A common way of thinking about the self is something like the following: “My consciousness comes from a brain, and that brain is a product of evolutionary pressures. I am a small creature inside an expansive reality. I cannot perceive reality directly – I make constructions that I hope correspond to it – but it is there. I want to believe true things, if and only if they correspond to the reality outside of myself.”
This isn’t wrong, because it’s very useful, and gives us things like object permanence and the ability to understand what doritos are – but useful is not always satisfying. This viewpoint feels deeply unsatisfying to me, incomplete, like someone has made a really wonderful and sturdy building, but has forgotten about the outdoors.
What I’m not saying is a lot. I’m not saying the reality framework is a bad building, or that I’m presenting a bigger and better building. I’m not presenting a framework, even though I need to use what sounds like a framework to present it. I’m not presenting anything useful or goal oriented. I’m writing this out of play, and I am ultimately saying nothing. Do not ascribe truth unto my words.
Maybe this sounds like nonsense, or maybe you sense something of a hint. The thing I’m attempting to undermine is something so basic and far-reaching that it’s often forgotten as a construction. My request to you is to read the following as though it’s a riddle, not a series of arguments to be refuted, despite its alluringly argument-like shape. The answer is not something you decode with your concept-body of construction and storytelling; you cannot uncover it as an answer to hold in your hands and rotate, as something with a boundary. If you find yourself attempting to solve this, to ‘get at’ something, simply be aware of this attempt.
A concept is..
You can hang a painting on the wall and treat it like a singular item, much like we treat the concept of consciousness as one thing. But if we’re rolling up our sleeves and going ham on the nearest philosopher, this will get us into trouble. The hard problem of consciousness is an obvious example of trouble, as well as all the weird wibbly wobblies around philosophical observation and self.
A concept or thought is, at the most fundamental level, a connection between two points. One thing is ‘like’ another. An idea is given boundaries by its difference from other ideas.
It exists in context. Weird Al’s song White And Nerdy is only meaningful to me because its elements are so different from others, and because it has connections to other thoughts, like my memory of when I wrote and rapped its parody Brown And Hindu in a college religion class and somehow still got an A.
In this sense, a concept cannot possibly exist in isolation, or encompass the whole. In conceiving “of everything,” you’ve defined it – you can write down “THE SET OF EVERYTHING,” and it might seem satisfying until someone comes along and writes a +1 after it and asks if it was really everything without that +1. To hold a concept in your mind at all is by nature giving it a boundary; in other words, a concept is a boundary placement.
A concept is not…
A big problem with consciousness is that something about it seems to be not-a-concept.
Mary’s Room is a great example. To summarize, a scientist named Mary is trapped in a colorless box and spends an infinity of time learning about color – light waves, measurements, brains, eyes, etc. She can recite every fact perfectly. There is no more information for her to learn.
The question is – when she steps outside and sees color for the first time, does she experience something new?
If we say no, we’re saying that all of our existence is made of concepts, because we’re considering the experience of color to be something you can get by learning facts about experience. If we say yes, we’re saying that something about our existence is not made out of concept, or is fundamentally inaccessible by concept, which some find a little weird or unnerving. I’ve set up shop in the Yes camp, and you’ll have to step in here if you want to do business.
The concept of consciousness is something very specific: it is a boundary placement around a type of pattern. The pattern is roughly “things that are similar to me.”
Often people say the pattern is “a sufficient brain with certain conditions“, but people have lots of unclear disagreements about this. Are brains simulated in a computer, conscious? What about brains simulated on paper? What about p-zombies? Are other types of ‘brains’ we can’t recognize capable of producing consciousness? What are jellyfish, even? Plants? Do plants hate your metal music?
I don’t mean that these aren’t good questions, just that “things that are similar to me” seems like the smoothest, densest rule. Imagining a violation of it feels weird – what’s a world where we understand consciousness such that we might deem a stop sign with more awareness than a dog? What sort of system would be necessary to make that work? Perhaps we’ve detected neurons in the stop sign that light up when we walk by, and we’ve discovered that good ol’ Spot is mechanical and running the same loop over and over and we’re actually a little bit slow and had just been projecting love onto him for the last eight years. But even this means that dynamic reactivity – a thing we feel deeply in ourselves – becomes the metric for consciousness, and we’re back to “things that are similar to me.”
This is a side hill I don’t want to die on – my point is that there is a “concept of consciousness,” which is a very distinct thing and has boundaries and things can either fall in line with it (e.g., your neighbor) or not (e.g., your mom).
