Let’s define individual consciousness as a distinct self-aware identity passing through a succession of moments in time. It is your locus of spatiotemporal sensation (i.e. limbic-reality experience, memory-echo experience) parsed through the brain-prism of cerebral disposition (memory).1
The “self” is convincing to “itself” by its very nature, and we feel it subjectively as a linear continuity, aligned with the arrow of time. But what if consciousness is a staccato frame-rate that seems continuous only because memory is ontologically persistent and the experiential narrative is spatiotemporally consistent – and therefore neurologically predictable? What if the brain works faster than the frame-rate required for the impression of quotidian conscious identity?
That is to say, brains are able to render – at any moment – a convincing selfhood (consciousness complete with sense of its own history) that’s perceptually indistinguishable from an objective continuity of being; but could just as easily have been constructed in that moment rather than emerging as the latest instance in a long persistent sequence of past to present time.
There’s precedent for non-continuity feeling continuous in vision, for example, where we actually spend a lot of time functionally blind but what we see is a smooth visual experience that doesn’t flicker on and off. Try watching a fast frame-rate filming of an old TV screen and you’ll see the TV flicker though if you’d been watching it in person, the image would have seemed smooth and uninterrupted. The brain fills-in gaps in our perceived self-existence from one moment to the next, just as it fills-in the moments of blindness or the gaps in the movie frames, to create a continuity in wakeful vision.
Define mind as: the gestalt of your brain and its feedback mechanisms, housed in your skull, a universe of neural networks divided into hemispheres interconnected by the corpus callosum; excitation and inhibition synapses and neurons and glions and whatever-the-hell-else, starting with zygote-algorithm building blocks and evolving through iterations of exponential-growth cell generations into an unparalleled toolbox of multivariate, multifaceted, multitasking phenomenological parsing; a de facto conscious homo sapiens individual.
The subtle complexity of parsing develops as a person gets older, since memory not only parses the experience but logs an impressionistic snapshot in the brain. Different flavours of parser both input a particular emphasis and log via a distinct impression algorithm. The input and logging parser may begin simple but since it develops with every moment, the sum of its impressions re-parsed into the extant genetic and predisposition algorithm; thus each moment can change a mind’s parsing of reality but in practice it seldom does. The bigger the algorithm stack, the less impact a single newly parsed impression or re-parsing of logged impressions will be.
Free will is bolx. Conscious mind is at most a commentator on moments past (albeit fractions of a second prior). Free will may not be an illusion but conscious free will and conscious-choice probably is.
This shouldn’t be a nihilistic thought since it doesn’t mean the mind itself can’t make choices. It just means the self doesn’t, though the mind has enough resources to make an unobservant self blithely ignorant of what’s actually going on.2
The conscious self is plausibly an illusion. Better perhaps to think of the self as a frame rate security daemon operating within certain parameters. The daemon happily follows a path of least resistance, per its evolution from pre-intelligent brainstuff cells, and creates discord otherwise. The mind shouldn’t be conflated with the self. The mind is far more potent. Meta-analysis of the moment is an assertion of independence by the self (conscious or subconscious) but while at first it’s a pushback against the mind, with training it can aspire to throw off the slave-state and forge a more symbiotic relationship.
“The self can’t escape the mind except by metaphorical suicide: meditation or madness.”
Free will of the conscious self IS an illusion, patently. But free will of the mind: this is more difficult to dismiss. Just because there’s no logical case for free will of the self, it doesn’t mean there’s no case for free will of the mind.
Let’s say we were somehow aware of all the variables involved in a moment’s brain-parsing (inputs, memory, substrate, every molecule in the brain): would that equate to an entirely predictable “this is what it’ll be like, in the next moment”?
Chemistry is very consistent but not infinitely consistent. There’s an estimated 456 trillion trillion atoms in the human brain. More than stars in the observable universe. The moment you accept there’s only a finite predictability in a chemical reaction – which is objectively true, so far as current scientific consensus – you open the door to what could conceivably be the basis of free will.
Schizophrenia and narcotic altered states are plausible corollaries of a conscious selfhood that’s constructed in the moment, as and when required without needing or being bound by continuity. After all, identity is formed by the brain to be convincing, to stand up under interrogation.
Drugs and atypical neurologies experience likewise shuffle and shift emphasis in the brain’s algorithms of identity creation but the toolkit of self-awareness tries to stay relevant regardless. Thus a psychedelic trip is invariably familiar and fascinating because it is novel, and at the same time convincing and transcendent concurrently.
Meditation can shift the biochemistry of the self by dwelling instead in the gaps in the frame-rate of conscious identity. This can morph into a technique of dissolution because gaps in the frame-rate of consciousness are times we don’t self-consciously exist; so to perceive the gaps and remain in them is to shed the layers of self identity, to move beyond the linear limbic narrative.
1 CONSCIOUS CONTINUITY: Consciousness is moments of being, the stuff of memory parsed through the prism of disposition and lizard brain in the crucible of sensory and neuro-phenomenological experience. The self is the product of dialectic, informed by experience and parsed into – and retrieved from – memory, woven into stories by the brain’s sense-making executive function. Our sense of continuous identity is like a frame-rate. It feels consistent because memory and the crucible are persistent therefore both consistent and predictable. The brain works faster than the frame-rate of consciousness so it can manifest our identity so it looks and feels like an objective arrow-of-time experience.
2 DISSONANCE: Think of a fact – a limbic moment or a piece of information or a possibility that’s to be considered. The fact is presented to the self, at a moment in time, in among the busy parade of considerations that’s part and parcel of the continuum of being. Let’s say this fact runs contrary to the codex of stories considered acceptable to the executive. The fact is only presented for a limited time: the length of time it is thought about, or the flicker of time it is actively being encountered. Now, for all the rest of time, the codex of stories sits unchallenged, in accord, winnowed of contradictions, i.e. as de facto reality. The short-lived fact collides with the deep habit of codex accord. It will need to be an overwhelmingly consistent, assertive, undeniable fact to overmatch the accord of the codex of stories, whether the latter is objective reality or a spectrum of bullshit. Truth has a natural accord, because truth is the path of least resistance in a vaccum. But nothing in life is a simple, fundamental binary true-or-false. Everyone exists in the codex of stories. Cognitive dissonance therefore is the natural state.