Neo-Platonism & TV Analogy

Plotinus and the Television Analogy:

In our recent discussion on faerie creatures, T99 suggested that she had a Platonist model of consciousness. I was reading from Plotinus' fourth ennead today, in which he talks about the unity of all souls under his theory. Plotinus was the founder of Neo-Platonism, in the third century A.D. Here, for ease of reference, is the 'television model' for consciousness.

There's an alternative model of consciousness -- which I may have invented, although it's highly likely that someone else has achieved it separately -- that thinks about consciousness as a kind of signal that is part of the universe. This is opposed to the standard view of consciousness arising from chemical activity in the brain (a highly problematic concept: these same chemicals exist everywhere, but produce the experience of consciousness as far as we know only when arranged as a brain, and possibly only as a human brain).

In this sense, the brain is not creating consciousness, but interpreting something already present. The brain can be thought of as like an old-fashioned television, the kind that pulls TV signals from the air. Two such sets, tuned to different channels, will give you a completely different experience -- one of a football game, the other of a soap opera. Yet they are pulling from the same signal.

If a set grows old, the picture it offers begins to alter in certain ways; but it is interpreting the same signal. If it is damaged, the picture may become quite distorted -- but the signal is unharmed. If you unplug it, or it dies of age, or you bash it with a baseball bat hard enough, it may cease being able to interpret the signal at all. The signal is still there. You just have lost your means of interpreting and understanding it. (And even when you had that means, you were only seeing a small part of what was really there -- the one channel.)

On this model, then, what culture is doing is helping to "tune" our minds in certain ways. That would explain (for example) why a child who hasn't read 1,000 year old books might make a claim about an event (say a fairy) that harmonizes with those books. No one told her that story; she has simply been tuned, by genetics and culture, to interpret consciousness in certain ways.

That is compatible with the Platonic model you are suggesting, I think.
Now, Plotinus is not talking about a unified consciousness, but a unified soul -- indeed, consciousness poses a problem for him. How can two souls actually be one thing, if one is consciously experiencing pain and the other is not? He has an explanation for this which is similar to, but different from, the television analogy (which was obviously unavailable to him).
Now to begin with, the unity of soul, mine and another's, is not enough to make the two totals of soul and body identical. An identical thing in different recipients will have different experiences; the identity Man, in me as I move and you at rest, moves in me and is stationary in you: there is nothing stranger, nothing impossible, in any other form of identity between you and me; nor would it entail the transference of my emotion to any outside point: when in any one body a hand is in pain, the distress is felt not in the other but in the hand as represented in the centralizing unity.

In order that my feelings should of necessity be yours, the unity would have to be corporeal: only if the two recipient bodies made one, would the souls feel as one.

We must keep in mind, moreover, that many things that happen even in one same body escape the notice of the entire being, especially when the bulk is large: thus in huge sea-beasts, it is said, the animal as a whole will be quite unaffected by some membral accident too slight to traverse the organism.

Thus unity in the subject of any experience does not imply that the resultant sensation will be necessarily felt with any force upon the entire being and at every point of it: some transmission of the experience may be expected, and is indeed undeniable, but a full impression on the sense there need not be.
The concept of 'tuning' was not available to him, but he is in some sense reaching for a similar concept, especially when he speaks of how one body may not be conscious of all its sensations at the same time. Apparently the view of the soul he suggests was influential with Freeman Dyson, and Schrödinger.

Another place of harmony with Plotinus is the idea we often discuss that aesthetics underlies ethics, which in turn underlies politics. As the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it, "Plotinus' chronologically first treatise, ‘On Beauty’ (I 6), can be seen as parallel to his treatise on virtue (I 2). In it, he tries to fit the experience of beauty into the drama of ascent to the first principle of all. In this respect, Plotinus' aesthetics is inseparable from his metaphysics, psychology, and ethics."

Of course, in thinking of beauty as being directed at something like a Platonic form (in fact, toward God), he is suggesting that the underlying root of beauty is the same for everyone. We appear to differ on particulars because, he says, we get hung up on sensible beauty; we ignore the inner beauty that we can see when we ignore mere physical beauty.

As to that, it's a principle that reminds me of our discussion of The Knight's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer.

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