From Conceptualization to Cessation: A Philosophical Dialogue on Consciousness (with Roger Thisdell)

When I’m not monkeying around, I’m typically reading, writing, or discussing philosophy with my peers, and of these activities, I think that philosophical discussions have the highest ROI. This is because (1) it an active process that demands a high level of sustained engagement, and (2) it allows you to outsource your cognition to the collective extended mind.1 This post contains an edited transcription of a particularly enriching conversation I had with Roger Thisdell, broadly centred on consciousness philosophy. Roger is an accomplished meditator and phenomenologist with a background in philosophy, and while our experiential reference frames are quite different from one another, we found a lot of common ground. Most importantly, we had a lot of fun chatting 😊.

This is my first proper attempt at processing a conversation into a written dialogue, inspired by the dialogic philosophical traditions of antiquity. While it took longer than I expected, I’m excited to maybe try it again with one of the many other recordings of exciting conversations I have saved on my computer. My method basically involved using speech-to-text transcription software on the audio file, LLMs to clean up the resulting text, and manual edits for the sake of clarity and consistency. As our intention was simply to discuss philosophy with one another, the narrative thread in this dialogue is somewhat inconsistent relative to e.g., a professional recording session, but I’ve done my best to have it all make sense. Enjoy!


[talking about ontology & epistemology]

Arataki: Maybe there exist other substances whose intrinsic nature is not awareness, but until we develop a formal physical theory of consciousness how could we know this?

Roger: I always say you can’t peek behind the cone of consciousness.

Arataki: Many ontologies want to throw out purely phenomenal concepts as objects of inquiry because they are impossible to fully define within established semantic frames of reference. I think the opposite is true; if you can fully define a thing within an existing meaning-making system, it obviously doesn’t exist. Or, more charitably, it exists to the extent that it is being posited within an experience that has internalised that system. But the thing I’m pointing at – consciousness, awareness, whatever you want to call it – its not just a semantic abstraction embedded within our shared model of reality like other concepts, it lies beyond the model and itself gives rise to it.

Roger: I don’t know where I lie in this debate. I have sympathies on both sides. But tell me, what is the difference between a system that feeds itself a message that it can’t not believe? It’s like a lie it tells itself but cannot disbelieve.

Arataki: The point I want to make is that “I am conscious” is almost like an a priori truth: it’s saying something meaningful without abstracting from anything within consciousness. Just the fact that there is ‘something that it’s like to be’, period.

Roger: But that fact can be encoded as part of the message you can’t disbelieve. The brain feeds itself this message: “Oh, there’s something that it’s like to be it right now,” and it just can’t disbelieve that.

Arataki: But then you need a mechanism to explain the illusion of consciousness, leading to a recursive cycle.

Roger: By illusion, you mean like the qualia? The colours and such?

Arataki: Yeah.

Roger: But again, you just feed that back in. I mean this is the really weird thing: when you actually look at the qualia you don’t find anything. It can only really exist if you don’t look at it properly. Its very nature is the way you look before you realize it’s not a ‘thing’.

Arataki: But in the moment of experience when it appears, regardless of how you happen to be looking, there’s still something there. Even if you focus on it and see its emptiness, that moment in which it appears as an apparent quality of experience – that exists, that’s what I’m pointing toward.

Roger: I get you. I totally get you. But there’s something about this debate you just can’t fully resolve. Its seemingness, its somethingness, its nature is not what we think it is. They’re certainly not ‘things’ in the way we typically think of ‘what it means for something to fit the category of thing’.

Arataki: A related point which Mike Johnson brings up in Principia Qualia (p.61) is the notion of frame invariance and his critique of computationalism. I don’t think this was the main goal of the argument he presented in the text, but reading through PQ and other related texts, I’ve basically become convinced that it’s provably impossible to formalize this philosophical position. Any claim about the functioning of a given information processing system, or the processes that are being implemented within that system, actually requires looking at its external states filtered through set analytical reference frames. There’s a sense that you have to accept even just a few rudimentary axioms in order for that function or process to be there, and these entities stop existing in absence of an observer with preconceptions. But the substrate remains stable – that thing we can never fully describe, but gives rise to such abstract entities. Gravity, for example, exists and acts upon objects with a mass regardless of how we happen to model its nature. I want to say consciousness falls into this category of ‘frame-invariant’ phenomena. Intense suffering, for instance, doesn’t just depend upon an observer looking at the behaviour of a sentient being and saying “this matches my preconceptions regarding the proper circumstances under which I should attribute ‘pain’ state”: it exists regardless of such contexts.

