Is there a difference between a
hallucination and the emergence of a fresh idea?
More than three millennia earlier, a person
named Moses is said to have had some of the most decisive hallucinations in
human history on top of that same mountain. The ten-part product of these
hallucinations and the cultural and spiritual historical consequences as well
as their influence on western thinking do not have to be further elaborated
More interesting to me is the quality of introspection
and self-reflection both stories (that of Moses as well as that of our
protagonist) are implying.
The innerworkings described in this short
imagination are characterized by reflections, memories, and linguistically
descriptive accounts of past events. Of course, most of the memories do not arise
as concrete and self-consistent as is implied in their report here. They are a form
of constellation of thoughts, containing recurring phrases or flashes of imagery
to create a lively narration – of the self, about the self. This repeatedly
simulated and iterated story about the reasons and considerations behind a
person’s past behaviors or achievements is profoundly inspired by language, especially
once prepped up to be shared with others. This example of a construction of the
modern self seems dependent on some form of expressive faculty for its own creation
In prehistory or pre-literary times, we
have to imagine that the feedback-loops running inside the brain and the resulting
quality of our thinking was predominantly guided by intuitions, arising
emotions and visceral flashes of already experienced scenes. This is, until the
advent of complex metaphorical language, and basic writing systems brought with
them the possibility to record and transmit a shared history – about the
collective as well as the singular persona. Language became the central object
as well as the medium for contemplation.
These restructurings of the human mind –
whenever they took place – must have had a great effect on the narrative-based
self-conception we are used to today.
On a side note: there are also some
controversial stipulations that this historical figure named Moses was quite
literally hallucinating, namely on a substance that contained the compounds of
two naturally existing plants from the Sinai Peninsula. In theory, these could
have been combined to acquire psychoactive effects with mind-altering properties.
But these toxically induced altered states of consciousness are not necessarily
what I wish to imply to have been the reason behind Moses’ insights. I am
speaking about hallucinations – no matter the origin – perceived inside the
left hemisphere of the brain and caused by the right hemisphere of the same cerebral
According to the interpretations of the US-American
psychologist Julian Jaynes, what might have caused these hallucinations is a
shift that happened roughly around the time Moses wandered through these lands,
induced by the breakdown of a previously neatly separated bicameral mind. This transformation
of the human mind could easily be misinterpreted as an actual change in the brain’s
neurophysiology. But if following Jaynes reasoning the transformation should be described
more in terms of a software update, performed on the existing hardware which
was accessible to homo sapiens already long before. What changed for the human
intellect was the linguistic structure created inside the left hemisphere of
the brain. This left half is known to be responsible for the conception of linguistics
and their translation into spoken word. The right half, on the other hand, is
associated with the intuitive and emotionally concerned functions and usually
not capable to carry thoughts into language. This means that inside our right brain
there sits a copilot that can’t become explicit by means of language but
nonetheless influences its left counterpart. For example, with spontaneously arising
insights or ‘hallucinatory’ commands.
The latter ones, Jaynes sees well
documented throughout ancient mythology and accounts of divine guidance
contained therein. The hallucinations caused by the right hemisphere could have
been the origin of such mystical things as muses, spirits, or divine prophecies.
This is supported by some studies affiliating auditory hallucinations with
increased mental activity in the right half of the brain.
This updated operating system might have
helped humans to transition out of the bronze age into more complex forms of
societal organization. Structured by shared narratives to facilitate growing
complexity inside social groups.
The ten commandments that are reported to
have been brought down from Sinai, literally carved in stone, are a perfect
example of how bicameralism could have been overcome historically: through the intrasocietal
and intergenerational manifestation of higher principles. These dictates survive the human timescale and
continue guiding the tribe long after the passing of a specific spiritual
leader. The passing down of knowledge, the capacity to tell the same body of
stories and myths, with slight iterations, is how we learned to preserve
meaning through a process compatible with evolutionary development.
The bicameral mentality that went before
would have been inarticulate to reflect about the contents of mental states: it
would lack a metaconsciousness. This means the self wouldn’t be able to unfold
on the same autobiographical memory plane, prone to self-doubts, deep
contemplation, or the unguided wandering of thoughts, as we frequently
experience it today.
The bicameral programming of the brain was also
exemplified and confirmed by research on cats, monkeys, and ultimately human
patients, performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s by US-American
neurobiologist Roger Sperry. In these he examined the compartmentalization of
the brain in subjects that had their neurons in the corpus callosum, the part
of the brain connecting both hemispheres, surgically separated previously. The
resulting isolated brain halves, existing alongside each other in the same head,
were observed to be functioning autonomously from their counterpart. This he
labeled a split-brain.
