Essayist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and AI expert Riccardo Manzotti in Aeon, in an excerpt from their new book, Dialogues on Consciousness:
Parks: I see what you’re saying: my experience, which is none other than the accumulation of all the objects my body has encountered, eventually determines my actions. But I’m not altogether convinced. And my problem is this: not only do I have the impression of making decisions, cogitating, not just acting, but I also believe that I ‘organise’ experience. That I see the world in a certain way. I hold a system of political opinions, of aesthetic preferences, and so on. So I feel that, rather than being a world of objects coming together over time to determine an action, I have an inner world that determines how I organise the outer world. I don’t just act as consequence; I decide how to act, coherently.
Manzotti: Let me offer an analogy to suggest the fallacy behind your conception. We’ll stay with cars. When you drive, you turn the steering wheel and, thanks to a complex yet easily understandable coupling of cogs and drive shafts, the vehicle’s front wheels turn accordingly. Is there anything mysterious between the steering wheel and the two wheels that turn? No. Just a chain of cause and effect such that, given the turn of the driving wheel, the front wheels have to turn.
Okay, now imagine an infinitely more complex object, a human body. The world acts on the body, but before the body is going to translate that cause into an effect, an action, a simply enormous, though of course necessarily finite, number of causal events may take place, inside the body and outside. What’s more, unlike the car, which is a fixed object when it comes out of the factory, your wonderful body can change in response to the world, it is teleologically open — so that, to give the simplest example, when you see a face a second time, the experience is different from the first time, because the first experience is still causally active in your brain, hence we have the sensation of recognition. So with this fantastically complex object, the body, we cannot conceive the whole causal chain that precedes an action (this was a favourite observation of Baruch Spinoza’s) and hence we cannot predict what action will be taken. As a result of this conceptual impossibility, we slip into the habit of inventing an intermediate entity, the self, to which we attribute a causal power. We say that I, or my self, caused this to happen. But as David Hume said, we never meet or see a self; we meet ideas, or, as I would say, objects. The self, this elusive intermediate entity that initiates action, is a shortcut, an invention, a convenient narrative to explain our complex experience.
Parks: To wind up then; as you see it: experience, mind, is the world relative to the body, but a world, or an I, that accumulates over the years, that continues to act long after the moment of immediate proximity, creating an ever-changing agglomeration so complex that it becomes impossible to predict how, in the face of a new situation, a new experience, we will behave. And all the tensions we experience, that we call decision-making, or the exercise of freewill, are the ongoing evolution of this agglomeration of world, which is ourselves.
Manzotti: Right. And you don’t need to feel alienated by being at the mercy of a blind material world; you are the world.
More: “You Are the World“
In my recent post about Jeff Kripal’s article “Visions of the Impossible,” I mentioned that biologist and hardcore skeptical materialist Jerry Coyne published a scathing response to Jeff’s argument soon after it appeared. For those who would like to keep up with the conversation, here’s the heart of Coyne’s response (which, in its full version, shows him offering several direct responses to several long passages that he quotes from Jeff’s piece):
For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views. . . . I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science — the bogus disease of “scientism.”
That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):
“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.'”
That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia.
. . . But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.
When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts.
Full article: “Science Is Being Bashed by Academic Who Should Know Better“
(An aside: Is it just me, or in his second paragraph above does Coyne effectively insult and dismiss the entire field of religious studies and all the people who work in it?)
Jeff responded five days later in a second piece for the Chronicle, where he met Coyne’s criticisms head-on with words like these: Read the rest of this entry
Religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal is one of the most lucid and brilliant voices in the current cultural conversation about the relationship between science and the paranormal, and about the rehabilitation of the latter as an important concept and category after a century of scorn, derision, and dismissal by the gatekeepers of mainstream cultural and intellectual respectability. (And yes, we’ve referenced his work many times here at The Teeming Brain.)
Recently, The Chronicle Review, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, published a superb essay by him that has become a lightning rod for both passionate attack and equally passionate defense. It has even brought a strong response — a scornful one, of course — from no less a defender of scientistic orthodoxy than Jerry Coyne. I’ll say more about these things in another post later this week, but for now here’s a representative excerpt that makes two things abundantly clear: first, why this essay serves as a wonderful condensation of and/or introduction to Jeff’s essential 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and its semi-sequel, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal; and second, why it’s so significant that something like this would be published in a venue like The Chronicle Review. The intellectual orthodoxy of the day is clearly undergoing a radical transformation when a respected religion scholar at a respected university (Jeff currently holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University) can say things like this in a publication like that:
Because we’ve invested our energy, time, and money in particle physics, we are finding out all sorts of impossible things. But we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind — materialist and mechanistic ones. While it is true that some brain research has gone beyond assuming that “mind equals brain” and that the psyche works like, or is, a computer, we are still afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world, and that we possess fantastic capacities that we have allowed ourselves to imagine only in science fiction, fantasy literature, and comic books.
