What I think about thought
Only parts of us will ever
touch o̶n̶l̶y̶ parts of others –
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶s̶t̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶b̶y̶ within another’s knowing acceptable t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶—̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶ so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best t̶h̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶ perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.
– unpublished poem by Marilyn Monroe, via berlin-artparasites
This poem inspired me to put some ideas into words this morning, an attempt to summarize my current working theory of consciousness.
Ideas travel through space and time. An idea that exists in my mind is filtered through my ability to express it somehow (words, art, body language, …), and is then interpreted by your mind and its models for understanding the world. This shifts your perspective in some way, some or all of which may be unconscious. When our minds encounter new ideas, they are accepted or rejected, reframed, and integrated with our existing mental models. This process forms a sort of living ecosystem, which maintains equilibrium within the realm of thought. Ideas are born, divide, mutate, and die in the process. Language, culture, education and so on are stable structures which form and support this ecosystem.
Consciousness also has analogues of the immune system, for example strongly held beliefs and models which tend to reject certain ideas. Here again these can be unconscious or conscious. I’ve seen it happen that if someone hears an idea they simply cannot integrate, they will behave as if they did not hear it at all. Some ideas can be identified as such a serious threat that ignoring them is not enough to feel safe: we feel compelled to eliminate the idea in the external world. The story of Christianity describes a scenario where an idea was so threatening to some people that they felt compelled to kill someone who expressed it.
A microcosm of this ecosystem also exists within each individual mind. There are mental structures which we can directly introspect and understand, and others which we can only infer by observing our thoughts and behaviors. These structures communicate with each other, and this communication is limited by their ability to “speak each other’s language”. A dream, for example, is the conveyance of an idea from an unconscious place to a conscious one. Sometimes we get the message, and sometimes we don’t. We can learn to interpret, but we can’t directly examine and confirm if we’re right. As in biology, each part of this process introduces uncountable “errors”, but the overall system is surprisingly robust and stable.
This whole system, with all its many minds interacting, can be thought of as an intelligence unto itself, a gestalt consciousness. This interpretation leads to some interesting further conclusions:
- The notion that an individual person possesses a single, coherent point of view seems nonsensical
- The separation between “my mind” and “your mind” seems arbitrary
- The attribution of consciousness only to humans, or only to living beings, seems absurd