Sunday, January 29, 2012

Consciousness, desire and the human imagination

By Steve Rensberry  

   The nature of human consciousness, reflected in the mind-body problem, has challenged philosophers and thinkers for centuries, from Plato, to René Descartes to David Hume and James Mill. But why exactly is such a personal, human characteristic as consciousness so difficult to pin down?
This essay will suggest an answer, but first let's review the landscape.
   Dualistic interpretations of consciousness make a fundamental distinction between the world of matter and the world of mind, or consciousness as it were. Each are treated as separate, irreducible categories within the realm of existence. Substance dualism considers the substances of mind and body entirely distinct whereas property dualism considers the properties or each—but not necessarily the substance—as distinct. A position known as predicate dualism asserts essentially that the words used to describe mental states or attitudes cannot be reduced to mere physical descriptions.
   Platonic dualism as conceived in Plato's theory of "Forms" (ideas) defines the abstract world of ideas as being the most pure and real, transcending the world of sensation and substance. Cartesian dualism, or Descartes dualism, holds the human soul or mind to be an entirely different, though interactive, substance than the body (centered in the pineal gland). See also: Fundamental property dualism, parallelism, emergent property dualism, neutral monist, property dualism, interactionism, occasionalism, non-reductive physicalism and epiphenomenalism.
   The position of the monist, on the other hand, is that matter and consciousness are combined into one vast, unified realm of existence, with monistic idealists picturing a realm that all is mind, physicalists positing one that all is matter and neutral monists arguing for an underlying reality or energy that is common to both. Physicalism credits brain activity exclusively with what has been traditional thought of as "the mind." Physicalism is distinguished from mere materialism in the inclusion of complicated non-material forces and particles that make up the physical world. Although Christianity and many other religions are generally dualist in their thinking, pantheism and panentheism are thoroughly monistic. See also: behaviorism, functionalism, empiricism, phenomenalism, non-reductive physicalism, anomalous monism, panpsychism, naturalism, identify theory and eliminativist.
   The Motor Theory of Consciousness considers consciousness primarily as an epiphenomenon or byproduct of delayed motor excitation. Author Ken Wilber argues for a multi-level form of consciousness which traverse a spectrum from lower to higher levels. The Integrated Informational Theory (ITT) of consciousness attributes the phenomenon to interactions among multiple, relevant reactions within the brain. . Quantum theories of consciousness, meanwhile, ascribe consciousness to characteristics associated with quantum physics such as superposition and quantum entanglement. Meme theory considers consciousness primarily as an illusion created in the brain by memes as a mechanism of replication. Electromagnetic theorists believe evidence exists to show that consciousness arises from electromagnetic fields produced in the brain. See: Consciousness Based On Wireless?
   Standford's encyclopedia entry on consciousness cites a number of other specific theories of consciousness and states: "Although there are many general metaphysical/ontological theories of consciousness, the list of specific detailed theories about its nature is even longer and more diverse." Listed are higher-order theories (categorized into higher order thought theories and higher order perception theories) representative theories, cognitive theories, neural theories, quantum theories, and non-physical theories.
   "The problem with minds and consciousness is that they remain so mysterious, so unlike anything else that we are familiar with, that it is altogether unclear what might count as relevant background information," author Ben Dupré writes. (50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need to Know, Quercus Publishing Plc., 2007, pg. 47).
   Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach, and I Am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, New York, 2007, pg 19), questions our human sensibilities altogether as to what creatures are even deemed conscious enough to have value, compared to those which are not. In I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter lays out what he calls a "consciousness cone," suggesting a hierarchy of things or creatures which humans implicitly attribute various degrees of consciousness to. From the least to the greatest, these are atoms; viruses; microbes; mites; mosquitoes; bees; goldfish, chickens, bunnies, dogs, mentally retarded, brain-damaged and senile humans, and normal adult humans. He admits the list is only suggestive and not meant to be exact.
   "By virtue of our might, we are forced to establish some sort of ranking of creatures, whether we do so as a result of long and careful personal reflections or simply go along with the compelling flow of the masses," Hofstadter writes.
