As I described yesterday, when we empirically observe the nature of our own thoughts and consciousness through meditation or introspection, we observe that:
Consciousness is something apart from our thoughts. We don't experience it as another kind of thought. It is not experience -- it is the field within which experience happens. It is therefore undeniably real, and yet totally (and maddenly) undefinable. And not only undefinable, but irreducible. Consciousness – the awareness of qualia, the field within which thoughts and perceptions happen – is not the sum of lots of thoughts, not the result of an algorithm.
Consciousness is the locus of our ultimate sense of identity.
That's the evidence of our introspection. The question is: how do we interpret that evidence? What does it mean? There are at least two approaches to that evidence:
The Spiritual View. Because consciousness is undefinable and irreducible to physical processes, it is directly observable evidence for an immaterial aspect of reality. It is immaterial, and therefore possibly the basis on which one can construct a "spiritual" reality. Moreover, because we intuit consciousness to be the locus of identity – the ultimate "I" – that means the Self is really an non-material, spiritual thing: a soul. This is the interpretation adopted by lots of spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, Richard Rose, Andrew Cohen, or most anyone else who's written a meditation manual in the last century.
The Materialist View. Because consciousness is undefinable, it is somewhat suspicious and weird. Perhaps it doesn't exist at all as a definite "thing", but is rather an emergent property of the brain, something that happens when you have reflexive processes looping back on themselves in unspeakably complicated ways. Regardless, when confronted with something baffling, something we don't understand and don't even know how to approach, we do not necessarily need to jump to the conclusion it is therefore unexplainable, irreducible, or non-material.
Currently, I find both interpretations to be almost equally compelling.
The spiritual interpretation of consciousness was the most compelling case I had ever found for spirituality – much more compelling than traditional religion could muster. It generally satisfies my intuition. I can't deny that consciousness is – it is the one thing I am most sure about – so I am perpetually annoyed by people like Dennett or Hofstadter who refer to it as an "illusion." (If it is an illusion, to whom is it an illusion? Can something be an illusion to itself? This is what Ken Wilber would call an "operative dysfunction": if it's right, it's wrong.)
On the other hand, the materialists have some good points I can't shake off. As I wrote previously, I think the Churchlands were right: just because we can't imagine something does mean it's not true. Steven Pinker made the same point in How the Mind Works, arguing that not only might we not understand consciousness now, we might never understand consciousness, for the simple reason that our species never evolved the capacity to do so.
Most significantly, there are the troubling correlations between the mind and the brain. So far, the only minds we've ever found appear to be housed in brains. (Some mystics would claim that ALL things are aware, which is an interesting idea but impossible to verify.) Electrical wave patterns in the brain are strongly correlated with states of consciousness in the mind. If you damage the brain, the nature of consciousness also appears to be affected. (I cannot for the life of me understand why so many spiritual people are all gaga over Jill Bolte Taylor, when her experience only lends credence to the notion that supposedly "spiritual" states are the product of the brain, and a damaged one at that.) Even if you accept the spiritual interpretation of the phenomena of consciousness, you are left with difficult questions: if awareness is "a thing apart", total separate from thoughts and feelings, why does awareness only occur in brains? And what makes us so sure that awareness will continue when the brain is gone? It's at this point that I start to feel like the materialists are winning the argument: the mind is the product of the brain, and awareness, though mysterious, is part of the same physical package. It's only the fact that the neuroscientists still don't have a satisfactory explanation for qualia and consciousness that keeps me on the fence.
As a materialist, I'll offer a description of "consciousness" that will completely denude it of all spiritual overtones - and also in terms that our geek selves can understand and appreciate. Imagine our brain - which I claim is the sole basis of our identity - as a massively parallel computer, i.e. many cpus operating simultaneously. What we perceive to be our thoughts is a single cpu that we wrestle to control, but is constantly interpreted by the many other cpus. Now imagine what you and Kenny have been describing as consciousness - in a meditative state or otherwise - as use of an additional cpu that can observe the first "thought" cpu. This would give a sense of "something apart" observing ones thoughts. However, no mysticism is required to explain it. Meditation is therefore to be applauded as improved harnessing of the brain's thought resources. What I would call consciousness is the sum total of all cpus operating together, which is what makes it so elusive and hard to describe and/or simulate.
