Chapter 3

A form of energy?

The next question is whether an act that duplicates itself without being two acts (or one that contains the whole of itself within itself as part of itself or one that is self-transparent) can be a form of energy.

Since I am going to say that sensation is (also) a form of energy, let me make myself as clear as I can here at the outset. What I mean by "a form of energy" in this question is a mere form of energy: that is, an act which has a quantity such that it is no more than this much of this kind of activity. An act which is basically spiritual might, in one of its "duplications" of itself, do so to a limited degree; but then in itself it is infinitely beyond the quantity that this particular "duplication" of itself has. The question here is whether an act can "duplicate" itself if it is simply a form of energy, so that there is no more to the act than this much of this form of activity. For purposes of this discussion, we will table what was said about about the polymorphous nature of the act of consciousness, because if a form of energy can "duplicate" itself in any sense, it might also be able to take on different forms at once. It doesn't sound promising on the face of it, but let us leave open the possibility for now. If, of course, we can show that a form of energy can't "duplicate" itself while still remaining one act, then of course it won't be able to be polymorphous either.

There are two lines of investigation possible here, one empirical and one arguing from what we know about energy; and both should reinforce each other, or we are on shaky ground.

Let me take the argument from the nature of energy first. The idea here is that if an act has a definite quantity, this means that it is this much and no more; but if it "duplicates" itself, the quantity will not be sufficient to allow this. What I will be trying to show is that if the act "duplicates" itself and has a quantity, the quantity it has will have to be greater than the quantity it has, which is obviously a contradiction.

First let me say that, while seeing this page and knowing that you are seeing this page are one and the same act, because of the reasoning above, this does not mean that "they" are not different in any sense: you do not, as Aristotle said, see yourself seeing the page. Hence, there is in some sense a real duplication here within the same act, because "knowing that you are seeing the page" contains "seeing the page" within it as a kind of pseudo-object of "knowing that...". This, in fact, is what got people like Descartes into trouble, because they thought that the form of the act of seeing was the object of the knowledge, and you had to argue to a cause "out there" which was supposed to match the form under which I see it. We talked about this in the "The form of consciousness as nothing" in Chapter 7 of Section 3 of the first part. 1.3.7

But the point here is that the "knowing that" and the seeing are not absolutely identical, although the "knowing that" contains the seeing and the seeing contains as part of itself the "knowing that." Let me expand on this second clause a bit. Since the seeing is not seeing unless it is conscious, part of the act of seeing is knowing that you are seeing; and generally speaking we don't explicitly advert to this "knowing that" aspect of seeing; it is just there, but we simply see the object. We are conscious of the object in seeing it, and as soon as we pay attention, we know that this means that we are conscious of being conscious of the object; but this "knowing that" is really contained within the act of seeing as just a part of it, and not the most important part at all. Hence, the "knowing that" contains the seeing as a part of itself, and the seeing contains the "knowing that" as a part of itself. The whole of each is contained within the other as just a part of the other.

Notice that this containing as a part is not the same as what the mathematicians talk about when they say that a set is a subset of itself (because all of its elements are obviously elements of itself). What I am talking about above is what the mathematician would call a proper subset: one in which some element of the whole set does not appear in the subset. Thus, if you examine the seeing as such, the "knowing that" as such does not appear as what it means to be seeing, which is why the seeing appears to itself as a kind of pseudo-object of the "knowing that." But this whole is contained within the part as a proper subset of it, as I was saying.

In any case, if you want to be honest with the data of consciousness and draw out what you are saying when you say "I know that I know X," you find that you are talking about an act that really "does itself" over again without being two acts.

Now then, if any act like this is a form of energy, then this means that it has to act on itself and react to itself, making itself different from what it would be if it didn't do this (because if it doesn't, it's just an unconscious reaction). But of course, for energy to act on anything means to transfer energy into it. But it can't directly transfer energy into itself, because then it would have to add energy to itself and simultaneously lose energy from itself; but this is absurd. What it would mean, in terms of energy, is that the act simply did nothing and stayed the same.

That is, we are not talking about a feedback here. A feedback always involves a system, in which one part acts upon a distinct other part, doing work on it (actually transferring energy into it). The heat from the furnace acts on the thermostat, opening the switch and turning off the furnace. But we saw that there can be no such indirection or "loop" in being conscious of being conscious; the act is directly and immediately aware of itself, and there are not two parts involved here at all. Hence, to take the thermostat analogy, what consciousness would be analogous to is having the heat itself raise its own temperature without resort to a furnace or an external source of energy (because the act must be in some sense "double" itself in itself).

