Sunday, November 21, 2010

molluscan mind

When I was a kid, I loved all the creepy-crawlies. I owned four tarantulas (one at a time, not all at once), and was fascinated by the uglier mollusks-- octopi, squid, etc. Even today, I'm hypnotized by nature films about them. A recent documentary on TV was all about the Humboldt squid, and another documentary dealt with octopus intelligence (they have roughly the IQ of dogs, but with arguably greater problem-solving ability). I was delighted to find that Peter at Conscious Entities has decided to address the subject of molluscan consciousness in his latest post. It makes for fascinating reading. See here.

Much of Peter's post is devoted to the question of the unity of consciousness, an idea held precious by the adherents of certain schools of thought, such as substance dualism. A unified consciousness is what is inferred by the sense of singular selfhood that we all possess, so if we start with that sense of self, I suppose it's easy to see why people might infer that consciousness is as unified as that sense. Coming at the question from a more Buddhist angle, I don't subscribe to the notion that human consciousness is truly unified. It is, at best, a temporary and particulate unity, easily divisible into components, whether we're mapping out its various functions (e.g., remembering, attending, evaluating, etc.) or parsing its particular states (e.g., emotions like anger, sadness, and joy), or tracking holistic changes over time. And the various departments in our head are often in conflict, which produces such feelings as being at war with oneself. Like all phenomena, consciousness is dependently co-arisen, i.e., it's the nexus of convergent causes, and is itself causal. It's part of the larger web of "interbeing," to steal Thich Nhat Hanh's phrase. I also think it's rooted firmly in the physical.

Whatever consciousness is, it's a delicate, frangible thing. It reacts to everything around it (and within it), and can be altered or destroyed by the littlest of things. Whatever unity exists in human consciousness is at best temporary prone to fragmentation. It certainly isn't fundamental.


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