The Limitations of Human Consciousness

21 February 2012


Beyond Philosophical Zombies:

A Thought Experiment in Absolute Consciousness

One of the thought experiments in contemporary philosophy of mind that has a certain traction with popular culture is that of “philosophical zombies.” It is a little surprising that this interest in philosophical zombies should coincide with a popular culture zombie craze, but that seems to be the case — unless we posit a zombie conspiracy that seeks to acculturate and familiarize human beings with zombie being so that when the zombies take over we will be easy prey, so to speak (sort of like — but not exactly like — the plot in Aurthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).

Daniel N. Robinson, Ph.D. (Philosophy Faculty, Oxford University, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University) begins his Teaching Company lectures on philosophy of mind with an initial lecture on philosophical zombies. Dr. Robinson distinguishes at least three (3) species of philosophical zombie (a tripartite distinction that he credits to Güven Güzeldere):

● behavioral zombies such that the zombie is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human being possessing consciousness

● functional zombies also apparently called a neurological zombie, which is physiologically indistinguishable from a conscious human being, and

● identical zombies such that the zombie is anatomically indistinguishable from a conscious human being; it is not clear to me exactly how a functional or neurological zombie is supposed to differ from an identical zombie unless we go a step further and, invoking theological language, assert that the identical zombie has no soul, while a conscious human being does have a soul (this qualification yields what is called a soulless zombie)

Given the pop-culture resonance of philosophical zombies an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the idea, and it is not my wish simply to add another discussion to an already burgeoning field of zombie studies. What I would like to do, however, is to use the idea of philosophical zombies in order to broach the possibility of a thought experiment antithetical to that of philosophical zombies.

Philosophical zombies are employed as a thought experiment in order to investigate the possibility of entities that are somehow less than full human beings. What about the possibility of entities that are somehow more than human beings? That is to say, what about superior beings, i.e., being superior to human being?

I would like to propose a thought experiment in what might be called absolute consciousness. If zombies lack all consciousness, the antithetical condition to that of a zombie would be that of greatly enhanced consciousness — i.e., consciousness enhanced or extended beyond ordinary human consciousness.

It's not only zombies that have a pop culture resonance: Megamind represents a popular culture expression of enhanced and expanded human consciousness.

In order to consider the possibility of absolute consciousness, we must attempt to investigate the limitations, weaknesses, and constraints of human consciousness, and to attempt to imagine a consciousness from which these limitations, weaknesses, and constraints have been removed. This is not easy to do. As Dr. Robinson observes in his lectures, human beings experience consciousness in the way that fish experience water — it is so pervasive and so complete that it would be difficult to even identify it. But just as we learned to investigate the air we breathe and which surrounds us our entire life — and which we also took for granted in a pre-scientific stage of civilization — so too we can learn to investigate consciousness. And we have, in fact, done so in some degree of detail.

If we consider modern psychiatry and psychology since Freud — and I specifically appeal to the Freudian tradition since Freud was a physician who sought to treat specific pathologies — we are presented with a detailed account of all the ways in which a mind can “go wrong,” as it were. So, first of all, absolute consciousness would experience no mental illness. This is a highly problematic claim, since it implies a distinction between mental health and mental pathology that may be relatively clear from the clinical standpoint but which is difficult to justify from a philosophical perspective. Are mental pathologies limitations to human consciousness? They are in so far as the inhibit the activity of consciousness, but I suspect that absolute consciousness (were it possible) would probably appear profoundly alien and, yes, pathological.

One of the most obvious forms of limitation of human consciousness is memory. Human memory is highly imperfect in terms of recall and accuracy. Absolute consciousness would be characterized by perfect recall with perfect accuracy. Borges wrote a short story about this that I discussed in ¡Feliz cumpleaños Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo! The character of Ireneo Funes, whom Borges memorably describes as a “vernacular superman” (in other words, a provincial Nietzschean Übermensch), has a perfect memory with perfectly accurate recall of everything. This story is so singularly beautiful that it is an act of vandalism to quote only an excerpt, but here is the narrator’s description of his encounter with Funes:

“He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been — like any Christian — blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything — almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.”

Ireneo Funes, then, possessed the greater part of absolute consciousness — perfect memory and perfect perception. But these things are problematic also, as Borges begins to point out, when he shows Funes to be contemplating an absolute language and an absolute catalogue of memories, which the narrator realizes neither serve the essential function of language or thought. Funes is not overwhelmed by this absolute consciousness, but he is at least staggered by it, and in seeking so way to order the vast stores of memory and perception that he has at his command, descends to a level beneath that of which limited consciousness served by limited language and limited cognitive resources command.

Human calculating power is manifestly deficient. The simplest mechanical or electronic calculator can calculate with greater rapidity or accuracy than almost any human being. Similarly, logic and mathematics, though human creations, are difficult in the extreme. Many of us go our entire lives without mastering them, and those who spend their lives on logic and mathematics master only a portion, and that at the opportunity cost of many other human endeavors. Presumably absolute consciousness would be perfect in calculation. And this, too, is problematic, since anyone who has studied logic or mathematics and passed beyond the rudiments of these subjects knows that they are fascinating disciplines torn by internal controversies precisely because they are imbued with the spirit of philosophy. The further reaches of logic and set theory are, in fact, difficult to differentiate from philosophy proper.

