I got stuck early on with the idea that if you know the truth, the truth will set you free, and it has given me the courage to confront the most unpalatable truths about myself—and life—head on, believing I would be better for it.
When I realized, in the mid-nineties, that I didn’t have free will, I was initially traumatized, but eventually got around to acceptance and to the questions, “Where do I go from here; how do I incorporate this truth into my everyday life?” I began to monitor my thoughts and attitudes for those that were based on the idea of having free will, and to try replacing them with something more appropriate.
Some thoughts were obviously free-will based—feelings of superiority, inferiority, pride, shame, disdain, etc.—but as those thoughts became less frequent, subtler ones came into view. It seemed there was an undercurrent of my assuming responsibility for the thinking process itself. The more I paid attention to the spontaneity with which thoughts emerged and moods changed, the more untenable that feeling of responsibility became, and the more it seemed like “I” was simply an observer of my brain’s conscious output. The longer this observation went on, the more amused I became at my peculiar situation.
When I first encountered Tom Clark’s essay, Killing the Observer, the implication seemed that my feeling of being an observer in my own brain was mistaken, the result of my misunderstanding how the brain works. That particular essay was heavy on philosophical language, and it wasn’t until Tom referred me to two other, more easily understood essays, The Appearance of Reality, and Function and Phenomenology, that I began to get a better understanding of his position. I think I may finally be able to translate my observational feeling into terms that are compatible with Tom’s point of view.
My feeling of being an observer, watching my brain create my mental life, is itself a creation of my brain. It makes me think of an etching by Escher of two hands drawing each other—I was one of the hands, thinking I was watching my brain draw the other hand, and all the while my brain was drawing me as well. In a way, this dual creation of the brain is a somewhat less naive version of my self, one that takes into account that the brain creates all my experience, including that of being me. It’s as if the brain created someone to observe and appreciate its performance.
The brain is always updating its models of self and world to take new information into account—coming to think of ourselves as fully determined parts of the natural world, without free will, is just such an update—so what sort of self-model could take into account the understanding that it is a model? There is no way to gain access to the unconscious processes that give rise to the model—we are stuck on the conscious side of the conscious/unconscious divide. Perhaps the closest we can come is to create a model that can monitor itself as it emerges from unconscious processes. How compatible is this idea with Tom’s position?
There would seem to be a conflict between my feeling of observing my experience appear as the brain creates it, and this passage from Killing the Observer:
While the phenomenal situation of our virtual worlds involves the functionally useful sense that the experienced self is being presented with the world and the body via sensory experience, no one and no thing is literally presented with experience; as Dennett says, experience is ultimately and literally unwitnessed and unappreciated.
So the “experienced self,” according to this passage, is not really some “one,” nor is it a “thing.” To say that the experienced—or virtual—self, witnesses or appreciates experience would be like saying that experience experiences experience. It is the organism that witnesses and appreciates the world, and the process by which it does so results in the appearance of experience. The experienced self is the brain’s model of the organism, and since the organism observes the world, the brain depicts the self as observing the world—“a more or less veridical and functional self-model.” (Killing the Observer)
Is there a way that Tom’s/Dennett’s point of view could be incorporated into the experienced self? Could my brain’s self-model be updated to include the understanding of its being a model? We can certainly learn to appreciate intellectually the reality of our situation—Tom’s article seems intended to give us just such an appreciation—but is there a way to incorporate that intellectual understanding into our experience? Does it make sense to say that the brain can learn to pay attention to its own self-model, and to create the experience of experiencing the emergence of experience? Can the brain play the part of Escher in depicting two hands drawing each other?
There might be a parallel between exploring the implications of not having free will, and exploring the implications of our experienced selves being models of our organism. Some people accept the idea that we don’t have free will, but don’t feel any inclination to explore the implications; they continue with business as usual. Others make an attempt to revise their thinking to take this realization into account.
In the same way, some may take the information that our experienced self is a model created by the brain and conclude that since we can’t experience the model as a model, then we are informed, but otherwise our experience is unchanged. Others may ask how they might experience themselves in a way that would incorporate this information into their experience. Might it be possible to experience one’s self as a model of the organism, created by the brain?
Tom suggests that self-immolating monks may have learned such a trick,
Possibly their monastic training had permitted them to attain the direct realization that waking experience, in particular the experience of self, is indeed a construction, such that they were no longer controlled by pain or the thought of death. (Getting Lucid About Consciousness)
I think Tom’s use of the term, “direct realization” is intended to distinguish the monk’s realization from a cognitive or intellectual realization, which can be acquired with little or no training. Direct realization suggests that their experience of the self had changed, that they had acquired a new, informed self-model that negated an earlier, naive self-model. We wouldn’t even know a realization had occurred if it were unconscious, non-experiential.
Their example suggests that the self-model can become less invisible to the organism, that it can be altered by determined effort if one has been enmeshed in a causal chain that leads to such a consequence. We can’t experience its unconscious underpinnings, but perhaps we can experience its naïveté.
Few of us would want to go as far as the monks of Vietnam or the suicide bombers of Islam. My own brain seems content with a moderately altered self-model that includes a self-observational component. This observing self can witness its experience coming into view with a sense of humor, and can observe it’s moods and preferences from a comfortable distance. A virtual observer of a virtual self.