Is ‘Digiworld’ a Clearer Window to What Lies Beyond the Natural World?
An Artist’s Perspective on Consciousness in Digital Creation By Julie Mitchell
“For Kant, the role of art is to embody the most important ethical ideas — it’s a natural extension of philosophy.”
I reference the philosopher Kant to explain why I am delving into the kind of philosophical thinking you will read in this blog. I would certainly not presume to imply that the art I create embodies the most important ethical ideas, but it explores some of them. So here goes.
In 1869, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species set the cat amongst the pigeons in both the scientific and religious worlds, challenging the status quo about where all species, including humans, originated. Since then, there have been many scientists (but certainly not all) who believe that the evidence there is from life and the universe proves there to be only one reality: and that is, the reality of the natural world. The world’s ontology — what it is made of fundamentally — is natural, whether that is visible or invisible to the naked eye. In philosophical terms, this is a naturalist, materialist and physicalist view of reality. Hence, logical empiricism, the use of the scientific method, is seen as the best way to investigate all aspects of reality. All other imagined realities about human life are evolutionary mechanisms borne out of a biological need to survive. Those realities include concepts such as love, life after death, and God. Logically, empirically, they are meaningless.
Some of these evolutionary survival mechanisms are explored by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins explains that our genes are the basic unit of evolution and have developed over time with one purpose in mind: to survive. Our genes programme our brains to cause us to behave in certain ways that will increase this chance of survival.2
For example, to ‘love’ (or as Dawkins describes, to act altruistically) is merely an instinct to interact with others positively so as to increase our genes’ chances of survival through reproduction, which is our basic internal drive. Life after death is seen as only possible if one has procreated and deposited one’s genes into a future generation. One’s genetic material lives on in one’s descendants. This is the only life after death.
Finally, the idea of God has been explained in various ways by those who favour a naturalist/materialist or physicalist world view. For example, Freud, thought that for some people, God was a missing father figure.3 Marx thought the idea of God was to comfort the socially and economically alienated who would no longer need him come the socialist revolution.4 Others describe God as being there to explain mysteries. He is the ‘God of the gaps’5 — the bits of life, the universe and everything — that we have not understood. However, as science has been systematically uncovering mysteries for years, ‘God’ is getting smaller by the day. A fully matured, evolved humanity will dispense with him altogether.
Philosophically, this is a ‘monist’ view of reality, where only that which is natural, physical or material exists. I am one thing: a body. In fact, in terms of the ‘self’ — I am my brain, and that is it. Once my brain dies, I die. This idea was examined at length by Francis Crick in his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis,6 which posits that the mental activities of a person are entirely due to the behaviour of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that they are made up of and that influence them. Crick’s scientific work to investigate the ideas of consciousness, free will and the human soul, entered the field traditionally held by philosophy and religion. Yet he felt it was necessary as he saw human consciousness as central to human existence.
Creating Artworks Using Digiworld
As an artist, I have been working in ‘digiworld’ for some years now. This is the binary world of zeros and ones. The world of the virtual, not actual. The world, I suspect, that opens a clearer window on life beyond the physical/natural.
I start the process of creating artworks as ‘real’ physical pieces, and then photograph them for entry into digiworld. In this world, my mind, aided by my physical eyes and hands in a physical computer, changes the work. I then take these new digital artworks and translate them back into physical works via print or film. If I use a printed version of them, I may then work into them again physically, making changes and additions. Through scanning and photography, I can resubmit these new works back into digiworld. And so, the process continues until I feel satisfied that the artwork is finished, existing finally in either the real or virtual world. The short digital film accompanying this blog shows the creative process in making my physical sculpture Body with Shadow Spirit, shown on the first page of this blog.
There is something going on in this process that fascinates me. Is what is happening in digiworld evidence of consciousness? Of mind? I can make many things happen virtually without physically being present in that world. This is something video gamers know all about, some of whom live complete virtual lives in there with games such as “Second Life”.7 Particularly in this virtual reality, I can move about, manipulate objects, and interact with others occupying the same virtual reality; and none of it, not a single thing, exists physically in the world unless I choose it to, if the technology allows (i.e. via computer control of physical things). Yes, my physical body via the eye, hand or voice is involved. But I believe it is another part of me that is leading the way: my mind or consciousness that is creating and interacting, and I think digiworld highlights this in a way it does not in any other situation. Yes, my body is present, but it is much less evident.
Philosophically speaking, this two-part constituency of who I believe I am, describes mind-body ‘dualism’. In his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes uses doubt as a way of discovering truth, and determined after much thought his cogito ergo sum argument: “I think, therefore I am”.8 This is a dualist view of humanity. ‘I’ am not just my physical body; I am something else besides — a part of me that cannot be seen. A beyond physical or beyond ‘natural’ (as the naturalists would have it) part of me.
Consider too the idea of qualia9 in the philosophy of mind. Qualia are the subjective experiences we have that cannot easily be explained in terms of logical empiricism. These experiences are felt phenomenologically (through the first-person point of view of the phenomena encountered via physical senses, and the meaning or significance these may have for the individual)10. For example, how I see the colour green. What is the greenness of green to me? Is it the same green as you see? How do we know? How can this be quantified? Can it even be measured at all? Qualia play into the hands of dualism and the theory of individual consciousness of mind.