It was traditional to maintain that Adam knew all philosophy; it is not clear whether this knowledge preceded or followed the drawing out of Eve from his side.

And this brings us to philosophy proper, since absolute consciousness would presumably be philosophically perfect as well. At this point we have probably reached the reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of absolute consciousness, since it is almost ludicrous to speak of a philosophically perfect mind. Not that people haven’t entertained this idea. In the early modern period in Europe it was the tradition to maintain that Adam had a perfect knowledge of philosophy, that this knowledge was subsequently lost, and all philosophy since the time of Adam was simply the rediscovery of the philosophy that Adam knew in virtue of his proximity to the fons et origo of all being and knowledge. One might think of this as a Christian re-telling of the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection.

Plato had Socrates draw an ideal knowledge out of the slave boy Meno; for Plato, knowledge was absolute, and embodied in the Forms; today we are not so likely to acknowledge an ideal and absolute knowledge.

Absolute consciousness may well be impossible for reasons given above, but even if impossible is remains an interesting thought experiment. What I have written here is only a rough first sketch of what might be done with the idea. If certain conventions are observed — the sort of conventions implicit in Plato’s theory of knowledge as recollection, most famously presented in the dialogue Meno — one can arrive at an “absolute” formulation of anything, but if we acknowledge that human thought routinely transcends established conventions, it cannot be so easily maintained that there is any absolute or perfect form that consciousness could take. And what is the investigation of the limits of consciousness but the investigation of the transcendence of such limitations? On the other hand, even if absolute and perfect consciousness is not possible, it doesn’t take much effort to conceive of a consciousness that is markedly superior to that which we now possess.

Angels, traditionally holding a place in the Great Chain of Being between divinity and humanity, can be thought of as examplars of absolute consciousness, which falls between ordinary human consciousness and omniscience in the scale of awareness.

Absolute consciousness, while it would radically outstrip the capabilities and capacities of ordinary human consciousness, still falls far short of the idea of omniscience. Indeed, we could define absolute consciousness as here sketched as personal omniscience, i.e., absolute knowledge of oneself, of one’s experiences, and of the contents of one’s own mind. Omniscience simpliciter, traditionally conceived as a divine attribute, would be absolute knowledge of everything, of all experiences, and of the contents of all minds. Thus while there is a yawning chasm between ordinary human consciousness and absolute consciousness, there is an equally yawning chasm between absolute consciousness and omniscience, and this in itself makes the thought experiment of absolute consciousness interesting, because it posits a degree of being between human being and divine being as traditionally understood. Absolute consciousness is, if you like, the consciousness of angels.

If absolute consciousness is problematic, as we have seen that it indeed is, then a fortiori the idea of omniscience itself is problematic. This is, of course, not a new idea. Radical Ockhamists like Richard Holcot and Adam Wodeham attempted to think through the logic of omniscience and came to some disturbing conclusions, but this is another story for another time.

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5 Responses to “The Limitations of Human Consciousness”

  1. […] The Limitations of Human Consciousness ( Share this:FacebookLinkedInTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. shawn parker said

    thank you for clarifying the questions of c ness after reading this reminded me of my condition which is a high state of cness and the instant recall of just about any life event and so often hearing from others how they forgot realizing oh that is how an animal is so the disparity in c ness levels can be a problem yes i am different than many many people or so it seems and the question of zombies that i thought was a preposterous notion but certainly true on the level of c ness – certainly it clears up a long standing issue in my life – which to a greater or lesser extent resolved

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Parker,

      Thanks for you comment. I’m not sure how much I have clarified in the above, as I threw out a lot of ideas that could do with more clarification in turn. There is a lot of work to be done yet on the idea of absolute consciousness.

      Your phrase, “disparity in consciousness levels” is a good one, and I may adopt it. Certainly there is considerable disparity in levels of consciousness, whether we compare individuals of the same species of if we compare distinct species. It is, I think, relatively easy for us, reflecting on the animal life that surrounds us, to imagine more limited grades of consciousness, simply by taking away, one by one, the faculties we possess. But it is much more difficult to try to add to our idea of consciousness faculties that we do not have. The result is that we can fill in the lower portion of the continuum of consciousness that extends below human consciousness levels, but we cannot so readily fill in the upper portion of levels of consciousness that extend above human consciousness.

      Best wishes,


  3. shawn parker said

    yes that makes intuitive sense not a body created by a low level of cness of none at all but a zombie is someone lacking in c ness

    • geopolicraticus said

      Can we not posit a continuum of consciousness from the “idealized” zombie with no consciousness whatsoever, up to absolute consciousness, and beyond that omniscience, which constitute other idealized forms of consciousness?

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