In Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris there comes a point when he confronts Snaut, another scientist and cybernetician on the laboratory station that hovers above a massive ocean of intelligence that the humans of this fictional world have been trying with no success to contact for over seventy-six years. I want go into the details that precede the exchange, but only mention the crux of the issue at hand. Kelvin and Snaut after long and fractious testing, analysis, and suffering sit down in the cafeteria and assent to a dialogue about actual alien contact. As they ponder all the things that have happened since Kelvin arrived a few weeks before (I’ll not relate the details or spoilers), Snaut tells Kelvin that in his estimation the living intelligence that encompasses the ocean of this planet is absolutely Blind:
“No. Kelvin, come on, it’s blind…”
“Blind?” I repeated, unsure whether I’d heard right.
“Of course, in our understanding of the word. We don’t exist for it the way we do for each other. The surface of the face, of the body, which we see, means we encounter one another as individuals. For it, this is only a transparent screen. After all, it penetrated the inside of our brains.”
“All right. But what of it? What are you getting at? If it was able to create a person who didn’t exist outside of my memory, bring her to life, and in such a way that her eyes, her movements, her voice… her voice…”
“Keep talking! Keep talking, man!!”
“I am talking… I am… Yes. So then… her voice… This means it can read us like a book. You know what I’m saying?”
“Yes. That if it wanted to, it could communicate with us?”
“Of course. Is that not obvious?”
“No. Not in the slightest. It could simply have taken a procedure that didn’t consist of words. As a fixed memory trace it’s a protein structure. Like the head of a spermatozoon, or an ovum. After all, in the brain there aren’t any words, feelings, the recollection of a person is an image written in the language of nucleic acids on megamolecular asynchronous crystals. So it took what was most clearly etched in us, most locked away, fullest, most deeply imprinted, you know? But it had no need whatsoever to know what the thing was to us, what meaning it held. Just as if we were able to create a symmetriad and toss it into the ocean, knowing the architecture and the technology and structural materials, but with no understanding of what it’s for, what it means to the ocean…”
“Quite possibly,” I said.
“Yes, that’s possible. In such a case it had no… perhaps it had no intention of trampling on us and crushing us the way it did. Perhaps. And it only unintentionally…”1
At that moment it dawns on Kelvin that that’s it – eureka! – the creature is not consciously aware, has no intentional self-reflective apparatus in the sense of what we mean by epistemic consciousness, but is rather totally blind to such things and is rather bound by haptic or physical processes that we ourselves consider unconscious. For Kelvin this explains the reason why the strange alien being was able for weeks to tap into his sleep time and produce out of his unconscious memories and brain processes a complete three-dimensional image of his now dead lover from his previous life on earth. What he discovers is that this creature was able to reproduce the replica image of his memories without the need for intentional consciousness, having no clue as to what purpose, if any that this memory served us humans – no knowledge of what it was for; but rather that our form of intentional consciousness, our meaningful associations of belief, states-of-mind, etc. or whatever motivates us, makes us tick, allows us to fictionalize our emotions, feelings, beliefs, angers, frustrations, happiness, etc. Our intentions… had no meaning for this living ocean and its haptic and physical processes which were more like an ‘energetic unconscious’ at play with itself and the universe. It could care less about intentionality or meaning: it was blind to such things, being merely a brain without conscious intent.
Or was it? Was it not capable of changing orbit to align itself and balance the planet between its red and blue suns? Was this a conscious act on the part of this living being? Or just an impersonal survival mechanism of an inorganic life-form? Yet, beyond all this it was fully productive, was able to create abstract structures, non-repeatable structures with strange and bewildering speed and efficiency that the humans observing them were completely baffled by. An unconscious mind that was fully energetic and could produce and reproduce material processes it gleaned from our own unconscious systems of memory and storage. Was it a self-organizing system of communicative processes as sociologist Nicklas Luhuman believed? Was this creature able to produce autopoetic processes, dynamic structures that seemed to act like algorithms of some complex advance AI? Was this an artificial life-form, rather than an organic bio-chemical factory? Could there be an answer? Did it matter to answer such questions? Could we understand such processes without reverting to metaphysical dilemmas? Leave philosophical quandaries out of the equation? Couldn’t we as the sciences are happily ready to do just understand the processes themselves and how they work, rather than worrying over the what for?
