same, indeed, can be said of the rest of reality: We wake up to where the world has gone, apparently without us, since we last fell asleep. It is this continuity and autonomy that motivates the realist to postulate that reality is not dependent on minds, but must exist on its own. This is the origin of the mad game of replacing reality with models and abstractions.

The seeming autonomy and continuity of reality is a challenge for idealism; there just is no question about that. Ignoring it makes the idealist look naive. But it is, by no means, an impossible challenge. In fact, conceiving of reasonable and coherent explanations for how a mind-projected reality can behave in a continuous and seemingly autonomous way is a much simpler challenge than explaining how conscious perception can somehow emerge from unconscious matter. The latter is the problem the realist is left with; a problem we have no solution for today, not even tentatively.

In my books, I have attempted to suggest at least two different ways in which a stable and continuous reality can emerge from voluble minds. In Dreamed up Reality, I consider the possibility that the continuous storyline of reality (including the laws of physics themselves), emerge out of the local interactions between minds much like sand ripples emerge from the local iterations between grains of sand driven by wind. Technically, the idea is that physics is itself a weakly-emergent property of interactions between minds, as discussed here.

In Meaning in Absurdity, I explore the idea that our minds are much broader than the segments we are ordinarily conscious of. As such, reality may be a projection not only of the thoughts and ideas we are aware of, but also of those we are not aware of. In Jungian terminology, the idea is that the unconscious mind is also causally effective in constructing the reality we ordinarily experience. And then, since the unconscious has been empirically observed to entail a collective layer (the collective unconscious), the uniformity and continuity of reality, as far as the experience of different individuals is concerned, could have its origin at this collective layer of mind shared by us all.

The fact that our culture as a whole has adopted the assumption that reality is separate from our minds makes it easy for anyone to adopt the same assumption without looking like a fool. We find ourselves in a cultural context wherein an extraordinary form of self-deception has gained legitimacy. But then again, that we are collectively mad does not make it any less concerning that we are mad. In my view, we need to go back to basics: to our immediate experience of reality, which is all we have. Let us go back to our humanity and at least question the modern madness of replacing reality with concepts and abstractions; of taking the map for the territory. Let us recover what we lost since childhood, both as individuals and as a society. We, somehow, slowly lost contact with the nature-given truths of existence that any aboriginal today would consider us totally crazy for denying. And crazy we may be.

Note: I'd like to thank the participants of the Skeptiko discussion forum for the spirited debates that inspired some of the articulations above.