This metaphor, btw, is a familiar one to those in machine learning and AI. Some claim that we have not been able to simulate "consciousness" in machines because we have not been able to construct a machine that is massively parallel enough.
At first blush, that description seems reasonable. Having a separate module in the brain watching the others -- that would explain the "thing apart" aspect of consciousness. Unfortunately, it doesn't make the slightest dent in explaining qualia -- what it means to have an experience, or to be someone having an experience. All you've done is create a "homonculus" who sits inside the brain, and then say, "He is the one who experiences." You've only pushed the problem down one level.
Again, that doesn't mean it's impossible that experience and the experiencer arise from purely physical means. It just means we haven't a freakin' clue how it happens.
I'm one of those spiritual types who is gaga over Jill Bolte Taylor. (I have some problems with her too, but that's another issue.) I think that's a very relevant point. Because if my spirituality depended on ignoring all the evidence that physically measurable brain states can lead to conscious experiences, and even spiritual experiences, then it would be a fool's errand.
So that's not my argument. I cheerfully grant that whenever such-and-such a neuron fires and such-and-such a chemical reaction happens, you see "red." And when thus-and-so neurons fire and thus-and-so chemicals happen, you have an "experience of one-ness with the universe." And so on. But there's no way to connect the dots. The qualitative experience of "red" is completely different from the measurable firing of a neuron, even if the latter inevitably leads to the former.
So, the materialist replies, that just means we haven't found all the steps yet. "Rubbing a glass rod on fur" and "inventing the light bulb" don't seem to have anything to do with each other, but in the hundred-or-so years between the two, electricity went from a complete mystery to an understood science. Won't consciousness do the same thing?
No it won't, I argue. I invite the materialist to make up any experiments that might happen, and any results that might happen, at some point in the future. Here, I'll start. Let's suppose that we find a cluster of neurons that always fire in a certain pattern whenever someone sees a red fire engine. Whether you are looking at a red fire engine, or dreaming of a red fire engine, this particular pattern of firing happens. Furthermore, we can explain perfectly how the impact of light waves from a red fire engine on the cones of your eyes lead to electrical signals to the brain which lead to that exact firing of neurons. Furthermore, we can directly stimulate those neurons, and the subject invariably reports seeing a red fire engine (whether one is actually there or not). You see what I mean? I'm making up the perfect experiment, and you can go as far as you want with this.
But here's my question. If we get all that, what do we have? Do we then say that "seeing a red fire engine" is just a layman's code for "these neurons firing?" Is there not still an explanatory gap just as large as we started with? What conceivable experiment could ever even begin to approach the actual experience?
Inspired by this continuing dialogue, I went to a link that showed me Jill Bolte Taylor so I could see who you both were referring to. I don't know whether she does this in her other talks or written work, but in her TED presentation she richly described her experience without quite making an issue of whether her experience was reflecting a real truth about ourselves or not. I should listen to it again, but it seemed that just the experience of the oneness she felt was enough for her.
For me, I have been wondering not so much about the /possibility/ of such experiences (through drugs, meditation, fasting, or trauma like hers), but whether it all is 'real' beyond my own experience of it. Is any subjective experience, no matter how amazing (feeling at one with
all) or daily (such as seeing the color red) something that also is not-me, sharable, third-person verifiable?
I am curious about how and why people start believing in these experiences as something other than hallucinations or experiences of raw data before the left brain gets to the information. I want to hear her talk about that part. Is the experience just so powerful that there is no question that it's truth? Or does it start not to matter at that point whether it's real or not? Maybe 'real' doesn't make sense anymore.
I hadn't really thought about this before, but I guess
her experience is self-validating because she isn't
making any claims about another reality (heaven,
tunnel of white light, angels, etc) but another way
of perceiving reality. It's a weaker statement in
some ways than "I found the underlying nature of
reality," but a stronger statement than "I found
something that felt really, really good."