Showing posts with label consciousness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label consciousness. Show all posts

Friday, April 09, 2021

Ephemera? I don't think so

Brain Wars the scientific battle over the existence of the mind and the proof that will change the way we live our lives
Mario Beauregard
Non-fiction 250 pages
HarperOne. 2012

Mario Beauregard introduces his book stating, that according to materialist science only the brain exists; that mind, soul, and consciousness are ephemera produced by the brain and as such, cannot exist independently of the brain. The Cartesian model of brain/mind dualism is false. Only the brain exists, nothing more.

This is essentially the view taken by several materialist theories. The author argues, however, that none of these theories provide a satisfactory answers to what David Chalmers calls the "hard problem "of consciousness which ponders how experience arises from brain processes.

Chalmers is a philosopher. I am not. I wonder if subjective experience isn't just another ephemera produced by the brain. On the other hand, my subjective experience seems real enough that I wonder if those who question the materialist view are correct after all. Beauregard claims that, "multiple lines of hard evidence show that mental events do exist and can significantly influence the functioning of our brains and bodies. They also show that our minds can affect events occurring outside the confines of our bodies, and that we can access consciously transcendent realms—even when the brain is apparently not functioning."

I'm not sure that I buy the first of Beauregard's premises, that mental events exist and can influence body and brain. In the first chapter, "The Power of Belief to Cure or Kill" he shows how Voodoo can kill and placebos can cure. But how does this refute the materialists? Why can't mental events and beliefs be products of the brain, and therefore ephemera?

In his sixth chapter, Beauregard cites psychic (or psi) phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis as evidence that consciousness exists apart from the brain. Since psi phenomena are non-local, how can they be produced by a local mechanism such as the brain? Although Beauregard's argument has become more compelling, I am still inclined to reject it.

Many skeptics reject the existence of psi phenomena. However, Beauregard and others make a compelling case for its reality. Although early psychic researchers were sometimes taken in by charlatans, contemporary researchers use more rigorous methods. Using sophisticated procedures to insure accuracy, they still achieve results that are highly unlikely to be due to chance.

Today, it is not the psychic researchers but the skeptics who are biased. Psi is an established fact. However, the fact that it occurs does not mean that it occurs frequently and dependably. It remains a rare human experience. Does it prove that consciousness can exist independently of the brain? I don't think so. People have claimed to pick up radio stations through the filings in their teeth. Perhaps the brain occasionally acts like a radio and picks up non-local information. That wouldn't prove that consciousness exists apart from the brain.

In his seventh chapter, Beauregard makes his most persuasive point. If consciousness is merely a phenomena of the brain, how is it that people report being conscious during near death experiences? More remarkably, how is it that they report such vivid experiences when their brains are working at greatly reduced capacities?

Other books have addressed these questions. One such book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience", examines near death experiences (NDEs) in great detail. Author, Kevin Nelson neatly explains all the phenomena associated with NDEs as products of the brain responding to particular conditions. Although he dissects each phenomena thoroughly, his cumulative explanations do not adequately explain the detailed and complex narratives that some people have reported after returning from the brink of death.

It is because NDE narratives can be so complex and detailed that I am inclined to think that diminished brain function can only explain the grosser aspects of NDEs and not their details. However, other factors may be involved. Perhaps in some cases NDE memories are simple confabulations, false memories invented by troubled brains to explain what they can't understand.

Beauregard presents several very compelling cases of NDEs. One such is the case of Pam Reynolds. Prior to brain surgery she was chilled to a point of near-death. Blood no longer pumped through her brain. Her eyes were taped shut, yet she reported observing her operation while outside her body. Is this a case of invented memory, or did it actually occur? If so, does this prove that consciousness exists independently of the brain?

For his final arguments, Beauregard looks toward mysticism and quantum physics. In 1976, biomedical researcher and atheist, Dr. Allan Smith had a life changing mystical experience while observing a sunset. While NDEs are often reported after body and brain trauma, there was no apparent cause for Dr. Smith's experience. Throughout history people have had mystical experiences in which they perceive themselves to be one with everything and no longer confined by a mortal human existence. Psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, gave the phenomena a name. He called it Cosmic Consciousness.

Early in its development, quantum mechanics encountered a problem—one that remains a mystery to this day. The problem is this: the act of observation influences the phenomena that is observed. Scientists have attempted to explain this in a number of ways, but never to everyone's satisfaction.

Some people claim that consciousness affects external phenomena, yet this is only one way of viewing the interconnectedness of observers with observations. It may be that the human mind lacks sufficient language or logic to understand the reality. It may be that the theory of quantum mechanics is missing an undiscovered piece. This is what Einstein thought.

