The Nature of Consciousness

“In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Thomas Metzinger about the scientific and experiential understanding of consciousness. They also talk about the significance of WWII for the history of ideas, the role of intuition in science, the ethics of building conscious AI, the self as an hallucination, how we identify with our thoughts, attention as the root of the feeling of self, the place of Eastern philosophy in Western science, and the limitations of secular humanism.”

“Thomas K. Metzinger is full professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. His research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. He is the editor of Neural Correlates of Consciousness and the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.”


“This “no mobile phone” phobia is an emerging term that some psychologists use to describe the fear people have of being without their smartphone. And the latest evidence suggests that it happens because these devices have become so personalized that they are seen as extensions of ourselves. […] While previous research has linked nomophobia to anxieties around an inability to communicate and a fear of missing out, the new research suggest that phone owners also form strong personal attachments to the devices themselves, due to the photos, messages and other data that they hold.”

World Economic Forum story »

Our extended self

I’m rereading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

“If I re-google my own email (stored in a cloud) to find out what I said (which I do) or rely on the cloud for my memory, where does my “I” end and the cloud start? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of my interests, and all of my notes and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere, but nowhere in particular, it changes how I think of myself. […] The cloud is our extended soul. Or, if you prefer, our extended self.”

My relationship with the cloud has changed how I think about who or what I am. The best example of that is my fetish for saving excerpts from my favorite books in Google Docs. A few of those ideas might have stuck in the mush between my ears but not many.

Today I can open up Google Docs, enter a word or phrase (consciousness, self, universe, time, reality, media, etc) and instantly pull up every instance of that in every book or article I’ve read (and saved). And, increasingly, I’m linking these excerpts (someday Google will do that for me if I want).

Like Mr. Kelly, it doesn’t feel like Google et al are (is?) replacing my memory or intelligence so much as expanding and enhancing it.

How LSD affects consciousness

Researchers have published the first images showing the effects of LSD on the human brain, as part of a series of studies that are examining how the drug causes its characteristic hallucinogenic effects. (More at Nature)

“Within some important brain networks, such as the neuronal networks that normally fire together when the brain is at rest, which is sometimes called the ‘default mode’ network, we saw reduced blood flow — something we’ve also seen with psilocybin — and that neurons that normally fire together lost synchronization. That correlated with our volunteers reporting a disintegration of their sense of self, or ego. This known effect is called ‘ego dissolution’: the sense that you are less a singular entity, and more melded with people and things around you.”

Become What You Are (Alan Watts)

A few excerpts from Alan Watts’ Become What You Are:

Though your thoughts may run into the past or the future they cannot escape the present moment.

A man does not really begin to be alive until he has lost himself, until he has released the anxious grasp which he normally holds upon his life, his property, his reputation and position.

The one important result of any serious attempt at self-renunciation or self-acceptance is the humiliating discovery that it is impossible. […] The people who have quite genuinely died to themselves make no claims of any kid to their own part in the process.

Our attempts to stand above (our) emotions and control them are the emotions themselves at play.

Your everyday mind is the Tao. Continue reading

Maya by Ray Alez

“The only thing that I have ever known was void. You could say that it surrounded me forever since there was no time before I created it. At first all I was was awareness, just the sense of consciousness with nothing else. Gradually, I started to think thoughts in the midst of this void. I’ve made up time and space. And once I was thinking in this emptiness I got horribly bored. So I’ve turned my thoughts into figures and images. I’ve imagined light, which turned into stars and galaxies and later – planets. And thus Maya was born.”

“On one of the planets I have created animals and humans, just in one whim of my desire. I could simulate the whole history of this universe starting with the Big Bang, but I didn’t bother, waiting for billions of years would be too boring, besides the time was made up anyway, so I’ve just skipped right to the interesting part – the year 1983, the moment my imagined humans invented the internet, and started their race towards singularity.”

“After a few years I got bored of observing this planet from the outside, so I’ve decided to jump in and play. I’ve made myself a human body, I’ve put it in front of the computer. There was no need to go through the whole process of birth, I’ve just made a grown man, and reedited the history retroactively, filled his head with memories and experiences, so that it would seem more realistic.”

“And I was still bored, horribly-horribly bored. As much as I’ve played with these ideas in my imagination, as realistic as they’ve seemed, I was always aware of the void. I knew that it all was just smoke and mirrors, just a very realistic lucid dream, and I knew that at any moment I could stop imagining it, and it would all disperse like a smoke, leaving only a point of consciousness drifting amidst the timeless spaceless thoughtless void.”

“So I’ve made a decision. I’ve decided to forget of the void. I’ve reedited my thoughts so that it would seem like my consciousness is just a property of my brain, and I’ve made my brain to forget about the void. Consciousness dimmed, my powers to change my imagined reality have disappeared. All that was left were thoughts, thoughts and memories inside of a brain, which believed in the reality of an imagined world.”

“And I have found myself staring at the computer, going through my daily routine, not knowing about the void, not knowing that it all was made up, just living in a physical body I’ve believed was real.”

“And I cared. I was finally not bored, I thought I’ve existed. I was engaged – I remembered my future and worried about my past. I had goals and memories, I had enemies and friends, I had family and loved ones, I had fears and dreams.”

