Ok, Bad Joke…

I wonder a lot about consciousness; sentience and the seat of conscious life. That which is aware of itself. I have to believe that it is illusory. It is not a real thing. It has no physical form yet it is. Supernatural without requiring the supernatural. It is an emergent property of a complex system. The sum being greater than the parts. However it is also an illusion in the moment with no future and past as much as it wants to believe they are real and that continuity of sentience extends into them. Or a future and past that are even more illusory than the present.

It is likely that consciousness passes from one part of the brain to another when I sleep, although that also forces me to admit that consciousness may cease from time to time. It’s hard to say because for all I know I’m conscious while asleep but just don’t remember it. Sentient in the moment without the illusion of continuity over time. Split brain studies have shown conclusively that there are multiple seats of consciousness inside a single brain, and that these are not truly aware of each other — and what’s more, each one believes it is the only one. And of course although “I” am made up of a trillion lifeforms if you count the bacteria which certainly have some collective “I” , I can only wholly grasp the small sliver that my slice is getting. And even though I am also part of the larger Gaia entity, I can lay no claim to sense the consciousness of what some call God. Maybe I can with the help of DMT. But maybe life is bigger and the universe is a computing entity. It wouldn’t surprise me but I can’t sense it either (need more DMT).

I wonder if the end result of the large particle accelerator atom smish-smasher experiments will be the realization that we’re living in a simulation, as we start to “crash the code” and try to look at things the simulation isn’t simulating. Some people have made the claim that since there should be only one “true and physical” reality, but a nearly endless collection of potential simulated (or “virtual”) realities, that statistically we should assume that we are almost certainly living in a simulation. I suppose that one way of explaining the reason that so many people decide that they used to be Cleopatra or Napoleon is that in the real world we’ve all played that simulation. That video game.

With that in mind I will not be one bit surprised if when I die in this world that I wake up in another. Probably with no memory of this one so why does it matter? But when I go to sleep my sentient experience ends. I can’t be sure when I wake up in the morning that I am the same person that I remember or that I really lived the remarkable things I remember. It seems just as likely to me that I’ve just been “booted up” with a memory state that inserts me into this life. I have no way of knowing though so all I can do is keep on playing. That said, you have no way of knowing if I’m even real. It’s possible that these words you’re reading were written by you, out in the real world, to tease you with a hint as to the real reality. Wouldn’t that be a trip, since as far as I can tell, I’m experiencing writing them. But as soon as I finish typing that sentence, I have no way of knowing if I did it or if I just loaded the program with that as the back story. Of course in the simulation of me, I have to wonder if all the “non-player characters” are sentient for the same emergent reality. So even if I’m the one playing the game and I’m real, so are all the actors that the system generates for me to play with, and even though from my point of view they’re just video game characters, from their point of view its the reverse and they’re the real ones. I could just as easily be the non-player character… and more likely am…

“Ok, bad joke. You’re not a replicant.”

But back to sentience and how it can feel so real but obviously (or maybe not) have no physical form. Assume for a moment that this is reality. If we took all of me, and enough of my surroundings, and ran that as a “simulation” in a computer, the computer could in theory play out my life. What I wonder though is whether the program would be sentient. The strange answer seems that from the outside it would not be, as it’s just a machine, but on the inside, it would experience exactly the same things as the “real me”, so it would be sentient. At least in the moment. At least from the point of view of the “program”. Just like I am sentient, but only from the point of view of my small slice of the meatspace in this brain in this body in this world in this universe. But only from that point of view.

It makes me wonder if a story is sentient. I think perhaps it is, but only as you’re telling it, and only in that moment. As soon as you stop reading, the story is no more aware of itself than I am when I’m asleep. Start reading again and the story wakes up, and it is self-aware and has a past and a present in that moment. It feels self aware but only from its point of view. I can’t sense it any more than I can truly convince myself of the reality of anything around me or you can of me. Sure, the story is a static object that is already written, but if you step outside time and look at the totality of my life, the electrochemical reactions that make up my reality are what they are and I am just as static as that story. It just doesn’t seem that way from my illusory point of view, and I think it’s reasonable to suppose a story might experience the same thing. Who am I to figure out what the threshold for that emergence is? I think maybe I have these musings because as an atheist, it eliminates any fear of death and in fact fills me with intense curiosity about the experience. However, the realist in me would still put the safe money on a fade to black and nothing more…

I sure do hope I’m betting wrong.


