I am not a philosopher or a logician or a scientist of any sort, and although that may
appear to be just another way of saying, so don’t waste any more time reading this,
it’s really my way of saying, I know that there is an inside and an outside to every
human venture and that those on the inside don’t really want and especially don’t
need the opinion of those on the outside, HOWEVER, occasionally there may
actually be something of value in such thought. That is my hope here. (And I’m sure
that if I had any expertise in any field whatsoever I’d be laughing along with you or
cringing at that thought…or snorting in aristocratic umbrage with overtones of cold
dismissal.) Nonetheless…I’d like to say something about my theory which my very
dear wife calls: I’m not a train, therefore I am.
For about a year now I’ve been poking around—in a sorta semi-serious way—
within the very serious realms of logic, the mind, thought, consciousness… that sort
of thing. I’ve been doing that for the most part through the videotaped lectures of
Dr. Patrick Grim, in a series produced and offered, apparently to anyone, by The
Great Courses people. So, you can thank them for this.
Dr. Grim is a noted, many-honored, highly respected, and I would have to guess well-
liked, “Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New
York at Stony Brook.” He’s great. I like him. He has managed to do something which
few other teachers have... put thoughts in my head. This accomplishment is all the
more remarkable because, at age 66, I have had years of experience resisting that
possibility and have, of late, become more belligerent than ever, with increasingly
less desire to listen to anyone, let alone learn anything. But, if anyone can lead you
from A to B, it is Dr. Patrick Grim.
(So, there you go; good work, Dr. Grim!)
Very quickly now, the courses I’ve been looking at are: The Philosopher’s Toolkit:
How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room, Philosophy of Mind: Brains,
Consciousness, and Thinking Machines, and Questions of Value. Somewhere very
early on in all of that René Descartes-- French philosopher, mathematician, and
scientist—was discussed, with focus upon mind–body dualism. (that there is the
physical world and there is the mental world and one is public and the other
exclusively private.) Apparently this is a problem for people who have given the
matter any thought at all. As they see the problem it is: How on earth do these two
realities interact? Descartes had no doubt that they exist together—thus his
statement “I think therefore I am”—but how do they interact.
Now, in my mind a more precise question (if I am not entirely wrong all together,
an admitted possibility, if not likely probability) is: “At what point do these two worlds
connect, and how?”
If Descartes is right, how does that work? However it works—the world, including
thought, is all physical, the world, including the physical, is all thought, or some other,
less obvious possibility—and, and, and, dualism falls very short of explaining how
those two separate factors—mind and body—work together..
Down the line (many many many lectures later), after taking a look at how the mind
works; the physical/chemical mechanism/whatever behind thought, perception, the
ideas of identity and self, fee will…every conceivable aspect of the matter from every
possible angle; this thing called consciousness pops up and cannot be ignored.
Descartes is mentioned again, but only to be dismissed by those working on this
problem... he’s merely the jumping off point, the launch pad for others to base their
That exploration leads quite naturally to what Dr. Grim says is “The defining problem
in philosophy of mind today”, the idea of consciousness… and, inevitably (it would
seem) we must then face what’s called ‘the hard problem of consciousness’: What is
it? Where is it? How does it work? More importantly, how does our brain—the
physical thing we carry around inside our skulls—produce subjective reality?
So, here’s where I come in.
In their struggle to understand consciousness and explain it there are two major
reasoned and reasonable theories and one so oblique as to be dismissed
immediately even by someone as unlikely as me.
For the sake of the curious however here’s that one. Some guy named Chalmers
suggests that “we should revamp our entire scientific worldview to include
consciousness…” Apparently he thinks that every particle on earth, even as small as
electrons, has consciousness. Let me tell you something about that. I remember
walking home one time (about 1968 or so) when I was so stoned that I thought the
street signs were leading a quiet little life of their own but, unfortunately for the mind
philosophy community, I never took the time or the necessary steps to publish that
thought in a scientific journal. At any rate, let’s forget Chalmers, he’s clearly an idiot.
