a speculative inquiry into the nature of consciousness
(WORK IN PROGRESS – MORE TO COME)
Materialism and consciousness
At the very core of mainstream science is the assumption that the universe is entirely materialistic. Consciousness emerges as a function of the electrial activity of a brain, when a brain evolves to a sufficient level of complexity. There is no meaning or purpose to life, apart from the imaginings of humans and their religions – there is only the more or less random evolution of material configurations. Richard Dawkins is the most vocal and prolific expounder of this materialist perspective, a perspective that mainstream scientists subscribe to without ever thinking to question it.
There is another model of consciousness that says consciousness is not embodied in the brain. Rather our minds exist apart from our brains, and outside the domain of physics. The function of the brain, in this model, is to serve as a kind of interface module, enabling the mind to interact with the five senses and the body. This we can call the metaphysical model of consciousness.
Evidence for the metaphysical model comes in the form of ‘unexplainable’ experiences. An unconscious patient, registering no electrical brain activity at all during a critical operation, reports later that he observed the operation from the ceiling, and is able to describe specific things that happened during the operation. Or someone has a near-death experience, and reports certain kinds of experiences that have also been reported in other near-death cases.
There are a great many reliable reports of ‘unexplainable’ experiences of various kinds, all of which indicate that mind exists apart from brain functioning, and exhibits properties that violate the rules of materialist science. Dean Radin is one of the best-known researchers in this area, and his book, The Conscious Universe, gives a good overview of the research and thinking in this area. I don’t necessarily go along with all of his thinking, but the evidence he and others gather can be used quite independently of their various conclusions.
For the materialist model, on the other hand, there isn’t much in the way of evidence. It’s merely an assumption to say that consciousness is an electrical property of the brain, and it’s an assumption that seems to be contradicted by considerable evidence of various kinds. The fact that certain parts of the brain ‘light up’ electrically, when a certain kind of activity is underway, is quite consistent with the notion that the brain is an interface module, called selectively into play when our mind wants to interact with the physical world in some particular way.
I leave it to you the reader to decide if you want to seriously consider a metaphysical model of consciousness. I’ve alluded to evidence, but I have no intention of trying to prove here that the mind is metaphysical. If you want to delve into that question, I recommend looking at the work of people like Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, and many others, who are doing serious research in the field of consciousness. My own view is that the metaphysical model is our best working hypothesis for consciousness, based on all the evidence I’ve seen so far.
The nature of this investigation
In this investigation, I’ll be starting with the assumption that our minds are metaphysical, and I’ll be teasing out what implications seem to follow from that assumption. I won’t be bringing in any additional results from the work of Radin, Sheldrake, or anyone else. Indeed, my work may serve to corroborate their work – by reaching the same conclusions from a different direction.
What I’ve found is that quite a bit can be inferred from just this one assumption. Opening the door to the metaphysical is like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. A whole new world opens up, with its own structure and its own dynamics. As we explore the depths of the rabbit hole, I’ll be seeking to organize what we find into a coherent model, presented in blue text. I’ll begin the construction of the model with a definition:
In this next section we’ll be exploring the following question: if our human minds are metaphysical, what does that imply about other species, and about life in general?
Consciousness and life
Anyone who has ever had a pet dog has surely experienced that their dog’s consciousness is akin to their own. As regards things like ‘appreciating companionship’, ‘wanting to please’, ‘feeling guilty’, or ‘loyalty to a friend’, their consciousness seems to be of the same stuff as our own. In any case, it makes no sense in terms of evolutionary process to think that a metaphysical mind could be unique to the human species. To assume that mind first came in with humans would imply that other animals have a more advanced brain than ours, one that can simulate the functions that we rely on consciousness for.
If humans have a metaphysical mind, then from an evolutionary perspective we must accept that all animals have a metaphysical mind. There isn’t anywhere we could mark a spot on the evolutionary tree of animals, and say ‘mind came in here’. If it was ‘here’ it must have also been ‘there’ – one step back in evolution – or the preceding species couldn’t have functioned.
