Consciousness is composed of non-consciousness

The components of a thing are not individually the thing.

For example, the components of the chair I type most of my blog posts from are not the chair itself, but the wood of the frame, the springs for the back and bottom, some metal parts for the reclining mechanism, the fabric coverings, cushions, etc.  None of these things by themselves are the chair.  Only together do they make a chair.  (Although you could point to a subset of the assemblage and perhaps still call it a chair, such as the chair without the armrests.  But that sub-assemblage would still be composed of constituents that are not the chair.)

Traffic is composed of a number of vehicles on the road at the same time.  But the road itself isn’t traffic.  Neither are the cars, or the drivers, or the traffic lights, or any accidents.  But together, they make up what we collectively call “traffic.”

A human society is composed of individual people.  No person by themselves make up a society.  It requires multiple people.  (I don’t know if two people would count as a society, but I’m pretty sure one person wouldn’t.)

Of course, these are fairly banal examples.  But there are others where the relationship between the whole and its parts might become more difficult to accept.

Consider life.  Complex animals such as humans are composed of organs, which are composed of cells, all of which are alive.  But a cell is composed of molecular machinery that is not, by itself, alive.  And that machinery is itself composed of molecules which simply behave according to the laws of chemistry and electricity.  In other words, life is composed of non-life.

Years ago, when I was reading about morality, I remember learning about the meta-ethical debate on whether morality eventually reduces to non-moral facts.  If you see moral rules as having some sort of platonic objectivity, then you might say no, that moral rules only reduce to themselves.  But if you see those rules as arising from nature, society, culture, etc, then the answer would probably be yes.

In physics, the laws of thermodynamics are often said to emerge out of the movement and speed of particles.  In other words, the components of thermodynamics are not thermodynamics, but the mechanics of particles.

Quantum physics seems to show that classical physics is composed of entities that are not themselves part of classical physics.  Whatever is happening with wave-particle duality, it doesn’t appear to obey classical laws.  Indeed, the classical laws appear to emerge from quantum mechanics.

This is one reason why I’m leery of signing on to any one interpretation of quantum physics.  It seems like many of the interpretations attempt to understand quantum mechanics in classical terms, with each interpretation sacrificing a different aspect of the classical understanding of reality to preserve a more cherished aspect.  But if quantum mechanics represent, in essence, the components that make up the classical world, this could ultimately prove to be a hopeless endeavor.  (Or it might not, I’m not really committed to either viewpoint.)  Quantum mechanics might ultimately simply have to be accepted on its own terms, not in terms of any metaphor or analogy to translate into everyday terms.

This is also why I’m usually skeptical of using reason and logic, built on patterns and mechanics as they exist in our universe, to extrapolate about the origins of the universe, or about other universes.  Granted, it’s not like we have much choice for this kind of reasoning, since we are part of this universe and it is everything we’ve ever known.  But this seems like an area where our confidence shouldn’t be high.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason to assume that the components or origins of the universe must behave according to how things work within the universe.

Another area where it seems like people are extremely resistant to accepting this principle is minds, particularly consciousness.  But if the mind exists as a system in this universe, and I think the evidence pretty strongly points in that direction, then that means that a mind is ultimately composed of constituents that are not themselves a mind, that aren’t cognition.  This is definitely true for anyone who accepts the computational theory of mind, but it seems like it would be true for any materialistic theory of mind.

This means that consciousness itself must ultimately be composed of things that are not themselves conscious.  It seems like the hard problem, which troubles many people is, in essence, resistance to this idea, an insistence that consciousness, whatever it is, must remain whole, indivisible.  If that is your attitude, then the hard problem, how this indivisible thing arises from a physical system that is itself divisible, would indeed seem like a major problem.

I also think this is why notions like panpsychism often arise.  Panpscyhism seems like a way to reconcile this divide.  It isn’t that consciousness is composed of non-conscious constituents, but that everything is consciousness to one degree or another, and human consciousness is simply the sum total of all the consciousness of its components.

But it seems like this assumption, that consciousness is indivisible, is one we should scrutinize.  Why would it be immune from the relationship of just about every other whole to its constituents?  What is different about it?  At least aside from it being our most primal experience of things?

Vision and hearing processing centers of the brain.  Image credit: Selket via Wikipedia
Vision and hearing processing centers of the brain. Image credit: Selket via Wikipedia

It seems like if consciousness were truly indivisible, we’d see that reflected in brain damaged patients.  Either a person would retain consciousness or they wouldn’t.  But it appears that it is possible, with disorders of consciousness, to have varying degrees of it.  And there are a number of cases where a person retains some aspects of consciousness, but not others.

For example, patients with a condition known as hemispatial neglect, lose the ability to perceive one side of the world.  To be clear, it isn’t so much that they can’t see that side, but that that particular side of the world becomes inconceivable to them.  Other conditions, referred to as agnosia, can render a patient unable to recognize faces, sounds, or in general process a number of sensory perceptions.

All of which seems to strengthen the case that consciousness is not immune from the general principle that things are ultimately composed of constituents that are not that thing, that consciousness is divisible, ultimately composed of non-conscious constituents.

Unless, of course, I’m missing something?