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The Ineffable "I"

by Chris Jones

I take some photons in my hand. I throw them like paint at an eye, at its retinal cells and then I take some more and throw them at a leaf, at its chloroplasts. The retinal cells quickly convert the photons to electrochemical impulses. The choloroplasts convert their photons to energy. I watch both of these marvels of nature and then I ask myself, "Is this 'vision' and where is photosynthesis really?" And if my answer of "right there" is unacceptable then I can give no other. Because 'vision' and 'photosynthesis' in themselves do not exist, but I can see both of them painted on a material canvas.

I like dualism. To me it represents all that is good in literature, poetry and romance. I'm very fond of the idea of souls and the image of a flickering eternal flame gets me every time. It's just that it doesn't seem, hasn't seemed for some time, to be able to answer its own questions. And with that it doesn't seem to hold much sway in modern accounts of consciousness.

The amount of time and energy put into a multidisciplinary, scientific explanation of mind in the last century has led to some very persuasive theory. We don't have to accept it unquestioningly, and dualism helps us to keep in reserve a healthy level of scepticism. However, it does seem to be the best we have at the moment and for that must be taken as fairly robust.

Strip away the 'self'. Do away with al those memories and attendant thoughts, feelings, years of mental habit formation and education. Peel away the layers like an onion and what is left? The ineffable 'I'.

Sit in a silent, empty room and close your eyes. Let all thoughts pass by like clouds. Let all sights and sounds come and go, rolling over like the sea on a pebble beach. Let go of all feelings and look inside your mind and what is left? The ineffable 'I', humming like an idle machine, purring like a cat. And what is it doing? It is regarding itself, watching, treating itself like an object like any other in its environment. With all the chattering sound and light from outside closed out, its environment is itself, it becomes its own environment.

It's easy to get muddled by the 'I'. Our minds tend to switch off fairly quickly when they detect anything in a loop, anything circular or recursive. But throw a spanner in to slow it down, and its possible to see what is going on.

There are two starting points to look at the mind in this state, the 'I' cleared of the mists of 'self'. One is that reported by practitioners of zazen meditation in Buddhism. For now, this is a difficult approach to take if reason is to be used. It defies rational and linguistic definition since it precludes thought if it is to be attained.

The other starting point is at our beginning, as newly borns, as little humans with no notion of self (in the sense of one embedded in long term memory) and possibly no notion of an 'I' as distinct from the environment. Without ego boundaries formed in the first year, its all just a big blur for a newly born, its mind is, at least in part, a tabla rasa.

The newborn quickly learns to recognise objects, to distinguish one thing from another in its environment (this might be done simply in terms of it recognising 'things' which provide for its physical needs at first). However this is done, be it through some form of pattern recognition (neuroscience has gone some way to show this might be done and has led to connectionist models) or something more complex, the newborn must at some point have some form of representation of these objects in its brain.

Just as the eye can hardly stop itself from receiving photons when it is open, the brain can hardly stop taking environmental input in the form of patterns. By pattern here, I mean an object, a situation (internal or external) or anything that can be represented in the mind. We do not need to confer a special ability on the mind to 'seek' patterns; it just does it as a matter of its biological function. Nor does it need to be 'open' like the eye or conscious, since we know the mind is active even when our bodies are not, in sleep etc. I would suggest that the mind never stops seeking patterns.

It's easy to see how simple pattern recognition for a baby fits into this paradigm (indeed so simple that it can be emulated to a degree with a video camera and a personal computer). But how could things as sophisticated as language or thought or a concept of 'I' come into this?

When a crow caws in the early morning what is it doing? If it spots some food or senses danger it announces it. In evolutionary terms it helps to protect itself by helping to protect the group to which it belongs. It has 'meaning' in this sense. The important point is that the crows physiology or sensory apparatus allows it to detect something first and then 'announces' it. The announcement is a side effect, an evolutionary extra.

When a baby makes its first noises and generates a subsequent lexis of gurgles and mewling, how is it different? I would suggest that it isn't. The noises it makes are side effects of its yet fairly simple mental processes, simple pattern recognition. If the mind truly doesn't stop taking in information as I suggested, if it is working around the clock, it wouldn't take long for a newborn to build a sizeable collection.

A big question... which came first, language or thought? I'd answer language (in whatever form) is the predecessor of thought. By this I mean that thought can be seen as an 'announcement' made, as above, only here it is not vocalised but made internally. The system which recognises a pattern, in its environment for example, by some evolutionary quirk, announces it to itself. Interestingly, this then becomes another pattern to be recognised.

This is an important step. At some point our pattern recognition system becomes sufficiently well developed to not only 'seek' (or take in) patterns from its environment but also within itself. It trawls through memory taking in new patterns. It has the ability to combine two or many more patterns in memory for the sake of establishing new patterns. In effect, it 'looks' within itself in its relentless quest for new patterns. Further, this is a seemingly endless source of patterns to be tapped and at its most developed could be how imagination and reasoning work.

This pattern recognition system is not discriminatory. Anything will do; it simply attempts to recognise a pattern and if it fails it stores it as a new one. (Actually this is simplistic since we have sharp attentional filters and not all patterns are new but are variations on old ones, which is where a notion of tolerance and error threshold come in). At some point in its early life this system (being sufficiently complex) comes to 'see' itself as a pattern like anything else. The system itself becomes its own object. This is the early beginnings of a concept of 'I'.

I would suggest that this pattern (or set of patterns) becomes the single most important and best-established pattern within the system's life. And this is simply because once recognised for the first time, it is the pattern that will be most frequently encountered and the one most involved in having needs met. As soon as the system does anything, it is a new pattern to be recognised. It's easy to see how the Russian doll syndrome of self-observation comes about this way.

Clearly a system that took every pattern it came across as new, it would quickly become saturated. It would also be very inefficient. To that end, I would suggest that our minds are designed (have evolved) to 'condense'. They avoid oversaturation and are efficient by having a certain amount of tolerance to error, i.e. they allow for close matches.

This means the system has a notion of constancy in-built. This constancy may not actually exist in the real world; it may be that our minds perceive it that way. Our tendency to generalise is an easily observable mental phenomenon. We tend to 'see' connections.

However, our minds are a good example of nature in flux. At any given tiniest fraction of a second, our brains are in different physical states, and our minds in different mental states. Brains, like all organic substances, are plastic; they grow, die in places, reorganise and regenerate.

Although difficult to accept, our minds are at any given moment in a never to be repeated state. We would never say it but we could see our brains, our minds, our consciousness, as being entirely different entities from one moment to the next. And the reason we would never say it is because of our mental habit, our brain's design, of attributing similarity between and across patterns or, simply, constancy. This is purely because our brains have evolved to tolerate that degree of noise, of patterns not having to be exactly alike to be 'recognised'.

The 'I', our subjective experience, is simply our neural pattern recognition system 'recognising' itself in operation, over and over again in a temporal series of different states. 'I' is an illusion, as side effect of our brain's design.

In my discussion so far I have gone some way to describe how I think the 'I' might come about but I have said little of the actual experience of being an 'I' or how it might be observed. Is it asking too much of materialism to provide an objective account of subjective experience?

If we strip away the self as before and are left with just the ineffable 'I', once quietened we could say that we are left with two concepts, that of 'I' being in this particular place at this particular time, the 'here and now'.

To ask if it is possible for an objective view of subjective experience is to ask if it is possible for something that is not here and now to perceive what it is to be the thing that is here and now. As Sam says ('Possible World Machine' Unit 3, 2nd dialogue) not even God could manage that (though I'm not sure I agree because if He is omnipresent then surely He would be in our minds; if He is in our minds, would He not be being us, since that's all we are in my view).

However, whilst it seems too difficult to see how anything, let alone God (or someone else's mind, which stops us from really seeing what it's like to be someone else), could be in two places at the same time, it's possible to see how something, including minds, can be in no places at the same time.

What I mean to say is that it seems possible, if practitioners are to be believed, to displace one's mind, one's 'I', to allow it to be 'not here', an experience reputedly to be had through various forms of meditation. Whether it also includes a sense of 'not here now', I do not know.

The report of what happens during this kind of experience, though, is that all sense of 'I' is dissolved (this is after the 'self' is dissolved). Without a 'here' (and a 'now'?) to anchor onto, there is no 'I'. But further, some people report that once 'I' dissolves there is a sense of connection to something much greater than a singular 'here and now', perhaps the sum total of all possible 'here and now's.

Clearly, this is difficult to discuss rationally. Zen Buddhist teachings warn against intellectualising the process of zazen, since as soon as one attempts to explain what is happening, the dissolved 'I' returns, and with it a subjective point of view, and it becomes impossible to maintain.

But this does make sense. Either you are 'here and now' or you are not 'here and now'. You can't have your soul and not perceive it.

The question remains whether this experience approximates an objective view of the subjective experience. Well, I would say yes, but there is a catch. Because as soon as we try to formalise it, we lose sight of it. The closest we can get is to catch a glimpse of an objective reality, but since we must let go of subjective experience to do so, we cannot think or talk about it. As soon as we try to grasp it, it vanishes. It exists then less in the realm of the mind, thought and language and more in the realm of feeling. This will always be unacceptable to an empirical approach to the problem such as that made by science.

Whenever I adopt a materialist stance to the mind/ body problem, I always feel like the child who spoiled the party. I can hear the groans of discontent of science robbing us of something most precious. But I would say that knowing how the cells in the epidermal layer can never take away the pleasure of the warm sun on my skin. Nor can the knowledge of how the nose, ears and mouth work to send impulses to my cerebral cortex spoil the pleasure of sitting in a snowy bamboo grove next to a trickling waterfall sipping hot green tea. Nor can an explanation of how our consciousness might derive from neuronal activity take away the joy of the imagination or the attendant feelings to be had from a beautiful concept like the soul or God. If anything it adds to it. I fail to see how I could ever lose that overwhelming feeling of awe when beholding the most complex organic mechanism in our known universe.

Materialism, then, only goes so far. It may help us to ultimately explain how our experience comes about. But it can say nothing about what it is like to have such a rich experience. I think that this is where dualism can take off where materialism falls short.

© Chris Jones 2003