Is consciousness merely a special form of hallucination?
- Prudence Lon Weygand (#5), Message Capsule fragment
FLATTERY HAD JUST shifted the Com-central board to Prudence. He looked across at Timberlake, who sat on the edge of his action couch staring at a memo pad of ship paper. The thin paper rustled faintly as Timberlake folded back a page, scribbled something on a clean surface.
The monitor screen beside Timberlake showed that Bickel had sunk into sleep almost immediately after that strange call.
"Tim, did Bick's message make sense to you?" Flattery asked.
"Maybe." Timberlake looked up from his notepad. "Let's assume that consciousness involves an organic receptor of some kind which produces a field structure."
"And this field structure expands and collapses under different stresses," Prudence said.
Timberlake nodded. "And that field structure itself would be the phenomenon we call consciousness."
"Are you two agreeing with him?" Flattery asked.
"For the moment," Timberlake said. "Now, let's follow this assumption. The organic receptor would be subjected to a constant storm of impressions."
"And most researchers think the cerebellum is the focus of that storm of impressions," Prudence said.
"But it's certainly not the seat of consciousness," Flattery objected.
"There may be no seat of consciousness," Prudence said. "We're talking about a motile phenomenon. It can move by itself."
"Okay," Timberlake said. "What's the impression input? What does the cerebellum receive?"
"Electrical inputs of some form," Prudence said.
"Yes.... but how is that input sorted into its receiver?"
Flattery inhaled a deep breath, caught at last by the feeling of the hunt with the quarry near. Was it possible that this crew would succeed? He grew conscious that Prudence had asked him a question.
"Do you understand this concept? We're talking about electroform inputs of nerve-impulse groups and each group would be of extremely short duration."
"But the groups wouldn't be absolutely discrete," Flattery said.
"Of course not," she said. "It's like the ambiguity of light. Sometimes the physicist has to think of light as waves and sometimes as particles."
"Wavicles," Flattery said, his tone musing.
"Right. So sometimes we think of these nerve-impulse groups as discrete units, particles, and sometimes we think of them as a continuous flow... waves."
"Track that discrete flow for me," Timberlake said.
She glanced away from the big console, studied Timberlake. There was no avoiding the excitement in him. With that intuitive sense of his, Timberlake had leaped ahead somewhere and the others were supposed to follow.
"The track's pretty well plotted," Flattery said: "Action currents are conducted over the cortico-ponto-cerebellar tract. What're you driving at?"
She saw it then as a diagram in her mind: (1) cortico- (2) ponto- (3) cerebellar. Three phase! Were those the essential three of Bickel's field-self?
Prudence put this thought into words, waited, not knowing quite what to expect from the others.
"Three tracks, not one," Flattery mused. "No... that's not it." Then, pouncing: "Holographic!"
"A holographic field," Prudence said. She saw that Flattery, too, had been caught up in Timberlake's excitement. But the board demanded her full attention for a moment and it was only later that she realized she had missed some silent exchange between Flattery and Timberlake - perhaps a knowing look, a nod...
Presently, Timberlake said: "I want you to say it. What's the terminal point of all that input?"
"It goes into the silent or nonfunctional areas of the cerebellum," Prudence said.
Flattery felt a need to expand on this. "That's the superior and inferior lobes, the declive, the folium, and the tuber - the major portion of the cerebellum."
"Mediation is across the tract from the cerebral cortex," Prudence said.
"Silent or nonfunctional?" Timberlake asked. "Don't you medical people ever listen to your own words?"
"What do you mean?" Flattery asked. There was an edge of anger in his tone.
"What's the potential, the effect?" Timberlake demanded.
"I don't -"
"Energy arrives! Does it turn a wheel? Does it turn on a light? You can't keep piling energy into any system indefinitely without some kind of output... or balancing effect."
"But you said -"
"What's the output, the potential, the balancing effect? The energy goes in. What does it do?"
"Are you suggesting that this... this potential, that it's consciousness?" Prudence asked.
And she remembered Bickel calling the field system an "infinite sponge."
Flattery cut across this thought. "Didn't Bickel say something about consciousness being like the vestibular reflex of the inner ear?"
"The way we balance," Timberlake said. "The thing that tells us which way is down and which way is up."
"The strangest thing," Prudence said. "I feel as though I'd been a little bit asleep all along, not awake enough to realize what Bickel was driving at."
"But now you're beginning to get it," Timberlake said.
"That storm of sense impressions doesn't stop when you're asleep," Flattery argued. "Are you trying to tell me that sleep is a form of consciousness?"
As he spoke, he remembered making the same argument to Bickel, but now he had to be honest with himself and face up to the obvious answer plus everything that the answer implied.
"Yes, of course," Flattery said. "Sleep's a form of consciousness. It just falls near one end of the spectrum."
"And all that unexplained energy?" Timberlake insisted.
"It has to be used for something," Flattery said. "Yes, I see that."
"All right," Timberlake said. "The consciousness-effect - field or whatever - may mediate that energy balance. Perhaps it's a homeostat."
"All biological control mechanisms are homeostats," Prudence said. "So what?"
"It's not enough to say that consciousness juggles the storm of sense impressions," Flattery said. "That still leaves your question unanswered, Tim. What happens to the energy?"
"There must be another effect somewhere in the system," Timberlake said. "There has to be an unexplained flow of energy somewhere - or a flow that's been explained the wrong -"
"Synergy," Prudence said.
Flattery shot a surprised glance at her. The word had been on the tip of his tongue.
"Synergy," Timberlake mused. "Any medical surprises in there?"
Prudence heard the question within the question. The life-systems engineer had a working acquaintance with synergy, but he wanted to know if a medical simplification might help him. Timberlake was sniffing down a hot trail.
"It's the effect produced by our spinal reflexes," she said. "Synergy acts through the cerebellum, an extra effect. It's on the side of the... ahhh, circuit that leads out from the cortex."
"We're looking for an integrating or balancing effect," Timberlake said.
"That's... possible," Flattery said.
This wasn't enough for Timberlake. "Simple synaptic integration is enough on the side leading toward the cortex. Does synergy involve output from the frontal lobes or the gyrus? Could it account for our missing energy?"
"Why the gyrus?" Flattery asked.
"I keep looking for secondary mediation areas. We don't dare overlook anything....ave to be right the first time or we go down the tube the same way all the other ships did."
"You're going around in circles the same way Bickel does," Flattery objected. "So you narrow down the mediating area to the frontal lobes. So what?"
Timberlake wouldn't be distracted. "Lot's of researchers think the frontal lobes -"
"Fine!" Flattery interrupted. "No end of good people may've suggested that the frontal lobes are the mysterious center of consciousness. But Prue may be closer to it than you are. Motile, remember? There may be no seat of consciousness."
Timberlake blinked. "What good does it do to know where it is if you don't know what it is?"
Flattery pressed him. "Synergy may not be totally explained, but it's still useful as a concept. However, if you're suggesting that synergy is consciousness..."
"Dead end," Timberlake said. "But Bickel thinks we're after a field-regulating sensor which deals with mental and emotional responses."
So that's what's bothering him! Prudence thought. She said aloud: "If we're going to reproduce this thing artificially, whatever we build has to have sensory, mental, and emotional responses to regulate."
Flattery pressed himself back into his couch. "Ahhhhh. We can give Bickel's Ox its sensory and mental responses - but how do we give it emotions?"
"What about negative feedback?" Timberlake asked. "Emotions always involve a goal. Negative feedback suggests a goal-seeking element in the system."
"Consciousness requires a goal?" Flattery asked.
He realized by the sudden silence greeting his question that they had lifted themselves to a critical point of this analysis. They could all feel it. Bickel's challenging ideas had goaded them to this effort and now all of them were poised, sprinters waiting for the gun.
"A goal," Timberlake whispered. His voice grew louder. "An object on which to focus." He looked at Flattery. "The field relationship?"
Close, but not quite it, Prudence thought.
Flattery said: "Not an entity or a thing or an area of the brain, but a connecting link between such things or entities or areas."
Out of the corner of an eye, Flattery saw Prudence adjust a dial on the big console. He sensed the waiting tensions in her movements.
"A bridge!" Timberlake shouted. "Of course! Of course! A bridge!"
"A bridge built out of language?" Prudence asked.
"But the symbols are loaded with errors, with weaknesses and flaws," Timberlake said. "That's it."
Flattery saw a new quickness and sureness enter Prudence's movements as she digested this.
"Time spanning," she said. "With words... with symbols."
And Flattery thought: There is a gateway to the imagination you must enter before you are conscious and the keys to the gate are symbols. You can carry ideas through the gate from one time-place to another time-place, but you must carry the ideas in symbols. Do you know, though, what you carry... and who it is that carries?
"Every symbol has hidden premises behind it," Flattery said. "Every word carries unspoken assumptions."
"And the most critical word in the whole problem is the word consciousness," Timberlake said.
"Which assumes," Prudence said, "that there is a self to be conscious."
"A bridge crosses from one place to another place," Timberlake went on. "If it starts breaking down, the engineers get out the original blueprints, the materials orders, and they go to the bridge and examine it. They study the bridge under static conditions and under loads. Then they may replace parts, put in new bracings -"
"Or tear the whole damn thing down and start over," said Prudence. "Didn't either one of you hear me? Our word assumes there's a self to be conscious."
"We heard you," Flattery said. "But there are more important hidden assumptions... than 'Know thyself.' "What about 'Know thy limits'?"
"Limits," Timberlake picked up the word. "At one end - sleep or the sleep of death; and at the other end - waking."
"And the question of Western religion," Flattery said, "is: What lies beyond death? But the question of the Zen master is: What lies beyond waking?"
"For Kee-rist's sake!"
The voice was Bickel's and it plunged down onto them from the command-circuit screen overhead.
Flattery looked up with a smug smile to find Bickel glaring down at him from the screen.
"I leave you for a half-hour, and you lure these poor fools down some mystical dead end! Tossing labels around just like those jackasses back at UMB! Zen master! Next you'll trot out Cosmic Consciousness! Of all the impractical -"
"John, we've refined this question down to its essence," Timberlake said. "If you'd -"
"I asked you to give me some circuit suggestions. I've been listening to you play verbal medicine ball for ten minutes, and what I want to know is this: How will all that yakking build one circuit? Just one circuit!"
"You yourself asked UMB to define consciousness," Prudence protested.
"Because I wanted to keep them occupied and out of our hair." The screen went blank.
Flattery looked over to the console in front of Prudence, saw that the command-circuit key pointed to "on," but the screen remained blank.
That key is on! Flattery told himself. It had to be turned on deliberately. She did it! To waken Bickel.
But why was the screen blank?
As though she read his mind, Prudence said: "John's installed an override on the command circuit. Any idea why?"
"Didn't you see where he was?" Timberlake demanded. "He was in the shop - working on that Ox mess!"
Timberlake unlocked his action couch and, in almost the same motion, launched himself at the hatch to the computer maintenance shop. He wrenched at the lock dogs, but they remained immovable.
"He's jammed the lock!" Timberlake's voice rose in fear. "If he wrecks our computer..."
"You noticed... so you may as well watch," taunted Bickel's voice.
They looked up to see a view of the shop on their big screen. Bickel stood with the detritus of the initial Ox installation around him - dangling leads, meters, neuron blocks - all stacked precariously away from the computer wall.
"Bickel, listen to reason," Timberlake pleaded. "You can't just tear into -"
"Shut up or I'll turn you off," Bickel warned.
He knelt with a substitute neuron block, inserted it between the Ox and the computer wall, began making connections.
"Please, John," Prudence begged, "if you'd -"
"You're not going to stop him by talking to him," Flattery said.
"Listen to Raj." Bickel slipped another neuron block into place against the wall, made new connections.
"Rhythm," he said. "I went to sleep on it... and it woke me up - that and your yakking. Rhythm."
Another substitute neuron block went into place beneath the first two.
"Describe what you're doing," Flattery said, and he motioned for Timberlake to come to his side.
"Brain-vision anatomy can be reduced to the mathematical description of a scanning process," Bickel answered. "It follows that any other brain-function anatomy - including consciousness - should submit to the same approach. I can duplicate the alpha-rhythm cycle for a brain-scanning sweep by setting it up in the time-cycle of these neuron blocks. If I trace each rhythm from a human model and duplicate -"
"What's the function of each of these human rhythms?" Flattery demanded.
As he spoke, Flattery scribbled a note on a pad of ship flimsy, pressed it into Timberlake's hand.
Timberlake looked up to the screen, but Bickel still had his back to the video eyes that matched the screen-view.
"We don't know that function for certain, do we?" Flattery asked, and he motioned frantically for Timberlake to read the note.
Timberlake turned his attention onto the paper, read:
"BACK WAY, AROUND THE HYB TANKS. BICKEL HASN'T JAMMED THE HATCH FROM QUARTERS. TAKE THE OTHER TUBE AND SURPRISE HIM."
Again, Timberlake looked up to the screen.
The Ox was taking on new shape under Bickers hands - reaching out to the angle of the shop against the computer wall. It began to assume a feeling of topological improbability in Timberlake's eyes - with jutting triangles of plastic, oblongs of neuron couplers, strips of Eng multipliers... and the color-coded leads interweaving like a crazy spiderweb.
Timberlake felt a hand grab his arm, shake him. He looked at the hand, followed its arm to Flattery's glaring face.
Flattery gestured to the note in Timberlake's other hand.
Again, Timberlake looked at the note, recognizing why he remained rooted to this spot. Around the hyb tanks?
It would have to be through the hyb tanks.
Flattery must know that.
Timberlake turned his tortured gaze on Flattery, bringing the terror up to full awareness. Bickel has infected me with his cynical skepticism. I'm afraid of what I'll find in the hyb tanks if I look too close. I'll find the tanks empty, and nothing but leads back into the computer from the tanks. And the computer will be programmed to simulate the presence of hybernating life in those tanks. The whole thing will turn out to be a monstrous hoax.
I'll discover I've been life-systems engineer to... nothing....
Why do Ifear that? he wondered. Even this thought set him shivering.
Again, Flattery shook his arm.
Why doesn't he go? Timberlake wondered. He's so anxious!
The answer was obvious: Flattery wasn't as knowledgeable about computers. He couldn't analyze what Bickel was doing and repair - if that was possible - the damage.
I'm panic-stricken, Timberlake thought.
But he knew he couldn't stay rooted here. He had to take that other passage. And when he got into the hyb tanks, he wouldn't be able to resist the close inspection. He'd look beyond the dials and gauges and repeaters. He'd look into the tanks.
Despite his unexplainable terror, the other possibility remained - that the tanks contained life, and this life shared their danger.