Science and Consciousness:
Answers to Questions
What is the difference between science and scientific materialism?
Science (considered here as an ideal, not as the discipline as it is actually carried out by scientists) and scientific materialism are two very different things. The fundamental difference is categorical: science is best thought of as an epistemology, while scientific materialism is best understood as a belief structure – a metaphysics, which often borrows (selectively) from the dominant conclusions that are obtained within the scientific epistemology.
In particular, science is an epistemology in that it tries to establish the foundation for what constitutes reliable, and wherever possible, objective knowledge, for the purpose of prediction. It includes a method that aims at the production of this knowledge; this method takes such a large role that the “scientific method” is often equated with science itself. Science is not the knowledge that is thus produced – i.e. strictly speaking, science is apathetic towards the particular content of the knowledge gained by application of its method.
The fundamental characteristics of the scientific method include: the formation of a testable (i.e. falsifiable) hypothesis surrounding a given question, repeatable tests of the hypothesis by experiment, analysis of the data of the experiment in light of the hypothesis, which finally results in an epistemological judgment that either strengthens the hypothesis or requires it to be modified or abandoned.
Scientific materialism, on the other hand, takes the view that any scientific hypothesis, or any experiment (and implicitly, the data from the experiment), can only be valid when its domain is restricted (reduced) to the physical (matter/energy systems), and furthermore are verifiable by third parties (the assumption being that this is the requirement for objectivity). The universe is assumed to be made up entirely of matter/energy systems which are reducible to some basic matter/energy component or components, and the only type of interactions that exist are physical ones between different matter/energy components (in fact the interactions themselves are counted among the matter/energy components, i.e. force-carrier particles). This view rejects the possibility for observer-dependent knowledge, indeed, this is an oxymoron to the scientific materialist.
It is worth pointing out that science also rests on a metaphysical foundation, where it is assumed that, for example, true paradoxes do not exist in the universe (i.e. the universe does not conflict with itself), and that the law of cause and effect is not violated (e.g. equivalent experiments produce equivalent results). Furthermore, science itself, as a logical system, cannot take itself as its own object of scientific study. That is, because science is an epistemology and not a body of knowledge, it can never produce knowledge with the content “the epistemology of science actually results in the production of knowledge”. Science cannot prove itself by its own tenets, and therefore in the end scientists simply must believe that science produces reliable knowledge. Luckily for the scientists, there is, generally speaking, very little need to question science on this level, particularly when we are concerned more with applied results than knowledge.
How does scientific materialism view consciousness?
Scientific materialism views consciousness much like any other phenomenon that comes under its scrutiny: as a reducible to interactions between basic matter/energy components. This view in particular seeks to explain consciousness from the outside, which is supposed to be the only valid place from which to explain anything. The practical result of this approach relegates the inner experience of the conscious being to an epiphenomenon without causal efficacy.
In particular, consciousness is generally seen to be a byproduct of interactions between neurons and structure in the brain. In this view, every conscious state is causally produced by a particular brain state, which is reducible to its physical components. An interesting consequence of this approach lies in the assumption that if we had two identical brain states, we would have two identical consciousnesses. Furthermore, if we add the view of functionalism, compatible with scientific materialism, then it may be possible to artificially produce an equivalent consciousness by creating a functional correlate of a given brain state.
This scientific materialist view takes the stance that it is due to the complexity of the brain that all the variances in consciousness can be produced. So for example, an ecstatic state of consciousness in a shaman would be explained as a particular pattern of firing across the brain, where perhaps the temporal lobes fire in a way not normally found in normal experiences. One consequence of this approach lies in the necessary realization that any experience we have of mental causation is in fact a mistake. In other words, the fact that we feel that the contents of our consciousness (for example: “I will move my arm”) actually causes an external event (the moving of the arm) is entirely erroneous. Causation only occurs from the “bottom up”, not from the top down. Because free will rests on the assumption that to be free means precisely that which has causes lying only in consciousness, then we must conclude in the scientific materialist perspective that free will is also an illusion; our feeling of free will is merely the determined result of lower level causes lying in the physical system of the brain.
What does qualia mean? What is the “hard problem” for the science of consciousness?
