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Being the Car

In Understanding Comics, a completely amazing book that I've just been reading, I found the following thought about cars.

The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.

If one car hits another, the driver of the vehicle being struck is much more likely to say:

Hey! He hit me!!

than “he hit my car!” … or “his car hit my car”, for that matter.

I wish I'd said that, it gets so exactly to the point.

The same thought may be implicit in what I said about Communication, but it helps to have it out in the open. How are the two ideas related? Communication is only one aspect of being a car, or car-animal.

Speaking of being a car, I'm reminded of the following well-known phrase. It's not really relevant, I just like the Zen-ness of it.

Be the ball.

Unfortunately, I don't know who coined the phrase, or even what sport it was meant to apply to. (Golf, a brief internet search suggests.)

Returning to the subject—the quote from Understanding Comics—I ought to point out that I made some not-quite-trivial changes in translating from the medium of sequential art into the medium of prose. I did the same thing in The D'oh of … d'oh! without even mentioning it, except there the target medium was drama.

Speaking of peculiar kinds of translation, I'm reminded of Hofstadter's amusing translation, in Le Ton beau de Marot, of Searle's Chinese room thought experiment from English into “Anglo-Saxon”, i.e., English minus all words that contain the letter “e”. Here's how it begins.

A good tactic in trying to confirm or disconfirm any broad proposal as to how minds work is to try to think of what that proposal would imply about your own mind's workings (assuming, naturally, that all minds work according to its canons).

Sounds like projection in reverse, doesn't it? Just for fun, here's another snippet.

I'm assuming (and this is in fact so) that I not only can't follow Mandarin at all, out loud or in writing, but probably couldn't distinguish Mandarin writing from, say, Japan's katakana and hiragana scripts, or from random scribblings totally lacking import.

And the name of the thought experiment, in translation? The Mandarin cabin.

In case you're not familiar with it, the intent of the thought experiment was to show that no computer program can be sentient. Suppose I've written a program, and claim that it's sentient and understands, say, Chinese. Now put an English-speaking human in a locked room and have ver execute the program by hand. Since the human doesn't understand Chinese, and there are no other objects in the room capable of understanding, clearly my claim must be false. That's a rough and biased explanation; you can find the original thought experiment in the article Minds, Brains, and Programs, and if you find it in the collection The Mind's I, you can see where I got my biases.

You may think I've been digressing again, but there is actually a point to all this. In Communication, I mentioned that even though I, as a car, can signal by emitting light, I still have the feeling that there's something missing, that I don't really understand what it's like to be able to emit light. Is it possible that, as with the Chinese room, there's a consciousness in the car-animal, but it's not me?

Honestly, I doubt it. However, the idea isn't entirely without merit; there are definitely times when I drive without being conscious of it. As a specific example, consider the time I drove across Utah and Nevada on I-80. I remember seeing the initial mileage sign reading “Reno, 500”, or something like that, and I remember waking up occasionally and noticing that I was twenty miles further along, but that's about it—there was a definite lack of continuity in my consciousness, which is why “waking up” comes to mind. On the other hand, somebody or something was keeping the car on the road all that way. Perhaps the fairest way to describe the situation is to say that there are various subsystems of my brain that act as part of the car-animal, and although I, that is, my conscious self, can interact with them, I'm not necessary for their operation.

In writing the above, particularly the part about subsystems, I've definitely been influenced by Consciousness Explained, which I did finally read, and about which I will have more to say, by and by.

* * *

The following paragraph from Consciousness Explained is apropos.

You have probably experienced the phenomenon of driving for miles while engrossed in conversation (or in silent soliloquy) and then discovering that you have utterly no memory of the road, the traffic, your car-driving activities. It is as if someone else had been driving. Many theorists (myself included, I admit—Dennett, 1969, p. 116ff) have cherished this as a favorite case of “unconscious perception and intelligent action.” But were you really unconscious of all those passing cars, stop lights, bends in the road at the time? You were paying attention to other things, but surely if you had been probed about what you had just seen at various moments on the drive, you would have had at least some sketchy details to report. The “unconscious driving” phenomenon is better seen as a case of rolling consciousness with swift memory loss.


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  Long-Distance Driving

@ November (2000)
o September (2002)