What is Contact anyway? Do we truly want contact with an alien being, or is it truly that we just want confirmation of our own petty human belief systems? What if we’ve been living side by side with alien life-forms for thousands of years without being aware of the fact? What if many of the other insects and species of our own planet are much farther advanced on the evolutionary scale than we are, and will actually outlast the human species because they chose evolutionary paths that support their eusociality with greater adaptability to the changing environmental pressures of our earth than we? Is intelligence and consciousness what we think it is? Does it even count as far as survivability and adaptability in the face of environmental failure goes? How effective is consciousness when faced with environmental pressures it is ill-adapted to surmount? What if those species that have no consciousness at all, yet show forms of adaptability and survival that we as humans can only envy? What then?
Could it be possible that our dreams of robots, AI’s, and advanced algorithmic transhuman or posthuman SF, and corporate and governmental-military-industrial initiatives etc. is being guided by unconscious processes seeking their own course and path forward through us? Or we at all sure that our dreams of the future are ours? Or are these dreams of futurity much rather the potentials of forces we have no clue of much less control over? What if we’ve been wrong about ourselves for thousands of years, and all our human learning up to this point is nothing more than fabulous tales for children? What if the blind core of our inhuman being is moving us toward goals we only think are ours, but are in fact the impersonal codes and algorithms of the universe itself working its telos through us? What if after all our lives that we think are spun of freedom and will are truly determined by unconscious forces we have up to this point only vaguely understood and are now beginning to access through the neurosciences? What if we discover that what is driving us is something seeking to overcome our limitations and fulfill its own designs through some form of mutation or metamorphosis?
My friend R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory rests on the distinction between the ontic and epistemic perspectives we have onto the processes of our brain we term consciousness:
“Very briefly, the theory rests on the observation that from the torrent of information processed by the brain, only a meagre trickle makes it through to consciousness; and crucially that includes information about the processing itself. We have virtually no idea of the massive and complex processes churning away in all the unconscious functions that really make things work and the result is that consciousness is not at all what it seems to be. In fact we must draw the interesting distinction between what consciousness is and what it seems to be.” (see Blind Brain)
This distinction between the is and the seeming is at the center of many of the scientific endeavors of the neurosciences. In some ways answering this distinction is the holy grail of neuroscientific research: the hard problem of consciousness. As David Chalmers tells us the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1995) is the problem of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena, such as brain processes, and experience (i.e., phenomenal consciousness, or mental states/events with phenomenal qualities or qualia). Why are physical processes ever accompanied by experience? And why does a given physical process generate the specific experience it does—why an experience of red rather than green, for example? (see Hard problem of consciousness)
What Scott affirms is in agreement with many evolutionary theories concerning the origins of mind or consciousness in humans amounts too. For most of our evolutionary history we were like many other animals without a recursive or self-reflective consciousness; and, this fact alone supports aspects of the BBT (Blind Brain Theory). Yet, as the article suggests Scott will mention three interrelated notions: the contingent and relatively short evolutionary history of consciousness, the complexity of the operations involved, and the fact that it is so closely bound to unconscious functions (ibid.).
Many scientists believe that what we term recursive or self-reflecting consciousness was a late adaptation, one that came about when humans began the long evolutionary process toward attaining language: communication and cooperation, and the processes that would eventuate into larger social units as humans entered into hunter and gathering societies over thousands of years. Of course there are so many theories about the origins of consciousness that many refrain from such pursuits and ask instead the question of what conditions needed to be in place for language and consciousness to arise in the first place. In studies of primates the notion that communication began in a pre-linguistic state has become the most common. But to tell the truth no one can be sure, and there are varying approaches that often seem contradictory and fictive at best. For me at least the notion that evolutionary processes of the physical and natural interactions of humans and their environments provided all the necessary functions to enable language, consciousness, etc. as part of our struggle to adapt and survive in hostile realms. (see Origin of language)
The main drift of Scott’s argumentation is not that something like intentionality does not exist, but rather that our knowledge of exactly what it entails is a fiction, that in fact for the most part all we have access to in our self-reflective processes is only ever what our brain gives us access too, and that this to be blunt – is almost nil, a sliver of the actual information that is being processed at any one time in the depths of or neuroprocessing brain. The idea here is that we mistake our knowledge of the brain for the actual underlying processes, which are two separate things entirely. The brain never gives away all its secrets, this is why Scott has been for years trying to convince philosophers who have followed Plato through Heidegger and beyond that philosophy for the most part is just an exercise in futility, that philosophers have been since Hume discussing consciousness and experience as if they had total access to the processes under discussion when in fact what they have is tip of a vast ice-berg – the surface layer of a chunk of information that exists beyond the horizon of our awareness much like the ice below the ocean’s mirror.
