What is consciousness? The philosopher David Chalmers distinguishes between the Hard Problem and the Easy Problems of explaining consciousness. The latter are those of discovering mechanisms that can carry out mental functions. So one aspect of consciousness is that it has certain effects and scientists can explain how those effects are physically achieved. But according to many philosophers, we won’t understand everything about what it is to have a subjective point of view even after we’ve mapped all of those causal roles of how an organism categorizes its environment, accesses its internal states, controls its behaviour, and so forth. The Hard Problem, then, is to explain the nature of what are called qualia, which are the facts that mental states feel a certain way—so that the philosopher Thomas Nagel can ask what it’s like to be a bat and we can intuit that that question is meaningful, because even were the mental states of the members of all species to have similar evolutionary functions, the qualitative aspect of those states should differ. Thus, it would be redundant to speculate about aliens from another world, because for millions of years ours has been proliferated with animals that have alien viewpoints.
In short, the relatively Easy Problem is to explain the neural mechanisms that carry out the work done by a conscious being in so far as that being is conscious, whereas the Hard Problem is to understand where consciousness in general fits into the mostly unconscious universe. The former problem takes for granted the scientific context of reducing phenomena to causal relations between sums of material elements. The latter problem requires you to hold in mind the qualitative essence of consciousness itself, not just the physical causes and effects of subjectivity, while simultaneously realizing that the anomaly of consciousness somehow belongs in a manifestly unaware and indifferent cosmos. What consciousness does is different from what it is. The former question is scientific, while the latter one is philosophical since what consciousness seems to be—namely the qualia, the having of a private viewpoint filled with meaningful mental contents that are felt to be such by the mind of a living creature—is in fact an anomaly that calls into question the completeness of the scientist’s world picture. Science explains by quantifying and objectifying, whereas consciousness seems to be the antithesis of anything that could be explained in those ways. Consciousness is perfectly subjective, so an objective account of it would miss the point. Moreover, scientific methods of explanation have the social function of empowering modern societies, since scientific theories are applied by industries to exploit natural processes. Conscious beings, however, seem to have moral rights which any such exploitation would violate. Thus, again, the Hard Problem is suited more to (relatively powerless) philosophy than to science.
The Strangeness of Life and Consciousness
The Hard Problem of understanding consciousness is similar to that of understanding life in general, since the existence of organisms on the outskirts of a lifeless galaxy is likewise bizarre. How consciousness emerges from unconscious processes is currently as baffling as how life emerges from nonlife. In either case there’s a discontinuity that makes for the anomaly’s weirdness. The concept of consciousness or of life is incommensurate with that of physical things as such. Granted, after Darwin and Watson and Crick, biologists understand organisms better than psychologists do consciousness, but even as we come to piece together how biological processes developed, such as by studying viruses and other borderline biological phenomena, life’s rarity, its divergence from almost all of the absurdly vast universe makes it strange and that strangeness makes for a hard problem indeed: even if the organic somehow mechanically or non-miraculously evolved from the inorganic, there remains the question of life’s potential as understood against the backgrounds of that natural origin and that alienated position. What are living things in so far as they’re natural anomalies? One event accidentally followed another, perhaps made probable by certain natural regularities, and so life came on the scene—and with life, the evolution of consciousness. But that’s only the history of how we got here. With that knowledge we can understand the mechanical side of ourselves, which empowers us to change our nature just as we tinker with our technology. Yet that technoscientific knowledge won’t encompass life’s weirdness in this, mostly lifeless universe or dictate what living things should do with themselves in light of that existential mystery.