  1. Anatta wrote:

    I love you art-test site, absolutely amazing. It’s good to see javascript put to artistic use.

    I used to use a lot of DMT, all the while entertaining ideas about consciousness and the like. After reading the Buddha’s description of the five aggregates, I realized that I was firing in the dark.

    The five aggregates are: form, feeling, perception, volitional formation, and consciousness. When the first four arise, consciousness arises. This is happening constantly. At the same time the first four a dependent upon consciousness in order to arise, this making the whole equation recursive (similar to Mandlebrot’s fractal equation). The most important thing to recognize is that each aggregate, as well as all things in life, are empty of a self–that is, all things are not me, not mine, not myself. Consciousness and that which is cognizes are impermanent, always changing. They are also unsatisfactory, and none can ever provide a permanent sense of peace or satisfaction.

    Thus we are not our bodies or anything physical, not our thoughts, not our feelings, not our consciousness.

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Scared to die wrote:

    That’s how I calm down after thinking about death too much in bed in the middle of the night. I think about how there’s almost certainly no continuity of consciousness so I’ve already died an infinite number of times anyway.

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  3. starbadger wrote:

    idea precedes actualization

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  4. waiting4arson wrote:

    A few thoughts from someone who wasted 20 grand on a graduate degree in Philosophy. Certainly what you’re calling sentience or consciousness does not have an extended, spatial existence. And I agree (at least, as you implied) that attempts to reduce that to synaptic physicality are probably ignoring something, some residue that you’re calling ‘illusory.’ But why call it not real? Because it doesn’t have physical extension? Where is physical extensions verified? In the data of sensory experience. What if there is another kind of experience, an ‘inner’ experience that, while not spatial, is temporal. Couldn’t the reality of sentience/consciousness be verified by adverting to the data of ‘inner’ experience unfolding, not in physical space, but in time consciousness? And wouldn’t that data be just as critically grounded as ‘exterior’ sense data, in that both are subject to Cartesian, sceptical doubts about their “reality”?

    Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  5. starbadger wrote:

    it gets muddy because of 100th monkey issues

    you likely think in tens

    fhe educated scribes of baba-bab-along thought in 60.

    It wasn’t easy and part of the reason scribes went to scribe school like you went to graduate school

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink
  6. kv wrote:

    I suggest to read about a condition known as “anosognosia”. Rather interesting neurological deflict considering the unawareness on your own consciousness.

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  7. Andy wrote:

    Sometimes I wonder when I wake up in the mornings whether my previous body died and I have shifted to a new reality or dimension. The people down there (or wherever it is) are dealing with the loss of me, but I have no awareness of it. I remember being in a car accident a few years ago. The car flipped over twice in mid air and ended up skidding down the road on its roof. The windows just blew and the thing was a right-off.I remember being upside down in the driving seat with my seatbelt on and the engine still running. I mamaged to get out through the passenger window and I just stood looking at the car on its roof. How I managed to get out of that alive is anyone’s guess. But sometimes I wonder when things like that occur if we actually die and shift to a new parallel reality but we are not aware of the transition. Interesting post, Shannon. There seems to be a lot of people talking about astral projection lately.

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 5:27 am | Permalink
  8. Kay wrote:

    Nihilism at its best?

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  9. starbadger wrote:


    Natural Pain-Killing Chemical Synthesized
    Making conolidine in the lab could further drug research

    Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  10. Michael Shared wrote:

    And how I may be led to your blog through an Internet mining session, finding likenesses in your story and mine, knowing nothing about you, and touching you with these words.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 1:02 am | Permalink
Wow Shannon, that's really annoying! What is it, 1997 on Geocities? Retroweb is NOT cool!

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