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Sunday, December 3, 2017
Brain / Mind ... Science ...

I haven’t said much lately on one of my favorite topics, i.e. the nature of human consciousness. That’s because lately, there hasn’t been much new to say. I try to keep up with new developments in thinking about consciousness (thinking on the academic level, not the “woo-woo” stuff), but to be honest, most of what I see in the science press these days is just a rehash of arguments and positions that were available 10 years ago. It seems to me as though the understanding of consciousness by scientists and philosophers is in a holding pattern, like airplanes circling around above a fogged-in airport.

The neuroscientists keep trying to chip away at the problem with their experiments and empirical findings. I recently saw an article about a recent empirical study that seemed to support the theory that consciousness is “epi-phenomenal”, i.e. it doesn’t affect human behavior. It’s sort of a side-show, because the sub-conscious is where the real decisions are made, outside the light of awareness, in a computer-like fashion. The article is called What If Consciousness Doesn’t Drive the Mind?, by UCL Psychology Professor David A Oakley and Cardiff Neuropsychology Professor Peter Halligan. The study in question involves detailed brain activity scans comparing volitional movements of the arm with non-volitional and hypnotically induced movements.

What I found most interesting about the article was the following section title and paragraph:

What’s the point?

If the experience of consciousness does not confer any particular advantage, it’s not clear what its purpose is. But as a passive accompaniment to non-conscious processes, we don’t think that the phenomena of personal awareness has a purpose, in much the same way that rainbows do not. Rainbows simply result from the reflection, refraction and dispersion of sunlight through water droplets – none of which serves any particular purpose.

I found this to be an ironic example of where scientific reductionism can lead us. I.e., both consciousness and rainbows don’t have any purpose. But wait – most anyone with feelings who has viewed a rainbow can tell you that rainbows do have a purpose – they convey beauty, which conscious beings recognize and respond to. Rainbows make you feel better, they improve your conscious experience. OK, this may well be true — but what I say here is subjective, not objective. It is personal, locked within, not observable by anyone outside of your own body.

But wait . . . if a rainbow makes you happy, doesn’t that have physical effects on the body? Doesn’t that trigger good hormones and maybe even smiles and behavior changes for the better (in terms of social belonging, getting along with other people)?? Can’t that be objectively observed?

Hmmmmm . . . if the authors are right, these physical effects are calculated in the sub-conscious, in the realm of neurons and neurotransmitters with their computer-like responses, and not in whatever the conscious experience itself is. BUT, in that case, it appears then that the mysterious conscious process of the brain, and the more observable and computer-like sub-conscious brain, are acting in parallel !! How the heck does that happen?

I am not aware of any good answers to that question right now – the question is just another manifestation of the continuing “hard problem”, the mystery of how consciousness is grounded. However, I can say that the idea of parallel processing between the mechanical (computational) brain and the trans-computational process of conscious awareness has already been thought of and discussed (although not very much). The idea that consciousness doesn’t have an effect on the body, but somehow runs in parallel with controlling processes in the brain that have the same effect as if motivated by conscious awareness, has a name – it’s called “type-epiphenomenalism”. This is opposed to “token epiphenomenalism”, where mental events don’t have any behavioral power or necessary correlation. I discuss this more on my web-site Course on Consciousness.

A lot of scientists and philosophers don’t like type-epiphenomenalism, because it is ultimately grounded in mystery. It seems to be a plausible way of looking at consciousness and the workings of the brain in controlling behavior. However, we don’t have a clue as to what the connection would be, why there is any connection between what we consciously feel and what our non-conscious brain causes our body to do (e.g., we FEEL fearful in our consciousness, and our non-conscious brain simultaneously makes our heart beat faster and our pores to sweat). And is the mysterious link a necessary one? Sleepwalking is a strange and not sufficiently studied phenomenon, but if reports about complex activities being carried out while in a state of non-conscious sleep are true, then it is possible for the cognitive, computational mind to perceive the body’s desire for food and act to satisfy it (e.g. pull a sandwich out of the refrigerator at 3 am), without the conscious mind having parallel feelings (of hunger, in this case). So is there a link at all?

I personally feel that the type-epiphenominalist view is probably the best of all the alternative theories regarding consciousness. All of the alternatives have many problems of their own. The question is, if it is true, what does the mysterious link between subjective feeling and objective body responses mean? I am going to go out on a limb here and make an extremely speculative conjecture on this, something that will sound a bit New-Age like (something like what Ken Wilber and his friends come up with). I myself think that the type-epiphenomenon view points to a big new realization in the world of physics, a whole new level of reality beneath what science has described so well about the physical universe.

Here is what I think about the consciousness dilemma – I really don’t want to go off into woo-woo land, but I believe that imagination is going to be needed, given how big an intellectual problem this is. OK, we are going to need a whole new discovery or realization, something linking physical reality and its physical processes (laws of physics) with consciousness, some layer of reality below what we now know of reality in science.

