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Consciousness and coherence
We are far too conscious of being conscious
This is the eighth essay in Lorenzo from Oz’s series on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. The publication schedule for Lorenzo’s essays is available here.
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: we often don’t know why we think what we do, but that doesn’t mean claims about inevitable “false consciousness” are true.
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Words are social tools. Like all our tools, they affect our capacities, but their use and evolution are driven by our purposeful interactions.
Words are tools for communication. They work by referring to things in the world, expressing our emotions and conveying concepts. If words did not do these things, we would have no use for them.
Consider the euphemism treadmill. That’s the (regularly failing) attempt to move to a new usage and leave behind the negative connotations attached to a previous usage. Alas, the negative connotations “catch up” with the new term. As evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers notes, this indicates that concepts dominate words, contradicting entire disciplines (e.g., cultural anthropology).
Words are conventions. It is purely a convention that ‘cat’ refers to a cat. There is nothing inherent in c-a-t that connects it to a furry, mammalian, obligate-carnivore with whiskers that first domesticated humans (especially pharaonic Egyptians) a millennia or two after the development of farming in the Fertile Crescent.
Language is both a product of social dynamics and a mechanism which greatly expands our social capacities. Language is also a conscious mechanism. Whenever we struggle to put something into words, we are straddling the divide between our cognition (mostly not conscious) and consciously communicating.
Grasping both the social dynamics—and the functions of—consciousness turns out to be important to understand, and respond to, the politics of the transformational future.
Homo sapiens have the most complex cognitive architecture in the biosphere. The more complex cognitive architecture, the more those in possession of it need an instrument of activation and focus.
Which is what consciousness is: an instrument of attention and activation. A being is conscious if it can direct perceptual attention and activate cognitive mechanisms. Organisms that sleep are conscious when they’re awake.
In our case, the mechanism of focus and activation also enables us to shift to considered and symbolic thinking. We consciously activate more complex (system two) thinking and direct our intuitive and associative (system one) thinking, (consciously) shifting between the two.
As a focus-and-activation mechanism, sufficiently developed consciousness also allows us to send and receive packages of information, hugely increasing our capacity to cooperate with others. It is what we use—as an ultra-social species—rather than relying on chemical-signal networking like eusocial species such as ants.
A being is self-conscious if it can package and assess information, including considering its own conclusions. Looking in a mirror tests if a being is self-conscious or not. If they see the reflection as themselves (“that’s me!”), they are self-conscious. If they have a “who/what is that?” reaction, they are conscious but not self-conscious.
Being self-conscious means we can have sufficient sense of oneself (and others) to package information of such complexity so as to sustain shared intentionality with other humans. Unlike chimpanzees, we can carry a log together.
The whites of our eyes enable us to see where another’s intention is focused, aiding communication of shared intention. This characteristic was particularly useful for domesticating dogs.
As consciousness is an instrument of focus, it is a reactive mechanism—both to information from the outside world but also to emotions, visceral responses and one’s (mostly not conscious) cognition.
Hence, sub-conscious social cues and hormones affect our behaviours. Especially as most of our cognition, even our system-two cognition, is not conscious. Indeed, damage to our mitochondria—our cells’ energy system—from inappropriate nutrition, stressful emotional or social environment, or combinations thereof, may be a fundamental mechanism for those brain dysfunctions we call mental disorders.
You consciously focus your system-two thinking and you consciously consider what your system-two thinking generates, but the thinking itself is mostly not conscious. Hence solutions can “pop into your head” (i.e. your consciousness) hours, days, or even later.
That consciousness is reactive does not mean that it is a puppet of “deeper” cognition or some sort of epiphenomena. Consciousness is an instrument of attention and focus. It is directive, which entails causal power. It is a classic emergent phenomena: a quantitative difference (in complexity) that has a qualitative effect.
Moreover, we are self-conscious: we can judge ourselves. Hence emotions such as guilt and shame. Consciousness is a focus-and-feedback system which we extend to ourselves. By our conscious consideration and action we can and do change ourselves. For instance, by adopting a different self-image. So, a different guiding narrative of ourselves.
Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am, philosopher Rene Descartes’ attempt to find a resting point of epistemic certainty, should really be: scio cogito, ergo scio sum. I am aware I think, therefore I know that I am.
The problem with cogito ergo sum is that a being that thinks—but is not conscious of thinking—gains no epistemic certainty from being something that thinks because it does not operate with the capacity to judge epistemic status. It is the awareness of thinking that generates the epistemic certainty, not the thinking.