Qualia is a word that is used to describe the inner feeling of our consciousness, or a particular part of our consciousness. Its primary distinction is that this inner feeling, the suchness of the experience, is not in any way reducible to external phenomena, although there may be some kind of correlation between this inner experience and the outer situation.
The scientific materialist would argue that the “feeling of what happens” is simply, like all conscious states, epiphenomenal, and reducible to brain states. However, this is a misunderstanding of the term. We never experience brain states; we experience qualia, i.e. we experience the actual redness of an apple, not a particular set of neuronal firings. The view here is that qualia are reducible to nothing but themselves – the phenomenon of qualia stand on their own apart from any brain states.
This situation gives rise to the “hard problem” as put forth by Chalmers (1995): no matter how detailed our science of brain physiology becomes, it will never account for anything more than the physical system of the brain in all its complexity. In other words, you cannot find qualia in the brain itself. But we simply cannot ignore the simple phenomenological fact that qualia exist. There is something it is like to be conscious – there is a subjective quality that cannot be ignored. The hard problem is simply the problem of experience itself. Because there is plenty of research to show that there are at least correlations between neuronal states and states of consciousness with their associated qualia (e.g. a particular dysfunction in a given brain region correlates with a particular set of qualia across subjects, such as colorblindness or aphasia), then we are tasked with determining the status of this correlation.
What are your thoughts on the science of consciousness (e.g.; what are some of its challenges, its potential, how does/might it help you in understanding your own consciousness, etc.)?
For me, the most interesting aspect of the science of consciousness lies in taking a phenomenological approach that recognizes and takes as a foundation the inner aspect of consciousness – our experience. The research into the neuronal correlates of consciousness is very fascinating, but I feel like this entire area is essentially limited. The area is very active precisely because we already have the tools to address it, and the problem itself is amenable to our present approach. Ultimately, I feel that the more detailed and exacting our view of the brain becomes, the more we will be faced with the “hard problem” – and we need a methodology that will be able to adequately address this problem.
It is this area in which the science of consciousness is particularly stumped – if we admit the reality of experience itself, then our present mode of scientific materialism finds itself at a total loss when asked to explain this inner aspect. Therefore we must find a way to look at consciousness from within. If experience is fundamental, then we must in fact look to consciousness itself to explain consciousness! In fact it has been the fear of this approach (the fear of subjectivity) that has pushed science into the position of having to face a hard problem in the first place.
If our science of consciousness can begin to include a treatment of the fundamental aspect itself: i.e. experience, then it must do so by taking as a foundation the idea that consciousness seems to be a fact of the universe: it does not require matter to exist. In my estimation, this insight can be gained through a process of reflection on one’s own consciousness. Ultimately, I would argue that we are led to the conclusion that the universe, rather than being a monism of the physical, is actually better understood as a monism of the spiritual, and that consciousness itself is a purely spiritual phenomenon. Unlike Berkeley in the West or certain Hindu schools in the East, this does not require the physical to be illusory – rather it requires an account of how the physical results from the spiritual.
Therefore the greatest challenge of the science of consciousness seems to be the ability to begin to incorporate the non-physical into its methodology rather than excluding it from the start by assumption.
Discuss the theory of relativity and its view of time. What are the implications for the science of consciousness? For instance, how might relativity’s view of the observer differ from the philosophy of scientific materialism?
The theory of special relativity has a unique view of time. In particular, the Newtonian view that all events take place in an absolute space and an absolute time that is the same for all observers is abolished. In the Newtonian view, it would be possible to state the exact place and time of an event for which all observers would agree: i.e. “The party will take place at 2:00pm at 123 Main Street”. If this invitation went out to all your friends, they would all be able to make it to the part on time.
With special relativity, however, something more is required if you want to make sure that all the guests arrive at the right place and time. This missing piece of information is the relative state of motion between you and the guest. Depending upon how you are moving with respect to each other, when your message arrives, your guest may misinterpret the amount of time it will take to reach your doorstep, particularly if you are either moving very fast with respect to each other or are very far away in spacetime. (This in fact is a good interpretation of the meaning of “relativity”: we must make any consideration with respect to spacetime only in relation to another event in spacetime – it is meaningless to say “I am here now” in relativity! We must instead say “A particular spacetime interval separates myself and this other event A”.) Luckily for us, we move slow enough and remain close enough that these errors never accumulate to anything significant, and we can discount them for ordinary experience. But the fact is that we must take into account the relative states of motion between two events when speaking of either spatial or temporal positions. Let’s look further into the consequences of this.
