Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).

In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”

Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.

Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).

If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.

But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)

I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:

The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.

My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).

Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.

Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.

Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.

Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.

In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”

Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:

Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), introduces President Obama as the “scientist-in-chief.” Collins’ “BioLogos” theory is a brand of theistic evolution I have to admit I am not all that familiar with. But I do think he is a good choice to head the NIH since he believes in the compatibility of science and religion, as the majority of Americans seem to.

Obama, for his part, does not begin his speech by situating the latest public investment in brain research in the context of human spirituality. That, of course, is a private matter. Rather, he immediately places this government-funded research in its proper economic context (i.e., techno-capitalism). Investing in science is important, he tells us. Why? Because sometimes it leads to important inventions, some of which may eventually make their way to the marketplace in the form of profitable products and services. If we’re really lucky, science might just lead to the creation of more jobs! The goal of this, and any scientific initiative, is not “understanding.” No, it is economic growth!

Not that Obama is entirely blind to the mystery being approached:

“The most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with. There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. The Brain Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think, and how we learn, and how we remember. That knowledge could be–will be–transformative.”

Not to worry, Obama is going to appoint a presidential bio-ethics committee to make sure all the mystery explaining remains “safe” and all the re-programming remains “legal.” No unnecessary risks will be taken. The only necessary risks will be those whose eventual pay-off as techno-scientific capital can be calculated to outweigh any present cost in human life, liberty, and/or happiness.

Am I being too harsh? Surely there are a few people on the ethics board with a conscience… But is a conscience enough? Isn’t some deeper understanding of the interweaving of cosmos, psyche, and spirit also necessary to guide such research? I guess I’m just disappointed that our scientist-in-chief is a materialist who has totally bought in to the techno-capitalist dream of a future artificial earth whose perfection is won through the progress of industry. Obama seems to joke that one day, after we’ve “cracked the code” in the brain, even politics will be made more perfect by techno-science.

“If we knew everything about how the brain worked, presumably my life here would be simpler. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington… we could prescribe something…”

I suspect that human consciousness is a supreme mystery different in kind and not just more difficult in degree than the mere problems routinely solvable by the scientific method. Method cannot approach mystery. I’m not saying that we might not make important and beneficial medical discoveries as a result of investing in brain research. I’m certainly not saying that the brain should not be studied from as many angles as possible. I’m all for scientific inquiry. I’m just trying to air out the ideology I see painted all over Obama’s announcement. In this case it would certainly seem that the pursuit of scientific understanding has been co-opted by techno-capitalism. I must stick this initiative in the “Capitalist Sorcery” file.

I leave you with the words of a man who understood the difference between philosophical mysteries and scientific problems. Here is Alfred North Whitehead on “speculative Reason,” by which he means the human faculty that desires knowledge for its own sake:

“The speculative Reason is in its essence untrammeled by method. Its function is to pierce into the general reasons beyond limited reasons, to understand all methods as coordinated in a nature of things only to be grasped by transcending all method. This infinite ideal is never to be attained by the bounded intelligence of mankind. But what distinguishes men from the animals, some humans from other humans, is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. This element is that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward, sometimes to their destruction. It is a tropism to the beckoning light–to the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world. Reason which is methodic is content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method. It works in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity. It is the discipline of shrewdness. Reason which is speculative questions the methods, refusing to let them rest. The passionate demand for freedom of thought is a tribute to the deep connection of the speculative Reason with religious intuitions” -pgs. 65-66, The Function of Reason (1929)

This Must Be Heaven : Sam Harris responds to Eben Alexander’s near death experience.

I must admit that I was deeply moved the first time I heard Alexander recount his seizure and ensuing comma. His description of his NDE–a hyperreal encounter with numinous beings from another world lying in wait beneath the phenomenal space and time of our present earthly incarnation–was not all that unfamiliar to me as an alchemical practitioner and scholar of esoteric religions.

I think Harris is looking in precisely the right place in order to further the inquiry into the nature of consciousness; namely, the various means we have of altering it, including diet, dance, meditation, and especially psychedelic chemistry.