Since the late 18th century, this conscious mind has been of great interest to scientists and psychologists, such as Jung and Freud, Lashley, Miller, Crick and Koch.11 Studies and research into consciousness have been particularly evident since the advent of ICT units which are able to sustain life that would otherwise have perished, or resuscitate life after apparent death. For want of a better description, consciousness is an elusive spirit. Post-death resuscitation, and near-death studies reveal there is possibly more to us than meets the eye.
In 2019, Dr. Sam Parnia, Director of the Critical Care and Resuscitation Research Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at New York University Langone Medical Centre, discussed resuscitation research with Robert Birchard of the New York Academy of Sciences. When asked about how studies of cardiac arrest inform the debate on the nature of consciousness, Dr. Parnia said that,
“nobody has ever been able to show how brain cells, which produce proteins, can generate something so different i.e. thoughts or consciousness. Interestingly, there has never been a plausible biological mechanism proposed to account for this.
Recently some researchers have started to raise the question that maybe your mind, your consciousness, your psyche, the thing that makes you, may not be produced by the brain. The brain might be acting more like an intermediary. It’s not a brand new idea. They have argued that we have no evidence to show how brain cells or connections of brain cells could produce your thoughts, mind or consciousness.
The fact that people seem to have full consciousness, with lucid well-structured thought processes and memory formation from a time when their brains are highly dysfunctional or even nonfunctional is perplexing and paradoxical.
I do agree that this raises the possibility that the entity we call the mind or consciousness may not be produced by the brain. It’s certainly possible that maybe there’s another layer of reality that we haven’t yet discovered that’s essentially beyond what we know of the brain, and which determines our reality.”
It seems that some scientists are observing that our reality may well be determined by something beyond the physical brain. Perhaps this could be explained by the controversial quantum mind13 or quantum consciousness group of hypotheses, which propose that classical mechanics cannot explain consciousness? I have even considered the wild idea that somehow dark matter or dark energy14 are linked in some way to consciousness. They appear to have the ability to stretch the universe, constantly creating newly-shaped universes in time. As consciousness appears to be creative, for conscious humans are creative, could there be a connection? Whatever the determining factor of consciousness, Dr Parnia raises an important issue of the brain not necessarily being the ‘driving force’ of the conscious mind. In an attempt to understand this issue, I describe it in railway terminology: my conscious mind is the train driver; my brain is the driver’s control panel; and my body is the engine with carriages. No train driver, no movement, no life. Or, a driverless train could make the engine and carriages move, but would be directionless and purposeless: something seen in those who live on via life-support machines, but are brain dead. This is the reality I suspect we are seeing more clearly in digiworld: a beyond physical, beyond ‘natural’, world.
Mind and Matter
Thrown into the mix of this ‘mind-body problem’15 is the mystery of how the placebo effect works on the body. Take a pill that tells you that you will recover from your sickness, and you recover. The only thing is, that pill had no active healing ingredient in it, so why did you behave as if you were better? Something impacted your body, and that something was clearly not physical medication. You believed you would get better. You had faith in the pill’s healing power.16 This is surely an example of ‘mind over matter’. And this mind over matter is also seen in the field of visualisation. For example, to improve physical prowess and strength, perhaps after injury, athletes can mentally rehearse a series of movements before testing them with their bodies17. This is beyond the physical — beyond the ‘natural’, and I think this is consciousness.
And so I return to digiworld and acts of conscious creation. In the Digital Age, artists are able to see the working of their minds with visual immediacy, and share that with others if desired. Yes, paintings, for instance, have always had the potential to show the inner man. As Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders the visible”.18 However, I think there is something about digiworld that brings greater clarity to the activity of the artist’s consciousness, mind, as it happens in real-time.
Astonishingly, for some years now, humans are no longer the only ones making journeys into new digital worlds. Digiworld has started to enter the human brain, body and consciousness in a role reversal. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, and AI-to-human brain connections open up a world of merged realties blurring the lines between physical/natural and beyond physical/natural. Sci-Fi film makers have pushed the envelope in their usual prophetic style to project these new realties with films such as Avatar, The Matrix, Déjà Vu, I Robot and Insurgent.
All that being said, I am still grappling with this concept of digiworld as a clearer window on consciousness and the beyond physical/natural world. And I am certainly not alone in struggling to understand this mindbody problem. But I have a feeling that digiworld is not virtual reality at all. I think it is the most ‘real’ reality. It reveals the most real part of us: our consciousness, our mind.
Written by Julie Mitchell June 2020
Julie Mitchell is the lead practitioner for IGNITE (a National Teaching School) in Art and Design and was recently honoured with a Fellowship from the Royal Society of Arts.
Having worked as a qualified teacher for 28 years, in over 130 schools — Julie is an expert in supporting, encouraging and inspiring children, students and in-service teachers in all things art and design.
Find out more about how Julie can help you here: www.artdays.co.uk/consultancy/