Events are the primary constituents of the special relativistic universe. An event is defined as something that occurs in spacetime that has a unique spacetime interval with respect to any other event. Normally this “other event” is taken to be the big bang, where spacetime itself (the “fabric of the universe”) is supposed to have begun, but any other event will do just as well. Normally we would like to consider an event something like a birthday party, which lasts for a certain period of time in a particular place. However, in special relativity, we are forced to consider events as points. That is, we can consider the beginning of the party an event, or the end of the party, or any moment in between as an event, but we cannot conflate multiple events into one, smeared-out thing and call it an event. Events are essentially point-like, and they take place at an exact spacetime interval from another given event. A consequence of this is given as Einstein’s postulate of the relativity of simultaneity – what is simultaneous for one observer is not necessarily simultaneous for another.
This view has interesting implications for the science of consciousness. In particular, if the primary constituents of the universe are spacetime events, what does that mean about our consciousness – how does consciousness fit into the point-like nature of spacetime events? As far as I know, every theory of consciousness that is taken seriously posits that it has something to do with the brain and brain states – whether it is reducible to brain states or not is irrelevant as long as they are correlated.
If this is the case, then what constitutes a mental event, say, the arising of the sensation of a red apple in our inner experience? The process by which this experience comes into being is certainly a complicated one, and in fact we could trace out a whole series of events and ask at each stage: is the event of being conscious of the red apple occurring now? Does the experience occur when the light from the apple passes through the cornea of the eye? I can’t think of anyone who would posit this! Does it occur when electrical signals pass over the optic chiasm next to the pituitary gland on their way to V1? Probably not. Does it occur when the signals are sent to the other visual areas of the brain? Now it gets harder to tell. Does it occur in a moment after all of the visual areas have completed their processing? If so, where in space and time does this event occur?
If conscious states are “event-like”, then it would seem that special relativity requires consciousness to be localized in spacetime like any other event: it must be point-like. But the problem is that there are no neural correlates of consciousness that could accommodate this requirement: neurons are extended objects in space and take time to fire. If the information from the firing of neurons could be encoded in electromagnetic waves then perhaps the information from various areas of the brain could overlap in a singular spacetime point – a complicated point which includes in it (hologram-like) enough pertinent information from the rest of the brain to be “conscious”. Some support for this possibility exists because of quantum features of non-locality and superposition (see next question, and Scaruffi (1998a) on Marshall), and is very much akin to Whitehead’s process philosophy (Whitehead 1978), in which actual entities (which are strangely point-like) are responsible for both matter and consciousness.
I think that the solution to this problem is in considering conscious events as requiring ontological location in spacetime. In my estimation, conscious states are not physical states, and are not bound to the physical system of spacetime. Rather, spacetime itself would be seen to exist only by virtue of consciousness itself. (See the next question for a brief explanation.)
Discuss quantum theory and its implications for the science of consciousness. For instance, how do the findings of quantum theory (i.e., superposition, non-locality, etc.) undercut the foundation of scientific materialism? Do you think that quantum theory can aid us in understanding consciousness? Explain your answer.
There are many ways in which quantum theory has impacted the science of consciousness. Three areas in particular stand out: that of the measurement problem, non-locality, and superposition.
The measurement problem is perhaps the area that most directly results in implications for consciousness. Quantum mechanically, the fundamental constituent of the universe is the wave function, or eigenstate (from the German eigen meaning ‘inherent characteristic’), of a given system. The eigenstate is a probabilistic function that includes all of the infinite possibilities that the system can be in along with their associated probabilities. This wave function is wavelike, and is spread out in spacetime (precisely because it includes all the possibilities that a particle is at a given place at a given time). It evolves deterministically according to Schrödinger’s wave equation.