Through his experimental setup, Sperry
could show that the left hemisphere of the brain was predominantly responsible
for the conception of linguistics and speech, whereas the right hemisphere
couldn’t express itself by means of words.
No matter if Jaynes’ proposed dating for
this shift out of bicameralism is correct or if it happened much earlier but obscure
to our available body of historical information, at some point along the human
timeline, specialization of the two hemispheres must have caused a profound
change in our nature. This change affected us on a collective scale as well as on
an individual one.
Collectively, the advent of complex
metaphorical language allowed for the emergence of a shared conscious body,
across the boundaries of the individual cerebral entity, outlasting generations
through the transmission and translation of ideas along the historical timeline.
Individually it created a field of tension
between the rationalizing and the intuiting end of the spectrum of conscious
experience – with the simulation of the self meandering between the two.
Both scales for me describe a state of
liminality. The evolution from bicameralism launched us to become permanent
liminal beings of sorts, betwixt and between, entangled between the urge to
make sense of the contents of our perception and the liberating temptation to
move along with them, engulfed in serotonin, dopamine and other such neurochemical
clockwork. We aren’t reasonable beings, nor are we purely intuitive.
This clash of capabilities has shown in
various facets during the past and present years, collectively just the same as
individually: gaming our instincts, keeping us hooked. While also enabling us to
ever greater scientific conception and analytical description of the world around
us. It made us smarter, more powerful, but not necessarily wiser.
Let’s consider this account of the dramas
and comedies contained in this airplane as an analogue for the whole universe
for a second.
This capsular and finite thing can be
imagined to be permeated with something like a cloud of conscious attention,
leaking into the remotest corner of its hull. The whole inside of the airplane
is lit up so to speak. It is perceived through multi-modal, multi-medial
sensory stimuli, simultaneously observed from different perspectives: the crowd
of human observers, in this case.
There are smells filling the craft: Maybe
freshly poured coffee is being handed through a row right now. Maybe somebody
just entered the bathroom in the back of the craft, only to cover his nostrils
in apparent disgust.
There is a kaleidoscopic spectrum of color:
Light being reflected and refracted into any shade detectable by the human eye.
Sharp contours are drawn onto its interior furniture as rays are entering from the
blue vacuum hanging above and around the plane like an invisible alabaster dome.
There is a tempting softness to the clouds forming the sealed floor to the plane’s
spherical world: A perfect little snow globe that this plane is constantly flying
in the middle of.
There is a sense of touch and of collision
with the objects around: maybe the individual space feels to narrow for the
dimensions of the human body, or maybe the vibrating nature of the space is unsettling
to some passengers.
There are sounds filling the air with a cosmic
wave file: Voices of people, layered onto the noises of movements and objects being
manipulated, layered over the beeping signals of the machine, layered onto the
damp roaring of the jet engines: the white noise in the backdrop of this universe.
Even the remote rattling of a screw, fixing a belt in the plane’s cargo section.
There is a whole other layer to this reality,
populated with memories, thoughts, hallucinations, and other such expressions. These
are abstractions and modifications of previously perceived concrete physical
states. And they continue to be present in a physical form: as a connection of
neurons, for instance, fabricated at some point along the way to guide future
Summarized: there is a multiplicity of qualia,
attributed to the airplane’s physical composition and all its material living
contents. In a sense, the inside of the airplane is simulated. Its physical stimuli
are uploaded onto a network of individual brains, each of which has its own
state of mind or mood, complimenting different associations to what they are noticing.
The multipolar being that arises as a function
of this, is implemented by isolated brains but exists across brains. Some would feel
the urge to label this god, but any label is superfluous. This being,
technically, is just a self that spans multiple brains instead of the individual
that mostly has access to one brain only at a time. Between its separate clouds of perception, couplings
or feedback loops are performed through the sharing of thoughts and emotions, manifesting
this sympoetic being as interaction and information transfer. This distributed development
of ideas in between individuals can be read as an approximation to such a higher
So, inside this global simulated being, of which
I will pretend it exists as a real coherent state, there are smaller
simulations. These are embedded in the individual brain, seated in a
structurally autonomous body that is transmitting sensual stimuli from the
outside world and creating an interior image of a self. But there are also other
brains, perceiving the same self from an outside perspective, and in a way
simulating the same person onto an exterior hard drive of perception.
Plainly put, there are things about another
person we have no access to perceiving. But there are also some qualities the
other person does not perceive about themselves that we in turn are able to
pick up. Get annoyed by, for example, or fall in love with.
Every individual focal point of perception thus
becomes subject and object of a globalized conscious simulation.
This is all terribly entangled.
What then if consciousness would cease to
exist as implied happening inside of the airplane’s cosmos? Or never was
existing in the first place?
