Philosophy, Philosophy of mind, Wittgenstein

Aspect seeing and consciousness I: What Vampires Cannot Do

In the novel Blindsight by Peter Watts mankind has resurrected vampires (no, not a good idea) – found in the book to be real predators that became extinct. One difference between vampires and humans is that vampires can see both aspects of a Necker cube at the same time – they are able to do hyper-threading and think several thoughts at the same time. In other words, vampires are capable of seeing two aspects of something – or more – simultaneously.

Wittgenstein studies this phenomenon in the second part of Philosophical Investigations, and one interpretation of his remarks is that he sees aspect seeing as a way to show how language can confound us. When we see only one aspect of something we forget that it can equally be something else, and that this is how we are confused. The duck-rabbit is not either duck or rabbit, it is ultimately both, it can be seen as both animals.


But maybe we can learn even more from his discussion of aspect seeing by examining the device Watts uses? The duck-rabbit, the Necker-cube and the old woman/young woman are all interesting examples of how we see one or the other aspect of something. But what would it mean to see both? Let’s assume for the moment that there is a being – a vampire as Watts has it – that can see both aspects at the same time. What would that be like?

Trivially we can imagine _two_ people who look at a Necker cube and see both aspects of it. That is not a hard thing to understand or accept. But a single person seeing both aspects at the same time, that seems more challenging, if not impossible. And maybe this is the thing to explore. What if the following holds true:

(i) Consciousness is limited to a single aspect in the world at a time.

We need to dig further, as this is a very imprecise way to put it, we want to find something more general and distinct to say here. When you are looking at a Necker cube you can only see one aspect at a time, and that is a necessary component of being a “you”. Conscious observation collapses the world to a single aspect out of a multitude of aspects.

That seem trivial. What we are now saying is that in order to see the world, you need to see the world in one specific way at a time. You cannot see it in different ways simultaneously. And that hits on something worth dwelling a bit on – the issue of time in aspect seeing. When you see an aspect of something you construct it in your head over time – it is like having lego pieces and assembling as specific lego construction. Just as you cannot assemble two lego constructions out of the same pieces at the same time you need to limit yourself to one single aspect when several are offered.

This idea, that two simultaneous aspects cannot be constructed out of observation at the same time points to consciousness as “single-threading” rather than “hyper-threading” with Watt’s terminology. But there is no way to imagine a world in which you can make two different simultaneous lego constructions out of lego pieces, that simply is a violation of the way the world is. Now, that opens up the following question:

Q1: Is hyper-threading as described by Watts necessarily impossible in the same way that the simultaneously different lego constructions built from the same pieces are?

This in turn is an interesting question, since it seems to imply that we have a boundary condition for consciousness here – it is necessarily single-threaded, or should be treated as two different consciousnesses in the same body as per our early observation that it is easy to imagine two observers seeing different aspects of the same thing.

We can then develop (i) into:

(ii) Consciousness is necessarily single-threaded.

What would this limitation imply, except that we cannot see a Necker cube in both ways at the same time? It would imply that the necessary reduction of several aspects into a single one is a pre-requisite for us to call something individually conscious.

I suspect there is more here, and want to return to this later, perhaps in a more structured fashion.

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