. . . In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.
Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the “death of the subject” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top — in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.
. . . We now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind, an Aristotelian one and a Platonic one, both of which fit the neuroscientific data well enough: the reigning production model (mind equals brain), and the much older but now suppressed transmission or filter model (mind is experienced through or mediated, shaped, reduced, or translated by brain but exists in its own right “outside” the skull cavity).
. . . There are . . . countless . . . clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.
Although it relies on an imperfect technological metaphor, the beauty of the radio or transmission model is that it is symmetrical, intellectually generous, and — above all — capable of demonstrating what we actually see in the historical data, when we really look.
MORE: “Visions of the Impossible“
Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Here’s Alexander De Foe, a Ph.D. candidate in Psychological Studies at Monash University, writing for Australia’s respected online news site The Conversation and asserting the importance of non-judgmental psychological help for people who have suffered from traumatic paranormal experiences:
The therapy room should be a place where clients feel safe and comfortable talking about anything. But some people are reluctant to discuss their paranormal experiences for fear of judgement, ridicule, or that they will be incorrectly diagnosed with a mental disorder. Many practitioners challenge the validity of their client’s [sic] claims rather than focusing on the emotional significance particular experiences might bear. Part of the issue may be therapists’ rigid perspectives on paranormal phenomena — they tend to err on the side of diagnosis rather than hearing clients out and exploring a client’s inner world.
It is the role of the therapist to encourage their clients to talk about their experiences, rather than jumping to a diagnosis or criticism about the validity of their claims. In many cases, their paranormal accounts relate to spiritual, rather than pathological, experiences and exploring the symbolic nature of the accounts may be more beneficial than focusing on a diagnosis.
. . . There is good reason to be sceptical of claims about the paranormal. After all, rates of fraud are quite high, with proclaimed psychic tarot card readers and mediums profiting from unsuspecting clients. Organisations such as the Australian Skeptics have attempted to counter such fraud by offering A$100,000 to anyone who can demonstrate psychic ability under controlled conditions. Yet, our mainstream scientific understanding of human consciousness is by no means complete. There is still much argument among researchers about what constitutes “normal” and “abnormal” or “altered” states of consciousness.
. . . Regardless of the opinions one has about the potential existence of a paranormal reality, it is important to understand the subjective significance of altered states of consciousness.
“It’s absolutely necessary that we let go of ourselves, and it can’t be done, not by anything that we call ‘doing it’ — acting, willing, or even just accepting things. . . . When you look out of your eyes at nature happening ‘out there,’ you’re looking at you. That’s the real you, the you that goes on of itself. . . . You’re breathing. The wind is blowing. The trees are waving. Your nerves are tingling.” — Alan Watts
(For all you who are wondering: Yes, this fairly sublime little music-and-video setting of some wonderful words by dear old Alan comes to us courtesy of John Boswell, the same man behind the Symphony of Science project.)
“Learning to become psychic involves a fundamental restructuring of the way we process information both inside and outside ourselves. This can dramatically alter one’s life, and not always in a conventionally positive manner.”
Is it possible to take normal, healthy, emotionally stable people who do not think they are psychic, and who don’t recall having any prior psychic experience, and train them to become functionally reliable psychics?
The answer is both yes and no. That is, it appears that everyone may have some latent psychic potential that can be developed and honed with the right type of positive feedback and reinforcement. However, it’s crucial for such feedback to occur very close in time to when the person makes a correct or incorrect statement during a parapsychological test, because otherwise it will have little, if any, effect. In order for this learning paradigm to function properly, a person must slowly come to recognize which internal feelings and sensations are associated with accessing accurate paranormal information (signal), as opposed to inaccurate information (noise) in the form of primary process distortion and fantasy.
I suspect that only a very small percentage of the population, somewhere between five and ten percent, possesses such inherent faculties that are consistently demonstrable. This is somewhat comparable to the world of sports and athletics, in that most people can occasionally participate in some kind of sport when young, but very few have the strength, stamina, endurance, reflexes, and coordination that are necessary to become a professional athlete. We can still, however, do some basic things to maintain and even enhance our physical health and capabilities.