Einstein knew that quantum mechanics allowed for the possibility of entangled particles. These are particles that mirror each other, seemingly instantly and at any distance. Einstein and his two collaborators wrote that because non-locality, or "spooky action at a distance" isn't possible, then something must be missing from quantum mechanics.

Einstein was wrong. During the final years of the 20th century, non-locality was proven to exist. The implication of non-locality is that everything is connected and indivisible. That means the mystics are correct. Each of us is indeed one with everything. Consciousness is not dependent on the brain.

Yet countless books on neuroscience make it plainly clear that if certain regions of the brain are damaged, then profound changes in personality emerge. The same can be said for changes in sense perceptions, speech, mobility, etc. How then, can it be said that consciousness does not depend on the brain?

Books like this, as well as those which attempt to prove an opposite view, often fail to define consciousness in a thorough manner. An initial omission of definition flaws the ensuing discussion. Whether consciousness is ephemera produced by brains, or whether it is non-local and nondependent on brains, is a question that can't be resolved until we agree on just what consciousness is.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Of butterflies and dreaming sages

The Grand Biocentric Design : How Life Creates Reality
Robert Lanza, MD and Matej Pavšič with Bob Berman
Non-fiction, 289 pages

In this third book on biocentrism, Matej Pavšič joins the authors of the first two, but it is Lanza who speaks loudest. The book offers several new scientific findings and four additional principals of biocentrism to the original seven.

The first third of the book reiterates points made in the previous two: 1) on the atomic level everything remains in superposition until an observer collapses a wave-function and brings things into existence. More , 2) time and space are tools of the mind rather than qualities of reality.

At this point new evidence is introduced. Consider the eighth principle of biocentrism: 

“Biocentrism offers the only explanation of how the mind is unified with matter and the world by showing how modulation of ion dynamics in the brain at the quantum level allows all parts of the information system that we associate with consciousness to be simultaneously interconnected.” 

I don’t fully grasp why this is important; I hope a commentator will explain it to me.

Another piece of evidence supports the idea that reality is an invention of the mind. Speculating that it’s possible for “two observers to experience different, conflicting realities,” a group of physicists used six entangled particles to create separate realities for each observer. The study was published in Science Advances in 2019. “Realities can be made incompatible so that it is impossible to agree on objective facts about an experiment. These results suggest that objective reality does not exist.”

This begs the question, if objective reality is observer dependent, how can there be any sort of consensual reality? The authors answer:

“If you learn from somebody the outcomes of their measurements of a physical quantity, knowing those outcomes will also influence the outcomes of your own measurements, freezing the reality according to a consensus between your measurements and those of other observers. In this sense a consensus of different opinions regarding the structure of reality defines its very form.

Recall that time itself, as well as the direction of the arrow of time, becomes defined due to the process of wave function collapse (or decoherence). Once such temporal collapse happens, one can start asking questions about the dynamics of the process of decoherence for other physical quantities that we as observers can measure. These dynamics—how quickly the collapse of quantum blur toward a particular realization of measurable quantities happens, how long it stays collapsed, the detailed structure of the probability waves defining observed reality—strongly depend on how the measurements or observations by different observers are distributed within spacetime. If there are many observers and the number of observations made by them is very large, the probability waves of the measurement of a macroscopic quantity remain largely ‘localized,’ not spreading much, and reality is largely fixed, deviating slightly from the consensus only every once in a while.”

Another new idea in this book addresses an old problem. Quantum physics does a good job of explaining three of the four fundamental forces, while relativity theory does a fine job of explaining gravity. However the two theories of quantum physics and relativity can not be unified into one. The authors claim that when the role of observers is considered, gravity becomes compatible with quantum theory.

Despite new research and more in-depth explanation, this book leaves a lot out. In the second book on biocentrism, the authors wrote that death is an illusion. Here they take it further:

“In your awakened State, you experience your consensus reality. Then you go to bed, fall asleep, and start dreaming. And when you wake up, you find yourself again existing as a person in a consensus reality. Through dreams you enter alternate worlds and switch from one consensus reality to another, from experiencing the life of one organism to that of another. Once awake, you can find yourself as being any person, at any time without having memories about ever being another person or animal. You can even find yourself as a newborn, without any idea about the reality you are living. If so, gradually, piece by piece, you discover your reality, your world. By observing your world, you keep collapsing probability waves, and thus you effortlessly create an ever-more detailed world that includes comprehensive reinforcing memories. The observations also include what others tell you about the world and its history and still you build your consensus reality.”

How can this be? I didn’t wake up as someone else this morning, or did I? I remember Chuang Tzu wrote of something similar:

“Formerly, I, Kwang Kâu, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, feeling that it was enjoying itself. I did not know that it was Kâu. Suddenly I awoke, and was myself again, the veritable Kâu. I did not know whether it had formerly been Kâu dreaming that he was a butterfly, or it was now a butterfly dreaming that it was Kâu. But between Kâu and a butterfly there must be a difference.”

