A few years ago I was at Ocean Beach in San Francisco with some friends. As a cool breeze blew in and we watched the sunset from a graffiti covered concrete platform, the conversation took a reflective turn.
“What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?” a friend posed. In the minds of the well employed and mildly disenchanted of Silicon Valley, this wasn’t very unfamiliar territory. We went around the group, people ticking off the usual suspects like art and travel.
“I’d write about consciousness,” I said, gathering surprised, sideways glances. I surprised myself as well. I’d never said that out loud, even though it’d been on my mind in some fashion for years. I immediately felt silly about bringing it up. It sounded so impractical, and I didn’t seem to have a very convincing elevator pitch about why I thought this so interesting or important.
I bottled the idea back up for a while, saved it for close friends and vulnerable moments, but this strange call to action hasn’t faded in my mind, it’s only gotten stronger. So now here I am, deciding not to “worry about money,” deciding not to worry if I have a great elevator pitch, just starting to think and write about this topic that has become an obsession.
I’m not sure where this will take me, perhaps a PhD program in something consciousness related, perhaps something else, but I’m on the train now, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it’s heading.
Part of my passion is, perhaps no surprise, very personal. I was raised in a deeply religious Mormon home. I went to two Mormon universities and served a two-year mission in Peru. For Mormons the mission is supposed to be a time of deepening convictions, but I struggled to align my faith with my understanding of the world.
In the years after home I got more and more depressed and desperate to reconcile my feelings. Resisting change, I dug deeper into scripture study, prayer and writings from church authorities, trying to fill up the gaps between who I felt I was, how I saw the world, and who I felt the church needed me to be.
When I finally made my transition out of Mormonism, I felt such emotional relief and freedom, but I also found the muscles I’d strengthened doing so much reading about church doctrine, were ready for a new passion: science. I dove into Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and a pile of other pop science books.
Soon I started to run into references to consciousness, a topic that seemed so intimate and personal, yet was rivaled only by speculative physics in the level of debate it generated. In many ways it reminded me of the debate about God. Some called consciousness a hallucination, others said it was the essence of everything in the universe from atoms to fish to humans, still others said it was the only thing we can be certain is real.
This set off all the alarm bells of inconsistency that prompted my religious exodus, and I couldn’t look away. I must be able to get to the bottom of the story, or at least build some semblance of a philosophical framework I could stand on, I thought. And perhaps more importantly, I also saw a jumping off point to try to understand the question that has troubled me for a decade: Why did my Mormon family and I, who seemed to inhabit such similar worlds, come to believe such different things? What is it about how minds work that makes this possible?
Unlike with evolution or astrophysics, consciousness didn’t seem to be a topic I could read a best seller about and call it a day. Books like Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, for example, which does a great job pulling down any confidence in a dualist human nature, somehow seemed to kick off as many questions as they settle.
At the most extreme, I saw smart people who had investigated the issue and essentially decided that the nature of our human experience was just evolutionary detritus.
“Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes,” says Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens in his book Homo Deus. “Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the airplane forward. Humans don’t need carbon dioxide, but each and every breath fills the air with more of the stuff. Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there.”
This argument reminds me a lot of the mopey Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey’s character in True Detective.
“I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution,” he says. “We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”
I may never have a better answer for Harari or Mr. Cohle, and I may not be able to end a debate on consciousness with more answers than questions, but I’m dying to try. And I see so much potential. If we can further develop useful theories about how consciousness works we can both 1) help individuals to work with, rather than against their natural mental processing, and 2) ensure as we build new technologies that resemble human consciousnesses (AI), that we mitigate our weaknesses and leverage our strengths.
So that’s what I’m going to be focusing on next in life. Trying to put this passion to use. To start with, I’ll be working on finding my intellectual home among the many, many disciplines that lay claim to consciousness (neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, behavior economics, sociology to name a few). More on that coming soon. If you’re interested in following along please follow me here and on Goodreads, and if you have any theories/topics/ideas you think I should explore, please let me know.