We discuss the workings of mind and consciousness as if we had all the cards on the table, when in fact the visual cues we assume are all there is are nothing but the flotsam and jetsam of a systems as mysterious as the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. As Peter Hankins in his article on Bakker tells us: “Scott proceeds to suggest that logic and even intentionality – aboutness – are affected by a similar kind of magic that similarly turns out to be mere conjuring. Again, results generated by systems we have no direct access to, produce results which consciousness complacently but quite wrongly attributes to itself and is thereby deluded as to their reliability. It’s not exactly that they don’t work (we could again make the argument that we don’t seem to be dead yet, so something must be working) more that our understanding of how or why they work is systematically flawed and in fact as we conceive of them they are properly just illusions.” (ibid.)
This is where Lem’s sudden awakening in his character Kelvin comes in when he discusses the vast oceanic brain below their laboratory, and its abilities to contact their unconscious minds and yet have no idea of consciousness or intentionality: “It could simply have taken a procedure that didn’t consist of words. As a fixed memory trace it’s a protein structure. Like the head of a spermatozoon, or an ovum. After all, in the brain there aren’t any words, feelings, the recollection of a person is an image written in the language of nucleic acids on megamolecular asynchronous crystals. So it took what was most clearly etched in us, most locked away, fullest, most deeply imprinted, you know? But it had no need whatsoever to know what the thing was to us, what meaning it held. Just as if we were able to create a symmetriad and toss it into the ocean, knowing the architecture and the technology and structural materials, but with no understanding of what it’s for, what it means to the ocean…”
The point here is that the living system was able to produce what the humans assumed were intentional acts but were in fact productive actions with no intent or understanding at all, no sense of what it was doing it for or that the objects it manifested had any sense of purpose, will, or conscious awareness at all. It was blind to what it was doing, rather it tapped into the very unconscious substrate of the human brain and used it like a playback recording to manufacture a clone of a memory process to perfection without understand what it’s purpose was intended or even if it had intentionality.
Hankins will bring up a good point, yet I wonder if it is a point at all:
What about intentionality? Well, for one thing to dispel intentionality is to cut off the branch on which you’re sitting: if there’s no intentionality then nothing is about anything and your theory has no meaning. There are some limits to how radically sceptical we can be. Less fundamentally, intentionality doesn’t seem to me to fit the pattern either; it’s true that in everyday use we take it for granted, but once we do start to examine it the mystery is all too apparent. According to the theory it should look as if it made sense, but on the contrary the fact that it is mysterious and we have no idea how it works is all too clear once we actually consider it. It’s as though the BBT is answering the wrong question here; it wants to explain why intentionality looks natural while actually being esoteric; what we really want to know is how the hell that esoteric stuff can possibly work.
Yes, we wonder how this blind brain of ours works at all, and we ponder it with information that is itself inadequate to the task – the very conscious recursive self-referential system that in itself has only the information the brain gives it to work with. So we are bound to a closed circle that gives us no real access to the processes outside consciousness. Yet, we need to lose hope, Scott tells us for now that branch of science we term the neurosciences an interdisciplinary and collaborative effort among several other fields such as chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine (including neurology), genetics, and allied disciplines including philosophy, physics, and psychology each of which provides perspectives upon these underlying processes of consciousness.
In the past twenty years are so these neurosciences were given a sort of Archimedean point outside of the brain that allowed through neuroimaging access to the very processes that philosophy had always hoped for but never had. Many scientists are now using such tools to map and navigate, study and develop intensive theoretical and behavioral practices based on this new visual access to the live processes of the brain’s workings. It is this new technology that Scott believes will provide an answer to the very question raised by Hankins: “…what we really want to know is how the hell that esoteric stuff can possibly work.”