Thinking with Whitehead:

The Scientific Revolution and the Bifurcation of Nature

 

The scientific revolution, beginning perhaps with Copernicus’ rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system early in the 16th century, and culminating perhaps with Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and universal gravitation towards the end of the 17th century, fundamentally transformed humanity’s sense of its relationship to the universe. “In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”1 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”2 Earth was thrown into motion, now a planet like any other, a material body wandering through the void of space around the sun. After a mere two centuries of furious intellectual upheaval, the entire theological basis of European civilization, built up over the course of the prior two millennia, was thrashed to pieces. A new civilization, and a new cosmos, was dawning.

Three hundred years later, we find ourselves at or nearing the noon hour of modern industrial civilization. At the highest point of the arc of the modern project, we can see clearly the historical morning behind us, full of even more war and empire than the prior millennia of supposedly un-Enlightened races; and we can see clearly enough before us the inevitable future course leading to our demise: nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, political tyranny. Among academics, the optimistic certainty of our fathers’ deistic-mechanistic image of the world has been succeeded by the cynical irony of postmodern relativism.3 Though the deistic-mechanistic mythos of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was persuasive to a few educated elites, and though its technological utility would be responsible for unleashing an energy-transformation event unlike any the earth had seen before, it has not provided a meaning-producing, value-imbued cosmological story capable of infecting the social imaginary at a deep enough level to replace that provided to medieval European civilization by Aquinas and Dante.

Despite the evidences of modern physical science, a normal 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” says Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”4 The warmth and hue of a sunset, according to Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”5 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names consciousness.

Following Copernicus’ and Galileo’s astronomical and physical discoveries, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern science. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical truth of the heliocentric model made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanical “how?” of extended things (res extensa), a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion; religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the substance of the soul, providing answers to the moral “why?” questions that trouble thinking things (res cogitans). Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal sources of reality.6

In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. But even today, at the height of humanity’s technoscientific7 mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology has not yet arisen to guide the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium. Our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing, with its bifurcation of subjects and objects, facts and values, meaning and matter, is killing humanity and earth alike. As late as 1882, Nietzsche was still one of only a handful with the spiritual courage to confront the cosmic disorientation characteristic of the modern age and to cry out on behalf of life:

…how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?8

Whitehead came to philosophy in the first quarter of the 20th century with questions very similar to Nietzsche’s. He interrogated modern science and the Enlightenment, not to dismiss them, but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to his interpreter, Isabelle Stengers, this question is not an attempt to find some final explanation for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather

a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.9

Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of science and philosophy (natural philosophy) is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science as that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature differently: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”10 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”11 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”12 it implies, waiting eagerly to see how it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to actual life. The materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability13 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain produce consciousness?”, “what sort of stuff is space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology requires the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the importance of both mathematical patterns and sensual perceptions in nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to explain away mental quality by reduction to mathematical quantity.

Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into silence. How does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that

the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.14

Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the problem of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”15 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the philosophical wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead is trying to discover. Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s reformulated point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”16 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.

Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.17

If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of explanation cannot itself be explained. This is not to say that science might not find out a great deal about the mind by studying the brain; its just that it makes no sense to seek a cranial explanation of the mind when it is before the mind itself that science would have to defend its explanation. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-artistic) qualities. Whitehead’s refusal to drag the scientific concept of nature unknowingly into the metaphysical disputes of philosophy (as materialists do) prevents him from reducing the creative advance of natura naturans to the deterministic mechanisms of natura naturata. Instead of turning science against common sense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”18 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.19 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,

that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.20

The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The “photon” is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his perception of light as a result of certain replicable scientific practices, laboratory situations, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The “photon,” as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the passage of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.21 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.22 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to offer such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.23 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged economically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature (usually for private profit), rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature (for the common good).

Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and common sense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.24 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a new, participatory mode of attending to nature, a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally attended to as in the alienated technoscientific mode of knowing; instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms are beings characterized by more than mass, extension, and velocity; they are beings with presence, prehension, and purpose. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are each and all alive.

Eventually, Whitehead gave up on the problems that framed his inquiry into science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. Riskier because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”25 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” Even the aesthetic enjoyment of the poet and the theoretical reflection of the physicist must be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Whitehead would venture upon the great work of every true and genuine philosopher-poet: the creation of a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.

 

Footnotes

1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925/1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13.

2 ibid.