If inevitably he’s proven right, I’ll apologize to the flecks of dust which hover in the air
in front of the lens which acts as the eyes of my computerized being.
The more reasoned and, to my small mind, more reasonable theories were those of
Francis Crick and Roger Penrose. I’m gonna off-track Penrose as well—you can look
him up yourself if you’re interested—because it’s Crick which I think is on the right
Crick says that… (I mean, as I understand it…) Crick says that, for recognition of
anything various parts of the brain, each which are designed to respond to their own
select stimulus, all begin to hum at a certain rate. That rate is 40 hertz. You get
several parts of the brain working together, humming at 40 hertz and something out
there is being recognized.
“How good is the 40-Hertz theory?” Dr. Grim asks himself. And he supplies this
answer: “The 40-Hertz theory is worth pursuing, particularly with an eye to
understanding the binding of separate areas in the brain. Nevertheless, it does not
offer and answer to the hard problem.”
The hard problem is this: how does the mind take the leap from merely recognizing
things to that elusive thing called consciousness? (recognizing itself)
Well, I know the answer to that. It’s encapsulated in what my wife cleverly and
charmingly, though somewhat critically, calls I’m not a train, therefore I am.
In the discussion of recognition—various parts of the brain all firing at 40-hertz—
Dr. Grim uses the example of a train. One part of the brain, which is designed for
that, hears the train, another part of the brain, designed to detect vibrations, feels
the rumble, a memory of a past experience with trains is triggered somewhere in the
memory banks. All of these separate parts of the brain are now firing in synchronicity
and you look out and your mind recognizes a train. But, how does your brain’s ability
to put all the clues together to recognize a train lead to consciousness?
All of our senses (all of them) work by comparison and contrast. The eyes see things
by contrasting movement against the stability of the background, or a dark object
against the light. Our fingers know an irregular surface by comparing it to a smooth
surface. Smell… whoa! What the hell is THAT, it wasn’t here a moment ago.
It’s too spicy for me means that you know what less spicy means. All of our senses
work on comparison and contrast.
So there you are, and there is that train. Your brain—due to various parts detecting
various aspects and coming alive at 40-hertz—recognizes the train. Your mind—
which is a comparison and contrast mechanism—recognizes not only that that is a
train, it also recognizes that it is out there… So, what is this thing that is doing the
recognizing? If that thing—that train—is out there, what is this thing that is in here?
It is by contrast that the thing that recognizes the train also recognizes itself.
How do you know you’re you?
Well, strange as it may sound, I know I’m me because I’m not a train.
Yes, and I’m not all that other stuff out there as well.
I am not a train, therefore I am.
Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood everything entirely—which is always a distinct
A THOUGHT ON CONSCIOUSNESS July 2, 2015
revised July 4, 2015
“Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement.” Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, 1674
That which is truly understood can be expressed clearly.
I like that idea. I like that idea a great deal. So, let me attempt to do that first, I’ll clutter it up
with supposedly supportive, supplementary and superfluous matter later.
1- The mind is an observing/recognizing/comparison mechanism.
(I believe that is both the way it operates as well as its purpose.)
2- It is always observant; it recognizes what it can; an essential part of recognition is comparison.
3- Comparison is a process by which every discernable aspect of a thing is weighed.
4- That weighing is both automatic and immediate, and the first step is to generate an opposite to
what it recognizes.
5- To recognizes a thing means to gives it a name (or at very least an identity) and a location
(to place it in space.)
6- So, if the mind observes something and recognizes, say, that it is a train, and that it is over there,
it automatically, immediately, perhaps simultaneously, recognizes that it (itself) is not that train
and it is not over there. The entity is given a name –itself, and given a location - right here.
7- The mind, by comparison (not a train, not out there) has self-recognition.
8- The mind recognizes that all things that are out there, (not in here) with other identities, are not itself.
Is that not consciousness?
If this only adds up to a definition of ‘dualism’, then it is dualism with consciousness added.