A hill and a blanket of consciousness (terrible metaphor)

[epistemic status: A malformed thought which turned into something else I had a couple of weeks ago, which seems important to me right now. As I was writing it became more for me and less for public consumption. ]

Some inspiration: I’m reading (well, listening to the audiobook of) Consciousness Explained. I’m also thinking about this Slate Star Codex post.

What does it mean for a thought to be conscious vs. unconscious? Taking for granted that there’s something like a chamber of of Guf: there are a bunch of competing thoughts or thought fragments or associations or plans or plan fragment or whatever, occurring “under the surface”?

There’s a typical view of consciousness which is that it is discreet and boolean: you have a bunch of unconscious thoughts and some of them become conscious. You have a working memory, and you can manipulate the objects in working memory. (Working memory isn’t quite the same thing, though. You don’t have to be aware of the object in working memory, you just need to be able to recall them, when needed).

But a lot of sources (Gendlin, the authors of the Mind Illuminated, Shenzhen Young, (indirectly) Yudkowsky, and my own phenomenological experience) sugest that it’s more like a scalar gradient: some thoughts are more conscious, but there are also less conscious thoughts on the edges of awareness, that you can become more aware of with training.

Something like this metaphor:

Thoughts are like grains of sand piled into a hill or pyramid. The gains at the top are the most conscious, the easiest to see. The ones a bit further down are peripherally conscious.  The further down you go the less conscious it is.

Conscious awareness itself is like a blanket that you throw over the top of the hill. Most people’s blankets are pretty small: they only cover the very top of the hill. But with training, you can stretch out your blanket, so that it can cover more of the hill. You can become aware of more “unconscious” phenomena. (I need a different word for how high on the hill a thought is is, something like it’s “absolute accessibility”, and how far the blanket reaches. Whether a thing is conscious depends on both the height on the hill and the size of the blanket.)

And to complicate the metaphor, thoughts are not really grains of sand. They’re more like ants, each trying to get to the top of the hill (I think? Maybe not all thoughts “want to be conscious”. In fact I think many don’t. ok. Scratch that.)

…They’re more like ants, many of which are struggling to get to the top of the hill, by climbing over their brethren.  And also, some of the ants are attached to some of the other ants with strings, so that if one of them get’s pull up it pulls up the other one.


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