Paint and Canvas
This concept of consciousness is very much like the paint making up an image on the canvas. It’s a representation of a recognizable thing. I’m going to call this concept of consciousness Paintiousness, for which I immediately offer the deepest of apologies.
We can recognize Paintiousness by a few things. We can ascribe Paintiousness to multiple subjects, sort of like we’re blessing them with a mystical light. We can drink alcohol in group houses and debate which subjects we think have Pantiousness and how much. Some of us don’t eat animals, because we believe they shine with Pantiousness (though maybe more dimly) – and thus are under sacred protection. On a core level, though, the existence of Pantiousness is uncertain. Maybe this is a simulation, or a dream? Maybe you all are p-zombies? When we imagine this, the lights around us go dark, and it feels scary.
Pantiousness is the boundary placement around the pattern “things that are similar to me“, and, in a way, believing someone else is conscious is when we find them as a mirror, flashing our own conscious light back at us.
Paint only really works if you put it on something, which brings us to the canvas – consciousness that is not ‘concept of consciousness,’ but rather the thing that you have, right now, reading this screen – the thing that gave an all-knowing Mary the novel experience of color. I’m going to call it Canvasciousness, with a slightly less but still substantial amount of sheepishness.
If paint is boundary placement – concepts – then canvas is the thing which is doing the boundary placement. You can’t think about the canvas – or, you can, but thinking about the canvas is really just painting an image of the canvas onto the canvas.
A few ways to know if your canvas is just an image is to test to see if it has some of the properties of Paintiousness. Is it multiple? Is it fundamentally uncertain? Can there be degrees of it? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not holding Canvasciousness, you’re holding Paintiousness.
In fact, you can’t even hold Canvasciousness, so stop trying. These words do not hold Canvasciousness. Canvasciousness is the thing that happens when you LOOK DOWN AT YOUR HANDS. It is necessarily singular, because multiplicity requires boundary between things, and we all know boundaries belong to team Pantiousness.
Canvasciousness is fundamentally certain. Even if this is a simulation and everyone else is p-zombies, there’s still something happening when you LOOK DOWN AT YOUR HANDS. Canvasciousness, without boundary, is infinite – an inconceivable, boundless thing, undeniably present, and absolutely undoubtable. This is what people sometimes mean when they say I Am God.
Conversations about consciousness frustrate me constantly, because people take Paintiousness and Canvasciousness and mix them up like they’re one thing. To me, this seems to be the source of all confusion around the nature of consciousness.
“But Aella,” you might say, “you’re really just talking about qualia here, which isn’t that new. We know a lot of things about qualia – what brain states make what qualia happen.”
“No,” I might say. “I mean, yes. Qualia is a word that means subjective sensation, but it’s littered with too many bad associations for my preference. People talk about your qualia vs. my qualia, and that’s not something that makes sense with the word Canvasciousness. There is no “Your Canvasciousness,” because it’s singular and only I have it.”
“What do you mean only you have it? I’m pretty conscious,” you might say. “I’m like, really sure about that. I’m LOOKING AT MY HANDS and everything, and they are definitely right there. Sure, you’re Canvascious, but you can’t tell me I’m not Canvascious too.”
“I am Canvascious, and Canvasciousness is necessarily singular,” I say.
“That’s weird and solipsist and weird,” you say. “Are you trying to convince me I don’t exist?”
“I don’t think so. Remember that we’re talking about Canvasciousness here, which, as a boundariless non-concept, isn’t something we can actually talk or think about, so it doesn’t adhere to the same sorts of rules around language, which is why buddhist koans are so damn annoying. But basically, multiple people can say “I am Canvascious,” with Canvasciousness being singular, without this leading to a contradiction.”
“This doesn’t make much sense.”
“I understand. Let’s try another thing – imagine you’re dreaming a very realistic dream. None of this actually ties into an external reality. Now – who am I?”
“You’re a character in my dream.”, you say.
“Yes – and the essence of me is basically the essence of you. Your sense of self can really be a flexible thing, and if you expand it to include all that you witness, if you shift the boundaries of your identity, then all claims of canvasciousness belong to you.”
“This seems a little mind warpy, or word-gamey. You’re saying it’s not a contradiction because you’re redefining the terms “I” and “self” and “me.” But I have a feeling of ownership and identity when I say ‘I am canvascious,’ and I have no feeling of ownership or identity when you say it. No matter what you say or how you play with the terms, I still feel a difference and that feeling is real.”
“You’re associating the claim “I am canvascious” with your sense of ownership and identity, which means you’re treating canvasciousness as something inherent to that which you own and identify with. This is a key point, here – this association is something that can be lost. Your sense of who you are – the traits that make you unique – are all, at their core, a series of models, concepts, boundary placements. If you pay attention to canvasciousness fully, and abandon those boundaries, then you will lose that association. Multiple claims of canvasciousness do not contradict each other when the boundaries of yourself are erased.”
