In this essay Stephen Robbins asks us to reconsider time and consciousness, explaining what David Chalmers famously called the “Hard Problem”—the problem of perception: how it is precisely we apprehend the world and all its qualities, its sights, sounds, smells and sensations.
The Hard Problem
The specter of an AI equaling, then exceeding humans, has hovered for decades. There is Arnold the Terminator, Ava of Ex Machina, Skynet, not to mention Deep Learning networks, AI language translation, AI car drivers, chess champions, Go champions, Tic Tac Toe champions…It is curious to realize that the origin of all this—the current achieved reality, the future projections of machine dominance, and the actual problems—rests, not on a physical, but on a metaphysical foundation.
When using the term, metaphysical, we’re not talking here about Madame Blavatsky, root races, etheric beings, hierarchies of archons. We are talking about a fundamental framework of thought on space and time. In fact, this is a specific metaphysic, what we’ll term the classic metaphysic. The framework in question, most simply stated is a homogeneous grid of space and time, a Cartesian plane in three-dimensions (ultimately four—when we include time) with axes x, y, and z that can be uniformly and infinitesimally cut into uniform parts and counted up. Using this system, everything may be reduced to an atomic smallest particle. And implied by such uniform measurable granularity is a complete lack of qualia. It is assumed that qualia are invented by the brain and imposed upon phenomena to produce the illusory common-sense world we experience. This framework underlies all of physics, calculus, mathematics, neuroscience, AI, computing and its concept of information. But how does the common sense world manifest itself to us? This famous problem for both the neuroscience and computer models of the brain was coined the “Hard Problem” by philosopher David Chalmers.
You are stirring coffee. There are qualities everywhere: the brown of the coffee, the yellows of the cream, the clinking of the spoon, the felt resistance of the liquid, the swirling flow of the coffee surface. The Hard Problem expresses the difficulty of explaining how the many qualities of this perceived experience can be accounted for by changing patterns of 1 and 0 bits in a computer architecture, or by chemical flows in the neurons of neural architecture. As Bernardo Kastrup puts it (in his The Idea of the World), how can these qualities—our experience—be accounted for by the collisions of the abstract particles—resembling featureless billiard balls—of the physicalist abstraction that defines the world for our current science.
So this is as much a problem of physics as it is of neuroscience or of cognitive science, or of AI’s efforts to achieve equivalence with the human mind. But Kastrup’s particle-like billiard balls are just a symptom of the classic metaphysic, lurking still, very undiagnosed.
Time rather than Space
Henri Bergson may be seen as a physician of metaphysics, one who came up with a prescription for its failing health. Unfortunately, his significance is as hidden today as the ailing condition of the metaphysic he diagnosed, let alone his insights on the mistaken first principles undermining scientific thought. Bergson was not always an oddity toiling away in obscurity. In fact, he was, at one time, quite renowned as a great French philosopher. He was so famous in the early 1900’s, the French papers wondered if he should move his university lectures to the Paris opera hall to accommodate the many folks who wanted to listen; and his concept, the “élan vital” from his Creative Evolution (1907) became the motto of the French army in 1914. It is a singular tragedy in the annals of intellectual history that this concept became—mistakenly—identified with Vitalism, and Bergson is presently dismissed by philosophy and unknown to science. The fields of physics, computing and AI have suffered dearly by virtue of the fact that his theory of mind has never been understood.
It was on returning from the Vietnam War, on entering graduate school, that I first encountered Bergson. I planned to write a paper on Jean Piaget’s theory of child cognitive development, but the course professor suggested I compare Piaget to Bergson (Piaget being once Bergson’s student). “Sure,” I said, while thinking, “Who in heck is Bergson?” On reading a commentator on his philosophy, I immediately found myself confronted by, well, nothing short of a koan. This came from his Matter and Memory (1896): “Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and their union, must be put in terms of time rather than of space.”