A direct analog to this can be found in the area of motorsports (of which I happen to be a passionate fan). While almost everyone can drive a car, few could tolerate the extremely high g-loading forces on the neck and arms that occur in Formula 1 and American Le Mans road racing, where the drivers’ bodies feel like they weigh four to five times their normal weight. Even fewer would have the stamina, endurance, depth perception, reflexes, and hand-eye-foot coordination to be competitive in such a grueling physical sport. But this doesn’t mean that all of us cannot learn to improve our driving skills on the road. Read the rest of this entry
The Mask Behind the Face, the collection of metaphysical horror fiction by Teeming Brain contributor Stuart Young (see his column Sparking Neurones), was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2006, and the title story — about brain disease, psychedelics, and the far outer and deep inner reaches of consciousness — ended up winning the award for Best Novella. Now its publisher, the UK-based Pendragon Press, is offering ten copies for free.
Here are the details:
Ten copies of Stuart Young’s The Mask Behind the Face up for grabs if you can answer the following question: who wrote the introduction to this collection?
First ten folk to join the Pendragon mailing list by this Friday and confirm their answer via email to Chris at pendragonpress dot net will receive a copy — unfortunately, I’ll have to invoice folk from overseas postage costs.
Note that the promotion launched just today, so “this Friday” means Friday, January 18. For the form to join Pendragon’s mailing list, visit the Pendragon Press site and see the right sidebar.
As for the novella that forms the book’s centerpiece, be advised that it’s a stellar piece of work offering a deeply personal and emotional take on its mind-bursting central subject. Here’s some enthusiastic praise from several people you’ve heard of:
“Emotional, brilliant and scary as hell.” – Brian Keene
“This is horror fiction as it should be: real, confrontational, yet simple, honest and intimate.” – Gary McMahon
“Wow, what an impressive story … ambitious, in fact downright audacious.” – T.E.D. Klein
“No one can accuse Stuart Young of avoiding the big issues — with insight and verve, he tackles head-on the existence of God, the mystery of human consciousness and the transformative effects of psychedelic drugs.” – Mark Chadbourn
Yesterday, Edge.org published a long and depth-filled conversation with Daniel C. Dennett — he of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea fame — and it shows the renowned philosopher of mind and consciousness saying some things about the now-ubiquitous model and metaphor of the brain as a kind of computing machine that casts a whole new and, as it so happens, doubtful light on the matter:
The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon … We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work.
— “The Normal Well-Tempered Mind: A Conversation with Daniel C. Dennett,” Edge, January 8, 2013
This is embedded in a much longer series of reflections and analyses on the current state of research into mind, brain, and consciousness, but Nicholas Carr — he of “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains fame — culls out the above-quoted portions and holds them up for closer inspection at his blog, and what he finds is that the unspoken subtext shows the entire edifice of the brain-as-computer metaphor crumbling (or, as he puts it, melting):
As someone who has a deep distrust of the popular metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer, I was struck by [Dennett’s words] … Normally, the explanatory power of a metaphor comes from describing a thing we don’t understand in terms of a thing we do understand. But this brain-as-computer metaphor now seems to be diverging from that model. The computer in the metaphor seems to be something very different from what we mean when we talk about a “computer.” The part of the metaphor that is supposed to be concrete has turned into a mystery fluid.
— Nicholas Carr, “Do I smell a metaphor melting?” Rough Type, January 8, 2013
Carr envisions a brief and semi-satirical dialogue that brings out the point:
The brain is like a computer!
Cool. What kind of computer is the brain like?
It’s not actually like any computer that’s ever been invented.
So what kind of computer is it like?
It’s like the unique form of a computer that we call a brain.
So the brain is like a brain?
It sounds like it’s time for a new metaphor.
He closes by point out, evocatively, that “Our understanding of complex, mysterious things always proceeds from metaphor to metaphor. The moment a metaphor changes is an exciting moment because it opens new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” (emphasis added).
The takeaway would seem to be a combined message of “stay tuned” and “brace yourself,” since the death or substantial mutation or revision of the metaphor in question would constitute an epochal shift in the way we’ve all been conditioned to think about our minds and selves on a very deep, very unconscious, very reflexive level for a couple of generations. And if a culture-wide opening of those “new perspectives that the old metaphor foreclosed” should happen to link up with the resurgent consciousness revolution currently taking place in the realms of religion, spirituality, parapsychology, art, music, literature, and psychedelics research, then watch out.