My wild-ass guess has been, and continues to be, that consciousness will be found to be something like a field (e.g. magnetism, electronic charge, gravity, nuclear charge, etc.), and physical reality will amount to information interactions within this master consciousness field. I even speculate that things that are real but not conscious — stuff like rocks and houses and lightbeams and galaxies and neutrinos and even dark matter and dark energy — e.g. 99.99999999999999 percent of the universe, are basically information (a speculation that more and more physicists and math people and cyber people are making, e.g. Wheeler’s ‘it from bit’).

But not just any information; real stuff is information that is given physical tangibility (even if in an ethereal manner such as an energy particle or an energy field) by the consciousness field. When that information reaches a certain level of complexity and feed-back looping process, it gains a “self” in addition to its tangible nature; it gains some level of consciousness. And human beings (and who knows whatever else out there in the universe that has an intelligent consciousness) somehow take this process to the level of self-aware sentience that we experience.

Yea, that is totally just a guess. But I do think that if neuroscience research confirms the epi-phenomenal point of view, and if it is apparent that there is an incredibly strong correlation between what we perceive and feel consciously and what our bodies actually do, then something is out there, still undetected by our science, that links the phenomenon of consciousness with “the real world” as we now know it. But as to whether and when such a “missing link” can be found through science . . . well, I’m not betting that it will be discovered in my lifetime. As with Moses, we may get to view the promised land, but we shall not enter it.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:15 am      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m going to cut right to the chase here and skip all the introductory “stuff”: I think your idea of a “field of consciousness” is terrific. Furthermore, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! You should get credit for the first discovery when a scientist comes along, figures it out, and names it something different. I could make this really short and end my comment here, I like it so much!

    But a couple of random tho’ts and comments on other points as I think I’ve already said the main point that caught my attention in the first paragraph and will have me thinking about it for a long time:

    I simply hate it when scientists name something like “type-epiphenomenalism”; I find myself saying, how does one put that into plain, ordinary words that a “regular” person can understand? Sure, it expresses the idea succinctly, but the only ones who knows what they are talking about are the ones who think up the name, the scientists (I presume) in this case. One way of keeping an idea wrapped up tightly in one’s own possession. Well, so I think.

    So I must also thank you for succinctly and elegantly finding the words and explanation that lead up to the concept to describe what is being talked about: “A field of consciousness”.

    Now that I think about it, it is somewhat akin to what Pierre Theilhard de Chardin called the “noosphere”. PTdC followers may have tho’t of it differently, but I think his “noosphere” fits perfectly with your “field of consciousness” concept. You really HAVE hit the nail on the head! I don’t care what anybody else thinks; you have.

    You mention “sleepwalking” as not being sufficiently studied. I find myself wondering about sleep as such: Why does it seem every creature needs it, even fish and bugs. (I find the fish in the bowl sleeping every once in a while; and I understand even bugs needs to “sleep” at times.) It seems everything needs to dip into the “field of consciousness” for about 1/3 of the day (which would in the long-haul mean 1/3 of life) to really function well. There must be something about that field of consciousness that is very important for every earth-living creature.

    It may be that this FOC (field of consciousness)­­already! a shortened version of your “discovery”, which is what I’m going to call it is the link between the physical/tangible and the non-tangible (or the word scientists seem to hate, “spiritual”).

    Scientists have been looking for smaller and smaller things that “simply must be there”. I’ve often tho’t that it was just a matter of time until they got to the “non-tangible”, that which is there and real but has no physical substance, which may be a way to describe your idea of the FOC. While the concept I describe is clumsy and not “elegant”, I think your idea of a “field of consciousness” is definitely NOT clumsy and very elegant.

    Your descriptions of how the physical tangibility relates to the intangible (I think I’m understanding you correctly) is also excellent! I like it very much.

    One more thing: It seems to me (and here I hope I’ve understood you correctly again) that if, as you describe, a “certain level of complexity” can reach a point where “self” develops and becomes tangible and then can search out other “self-s” in the universe, would it not be possible for there to be “other self-s” in the universe much farther advanced in the knowledge of the FOC and thus be much more “intelligent”/”advanced” than humans?

    In the recent “The Atlantic” there is an article called “What Happens if China Makes First Contact?” by Ross Andersen. This article deals with the concept of our being “humbled to one day find[ing] ourselves joined, across the distance of stars, to a more ancient web of minds”.

    Oh, yes indeed, Jim, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! Excellent thinking! MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 4, 2017 @ 11:16 am

  2. Jim, I suppose I should explain “elegant” as I use it. So: I think what is “elegant” is how you linked the physical/tangible to the intangible/non-physical; thus–elegant! Everything about your idea I like and think is great! Maybe it will be discovered sooner than you think, and you will be able to explain the phenomenon to the scientists! You (with a nod to PTdC) should get credit for this idea. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 4, 2017 @ 12:15 pm

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