Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tax Day Synchonicity, The Nature of Consciousness and Science Fiction

Technically, Tuesday is tax day, since today is a Sunday and tomorrow is a holiday in D.C., so much of my weekend was spent finally putting the data into the computer program (TaxCut) and learning new tax arcana. To celebrate we watched the movie Stranger than Fiction in which the protagonist Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, is an IRS agent who hears a narrator inside his head. He is the protagonist of a book someone is writing as well as the movie. It is quite clever post modern stuff. Ferrell is a good and sympathetic character in this movie without being his wacky over the top comedy self that is his cinematic hallmark. Deadpan can be funny too.

Harold needs to find the narrator of the story as quickly as possible because his life might depend on it. Harold's search for the narrator reminded me of a science fiction short story called "Third Person" by Tony Ballantyne (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction) in which the characters can only think of the situations in which they are immersed in third person. A drug removes their knowledge of their identities, making everything third person and impersonal. This makes them excellent soldiers, the drug is a surreptitious recruiting tool. When someone else is signing the enlistment form and joining up, because there is no "you", the army isn't such a bad idea. Without a knowledge of self the main character must figure out who is the narrator of this story to find himself before it is too late. It seems that self-recognition, self-awareness and an "I" is necessary for consciousness but not action.

This story is appropriately compared to a better story, "Second Person, Present Tense" by Daryl Gregory (in The Year's Best Science Fiction 23rd Annual Collection) which has the main character taking a drug, Zen or Zombie or Z, which eliminates her self or consciousness and thus she refers to herself in the second person. An overdose of the drug destroys her earlier personality and the plot device allows for her and her doctor to have interesting conversations about the nature of consciousness itself - Consciousness is the Queen and the rest of the brain is Parliment. Parliment passes what laws it wants and the Queen rubber stamps them, but she doesn't have much say in what the vote is or what the laws are. Consciousness as figurehead. There is an excellent quote to start the story that sums it all up:

I used to think the brain was the most important organ in the body, until I realized who was telling me that.
All this suggests that consciousness may be an illusion tacked onto otherwise autonomic or mechanical processes by a part of the brain that lets us just think we are in charge so we don't get too upset about things. There are studies that suggest that we perform the action before our conscious mind (whatever that is) decides to do it. This is much the theme (besides other interesting gedanken experiments) in the novel BlindSight by Peter Watts (of Rifters fame). His characters face a powerful alien intelligence with magnetic fields that warp the insides of their brains enough to cause hallucinations, elimination of self, godlike presences and all manner of horrors. All of which seem to suggest that the brain as computer and seat of "self" isn't all it is cracked up to be.

From taxes to narrators to pronouns (1st to 2nd to 3rd) to the nature of consciousness itself. Are you conscious? Only you will know, though "I" doubt it.

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