But we, observers, never experience the eigenstate of a system, with all its infinite possibilities. Rather, we experience one of the possibilities included in the eigenstate. In other words, we experience actualities (which are singular) and not possibilities (which are infinite). This is colloquially expressed as a consequence of the fact that the wave function collapses into one of its “inherent characteristics” – i.e. one of the infinitude of possibilities included in the wave function.
The problem lies in the following strange fact: any system can be analyzed quantum mechanically by virtue of its wave function, regardless of the complexity of the system. This means that not only can a photon be considered according to its wave function, but so can the detector which detects the photon. Similarly, to the extent that humans are describable by quantum mechanics, so too can the human observer be considered via a wave function, and so on until finally the entire universe can be viewed as a single wave function. There is nothing in the theory of quantum mechanics itself which determines when or how the wave function collapses. However it is assumed that it does because we only observe actualities.
What we can say is that because we observe only actualities, the wave function collapses either simultaneously with, or at some point before it is actually observed. Since we have no good theory that would coherently explain how the wave function would collapse at some point before the observation, it takes fewer assumptions to say that the wave function collapses simultaneously with the act of observation. Because of this, many who are thinking about the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness take the further step in saying that it is in fact the observation itself that causes the collapse of the wave function. This “smuggles in” a causal efficacy for consciousness. A theoretical basis for this view would lie in the idea that at the time of the big bang all particles in existence interacted with each other and thus became “entangled”, therefore the atoms in your brain cannot ultimately be considered “separate” entities from all of the other atoms in the universe, because they are all a part of a single system.
Another interesting area where quantum mechanics and the science of consciousness cross is with the idea of non-locality. Simply stated, non-locality is a property of a quantum system whereby parts of the system that are separated in spacetime act as a singular whole in a way that is not explainable by local (special relativistic) theories. The consequence of this for consciousness rests on the idea that if the brain has processes which depend in part upon very small elements which require quantum mechanics for their proper description, then perhaps consciousness itself is partly a result of quantum mechanical properties such as non-locality. For example, the problem of the observer as a point-like event via special relativity may be ameliorated by taking recourse to non-locality as a fundamental operational feature of the brain (this shows up in the time-based binding theories of consciousness as noted in Scaruffi (1998b), which could occur in an instant due to this effect). And if all particles in the universe share entanglement with each other, then non-local effects should be expected at the macrocosmic level.
Additionally, if brain states rely on quantum-level events, then perhaps the feature of quantum mechanics known as superposition has some relation to consciousness. Superposition is what occurs when a wave function has evolved but has not yet collapsed into one particular eigenstate – i.e. the system can be thought of as existing in a superposition of multiple (actually infinite) states simultaneously according to their individual probabilities. If, as a significant segment of theorists believe, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, and if the solution to the measurement problem determines that consciousness is responsible for the collapse of wave functions, then the strange situation occurs in which by virtue of our conscious states (at least those that satisfy the requirements for being observations), we ontologically create the universe we inhabit. In this view, consciousness exists as the selector of universes – we live in this universe precisely because it is the one that is “observed”. One of the problems with this theory is that scientists would be hard pressed to distinguish this theory from solipsism – i.e. it cannot be proved false because we cannot access any other universe other than the one we are in by definition.
To add a bit from my own thoughts, if consciousness is seen to be a spiritual phenomenon, then we must deal with the question of how the spiritual and the physical matter of the brain interface or relate to one another. For reasons of space at this point I will only state some specific ideas but will not back them up with additional thoughts or evidence. In this view, all that is material exists by virtue of the consciousness of beings, but these beings are not necessarily (and in fact, I would argue, are definitely not human beings). In particular, other beings are responsible for the creation of the material substances of our body, including the brain – our consciousness is given use of this physicality for purposes of its own evolution, but our consciousness is not capable at this point of actually producing matter, and thus we are required to ‘interface’ with the matter provided by virtue of the imaginations of other beings.
Furthermore, we feel ourselves to possess the capacity to manipulate matter directly – at least in the case of portions of our own bodies; I can will my arm to rise and lo! it does. This is a fundamental spiritual event whereby the spiritual consciousness of the human meets (what is naively perceived to be) the material directly in a causal way. How does this occur? It must take advantage of some aspect which governs the material expression of the world. In other words, the reality of our ability to have materially causal efficacy via our will impulses cannot impinge upon the general rules of material causation but must lie within them.