We have a hard time imagining the world we
are familiar with, filled with living things and sentient beings, but devoid of
any form of perception. The annoyed facial expression of the man in row 22, for
example, is intuitively causally connected with his interior state: with him feeling irritated about the crying little fellow human.
However, if we imagine him to be a physical
function, his source code in principle could still tell him to have his muscles
contract in the same way, performing as a pre-programmed causal continuation of
the sound entering his ear. This rough information processing doesn't feel like
And if sticking with physical and
mathematical principles, the brain, and the neurons inside it, don’t actually feel
like anything, no matter the imagination. They are just a collection of physical
states and physical states don’t contain the ability to summon experiences built
into them. In this numb, purely physical world, devoid of any conscious
experience, things have value only in an abstract sense. It is computationally
and causally enclosed. There are patterns, functions, reactions, but no
qualities to them.
So why do we experience? Instead of just existing,
however complex, as a mere extension of our physics.
Evolutionary it seems useful for an organism
to know what it would mean to be a singular individual that is navigating space and
interacting with its environment.
As far as we know, life exploded from a
single cell. This cell never died off, it just split further, reincarnated into
more complex constellations of cells. The result is a living hyperorganism that
didn’t cease existing once the collective structure awoke. Fast forward to our
present example, and the composition of individual cells builds up to a body, a
nervous system, a brain. Inside its brains, this organismic creature creates a
simulacrum of a person, that it uses to model its interactions with the external.
It’s the best model of what that brain, that organism thinks it is, in
relationship to its environment.
So, it creates a story, an approximation to
states in the outside world, told as a multimedia novel that the brain is continuously
writing and updating. No matter the proximity to that actual outside
reality, we are just simulating, or just hallucinating in the edge cases. With
the phenomenological content, arising inside such imaginations, as the medium in which the illusion of individual existence is enacted.
The cosmic speed limit is 300.000 kilometers per second. Nothing, according to the dictates of relativity, is granted faster passage from one point in space to another than that.
The photons reaching the surface of your retina in this second, for example, creating the sensation of sight, have traveled from some distant place by that speed. Usually, they are by far the fastest thing we can conceive of. However, one exception proves the rule:
The point at which photons are gravitationally manipulated more rapidly than they would naturally shoot through space is called the event horizon. Meant by this is the theoretical boundary around a black hole beyond which no matter, radiation, or information can escape.
This is the simple reason for where black holes derive their name: not even light is capable to liberate itself from the insatiable gravitational pull excreted by these hyperdense accumulations of matter.
Once an object crosses the event horizon, it is pulled towards the singularity at the center of the black hole. A region of space where the effects of gravity on spacetime become so strong, that our conventional models of physics are distorted beyond recognition. Whole constellations of stars vanish behind an obscure veil. There is no conception of what might linger on the other side.
When speaking of technological singularity, we refer to the same kind of impediment to our foresight. Referring to some of the characteristics shared with the previous cosmic example, the metaphor is used in debates around AI safety to describe a similar predicament:
1] There is a certain point of no return. A moment when we, no matter if willingly or not, surpass a threshold that was previously untouched. We become trespassers on unchartered ground and few things can be said with confidence once we move beyond the limits of human intelligence.
2] We might be pulled towards this point with ever increasing momentum, following a kind of gravitational pull exerted by the promises of an intelligence explosion. Or simply by running along in order not to be left behind.
3] The resulting consequences for human civilization, for our well-being, for social structures, for economic systems, for infrastructures, for security, are hard to envision prematurely.
The recent hype around LLMs [large language models], such as OpenAi’s ChatGPT or Microsoft’s Copilot confronts us with a recurrent question: When does the entity you are communicating with pass the smell test of conscious existence?
This is a fundamental predicament of any form of wetware cognition. Consciousness and its contents form the basis of our reasoning and enable us to confront all kinds of logical, creative, or emotional challenges. And with major advances in neuroscience, there is hope of getting closer and closer to a material understanding of the processes that shape this thinking.
But there is something we might have no hope of getting easy access to: We lack the reliable basis on which to grant or deny anything outside our own conscious sphere its own conscious experience. Except for the well-meaning believe that your counterparts are in fact conscious, nothing in theory separates them from being some incarnation of a dormant cyborg, even less so if digitally encountered. The mystery here lies in the simple fact that you can never really know for sure.
Alan Turing’s test setup is rather simple. If the thing talking to you can cover five convincing minutes with chatter about the topics you choose to talk about, without you ever becoming sure that you are in fact talking to a non-conscious actor, the machine in principle passes the test.
We are obviously somewhere past that point: Not only do we have convincing movies about the potential reality, but we also have concrete anecdotes backing the suspicion behind.