3 We have only the insufficiently cosmological depth of the great archetypal psychologists to lead us through the maddening maze of “posts” populating the contemporary academic scene (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Hillman).

4 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623), translation by Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), New York: Doubleday, 274.

5 ibid.

6 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious purpose, functioning as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm. See also Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20. Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (ibid., 45).

7 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 11).

8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), sec. 125, translation by Walter Kaufmann, in The Nietzsche Reader (2006), Malden: Blackwell, 224.

9 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.

10 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920/1964), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 28.

11 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929/1978), New York: The Free Press, 4.

13 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

14 ibid.

15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.

16 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.

17 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.

18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

19 Or, in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.

20 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

21 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.

23 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.

24 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.

25 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

 

Now that I’m just about finished with my comprehensive exam, let’s see what interesting things are happening around the blogosphere… WOW! According to Michael Zimmerman, Christoph Koch has come out as a panpsychist in his new book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Koch generates an information-theoretic account of consciousness, which he labels Φ, suggesting that all organized systems, from sub-atomic particles to humans, and perhaps to computer networks like the Internet, experience the world internally in some way.

If it has both differentiated and integrated states of information, it feels like something to be such a system; it has an interior perspective. The complexity and dimensionality of their associated phenomenal experiences might differ vastly, but each one has its own crystal [interior] shape…Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system. (p. 131-132).

I studied Koch’s work back when he collaborated with the late Francis Crick, and needless to say, I thought their search for a neural cause of consciousness was doomed to failure. I am surprised and delighted that he was lead by his own scientific research to the conclusion that coming to terms with the explanatory gap requires re-imagining the metaphysical presuppositions of scientific materialism.

Koch even goes so far as to praise Teilhard de Chardin for his pathbreaking work toward such a new image of the cosmos:

Teilhard de Chardin is alluring because his basic insight is compatible with the observed tendency of biological diversity (measured by the amount of variation) and complexity to increase over the course of evolution and with the ideas about integrated information and consciousness I have outlined…The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe–if not the whole cosmos–are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge. (p. 134, 165).

Here is an intriguing article in Wired magazine by Jonah Lehrer. He reflects upon the implications of an experiment attempting to gauge the cognitive significance of nakedness. It looked at how our attribution of agency to others is effected by what they wear and how attractive they are. The results: Pictures of the faces of men were more likely than those of women to be thought of by others (male or female) as rational agents, while those pictures which included bodies of attractive men, and especially of attractive women, were usually judged less capable of agency, but more capable of feeling.

Lehrer introduces the concept of the “redistribution of mind,” the leakage of our theory of cognition out of the head and into the feelings of the whole body. This is especially interesting to me. It suggests that mind is not a disembodied rational agency located at some vanishing point behind or before the material world, or pulsing around in a bundle of very special neurons in the pre-frontal cortex somewhere, but rather it is that which emerges between erotically charged bodies in living/experiential spaces and times. Mind is erotic, a relationship, a process of co-determination and mutual transformation of one with another.

Such an embodiment account of mind still makes agency a bit of a mystery in a world of creatures otherwise swimming in and so conditioned by their experience of other creatures and the outside world. We have to reach into the realm of the spiritual if we hope to find a way out of the dilemma of agency.

Lehrer closes the article by referencing Plato:

“the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.”

In the Republic, Plato actually offers a trinitarian and not a dualistic anatomy of the soul. There were the rational and the erotic organs, and a spiritual organ to harmonize the two. In other words, there was a rational soul to tell our bodies “no,” making us skeptical of appearances we don’t trust; there was an erotic or appetitive soul to tell our bodies “yes!” to appearances (other sexy bodies); and there was a spiritual soul to judge between the two in any given case. The spiritual soul is the agent, the one who decides, if all goes according to plan, whether to step back and think (rational soul) or step forward and act (appetitive soul).

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of the relationship of thinking, feeling, and willing to the physiology of the body. It is helpful, I think, to read Steiner’s esoteric perspective right alongside the secular materialism of Wired magazine. It makes the shock of disbelief in the one over the other even more intense, though I can’t say for sure which approach makes more sense to you.

