Death: The Skeleton Key of Consciousness Studies?

Jaron Lanier

Part 1) Consciousness and Death

The role of consciousness in contemporary scientific thought is similar to the role of death in everyday emotional life. It is usually ignored or denied outright, frequently obsessed over, and sometimes the inspiration for uncharacteristic breaches of common sense.

It is time to state the obvious. The problem of consciousness is deeply interwoven with the problem of death. And yet death is rarely mentioned in relation to consciousness studies. Consciousness is the thing of consequence that dies. Surely this explains a great deal of why there is such an energetic conversation about consciousness, and why passions are so often raised concerning a subject whose basic nature is so elusive and disputed.

The spectrum of attitudes in consciousness studies is strikingly similar to the variety of coping mechanisms for the existence of death1. There are those who imagine they already somehow possess more knowledge about it than they have means to achieve. There are those who believe nothing can ever be said about it. And then there are those who seem to wish to deny its existence. It is these latter who interest me the most.

Life would certainly be simpler without consciousness. If consciousness did not exist, much of philosophy would not exist. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who claims not to be conscious, has already announced the end of ontology, and there have been numerous predictions from like minds that other branches of philosophy are mere stand-ins awaiting more developed science.

So why won't consciousness just go away? What gives consciousness legs is the existence of subjective experience, something persistently elusive and of unclear consequence. Interminable constructions of thought and image have been created by countless generations of people in response to what is nothing more than a perfect point, a thing with no quality and no content. It is a tale out of Borges. A shelf of mathematics books devoted to one numeral alone. A vast museum that displays only one pixel.

There is a popular story about a princess who complains that she cannot sleep comfortably because of a single pea buried under layers of mattresses. That pea is consciousness in the sciences.

To consider consciousness by itself is entirely undemanding. It is a pea. There is nothing to describe. An attempt to account for it in context, however, forces the construction of ever shifting, elaborate adventures of thought.

What a temptation it is to dispose of this erratic data point. That is what any first year student of statistics would be taught to do.

Part 2) Is Consciousness Larger than a Pea?

Denying consciousness outright isn't the only way to attempt to dispose of it. Sometimes consciousness is redefined as something so vast and complex that what was originally thought of as consciousness becomes a stray, inconsequential fragment.

It might indeed seem that subjective experience is much larger than a point, containing oceans of diverse quality and content (such as the qualia). Will it still seem so in a hundred years if neuroscience continues to advance? The contents of an impenetrable black box cannot be perceived as having anything but an indeterminate size, and in the case of our minds that size feels huge. But if we are able to eventually understand the mind with finer and finer-grained precision, its size will become a known quantity. If and when we understand the brain completely, subjectivity will appear to be infinitely small, nothing more than a point which will not go away.

With a sufficiently advanced neurotechnology, it should presumably be possible to reliably and repeatably construct mental phenomena, such as qualia, in detail by setting values in neurons. This would be an experience confirmable by anyone who plays with the gadgets that accomplish it. "Brainoramas" would no doubt be the new consumer electronics blockbusters; pure experience machines. These machines would not claim to become conscious themselves, but rather would allow human users a precise technological route to controlling the detailed content of their own subjective experience.

A brainorama would consist of three parts. One would be a hat that contains sensors capable of reading and writing the states of each neuron in your brain at a rapid rate. There would also be a display that shows you what's going on in your brain, and allows you to edit it. Connecting these would be a computer capable of recognizing and synthesizing neural patterns. I won't attempt to guess at what future century might be capable of producing this device.

A lazy customer could be given an adventurous experience or deep wisdom, according the current fashion. One can predict that the use of these machines might follow the pattern set earlier by psychedelic drugs and music synthesizers. Synthetic experiences that were initially fresh and extreme quickly become banal, as intensity is maximized in all directions until it becomes meaningless. Following that will be the realization that "there is no free lunch," that the construction of creativity in thought, beauty in creation, or depth in character requires as much or more work in the purely informational world of brainorama as it does in real life.

In the end, however, the nature of these exotic new objectively controlled subjective experiences will still remain a nagging mystery. Why must experience be there at all? How can one prove if it is or isn't there? Nothing will have changed in these questions, except that we'll be able to observe the questions themselves as brain phenomena directly for the first time using brainoramas.

Imagine watching your thoughts on the philosophy of consciousness go by on the screen2 of a brainorama. Suppose you start to think that maybe consciousness is everywhere, and that is why you can't capture it- and at that moment you see a familiar cloudy squiggle in your cortex, above your ear, similar to the last time you thought the same thing. The pattern recognizer in the brainorama computer catches it too, and a "Chalmers" alert starts blinking. Instead of thinking from the inside, you decide to use the stylus to sketch some narrower loops on your Chalmers squiggle and feel what the thoughts are like. Suddenly you don't find consciousness credible anymore, and indeed a "Dennett" alert is flashing on the screen. But thoughts have a way of springing back to their original form, like memory metals. Other parts of your cortex are automatically alerted into action to repair the damage and soon you see your familiar thought squiggles appear on the screen, just as you find yourself thinking, "But wait a second, consciousness IS there!"3 I suspect that trying to track down consciousness with a brainorama will feel like trying to find the butterfly whose wing flutterings are to be the cause of a hurricane on the other side of the world.

As you browse through your brain, you are able to see the full extent of your memory. It is as if, after living your whole life inside a great canyon of unknown dimensions, you are able to climb to a lookout point on the rim for the first time. For a moment you are impressed with the vastness of what you see. But soon an overwhelming sense of the finitude of your own brain appears as a particularly murky and awkward squiggle. A blinker signals that you are beginning to think about death.

Part 3) A Very Brief History of Death

The nature of consciousness should reasonably be expected to explain the nature of death. For example, if Penrose is right, then consciousness simply ceases when the microtubules dissipate. If Dennett is right, consciousness wasn't there in the first place, so death isn't such a big deal.

The mysteries of death and consciousness are not the same, though. Death cannot tell us as much about consciousness as consciousness can tell us about death. If we knew that consciousness did not survive death, for example, we still wouldn't know what consciousness was before death.

Consciousness has historically been linked with the idea of the soul, primarily in order to substantiate an afterlife. This was not exclusively among excitable religious types. By Plato's account, Socrates' precise mind found subjective experience axiomatic enough to suggest that it must reside in a realm all it's own, which must be revealed in death. Among the religious, of course, consciousness has generally served as an intuitive confirmation of elaborate articulated fantasies of the hereafter, especially in the West4. The difference between the religious and the secular has often been no more than the degree of elaboration and specificity in these fantasies.

Alas, the fear of death has been exploited to create empires. For this reason, scientists and political liberalizers have often been allied to combat dogmatic religious authority. The twentieth century saw the rise to prominence of a culture that was in large part a reaction against the arbitrary and sometimes exploitative nature of death denial fantasies.

The reaction took many forms, such as Marxism and Positivism. The doubt in perfect rationality that the existence of subjectivity inspires was driven underground. Life was understood essentially as a form of technology; something entirely empirical and subject to manipulation and eventual perfection. However, this barricade meant to contain human ambiguities and passions has instead turned out to be the new obstacle to the psychological acceptance of death.

Part 4) Death Denial in the Information Age

In the late twentieth century a bizarre and inverted form of death denial has been gaining ground. It is the ironic grandchild of an earlier generation of rational thought that sought to quell all such sentimentality. In this new fantasy, technology will conquer death.

In the literature of cryonics and nanotechnology one frequently comes across arguments that we are already within shooting distance of the goal. Nanotechnology might be used to create a supercomputer that will quickly figure out how to make nanomachines that can repair the human body and make old age an anachronism. Or cryonics will preserve our bodies until a happy time in the future when they are expected to be thawed by gentle enthusiasts of antiquity. Or, perhaps most tellingly, the contents of our brains will be read into durable computers, so that our minds will continue after our bodies cease to function.

Consciousness is at best a wildcard, and at worst an outright affront to these fantasies. Subjective experience is undeniably present, for those of us who have it, anyway. (I've proposed elsewhere that some philosophers just don't have it.) It is the only thing that would be just as real if it were somehow shown to be an illusion or a mistake; If it is there in any way whatsoever, it is fully there, undeposable, the most primary thing. And yet it has no definitive measurable effect on anything else. The coincidence of these two qualities makes it awkward. It is utterly unclear how consciousness "binds" to the empirical universe.

There is absolutely no way to know what the subjective experience of having one's brain state transferred into a computer, leaving the body to be disposed of, or even of being frozen and thawed, would be. Even if these things were tried, those who hadn't themselves had the experience would only be able to rely on the reportage of the purported survivors who did, and the readouts of their brainoramas. The cold truth is that you have to die to test these ideas5. The living are unable to know if technological reductions of consciousness are valid.

We have come to the fundamental problem for the new death denialists: If consciousness exists, then technological forms of avoiding death are absolutely as uncertain as old fashioned death itself. The "hard problem" kind of consciousness is the enemy of the new death denial fantasy, and there is no stronger source of passion than the defense of such a fantasy.

So consciousness is made to not exist. Here is the engine under the hood of consciousness denial. A literature already exists of the new death denialists. The theorists are Minsky, Dennett, Hofsteder. The authors of new romantic liturgies are Tipler, Moravec, and Drexler. (<<<please check authors' name spelling!)

The tragedy of traditional death denial based on a religious fantasy is that the fantasy must have specific, yet ultimately arbitrary, content. Therefore it is frequently the case that people find themselves holding mutually exclusive death denial fantasies. This is why traditional religion is divisive. Christianity and Islam cannot both be true in their most literal sense. This provides a potential ethical advantage for the new death denialists. If people can agree on one simple tenet, that subjective experience, the pea, does not exist, then they can share in the objective world of empirical confirmation on all the other points that matter. They can agree, for instance, on whether a brain has survived its cryo-, nano-, or cyber- transition into immortality6.

Nonetheless, the new and old styles of death denial are even more in disagreement with each other than any old-styled pair have ever managed to be. The chasm between death denial fantasies provides a worthwhile approach for understanding some of the most frustrating current events. Is it a coincidence that religious fundamentalism is experiencing a resurgence at just the time that science is starting to touch some of the most intimate aspects of human identity? Today's social conflicts are more likely to be about technologies that challenge our definition of death, such as abortion, than about the distribution of wealth.

Although the consciousness community is obscure in the larger scheme of world events, I believe we are on the front lines of a fundamental conflict. The political and social future will be largely determined by the provisional outcomes of conflicts over what are essentially popularized variants of the hard problem.

While I am certainly not claiming that everyone who is not religious is hoping to have their minds transfered to computer disks, I do think that in the consciousness debate we have the most purified form of a new dialectic formed by two opposing death denial fantasies. One is traditional, sentimental, hysterical, and divisive. The other is bland, mechanical, and potentially suicidal. No synthesis has yet appeared, however; in the gap discernible between the two is found only a lonely vacuum requiring the superhuman discipline of permanent irresolution.


1 Certainly the fear of death has been one of the greatest driving forces in the history of thought and in the formation of the character of civilization, and yet it is under-acknowledged. The great book on the subject, "The Denial of Death", by Ernest Becker, deserves a reconsideration. Even as the psychoanalytic tradition seems to be on the wane, this book holds up remarkably well.
2 The screen is what we are most familiar with in 1997, but make no mistake, any upmarket brainorama will actually have a virtual reality interface, so that you find yourself inside a three dimensional representation of your own brain.
3 You might wonder how you avoid becoming lost in an infinite regress of watching your thoughts of watching your thoughts. That is simple. The brainorama computer is programmed to filter out this kind of resonant feedback.
4 Christianity, a post-platonic religion, was primarily founded not on the exceptional emanations of burning bushes, demons, or other extraordinary objects, but on the reports of people of apparently ordinary form, Jesus and Lazarus, who could confirm the continuity of consciousness after death. (While reports of Jesus' life do contain some other supernatural events, like walking on water, these are surely not as vital to the religion.) In Christianity the physical world became more ordinary and the hereafter more baroque, especially as the religion developed over the centuries.

5 Note that you do NOT have to die to test a Brainorama, so long as you use it gingerly.
6 This only provides a potential unity in the understanding of facts- it certainly doesn't suggest any unity of motivation. In fact, the cliche would seem to be that conciousness-free people face a crisis of meaning and lack grounds for motivation in any direction.

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