What’s interesting about Lem’s works and his skepticism is the knowledge that even with all our technological sophistication we are still bound to thousands of years of entrenched belief systems that have for the most part served us well as we navigated the exterior environments of our universe, but will these mental tools we’ve honed and adapted so well for survival actually be able to explain the workings of the brain our new interfaces are giving us? Or will we after all be left holding an empty bag of knowledge arguing over just what it all means? With the rise of nihilism – which was partially an outgrowth of the scientific endeavor itself, we slowly and skeptically destroyed one illusion after another for centuries concerning our actual knowledge of the world and ourselves – to the point that we came to believe that neither we nor the universe held any meaning or purpose whatsoever. What meaning will we give to these newly discovered processes recorded upon the hard-wired screens of our computers showing us the real living processes firing away in the universe of our inner minds? Will uncovering the truth of the brain also give us back some new ability to understand ourselves and our universe? Will we once again be able to believe that we and our universe mean something, that we and our universe actually are for something, that we and the universe have meaning? Are will the mystery remain? Will the indefinable artifact of human consciousness and the truth of the universe itself remain beyond the capacity of the human mind and thought forever?
Scientists obviously hope to uncover and map the processes of the Brain within the next few years, but what will that mean and once we have this knowledge what will that entail; will it be put to use to help or enslave? Will it too become a part of the corporate and military-industrial complex, just another piece of technology we can use to command and control humans for the benefit of a minority elite? Or will we do something else? How will this new found knowledge be used in either producing peace or war? Will our knowledge bring wisdom or the end game of terminal nihilism? I’m always fearful when I see such massive expenditures by governments and military as they use scientists for their own ends and purposes. This is the truth of Lem’s cautionary tales, and his pessimism and skepticism that humans will do the right thing. Lem ultimately felt humans would always choose power over truth and desire, that humanity was as prone to stupidity and egoistic pursuits of death and disaster as it was of actual peaceful initiatives. An extended passage from Lem at the end of Solaris sums up much of his thinking:
For several more months I would be gazing from those windows, observing from high up the sunrises of white gold and oppressive red, mirrored from time to time in some fluid eruption, in the silvery bauble of a symmetriad; following the journey made by slender rapidos leaning into the wind; encountering half-degraded, crumbling mimoids. One day the screens of all the visuphones would start to flicker, the entire electronic signalization system, long dormant, would spring to life, set in motion by an impulse sent from hundreds of thousands of miles away announcing the approach of a metal colossus that would lower itself over the ocean with a prolonged thunder of its gravitors. It would be either the Ulysses or the Prometheus, or another of the great long-distance cruisers. When I climbed the accommodation ladder from the flat roof of the Station, on board I’d see ranks of bulky white-armored automats that do not share mankind’s original sin and are so innocent they carry out any command, to the point of destroying themselves or any object lying in their path, if their memory, oscillating in crystal, is so programmed. And then the ship would move off, noiselessly, faster than sound, leaving behind it a cone of reverberations splitting into bass octaves as it reached the ocean, and the faces of all the humans would brighten for a moment at the thought that they were returning home.
But I had no home. Earth? I thought about its great crowded buzzing cities, in which I would become lost, almost effaced, as if I’d gone through with what I wanted to do that second or third night—thrown myself into the ocean where it rocked sluggishly in the darkness. I’d drown in people. I’d be a reticent, observant, and therefore valued, companion, I’d have many acquaintances, friends even, and women, maybe even one woman. For some time I’d have to force myself to smile, say hello, get to my feet, perform a thousand trivial actions from which life on Earth is composed, till I stopped being aware of them. I’d find new interests, new pastimes, but I wouldn’t give myself over to them completely. Not to anything or anyone, ever again. And, maybe, I’d stare into the night towards the place where the darkness of the dusty nebula blocks the light of two suns like a black veil; I’d remember everything, even what I was thinking now, and with an indulgent smile in which there was a hint of regret, but also of superiority, I’d recall my follies and my hopes. I absolutely did not regard that “me” of the future as anything worse than the Kelvin who was prepared to do anything in the cause of so-called Contact. And no one would ever have the right to judge me. (Kindle Locations 3230-3249).