So it seems that energy cannot in any meaningful way act upon or alter itself directly. If we take what was suggested at the end of the preceding paragraph, we can see this from a different angle. If consciousness is energy, let us suppose it takes 10 units of "consciousness-energy" for you to see this page. Now part of that 10 units of energy is the "knowing that," because that is contained within the seeing or it would be a reaction, not consciousness. But since the "knowing that" contains as part of itself the whole act of seeing, then this means that the "knowing that" must involve at least 10 units of "consciousness-energy." But if the "knowing that" is only part of the seeing, then obviously it contains less than the 10 units of energy it takes to see the page, because it is only part of the act of seeing. But it has to have the "rest" of that act (the "seeing" part) within it, and so what is less than 10 units would have to take the whole 10 units to act (itself plus the "seeing" part). And this does not take into account what is implied in being aware that you know that you are seeing, which would involve a third "duplication" of the act, containing the other two within it (because you know what it is that you know you are seeing--so both of the other aspects are inside this one). If this containing is a real containing (and I tried to show above that it is), then the act has to have parts with quantities that are simultaneously less than and equal to the whole of the quantity it has. This is clearly a contradiction.

Or if you prefer to consider that the act "does itself" over again, then obviously if it takes 10 units of "consciousness-energy" to see the page, it will take another ten units of energy to know that you are seeing the page (since the second time around duplicates the first one); and so if it takes no more than 10 units, it takes at least 20 units to see the page and be conscious of it--which is one and the same act as seeing the page. And of course this would apply no matter what number actually was needed to see the page; the number would always have to be at least twice as great as it is--in fact, at least three times, because we are aware that we know we are seeing the page, which implies a "triplication" rather than a "duplication." But this is impossible if the act has a quantity in the sense that it is this much and no more than the amount in question. There could be no question of its pulling in outside energy to "duplicate" itself, because while it is no more than 10 units, it is also at least 20 units. Pulling in outside energy would be all right if (a) the "duplication" were another act, or (b) the "duplication" was an alteration of the original act so that the original one disappeared in the more energetic version. But the original act is the "more energetic version"; it contains the "more energetic version" within it as part of itself. That is, the act doesn't get transformed by being conscious of itself while it is conscious of X; being conscious of X is being conscious of oneself being conscious of X.

The result of this is that if you say that the act is a simple form of energy, with a definite quantity, then there is no way of making sense out of its duplicating itself without being two acts, because then it has a quantity greater than the one it has. There is also no meaning in talking about it as containing the whole of itself as part of itself, because then the part has a quantity both less than and at least equal to the whole.

Of course, all this also ignores the fact that the Second Law of Thermodynamics rules out any real action of energy on itself, because if it were really acting on itself, some energy would have to be lost out of it.

Hence, there seems to be no way to describe consciousness accurately in terms of its being a form of energy.

Now then, if we take the empirical approach and suppose that consciousness is some kind of energy, then it should be at least in principle measurable, or at least detectable.

It is quite possible, of course, if it is energy, that we might not be able to detect it in practice, because we might not have an instrument that can be affected by that form of energy. But still, it could probably be detected indirectly, because the First Law of Thermodynamics says that a given form of energy does not come into being absolutely; it is always due to a transformation of some other form of energy--which means that the other form of energy loses an amount to match the quantity of the new form of energy that got transformed out of it (taking into account the proper conversion factors).

And we do know this: forms of consciousness are associated with definite areas of the brain, and occur when the nerves in that area are active above a certain degree, the "threshold of perception." Fortunately, we don't have to go into the physiology of this, about how a "greater degree" of energy in the nerves means, not a stronger impulse passing from one nerve to another, but more frequent bursts of energy, and about how several nerves can be adding energy to a given nerve, and all the complications of that sort of thing. It is enough for our purposes that there are degrees (and degrees measurable in practice) of energy-output of the nerves in the brain; and that when the output is below a certain critical level, the person never reports being conscious; and when the output is at or above this level, the person reports being conscious.

There are several things to note here. First of all, we can say that consciousness is not absolutely identical with the electro-chemical output of the brain's nerves, because then there would be consciousness whenever those nerves were putting out energy, and we know that this is not the case; consciousness occurs only when the energy-output is above a certain level.

