To the Lord Privy Councillor of Sachse-Weimar,
Herrn Geheimrath von Goethe,
A thousand thanks for your most thorough letter upon the subject of consciousness. If you are right, that this essential quality of humankind, indeed of life itself, is at basis self-deception, then that of course would have the most profound philosophical, no, theological implications. You consider consciousness a faculty developed like any other, for its survival value. You ask the simple question, how could it have served the creatures first so endowed? Your answer is that consciousness begins as an improbably optimistic grasp upon an inhospitable world. Its first dim light was the perception by Cambrian worms, urchins and shellfish that they were viable, and that whatever they engorged was good. This was almost always a fatal misperception, but Nature everywhere sacrifices vast numbers in order to evolve the one in-a-million, the quirky exception destined to become the successful forebear of millions to come.
This of course is pure speculation on your part, your Excellency. Yet current research does admit that, on this subject, we have no other choice than speculation and introspection. Here is the verdict of one prominent investigator (my emphasis added):
Supposing for the moment that [natural laws governing consciousness] exist, how might we uncover such psychophysical laws? The greatest hindrance in this pursuit will be a lack of data. As I have described it, consciousness is subjective, so there is no direct way to monitor it in others. But this difficulty is an obstacle, not a dead end. For a start, each one of us has access to our [sic] own experiences, a rich trove that can be used to formulate theories. We can also plausibly rely on indirect information, such as subjects' descriptions of their experiences. Philosophical arguments and thought experiments also have a role to play. Such methods have limitations, but they give us more than enough to get started.
Nor have efforts to construe consciousness been neglected. As you know, each generation thinks in terms of its own inventions. When I was a boy we had no indoor plumbing, but it was the wonder of the day, so my biology book taught the circulatory and lymphatic systems with color-coded pipes and valves. The just quoted researcher refers us to information theory and computer science: "Consider a silicon-based system in which the chips are organized and function in the same way as the neurons in your brain." Career science obviously offers further evidence for your own theory of consciousness, your Excellency, and of its survival value.
Actually, the objective study of consciousness is not so novel as self-styled scientists may imagine. Any reader of our correspondence has already entered into a conscious world of letters, which transcends its myriad individual cells in a fair analog to that "silicon-based system" proposed above. Of course, world literature is by many orders more complex, and more readily and pleasurably "monitored." You have, for example, shown that readers and writers in the literary universe cannot simply be divided into receivers and transmitters--you insist that the reader be a simultaneous contributer. In historical perspective, reading and writing are admittedly very recent, the transcendent consciousness of bard and listeners reaching much farther back into early humanity--to the very dawn of language, as Pastor Herder might remind us. Does not the whole sense of our correspondence rely on the higher poetic consciousness, in which not only the humblest are companions to Homer, but even the wisest commune with Ossian?
In most profound respect, I remain your
J. W. Worthy
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