So a mind was there at the very beginning, when the first animal life form wiggled about in some primordial sea. And that mind was connected to the primitive nervous system of that life form. If we go back one step in evolution, a more primitive version of the nervous system must have been already in place, and the functioning of that system would require that a mind be already in place as well.
Thus mind was there, as part of life, even before the first animal emerged. Mind must also have been there even earlier, at each evolutionary step leading up to the species just before wiggling. Again, there’s nowhere on the tree of evolution where you can say ‘mind came in here’ – apart from the very root of the tree – the very beginning of life itself.
The coevolution of species and mind
I take it as self-evident that the body and mind must be in balance with one another. There must be a strong degree of congruence between the scope and complexity of the psychic field, and the scope and complexity of the organism and its behaviors. A more complex brain, for example, implies a more complex mind. It would make no sense for a butterfly to have a part of its mind concerned with mathematical puzzles.
The co-development of organism and mind
If every organism has a mind, then that mind, that psychic field, must be present with the very first cell of that organism, the first cell that is part of ‘baby’ rather than part of ‘mommy’. Where else could we draw the line, and say ‘the mind comes in here’? The embodiment of the mind, at the beginning, is a single embryonic cell, a fertilized egg or seed.
I take it as self-evident that the function of the mind is always, even at the beginning, to direct the activity of its embodiment. That is to say, the business of the mind, as an embryo develops, is to manage the development of the embryo. DNA manages protein production, but it is mind that manages the development of the morphology of the organism.
Sheldrake argues that “morphogenic fields” (form-generating fields) must have a role in the development of organism morphology, based on the observation that DNA does not contain enough information to determine morphology. My line of argument leads me to the same conclusion.
Even though the early role of the mind is somewhat humble, the mind must be appropriate to the species. In the early stages the mind must be creating an embryo that is appropriate to the species, and in the later stages the mind must have the capacity and complexity appropriate to the species. That is to say, the embryo’s psychic field must already have the inherent capacity and complexity of an adult psychic field. If it’s a human embryo, the early mind must already have the potential capacity to appreciate music and to use complex language.
We can think of a developing organism as being a sequence of different organisms. An egg is an organism that develops into an embryo. An embryo is an organism that develops into a fetus, a fetus into a baby, a baby into a toddler, etc. In a very real sense, each organism in this sequence is of a different species. Each species in the sequence brings in a new dimension of complexity, lacked by the previous species. What does this imply, as regards what’s happening with the mind of the organism, as the organism advances up the tree of these ‘species’?
Earlier I took it as self-evident that the mind and body of an organism must be in balance with one another – the scope and complexity of the mind must be in balance with the scope and complexity of the behaviors of the organism. Here I take it as self-evident that the mind – at each stage of organism development – must be in balance with that stage of the organism. In other words, the complexity of the mind must increase as the organism develops.
This leaves us with a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, the mind of an embryo must have the inherent complexity of an adult of the species, yet on the other hand the mind of an embryo must have far less complexity than that, in order to be in balance with the embryo-as-organism. What this seems to imply is that most of the complexity of the mind is dormant at the beginning; we could say it is sleeping. At the embryonic stage, the part of the mind that is awake is only that part which is concerned with the development of the embryo.
It’s as if the various subfields, in their sleep, are sending out test signals. If an echo comes back, then resonance has occurred, and the subfield wakes up. Otherwise it continues sleeping. Whatever the mechanism, it seems clear that the development of the organism is the driver process, the process that somehow leads to the awakening of psychic subfields when their time comes.
As we move higher up in the tree of actual species, say from early mammals to humans, an increasing proportion of psychic subfields are related to what we might call intellectual functioning. As regards motor functions, there is little difference between the relevant psychic subfields of a human or of a gazelle. Both are of about the same order of complexity. But as regards subfields related to intellectual functioning – such as those subfields that resonate with imagination, stories, or scientific pursuits – we see a significant expansion of mind complexity, if we compare humans with other species.