I’d like to follow up on my recent post about Michael Persinger’s research on the non-local electromagnetic aspects of consciousness. There is a growing contingent of cognitive scientists taking what has come to be called the “extended mind” theory quite seriously. Andy Clark is most associated with the idea, but Levi Bryant has been blogging about it lately. The idea is pretty straightforward: while the brain may be necessary for mental phenomena (including consciousness, memory, thinking, vision, etc.), it is not sufficient, since it is primarily through the fully embodied nervous system’s transactions with the surrounding extracranial world that such phenomena are made possible. The mind may still be characterized as entirely material, but it’s circuitry is understood to extend beyond the skin to form cognitive assemblages with other people and the various media technologies we share. Without learning to read and write an alphabetic language, for example, the kind of individuated subjectivity that Westerners take for granted as basic to human nature could never arise. Consciousness is, from this perspective, still an emergent property, but an emergent property of social activity and cultural artifacts as much as neural processes.

Now, what Persinger is suggesting is similar, but way more radical in some respects. He is suggesting (with experimental data to back it up) that the brain is something like a radio receiver/transmitter that tunes in to and is affected by a globally distributed “mental-field” (or “noosphere”?) closely associated with particular electromagntic frequencies. This is more radical than Clark’s “extend mind” hypothesis only because, if mental phenomena are indeed generated or carried by electromagnetism, this implies not just the local extension of mind, but the possibility of non-local, instantaneous connections between brains independent of space-time.

I’ve shared the video of Persinger’s lecture on this research with a long-time interlocutor of mine, Julian Walker, in the hopes that his generally more skeptical approach to consciousness studies would provide for an interesting discussion. I’ve not been disappointed.

Julian raises several difficulties that I’ll respond to in turn.

First, Julian praises Persinger for his work on the relation between psychoactive plants/fungi and the origins of religion, as well as his work with the “God helmet.” This research provides down to earth accounts of what might otherwise be explained supernaturally. I agree with Persinger (and Terence McKenna!) that psychedelic substances played a crucial role in the formation of, not just religious practice, but human culture generally. I’m not so sure this account explains away religion as the byproduct of a long history of hallucinations, however. “Hallucination” never struck me as the best term to describe what occurs during the non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psilocybin and other tryptamines. It seems far more likely to me that the profoundly opening, spiritual experiences reported by most people who have ingested such substances actually provide a closer look into reality than our ordinary consciousness (which after all evolved to allow us to survive in a world of other hungry animals, not to commune with the ground of being). If there is a hallucinatory mode of consciousness, it is the everyday, ego identification that makes us feel like tiny points of apperception lodged somewhere inside the skull. So if religious practice arose out of the psychedelic experience, I think this implies that, where religion is based in experience rather than sectarian dogma, it is of great value to humanity, since it provides us with a window into a form of life not motivated solely by biological survival, but by more spiritual values like creativity and love. It’s not that psychedelics provide proof of anything “supernatural”; rather, I think a powerful entheogenic experience can reveal just how impoverished our modern, industrialized view of “nature” has become.

Moving right along, Julian criticizes Persinger’s application of phenomena observed by quantum physicists (like non-locality) to biological organization and human subjectivity. I’d agree that such transdisciplinary work remains highly speculative, but unlike most of the thinkers who mobilize quantum physics to explain the paranormal, Persinger is actually doing the experiments to support his applications.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Skeptico:

Skeptico: …you do seem to be…leaning in the direction of saying that there might be other ways [other than direct sensory contact] that consciousness interacts with other consciousness… [A]re you open to the possibility that the physical structure of our brain is more of a transceiver than the agent that creates consciousness, as some people have suggested. Is that on the table for you, or…

Dr. Michael Persinger: Absolutely. There is, of course, the idea that the brain is the source of all experiences because, obviously, if you terminate it you don’t have experiences; but the counter hypothesis – actually it’s not even counter, it’s a parallel hypothesis – is that the brain is microstructured. This infinitesimal, complex pattern, is microstructured so that it can serve as a substrate for electromagnetic patterns. And those electromagnetic patterns are the behaviors and the experiences, which means technically they could exist somewhere else. That means that if indeed there is an electromagnetic pattern, a complex one though it may be, associated with consciousness, if you recreated a substructure in another kind of setting, for example, a computer or in rocks or in trees, could you have some simulation of that. This, of course, is a hypothesis that definitely deserves testing.