This could occur precisely at the quantum level because of the strange situation of the quantum wave function in light of the measurement problem and the idea that a description of the functioning of the brain requires quantum mechanics and cannot be explained via Newtonian mechanics. Here, human consciousness is able to be causally effective because it is partly human attention that chooses amongst the various possibilities that occur within the wave function of various brain systems (synapses in particular). The process by which this occurs is complicated and subtle, but in our actual conscious experience the process only momentarily shows itself in the feeling of our freedom to determine the content of our consciousness via a will effort. Another way to say this: the ‘other’ beings responsible for the creation of matter have created it in such a way that the rules that govern its behavior are at just the right level non-deterministic, for the precise purpose of allowing conscious beings, such as humans, to have a “way in” to a causally effective relation with it. In fact, this stipulation is in a sense required for any conscious being, including the creators of matter, to interact with matter at any level. It is like a programmer building in a back door so that the program’s behavior can be altered from within if one has the right knowledge1.
Therefore, in this admittedly sketchy overview, human consciousness is partially responsible for the material events we see occurring in the world (particularly in our own bodies) by virtue of the ‘back door’ of quantum indeterminism. Were there to be no place in which the rules governing the material world admitted some form of indeterminism, consciousness could have a priori no causal efficacy in the material realm. In fact, it is possible to say that in any circumstance in which a scientific realist speaks of “randomness”, we should in reality see instead the creative will of conscious beings (note the link here to the experiments with random number generators at Princeton (http://noosphere.princeton.edu/ ) and world-events, as well as the “presponse” states noted by Bierman and Radin (2001)).
Describe David Deutsch’s multiverse interpretation of quantum theory. Do you feel/think this approach might be valuable to our study of consciousness? Explain your answer.
The multiverse, or many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, is a metaphysical ideology designed to “explain” the strange predictions of quantum mechanics. It is a general feature of all interpretations of quantum mechanics that they must necessarily posit ontological aspects of the universe in order to create a conceptual system within which the purely statistical results of quantum theory can be put into a wider context that is, for one reason or another, preferred over any other.
The primary feature of the multiverse interpretation is its refusal to make an ontological distinction between what exists in the Schrödinger wave function as a set of possibilities (given in the form of an eigenvector), and true actualities. In essence, Deutsch takes the view that the word “possibilities”, along with the statistical occurrence of the possibilities as “probabilities” is in effect a vacuous term, signifying only a lack of understanding of true reality.
This true reality, for Deutsch, consists in the ontological reification of all that is normally considered “possible”. If reality actually behaves in the way described by the formalism of quantum mechanics, then, for Deutsch, it can only be described as the infinite realization of every possibility that is in accord with quantum descriptions of reality. In other words, quantum descriptions refer to realities, not possibilities, as they do in the Copenhagen interpretation.
The extent to which the multiverse interpretation contributes anything significant to the study of consciousness is dubious. Let us grant for a moment that Deutsch is correct in his assumption that every time quantum mechanics describes a possible state of the universe, that possibility is in actual fact a reality. It is necessary for the theory to explain why these realities are never directly observable simultaneously with our reality, which we can take, in Deutsch’s terms, to be simply one out of the infinitude of the existent realities.
Deutsch, in order for his metaphysical assumptions to explain actual observed events, must force the existence of these ‘other’ realities into a distant, restricted relationship with ‘our’ reality, and in fact states that we can never actually observe any of the infinite other realities directly, but only by virtue of their perceived effects on our reality. The only noted effects are the quantum-level interference effects, such as those which take place in a delayed-choice two slit experiment. In other words, the only connection between the assumption of an infinite number of co-existent realities and our particular reality (whichever it may be), is through interference phenomena at this level. Other realities can only have effects on our reality through the phenomenon of quantum interference.
As far as the scientific study of consciousness is concerned, the gains of this theory are likely to be insignificant. In order for this theory to have repercussions in the realm of the science of consciousness, it must show some connection between it and consciousness that would not otherwise be made (for example, by virtue of neurophysiology). This could only be the case if consciousness is in some sense based upon quantum interference – because the only relation between our universe and all the others is through interference phenomena; everything else can be accounted for without the need for separate realities (i.e. by retaining the classical idea of possibilities, etc.). But even if consciousness was somehow based on quantum interference, it is difficult to see how this would have any real consequences for actual consciousness in the subjective form of our experience, which is always of ‘our’ reality. This seems to be a built-in consequence of the multiverse theory: all phenomena other than that of quantum interference exist absolutely independently of the other realities. In order to have direct bearing on the science of consciousness, it would have to be shown not only that consciousness in its de facto sense is related to quantum interference, but that there are consequences of this relation which are different than ones given by other theories of consciousness, and which also shows that such a relation has direct consequences for consciousness as it is subjectively experienced. Without this second aspect, there is no scientific reason to preserve this theory over any other equally valid theory of quantum mechanics which does not include the addition of an infinitude of other realities, apart from some bias on the part of the theorizer.
Simply stated, you can believe in the multiverse, and even that consciousness is based on quantum interference, but scientifically speaking this would be the same as believing in the opposite, unless you can show that this has real effects for subjective consciousness.
In fact, the basis for this problem is simply in the fact that Deutsch’s conception of the term ‘reality’ is confused. Reality is a word that normally is used to describe exactly the opposite of what Deutsch describes by the term. Deutsch’s “shadow” reality consists of entities that are in principle non-perceivable, and which have essentially no causal interaction beyond a realm which is limited to the smallest possible effects (i.e. interference phenomena). In other words he uses the biggest possible metaphysical scheme to explain the smallest possible experimental result! Positing ‘reality’ to (the assumption of) other universes when these limitations (non-detectability, acausality) are in effect is more like a semantic dream then a scientific theory.
Describe Whitehead’s event ontology in relation to the commonly accepted object ontology of scientific materialism. How might this ontology change the way we approach issues within the science of consciousness?
Whitehead’s event ontology provides, in contrast with Deutsch’s extreme object ontology, an entirely different foundation upon which to consider the idea of consciousness. When the primary constituents of reality are events rather than things, every naïve assumption made by the common view of scientific materialism is challenged from the ground up, with definite consequences for a theory of consciousness.
Of particular import is the fundamental idea of relation as it exists in an event ontology. Whereas an object ontology considers relations to be momentary, almost illusory phenomena, required only to describe the resultant ontologically real state of the existent objects, in an event ontology, relations are in fact a primary constituent of events themselves, and the events are the foundation for all other aspects of reality, including the appearance of objects. It is impossible to think of an actual occasion as somehow existing independently – in other words, the strict sense of the term object is non-applicable in an event ontology.
Events are complex entities, what Whitehead calls actual occasions, having both an inner aspect as well as an outer aspect, and are, at the most fundamental level processes. In fact, one could consider an actual occasion the fundamental process, out of which all other processes arise. In some sense, the inner aspect of an actual occasion is simply the subjectivity of the experience of the occasion itself. Actual occasions go through, are,a process which includes prehension of other existing occasions, a complicated and subjective working through of the prehensions in light of ideal forms (which are actual occasions) and what is known as the subjective aim, along with the final satisfaction of the actual occasion, in which it becomes part of the objective datum of the universe, capable of being prehended by any other actual occasion. This entire process is known as concrescence. So much for an overview of event ontology.
Actual occasions, in their inner aspect, have what can only be described as experience. We can reserve the term consciousness for a particular type of experience of an actual occasion. Self-consciousness would be a higher level of experience of an actual occasion. Such types of experience, and experience in general, are only possible in the context of other actual occasions – they are in part built out of the relations between actual occasions, because actual occasions themselves are in some sense the expression of these relations.
What does this mean for consciousness? One interesting ramification of this type of event ontology is its fundamentally unlimited nature. The process of concrescence of an actual occasion is a creative process, whereby something novel comes into existence. The only limits to such a process are those imposed by the actual occasion on itself by virtue of its own relations with other actual occasions, but there is no objective limit imposed from without that would cause certain possibilities to remain only that. In other words, it is actual occasions that create the universe, not the universe that creates actual occasions. Thus, space, time, the laws of physics, emotion, ‘transcendent’ consciousness, etc.: all are expressions of the concrescence of actual occasions.
