A nice essay by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris about the mystery of consciousness. Harris seems to believe, and I do too, that the fact that consciousness exists is proof that not everything in this world is material. That is, my consciousness may arise from chemical processes, or even be identical to it, but the fact that I experience something (which cannot be denied) shows that I am more than matter. Subjective experience is a non-material fact of life. Religious people would call this a soul (I wouldn’t, but be my guest).
The eternal question is, of course, how consciousness can possibly arise from non-conscious material (if at all). Harris compares this to the question how the universe could have come into existence out of nothing. Both questions are, in the end, probably unanswerable, but at least engaging to think about. I particularly agree with the fourth paragraph below.
You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.
The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.
To say that a creature is conscious, therefore, is not to say anything about its behavior; no screams need be heard, or wincing seen, for a person to be in pain. Behavior and verbal report are fully separable from the fact of consciousness: We can find examples of both without consciousness (a primitive robot) and consciousness without either (a person suffering “locked-in syndrome”).
It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least). This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.
The problem, however, is that no evidence for consciousness exists in the physical world. Physical events are simply mute as to whether it is “like something” to be what they are. The only thing in this universe that attests to the existence of consciousness is consciousness itself; the only clue to subjectivity, as such, is subjectivity. Absolutely nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, suggests that it is a locus of experience. Were we not already brimming with consciousness ourselves, we would find no evidence of it in the physical universe—nor would we have any notion of the many experiential states that it gives rise to. The painfulness of pain, for instance, puts in an appearance only in consciousness. And no description of C-fibers or pain-avoiding behavior will bring the subjective reality into view.
Most scientists are confident that consciousness emerges from unconscious complexity. We have compelling reasons for believing this, because the only signs of consciousness we see in the universe are found in evolved organisms like ourselves. Nevertheless, this notion of emergence strikes me as nothing more than a restatement of a miracle. To say that consciousness emerged at some point in the evolution of life doesn’t give us an inkling of how it could emerge from unconscious processes, even in principle.
I believe that this notion of emergence is incomprehensible—rather like a naive conception of the big bang. The idea that everything (matter, space-time, their antecedent causes, and the very laws that govern their emergence) simply sprang into being out of nothing seems worse than a paradox. “Nothing,” after all, is precisely that which cannot give rise to “anything,” let alone “everything.” Many physicists realize this, of course. Fred Hoyle, who coined “big bang” as a term of derogation, is famous for opposing this creation myth on philosophical grounds, because such an event seems to require a “preexisting space and time.” In a similar vein, Stephen Hawking has said that the notion that the universe had a beginning is incoherent, because something can begin only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the beginning of space-time itself. He pictures space-time as a four-dimensional closed manifold, without beginning or end—much like the surface of a sphere.
To say “Everything came out of nothing” is to assert a brute fact that defies our most basic intuitions of cause and effect—a miracle, in other words. Likewise, the idea that consciousness is identical to (or emerged from) unconscious physical events is, I would argue, impossible to properly conceive—which is to say that we can think we are thinking it, but we are mistaken. We can say the right words, of course—“consciousness emerges from unconscious information processing.” We can also say “Some squares are as round as circles” and “2 plus 2 equals 7.” But are we really thinking these things all the way through? I don’t think so.
Consciousness—the sheer fact that this universe is illuminated by sentience—is precisely what unconsciousness is not. And I believe that no description of unconscious complexity will fully account for it. It seems to me that just as “something” and “nothing,” however juxtaposed, can do no explanatory work, an analysis of purely physical processes will never yield a picture of consciousness. However, this is not to say that some other thesis about consciousness must be true. Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing. But I don’t know what that sentence means—and I don’t think anyone else does either.
We won’t be surprising anyone when we state that we at LSD love techno. We like house, we like electro, we like dub, we like idm, but we especially love techno, in all its forms and varieties. And a great diversity you have, from the subtleties and understatedness of minimal, to the dream-like qualities of techhouse, to the fist-pumping grandiosity of big room “rolling train” techno.
Nowadays, everybody seems to love electronic music. In the go-to clubs and raves of Berlin and Amsterdam today, (minimal) techno and house are all the vogue. In the 1990s, electronic music exploded to incorporate anything from the early days of acid house, to the bpm-driven madness of gabber and hardcore, to the reinvention of minimal that laid the basis of today’s sound.
Before that, in the 1980s, however, techno – pure 4/4 beats with soul - was constricted to one place in particular, the place where it originated from: Detroit. To be even more particular, it were three producers who stood at the basis of this sound (you may wanna call them the ‘founding fathers’ of techno): Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson.
This documentary is about them, and how they, living in a post-industrial city, combined the sounds of Kraftwerk and Chicago house to create something truly new.
From the race riots of 1967 to the underground party scene of the late 1980s, Detroit’s economic downturn didn’t stop the invention of a new kind of music that brought international attention to its producers and their hometown.
Featuring in-depth interviews with many of the world’s best exponents of the artform, High Tech Soul focuses on the creators of the genre—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—and looks at the relationships and personal struggles behind the music. Artists like Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Eddie Fowlkes and a host of others explain why techno, with its abrasive tones and resonating basslines, could not have come from anywhere but Detroit.
With classic anthems such as Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “Strings of Life” and Inner City’s “Good Life,” High Tech Soul celebrates the pioneers, the promoters and the city that spawned a global phenomenon.