Once, before learning more practical things, like how to outflank an enemy platoon, a course in epistemology had tuned me to the profound issue being addressed here: the great traditional question of the relation of subject and object, of the perceiver (subject) to that perceived (an object, the coffee cup). Is it only a spatial separation? How do we know the cup (out there) is real? It did not help that on returning from that above-mentioned war, I had experienced what some might call a tiny mystical experience that shook some standard assumptions about the nature of reality. How unfathomable!—“in terms of time”? What? Sensing something, I began plowing through Matter and Memory forwards and backwards. Soon another troubling koan seized my imagination.
Bergson, in his first chapter, discusses the problem of perception—the origin of our image of the external world. Yes, our image of the coffee cup, spoon stirring, liquid swirling on the kitchen table. There is a common notion that the brain somehow takes and develops a photograph, as it were, of the cup along with its associated and contiguous elements. Modern neuroscience has definitively shown that no such photograph or image of the cup can possibly exist inside the brain, in its neuro-chemical flows. Yup, it’s that Hard Problem; in fact, the less misleading, more accurate way of putting the Hard Problem: not just whence qualities? but whence the imageof the external world? Bergson, however, did not need modern neuroscience, or Chalmers. Rejecting the idea that the brain develops anything like a photograph, he observed:
But is it not obvious that the photograph, if photograph there be, is already taken, already developed in the very heart of things and at all points in space? No metaphysics, no physics can escape this conclusion. Build up the universe with atoms: Each of them is subject to the action, variable in quantity and quality according to the distance, exerted on it by all material atoms. Bring in Faraday’s centers of force: The lines of force emitted in every direction from every center bring to bear upon each the influence of the whole material world. Call up the Leibnizian monads: Each is the mirror of the universe.Matter and Memory
But what did this mean? He would go on to describe perception as “virtual action,” for the brain is merely selecting and reflecting possible actions (now virtual) from the external field of “real actions.” But how did this solve the problem of there being no image of the coffee cup in the brain?
The Holographic Field
During this koan-contemplation, I was taking seminars on perception with Robert Shaw, my thesis advisor. Shaw had been a student of the great theorist of perception, J. J. Gibson, at Cornell, where Shaw had also done a couple of years of abstract automata theory—the abstract basis of computing. He would found the Journal of Ecological Psychology, the flagship journal of the Gibson school. The quarter-long seminar in 1972 was going through Feigenbaum’s Computers and Thought, examining the various AI models then current—perception, theorem proving, problem solving, language understanding. Shaw was rejecting them all—the computer guys were cheating, simply glossing over the problems. (We’ll get to the specifics regarding the inconsistencies inherent in the most prevalent theory of mind in the section below on the classic metaphysic.)
Near the end, Shaw began describing holography, that remarkable discovery of Denis Gabor in 1947. In the making of a hologram, an object, say, our coffee cup, is illuminated by a coherent laser wave—the “reference wave.” The reference wave strikes and covers the hologram plate, and a wave-portion directed to and reflected off the cup also strikes and covers the plate—this portion being termed the “object wave.” The recording of the interference pattern of these two waves is the hologram. And we know that we can beam the original reference wave (the same frequency) back through the plate and the wave-front specifying the original source—the cup—is now seen.
One interesting aspect of the hologram: each point on the cup gives rise to a spherical wave which covers the plate, so the information for each point covers the entire plate. But the converse is this: at every point on the plate then is the information for the entire cup (object). We could just use a tiny corner of the plate to view the entire cup. A second aspect: we can record interference patterns on the same plate from multiple different objects using different coherent frequencies of reference wave for each, e.g. bottle (f1), cup (f2), wine glass (f3), box (f4). Now successively modulatethe reconstructive wave to each frequency: the source of each wave front (each object) is specified—bottle, then cup, wine glass, then box, and modulate back to f1—the bottle.
Shaw was familiar with Karl Pribram’s well-known theory that “the brain is a hologram,” this being Pribram’s concept of how the brain stores experience. In fact the two had just talked when Karl was visiting the University of Minnesota, and Shaw likely described a different approach. Isn’t it possible, he asked the seminar folks, that the universe itself is a field wherein each point holds the information for the whole—in other words, that the universe itself is a hologram? As such, he said, the brain would be in the hologram (not the hologram in the brain), and the brain would be acting as a reconstructive wave passing through a hologram of universal scale.
