Sunday, August 19, 2007


If the organism (most especially the eukaryotic organism) can be described as a "self-organizing chaos," what then do we make of the biological fact of consciousness? Jesper Hoffmeyer proposes that we think of swarm intelligence as a model for all consciousness (Signs of Meaning in the Universe, pp. 113ff.). According to this view the brain doesn't contain any central processing unit, and rather than the brain being pre-programed to produce intelligence, intelligence swarms out of it (p. 114).

Hoffmeyer holds that the greatest cognitive skill, constantly being developed in life, is to puncture the space-time continuum, to categorize it and render "the whole perspective accessible by means of just those fragments of it that are of relevance" (p. 115). Thus we can say that thinking, in Hoffmeyer's view, is not merely consistent with the construction of an umwelt, it is essentially the same activity that all organisms are engaged in. It is life. What is it then that makes the life of the mind appear different from the life of the mindless organism? And if the origins of consciousness are multiple, why does it seem that we experience consciousness as a unified whole? "At each and every moment our consciousness seems after all to be encapsulating all the complexity of life on Earth in one single narrative, one 'reality,' and one self" (p.119). The answer, says Hoffmeyer, is that what we experience as consciousness is an interpretation that the body effects of its "situtation vis-à-vis the biographically rooted narrative which the individual sees him- or herself as being involved in at that moment" (p. 120).

One implication of this view is an argument against the stream of consciousness being real (though I'm not sure Hoffmeyer is totally consistent on this point):

It actually takes the body almost half a second to generate consciousness. Thus, contrary to what one might automatically assume, consciousness is not one continuous stream but a sequence of discontinuous snippets of content. There might even be spells when it is switched off entirely, though we would never know since one cannot, after all, be aware of one's lack of awareness, far less remember it later.

(p. 121)

When I asked whether the cogito sleeps, I had in mind a notion that the cogito is embodied, that the rift between res cogitans and res extensa wasn't so clear. Hoffmeyer leaves me with two problems. How do I know that my consciousness really ever turns off in sleep? And what is meant by embodiment? Is the body essentially a unity, or is it fundamentally and ineluctably a multiplicity? If the body does have an esemplastic tendency in Hoffemeyer's view it is narratological rather than the work of a unified entity within consciousness:

In saying that the body interprets our umwelt while generating a constant stream of consciousness, I am thinking of course of the body as one swarming entity, the semiotic brain-body system as a whole. The very fact that we think with our bodies means that consciousness (and language) must be narrative. Physical activity, the elementary act, lies at the root of our intelligence and our consciousness.

I would suggest therefore that we look upon consciousness as a purely semiotic relation. Consciousness is the body's spatial and narrative interpretation of its existential umwelt.

(pp. 121-122, Hoffmeyer's emphasis)

How do we move from a semiotic relation to a narrative? Is there here some assumption about the coherence of a life that could be further explored?

Finally, Hoffmeyer expresses a kind of epiphenomenalism: "[i]n a sense our cells are living in the very midst of the semiosphere while we, as conscious individuals, are a kind of epiphenomenon–rather as if the shape of a swarm of bees had the absurd idea that the bees only existed to create that shape" (p. 128). Since we have no evidence of the shapes of swarms having absurd ideas of any kind, while conscious human persons evidently have absurd ideas about themselves and their worlds, perhaps the metaphor of swarm intelligence doesn't in the end explain as much as Hoffmeyer thinks it does. Nevertheless, it's interesting that Hoffmeyer sees the body, or the "body-brain system as a whole" as responsible for the sense that conscious experience belongs to a single narrative.

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:45 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page