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some rambling thoughts on consciouness

April 6, 2011

Truth be told, I’ve always found the subject of consciousness an interesting one, from a scientific, as well as a philosophic point of view. Lately (and I’m blaming this on all the philosophy I’ve been reading in the past few months or so), I’ve been questioning the sharp distinction that’s often made between consciousness and matter.

For example, I find myself agreeing with Bertrand Russell that, the more we understand about matter (i.e., energy), the more it seems the word itself becomes “no more than a conventional shorthand for stating causal laws concerning events” (An Outline of Philosophy). This, of course, raises a number of possibilities, one of them being that what we call ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ is ultimately groups or structures of events arising from a substance that’s neither mental nor material, but in between the two a la neutral monism.

But even that explanation doesn’t fully satisfy me, and I find myself going back to the Buddha and Hume, both of which rejected the idea of mental substance in favour of what Hume called association of ideas and bundle of perceptions, and what the Buddha called heaps (khandha).

As Bertrand Russell summarizes Hume’s empiricism, “Ideas of unperceived things or occurrences can always be defined in terms of perceived things or occurrences, and therefore, by substituting the definition for the term defined, we can always state that we know empirically without introducing any unperceived things or occurrences.” Thus, “all psychological knowledge can be stated without introducing the ‘Self’. Further, the ‘Self’, as defined can be nothing but a bundle of perceptions, not a new simple ‘thing'” (A History of Western Philosophy, 603).

Moreover, I don’t reject that specific mental events appear to be contingent upon corresponding physical events in the brain. I think it’s been conclusively shown that there’s a link between consciousness and the body via the brain, and that when the brain’s damaged, the link between consciousness and the body is damaged. However, I’m not convinced that this in and of itself proves that consciousness is merely an emergent property of the brain, or that it ceases to exist when the brain itself no longer functions. Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation.

I’ll admit that it’s looking more and more like that’s the most likely scenario, but when I read things like The Holographic Universe, Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, or even some of Rupert Sheldrake’s crazy ideas regarding morphogeneic fields, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s not the whole picture. I suppose it could just be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m not ready to jump on the materialist bandwagon just yet.

Perhaps consciousness is simply a by-product of electrochemical processes in the brain, but perhaps there’s another dimension to consciousness that science has yet to discover. I’m not saying that there is, mind you, but it’s certainly a possibility. As B. Alan Wallace points out in an interview with Steve Paulson in the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion:

This very notion that the mind must simply be an emergent property of the brain — consisting only of physical phenomena and nothing more — is not a testable hypothesis… Can you test the statement that there is nothing else going on apart from physical phenomena and their emergent properties? The answer is no… If your sole access to the mind is by way of physical phenomena, then you have no way of testing whether all dimensions of the mind are necessarily contingent upon the brain.

Unfortunately, I doubt that I’ll ever fully understand what consciousness is, or what its relationship to the body (and the material world) is. I’m just not that clever. So, in the end, this is one of those areas where I’ll probably always remain somewhat skeptical; although, from a purely empirical point of view, I do find myself leaning more towards the idea that consciousness is simply a by-product of electrochemical processes in the brain based on the evidence we do have. Science can be very convincing in that respect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to consciousness than what’s been discovered thus far, or that I’ve completely discounted other possibilities, especially considering the fact that, in the spirit of full disclosure, my ethical-spiritual practice assumes the possibility of a type of continuity involving consciousness that transcends a single birth and death—a belief built on premises that a strict materialist would reject, and with little from an empirical, scientific standpoint to back them up.

I’m comfortable with that, however, because my ethical-spiritual beliefs and practice are ultimately pragmatic, serving a practical purpose that’s subjectively beneficial regardless of their objective validity. Incidentally, this is why I tend to have sympathy for theists, even though I don’t have any theistic beliefs myself. While I find too many logical inconsistencies in the Bible to view it as the infallible word of God, there are some interesting philosophical arguments for the existence of God (although, not necessarily a personal God); and I understand that a belief in God can provide comfort in difficult times, as well as serve as the basis for a beneficial ethical-spiritual practice, just as my Buddhist beliefs can. I also accept that certain people may have had some kind of profound spiritual experience that has led them to such a belief.

What I generally don’t accept, however, are dogmatic statements about absolute truth and/or reality, especially when they stem from an ‘appeal to authority’ or personal experience. In the former, the validity of a statement rests not on its own logical coherence or truth, but on the supposed status of the source as an ‘authority.’ In the latter’s case, there’s generally no way to confirm or deny them, so they’re not very useful in proving something to someone who hasn’t had them.

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