Extraordinary Machines: What A.I. & Brains Can Teach Us About Waking Up
The Atlantic has just run a long & thoughtful new argument about the nature of consciousness by Michael Graziano, the author of Consciousness and the Social Brain.
Consciousness isn’t complicated, he argues, and should be taken out of the realm of philosophy and speculation back into the realm of hard science. Not only is consciousness not complicated, but provocatively: “consciousness doesn’t happen.” That is, consciousness does not arise out of a mere combination of the brain’s electrical/chemical/physical processes — in fact consciousness is a “mistaken construct,” a machine describing its experience to itself in order to further the process of information comprehension.
We believe we exist as independent selves because the complex machine in our heads has learned through evolution that a sense of self-preservation helps ensure our survival as a species. Humanity beat the sabre toothed tigers by learning to protect ourselves. As the brain inclined toward the behaviors of natural selection, we realized that the survival of the species was greatly aided by assuming a sense of self existed in others, and thus protected our kin.
Graziano seems to suggest in the same way, a computer of sufficient sophistication could develop something we might call “a sense of self.”
The brain processes information. It focuses its processing resources on this or that chunk of data. That’s the complex, mechanistic act of a massive computer. The brain also describes this act to itself. That description, shaped by millions of years of evolution, weird and quirky and stripped of details, depicts a “me” and a state of subjective consciousness.
This is why we can’t explain how the brain produces consciousness. It’s like explaining how white light gets purified of all colors. The answer is, it doesn’t. Let me be as clear as possible: Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model.
Graziano’s essential point — that the self is an illusion produced by our accumulated experience — can help us understand “not-self” or anatta, one of the “three marks of existence” and indeed one of the most challenging aspects of the Buddha’s thinking.
No Self to Awaken
We’ve taken a look at Graziano’s model above. Here we’ll look at the model presented by the teachings and find that they’re strikingly similar.
We find the deepest exploration of the Buddhist model of consciousness in the highly technical “third great basket” of the Buddha’s teaching known as the Abidhamma. We learn here that, just as Graziano argues, self “doesn’t happen.”
Humans create the illusion of self because we knit our experience together and believe those experiences “belong to us.” We believe there is a “self” that our lives are “happening to.” Graziano borrows a term from philosophers and refers to our subjective experiences as qualia, which the Abidhamma might term ‘moments-of-consciousness.’ The Abidhamma further breaks down the elements of these moments of consciousness into these three:
- Rupa, which we can think of as “form” or “material objects.”
- Citta, which we can think of as “consciousness of” or “awareness of” the unfolding processes of the body & mind.
- Cetasika, which we can consider as mental factors beside consciousness.
The teachings tell us that through the cultivation of tranquility and insight we can also become familiar with a fourth class of consciousness, ‘supra-mundane consciousness’ — the Abidhamma calls this fourth class nibbana.
And so everything we experience in our lives is made up of matter, awareness, and thought. Through the close investigation of insight meditation, we can begin to see that every one of these experiences (these qualia, these dhammas) carries the three marks of existence. That is to say, everything in our life experience is impermanent, everything in our life experience continues the process of craving & aversion, and everything in our life experience is not-self.
And here the Buddha meets the neuroscientist. There is no “self” for us to find in our life experience — there is only the extraordinary machine humming away in our bodies, helping us to survive, and giving us the capacity to free ourselves from suffering.