“I was alive.”


I wrote this in 1988. I was 40 years old and I don’t recall what prompted this musing. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on eastern philosophies in the past 30 years and my thinking/understanding has evolved. But only a little.

Reincarnation. The word conjures up all sorts of mystical images. While I don’t recall any past life as a soldier at the Little Big Horn, it’s sort of like “the undiscovered planet” that makes sense of the orbits of the other planets.

As I think about the idea of a past existence, I feel a fondness for this “earlier me”. A sense of gratitude for whatever spiritual progress he was able to achieve. At the same time, I feel a sense of anticipation or expectation for my “next life”. And some responsibility to that future self. I’d like to move him (or her?) along as far as I can on this “cosmic lap.” To move him closer to…a perfect consciousness? Nirvana?

Mixed in with all of that is a sense of relief that I don’t have to complete everything in this lifetime. This is not the only shot I’ll get. And this awareness is vital because we all know –consciously or subconsciously– that we won’t “get it all done” in a spiritual sense. We hope (and work) for progress but a single lifetime seems hopelessly short.

So, how close am I? What if I’m only a single lifetime (only?) away from reaching this level of consciousness? Suppose I progress sufficiently in what I have left of this lifetime that I’m within “striking distance” in the next?

It’s possible I’m on my first “existence” and have many to go. Or I might have lived thousands of lives and have but a few remaining. The point is, it doesn’t matter where you are on this journey. There’s no race and no time limit. You finish when you finish and everybody finishes. And that’s a liberating thought. There’s no Heavenly Stopwatch ticking away. No point at which you must throw in the towel and face the fact you’11 never be “good enough” to get through those Pearly Gates. Eternity is not pass-fail.

Most of us fear death. We fear the unknown… what might be waiting for us. Most Western theology offers only heaven or hell. Or nothing. Poor choices, all.

What if we’re just as frightened of “being born” as we are of dying? Once you accept the idea that our souls or spirits or consciousness do not die, but are eternal, you can imagine how frightening it might be to face being born into a new existence. There is symmetry here that feels right. If my soul or consciousness is eternal, can it really be that it magically sprang into existence at the moment of my conception? One instant it didn’t exist, the next it did? It came from nowhere, out of nothing? No. I think eternity stretches in both directions.

I wish I could tell the “earlier me” that things worked out fine. There was nothing to fear. I don’t remember “dying” or being born and this life has been terrific. And why not assume the “next me” will do just as well? And will be a little more spiritually evolved thanks to the progress “this me” is making.

Why don’t (most of us) remember our “past lives?” I think it would be an awful distraction. Our purpose is to live each moment of this life fully. To grow through each day’s experience. Not to dwell on and puzzle over a life already lived. Lessons already learned. So we remain unaware of past and future lives, focused on the only life we can ever really live, this one.

And what about Heaven? Can it really be the cosmic end-of-the-line we’ve been taught? Have you ever really believed in this Sunday School heaven with streets of gold and God sitting on his judgment throne? Isn’t there more hope, more promise, in the ongoing spiritual journey?

As for Hell, we are all quite capable of creating our own, anytime, anywhere. And we do.
The idea of timeless existence fills me with a wonderful sense of anticipation. If, after 40 years, I’ve learned to stop worrying, does that mean I can go on to new challenges in this life (and the next)? If I’ve lived a life afraid to take chances, to risk, for fear of failure, will I conquer that fear next time? Can I take the spiritual progress f this life on to the next one? It seems right, doesn’t it?

And equally logical that I’ll take unsolved challenges with me as well. But how many people do you know who expect to leave their enemies behind when they go to “their reward”. Smug in the knowledge those enemies are now paying for their sins.

No, I think He or She would say, “Don’t talk to me about right or wrong, your job is your own spiritual growth. As long as you feel hate, or anger, or guilt, or worry… keep working on it. And to help you, I’ve got a limitless number of real-life situations for you to practice on.”

Does this mean I can coast through this life, dodging spiritual challenges, procrastinating on into eternity? I don’t think so. I’d love to hit that next life free and clear (to the extent that is possible). Unencumbered. I want to put worry and fear and self-doubt behind me now. I want the “next me” to have every opportunity for continued growth. Let’s drop some of this baggage. God knows how many lifetimes I’ve been hauling it (for those who need another reason for not recalling past lives).

The idea of the spirit or consciousness living on past what we call death raises the question of friends and loved ones living (again) among us. Should be sad we don’t recognize them nor they us? No.

First, they have new lessons to learn and new people and experiences will help. In our own lives we tend to find and remain in comfort zones. We do the same things, with the same people, throughout most of our lives. Only when we force ourselves (or are forced) into new situations, do we see real growth and progress. It would be like staying in the first grade for 12 years. We know the teacher and our classmates and the lessons. It’s safe and comfortable. But instead, we are forced to move on to new schools, new rooms, new teachers and classmates, new lessons. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a unity of all consciousness. The essence of each of us, exists in all of us. That essence is part of the reborn consciousness of friends and loved ones. One more lesson: Look for and recognize the things we loved about that person, in all people.

Like feeling warm or cold

“Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process — like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.” — Alan Watts