From our intellect-intensive human perspective, it is easy to think of mind functioning as being mostly related to intellectual functioning. It is those functions, after all, that we pay conscious attention to. We are not aware of the activity of those psychic subfields that resonate with the body, at the level of organs and cells. Those subfields are operating on habit, and we pay no attention to them.
Attention and learning
When we were learning to walk, we were paying close attention to every little movement of our bodies, to keep from falling. As adults walking has become a habit, and we normally pay no attention to how we’re doing it. If we encounter a challenging new walking context, however, we need to pay attention to how we’re walking, or else we’re likely to fall down. Anyone who walks for the first time on a slippery surface wearing flip-flops, for example, soon finds that they need to find a new way of walking, in order to keep from slipping.
In terms of fields, this means that the psychic subfields involved in walking need to be trained, with the help of attention, in order to function successfully. Once trained, the subfields can function without the help of attention, but only within the scope of circumstances for which they’ve been trained. In order to expand the scope to new circumstances, attention must again be involved.
We can think of our walking-related subfields as being programmable robots, each able to perform a range of functions, but which have no programs loaded when they first wake up. We can think of attention as being the human programmer of the robots.
In the process of learning, the programmer takes over manual control of the robots involved, and figures out how to perform some new task using the robots’ capabilities. The steps that the programmer goes through become scripts for the robots, which they follow whenever dealing with a similar situation in the future. When a situation arises that the robots can’t handle, the programmer notices, and returns to figure out how to deal with the situation, updating the scripts in the process.
I’ve used alking as an example, but the same considerations apply to everything we learn. For every kind of activity that involves learning, the psychic subfields involved can only learn when we are paying attention to that activity. When we aren’t paying attention, the subfields can only act from habit, like a robot running a script.
Although all of our mind is in the domain of consciousness, it seems that not all of our mind is conscious. The walker subfield, acting from a script, is no more conscious than are the legs doing the walking. An artificial-intelligence program is in the physical domain, while a scripted subfield is in the consciousness domain – but the two are comparable as regards their relationship to consciousness itself. Both are programmed by something that is conscious, and both exhibit behaviors we associate with consciousness, but neither is actually conscious.
Our various psychic subfields are able to simulate consciousness within the scope of their scripting, and they exhibit real consciousness when attention is present with them, but otherwise they are unconscious organs – organs of consciousness, rather than organs of the body. Where then, does real consciousness reside, and what is attention?
In our robot analogy, the human programmer has the ability to choose what he spends his time on, the ability to improvise in response to new situations, and the ability to learn. The robots, on the other hand, must devote themselves to what comes before them, and can only respond as scripted. The nature and role of attention are analogous to the nature and role of the programmer.
Attention and self
When we are paying attention to what we are doing, that is equivalent to saying that our attention subfield is engaged with what we are doing. Our sense of experiencing is our perception of the operation of our attention subfield. In one sense we are the totality of our existence, including our body and the history of our experiences. But in another sense we can say that we have a body, a brain, a mind, and experiences – but we are our attention subfield.
We can view our arm or leg as a thing, something that we could lose and we would still exist. We can view our brain as a thing, part of which might be removed by surgery or a stroke, and we would still exist. We can view a skill we’ve learned (subfield script) as a thing, something we can develop and something that might fade through lack of use. We can view our experiences as things that we have done and that we might later forget about. But we cannot view our attention subfield as a thing that we could exist without. The attention subfield is the ‘spark of life’ that animates everything else about us.
In trying to continue with my earlier paper, above, I found that I was taking on too much all at once. I decided to pick one area of investigation and develop that more carefully and in more detail. If you have any ideas or comments regarding these ideas, I’d love to hear from you. Or if you know someone interested in these kinds of ideas, please forward the link to them, so I might benefit from their feedback.