That so much of our cognition is not conscious makes it remarkably easy for us to tell moralising narratives about our own behaviour, even to the extent of significant self-deception. We tend to be far too conscious of being conscious, so we over-estimate how conscious we are of our own motivations and patterns of action. This provides lots of work for therapists.
We can be quite efficient self-deceivers, so as to further our own interests or generate a more congenial view of ourselves. Self-deception makes us more persuasive to others and reduces the cognitive load—for instance, a liar’s good memory—that conscious deception entails. The lower the cost of error is to us, the higher the efficient (to us) rate of self-deception is likely to be.
So, when more social milieus and institutions are created to shield people from the consequences of error, the higher the rate of self-deception is likely to be. Especially if there are benefits from such errors, like positive signalling to others or creating a more generous narrative about oneself.
The coherence horizon
In order to focus on something, and consciously to package information, that information has to have a certain minimum level of coherence. Consciousness is thus not merely an instrument of focus, it’s also a filter. To focus is to exclude. But consciousness is also a filter in a much more profound sense.
Consider our inability to delineate concepts exhaustively. Analytic philosophers have been trying for decades to come to agreed, definitive understandings of basic concepts and have conspicuously failed to do so. For there is a fundamental coherence horizon problem.
In language, the smallest element of sound that can change meaning is a phoneme. Ph is a phoneme—consider the difference between one and phone.
The smallest string of phonemes that can convey meaning is a morpheme. Phone is a morpheme. So is one.
Adding ph to one creates a different morpheme that is entirely unconnected to the first. Adding ing to phone, as in phoning, changes the meaning of phone in a way that is connected to the original morpheme. It modifies the morpheme rather than creating a new one.
Now, consider thought. Suppose thoughts have elementary units of cognition, let us call them psynemes. They are the units of cognition that form morphemes.
How can we conceive of such elementary units of cognition? Well, we can’t. Certainly not consciously. A thought has to have a certain basic level of content coherence in order to be conscious. If it is below that level of content coherence, we cannot consciously “think” it.
There is a coherence horizon below which thought cannot be conscious. Something has to get through the filter of consciousness to be (consciously) referred to. Hence our inability to (consciously) break up fundamental concepts into more basic cognitive elements below the level of conscious coherence.
Hence the difficulty in conveying new concepts to people and our struggle to put thoughts into words. We can see our packaging-for-conscious efforts to express ourselves—to transmit packaged information—glitching when we use the incorrect set of phonemes or morphemes, thereby using the wrong name, term, word, etc. Likely because our packaging-for-conscious communication is trying to keep up with our deeper cognition.
In explaining new concepts, we often proceed by example, metaphor and analogy precisely because the direct route of breaking it up into elementary cognitive constituents is not available to us, due to verbal communication being filtered through conscious use of language and conscious consideration of what to say. So the coherence horizon kicks in and filters what is consciously communicable.
Note, however, it is clearly not impossible to convey new concepts to people. The use of examples, metaphors and analogies to convey concepts generally leads our minds to “get it”. Transmission of concepts is possible. That we are a highly imitative species probably assists our learning to “get around” the coherence horizon.
Nevertheless, conscious communication has to induce somewhat indirectly, due to the coherence horizon, the (unconscious) cognition required to acquire the new concept. To assemble the psynemes we cannot consciously conceive in the way required for direct transfer of concepts.
The coherence horizon, and the limits to consciousness, is why historical wisdom traditions work the way they do. It is why wisdom traditions insist that self-knowledge is hard, why they seek to shake up our patterns of thought, our patterns of focus.
It is also why those in the grip of high levels of self-deception can be—individually and collectively—remarkably unwise. Note: lack of wisdom is not stupidity. Intelligent people can utterly lack wisdom.
Coherence and self-reference
The coherence horizon can also be thought of as the reference horizon. You cannot consciously refer to something that is below the level of coherence that enables it to be consciously thought.
Hence the problem entirely “cashing out” words in terms of their cognitive content. This problem becomes much worse in the case of self-referential terms, because then there are two levels of not being able consciously to refer fully, not being able to “cash out” the cognitive content. Problems such as the Grelling-Nelson Paradox, Russell’s Paradox, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems and Turing’s Halting Problem all revolve around the problems of self-reference.
By contrast, philosopher Alfred Tarski showed that an arithmetic confined to real numbers, and first-order Euclidean Geometry, did not suffer from Incompleteness or Undecidability. There is no problem of self-reference, as axioms in real number arithmetic, and in first-order Euclidean geometry, do not refer to axioms. They refer to real numbers in the first instance and geometric things in the second.