Scientists will say there is no objective purpose of life or that to speak of why life evolved, as opposed to how it mechanically did so, is to speak gobbledygook, but this incomprehension is quite consistent with the foregoing thesis. Science deals with causal relations and with the empowerment of modern societies. Meanwhile, there’s a philosophical branch of knowledge called aesthetics in which is registered the existentialist’s sense that nature’s creation of life is patently a strange thing to have happened. The fact that life was made inevitable because of some mechanism or other only infects that mechanism, as it were, with life’s strangeness. Ultimately, the existential question is about the nature of a universe that could itself be so profoundly deserted and indeed lethal to life, but that could nevertheless be the source, haunted abode, and final resting place of living things. By trying to forestall their death, animals set themselves in opposition to the blind forces of the frugal, heartless ecosystem. Throughout the universe there’s a flow, as effects inexorably proceed once certain conditions are met, but with the emergence of life there’s the satanic will to undo and to remake the environment. Again, in so far as they seek to preserve themselves despite their finitude, organisms are inherently opposed to the realities of nature, and so they effectively distract themselves from the grotesque fact that life came to exist at all in such a world. So just as living things generally are revolted by the aesthetic status of their existential predicament, scientists may pretend there’s no nonscientific knowledge. That is, as living things aim to alleviate their angst by replacing the lifeless wilderness with an extended phenotype, with a microcosm made in their image in which they can forget their creator’s undeadness, modernists may cope with life’s strangeness by denying the validity of those fields of inquiry that lack the utopian promise of technoscience.
In any case, there’s this insusceptibility of either consciousness or of life to be groked unless we ignore the fact that each is conditioned by its antithesis, which relationship makes for an existential mystery and thus for a Hard Problem of philosophical understanding. If we confine ourselves to mechanistic questions of how certain natural work is carried out, if we focus on biological issues of how organs or individuals function to preserve their genes, we can pretend there are no such Hard Problems. We would be thinking in instrumental terms, trying to gain the upper hand and losing our sensitivity to the aesthetic status of any created thing, including life or consciousness. Art makes sense when human artists paint or sculpt or write plays in a culture that fixes our expectations, and physical effects make sense in the scientific theory that always explains by way of objectification. But the emergence of life and of consciousness is both uncanny and sinister. Again, even when the mechanisms and the history are understood, the aesthetic status of the system that creates those forlorn ephemera by those means remains to be evaluated, and the value in question is plainly negative.
It’s not just that life and consciousness are wildly improbable as a matter of measurable fact, since their rarity has ethical and aesthetic implications. Once living things are made, their creator should be held accountable for the horrors that animals are forced to endure and to perpetrate, but there’s obviously no such accountability. The world in which these conflicts are bound to occur is—for that reason—a fundamentally ugly place and the inexplicability in question is itself abhorrent rather than just peculiar, because the naturalness of life and of consciousness ensures the lack of atonement for the suffering of animals in general and for the angst of enlightened individuals. In effect, natural forces and elements are immune to our Job-like calls for justice in response to the alienation of the more intelligent creatures—not just because nature is merely undead, but precisely because there’s no point to the creation of those anomalies and thus no satisfying philosophical reason for them. Whereas God might at least have a hidden purpose that’s beyond our comprehension, naturalists lack that assurance. Ultimately, then, the Hard Problem is that while we can understand simplified versions of subjectivity and of vitality that take into account only their mechanical underpinning, their aesthetic and existential status is appalling and there’s no remedy for that impression.
Fractals and the View from Nowhere
Like life, then, consciousness is anomalous, meaning that at a minimum hardly anything in the universe has that attribute. There’s surely a tortured history in which life evolves from nonlife and certain species become especially sophisticated in their perceptions and in organizing their mental maps. As to why consciousness evolved, in terms of what conscious beings should do, given that they’re merely bizarre third wheels rather than treasured masterpieces of a deity, there’s no satisfying answer—which makes for the Hard Problem. Granted, nothing in the universe has any objective purpose, but the difference is that most natural phenomena are clichéd, aesthetically speaking, rather than virtually unnatural in their uniqueness. If stars could think, they’d feel at home in the cosmos rather than alienated in it. Organisms and especially highly-conscious, authentic rather than delusional beings suffer from knowing that alienation is their lot, because of the divergence between the undeadness of natural reality and the freakishness of certain byproducts of cosmic decay.