Bergson’s Holographic Vision
Bergson’s “photograph…already developed in the very heart of things and at all points in space” was his expression of the universe as a holographic field, fifty years before Gabor, and over eighty before David Bohm proposed this idea in his Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980). Bergson was such an advanced thinker well ahead of his time. This prevented his being understood by his contemporaries, who thought his theory of perception obscure. As an unfortunate consequence of this early blind dismissal, philosophy has never grasped it. Before he had the analogy of a hologram on which to hang his ideas, he visualized his holographic field as a vast field of “real actions” (think waves). Any given object acts upon all other objects in the field, and is in turn acted upon by all other objects. Such behaviour is in fact obliged:
to transmit the whole of what it receives, to oppose every action with an equal and contrary reaction, to be, in short, merely the road by which pass, in every direction the modifications, or what can be termed real actions propagated throughout the immensity of the entire universe.Matter and Memory
From the vast information in this field, our body selects only that related to its action capabilities. What is specified and selected from the real actions is now “virtual action” —how the body can act. In essence, Bergson too was envisioning the brain (with all its bodily connections), as a modulated reconstructive wave passing through the holographic field and specific to, or specifying a subset (or source) right where it says it is, external, within the field, related to possible action, and now by this process manifest as an image of the external field—the coffee cup with stirring spoon.
Due to the brain’s dynamics—its underlying chemical velocities—this image specification is placing a scale of time upon this field. At our normal scale, a fly buzzing by the coffee cup is specified as a blur—200 wing beats per second compressed as a blur. Introduce into our body a certain amount of catalyst that raises the energy state—the chemical velocities—underlying the entire body system: the fly becomes a heron-like fly slowly flapping its wings. This is equally specifying a possible action—that of reaching out slowly and grasping the fly by the wing tip. This integral, reciprocal tie between perception and action is the intrinsic implication of virtual action.
Needless to say, this is not your father’s (or Turing’s) computation. But what drives the complex modulation patterns created by this reconstructive wave-like brain? Here we need Shaw’s mentor, Gibson.
The Information Specifying Events
Gibson saw the external world as replete with mathematical information—invariance laws. The field of grass stretching out before us, the gravel driveway, the tiled kitchen floor—all are defined by a texture gradient. Standing on a gravel driveway, one can envision row after row of little gravel-rocks (texture elements) stretching into the distance. The vertical separation of the rows (of gravel-rocks) decreases proportionally to the square of the distance from the eye; the horizontal separation of the little elements decreasing in proportion to the distance alone. These are invariance laws specific to distance. When you move a cup back and forth across a table whose surface has little tiles (its rows of texture elements), there is a constant ratio of the height to size of the growing or shrinking cup (on your retina) to the number of texture rows the cup occludes—another invariance law specifying the size constancy of the cup as it moves.
As we move across such a surface, say while driving, it becomes a flow field—a gradient of velocity vectors moving towards us from a central point on the horizon. The fastest moving vectors are closest to the eye, the slowest farthest away, all velocities decreasing in proportion to the square of the distance. These flow fields are ubiquitous also: a rotating cube has flows over its sides, with its edges and vertices now being sharp discontinuities of these flows. These velocity flows are the information the brain employs to specify form, in this case, the cube.
Our little coffee stirring event is replete with invariance laws, courtesy of the Gibsonians. To list some: 1) a radial velocity flow field over the swirling coffee surface, 2) an adiabatic invariant (energy of oscillation with respect to frequency of oscillation) relating to the periodicity of the spoon, 3) an inertial tensor capturing the angular momenta of the spoon and defined over kinesthetic flow fields of the hand/arm, 4) a texture gradient defining the table surface and supporting, as one’s head moves, the size constancy of the cup, 5) the velocity flows over the sides of the cup specifying its form. These invariants form the information that specifies the event. Note the definition of information here,i.e., invariants, and notably, invariants defined over time or flows where these, as Gibson noted, cannot be represented as “bits” travelling along neurons.