So I think Julian’s worry is that the well-confirmed microcosmic weirdness of quantum physics is often used to explain all sorts of phenomena on the macroscopic scale purely through analogy or other non-scientific correspondences. This is one of dangers of cross-disciplinary research. But this does not mean such research should not and cannot be done scientifically! What good is science for understanding the universe as a whole if its many theorems are locked away from one another in the watertight compartments of narrow disciplinary research? Perhaps the biggest outstanding challenge for science in the 21st century will be uniting the truths of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and, dare I say it, spirituality. Scientific disciplines are human constructs; the universe itself is a single evolving process. Yes, it appears to be differentiated and layered, but there are no gaps between layers. Neural activity is conditioned by quantum activity “below it” and by social activity “above it.” Any account of psychological/mental phenomena will remain incomplete unless these conditioning links are fully explored. I think it is especially significant that Persinger finds the brain-based and electromagnetic accounts of consciousness “parallel” rather than contradictory. I am fascinated by his research in this area, not because it implies mental phenomena are non-physical, but because it forces us to expand (quite literally) our understanding of matter.

Julian is convinced that any account of mental phenomena that suggest it is not physiologically caused contradicts everything we know about the universe dating back to the big bang. Having recently engaged with the ideas of Quentin Meillassoux concerning the ancestral statements of science, this notion seems especially shortsighted to me. Our scientific knowledge of deep time (back to the big bang) might imply something like a primordial field of awareness as an invisible background underlying the complexification of matter. Cosmologists can make claims about what happened before human consciousness or biological sentience arose, even before atomic structure arose, because they are tapping into a layer of information or memory that does not depend on complex biology. These events are based on mathematical inference, you say? Certainly, but as soon as we attempt to translate this information into some sort of physical picture, we do so “as if” there was an observer there to witness it all happening. This is a great paradox. If we are to take cosmology at its word, we either tuck this paradox under the rug or we acknowledge its strange implications. Obviously there was no biological creature around 13.7 billion years ago to witness the big bang, but without assuming a witness of some kind, there is no way to make sense of the event. Even given that some unconscious but still mind-like field connecting everything in the universe at the quantum level was present to witness the big bang, it remains difficult to imagine how time might have a beginning, or what visible space might be expanding into as it grows. It is no more difficult to imagine what the nature of this field might be like. Stranger ideas have come to be scientifically accepted.

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog (http://okaysteve.wordpress.com/) concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness:

This is my textual response to Steve Ramirez’s post:

Steve,

First, thanks for taking the time to rebut, in writing, some of my statements concerning consciousness on YouYube. As a thinker, I can hardly think of a more helpful gift than a detailed counter-posturing in response to my ideas. I think consciousness is involved in an evolutionary adventure, and by entering into such philosophical discussions with one another perhaps we can participate in its next few steps.

When it comes to consciousness, I am neither mysterian (like Colin McGinn and perhaps Penrose), nor a dualist (like Chalmers). Since you mentioned him, I would align myself with someone like William James, whose broadly phenomenological approach to consciousness is an important reminder to scientists that we are here dealing with the study of our own being and knowing, not with another abstract scientific object easily separable from ourselves as subjects. James developed a breed of monism, where concepts like mind and matter were both derived from a unified substratum of “pure experience.” Whether a particular natural event is understood to be material or mental depends upon its relations to other events, not on something intrinsic to its own substance.

I don’t want to get too much further into James’ ideas, but suffice it to say that our disagreement, Steve, is the result not of a misunderstanding on the level of evident facts (with all due respect, though I’m not a doctoral student in neuroscience, I’m not uninformed about the field), but on the much more foundational level of metaphysics. We each begin thinking about these issues out of radically different imaginary backgrounds. It seems that you begin by taking for granted that the “real world” of matter, energy, space and time is entirely mind-independent, and that mind somehow bubbles up out of inert matter when that matter unintentionally falls (via natural selection) into certain patterns of activity. I, on the other hand, cannot make intelligible sense out of such a picture, and so I begin with different assumptions (like those of James), that reality is not made of mind or matter; reality is a relational process whose features (psychical and physical) are continually brought forth out of a primordial, non-substantial creative ground.