However, consciousness does have a natural role besides the local, mechanical and evolutionary ones posited by scientists. In fact, the existential aspect of the Hard Problem—the bizarreness and pointlessness of qualia in nature, owing to the discontinuity between conscious beings and everything else, to the difference between semantic and causal relations, and so forth—helps to solve it. Again, the Easy Problem would be to explain how consciousness functions in light of biology or psychology. The Hard Problem is to explain how qualia fit into nature and the difficulty is that qualia are uncanny, which is to say they’re practically unnatural compared to the physical objects that drift through the undead universe. But this abyss between subject and object, which makes for the former’s alienation from the latter, offers a clue to what consciousness is doing in nature in general. Instead of reducing consciousness to its animalistic roles, we can take the strangeness of qualia as a primitive fact and see how nature uses discontinuities in some of its undead processes.
Nature is undead in that it’s not guided by any mind, but nor is it inert. Nature is energetic and it organizes more and more complex forms on the basis of unknowing material elements and blind and indifferent forces. One of these processes which thus only simulate intelligent direction is the sowing of the fractal dimension. A fractal is a pattern in which parts resemble the whole they form, where the resemblance is detailed and it reoccurs no matter what the scale of magnification so that the parts of those parts likewise resemble the wholes they form, and so on. Fractals thus repeat some pattern over and over, and it’s that maddening repetitiveness in much of nature which tips us off to the world’s quasi-childishness, to its lack of forethought and to its imbecilic building on itself by its reuse of simple methods. When a child asks for her parent to read the same story over and over, the adult finds this mind-numbing. But natural phenomena like trees, mountain ranges, frost crystals, or waves grow by a similar sort of recurrence. Note that the mathematical concept of fractals includes the idealization of infinite repetition, but nature is finite and other processes typically interfere with the growth of natural fractals, so their self-similarity is only approximate.
The most famous fractal is the Mandelbrot set, in which highly complex structures are produced by applying a simple rule ad infinitum to a complex number and treating the result as a set of image coordinates. The Mandelbrot set is actually governed by an equation that combines all of the Julia sets that chaotically iterate a function, and so the Mandelbrot fractal maps out all of those sets; like the universal Turing machine that can simulate all Turing machines, the Mandelbrot fractal is the fractal of fractals. For my purpose, what’s intriguing about the Mandelbrot fractal is how it emphasizes the iterative nature of the pattern by its bulb structure in which bulbs that contain more and more detail sprout in a mathematically tangential fashion. This means that many of the components touch each other at a single point. Now the question arises as to what happens in that stage of a fractal’s growth that occurs between the iterations, when the pattern is about to reoccur but hasn’t yet done so. Every time a part copies the structure of the whole it helps to form, there’s a small space or interval between it and the part from which it emerges. To simplify, suppose you repeatedly count to ten. When you move from one number to the next within each set of the ten numbers, there’s an arithmetic rule that determines the next number. But that rule—which says, for example, that six follows five—doesn’t force you to repeatedly count to ten. When you choose to repeat the sequence, there’s a discontinuity between ten and one, a point of decision, in this case, that’s not contained by the set of the first ten numbers. Likewise, in the Mandelbrot set the parts grow from and within each other by a process of iteration, and there’s a gap between many of those parts, a mere tangential point of contact. In a sense, that point, called the alpha-fixed point, lies outside the fractal structure, although it too is repeated throughout the fractal. Technically, the alpha-fixed point helps to generate the recurring pattern by bifurcating the bulbs or other shapes, repelling a cycle with another, attractive cycle, and growing another structure by that clash. But if you zoom in on the alpha-fixed point itself, on that point which lies on the tangent between parts, you won’t discover any detailed pattern within it, because that’s the fixed, unchanging point between the repetitions of the process that produce the patterns. Although infinite details sprout all around those fixed points, the points themselves are the patterns’ points of origin, not parts of those patterns.
