Consciousness: A Strange Loop of Emotion

The feeling of being may be just that — a feeling

By Ben Callif

I seem, like everything else, to be a center, a sort of vortex, at which the whole energy of the universe realizes itself… A sort of aperture, through which the whole universe is conscious of itself.

Alan Watts
Credit: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock

For too long consciousness has been contemplated by philosophers in a domain disconnected from physical reality. Over the last century or two biology has gotten closer and closer to the study of consciousness. With the rise of neuroscience and the discovery of genetics it has become more important than ever for scientists to be philosophers and vice versa. But philosophy and science are still separated by a huge epistemological gap. For example, biology is firmly rooted in a materialistic world in which all phenomena can be explained by deterministic, causal factors. In this scientific realm, living things are treated like mechanical artifacts and can, therefore, be studied like machines. But, with this approach, consciousness occupies a non-material space that cannot be touched by the probing appendages of the scientific body. This is an unfortunate position because we cannot understand the world except through the lens of conscious experience. Within biology, subjectivity is either handled with derision or held up as an intangible ideal that can never be described. So how can we merge these two extreme positions? In this article, we’ll explore the ineffability of consciousness within the context of biology.


Traditionally, a conscious perspective is not just a metaphorical space of internalized experience, but a literal set of portals, such as eyes, ears, mouths, and noses. These sensory apertures transmit information from an external reality to an internal realm of being; they turn the objective into the subjective, translate analog information into digital sensation, and transfer external motion into internal emotion (e-motion?). This concept of conscious sensation as a portal from a “physical” dimension to a “mental” (or purely informational) dimension is so ephemeral that consciousness is considered to be one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Even many neuroscientists and philosophers of consciousness believe that there are some sort of “non-physical,” logically indescribable aspects of subjectivity known as qualia. The broadest definition of qualia is not objectionable, as it refers to the phenomenal aspects of subjectivity. In other words, even if no two people see colors exactly the same, who can deny the existence of smells, tastes, and textures — and the effects they have on our behaviors? However, the idea of qualia quickly becomes distorted when philosophers argue that some organisms, like plants, experience no sensations because, “nothing that goes on inside them is poised to make a direct difference to what they believe or desire, since they have no beliefs or desires.”

Perhaps this is a simple quibble over interpretations of “beliefs” and “desires.” But I define life as “a self-sustaining process that organizes disorder into order,” which suggests that all living beings have at least two “desires”: survival and organization. By this definition, plants are certainly privy to qualia, because every process inside them occurs for the purposes of survival and the maintenance of homeostatic mechanisms. Plants even use many of the same proteins as humans do to process sensations and to formulate complex behaviors in response to these sensations. Plants almost certainly experience the world in a very different way than humans. We cannot directly experience the life of a plant, but it is unreasonable to assume that they have no subjective experiences at all. In the web of evolution, humans are related to plants just as we seem to be related to all living things.

It seems almost obvious that plants can react to their environments in meaningful and direct ways. For example, they can grow towards the sun, fend off predators, and sense the changing of the seasons. Plants perceive, process, and respond to their environments in such deeply complex ways that a new field of study known as “plant neurobiology” has begun to develop — a new framework that conceives of plants as intelligent and social organisms. The question of what a plant feels (or if it even feels at all) is up for debate, but if we doubt their capacity to react and make choices, why not doubt this capacity in humans?

This kind of slippery reasoning about what we simply cannot observe (i.e., the internality of feelings) makes the discussion of human consciousness very tricky. The main difficulty of discussing consciousness is that it may be impossible for any logical system (including consciousness) to truly define itself. In other words, there is always one thing that a descriptive system cannot describe: itself. This is easily demonstrable through paradoxical self-reference like, “this sentence is false.” It is possible to construct these non-tautological statements (a contradiction; a statement that is true if false and false if true) in any symbolic system. Consciousness is just like any other self-referential system — it is necessarily incomplete since it must continuously update to contain itself inside itself. As soon as you have a novel experience or learn something new you must integrate this into your identity. Then, this new identity needs to be integrated into a new identity, which needs to be integrated into a new identity, and this sequential process can go on and on forever. This infinitely recursive and self-referential logic is known as a “strange loop.” One easily demonstrable example of a strange loop is what happens when you point a video camera at its own output on a screen. Any motion or change that the camera detects will ripple through the layered images as an infinitely regressive wave.

A camera pointed at its own output on a screen creates a hauntingly beautiful hallway of infinity. Perhaps we are so enchanted by this recursion because it is a low-dimensional representation of our own subjectivity.

In a way, the essence of consciousness is that it cannot be defined because it is the absolute reference point for all possible definitions — it is the linchpin that holds the self-referential system of words together. Some sects of Buddhism refer to this indefinable essence of consciousness as Zen. The brilliant philosopher Douglas Hofstadter tries to describe Zen like this:

… there is no way to characterize what Zen is. No matter what verbal space you try to enclose Zen in, it resists, and spills over…the Zen attitude is that words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth.

Douglas Hofstadter

The ever-elusive concept of Zen — the indescribability of consciousness — has also been called The Tao in Chinese philosophy: the essence of experience, the thing (or no-thing) that has no opposite. Alan Watts, a philosopher of Zen Buddhism, says it like this:

The present moment is infinitely small; before we can measure it, it has gone, and yet it persists for ever. This movement and change has been called Tao…The infinite Tao is something which you can neither escape by flight nor catch by pursuit; there is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it.