Gibson had argued that this (invariance) information (the texture gradient of the table, for instance) is “specific to” the external environment (like the table), and the brain is simply “resonating” to this information; in other words, there is no image within the brain. But to make true sense of the (optical) origin of the image of the external world—our image of the coffee cup on the table—Gibson’s “resonance” must be placed within Bergson’s framework: the universe as a holographic field, the brain as the (resonating) reconstructive wave passing through it and specific to an aspect of the field—the coffee cup and table. Finally, it is the invariance structure defined over the ongoing event, as described for our coffee stirring, that is driving and modulating the neural mass of the brain as a specifying reconstructive wave.
But here a couple of problems arise. The “buzzing” fly specified, with its hundreds of wing beats, is long in the past. The circling motion of the spoon—in the past. How do we see the past? How is this possible? And who sees the cup? Who is looking at the image? Now we must address that hidden metaphysic underlying current scientific thought—the classic metaphysic.
The Classic Metaphysic
The Hard Problem has been locked in the classic metaphysic. Bergson argued that the origin of this mistaken metaphysic emerges from our perception, which is constrained by the basic need of the body to partition the undifferentiated world initially presented to a child into objects (on which the body can act) and the motions of these objects: to pick up a spoon, to lift a bottle. This elementary perceptual partition is conceptually rarified: it becomes a principle of infinite divisibility, a diagram or “mesh” that we place mentally under and through the extensity surrounding us. The meshes are eventually contracted, collapsed, ultimately to a continuum of points or positions.
Motion across or through this point-continuum—moving a toy truck from A to B, for instance—is treated as a series of such positions, as a trajectory or infinitely divisible line (a space) of points. The consequences of this treatment are what Zeno tried to force his contemporaries to face: the arrow, always coincident with a static point on this line never moves. Achilles, infinitely halving his distance-line to the tortoise, never reaches it. Though the actual motion might be subconsciously assumed as occurring between each pair of static points on this line that we mentally place beneath the motion of the toy truck, the metaphysic demands envisioning yet another line between each pair, itself infinitely divisible. This kind of reasoning leads to the logical fallacy of infinite regress. But each point, momentarily coordinate with the movement of the toy, is also considered an instant of time. Time, too, then becomes just another dimension of this abstract, infinitely divisible space—a series of instants. The time-extent of each instant—also infinitely divisible—ultimately is that of a mathematical point (a point indivisible since it has no beginning or end), and therefore paradoxically or fallaciously time-less. The classic metaphysic is thus a spatial metaphysic—an abstract (4-D) space.
In this sequence of instants, the present instant, when the next present instant arrives, falls into the past—the symbol of non-existence. Matter is identified as that which is always present. The brain, as matter, is tasked accordingly with preserving the present instant before it falls into the non-existence of the past.
Bergson argued that the key question for a theory of consciousness is whether experience is in fact stored in the brain. That it is not is arguably his major contention in Matter and Memory. Given current veritable dogma on the brain, such a question is today unheard of in the entire discussion on the Hard Problem. But here is just one reason why it is key. Suppose our coffee cup is a cubical cup, rotating slowly. In current theory, this little event would be considered comprised of a set of static “features,” say the edges and vertices of the cup. This rotation is being sampled by the brain, snapshot (instant) after snapshot as the circular motion occurs, like a set of cartoon frames. The features must be tracked from frame to frame, for they are assumed to be disassembled, stored in separate memory sites, then reassembled as some ongoing internal representation of the rotating cup (a now past event!). The tracking problem, termed the correspondence problem, is deemed intractable; nevertheless, memory theorists gloss over it as though solving this conundrum were not necessary to answering how any event is experienced and perceived as a continuous ongoing phenomenon, or in this specific case as a rotation, and not simply as one snapshot, then another, then another, as never more than one snapshot or frame.