Now, consciousness is very like the alpha-fixed point. Qualia and all other meaningful states of consciousness are discontinuous with their outer contents, in that they’re confined to a private, subjective sphere that’s apparently removed from the field of physical interactions. You can explain a physical phenomenon without reference to what anyone feels about the mechanism at work. This is another way of saying that a theory of consciousness is autonomous and irreducible to a broader theory of nature. Qualia indicate that the totality of conscious beings isn’t exhausted by their bodily manifestation. Just as fractals are patterns in fractional, or only partially present dimensions, so too a conscious being has emergent mental properties which manifest themselves in approximations of the physically perceived world. We redo nature through linguistic signs, through mental models including cultures, religious myths, philosophical worldviews, and scientific theories, and through extensions and simulations such as clothing, vehicles, cities, and so on. Consciousness is the alienated origin of a host of artificial microcosms that interpret and approximate the pre-existing wilderness of undead nature. Creations spiral out from us at every turn, whenever we think or speak or use technology, but those creations are all inspired or provoked by nature, even those programmed for cyberspace. Artificiality, the domain of creations by living creatures, is thus a fractal-like elaboration of nature by the limbo of consciousness. The rules that govern the behaviour of conscious beings—be they biological, sociological, or anything between—determine how nature looks when it’s translated by the fixed point of consciousness. Inversely, the artificial world is consciousness breaking through to nature, a fractal dimension of the physical world that attests to the conscious masters who obsessively make imperfect copies of undead phenomena to comfort or flatter themselves.
For example, politics is an artificial world of human interaction that’s governed by Machiavellian anti-rules, such as the taboo on gaffes, or on the sin of telling the unvarnished, unpopular truth in a political campaign. The truth is always horrendous when compared with the egoistic delusions of the unenlightened masses, and so our ludicrous ideals and pretensions are protected by the cynical elites. However, this political game of the modern citizen’s domestication is only a creative retelling, as it were, of the more animalistic story of the preservation of a dominance hierarchy’s structure, albeit by more subtle means. And that relatively natural pattern of alpha males ruling over the lower classes made an impression on our ancient ancestors who projected that pattern onto the cosmos, interpreting the stars, planets, and natural forces as gods ruling over them. Modern democracy, in turn, preserves the ancient social form of the oligarchy by instituting techniques of domestication, or “public relations.” For example, negative liberty is lauded and a plethora of products are made available for mass consumption, while positive liberty is forgotten and so consumers are infantilized. Thus, the modern political theater recapitulates both animalistic behaviour and the indifference of physical processes as the latter appeared to childishly-creative, mythopoeic humans. There’s a fractal spiral of creativity at work here, self-similarity by way of approximations based on reinterpretation that’s spread across history, steered by the ghosts of conscious minds which are nowhere themselves physically visible, but which are fractionally present in their creations, including in their religious interpretations of nature and in their bodies' civilized versions of more brutish behaviour. Modern democracy is a variation on a prehistoric theme, the rationalist’s nominal enthronement of Everyman, which arrangement nevertheless inevitably reverts to the default social order in which the masses are ruled by a corrupted, sociopathic minority.
Societies rework natural systems so that surveying that evolution is like zooming in on the Mandelbrot fractal—with bewildered, deluded, or otherwise alienated minds acting as fixed origins of detailed subworlds that approximate more common ones. Like the alpha-fixed point, isolated consciousness is a precondition of the iterations that make up our artificial outpourings. We are the hidden gods overseeing our created worlds, removed from both them and from the undead behemoth that contains all things, just as the Mandelbrot fractal encompasses all Julia sets; we’re detached by the qualitative, subjective nature of consciousness, which phases us out of the world of physical quantities. That latter world is relatively desiccated and undirected, but still horrifically animated. Natural fractals and other patterns are monstrous in their lifeless creativity, and conscious beings witness that horror show from the sidelines of their thoughts and feelings which drive us to our private fantasies, hells, or transcendent breakthroughs.
