Rene Descartes’ argument known as the cogito (“I think, therefore I am”, 1637) was updated as “the brain in a vat” argument. The gist of Descarte’s argument is that the subject’s knowledge of their existence is certain (phrased famously as “I think therefore I am”) because the “I” couldn’t think unless the “I” exists.
The argument was that personal reflection can lead to certainty, yet the updated argument calls the quality of existence into question. If the subject was merely a brain sustained in a vat and receiving stimulation/information electronically directly as brain stimulation, yes, it exists and knows of its existence. However, subject wouldn’t know that this information was direct knowledge of experience or mere data it’s being fed. The brain suspended in the vat could receive data of, say, a hot stove being touched by the subject’s hand. That data would be interpreted as a direct experience, even if there was no such stove and no such hand. Still, logically there must be a brain.
These experiences are time-based, both the imagined brain and Descartes’ original subject. It would take a very short time, a fraction of a second, for the data to be received. That would be in time; it would take time, so data of the present moment would not be available until it was just-past. That is Edmond Husserl’s brilliant insight. There would be no data of the present moment processed in the present moment.
We do, though, logically and necessarily exist in that present moment, if we are indeed able to anticipate an experience and process an experience: future and past, though just-past.
There’s a hole in our knowledge of our experience, that hole being our direct experience of the moment in which we actually experience it. I refer to it as a hole, which has measurable dimensions, when in fact there are no dimensions to the present moment because they are not empirically known, i.e. observable.
The gapped quality of data is precisely what is captured by digital media. There is information, in the form of code, that relates to pixilated images and, gapped, similar to the way an alphabet relates to the sound of a word. It’s also gapped, similar to our actual existence, though different than our perceived experience. The gap is the logically known but impossible to measure present moment, presence. Lacking a narrative structure, the present is, then, infinite.
My approach here is phenomenological – try to say that quickly – but here is the difficulty: the phenomenological description of the present moment is that of absence; it is past. There is an ‘experience’ in the classical sense of that word that entails consciousness but by the time it is experienced it is just-past because the experience itself is time-based and it takes some time to register that experience in the brain.
It is rather an experience of absence to the present then, without structure, as we’ve described it above. That is what we might be certain about, but certain about what? Without the internal structure of narrative time there is an edge, being anticipation of a future moment and the just-past moment presented to consciousness as “now”. However, as a presence in time it is not actually now by the time it is registered to consciousness. It’s experienced as now but, in fact, is just past. That’s Husserl’s story and I can’t see how it’s not a clear description of our experience.
Here we are: Our being is in the present that is without structure, outside of a narrative, of experienced time consciousness.
Our experience of digital media is similar. It certainly seems seamless enough but code is just that: coded with gaps between each piece of the code, that produces pixels with empty space between each pixel. It can be wondrously manipulated, and manipulates us to experience this as a seamless experience, when in fact it is gapped. Mind the gap.
Without structure, between each pixel, each piece of code, the gap replicates each moment where we may be conscious but, without the structure of the narrative elements of past and future, always also there in the present infinite space.
The abundance of movies about time travel, gapped reality, make-believe universes where games are played out — what is in the present moment comes into being and disappears — suggests we know at some level that digital media is playing with us, playing with our sense of consciousness, as we play.
And our growing sense that we are spiritual (open, infinite) if not religious (embedded in a tradition, and institutions) mirrors this coded reality.