The standard move is to say this is accounted for by the continuity of neural oscillations. This neuronal activity persists, supporting the perceived rotation. But the classic metaphysic—the very motivation for storing and reassembling those features in the brain to save them from the non-existence of the past—precludes this solution because the brain, being matter, equally has only the time-extent of a mathematical point. Consequently, if we are to play consistently by the rules set out by the classic metaphysic, neural oscillations must be subject to the same law and have only an instant before passing into the oblivion of the past. One cannot invoke the classic metaphysic as the reason why experience has to be stored in the brain, and ignore the metaphysic to explain the continuity of perceived events. Having your cake and eating it too is nice, but not for clarity of theory. Evidently the brain does not dwell in, or care about, its own conceptual construction—that classic metaphysic.
The Metaphysic of Time
Bergson argued that motion must be treated as indivisible. The infinitely divisible line from A to B of the moving toy truck with its corresponding instants is simply a spatial abstraction. Achilles moves in indivisible steps. He most certainly catches the tortoise. The arrow is never coincident with a point/instant; in even the most infinitely minute of intervals, it is in motion. The better model of motion, he argued, is a melody, where each note (instant) permeates the next, and each note is the reflection of the entire preceding series.
Anticipating relativity in 1896 and its fundamental misconception, he noted that motion in the abstract space (the classic metaphysic again) is inherently relative—motion from one perspective, but restfrom another. Move the object across the continuum, or the continuum under the object. So yes, we may not be able to tell which objects are in motion, which at rest, but there must be real motion: trees grow; stars explode; couch potatoes get fat. We must see the Whole as changing, he argued, like a kaleidoscope. Thus, objects and their motions would be seen rather as changes or transferences of state (like waves) in this indivisible, melodic, global motion of the Whole.
From this perspective, the indivisible, melodic transformation of the holographic field carries an elementary form of memory. There are no instants that instantly fall into the non-existence of the past as the next instant arrives. Given this primary memory intrinsic to the transforming field, the brain as a reconstructive wave can indeed be specifying a past extent of this transformation—that buzzing fly or stirring spoon. We do not need short term storage areas (never actually found) in the brain, or disassembly and reassembly of (static) features. In fact, it is only this primary continuity that allows for the required specification of invariants that cannot exist in a static instant, but only over flow—the adiabatic ratio in the periodicity of the stirring spoon, the inertial tensor, the edges defined only as sharp junctures (invariants) of flows over the rotating cup.
That Subject/Object Koan
The holographic universal field can be visualized at what I term the “null scale”—the most infinitesimal scale of time. To arrive at this scale, we can initially imagine entering a higher energy state such that we perceive a fly slowly flapping its wings like a heron or such that we can read the label on a spinning CD. This latter state, by the way, is not purely theoretical. According to a favorite anecdote of my dad’s, the great baseball hitter Ted Williams could read the label on a record spinning on a turntable, and naturally it followed that he could pick up the spin on a curving baseball racing toward him. He could also wait longer than other hitters to swing; the slower moving ball—coordinate with perception as virtual action—reflecting that his action capability afforded him more time to act. But, to arrive at the null scale, we cannot stop at the Ted Williams zone. Continue raising this energy state to the very limits: the fly, stock-still, vibrates as a liquid crystalline being, then the fly is an ensemble of whirling electrons, and then all objects vanish and we arrive ultimately at the unified, holographic field of waves and interference patterns.
Now given the holographic nature of this field, the state of each point is reflective of the influence of the whole. Simultaneously over the field’s indivisible transformation, there is an elementary form of memory. This is the case at the null scale of time. We can say then that there is a very elementary form of awareness and memory at this null scale defined across the Whole.
In this field, put our body and a fly going by. At the null scale, there is no spatial separation between the two. Begin lowering the energy state of the body: the fly begins to form—to be specified—as a fuzzed cloud of whirling electrons (as is our body). Lower the energy state more: a vibrant, crystalline being appears. Yet more: a fly barely moving its wings. And finally, we apprehend the buzzing creature of normal scale. In this transformation, the spatial unity of the two—our body and the fly—is never broken. The image specification, simultaneously then, is to a time-scaled form of the elementary awareness defined over the field, taken from a particular spatial perspective (defined by the body’s ability to act in a given timeframe). And in this transformation, subject is differentiating from object, not in terms of space, but of time.