Taking this event-based approach seriously requires a fundamental shift in attitude from the widespread acceptance, whether consciously or unconsciously, of the tenets of scientific materialism. Consciousness can no longer be ‘located’ simply in the brain, as if the brain were some objectively existing thing which has the property of consciousness. Rather, the brain itself has to be found within the concrescence of actual occasions themselves. Because actual occasions are not themselves intrinsically space-like or time-like, i.e. they do not exist within ‘outer’ space, or ‘outer’ time, but actually create space and time, consciousness does not itself have to be limited in this respect. This ontology can accommodate the lowest forms of experience (say, an exchange of a virtual photon in a quantum interaction), all the way to the experience of human self-consciousness, and beyond, even into the realm of “God”. In some sense the event ontology is a logical expression of the hermetic ideal: as above, so below, as below, so above.
Because subjectivity is a primal aspect of reality, it cannot be discounted or ignored, a common trait of any materialistic ideology. Therefore it should be proper for a science of consciousness to consider the subjective aspect of consciousness seriously as an integral part of the phenomenon. Along with this, because novelty and intention are aspects of actual occasions, and in particular of human consciousness, many possibilities discounted by scientific materialism are able to be accommodated, such as events normally considered paranormal, as well as ecstatic or mystical states in which the ‘normal’ laws of physics seem to not apply.
Describe the difference between Damasio’s “core consciousness” and “extended consciousness”. How might language play a part in the relationship between core consciousness and extended consciousness?
Consciousness is a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon, or set of phenomena, and discussions of it cannot do it justice if they do not take this into account. Various schemes have been proposed in order to deal with these vicissitudes, one of which is Antonio Damasio’s distinction between what he calls core consciousness on the one hand, and extended consciousness on the other.
Core consciousness is a type of consciousness that is rooted in the biological. It is consciousness that arises by virtue of contact with objects, including one’s own body. Thus it is the consciousness of the here and now, being activated by objects which are spatiotemporally present for the organism. It is a very low level of consciousness, shared by all normal humans, including infants, as well as at least the higher primates. It is, in a sense, the selective awareness of the environment by a particular biological organism. It is simple in the sense that it does not require any kind of thinking to take place, nor any memory, but exists as a sort of moment-to-moment sensory-feeling picture whose content is formed by the relation between the organism and its immediate environment.
Extended consciousness, on the other hand, is the realm of consciousness which includes higher level conscious functions, like language, reason, memory, and a historical sense of self. This extended consciousness can only exist upon the foundation of core consciousness: consciousness of here and now must exist in order to have a consciousness of the continuous span of the here and now. Extended consciousness is extended in space and time via memories and expectations of future events. Although it is a level of consciousness which is not exclusively human (and is only developed slowly in a given human life), its highest manifestation is uniquely human.
In particular, this attainment may be related closely with the function of language. Language, as a high-level function of extended consciousness, has the potential to modify events which occur at the level of core consciousness. In other words, as language develops, the inherent selectivity of core consciousness undergoes a shift. Not all phenomena that can be brought into core consciousness actually are brought into consciousness. Most of the environment is in fact ignored, but this process of ignorance is mostly unconscious and takes place unwillingly.
With the development of language, certain elements which are potentially in the field of core consciousness can be willfully selected for awareness in way that is not possible without language. A good example of this relation is in the realm of emotions. Growing up, a child has access to only a basic set of emotions, shared cross-culturally between all peoples, such as anger, happiness, frustration, fear, etc. These emotions are the ones written in the facial expressions of the child and exist at a low level of core consciousness. As language develops, new words can lead to differentiation of the primary emotions into more subtle levels, for example disappointment versus irritation instead of simply frustration. This differentiation in the realm of extended consciousness can actually effect the objects which are available for selectivity by core consciousness.