Roger: Can’t it do that to itself?

Arataki: What’s that?

Roger: Like we discussed earlier about ascribing selfhood or free will to ourselves. Can you not do that for suffering?

Arataki: Sure, we can classify certain instances of suffering as ‘pain state x’, and there’s a sense this label latches onto something meaningful internally. And I agree that the apparent relationship between phenomenal properties and semantic concepts is fundamentally empty. But regardless of the conceptual baggage that comes with labelling, something gives rise to this process – even if that something becomes gradually shaped by the process itself.

Roger: I want to go a level down. This thing about concepts, they don’t just exist at the semantic level and our ability to have thoughts. Even if you’re having an experience where there’s no processing of language or thoughts, there’s still conceptualisation, right?

Arataki: Mmmm… in a sense, yeah.

Roger: There’s a kind of perspective to realise when people say “oh, everything’s thought.” Even without verbal language or mental images, they’re different incarnations, different variants of thought. I can simply not think about anything semantically, yet there’s still the comprehension of a chair as an object.

Arataki: I think this is because experiences internalise their associated semantic content.

Roger: But it goes all the way down. Even thinking there is a ‘thing’ involves concepts. There is some thing. It’s still working with concepts.

Arataki: Ahh… we’ve come to a point of disagreement.

Roger: Because correct me if I’m wrong, you want to say you can have ‘raw qualia’ not loaded with conceptualization?

Arataki: Yes, the difference is ‘structured’ versus ‘unstructured’ patterns of qualia. Structured qualia patterns permeate the fabric of our experience under ordinary conditions: call this Darwinian consciousness. Its adaptive, allowing us to sustain an explicit model of our environment – this is why sentience evolved. But unstructured qualia patterns occur when you do something to the system to put it outside of these evolutionary stable conditions. You interrupt the ordinary processing of information and get extremely weird highly-entropic states of consciousness with little to no sensibility, no active mechanisms to render information in such a manner that helps inform our models. Instead, you’re left with intense, blinding patterns of sensation that have no reason or purpose, but they’re there.

Roger: No, but I think there’s still conceptualization of… thing. Like, stuff is happening.

Arataki: I disagree. In such states, the mind’s capacity to draw boundaries or relations between qualities to form conceptual categories is shut off.

Roger: Is this an experience like a blackout until you come back?

Arataki: There is stuff happening, but no active process to model its dynamics.

Roger: No, but the qualia must be embedded with subtle conceptualisation. There are no thoughts happening – it’s not that. And there’s little to no metacognition, but there’s still a sense of thinginess to it.

Arataki: But what’s the alternative?

Roger: The alternative is cessation. [see also Roger’s writings on Nirodha Samapatti]

Arataki: There’s just nothing?

Roger: Just to show what a real non-conceptual mind moment is. I guess that’s why I draw it down to that.

Arataki: In one such experience I had, there was only stuff, no things. But all the stuff was fundamentally equivalent – all made of awareness, with barely any noticeable difference between each vector. Usually the stuff is arranged so that things naturally emerge bearing informational content. But in this state there were no things, nor was there even the possibility for things to emerge – no patterns bearing information, no mechanism to recognise patterns and construct inferences.

Roger: But there was still a sense of extended space?

Arataki: Yeah, there was bound space and volume.

Roger: So even within that, there was a slight sense of ‘to the left’, ‘to the right’?

Arataki: Yes, but this was only accessible when reflecting upon the experience – it was certainly not evident in the moment when it occurred.

Roger: But where is that happening? I get what you’re saying; within such experiences, you can’t tell the time or understand language, there’s no one home. But there’s still a weird conglomeration of sense data – a subtle, bare-bone modelling. Years ago, I had such an experience, and at the time I thought there was really no suffering, absolutely no suffering in that state. Then I experienced states with even less and less, and then I’d see how – if I compare the two – there actually was still suffering present. As a reference, consider Jhana 4 – pervasive equanimity, real across-the-board equanimity, really deep with very very reduced suffering. If you’ve only gone up to that, you might think “oh, yeah, no suffering”. Then Jhana 5, Jhana 6, then you go to Jhana 7, Jhana 8, and in Jhana 8 you might be tempted to say “no suffering, absolutely no suffering”. But then you get cessation and you can compare between the two, and it’s like “oh, even in Jhana 8 there’s still some very very very mild suffering, comparatively”. And maybe it’s the same thing with conceptualisation.