As Chuang Tzu said, “there must be a difference.” If there were no difference, “mind” could control any body at any time. And in that case would mind be a singular or plural entity? That question and others of similar nature are not addressed, yet require answers if biocentrism is to become a strong theory.

If mind is the thing that creates matter, what is mind?

“Biocentrism shows that the external world is actually within the mind—not ‘within’ the brain. The brain is an actual physical object that occupies a specific location. It exists as a spatiotemporal construction. … The mind is what generates the spatiotemporal construction in the first place. Thus, the mind refers to pre-spatiotemporal and the brain to post spatiotemporal. You experience your mind’s image of your body, including your brain, just as you experience trees and galaxies. The mind is everywhere. It is everything you see, hear and sense.”

And after that explanation, I still don’t know. If biocentrism is to become a useful theory, it will need to explain what is meant by mind. Replacing one mystery with another isn’t helpful. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Flying blind, deaf and dumb

The  Washington Post on February 2 quoted the brief filed by President Trump's lawyers: "The 45th President exercised his First Amendment right under the Constitution to express his belief that the election results were suspect … Insufficient evidence exists upon which a reasonable jurist could conclude that the 45th President's statements were accurate or not, and he therefore denies they were false."

The First Amendment grants the right to speak freely. It says nothing about speaking speaking factually or drawing upon evidence or logic. The First Amendment doesn't lay down any rules. But don't assume its authors didn't intend any. The rules were so well established culturally and socially that they didn't need to be spelled out.

Enter "alternate facts," those wonderful glimpses of invented reality Kellyanne Conway introduced us to in 2017. That was our first hint that we weren't just politically polarized. Americans are, in fact, living in different realities. In one reality, five dozen failed lawsuits shouldn't influence a reasonable jurist's conclusions about whether President Trump's "statements were accurate or not." Rules of precedent and logic are thrown out in this reality. 

President Trump's second impeachment will likely be about the constitutionality of trying a president once he's left office. Since the Constitution doesn't directly address the issue, both sides will push their points. In the end it won't come down to the most convincing argument. It will come down to votes.

The Senate will fail to answer the essential question. Can a society sustain multiple consensual realities without collapsing from their inconsistencies? Practicality blinds most politicians from seeing this question in full. But some are beginning to intuit its complexity.

According to the Washington Post, during his presidency Trump's speech was "false or misleading" 30,573 times. He faced little criticism for lying from his party. Now that party is split between those condemning Marjorie Taylor Greene for living in make-believe and those condemning Liz Cheney for wanting to hold President Trump accountable for damage caused by his lies. A healthy society shares a single consensual reality, a divided society, two or more, but both share elements in common. Many of these elements are governed by social usage, others by physical laws. The battle within the Republican party will determine the shared reality it promotes. But, both parties need to consider anew the rules of the game, its logic, its facts, its ethics, goals and purpose. The best of all possible worlds is a consensual one. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Galileo's Error

Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness
Philip Goff
Non-fiction, 256 pages

Galileo determined that the natural world can be measured with math. Certain qualities, however, are unmeasurable because they are derived from the soul rather than from nature. Sensory qualities like “yellow” can’t be measured like size, weight, or movement. Aside from unmeasurable sensory qualities and similar information, Galileo’s method describes nature quite well. But the method creates an error: “Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

It took a while to notice the problem. It didn’t trouble René Descartes at all that Galileo’s method couldn’t address unmeasurable qualities. For Descartes, matter was one thing while mind was another. While a bodily action might follow a mental intention, both body and mind, being distinct, can exist without the other.

Today Descartes’ dualism has fallen out of fashion. Materialists argue that it’s the brain that generates consciousness, nothing more. Some, such as Daniel Dennett, argue that consciousness is a brain-generated illusion.

Goff describes several arguments that refute the materialist view of consciousness. Of these, I’m most convinced by David Chalmers’s argument that materialism fails to address the “Hard Question of Consciousness.” Connecting the brain with its outward actions answers easy questions. Such examination can never explain why we experience life as we do. Nobody questions their own experience, but materialists encounter Galileo’s soul derived qualities when they attempt to explain it.

Goff explores one possibility that might save dualism. It involves quantum physics. “By far the strangest aspect of quantum mechanics is that observation seems to make a difference to how the universe behaves.” If an observation is necessary, what else but a mind could perform that function?

 The argument is complicated and involves Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. The cat does just fine when nobody is looking. It’s both alive and dead. But once an observation is made the cat becomes either living or dead. Weird as it sounds, physics has yet to solve this contradiction.

 Goff does not defend dualism for long. Instead he moves on to panpsychism, a view that holds that consciousness is somehow an inherent quality of nature. The problem with panpsychism however is that it fails to provide a mechanism for how the simple consciousness of, say, atomic particles, combine to create the complex consciousness of a human being.