   Where should one start in seeking an answer to the puzzle?
   I would argue that it may not be so much a puzzle as a matter of proximity. We are, as it were, both observer and the observed. We are like tiny cogs inside a massive clockwork trying to determine where precisely the hands on the clock are positioned.
   Within us lies the ability to create and build using the faculty of imagination. In the mind are spawned a near infinite variety of constructs and scenarios in a mash up of fleeting images and memories. Do we in actuality fly around the moon the moment we imagine ourselves flying around the moon? Do we live forever because we imagine ourselves living forever? Does the mind exist in a parallel universe of eternal values and permanence unlike anything else on earth? In the minds of a great swath of human throughout the ages, apparently so. But where is the evidence?
   Even those theories which have climbed aboard the quantum physics train have yet to venture much beyond the realm of the theoretical and speculative, as rational sounding as they may be.
   "I believe that we will not be able to understand the physical basis of consciousness without including the principles of quantum physics and a very new concept of what constitutes the action of observation," author Fred Alan Wolf writes. (The Dreaming Universe, Simon and Schuster Inc., 1994. pg. 74).
   Whatever you do, I would suggest resisting the temptation to chisel your viewpoint into a tablet of stone, or treat as sacrosanct the views of anyone else who does. Considering the vast cognitive differences there are among people in general, including the many altered state of consciousness on record, it just doesn't seem wise.
   In Who's Afraid of Schrödinger's Cat? by Ian Marshal and Danah Zohar (Quill, William Morrow, 1997), the authors give this description of the divide: "Even if various neural theories eventual provide scientific answer to these questions, we are left with a philosophical disquiet. There is too much clash between the objective, scientific paradigm in terms of which we understand the brain—mass, length, electrical activity, and so on—and the more subjective paradigm in terms of which we understand ourselves--self-awareness, phenomenal space and time, intentionality, free will, an such. As currently understood, the two paradigms seem like chalk and cheese." (pg. 234).
   But does the nearly indescribable, nebulous nature of the conscious mind justify leaping to fantastic conclusions? Does it trivialize the beauty and value of life? My answer is no, but where answers are uncertain and desires rule, the imagination traditionally takes over.
   Could it be that consciousness is simply much less complicated than it seems, that it only appears magical (or spiritual), in the way that electromagnetic waves and magnetism can appear magical? Is consciousness merely the active product of a biological organism whose primary, evolutionary advantage stems from being able to produce hypothetical constructs in the mind, in order to make half-reliable decisions in a complex world?
   John R Burr and Milton Goldinger, editors of Philosophy and Contemporary Issues (Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1972), write in the introduction to their chapter on knowledge and science about the propensity of human beings to subjugate facts to feelings. Their argument is primarily about science-based knowledge, but it can equally apply to our discussion of consciousness.
   A central point: Excitement, amusement, power, ethnocentricity, wealth, national security and a host of other immediate human desires things are routinely placed on a higher plain than is the honest pursuit of genuine knowledge.
   As stated by Burr and Goldinger: "The great majority of men and women tolerate science, admire it, or revere it only to the degree and extent science is a necessary means to various desired nonscientific ends. When science fails to provide the necessary means, people turn to kinds of 'knowledge' other than the scientific. Does scientific psychology look dubiously upon extrasensory perception, does it cast doubt on the claim those messages really came from beloved Uncle Max dead these many years? The, scientific psychology is dogmatic, materialistic, too narrow, at best merely partial knowledge. Astronomy won't tell us if we will be lucky or unlucky today? Then astrology will. Does science seem to make it difficult to believe God exists? Then our hearts inform us he does exist. Does science fail to prove convincingly that we should all love one another and stop hating? Then mystical insight will."
   The realm of ideas and inner experiences that make up the conscious human mind may indeed be subjectively real, may be something that people desire to be objectively real, but even after hundreds of years of inquiry there remains a dearth of evidence to substantiate the claim that a person's conscious mind is anything but confined to their own fleeting neurological network. More apparent still is the ease with which the subjective human mind can deceive itself, intentionally corrupting the criteria it uses to differentiate substantive knowledge from mere superstition and magical thinking.

For further reading

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion