On Friday night I went to the premiere of the new David Lodge play, ‘Secret Thoughts’, at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. It’s based on his novel ‘Thinks…’, about the relationship between a cognitive scientist (actually a philosopher) and an English lecturer at a fictional campus university.
The play was fantastic (tickets available here) but one scene in particular started me thinking. The two characters have a long discussion about the nature of consciousness and the ability of scientists to measure and analyse it like any other physical phenomena.
The English lecturer is determined to hold on to her belief that there is some irreducible ‘soul’ at the core of consciousness — something that exists outside of our understanding and that will continue to do so. The cognitive scientist argues that it’s all just a function of neurones and synapses and that we are fundamentally just super-advanced biological computers.
As you might guess I hold to the latter view, not that I think that in any way diminishes the wonder of our being.
I started thinking that we are increasingly in control of the machine that carries our consciousness around. That although the two are inextricably linked today, we have an awareness and understanding of the biological effects that change the way our minds operate. Though our knowledge is far from complete, we know the way hormones affect our mood. We manufacture drugs that can alter the operation of our brains.
The more aware we become of our own internal processes, and the more our science advances, the more opportunity we will have to consciously program the software of our own being. That’s quite a mad idea: like a computer writing its own software.
Such an idea has been explored by Iain M. Banks in the Culture novels. Here humanoid beings with thought-controlled drug centres inside their bodies can reprogram their brains on the fly — or at least moderate the effects of the autonomous systems. They can even change their own sex if they want to.
Elsewhere in science fiction the idea is taken further — ultimately to the separation of the ‘me’ from the ‘meat’. Marvel comics contain stories of human consciousness transplanted into android bodies. In Stargate ‘ascended’ beings live as pure energy, their consciousness having moved beyond the physical realm.
While I’m not sure that consciousness could exist without some sort of medium to carry it — a processor for the software — I do love the idea that we could advance to the point that we’re no longer subject to the limitations of our evolved form. That we could override our biological imperatives and act more logically — at least in certain areas. It sounds cold and possibly a little Vulcan (to continue the sci-fi references) but when you look at what disastrous decisions emotion can lead to, perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing.