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

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

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.