Tides of Mind

tides book coverThe fact of human consciousness is one of several proofs of the necessity of God. It cannot be explained by biology alone.  And so, it is exciting whenever we have a new advance in understanding of that elusive phenomenon.  Such an advance is found in David Gelernter’s The Tides of Mind.  Gelernter is a brilliant computer scientist, and much of his work has implications for what developing computers — especially artificial intelligence — may actually be capable of, and what is unfounded speculation based on bad understanding of consciousness.

The Spectrum

Gelernter proposes a spectrum of consciousness.  At the high focus end of the spectrum, use of memory is disciplined and focused.  Thought is rational.  Reflection and self-awareness is strong.  This end of the spectrum is typically early in the day, when we have fully emerged from sleep, and are at our most refreshed and capable of cool, rational thinking, with memory serving the analytical functions but otherwise not active.  We are at our most analytical and least emotional.

At a mid-level of the spectrum, memory use ranges freely, and wanders occasionally.  Thought seeks experience.  Emotions emerge.  We are more prone to daydreaming.  The “tide” referred to is the point at which the balance, or momentum, shifts from up-spectrum to down-spectrum thinking.

At the low end of the spectrum, memory takes off on its own.  Thought drifts.  Reflection and self-awareness are weak.  Moving down-spectrum, we drift off into sleep.   At the bottommost rung of the spectrum, we would find pure being – as with Leibnitz’s ontological proof of the God, addressing why there is something rather than nothing.

gelernter photo 2These present a “logic vs. narrative” axis, to which we can add an emotions axis, and the axis of outer- to inner-consciousness. The very fact of these spectrums, and their traceability to bodily needs—alertness declining to a need for rest, and sleep—reinforces that a mind needs both a body and a brain.  The mind cannot be divorced from the body and the brain.  On the other hand, the mind is not only the body and brain, contrary to the working assumption of the dreary materialists that dominate philosophical discourse now.

Understanding Revelation

In both up-spectrum consciousness and low-spectrum consciousness, the mind is engaged in making sense of its surroundings. But the approach is different.  The up-spectrum approach is logic, but logic often cannot explain the “why” of our surroundings.  The down-spectrum approach is storytelling, which flows less rigidly from inference to inference, but may make a better whole of disparate pieces.

Only the logical argument has predictive power.  Only the story has normative content.

Science can rightly be considered an up-spectrum endeavor, though some of its best inspiration would come from down-spectrum thinking. Science is highly analytical and un-emotional.  Much of literature, and especially ancient literature, is the product of more down-spectrum consciousness.  Understanding this difference in paradigm might help to explain the disconnect between empirically rigorous truth-finding, and the truth-finding drawn from analogy; story; narrative.  Gelernter observes:

 Ancient literature drifts farther and farther out of focus to modern minds—not just because old literature is written in old language, not just . . . because it uses unfamiliar assumptions about society  and each person’s status and value, but also, most important by far, because it uses different thought styles from those of today.  We favor high-focus, analytic thought.  Our elite thinkers cluster around the top of the spectrum, whether or not they belong there. . . .  Older societies favored lower-spectrum approaches.

The “ancient literature” he speaks of would include, of course, the Bible. Indeed, about the low-spectrum emphasis on image, Gelernter writes:

024_Jacob_Wrestles_with_the_AngelThinking in images is more natural to biblical civilization than to us; words in the Bible are most important as bearers of images. . . . Images occur in the Bible not to underline or decorate a point; they are the point. Words are only the medium in which they are presented.  Thus, too, for example, we fail to grasp that an all-night fight with an angel and a vivid dream are virtually the same thing.  The dividing line between dream and reality is far more lightly drawn in the Bible than it is for us.  The Bible’s world is a down-spectrum world.

To understand the significance of this view of human consciousness, Gelernter invites us to think of ourselves as being in a room with a view.  The view out the window is our appreciation of the objects in our environment (and, presumably, the human subjects which also inhabit our exterior world).  As we stand in the room and take in the view from the window, however, we are also conscious of the interior of the room.  That is our subjective experience; our awareness of the room and its content, in addition to that which presents to our sense impressions from the outside world.

It is this understanding that can take us closer to understand the failing of the exclusively empirical (and necessarily up-spectrum) way of thinking. As John Searle observed:

The history of philosophy of mind over the past one hundred years has been in large part an attempt to get rid of the mental by showing that no mental phenomena exist over and above physical phenomena.

As Gelernter puts it, “we ignore the room and care only for the view.” No wonder our appreciation of the astonishing reality of our own consciousness is stunted.

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