 Every approach to philosophy of mind has problems, Goff explains. However he believes that panpsychism offers the best explanatory approach. While his arguments are inconclusive his explanations are clear and readable. That’s good. Philosophical arguments can be tough for non-philosophers to digest. I have only one criticism. In explaining how the observation problem in physics might save dualism, Goff misses an opportunity to investigate how the observation problem might strengthen the argument for panpsychism.

 Goff’s book is a good introduction to philosophy of mind. Annaka Harris provides another good introduction in her book “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” Despite its shorter length, her book covers the same territory and throws in meditation as well. I won’t say more now about her book now but hope to provide a more complete review later. 

Altered Traits

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson 
Non-fiction, 336 pages

I read many dull research papers in school. Since then I’ve concluded that research oriented psychologists can’t write, while therapy oriented psychologists don’t understand science. I’ve changed my view. Authors, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, are both able researchers and writers.

This is great. I’ve read far too much well done research that doesn’t say much and far too much self-help psychology that cherry picks science.

The authors spent decades studying meditation, and are honest enough to say where their research was poorly designed or flawed. They began their research in the 1970s before tools such as fMRI and SPECT became available and learned a lot over their years.

Books about science and fiction by Steig Larrson can be repetitive. That’s necessary sometimes. While reading this book, expect repetition. It’s worth it: this is the definitive book on meditation research.

The authors discuss research into three types of meditation, “focusing on breathing; generating loving kindness; and monitoring thoughts without getting swept away by them.” Each of the three meditations can cause mental changes, some brief and some lasting. While breath or mantra meditators requires multiple sessions before change can be noticed, loving kindness meditation brings results after only a single session.

Temporary changes, while interesting, are not the same as altered traits. These require years of meditation. Yogis who’ve spent decades practicing the third type of meditation have yielded astonishing findings. “Gamma, the very fastest brain wave occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle ‘click’ together.” Gamma wave activity lasts only a fifth of a second for most people, but some yogis can generate gamma waves for minutes at a time, even in their sleep. I’d love to know what’s on their minds. Guess I should meditate more.

It's like the egg laying the chicken - or mixing metaphors - Ouroboros

Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death

Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Non-fiction, 224 pages

In their first book, Lanza and Berman presented Biocentrism, a view that accounts for some of the anomalies of physics. This book takes the argument further. The science is solid, but I question the validity of the authors’ conclusions.


The scientific argument begins with with a hard nut that physicists have tried to crack for nearly one hundred years. Things are not as they seem. The model of an atom one first encountered in elementary school is not realistic. In reality, electrons don’t cross atomic nucleuses in neat orbits. In reality, they’re everywhere at once. Electrons exist in a superposition of all possible locations until interfered with. As soon as a measurement is taken, the electron’s “wave function” collapses and it shows itself. Since observation is required to determine an electron’s position, the role of consciousness plays a key part in how the universe operates. Hence, life itself, steers the universe’s unfolding.


While the authors’ argument is novel, the science is not. I don’t question that the authors are on to something. I only question that something’s implications. Let’s skip over the science and go directly to conclusions:


“What is not in doubt even in these early research stages is that the observer is correlative with the cosmos. That time does not exist. And perhaps the most cheerful takeaway from biocentrism: Since there’s no self-existing space-time matrix in which energy can dissipate, it’s impossible for you to ‘go’ anywhere.


In a nutshell, death is illusory. ... Consciousness and awareness never began, and will never end.”


And yet, when one sleeps can one be said to be conscious? For that matter, how can there be a “when” if time is illusory?


Backing up a bit, the authors note that logic and science are not the only methods of gaining knowledge. Intuitions arise from neither and are generally correct. Upon seeing a corpse, intuition tells us that the body’s former occupant has departed. But where did it go? Here’s the explanation:


“The feeling of “me,” of consciousness itself, could be considered a 23-watt energy cloud, which is the brain’s energy consumption in producing our sense of ‘being’ and its myriad sensory manifestations. Energy, as we learned in high school physics, is never lost. It can change form but it never dissipates or disappears. So what happens when those brain cells die?”


The answer is that death is an illusion. One can’t die because, “neither space nor time are real in any sense except as appearances or tools of the mind.”


In the first appendix we learn the difference between mind and brain. “The brain is a physical object occupying a specific location. It exists as a spatio-temporal construction ... .” Other objects like tables must also be constructions, yet you can’t crowd those constructions into brains. Paradoxical. Space isn’t real, but you still have to watch where you place things. Luckily we don’t have to worry about where one places one’s mind. “But the mind has no location. It is everywhere you observe, smell, or hear anything.”


I can’t quite wrap my own mind around this. Maybe with more explanation. The authors are releasing another book in November. I can barely wait.