virtual reality
© Natural Cycles
I've been thinking about various issues relating to postmortem survival and the evolution of consciousness. Well, I guess I'm always sort of thinking about that. But lately I've been thinking that I've probably gotten off on the wrong track with my focus on information processing and my attempted analogies to computer systems and virtual reality.

All analogies will break down at some point (this is inevitable when comparing qualitatively different things), but in this case the analogies seem to fail pretty quickly. Trying to compare consciousness to a laser beam reading a disk just doesn't seem to work, because a laser beam is not aware, let alone self-aware. And then what is the render engine (the thing that converts bits of data into a graphical environment)? Is that also consciousness, or is it something else?

If we say that consciousness can choose which data path to follow, then it's not really like a laser beam (which can't choose anything); it's more like the person using the computer, whose choices control the direction of the game. But then the analogy fails in a different way, because we are attempting to explain consciousness by comparing it to the (conscious) computer user - which explains nothing. It's like explaining an orange by comparing it to another orange.

Or if we say there are no free-will choices and the program just plays out inexorably, then what is the role of consciousness? At best it is a merely passive observer.

Although I think there is some merit in the idea that information is fundamental to reality, it seems to me that extending this idea to computer systems, even as a rough analogy, is not helpful. It obfuscates more than it clarifies. It offers a veneer of "scientific" respectability, while actually being too vague and inherently untestable to be scientific at all

That's one thing I've been noodling on. Another, related point is that it's probably a fool's errand to try to understand "how it all works." The Flatland analogy that's often come up in this blog is relevant here. A Flatlander - a two-dimensional being in a two-dimensional world - might, with great difficulty, be able to grasp the concept of a third dimension, at least in purely mathematical terms. It is doubtful he could visualize it except in the crudest terms. Even if he experienced it directly, as does A. Square in the novel Flatland, he could not express his insights in terms that would be intelligible to less enlightened Flatlanders, nor would he himself retain more than a foggy impression of his experience.

Now imagine the insuperable difficulties faced by a Flatlander trying to grasp the fourth (physical) dimension, or the fifth.

I think we are in a comparable position. Our brains, constrained by the laws of three physical dimensions plus time, simply aren't capable of processing the realities of an almost infinitely higher-dimensional system. Even if, like St. Paul, we were taken up to "the third heaven," we would be tongue-tied upon our return. Eyes have not seen what we had seen; ears have not heard what we had heard. The best we could do is relate to it as a dream - Bottom's dream, because it hath no bottom.

The human mind, limited by the narrow parameters of the human brain, just can't grasp these mysteries. We can grasp at them, like a baby trying to catch a sunray. But our fists will close on air. Even an episode of "cosmic consciousness," in which the secrets of the universe are seemingly revealed in a blinding epiphany, will last only a short time - minutes or hours - and afterward will leave only a fading, distant glow, an emotional impression, a half-glimpsed, half-remembered "something" that haunts us but eludes description. It is as if we briefly saw the whole picture in a glass, and then the glass shattered, and we are left with only splinters of the truth.

Perhaps the best we can do - this is my third point - is try to imagine a reality in which time does not operate as it does here, and in which the laws of cause and effect are altered in ways that would seem illogical by earthly standards. A tangled hierarchy, in which the end is embedded in the beginning, may be the best way of looking at it. Familiar examples include a Möbius strip, a snake swallowing its own tail, and the famous Escher drawing of two hands sketching each other.

For our purposes, we can see the evolution of personal consciousness as a tangled hierarchy (also known as a strange loop). At one end of the continuum is the Oversoul or Higher Self, the culmination of personal development, which comprises all the selves that have come before. (Although the term "before" is problematic here.) At the other end of the continuum is the mundane self, the ego-identity that you and I would recognize as "who I am." The paradox is that the Higher Self is informed by and constructed out of the experiences of the various mundane selves that make up its incarnations, and yet at the same time (except there is no "time") the Higher Self chooses those incarnations and watches over them, sometimes providing guidance.

In our earthly terms, this makes no sense - the hand is drawing itself. But from a higher-dimensional perspective in which every time is now, and the story is both fully told and still unfolding, it can (perhaps) make sense. Not the kind of sense we can truly grasp - like Flatlanders, we are too limited to make it real - our mental equipment would overload and short-circuit long before we were able to achieve real understanding. But vaguely we can discern the outlines. Perhaps.

Does this mean we lose our precious mundane self, our "I", sometime after death? No, because nothing is ever lost. Everything that ever was or ever will be always is, in the eternal now. Does it mean that we surrender our memories of this life when we enter our next incarnation? No, because our multiple incarnations all play out at once; we are alive in the 21st century, and in Ancient Rome, and in a lunar colony, and in the afterlife realm, all at the same time (because there is no time). Does it mean that our Higher Self is subjecting us to suffering that we would not have chosen? No, because the Higher Self is us; as the apotheosis of all our mundane selves, it can choose nothing that we haven't already chosen.

Comment: Perhaps, but taken literally, that too denies the reality and the efficacy of free will, which needs a virtual set of futures from which to choose in order to explain the world of human experience. Otherwise, those futures are predetermined. If that future lunar colonist self exists, then the first potential lunar colonists cannot choose NOT to colonize earth. Countless choices that combine into the web of human history must be predetermined to allow for the specific conditions allowing for the existence of that future lunar colonist.

Perhaps all these selves do exist - as potential selves. In the now, all exists - all possible pasts and all possible futures. But in the realm of experience, only the web of choices made manifest in the world exist, in the manner we experience as actually real. Otherwise, how could we determine what actually happened from what only could have happened? History, along with free will, would be meaningless. And as Robin Collingwood pointed out some generations ago, everything is history - without it no thought is possible.

A man of eighty, looking back on his distant childhood, feels both a sense of continuity with the child he was and a sense of detachment from him; he both is that child, now and forever, and is not that child, whom he has long since left behind. He may feel sorry for some of the suffering the child went through, yet also glad about it, because it made him the man he is. The child would not have wanted to suffer, but the man knows better. And the child and the man are the same. (And yet different.)

Paradox is the only way to understand it. And yet paradox by its nature is incomprehensible. Which gives us another paradox - we can understand only by the method of not understanding.

A dream that hath no bottom, indeed.