Recall that the Hard Problem of understanding consciousness is to explain the virtually supernatural status of qualia. What could nature be if blind and indifferent forces can cobble together subjective beings who are preoccupied by inner worlds that only they can experience? Consciousness has no objective purpose, because objects as such are pointless: they are flecks of undead cosmic flesh, monstrous foreshadows of true artificiality. But consciousness is no object. Objects form patterns, including fractal-like ones. Everything physically perceivable by the body falls in line according to natural laws, but the viewpoint of a sentient creature is nowhere among those armadas of natural forms. The alienated descendent of countless organisms that struggled against their fate with every breath, cursed by rational understanding and having tunneled through introspection to a secret interior vantage point, the conscious self is effectively discontinuous with undead nature. We’re occupied with furthering the fractal flow of nature, but that work depends on there being something outside that flow, a fixed point, a view from nowhere from which the cycle can be repeated and potentially infinite versions of preexisting patterns can be spun out. Qualia are the invisible walls that separate our innermost selves from the cosmic behemoth; they are the feelings of having an experience, of standing under phenomena, of being apart from them and being intentionally rather than just causally related to them. Qualia are nodes within the ultra-fractal that reflects the deserts and jungles and outer wastelands in their artificial counterparts. Qualia are hard to understand because they’re what divide us from everything that’s understood; they’re the edges of nature from which the undead flow is redoubled.
But qualia aren’t magical or metaphysically supernatural, since nature includes edges. In particular, the event horizon of a black hole is the edge of space and time, and black holes exist throughout the universe, including in the center of our galaxy. Consciousness is like the singularity that lies beyond the event horizon, in that both are unalterably disconnected from the natural order. Indeed, some physicists think that whole universes are born from those singularities and that our universe may be sheltered by the event horizon of a black hole in a parent universe. In that case, the analogy could be pressed further: both the black hole singularity and consciousness would be sufficiently removed to provide the potential for the creation of subworlds.
In any case, the Hard Problem is tamed when we reflect on the nature of both nature and consciousness. The disconnection between the two is what makes for the problem. Nature is physical, objective, public, lifeless, but magnificently ordered—in short, undead. Much of that undeadness is due to fractal dimensions and geometry: simple rules are followed repeatedly and dumbly by robotic functionaries from atoms up to galaxies, creating untold levels of complexity without the benefits of motivation or foresight. Qualia are mental, subjective, private, vital, and alienated from nature—as is plain from everything from our religious longings for transcendence, to our attempts to distract ourselves from existential matters with the business of our artificial habitats that increasingly replace the primary source of our anxiety. Just as there must be a lacuna in the ultimate fractal, a zero which stands for the act of reiterating the set or cycle that develops the pattern and that’s made explicit in the Mandelbrot set’s alpha-fixed point, we might expect that the super-fractal of nature’s relation to artificiality would be steered by quintessential outsiders.
As for life’s relation to consciousness, we have here a fallenness that’s again comparable to a star’s collapse into a singularity. Instead of falling from spacetime, undead molecules build edifices that become more and more autonomous and thus anomalous and weird. Qualia mark the strangest, most existentially-afflicted organisms as the most distant from the world of clichéd, robotic interactions. Contrary to the Christian whitewash, our fallenness has nothing to do with sin since there’s no objective moral order. Instead, there’s the aesthetic dimension that confines all objectified phenomena, since the more impersonal the scientific explanation, the more the universe resembles a colossal art exhibit. Discontinuities like conscious minds and black holes become especially original products of nature’s creativity. Organic evolution is a stream of complexification; eventually, certain creatures become self-aware and pass beyond the boundary of undeadness, imprisoned by qualia and tormented with a godlike overview. But while the relation of consciousness to the undead plenum is subject to such speculation, the existential aspect of the Hard Problem remains: there is no escape from our strangeness.