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A Game Developer Looks at Human Consciousness

Gino Yu tries to explain the Asian approach to consciousness to Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth

A few years back, Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviewed game developer Gino Yu at Closer to Truth on the topic, “What is Consciousness?”

Consciousness is what we can know best and explain least. It is the inner subjective experience of what it feels like to see red or smell garlic or hear Beethoven. (Jan 18, 2016, 8:34 min)

The interview raises some interesting issues.

Yu is the founding head of the Multimedia Innovation Center at Hong Kong Polytechnic University: “His main area of research focuses on the application of media technologies to cultivate creativity and promote enlightened consciousness.” (Closer to Truth) So how does he understand consciousness?

Selections from the transcript and some notes follow:

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: you know I’ve been obsessed with trying to understand consciousness. I studied neuroscience. I really focus on analytic philosophy. You’ve told me that
I have no chance to really understand consciousness because I am constrained with a Western understanding. How so? (0:17)

Gino Yu: Well, you’re trying to understand it from the realm of the mind and from… When I mentioned the Western understanding, it’s really the Western framing of the world. (0:26)

In the Western framing of the world, this is me and this is not me. And I’m trying to understand me by looking at the things that are not me. (0.33) …

The Asian approach, the Eastern framing of reality, is: This is me, but I’m part of this. And I can’t really explain “me” without explaining what this is. And so, in a lot of the exploration, there is more on the inner side. So, really looking at how things are, what are the forces that are motivating action and what are the feelings? And how do I know what I know? (1:14)

And so, arguably, most of the things that we’re talking about in terms of you’re trying to “know” are an intellectual knowing, which are very different from an experiential knowing. (1:24)

Like, right now we’re sitting here and we’re in this conversation. Right now, when we’re talking about consciousness but there’s also the sound of the water here, that you’re aware of. And that awareness is a different kind of knowing — like if … you had to go to the bathroom, for example, that kind of knowing can happen which is actually very different from the intellectual kind of knowing. (1:46)

Sure, so we can know that one plus one equals two for example, which is an intellectual knowing versus knowing you have to go to the bathroom, which is a different kind of knowing. (1:55)

Note: Yu’s observation is correct; there are different kinds of knowing. But consciousness integrates them seamlessly. A conscious person can hear the fountain, hit on a solution to a complex problem, and become aware of a need to visit the bathroom all at the same time. David Chalmers’Hard Problem of consciousness” is a hard problem for Asian origin philosophies too.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (Persian Empire), 500 BC approx/Public Domain

Gino Yu: but if you look at it and, for me, the challenge for this is really tracing it to the origins. And so, if you look at the origins of Western science and philosophy, it ties into the preSocratics… The preSocratics are interesting because they were the first ones that tried to explain rationally how the world operated independent of any kind of supernatural power. So from Thales in 585 BC till today, we’ve been developing and refining our mental understanding of reality. But if you look at the origins of it, it was really a bunch of people getting together to try to explain… trying to come up with a language to communicate this.

Note: The preSocratics were the philosophers in the Greek tradition who preceded more famous figures like Socrates (470–399 BC), Plato (429?–347 BC), and Aristotle (384– 322 BC).

“Perhaps the fundamental characteristic is the commitment to explain the world naturalistically, in terms of its own inherent principles.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Better known ones are Thales, who argued that water was the first cause of the universe, and Heraclitus, who taught that everything is in flux.

Perhaps, the preSocratics are best understood as philosophers who were seeking explanations of the way the world is by inquiring into chains of causes (more like science) as opposed to telling stories (classical myths).

Gino Yu: … in order for communication to be effective, we have to have the same dictionary, meaning the semantics and in the use of the words. But if I’ve had an experience that you’ve never had and I try to explain the experience to you, I can explain it ad infinitum, till my head turns blue. But if you’ve never had the experience, you’re not really gonna know what I’m talking about. You’re gonna map it to different things based upon the words and your understanding of them to try to come up with an understanding. But it’s not going to be the same. (4:33) … And so similarly if we’re gonna really talk about something, we have to have a shared experience of that. (6:29)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Yeah, okay. But if I would have that, how would I be different in trying to understand consciousness? Would I reject neuroscience? I wouldn’t reject analytical philosophy. How would I be different? (6:46)

Gino Yu: Well the question for that is, What wants to know, right? And so something that’s in the realm of the mind, it’s like a scratch that you can’t itch. For you, it’s always been like a scratch that you can’t itch. Why?…

Calligraphic manuscript page with three of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat written by 
William Morris, illustration by Edward Burne-Jones (1870s)/Public Domain

Note: Yu is right in thinking that each human consciousness is unique. We can never have another human being’s experience exactly. Perhaps that’s what he is trying to get at when he offers this puzzling statement about Kuhn’s desire to understand consciousness: “For you, it’s always been like a scratch that you can’t itch. Why?”

The Asian traditions seem to find consciousness as much a mystery as the Western ones, though their explorations have often used different techniques.

Perhaps the last word then should go to Edward Fitzgerald’s 19th century rendering in English of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same Door as in I went.

And perhaps the quest would even be less interesting if it could actually end at some point.

You may also wish to read: Tibetan monks CAN change their metabolism. Far from disproving it, science has documented it. For decades, a default assumption would be that claims that meditating monks in the Buddhist tradition could greatly raise their temperature or slow their metabolism were assumed to be exaggerations that would yield to a scientific explanation. The scientific explanation turned out to be that the monks can do exactly that.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

A Game Developer Looks at Human Consciousness