The Useless Idea of Truth
We usually handle truth like this: We imagine some sort of large reality around us as it is purely; untouched and unfiltered by our fallible brains skewed by millennia of evolution. And we imagine ourselves in this reality, as the fallible brain skewed by millennia of evolution. And our fallible brain holds an image of the pure world around us. It matches up in some ways, and in other ways it doesn’t. Maybe it matches up in no ways at all. If the images match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is true. If they don’t match up, then we say the claim our brain is making is false.
In this case, both the pure world and our image of ourselves within the pure world are both taking place inside our image of the world. The idea of an external reality is a concept, something that lets us feel the sense of predictability and control.
We might try to explain this in terms of evolution and our brain (e.g., we evolved to simulate external reality) – but no matter what sort of explanation we have to address our perception of truth, that explanation itself lies within our imagination and our subjective assumption that truth is external (e.g., the idea of evolution requires the assumption that an external world featuring evolution does exist). It is circular – you cannot argue for external existence without first assuming external existence.
One counterargument is the sensation of surprise – “if everything is me, where does new information come from?”
This is a question we can break down quite a lot. Surprise is the sensation of encountering new information, which happens all the time on minute levels. All experience seems to be built out of novelty. When you stare at the wallpaper too long, it fades away.
And so the question becomes, if the ‘new’ information is not separate from myself, and everything is me, why am I not omniscient? My response to this would be that it is impossible to be omniscient – that this is an oxymoron. To have ‘complete’ experience would be to experience no change or contrast, because a movement from one state to another means that not both were experienced simultaneously; if you experienced both simultaneously, then there would be no contrast. Experience without contrast is not experience, and that which does not experience is not you.
So we might feel surprise and say “there is something else out there,” which is a model that gives us the feeling of predictability and is very pleasing – but this does not mean that the concept in your mind of an external reality is anything more than an concept in your mind. No matter how convincing the painting of the canvas is, the canvas itself is what is fundamental.
“Okay,” you say, “what does this have to do with the whole ‘you’re a dream character’ thing?”
“I’m saying that reality is, at its core, a framework, and that you are its author. To hold this authorship inside of yourself means that when I shout “I am canvascious!”, it is an experience grown out from the singular canvas – yours.”
“You’re talking about ‘my’ canvas. What about your canvas?”
“Yeaaah, I know. The poetry of the thing would be more elegant if I only used possessive pronouns when referring to the canvas, but that might get a little confusing at this point. I don’t actually believe you have a canvas, don’t worry.”
“That part’s weird to me too. I don’t really understand why Canvasciousness isn’t something multiple people can have – or, I guess, why there can’t be multiple canvases,” you say.
“You’re modeling Canvasciousness as an entity separate from the self. Really, the problem is that you’re modeling it at all. Modeling Canvasciousness is just painting an image of a canvas onto the canvas and finding it weird and arbitrary that you supposedly can’t paint two.
“Okay,” you might say, “but I’m not talking about painting multiple canvases. I’m talking about that canvas beneath it. Why can’t both of us have two separate, fundamental canvases?”
“Because the separation of canvases, if you pay attention, is just the concept of the separation of canvases, and as we know, once you’re doing concepts to it, it’s no longer LOOKING DOWN AT YOUR HANDS. Besides, it sounds like you’re modeling a world outside yourself where two separate canvases could occur. Remember that the universe is a just a painting on your canvas. It’s a useful painting, sure, but ultimately the fundamental property of the universe is you, not the story you have about it.”
“Are you just trying to convince me that I’m dreaming up the universe and nothing is real? Solipsism isn’t very interesting or useful.”
“To be fair, I did imply early on that usefulness was not the goal – satisfyingness was. Right now a lot of the discourse around consciousness is done with a narrow purpose and with a narrow model, which serves ‘usefulness’ well, but leaves us with confusing paradoxes and the Hard Problem of consciousness. My point is to demonstrate that Paintiousness and Canvasiousness are things we have the option of treating separately when we talk about this stuff.”
What Nothingness Gives Us
You can’t suffer without believing that what is, ought not be. Getting punched in the gut by sole, lonely authorship over reality is a way to rearrange, on an extraordinarily base level, the sense of pain, injustice, and insecurity. Solipsism in this way might not give you greater understanding of science, but it can smooth out the sandpaper walls of existence.
The fact I’m typing this is absolutely absurd.