There is no one viewing the image of the cup or the fly, no homunculus within the brain. Vision is an action-related, time-scaled form of the elementary awareness defined throughout the field. As our body is the invariant in this system of specification, identity settles on the body. We become an object among other objects. We begin to need a koan and a Zen enlightenment.
This is the elegant model of Bergson’s metaphysic.
A Metaphysics Sans Qualia
Physics is the keeper of the classic metaphysic. Gibson warned: it is inappropriate to import the concepts of physics, its model of space and time into psychology, into models of perception, consciousness and cognition. The Hard Problem, the trouble we encounter when considering qualities of coffee stirring, comes directly from the classic metaphysic.
The abstract 4-D space (with its time) is completely homogeneous. It has been stripped of all quality. Imagine the entirety of Space, taken at an instant, perhaps as a cosmic size cube. This instant, as noted, has the time-extent of a mathematical point. A cube of such a (time-less) time-extent, can have actually no qualities; it is totally homogeneous. Yet, as noted, per the classic metaphysic and its model of time, each such Cube of the all of Space exists but for the present instant only, then instantly falls into non-existence—into the past—as the next present Cube arrives. No quality is possible, of space, or of time. Kastrup’s featureless billiard ball-particles—objects in motions—are the natural denizens of this bleak landscape.
The great puzzlement then must arise: the brain is an integral part of this abstract 4-D continuum. No qualities can arise within this continuum, neither within the brain nor without the brain. The phenomenal, by definition, is forced into some other dimension—the mental, the non-physical, somewhere, anywhere but within the abstract continuum. In other words, it is forced outside the very framework of current science. The abstract time dimension of this space is so deeply engrained, the significance of quality such as noted by Hardcastle slides right by unrecognized:
the conductor waving her hands, the musicians concentrating, patrons shifting in their seats, and the curtains gently and ever-so-slightly waving…Consciousness
These are all emerging qualities due to their time unfoldment—slightly waving curtains, gently rustling curtains, wildly waving curtains—just as something mellow—a wine, a room, a personality, a violin—requires a building, organic unfoldment over an indivisible flow of time. In the classic metaphysic, such qualities cannot exist—by definition.
But Bergson’s melodic, indivisibly transforming holographic field is inherently qualitative, even at the null scale, even if at such scale just barely so; and the brain, serving as a reconstructive wave, is specifying portions of this qualitative field at a scale of time—buzzing flies versus heron-like flies, wildly or gently waving curtains.
The Death of Genius
My time of Bergson-discovery was followed by brief tenure as a college professor, but soon I moved into the world of software development. Little did I expect that the classic metaphysic and its ugly daughter, the vision of “man as machine,” would pursue even into the corporate world.
The early world of software creation was one of free-wheeling creative geniuses. The vastness, the breadth of functionality, complexity and wizardry behind these systems of millions of lines of code was astounding. Yes, there was a measure of methodical structure in early code development; there were specifications, testing procedures, but these were implemented on an as-needed basis. That the entire workflow was the creative realm of the coder (who was also simultaneously designer, user, interface creator, database architect and more) was understood.
There is a tendency, I think, embedded in the structure of the universe, to inevitably move toward formalization, calcification—unto the ever more rigidified societies of ants and bees. Carlo Suares (The Cipher of Genesis) tried to explicate this, arguing the very structure of the Hebrew language codifies forms of energy flows and the intrinsic, reciprocal forms of resistance to this flow, resistance ultimately expressed as rigid, static structures.
In the corporate environment, this resistance appeared mundanely as ever more layers and forms of documentation—planning docs, quality control docs—and (non-productive) administrative groups. I watched this apparatus creep and grow across the years. The shock of realization as to my personal involvement in its historical development hit when my company determined that it would introduce IBM’s CMM (Capability Maturity Model). This model had its origins at Carnegie Mellon, one of the premier universities behind the computer model of mind, wherein mind, it is supposed, can be fully captured by computer programs. Already back in 1972 I had cut my teeth on the theories of Carnegie Mellon’s duo, Alan Newell and Herbert Simon, who devised programs that solve human problems such as those in chess, theorem-proving and arithmetic puzzles. But computer programs are the essence of motions of abstract objects (symbols) in an abstract space and abstract time—timeless, flowless, static. Yes, the classic metaphysic.