Arataki: I see your point, but its difficult to square with my experience. So much was gone – even the awareness of ‘this is an experience that will progress into a future state’ – that was gone, so every moment felt like an eternity. I couldn’t ‘peer behind each moment’ to conceive of its temporal structure, nor had I access to past moments to observe the appearance of change.

Roger: No, I totally get you. I think this is where cessation is super informative – it just gives you another reference point to compare.

Arataki: I agree that if I’d had a cessation experience my philosophy would look very different. Or even just meditating through all the jhanas. Finding these kinds of points of divergence from my phenomenology is actually incredibly instructive as I want to have a well-calibrated model of what consciousness is, and there’s a very real sense in which certain insights are only accessible by entering into certain states.

Roger: The thing is, even having just one cessation might not be enough, because you can miss it. People can have it and miss it, and it can be so brief that they brush over its significance. But there’s something about having it repeatedly. Andrés is getting the jhanas, which is cool. But if he ever had a cessation…

Arataki: If Andrés had cessation and updated away from valence structuralism I’d book a six-month meditative retreat immediately!

[laughter]

Arataki: But there’s always the possibility of being misled by an experience, right? Like, it’s possible to internalize a reference frame where something that really exists is repeatedly doubted, or its intrinsic nature is obfuscated. But I acknowledge that this critique is equally founded from your perspective as from mine.

Roger: I think we both agree that we shouldn’t deduce philosophical positions from just one frame of experience, but rather based on trends, aggregating insights across time.

Arataki: Yes, and the precision with which we’re talking about phenomenology is exciting – it’s an exciting time to be human!

Roger: You know, sometimes I think we’re on the edge of solving the hard problem within our lifetime. Other times I wonder whether these debates have been happening for millennia. Like, okay now we’re talking about it in terms of ‘computationalism vs substratism’, but perhaps the same basic tension can be identified in whatever theory was hot at the time.

Arataki: I think a core reason we keep having these debates stems from differences in ontological primitives: in this case, belief in the irreducible existence of information. Controversially, I think information is just a leaky abstraction from the raw properties of phenomenal consciousness – it doesn’t exist in isolation from other conscious processes. When we model phenomena, we are disassociating ourselves from their true nature for the sake of becoming synchronised with how other people model phenomena, so that we can maintain the illusion of living in a shared reality. But this is just cope. That’s not to say that there are no convergent modelling processes at play – the illusion of shared experience is obviously grounded in some common perception of stable physical patterns, and our nervous system parameters are roughly similar (we are all phylogenetically related). But I believe what lies beyond experience lies beyond analysis, and the notion of frame-invariant information existing ‘out there’ seems to violate this conception.

Roger: This relates to what I said earlier about suffering – there’s no way to spin it a different way. Consider the example of lifting weights; you get sore muscles and you can think “oh, this is a good thing because it means I’m growing muscle and will be stronger next time, blah blah blah”. Yeah, but the raw sensation is painful, and if you look at it as ‘just that’ there’s suffering there. You can try to put whatever kind of interpretation on top, but the suffering is just the suffering.

Arataki:   Suffering from lifting weights?

Roger:  No, in any case. I give that example because some people want to say “I like my suffering”. But no, you can give a wider framed interpretation and say this suffering now is good because it means I’ll suffer less later, but in and of itself that sensation is not pleasurable.

Arataki: Sometimes it’s useful to internalize narratives about suffering being instructive or character-building to the extent that suffering is inevitable, but one should be careful to pick and choose when to apply such framings. I agree that it’s not saying anything intrinsic about the suffering, its more at the human level of reasoning about experience.