Secondly, it should be noticed that the nerves in the different areas of the brain have all the same structure, and certainly the same kind of electro-chemical output. This means that the nerves associated with seeing are identical with those associated with hearing (as far as anyone can tell), and what they do when you see is identical with what the hearing nerves do when you hear. The only difference between them and their activities is where they are in the brain. Yet the forms of consciousness of seeing and hearing are qualitatively different; seeing is not the same kind of act of consciousness as hearing, differing only in "location" somehow. This seems to indicate once again that consciousness is a different act from the electro-chemical output of the nerves, but it adds the peculiar fact that the same form of energy is associated with entirely different forms of consciousness, depending only on where that energy is located in the brain.

The third thing to notice is that if consciousness begins to occur as the nerve-output reaches the threshold and also becomes more vivid as the nerve-output increases beyond the threshold (such that reported degrees of vividness match the increases of energy-output, though not in a perfectly straightforward way), then this has to mean that if consciousness is a form of energy, it is taking energy from the nerve-output. It can't simply come into being, but has to be a transformation of some other energy; and what other energy could it be but the nerve-output? It is obviously intimately dependent on this energy (and, as far as we can tell, no other).

Hence, if consciousness is a form of energy, we have to say (a) that it is different from the electro-chemical output of the nerves, and (b) that it comes from and takes from that output. This means that, since we can measure the electro-chemical output of the nerves in the brain, we should be able indirectly to detect and measure the consciousness-energy, if it is energy.

Obviously, we would measure it by noting how the energy output of the brain's nerves increases with increase of the stimulus up to the threshold of consciousness. Up to that point, the total output of the nerves will be nothing but electrical energy. But once the threshold of consciousness is reached, the output of the nerves must split in two: some of it being consciousness-energy and some of it remaining electrical energy. Hence, now that the electrical output is only part of the total output, we can predict that if consciousness is in fact energy, the electrical output will show a leveling off at the threshold of consciousness, and then a decreased slope in its increase afterwards, as more and more of the output goes into more and more vivid consciousness-energy as well as greater electrical energy.

Consider a representation in which at the threshold of perception, the total energy splits in two. If you look at just the electrical component of this curve, you will see that it does not match the total output, and it looks quite different from what the total output would be if there were no drain on it to create and increase the output of the consciousness-component. Hence, if consciousness is a form of energy, observing the shape of the electrical-output curve should indicate the presence of consciousness.

No such difference in slope of electrical output, however, has been detected.

Unfortunately, this does not prove that consciousness is not energy, for two reasons: (1) The actual amount of energy used up in the transformation to consciousness might be undetectably small, so that as far as our instruments are concerned, there would be no difference in the electrical output below and above the threshold of consciousness. (2) In actual practice, energy spreads itself all over the brain in any act that the brain performs, and so isolating a single nerve (or a small group of them) and measuring just their electrical output (even though this nerve or these nerves are associated with the consciousness in question, as the nerves in the visual centers, for instance) might not give an accurate picture of what is going on even electrically in the stimulus and output of the nerves involved in a given act of consciousness.

Still, it would seem reasonable, if the nerves in question are the ones involved in the act of consciousness in question, that there would be some detectable difference in their electrical outputs as the threshold is reached. It would be far-fetched to assume that the drain on them was so small as not to be able to be picked up at all by the sensitive probes we have, or that the energy was so diffused that the nerves obviously most responsible for the consciousness in question would show no difference at all at the threshold of consciousness. It is just that you can't rule out these two possibilities, and hence, the undetectability of a difference in the nerve-output does not prove that the consciousness associated with the nerve-output is not a form of energy. It doesn't prove it, but it strongly indicates it.

Put it this way: if such a difference in the electrical curve were detected at the threshold of consciousness, this would disprove that consciousness is not a form of energy. What other explanation could there be for such a change in slope except that energy was being drained off into another form (which we don't happen to detect for lack of instruments)?

And in fact we don't need conclusive proof here for our purposes, since this is only one of two lines of reasoning that lead in the same direction. According to the first line of reasoning, if consciousness were a form of energy, then it couldn't "duplicate" itself, because it wouldn't be able to give itself the extra energy it would need to do so. By the line of reasoning we just got through, if consciousness were a form of energy, it should be at least indirectly detectable, and we can spell out how; but there has been no hint of any ability to detect it in this way; the curve of the electrical output of the nerves behaves as if it is the total output of the nerves both below, at, and above the threshold of consciousness--which makes sense if consciousness is not a form of energy at all.

Hence, we can draw the following conclusion:

Conclusion 1: The act of consciousness is a spiritual act, not limited in quantity as energy is.

