There’s an interesting article in the latest New York Review of Book by John Searle, reviewing the book Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey: www.nybooks.com…
I went for a run after reading it. As I ran through the park I was thinking about Markov chains and their application to hedge fund evolution. And then I realized that while I had been thinking about Markov chains and running along smoothly, I had been aware of nothing at all. While I was thinking, I hadn’t even known that I was thinking. Time didn’t pass, and I didn’t even know what I was doing. I had been quite unaware of anything. It was only when I found that I HAD been thinking about Markov chains and that I HAD been running that I became conscious, and stopped thinking about Markov chains.
So, from observing myself, I tentatively conclude: consciousness is NOT consciousness of the present. Consciousness is consciousness about the very recent past, or what was the very recent present. To experience consciousness you require short-term memory and you require the passage of time. Without time, there is no consciousness.
Consciousness is a kind of deja vu, a sort of shock to the system that makes you stop and re-experience something that (you think) just happened, like a scratch on a vinyl record that makes the needle jump back a few grooves and repeat it. In that sense, consciousness is a scratch on the surface of life, an imperfection, a flaw in the perfect functioning of the machine that makes it stop for a moment. When things work perfectly – digestion, kicking a football, a perfect forehand, moving symbols from the RHS to the LHS of an algebraic equation, typing the letters I just typed –– you don’t need to be conscious. When things work perfectly, you’re unconscious. When you’re conscious, things work imperfectly. And, if you’re trying to get things to work perfectly, you’re using consciousness in the service of attaining unconsciousness.