[conversation shifts to phenomenology]

Roger: There’s a weird thing that has happened with my phenomenology, I’ve become kind of blind to awareness or consciousness. Like I said, I can’t use the sixth jhana anymore, which is boundless consciousness. There used to be a move I could make when awareness emanates from the centre and spreads outwards, and I could reverse the flow and get like “awareness coming from here, and then from here”, and also like “oh you just build it up and it’s coming from everywhere”. Now it’s so locked into that, because there’s no counter signal to contrast it you become blind to it. I no longer talk about being aware of awareness. You can’t be aware of awareness; you’re aware of sense impressions. Anything you think is awareness is probably just a subtle, faint part of experience that you’re not seeing clearly (and is probably just another somatic sensation).

[…]

Roger: Waking up doesn’t necessarily give you an epistemically privileged position – it could be a regression. You need moments of unawareness and difference to realize that something exists. This is like how a fish is blind to water because it knows nothing else; only when it leaves the water can it realize ‘oh, there’s water everywhere.’

Arataki: Ah, this reminds me of an Ajahn Brahm metaphor. He tells a story about a tadpole that learns all about water, its physical properties and whatnot, but only when it grows legs and leaves the river does it see the water for what it is.

Roger: Yeah, you need to not see parts of your experience clearly enough to realize “oh my god, there is awareness”.

Arataki: That could just be a defabrication process: before going through this transition in shifting how you look at awareness, it could have existed in a different way. Now, there’s the appearance of sameness, but it’s not like it was before.

Roger: I think this is what’s cool about the fourth path. By going through different modes of perception, you transcend and include them. You don’t forget about the self or awareness, but you see through them, which is different from never having seen them in the first place.

[conversation moves to the state of philosophy]

Roger: It’s nice to meet someone as hyper-philosophical as you. Normally, I’m the only one like this in my world – I’d be at the pub debating philosophy and stuff like this. You’re more steeped in it because of your study, so you’re more on-board with current theories and papers.

Arataki: To some extent, yes. Philosophy, like any academic field, can involve too much thinking and not enough doing – especially philosophy of mind. It’s easy to anneal to a particular way of looking at a problem, then you have to force yourself out of it. Encountering QRI and Principia Qualia did this for me: I had to tear down and reconstruct my fundamental approach to the problems I dedicated my life to solving. [namely, the problem of suffering]

Roger: There’s also a big difference in where people arrive in their arguments based on how much they factor in. The more components you include, the greater divergence in the conclusions you reach. You see some people who try to tackle philosophical questions, but their attempts are very low resolution. Even including the world of academic philosophy it’s like “no, things are more complicated”. When we think about “what are the components that have led up to me being where I am now?”, we might just think “well, it’s because I did this thing, I went to uni, I studied this topic…” – no, it’s all of them. It’s everything together, not just isolated events.

Arataki: You can’t carve off different sections of your life and say “x plus y equals z”.

Roger: Yeah, it’s literally all the moments led up to this. And when you get that, it imbues every moment with profundity and significance.

[…]

Roger: When you were an undergraduate, did you have many friends among your philosophy classmates?

Arataki: Not really. I made a few friends, but I was mostly the kid sitting in the front row, always asking questions. Some lecturers would even say, “Does anyone other than Arataki have a question?”, because they knew that if they selected me then there would be like a 20-minute debate and we’d run behind schedule.

[laughter]

Arataki: I’ve also taught philosophy. People tend to either take it either out of interest or because they think it’s easy credits – big mistake.

Roger: People think philosophy is easy credits?!

Arataki: Yes, but it’s actually more difficult if you don’t put in the effort. In other courses, you can sort of just string sentences together to show you’ve read the material and get a passing grade. With philosophy, its blindingly obvious when you haven’t grokked the arguments or read the course material properly.

Roger: I paid the price for trying to do something new in my philosophy dissertation; instead of reviewing the literature, I tried to come up with my own thoughts. They appreciated my independent thinking but didn’t give me the highest grade.

Arataki: This is why academic philosophy is restrictive – you work within an existing paradigm and are only allowed to probe at its edges after spending x many years processing generations of accumulated knowledge. As a student, you’re expected to read everything your teachers have read, and their teachers before them, etc. There’s a kind of lock-in effect with how people approach philosophical problems because of this: starting a new paradigm is significantly more difficult than in previous centuries. Might as well just start a blog instead.


Bonus image: Mr. Monk meets Roger in the big smoke
  1. Different organisms have different experiences and different methods of reasoning about their experiences, so its unsurprising that talking and listening in truth-seeking contexts often generates better insights than solitary introspection (YMMV, but this is my experience). ↩︎
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