The reason, of course, why you get into a contradiction when trying to say "how many" acts there are is the same reason you would get into a contradiction if you try to say "how much" there is of a spiritual act, because a spiritual act doesn't have a quantity. We have, perhaps, less of a problem with the latter lack of quantity, but it is difficult for us to conceive that you can't count spiritual acts either. But this is not totally outside our experience. If you and I are thinking that two and two are four, how many ideas "two and two are four" are there? One or two? Either answer will do. That is, when I "share my thoughts" with you, you don't get part of them, and they don't get divided; each thought is now both two and one.

It is not obvious whether consciousness is a characteristic of spirituality or not, so that any being which is spiritual would ipso facto be conscious. All we have established above is that spirituality is necessary for consciousness, not that it is sufficient. I must confess I know no way to prove that spirituality entails consciousness, though it is a pretty safe bet, I would think. First of all, if a spiritual being doesn't have a quantity, then why wouldn't it be a multiple unit in one single act? Secondly, we know from what was said about evolution earlier that God must be conscious of the universe he creates; and so the greatest spirit is an act of consciousness, and so presumably a multiple unit in one act.(1)

So we have the two extremes of spirituality being conscious: God and animals or at least human beings; and so there is really no reason why pure finite spirits like angels wouldn't be conscious also.

Having established that a conscious act is spiritual, then we can draw the following conclusion with respect to the faculty of consciousness:

Conclusion 2: The faculty of consciousness must be organized with a basically spiritual act.

I say "basically" spiritual for two reasons: (1) As we will see very shortly, and as I have mentioned already, sensation is a spiritual act that has as one of its "reduplications" an act with a quantity or a form of energy, so that it is basically spiritual but is also in the same act a form of energy. This would imply that the way the faculty of sensation is organized could be similar. (2) The mere fact of organizing parts of a body in such a way that the organized subsystem has definite instabilities and its own properties implies that the unifying activity itself must be unstable in some way, which in turn implies a discrepancy between the form of the activity and its quantity. Hence, there has to be some quantitative dimension about a faculty of consciousness; but as a faculty of consciousness it also has to be spiritual, or the part of the body could not produce an act (especially as a property) infinitely beyond itself.

But if the faculty is organized with an act which is spiritual, even if it contains a "reduplication" with a quantity, then this says something about the soul of a conscious body:

Conclusion 3: The soul of a conscious body must be basically spiritual.

Since the unifying energy of the living body builds the faculties in the first place, then it can't have them organized with a sub-unification infinitely beyond itself. Therefore, the soul of such a body is at least on the level of the organization of its faculties and of the properties it performs.

Since a spiritual act "duplicates" itself, then it is altogether probable that the act organizing the faculty of consciousness is the soul itself; and this is confirmed by the introspective recognition we have of knowing the "I" in the act of consciousness, in which what we mean by "I" is the whole being, not simply the faculty of consciousness or the conscious act.

What is probably going on here is that, instead of the faculty's producing the act of consciousness, the basically spiritual soul is using the faculty to restrict itself to performing this or that act of consciousness or to shut itself completely off for a time, allowing any other "reduplications" of itself (the ones that deal with regulating the vegetative acts, for instance) to work unconsciously, as in sleep. We saw that the living body works "from the top down" rather than "from the bottom up" as inanimate bodies do; and hence, the faculty, rather than being a facilitator, presumably acts as a restraint on the otherwise superabundant acts of the basically spiritual soul.

This is not to say that the soul decides to restrict itself with its quantitative "reduplication" or by using its faculty, as if it could dispense with this restriction if it wanted to. Try keeping yourself awake when you are very tired if you want to verify this. This restriction is apparently one of the limitations of the embodied spirit that is a spiritual or immaterial soul, and in the latter case, the soul is so restricted by its quantitative "reduplications" and its faculties that it cannot act without using the faculties and "reduplicating" itself as energy.

Before going on to discuss sensation and the immaterial soul at some length, let me draw one more conclusion from the spirituality of consciousness:

Conclusion 4: Computers are not conscious and never will be.

This obviously follows from what was said about consciousness. A computer is a system (not even a body) of switches that are either on or off, and are interconnected with a complicated set of feedback loops, so that the program allows the computer to do some amazing connections among the switches that represent the data that is fed into it.

