Friday, September 14, 2007

The actual relationship between consciousness and physical reality is mysterious

Michael Prescott's Blog Occasional thoughts by the bestselling author of nine suspense novels
Paradigm paralysis
A couple of months ago The American Scholar, the official magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, published "A New Theory of the Universe," an article by Robert Lanza arguing for a new paradigm called "biocentrism." Basically the idea is that new developments in physics have rendered 19th-century materialism obsolete and that a new approach, stressing the central importance of the consciousness of living things, is required.
I felt that the article, though interesting, tended to overreach by incorporating too many different elements of physics, including some very controversial interpretations. There was not much in the piece that would come as news to readers of this blog, but it was interesting to see a mainstream, academically conservative publication giving its imprimatur to these radical ideas.
Now, in the latest issue of the same magazine (Summer, 2007), several readers have responded to Lanza's article. A couple of them are enthusiastic, but most are critical. The critical comments indicate how deeply the materialist paradigm is entrenched, and how difficult it is for people to think "outside the box" of their accepted belief system.
One writer opines,
An electron that was struck by a photon 13 billion years ago most assuredly "observed" (reacted to) the event, with no help or a validation from a "consciousness" that would not even exist for most of those 13 billion years.
This comment rather obviously begs the question. An advocate of the central role of consciousness in manifesting existence could argue, among other things, that a) the mind of God, which has always existed, makes the observations or that b) the observations are made only when living, conscious beings come into existence, and these observations then retroactively actualize one particular storyline in history, extending all the way back to the Big Bang.
The same writer concludes that we need to segregate "the individual self from the rest of its vast universal environment that created us, supports us, and functions and has functioned very well with and without us." Again, we do not know for sure that the universe has functioned without us. We may assume that it has, but we don't know. All we can know is what we process with our consciousness. Anything outside of our consciousness is by definition unknown and unknowable.
I remember something Matthew Cromer once said to me. Try to imagine a parallel universe in which there is no consciousness of any kind. No God, no sentient beings, no minds, no perceptions. In what sense can that universe be said to exist?
Another reader says confidently,
I've walked in woods and parks, seeing trees that have fallen without my observation. I know that they made a noise when they fell. I know that if I walk from the kitchen into the living room, the kitchen is still there. I know that these perceptions are true ... I will not be deceived by disingenuous argument.
Actually, even from a strict materialist standpoint, a tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it does not make any noise. It only produces sound waves which, lacking any receiver to pick them up, dissipate uselessly. But the more serious issue is whether this reader can really be so sure that the kitchen is "still there" when he's not perceiving it. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. There's really no way for him to know. How could he know? What possible method of proof could he employ?
A third reader criticizes Lanza's statement, "What we interpret as the world is brought into existence inside our heads." The reader objects,
But that can't be true. What exists in our head is a brain, with all that makes up a brain.
This strikes me as almost willfully missing the point. Lanza's statement is literally true and unobjectionable, pertaining as it does only to what we interpret as the world. Obviously our interpretation is the product of our thought processes. What else could it be? This does not mean that the world itself is a product of our thought processes. It also does not rule out such a possibility.
The actual relationship between consciousness and physical reality is mysterious. Physical reality may be a manifestation of conscious thought (idealism), or consciousness may arise from physical antecedents (materialism), or consciousness and physical reality may both arise from a common source (neutral monism), or consciousness and physical reality may arise independently of each other and interact somehow (dualism).
What is equally unclear is the nature of the interaction of the two. Does consciousness merely perceive reality or does it create reality or does it modify a pre-existing reality? And when we talk about consciousness, do we mean the consciousness of the individual or of the human species or of all living things or of God? If consciousness creates or modifies reality, is this reality a whole or partial product of individual consciousness or of collective consciousness or of divine consciousness? And so on.
I don't pretend to have answers to these knotty questions. What surprises me is that so many other people are so sure that they do. September 09, 2007 in Personal thoughts Comments

With Quantum physics we don't really have a widely accepted theory explaining it. The important point is that both point of views are equally valid. A "materialistic" viewpoint or "consciousness is fundamental" viewpoint can equally be defended by the available evidence.And this should always be remembered when confronted with somebody claiming there is only a materialist perspective. But the same goes with the consciousness is fundamental perspective. The amazing part for me is that with quantum mechanics some phycisists are giving consciousness a very fundamental place in the universe and this itself is a very big paradigm shift. Dennis Dieks wrote a very good paper on "The Quantum Mechanical Worldpicture and Its Popularization." which explains why there isn't a widely accepted theory on quantum mechanics. It was published again in the new online magazine
or a direct link.
Greets, Filip
Posted by: Filip September 09, 2007 at 03:06 PM
Questions like these drove me to become a pragmatist. I think William James was one of the last people to offer a way out of the idealist/materialist quagmire.
Posted by: James September 09, 2007 at 04:11 PM
Lanza's article is here.
Posted by: Matthew C. September 09, 2007 at 04:32 PM
Hmm...Lanza is a relatively prominent biologist. It sounds suspiciously like he is advocating some form of vitalism. I wonder how he reconciles the views in his essay with Neo-Darwinism.
Posted by: Alex September 09, 2007 at 05:33 PM
Here is a gift for you:
Posted by: James September 09, 2007 at 06:58 PM
Thanks, Matthew, for the link to Lanza's essay. I didn't know American Scholar articles were online.
I can't really thank James for the Christopher Hitchens link, though. I feel like Phoebe on Friends: "My eyes, my eyes!"
>A "materialistic" viewpoint or "consciousness is fundamental" viewpoint can equally be defended by the available evidence.
Wouldn't a purely materialist interpretation require something like the many-worlds theory? When physicists start talking about billions of new universes being formed every second, it seems a little desperate to me.
Posted by: Michael Prescott September 09, 2007 at 09:02 PM
"Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity."
Posted by: Markus Hesse September 09, 2007 at 10:30 PM
What people often fail to realize is that this sort of dispute is not at all new, though it has been reawakened by the advent of quantum mechanics.
When Aristotle was developing his philosophy of whether science and empirical observation told us about the world as it really is or just as it appears and interacts with us, he arrived at the conclusion that unless the mind/soul has no essential nature, we only perceive the world-as-it-appears. He wanted to science to tell us about the world-as-it-is, so he concluded that the mind/soul is without essence.
Kant had the same problem, but felt that the mind does have a nature, and so we can only know the world-as-it-is by empirical inquiry.
This question is essentially: what role does an independent consciousness (e.g. human mind/soul) play in the "natural" behavior of nature-dependent things around them.
With quantum mechanics, we get closer to the boundary between science and metaphysics, and the way quantum theory is lends itself to many interpretations. The age-old question, ever since Cartesian dualism, about the interaction between the mind and physical reality (whatever those are!) is simply one playground in a much broader question.
That's not to say that all interpretations are equally valid, or that quantum mechanics is our only source of insight. For instance, here is one philosopher's claim that it's been empirically demonstrated that materialism is false, since human consciousness is not equal to the human brain.
Posted by: D.S. September 09, 2007 at 11:58 PM
I love this topic because it is, for me, THE topic: consciousness in existence. The reactions of those readers who, in their responses to Mr. Lanza's article, steadfastly cling to materialism demonstrate the same fundamentalist zeal as any religious adherents, and human history has a superabundance of examples of the dark power of zealotry. I've always considered the demonstrated need for certainty to be directly caused by basic insecurity, one of the greatest driving forces of behavior for human beings. We need to generate a greater tolerance for ambiguity and accept that, in this stage of existence, we CAN'T get all the answers to all of our questions. To the materialists, I offer this quote from one of my favorite poets:
"Our claim to our own bodies and our world is our catastrophe..."-W.H.Auden, Canzone
Having read Mr. Lanza's article, I noted that the basic premises of his "biocentrism" are built on what seems some faulty foundational assumptions. Early in his article, he writes: "Our science fails to recognize those special properties of life that make it fundamental to physical reality." This statement assumes that material reality is fundamental, which is unprovable. Lanza continues a bit further on: "It is the biological creature that makes observations, names what it observes, and creates stories." A false assumption, as it is consciousness which does the conceiving, using sensory input from the biological mechanism. The massive amount of evidence, empirical as well as anecdotal, for the fact that mind is not created by the brain is surveyed in the recent book "Irreducible Mind". Along with Biocentrism, Michael notes the Big Four: Idealism, Materialism, Neutral Monism, and Dualism. Perhaps the answer lies with an "ism" that ISN'T (at least, not yet). No questions are bigger or more fascinating. I can't think of them and not end up asking myself another big one: what is the limit of mind? And another: can we reach that limit (in this life or any other)? Still another: what is the importance of love in relation to these questions? The list quickly multiplies exponentially, a conceptual chain reaction approaching critical mass. What happens then?"Human kind cannot bear very much reality" -T.S.Eliot
Posted by: Kevin September 10, 2007 at 03:46 AM
"Wouldn't a purely materialist interpretation require something like the many-worlds theory? When physicists start talking about billions of new universes being formed every second, it seems a little desperate to me."
yeah I agree it sounds pretty desperate for me to but for the defenders of that view probobly not... :) checkout this site: it's very interesting and explains the current state of the theories of QM. Mohrhoff proposed the The Pondicherry interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Posted by: Filip September 10, 2007 at 07:02 AM
Check out F. David Peat's interviews with Dirac, Heisenberg, Bohm, etc. Bohm's criticism, in particular, is worth hearing:
Posted by: James September 10, 2007 at 02:17 PM
That which we are not conscious of is the ecological crisis from Western civilization. So the "biological imperative" is an attempt for science to break out of this denial. Consciousness is formless and not based on atomism or reductionism. The Logos is listened to, not a visual-based or phonetic-defined reality. Geometry-dominant reality (science) uses symmetry while consciousness is resonated through asymmetry -- which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle reveals.
Posted by: drew hempel September 11, 2007 at 09:28 AM
They had to come up with something to explain the big bang so they decided to have infinite big bangs.
From my point of view the universe is in a constant state of “creation” and unfoldment. I am sure I will be nailed to the proverbial cross for the creation word.
I watched a special on TV one night and the "things" that had to happen in sequence for this earth to support life as we know is beyond our comprehension. Even the moon played a part in preparing the earth for life, as we know it.
As far as paradigm paralysis one of my all time favorite terms due to I am sure showing barker’s video several hundred times at my seminars a materialistic paradigm can have as much paralysis as a religious paradigm.
Posted by: william September 11, 2007 at 08:52 PM
As the woman said to Dr James, it is turtles, turtles, turtles all the way down.
The basic flaw in nearly all of these arguments is the mistaken and untenable idea of distinction between self and universe.
Regardless of the assumptions one is willing to make - consciously or otherwise - the result of distinction is as it must be: nonsensical in the literal sense of the word.
There is nothingness. There is all. There is no thing between. And they are identical.
Posted by: d0k0 September 12, 2007 at 03:43 PM

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