The film features: Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie (Flashin) Fowlkes, Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, John Acquaviva, Carl Cox, Carl Craig, Blake Baxter, Stacey Pullen, Thomas Barnett, Matthew Dear, Anthony “Shake” Shakir, Keith Tucker, Delano Smith, Mike Archer, Derrick Thompson, Mike Clark, Alan Oldham, Laura Gavoor, Himawari, Scan 7, Kenny Larkin, Stacey “Hotwax” Hale, Claus Bachor, Electrifying Mojo, Niko Marks, Barbara Deyo, Dan Sordyl, Sam Valenti, Ron Murphy, George Baker, and Kwame Kilpatrick.
The film’s soundtrack includes: Aux 88, Cybotron, Inner City, Juan Atkins, Mayday, Model 500, Plastikman, Rhythim Is Rhythim, and more.
For more electronic music documentaries on LSD, check:
In his new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey, a distinguished evolutionary psychologist and philosopher, claims to have solved two fairly large intellectual conundrums. One is something of a technical matter, about which you may have thought little or not at all, unless you happen to be a philosopher. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body. The second problem Humphrey claims he has solved is a rather more everyday one, about which you may well have puzzled yourself. This is the problem of the soul. Does it exist? What sort of a thing might it be? Does everyone have one, even atheists?
His solution to both these problems is the same, because for him the strange properties of consciousness, the fact that for those of us that have it the world of dull matter is suffused with meaning, beauty, relevance and awe – means that it makes sense to think that we are permanent inhabitants of a “soul-niche” or “soul-world”. As the jacket blurb of his book has it, “consciousness paves the way for spirituality”, by creating a “self-made show” that “lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.” Consciousness and the soul are one and the same.
If this all sounds a little bit metaphysical or New Agey, too much like one of those tiresome attempts to bring religion and science into cosy alignment, hold fast. For what, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality, and the soul, alongside consciousness in a fully materialist account. Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.
With this I highly agree though:
The second half – less technical, more poetic and, as Humphrey admits, pretty speculative – is devoted to the question of why? What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage? His answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.” Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live. As for religion? In his book he argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.” “Yes,” he tells me, “I suggest that organised religion is parasitic on spirituality, and in fact acts as a restraint on it.”
While the book received a lot of positive reviews, some negative ones have also appeared. Here’s one from The Guardian, for example.
Christopher Mims on his Technology Review blog delves into the question why in Japanese culture robots seem to be welcomed, while in Western culture they’re frequently viewed with suspicion. He cites robot researcher Heather Knight, according to whom it is due to the legacy of Shintoist animism, as opposed to the Western tradition of Christianity.
Cultural differences even seem to lead to different designs for robots: while in the West robot faces are made to resemble emotive expressions, in Japan they resemble masks worn in traditional Japanese Noh plays.
The affection of a certain island nation for all things robotic — from hundred foot tall warfighting mecha to infantile therapy robots — is well known. It contrasts sharply with the equally entrenched Western fear of automatons, beginning with the very invention of the term “robot,” which was coined in a Czech play that debuted in 1921 in which, naturally, the robots eventually rise up and kill their human masters.
How could two cultures come to such fundamentally divergent conclusions about the status and future of the semi-autonomous helpmates whose increasing presence in our lives seems pre-ordained by nearly every sci-fi vision of the future?
Heather Knight, founder of the world’s first (non-industrial) robot census, has made the study of robot / human interaction her life’s work. She posits that the difference between Japanese and American attitudes toward robots is rooted in something much older than even the idea of robots: religion. “In Japan… they’re culturally open to robots, on account of animism. They don’t make a distinction between inanimate objects and humans.”
Animism is a component of the Shinto faith, the religion that preceded the introduction of Buddhism to Japan and remains an influential part of the country’s culture. Animism is the notion that all objects have a spirit – even man-made objects.
In the West, in contrast, creating life inevitably leads to destruction of the creator — a notion that is hardly original to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In order to understand fully religion’s influence on the West’s attitude toward robotics, we also must remember that Judeo-Christian monotheism also adheres to the doctrine that only God can give life, a popular interpretation of Genesis in which there is only God in the beginning and all living things are His creations. Exodus also decrees that idolatry is a sin. Thus, any human who breathes life into an inanimate object is assuming the role of God and thereby becoming a false idol.
“Downtown Calling”, in the vein of London Calling and Berlin Calling, is a new documentary about the artistic and musical scene of New York in the 1970s: a time when it was an economic mess, a garbage heap and a crime-infested town, yet a very interesting place culturally.
New York City was its own planet in the late 70s. Trying to describe it to someone who wasn’t there is like trying to describe electricity. It was wild intense and unforgettable. For a young musician like myself, Manhattan was a trial by fire, a neon dream/nightmare, harrowing at times, but mostly a non-stop feast of rock and roll, art, sex and drugs. Within its decaying magnificence, a spontaneous movement erupted of creative wide-eyed rebels, visionaries, punks and provocateurs. It changed everything. Today’s hipsters may try to emulate the fashion, but they’ll never reproduce the passion of New York in the 70s. That city is gone.
Directed by Shan Nicholson, Downtown Calling documents New York City at a time when it was struggling economically, crime was rampant, streets strewn with garbage, whole neighborhoods crumbling. Yet out of the mess…
… a family of homegrown cultures that would forever change the world began to emerge. Downtown Calling not only documents, in detail, the evolution of New York City’s fertile music and art subculture during this period, but how its collective output continues to play a prominent, driving role in the international fashion, art and music industries today.