Conversely, the Grelling-Nelson Paradox is a matter of words referring to words, Russell’s Paradox is a matter of sets covering sets, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems are about axioms referring to axioms and Turing’s Halting Problem about the computability of computability. So, they all involve self-reference, hence a double layer of the coherence horizon problem.
That we cannot consciously elucidate the cognitive units of conscious thought is an inherent void in our thinking. Attempting abstractly to reason via generalised self-reference applies the void to the void, thereby generating paradoxes. It is a double layer of absent-from-conscious-thought, so creating a profound limitation on our ability to coherently structure thought, reference and terms. In the above cases of self-reference, limitations on our ability to coherently structure thought, reference and terms leads to paradoxes of self-contradiction.
The aforementioned paradoxes are all problems of consciously structuring reasoning, so of coherence and reference, not of the structure of the universe. They are problems of the limitations of conscious reasoning and the communicating thereof—including consciously to ourselves—due to the coherence horizon.
This self-recursion problem, of attempting to reason both across, and into, the coherence void, generates perennial problems in epistemology (theory of knowledge), as any theory of knowledge is going to be self-referential. As is any theory of truth. They are a matter of what we know about knowledge, what is true of truth.
There is both the thing itself, and our awareness of the thing, in play. When thinking recursively, what we know about knowledge, what is true of truth, it can be hard not to wander across the difference between the thing itself, and our awareness of it, in ways that frustrate or confuse thought.
Engineers, mechanics, various practitioners, habitually manage to ascertain what is, and what is not, the case: otherwise they could not successfully manage their trades. At a more removed level, so do lawyers.
The failure of epistemology is a problem of recursive reasoning, and is not due to a lack of truth or of knowledge. Much modern intellectual dysfunction comes from a combination of:
(1) the failure of epistemology,
(2) the failure of Marxian socialism (without the politics of the transformative future being abandoned), and
(3) further pitfalls of self-referential abstraction.
Functional but not intentional
As we are story-loving beings inclined to connect intentions directly with outcomes, it can be hard for us to keep clear that what is structured in a way that has an effect may not be intended (consciously or otherwise) to have that effect.
Social selection for the functional is entirely compatible with us consciously framing what we do in very different ways from functional value. Functionality and framing need not have any intentional connection.
For instance, the sacralised differentiation of tracts of land, and salient geographic features, with attendant rituals, by Aboriginal Australians may have functioned as land management, may even have been socially selected for land management value, but was not consciously framed as such.
Religions and traditions that have stood the test of time are full of narratives that are literally false but metaphorically true. Metaphorically true beliefs being beliefs that acting as if they are true generates a persistent selection advantage. Within the circumstances in which it evolved, acting according to the belief is an evolutionarily-positive strategy.
Remembering that what the official doctrine is—and what’s operative-in-people’s minds—may not be the same thing. There is considerable “theological incorrectness” in lived religions.
The forces of social selection—added to our considerable capacity for self-deception—can and does readily enable the moralising of practices and outlooks framed in a very different way from their social benefit. The coherence horizon, rendering so much of our cognition not visible to our consciousness, enables such social strategies.
The coherence horizon is also part of why rituals have such power. Rituals invoke various modes of knowing in ways that are visceral, and so operate across the coherence horizon of consciousness.
The coherence horizon is not only why the conceptual ambition of analytic philosophy can never work, why we use metaphor and analogy so much in teaching, why we sometimes struggle to put thoughts into words and use the wrong word. It is also why vanguard-capital (connections and skills oriented towards gaining organisational and social power) language-games can work so well.
The coherence horizon created by the filter of consciousness makes it much easier to have errors or simple fuzziness in the transmission of concepts. This then makes it much easier to play language games where one ostensibly uses a word in one way but activists and insiders understand it in another.
Language thereby becomes a coordinating device between activists and believers while disorienting more trusting folk, who take the words in their conventional meaning, rather than the activist one.
The next essay delves deeper into the ways we game ourselves in order to better game others.
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M. “Lorenzo” Warby, ‘Why Ritual,’ Lorenzo from Oz Substack, Aug 14 2022.
J. Watanabe, J. and B. Smuts, ‘Explaining religion without explaining it away: Trust, truth, and the evolution of cooperation in Roy A. Rappaport’s “The Obvious Aspects of Ritual,” American Anthropologist, 1999, 101:98-112.