Succinctly, CMM aimed to turn all software creation into a robotic process. Robots create widgets—mindlessly. The top of CMM’s “Five Levels” envisioned a company with perfectly repeatable, robotic processes for developing software widgets. The lowest—the veritable stone age level—the “heroic,” in other words, characterized companies that relied on individuals and their minds. That this level described, say, Borland, Microsoft, Claris, Symantec, Oracle and Lotus—the most successful companies of the time? Insignificant. A highly referenced critique by James Bach, then a programmer at Borland (famous for its Turbo Pascal language), would state:
The CMM reveres process, but ignores people…By contrast, both Humphrey [a CMM author] and CMM mention people in passing, but both also decry them as unreliable and assume that defined processes can somehow render individual excellenceless important. The idea that process makes up for mediocrity is a pillar of CMM, wherein humans are apparently subordinated to defined processes.American Programmer, September, 1994. Emphasis added.
Or, to paraphrase the last line above: wherein mindsare subordinatedto programs—to the abstract symbol manipulations of robotic machines. And as Bach noted, this is the concomitant assault on excellence. But what at bottom is excellence? It was, for the Greeks, aretê. It is the aretê, the excellence, of the Homeric hero—of Achilles, Hector, Odysseus. It is Quality.
There was once a book—a famous one—that sold over five million copies worldwide. Its title: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The motorcycle—with its abstract essence as a machine of discrete parts and functions—was the book’s symbol for the classic metaphysic. But Pirsig also told of his intellectual journey through his discovery of the Sophists, the predecessors of Plato, and the great exponents of aretê, of quality. Plato, he observed, was utterly opposed to the Sophists. To Plato, Sophists were the scum of the earth, barriers to his ultimately successful effort to establish Truth—the truth of Reason, of Logic, the basis of the modern intellectual world, but ultimately a metaphysic wherein quality has no actual place. It has no place, for in Plato’s scheme it is subordinated to logic, just as now—in that abstract space housing the abstract symbol manipulations of a computer, or of a brain conceived as a computer. And the arena in which there is “no place for quality” ultimately presents us with, yes, the Hard Problem.
Pirsig’s near-mystical insight was seeing Quality as the Tao:
The Quality that can be defined is not the absolute Quality.
The names that can be given it are not Absolute names.
Quality is the origin of heaven and earth.
It is all pervading.
It cannot be defined…
Unceasing, continuous flow. How strange, considering Pirsig’s preoccupations, that despite his exhaustive research, poring over the entire history of philosophy, hunting for even one philosopher who had captured his insights—he missed Bergson’s temporal metaphysic explaining the essence of subject and object, a philosophy that captures all of Pirsig’s framework and beyond. This oversight in Zen and the Art is a testimony to our society’s total occlusion of Bergson’s philosophy, a collective amnesia symbolic of the ubiquitous blight afflicting present day thought—not just on the theory of consciousness, but in physics, corporations and society itself. Thanks to Bergson, Shaw and Gibson, there is a remedy.
Stephen Robbins received his PhD in Educational Psychology/Psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1976, with a focus in Computer Simulation of Thought. His doctoral thesis critiqued the computer model of mind then just emerging, describing a theory of consciousness before the problem of consciousness came into vogue. He gravitated from academics into software development, working 33 years as an executive in data processing and software firms. With the emerging awareness of the weaknesses in the computer model of mind in the mid-1990’s, particularly in the area of consciousness, he began publishing aspects of his theory in academic journals. He has also written three books: Time and Memory: A Primer on the Scientific Mysticism of Consciousness; Collapsing the Singularity: Bergson, Gibson and the Mythologies of Artificial Intelligence; The Mists of Special Relativity: Time, Consciousness and a Deep Illusion in Physics. You can find his website at stephenerobbins.com. He also has a Youtube page. Stephen and his wife Susan live on a small farm in Wisconsin.