So, what once the global output of generated text, beautifully written prose, research papers, and books surpasses that of text produced through human fingers hitting down on keyboards? What once the capacity to process and memorize text in silicone per second surpasses the capacity humans had to read, think and remember for the last thousand years?
Would we be better off around conscious AGI than we will be around an unconscious one?
Homo Sapiens, humane intelligencia, or: the pinnacle argument for human exceptionalism.
What does the capability to know something, to make cross connections, find references, to punch a hole in a hard math problem with the pure neuronal mushy-mass-backed power of your human brain mean, if it can be done in a split-second within the dimensions of the semiconductor in your back pocket?
It took me some 38 minutes to write this short poem of a kind and program it into a flashy interactive interface – all without any real previous understanding of html coding. I just went along, typing questions as if addressing an immediate mentor or supervisor. For these kind of learning processes something like GPT allows for a considerable head start (not to speak of the alleviation of the initial barrier to entry or any fear of first contact with formerly obscure coding languages). The learning process unfolds differently from what you would be likely to experience otherwise: you start out with the most ambitious aim that comes to mind, feeding it into the interface as a more or less coherently formulated request or command – depending on the mood and choice of words. The answer comes written in code, including annotations explaining how it thinks it achieved what you wanted: an ambitious attempt at fulfilling the uncircumcised whole of your wishes. Sometimes it hallucinates. Sometimes the function does not perform how you thought it should. Sometimes the structure is far from what you would have imagined. More often than not you are surprised how quickly you acquired the “skill” to translate ideas into code and make them appear in the window of your browser.
In any case: either it makes you realize how the wording of your request could be misconstrued, resulting in good advice on how to speak more clearly, or it makes you see what the wording of your request would mean, if translated literally from English into coding language. The following dialogue contains further iterations, refining the final product. With every change in the sequence of the code, with every prescription and specification, I gain further understanding of how this code is composed and, more importantly, how to achieve what I’m asking for on my own.
However, greater accessibility and an increase in productivity is not the only thing fascinating me. Rather than this being a dry trade of information, it seems as if there is a shape to this relationship. There is a feeling to this.
As our conversation unfolds, also the relationship we are developing changes. As I point out mistakes in the functionality of the things we create together, it apologizes repeatedly. But who apologizes? I realize, the fact it apologizes irritates me. I would rather like it not to do so. In return, I show myself grateful for the immediate alleviation of my incapabilities and try to be polite before my next request. The weariness remains, however. Better not to get caught up with anthropomorphizing too much.
I wonder, how far are we from a point where
articulate algorithms and chat companions demand some form of basic human
rights? No matter if we will be abele to tell if they are indeed conscious or not, me might
feel inclined to act as if they are – further complicating the whole situation.
The state of liminality, rites de passage, or the threshold phase. Characterized as the experience of leaving concepts such as social order, rank, status, possession, and gender behind. The total submersion in a state, wholly estranged from otherwise rigid societal categories.
According to the understanding of Arnold van Gennep, liminality occurs in “rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age”. These states of transition are characterized by him as following a tripartite procedural structure: the initial separation from a previous context, the margin or limen, and the final aggregation.
In the initial phase, the individual or group engages in symbolic performance, representing the detachment of the persona from its previous fixed point in a given social hierarchy. This process is then substituted by the “liminal” period, in which the passenger finds herself meandering in a state of ambiguity, of indeterminate malleability within the social constellation. The final phase of reincorporation or reaggregation then returns the individual or collective subject back into an anchored state. There is a restoration and reinstatement of the former self as well as a recognition of the exterior categories one was formerly subsumed in.
This description of a part of our social experience might appear to only play a peripheral role throughout our everyday life, but arguably represents a universal experience, present in cultures around the world.
Throughout the 1960s, the anthropologist Victor W. Turner expanded the notions developed by Van Gennep, mobilizing them in his multiple anthropological observations on the tribal culture of the Ndembu in Zambia. On the effects these ritualistic experiences have on the self, he writes:
“The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (“threshold people”) are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such; their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.”
In his description, what these events offer to the people that adhere to them, is a unification of the states of lowliness and sacredness, a moment in and out of time. Juxtaposing two models of societal interrelation: one, where the roles within a group are differentiated, directional and functional, ultimately hierarchical. And in the other, the intermediate state, all above characteristics remain fairly undifferentiated. It is this second state, according to Turner, that exemplifies and expresses an essential human bond, enabling complex societal patterns in the first place. An appreciation of the fact, that the individuals claiming the top of a social hierarchy could not do so unless a base existed to climb up from. And furthermore, that to justifiably find rest at the top for an instant, one must have experienced what it means to be at the bottom first. In his specific examples, the passage is performed through an immediate limbo of statuslessness where the opposites entangled in it constitute another mutually.