Steve, in response to my claim that neuroscience has only shown a correlation between some conscious states and some brain states, you write:

“If we can explain how, when, and why neurons fire in particular patterns, interact with various other brain regions, and finally produce a particular behavior, then we have described all there is to describe. Calling this a ‘correlation’ is a deep misunderstanding of the term, and it’s what happens when a rookie throws his hardest 35mph intellectual fastball at the hard-hitting Babe Ruths of science.”

What is the neuroscientist trying to explain, consciousness or behavior? They are not the same thing. A car engine can behave functionally or it can break down. In neither case is the engine conscious. The only way complete knowledge of neural functioning could count as complete knowledge of consciousness is if the researcher assumed from the beginning that mental phenomena are an illusion or epiphenomenon. A more scientific position would be to withhold such assumptions until further study had been completed. In my estimation, neuroscience is about where physics was in the 18th century. The studies you linked to are impressive, but NONE of them offer even the beginnings of a theory to account for how neurochemical activity becomes or is identical to consciousness. Simply stating that consciousness is in the brain, even if you are wearing a white lab coat, is not the same as accounting for how this is so.

In the case of Crick and Koch’s research, I think their findings tell us more about visual perception than consciousness. It does appear that our visual experience is topographically correlated with activity in the occipital cortex. But as to how this neural activity is related to experience, their theory tells us nothing. And although you tried to argue that natural selection allows neural reductionism to avoid solipsism, aren’t research programs like Crick and Koch’s suggesting that the rich, colorful environment I see is actually the neural activity in the back of my skull? This sort of approach calls into question the whole enterprise of scientific objectivity and seems to me to represent a glaring inconsistency in the materialistic worldview. If our experience is caused by brain activity, we know nothing about the material world but what our contingent physiology allows us to. Nothing in the principles of natural selection suggest that true perception of mind-independent reality is necessary for survival and reproduction. The sort of reductionistic picture you’ve painted in this post suggests that all of our experience as conscious, willful human beings is delusory, or at best virtual. Not only would this undermine ethical responsibility and make a mockery of our justice system, but it calls the epistemic basis of scientific inquiry itself into question. If consciousness is just a product of the brain, and the brain is just a product of natural selection, then scientific knowledge is merely a likely story shaped by the contingency of our organs of perception.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather science rest upon more secure foundations. I’m worried that in the rush to crown itself the queen of human knowledge, natural science is in fact undermining its own validity.

The following is a video response I posted on YouTube to a blog post by Steve Ramirez about consciousness and neuroscience.

 

 

He writes the following:

Matthew Segall, known popularly as “0ThouArtThat0″ on youtube, is as eloquent as any up and coming philosopher – an eloquence rivaled in magnitude only by his deep misunderstanding of how science works. His musings on consciousness and God are admirable and bold, and it is refreshing to see a philosopher who doesn’t shy away from scientific theory. But he is also an example par excellence of a thinker who just gets science wrong.

I’ll rehash some of his claims because they echo the thoughts of numerous philosophers and – I hate to say it – even some scientists (these scientists tend to be more like Penrose and less like, say, Koch or Crick).

“Without a human brain, human consciousness is not possible… But it does not follow that consciousness is located inside the skull…”

“All the empirical studies of the brain that have ever been done and that could ever be done reveal only a correlation between experience and neural tissue. No causal relationship can be shown empirically…”

“No matter how hard we try to look for our own subjectivity in the brain, we will find only objects other than ourselves. You can’t see consciousness. You can’t feel it… This is why it is a category mistake to think empirical science could account for it in terms of brain activity alone.”

Really? You do not know, then, how precise our tools are. And so, allow me to lend a machete to this intellectual thicket. For starters, read this. It’s a nice and thorough review of what scientists mean by “consciousness” and the various, often clever, methods being used to show the connection between neural tissue and thought. (I purposely left out the word “correlate,” because as the studies below will demonstrate, causality is a realistic claim using today’s techniques).

Discovery stops when we sit down on the armchair and bask in awe at the magnificently complicated process of consciousness, and this awe blinds us to the tractability of the problem at hand. (To be fair, scientists often are up in the Ivory Tower for too long and forget to come down and share the importance of whatever experiment is brewing.)