But of course, it is inanimate in the first place, and not self-sustaining at the high energy level that it exists at when it is working; it has to be plugged in, whereupon it acts because it is seeking its ground state. Secondly, the acts of the switches are purely electrical, and we have absolutely no reason for thinking otherwise; hence no one of them has the remotest chance of knowing what it is doing. Any "self awareness" the computer might be said to have is (a) a mechanical response programmed into it when certain input is fed in (that is, the input simply opens the switch that says, "Display the following on the screen (or into the voice synthesizer): 'Don't bother me now; I'm tired!'"), and (b) in any case is a feedback loop through a number of switches, and does not involve an act that directly "reduplicates" itself, which we saw is necessary for the act to be conscious. That is, when you put in the command to open your word-processing program, and instead of doing so the computer puts on the screen, "Don't bother me now; I'm tired!" the computer didn't know what the message it was reacting to was, let alone what the words it put on the screen meant or even that they were a reaction to the input; it is just that your hacker friend put a shell command into your operating system that made the computer open the switches that resulted in the words on the screen rather than open the switches that loaded the word processing program.

We tend to be a little bamboozled by computers, because the commands are, by and large, in English or some kind of jargon that is comprehensible to a person familiar with computers, and it feels as if we are communicating with the computer and it is responding to us. But all that is going on is that we are opening and closing switches. That is all the computer can do: open and close switches in the sequence the programmer forces upon it; that is all the computer can do. It is just that there are hundreds and hundreds of switches, and they're very tiny.

Of course, the scientistic types will say, "Well, but the nerves in the brain either 'fire' their impulse or they don't; so that's all that's going on in us when we're conscious too." Precisely not. That is only the energy-dimension of what is going on in us; if it were all that is going on, then we would be conscious, as I said, below as well as above the threshold of perception, and our consciousness wouldn't be able to know what it is doing, as I tried to establish.

I realize that I'm not going to make any converts of the scientistic types by this, because their reaction is bound to be infected with the disease of the present age that I talked about in the first part. "How can you be so sure?" they will say. "Maybe computers aren't conscious yet, but who are you to say that some genius can't make a breakthrough so that they will be?"

To this I answer what I answered in the first part. "Who am I? Someone who can be wrong, but who has looked at the relevant evidence and isn't blinded by the dogma that we're just complicated machines. And who are you to say without any evidence at all that it's possible for computers to be conscious? Find the evidence that refutes the argument given above, so that you have some reason for asserting the consciousness of a set of switches, however complex, and I'll listen to your evidence. But as things stand, you have no more evidence for saying that it's possible for machines to be conscious than you have for saying that "someday some genius may come along and make it possible for people to become automobiles." After all, such a thing is conceivable, as that revolting TV show "My mother the car" attests.

No, unless there is something really radically wrong with the evidence above, computers are not and never will be conscious.



1. Of course, this would imply that Christians call God a Trinity because God is spiritual, not because of anything unique about him. What the Trinity means is (a) that (as the Nicene Creed says) the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are "one and the same reality," and that (b) the Father is in some sense not the Son or the Holy Spirit, and the same goes for each of the other "Persons."

In fact, St. Thomas used the analogy of consciousness to talk about the Trinity, saying that God is the act of knowing himself. The Father is the knower, the Son the known, and the Spirit the knowing (the relation between the subject and object, or the Father and the Son). Since what the Father knows is himself, then the Son (the known) is the Father, and since the Father is the act of knowing, then the Father is also the Holy Spirit. In my terms, the analogy would be more like one of the Persons' being the "knowing," another being the "knowing that I know," and the third the "knowing that I know that I know."

But since "I know that I know" can be said truly as many times as you want, then why is God called just a Trinity and not a "quaternity" or some other number? Because Jesus referred to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and did not give God any other names. Quite possibly these "reduplications" of God are the ones that are relevant to Jesus as the God-man and the social person of those who share God's life. If this is true, then there would be other ways of considering God such that he would be not just a Trinity, but a "multiplunity."

For instance, we established in the discussion on evolution at the end of the preceding chapter that God knows the universe somehow or other; so the knowledge analogy (with its multiple "reduplications") can work. And one could say that each of us is present to him as one of his "reduplications" of himself, with the form that equals the whole of our intelligibility (including, of course, all our past, present, and future as eternally "present"--in the sense of not absent--to him).

This knowledge of us, of course, is different from the life of grace (his life) which we share; that is a way that he imparts his spiritual act to us, more or less, I suppose, as I share an idea with you, so that your mind now acts as my mind does, while my act loses nothing of what it had originally.

As to how God can know the universe without being affected by it, he knows it (as St. Thomas said) by knowing himself as the cause of each finite being he creates (accounts for the finiteness of)--as well as all of them together.