AEON magazine is part of my online world, so I check it often. My biggest problem is that their questions are good ones but the answers and the ordinary essays make me impatient. There’s so much they don’t seem to see. Maybe they just don’t have the luxury of time to read that I have.
This morning at 3AM, waked up by the cats shifting around which is usual and part of our routine, I went to Aeon and was surprised to see a message from Al Gore. Yup. THAT Al Gore. The question was (generated by Nigel Warburton, the in-house “popular” philosopher) “What is consciousness for?” I was an early commenter and rather blown away by the idea that my name was close to Gore’s.
Warburton’s blog is http://www.nigelwarburton.typepad.com
Gore’s website is https://www.algore.com/
At the same time, the issue of animal euthanasia came up, framed as the fault of puppy mills, and my email soon got notifications that comments were mounting up. Pretty predictable. I commented, but it was useless. People frame everything in terms of their own experience and since many of the Aeon readers are affluent and educated, there were plenty of tales about thousands of dollars (really!) spent on pet store kittens who were fatally ill. (I get my cats mostly by accident when they discover the cat flap in the kitchen.) I got the impression that sick kittens interest “thinkers” far more than the nature of being human.
So I’m not bothering with this question anymore. When they address Tim’s awareness of what’s happening in the Mediterranean to those made vulnerable by desperate migration (the short answer is that mothers and children are being separated, trafficked, and killed), then I’ll think about sad pet stories again.
I went back to the Al Gore question. Since no email notifications about it had arrived, I assumed that there were few comments. Now — 10AM Mountain Standard Time in the US — I see that there are 131 fellow commenters. I’ll read them.
I’m pursuing the issue in several contexts:
1. That it is an emergent capacity of the human brain related to its role as the dashboard, sorting and remembering qualia (which some propose is the basis of memory, the index, re Proust) and manipulating them as metaphors which underlies all language, written or spoken or just “thought.”
2. That its evolutionary value lies in the enabling of relationships and the formation of groups that share values and capacities. The evidence in discussion is the jump to humans with bulging pre-frontal forebrains at the same time as art appears, evidence of larger groups, and what might be a pre-cursor of religion, pre-institutional, like burial. We are just now beginning to shift emphasis to group, because of empathy, which is consciousness of others. Groups can be painfully global, full of suffering Others.
At the same time, if one accepts the word “qualia”— which is a little slippery for “five-sense” people — then the door opens to the aesthetics of the transition to metaphor and elaboration which seems to have given today’s human the survival advantage.
3. Many people seem to think that only what is conscious, which they define in terms of speech and literacy, has any value or existence. In fact, the brain and its connections throughout the body are always in operation so long as you are alive. Breathing, heart beat, digestion, and so on, which become a general “mood” report, then subconscious thought and THEN consciousness. Maybe people are reluctant to lose the line between animals, who can achieve empathy but not verbal communication, and humans.
When I get to the end of the comments, they have increased to 134, but now I notice the time stamps and realize that comments from months ago, still relevant, have been added by the AEON staff. In fact, some of them are FROM the AEON staff. Will Fraker, for instance, is the Social Media and Community Manager for Aeon, so what does it mean when he “likes” my comments? Does it carry more or less weight, and why should I care anyway? When I google him, I get Vimeo vids on YouTube. They are about rock climbing, accompanied by the metaphor of MAC’s new operating systems, Yosemite and El Capitan. I find them relevant to this discussion. Qualia.
I’m thinking that this may be a consciousness project, with AEON trying to find out who’s “out there” and to put us into conscious conversation with each other so that suddenly and briefly I see what Al Gore thinks about this issue — not whether he’s right or wrong, but how he investigates the issue. (I don’t consider consciousness a “problem.”) And it may be a surprise to the readership to hear what an old woman in a small high-prairie town has to say. I only ran across two other females in this morning’s comments so far. And Gore and I were the only obvious Americans, unless one counts James T. Kirk. Maybe Gore came along to wake Americans out of their media trance, all of it personal introspection.
Though I sneeze at the tendency to be Brit-centric and class-limited, I certainly welcome this project. It makes me much happier than the constant pursuit of money over at medium.com and their fantasy that the perfect tech platform will trigger a cascade of saleable content. That will accumulate over time, but by then someone will invent something totally different and all the writers will migrate over to it, the same as when the “Montana” trope wore out, they all went to Portland.
Most of this kind of conversation is invisible to people who aren’t in big cities or on university campuses. This is a merchandizing society and it runs along the narrow-gauge railroad of venture capital. Somehow it is the unpaid commenters who are the fuel for the paid platform managers, though considerable venture capital must have been needed for startup and even for now.
On investigating elements of some issue for posts on my blog, I often discover interesting but semi-relevant things. One here is that Al Gore was involved in starting up a news network that failed and was sold to Al Jazeera, which I follow. Or did. It’s closing down at the end of April. Kenner’s Question: “What does this mean?” Well, that takes us back to consciousness, which Gore defines in terms of Free Will. But how free is it when the capitalists control the money and money is the key to hard core reality?