Douglas Hofstadter

Consciousness, Zen, the Tao. Whatever we call it, this indefinable and absolute reference point is like a black hole at the center of self-awareness that binds together an entire dimension of experience with its inescapable pull: “…it is, and you are it.”

Consciousness, to be clear, does not refer to identity or memory — rather, humans are conscious of our memories and our identities in the same way that we can be conscious of a tap on the shoulder. Instead, consciousness refers to the deeply transcendental essence that rests at the heart of all experience: the feeling of being that sits behind all perspectives. Furthermore, besides the objects, people, and environments around it that consciousness constantly simulates, human consciousness also simulates itself. This self-conception is a holistic summation of 1) all other representations, 2) the representor themselves, and 3) the representation of the representation of the representation, ad infinitum.

Consciousness can be a deceptively difficult topic, despite it being the most universal feature of creatures that can communicate. Language is often considered to be integral to our conscious experience as human beings. But consciousness is a more fundamental aspect of being than the complexity of language. There are thousands of human languages that are composed of an uncountable number of unique words. Despite this, all words share one feature — they are self-referential. All words are defined by another word and every word defines itself by virtue of its definition. To put this another way, a word is only a word if it has meaning, which means that it refers to some “thing” or “concept” that exists in a non-linguistic realm. To visualize this, imagine that every word is connected to another word in a vast, two-dimensional web of definition. Every word in this web must also have a connection with something outside that two-dimensional web of words. The web only maintains its structure because it is anchored in an independent reality — a dimension that exists above and beyond the linguistic web.

An example of a semantic network in which the functional connection between words is visualized as a web. Image Credit: Social Media Research Foundation

Consciousness is often conflated with language because it shares the self-referential features of words, but there are easily dissociable aspects of consciousness that are distinct from language. Humans share many of these aspects with animals, pre-linguistic infants, and other humans that speak different languages. The main example of these shared aspects of consciousness is emotion: the ability to prepare for and react to specific situations. Antonio Damasio, a professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology, defines emotion like this:

The biological function of emotions is twofold. The first function is the production of a specific reaction to the inducing situation. In an animal, for instance, the reaction may be to run or to become immobile or to beat the hell out of the enemy…The second biological function of emotion is the regulation of the internal state of an organism such that it can be prepared for the specific reaction. For example, providing increased blood flow to arteries in the legs so that muscles receive extra oxygen and glucose, in the case of a flight reaction, or changing heart and breathing rhythms, in the case of freezing on the spot.

Antonio Damasio

By this definition, emotions are the capacity for directed and intentional physiological movement — the capability to change yourself in response to the environment. To use an example from before, a plant can sense the sunlight and grow towards it. As an example of emotion in terms of humans, when we are threatened our heart rate and breathing increase in preparation for a fight or flight reaction. These changes will happen whether we are consciously aware of a threat or not. Even if we are not aware of why particular emotions are happening or how to interpret them, we often feel these changes (“Why are you crying?” … “I don’t know! I’m just really happy”) — and this is an interesting dissociation to make between emotions and feelings. Emotions are bodily responses, but feelings are the subjective perception of those emotions and the reason why we can regulate our internal states. In this framework, feelings are just a type of emotion: an internal emotion in response to an external emotion — meta-emotions, as it were. Conscious awareness of emotions happens in the form of an associated feeling, like fear about a looming shadow behind you, anger because of the way that guy looked at you, or generalized anxiety for no discernible reason at all.

And this is where things get interesting. In and of itself, emotion is a form of self-awareness and a kind of self-reference, because an adaptive reaction to external change requires some functional distinction between the individual and its environment. This emotional capacity to react, adapt, and survive is one of the most integral components of the evolutionary process and, therefore, of life. Emotion is essentially synonymous with behavior — the way in which a living thing engages its body to react to the environment. In this way, emotions are required for life, and more complex emotions provide an expanded repertoire of reactions to possibly life-threatening changes in the environment.

To follow this line of logic, the ultimate adaptive tool is the ability to respond to responses — to feel. This kind of infinitely recursive and self-referential reactionary capacity is exactly what seems to drive the exceptional progress of human intelligence. While emotion is a required component of even the most basic lifeforms, the complexity of feeling is what we often ascribe to “higher” consciousness, or self-recognition. Although any emotion is a form of self-awareness, human consciousness is a more explicit and expressible form of self-awareness that arises from the feeling of a feeling. The awareness of our own awareness allows us to metaphorically step aside as an “agent” of our own internal processes. In this way, consciousness is a looped chain of emotion: emotions in response to emotions in response to emotions. Consciousness is the process of feeling our own feelings from a different viewpoint, which creates a stream of experience — the transformation of external events into an internal dimension of emotions, feelings, and, eventually, consciousness awareness…


Adapted from the book Organumics: An Epigenetic Re-Framing of Consciousness, Life, and Evolution by Ben L. Callif

Copyright © 2019 by Ben L. Callif. Used by permission of S. Woodhouse Books, an imprint of Everything Goes Media. All rights reserved.

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