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You Can’t Get There from Here

David Cowles

Jan 11, 2024

“What do 200 trillion sparks have to do with one idea?”

In 2024, a brand new supercomputer will be ‘turned on’. Big deal! Except that this computer, called DeepSouth, has been built to mimic the human nervous system. For example, it is capable of more than 200,000,000,000,000 synaptic operations per second, which is on par with the estimated rate of operations in the human brain.

Cool beans! But none of this helps us answer the fundamental question: how do 200 trillion synaptic operations turn into an idea for the next issue of Aletheia Today Magazine? Our interaction with the world consists of holistic quanta of experience. We have no sense of 200 trillion electrical phenomena when we shout, “Eureka!”

What do 200 trillion ‘sparks’ have to do with one idea? You just can’t get here from there! Whether you call them ‘buds’ (James) or ‘events’ (Fuller) or ‘actual entities’ (Whitehead), each quantum of experience seems whole

How do you break down the Wow! response to a beautiful sunset? Yet, contemporary science wants us to believe that that such a quantum of experience is simply an ‘emergent property’ of trillions of synaptic firings. But how?

Objection: Perhaps consciousness is an accidental and unnecessary byproduct of neurobiology; perhaps it has no function. But then, how would it have evolved if it didn’t confer some sort of adaptive advantage? One current model talks of ‘consciousness’ as a ‘global workspace’ that allows us to dream up novel juxtapositions and test them out. It has a function!

Question: How would the Wow! experience change if just one of the 200 trillion operations per second did not occur? If 10 did not occur? If 10 billion did not occur? When is ‘wow’ no longer Wow! and what takes its place? 

So, the quantum of experience we call Wow! cannot just be the product of 200 trillion independent events but does this mean that there is no connection between Wow! and our neural processes? Have we put the ghost back in the machine (Ryle)?

Of course not. Wow! is all about the activity of our neural net…but not in the way that materialists (above) suppose. Rather, the Wow! response itself organizes the activity of our neurons so that they can support that Wow! There is no experience of Wow! without a physiological analog, but there is no coordinated (patterned) neuronal functioning without a Wow! (or some alternative experiential equivalent, e.g. Yuck!). 

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Materialists want us to accept an A → B model of reality; idealists prefer A ← B. But in fact, neither is correct. A better model would be A ↔ B. The relationship between 200 trillion synaptic firings and the experience of Wow! evolves dialectically; but that is not to say that the two are identical…or even congruent. 

Our neurons are always active but without ‘experience’ their firings are uncoordinated; they are just idling, they are noise. Wow! is the response of my whole organism to its whole ‘world’. It sends a shock wave across my neural net. It stimulates the orientation and coordination of synaptic firings so that I can have a conscious experience of Wow!  

Analogy: An ordinary piece of metal is exposed to a magnetic field. Immediately, its jumbled molecules align and the metal fragment itself now becomes a magnet. So Wow! aligns neurons. 

Those of us who speak modern Indo-European languages have learned to shoe horn all experience into the syntax of active/passive voiced verbs. Billy hit Johnnie; Johnnie was hit by Billy. What could be simpler? Except that, as every parent knows, real life events are rarely so clear cut.

Events involve relations between two or more parties. But it is as true to say that the event designates its parties as it is to say that the parties determine the event. To describe events as they happen in the real world, we need another verb form, a ‘voice’ between active and passive, a ‘middle voice’.

The Middle Voice verb form is used to describe an interactive relationship between two or more parties. The Middle Voice is the voice of reciprocity, mutuality. In rare, ‘degenerate’ cases, an event may take on an active/passive character, but our language forces us to treat every event as degenerate…with disastrous consequences.

It prompts us to ask: Was ‘original sin’ really an incident of apple eating or was it the building of the Tower of Babel several generations later? The engineering triumph of Babel came at a price: language lost its ability to communicate, i.e., to model interactive events.

Would it surprise you to learn that Indo-European languages (and many others) were ‘born’ with a mature Middle Voice. In fact, it is possible that Middle Voice was the primary proto-syntactical verb form. But in our eagerness to conquer the planet, and enslave each other, we allowed the Middle Voice to atrophy. 

We confront a similar dilemma whenever we encounter a Gestalt. Given the opportunity to view the same configuration of elements in two different ways, each revealing a different pattern, most of us will experience only one such alignment at a time. 

The two competing ‘faces’ of a Gestalt correspond to active/passive polarity. What’s figure? What’s ground? The Middle Voice is comparable to seeing both sides of the Gestalt at the same time. It's not easy, but it’s reality, and IRL, figure and ground are always interchangeable; they are co-subjects. 

So we have a lot of thinking to do! How is it that holistic experiences and quantum events co-modify? And how do they do it? How do we learn to keep both sides of a Gestalt in mind at the same time? How do we move past the ‘syntax of slavery’ (active/passive voice) to communicate our vision of a communitarian world, steeped in justice, where a wolf can lie down with the lamb? Rousseau’s Peaceable Kingdom! One thing’s for sure: You can’t get there from here!


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