As one critic observed of Lem:
Perhaps Lem the humanist is also Lem the destroyer, the murderer of men, women, and children. Perhaps the wish to wipe away the human race – the tiresome, hopeless, and revolting human race – is the vileness that lies in his right hemisphere. The Quintans are therefore you and me, and Lem is Steergard, the frustrated and furious captain, his finger on the trigger of the solaser weapon of mass destruction.2
Of course Lem’s frustration with the bureaucracies and leaders of his socialist world bore the brunt of his satiric barbs, and his disgust with humanity’s never-ending self-delusions was without doubt his central thematic; yet, Lem himself believed as he stated in the closing scene of Solaris as his protagonist wandered the vast shores of the living ocean, a man defeated and alone, “part scientist and part broken-hearted man,” one for whom humanity might persist “in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”
Toward the end Kelvin and Snaut have a conversation that turns toward the uncanny notions of a ‘defective God’:
“I mean a God whose deficiencies don’t arise from the simplemindedness of his human creators, but constitute his most essential, immanent character. This would be a God limited in his omniscience and omnipotence, one who can make mistakes in foreseeing the future of his works, who can find himself horrified by the course of events he has set in motion. This is… a cripple God, who always desires more than he’s able to have, and doesn’t always realize this to begin with. Who has built clocks, but not the time that they measure. Has built systems or mechanisms that serve particular purposes, but they too have outgrown these purposes and betrayed them. And has created an infinity that, from being the measure of the power he was supposed to have, turned into the measure of his boundless failure.”
Such a god for Lem as his character Kelvin relates “would be the only God I’d be inclined to believe in, one whose suffering wasn’t redemption, didn’t save anyone, didn’t serve any purpose, it just was.” A god that had no purpose, no reason, no designs to enact: just a child playing with draughts at the edge of the universe. Something like Solaris itself, a blind god producing baubles and toys from the minds of human dreamers…
Appended: Discovered from dmf that Adam Robert has an article on R. Scott Bakker that is worth reading: “Blind Brain Theory and Enactivism: In Dialogue With R. Scott Bakker“. It’s a dialogue between Scott and Adam that clarifies and extends both of their approaches. Scott makes the point that I agree with that intentional consciousness exists just not in the way intentional philosophers have stipulated:
Bakker: Intentional cognition is real, there’s just nothing intrinsically intentional about it. It consists of a number of powerful heuristic systems that allows us to predict/explain/manipulate in a variety of problem-ecologies despite the absence of causal information. The philosopher’s mistake is to try to solve intentional cognition via those self-same heuristic systems, to engage in theoretical problem solving using systems adapted to solve practical, everyday problem – even though thousands of years of underdetermination pretty clearly shows the nature of intentional cognition is not among the things that intentional cognition can solve!
Scott’s main drift has been all along to show that our recursive self-reflective systems are heuristic and functional rather than literal and conceptual in the philosophical sense, and that these processes which were formed for adaptive purposes of evolutionary survival are ill-equipped to decipher or understand their own recursive relations to the brain. Why? Because we do not have full disclosure or access to all of the brains processes, instead we try to explicate the unknown processes using such notions as ‘unconscious’ which is due to our negative relation to this inherently undisclosable domain of the brain’s activities. Instead Scott believes that the neurosciences and the neuroimaging techniques which are able to disclose these processes hold out better and more scientifically enabled ways of accessing this domain than philosophical speculation.
In some ways philosophy much like religion before it will give way to the sciences. I’ve fought this notion for a long while, but have come to the conclusion in recent years that most of philosophical speculation is based in pure fiction, constructions of art rather than intellect. That we’ve been fooling ourselves with discursive thought for quite some time. Kant built a nice little kingdom of the inner mind, and many followed him into his fictional universe of categories and conceptuality. Others underneath this fictional transcendental universe fought other battles, more connected to the physical and impersonal processes flowing below consciousness. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, Land, etc. Yet, even these fine philosophers must give way to the sciences in the coming century. It was a nice game while it lasted, but it’s time is over. Oh it may continue for a long while, but no longer will it hold forth as the great knowledge bearer or even the dark progenitor of non-knowledge or non-philosophical gnosis (Laruelle). Instead the thing philosophers fear most is there notions, ideas, propositions becoming little more than useless artifacts of fiction, a modern version of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game or Das Glasperlienspiel.
- Lem, Stanislaw (2014-11-22). Solaris (Kindle Locations 3203-3213). Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek. Kindle Edition.
- Swirski, Peter (2006-07-27). The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem (p. 79). Ingram Distribution. Kindle Edition.