Ulysses and the Sirens

The story of Ulysses and the Sirens, told by Homer in the Odyssey  more than two thousand years ago, describes consciousness not as an internal sensation but as an observable capability. That understanding is the basis of the Meca Sapiens Architecture.

Homer’s Odyssey relates the travels of the warrior king Ulysses and his companions as they return home from the city of Troy.

At one point, they have to sail near an island that has an infamous reputation. They are told that mysterious bird-like creatures called sirens inhabit this island. Whenever sailors approach the island, the sirens sing. Those who hear these songs become possessed. They jump in the sea and drown.

Ulysses, learning this information, devises a plan. He tells his companions to fill their ears with beeswax so they cannot hear the siren’s song. He, however, wanting to hear it, instructs his companions to lash him to the mast and keep him bound until they are well past the island.

This is done and they sail by the siren’s lair. As usual, the sirens sing. His companions, unable to hear their song, are unaffected and pursue their journey. Ulysses, however, who hears it, wants to jump in the sea as all the others before him but, being tied to the mast, cannot. Eventually, the island recedes in the distance, Ulysses is freed and all continue, safely, on their way.


This story summarizes the Meca Sapiens understanding of consciousness: behavior modification derived from communicated cognitive information.

The communicated information, here, pertains to the behavior of similar beings (other sailors) in similar circumstances: whoever hears the sirens becomes possessed and drowns. This information is purely cognitive in the sense that it is not linked to any sensory input (past or present) or subjective sensations experienced by Ulysses or his companions. Nevertheless, they integrate this cognitive information concerning other sailors and apply it to themselves.

The information Ulysses receives has another interesting element: those who heard the songs wanted to crash on the shore. This indicated that the feelings and subjective sensations of those who preceded them could not be trusted.  It suggested that what they subjectively experienced as “conscious free will” was not absolutely independent but could be conditioned by an external stimulus.

Here, the measures Ulysses and his companions decide on to protect themselves (beeswax in the ears and being tied to the mast) indicate that they transposed this information about other sailors to themselves and treated their own internal feelings as untrustworthy. Here, their decisions do not result from the subjective certainty of having “conscious free will” but, on the contrary, from a detached, analytical representation of their future behavior. Paradoxically, by perceiving their subjective sensation of having conscious free will as deceptive  they became more conscious.

In summary, combining the information about other sailors with a representation of the self that was detached from their subjective experience, they crafted a solution that physically bypassed their own conditioning (wax in the ears, being tied up) and temporarily mutated their behaviour. This modified behavior could then be observed by a third party as they safely transited the siren’s lair.


This highlights the difference between the Meca Sapiens understanding of consciousness and definitions based on subjective experiences and internal representations. For those who define consciousness on the basis of how it is internally experienced, Ulysses was not more conscious than those who preceded him since he also wanted to jump in the water when he heard the sirens.

From a Meca Sapiens perspective, however, consciousness is observed from the outside as behavior modification resulting from communicated cognitive information. This observation indicates that the crew  was conscious because they used cognitive information (not direct experience) to effectively bypass their internal imperatives and produce a different behavior (that safely sailed past the sirens).

Consciousness is defined by this relation between information and behavior. Ulysses logically applied problem solving skills (his intelligence) to the available cognitive information and implemented techniques (wax, being tied up) that circumvented their subjective imperatives and produced a desirable temporary mutation of behavior. Paradoxically, the behavior was even more conscious  because it included an assessment that their innermost certitudes were not always independently generated.

The observable behavior of a system and its capability to mutate  in response to communicated cognitive information – irrespective of its physical constitution or the subjective states it experiences (or not) –  indicates the presence of consciousness.

Conscious Systems: evolved – synthetic – societal