In some sense, the development of language involves a co-creative process between extended consciousness and core consciousness, with causal links going both ways. New words can change core consciousness so that it can experience something that was before not accessible, and these new experiences can strengthen extended consciousness’ use of language to identify the new experiences. This is a sort of bootstrap theory by which the objects which activate core consciousness become more diverse and complex, resulting in the possibility for higher level corresponding awareness in extended consciousness. It may be this kind of upward spiral that has provided the ‘evolutionary leap’ from higher primates to humans in so short a time span.
Describe your vision of a holistic science of consciousness. Please include some of the recurring themes within the course’s readings.
A holistic science of consciousness must be able to deal with the phenomenon of consciousness in its entirety, without limiting itself arbitrarily to one particular aspect or another. For example, most of the work being done in the scientific community with regards to consciousness is being done under the aegis of scientific materialism, and thus certain datum which are directly applicable to a study of consciousness are often excluded a priori. In particular in this respect is the phenomenon, familiar to us all, of the subjective character of experience, its qualia. Rather than something to be explained away, a holistic science of consciousness would take subjectivity seriously, in the sense that what exists as subjective in consciousness produces datum which is just as valid as the ‘objective’ datum arrived at by purely external means.
In this sense, the normal meanings of the term objective and subjective need to be modified, as they no longer provide an adequate foundation upon which to build a science that wishes to be able to deal with consciousness. What is normally identified, by those operating under the banner of scientific materialism, as ‘merely’ subjective, is in fact as ‘objective’ as any other phenomenon: it is equally a part of reality and cannot be ignored, any more than the Earth itself can be ignored when talking about geology.
What must be recognized is that the method of exploration in a given realm, of necessity, produces results which are in concert with the particular method used. In some sense, not only does the territory create the map, but the map creates the territory! It is the job of a truly holistic science of consciousness to take this fact to heart, and to weave together the insights gained from various methods by being conscious of the methods themselves, and therefore the wider context of the particular insights gained from any given method.
Inasmuch as ‘facts’ are what are discovered by our predominantly materialistic science, a holistic science of consciousness must take them into account in a way that is appropriate to the method of their production. Similarly, such a science must take into account subjective ‘facts’ of experience on their own terms, and not just by way of the assumptions of one particular method, particularly if that method was not involved in the production of the facts in the first place. We cannot gain a comprehensive understanding of the story written in the Book of Nature by reading only selective chapters.
To the extent that this can be achieved, such a science would be truly deserving of the appellation holistic. In this respect, then, a science of consciousness must in some sense be phenomenological, in that it must deepen its relationship with the various manifestations of consciousness in situ, and cannot abstract them with the ultimate aim of holding some higher than others so that certain facts can be selectively ignored.
Certainly consciousness is related to the physical brain and the complex processes occurring within it. Consciousness is also clearly related to the wider environment via the sensory organs of the physical body. But just as clearly, consciousness is related to something which, taken on its own terms, is entirely non-physical: consciousness itself. This is an insight which a materialistic science of consciousness can never truly grasp, as it is categorically ruled out as a possibility by the particular method of inquiry utilized.
The holistic science of consciousness will be able to take this phenomenological insight that consciousness is non-physical into appropriate consideration, just as it will take into appropriate consideration the considerable evidence for functional connections between the physical brain and subjective conscious states formulated via a materialistic science; how it does this will determine its success or failure.
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Hameroff, Stuart. (19??) Biological Feasibility of Quantum Approaches to Consciousness – The Penrose-Hameroff ‘ORCH-OR’ Model. In ????
Scaruffi, Piero. (1998a). The Physics of Consciousness in Thinking About Thought. Retrieved on 07/26/05 from http://www.thymos.com/tat/consc3.html
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1 (back) For example, even in the extremely detailed ORCH-OR model of Penrose and Hameroff (19??), this back door (expressly included in order to deal with the problem of free will) is built in as a “quantum-mathematical logic inherent in space-time geometry” – a non-computable (neither deterministic or probabilistic) aspect which is “somehow” responsible for the particular, actual outcome of any given reduction of superposed system. Using this kind of complicated language only obscures the underlying problem: if we seriously want to deal with free will, we must recognize the role of the being whose will it is. We cannot posit will without also positing the being who is that will.