In this section I will discuss consciousness from three different perspectives:
1. Contemporary neuroscientific models
2. Quantum mind theory
3. An ontological inquiry.
1. Contemporary Neuroscientific Models.
The neuroscientists Anil Seth and Donald Hoffman are representative of cognitive models that can be thought of as 21st Century updates of Kant’s epistemology. We can generalize these models as a brain sitting in a dark box with no direct access to what lies outside. All its information comes from electrical impulses received from sensors that receive electro-magnetic signals, atmospheric waves, along with heat and chemical reactions. The brain converts the various oscillations from these sensors into images, smells, tastes, sounds and tactile sensations through a priori rational categories of understanding drawn out in a priori senses of space and time. What actually exists outside our understanding can be thought of as Kant’s thing-in-itself and unknowable, but characteristics of this noumenal realm condition the sensory inputs into unique combinations. The received sense data is overwhelming and chaotic and of no use as it is, so it is the role of the categories of understanding to focus on what seems to be the most urgent at the time, fashion it into a representation, and embed it into a coherent subjective narrative. The primary adaptive function of all this is to predict consequences in order to manipulate the environment to our advantage. What began as a more effective means of hunting prey and evading predators expanded over time to predicting quantum events and fundamentally changing the world.
Hoffman emphasizes the reductive and representational nature of our understanding of the world where, as with Kant, even time and space are inventions of our brains corresponding to something or other outside our subjectivity. This includes mathematics, which give us a limited approximate understanding of things in a world that itself does not contain mathematics. Hoffman’s primary metaphor is that of a computer icon giving us a simplified and useful representation of an incomprehensible string of 0’s and 1’s. Again, this model doesn’t suggest illusion but rather an extremely attenuated modeling of reality. As Hoffman says, he would take the perception of a bus hurtling at him seriously, but not literally.
Seth emphasizes the projection and hallucinatory aspects of consciousness. In contrast, the common understanding of consciousness, even yet among many scientists, is naïve realism stemming from the seemingly concrete truth of our perceptions of the world. Naïve realism gives rise to the claim that the world looks and acts exactly as we perceive, and that implies a basically mathematical and rational structure of reality. Contemporary neuroscience turns that on its head and reveals our act of projecting our subjectively constructed imaginary world onto what we think of as outside us. That wall in front of you that appears as a solid mass of a given color is in reality almost all empty space, with relatively tiny particles spread far apart. It exists really as an energy field resulting from interplay of quantum fields that, among other things, is strong enough that we cannot walk through it and which repels light of certain frequencies which our act of understanding paints as a solid in space and time. We literally walk through our own projections as we navigate the world.
All science exists as metaphoric model, and as with all metaphors, its aptness is limited. It is at the edges of the metaphor we see the continuing concealment of truth. Scientific progress can be seen in the process of refinement of the metaphor until the point where inaptness overwhelms, requiring a paradigm change, i.e. a new metaphoric model. At the edge of Hoffman’s metaphor, we find the questionable reduction of thought as computation. At the edge of Seth, we retain the subject/object or internal/external duality. Both of these point to the need for new metaphors. This is a parallel to Wigner’s limitations of the Empirical Law of Epistemology, which result in models limited in space, time, and chosen events.
Here are short videos from each of the above to explain their models in their own words:
2. Quantum Mind Theory
There are several theories for quantum mind which strive to explain consciousness, and perhaps free will, as a physical quantum event. All focus on the collapse of superposition to eigenstate as the generator of consciousness, although in different ways. In the neuroscience models above reduction took place through the collapse of manifold sense data into focused and simplified representations. Quantum mind theory moves the field of action to elemental vibrations of quantum fields and the collapse now occurs at the level of quantum events. The internal/external dichotomy vanishes at this level as our consciousness is physically entangled with and part of the quantum field universe. Pure consciousness interacts with the world to influence and produce quantum events as the collapse of superposition. There is some disagreement over whether our consciousness causes this collapse or the collapse itself creates our consciousness. Perhaps it will turn out that the collapse itself is merely an epistemological construction, a reduction similar to higher level reduction of sense data to representation. Or more likely, we are at the edge of our current metaphor for quantum reality and the question of consciousness is moving us to a new paradigm. Our metaphors have shifted from planetary atoms to atomic clouds, to subatomic quanta, to vibrating strings, and now to quantum fields. At this point the possibility of including gravity into the current model seems increasing remote and the strangeness of the quantum fields increasingly defies our ability to comprehend it mathematically. In his essay on the applicability of mathematics to the physical world, Wigner noted that we were lucky that mathematics had been applicable to this point but there was no guarantee this would continue. When we consider that quantum strangeness defies our innate reason and senses of space and time we recognize the possibility that science as we currently understand it has reached its limit and what we see now is the mysterious beckoning of reality requiring a new mode of understanding.
The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose and neuroscientist Stuart Hameroff propose one theory which I find especially interesting. Hameroff’s contribution is exploring the possibility that vibrations within microtubules inside neurons could possibly slow decoherence to the point where orchestrated objective reduction becomes possible as the elemental mode of consciousness. While this is intriguing, this isn’t what I find of primary interest. Just as quantum mind removes the metaphysical illusion of internal/external or subject/object, Penrose and Hameroff pursue a path that could dispel the inapt metaphor of brain as computer. Penrose clearly sees that we are at the edge of our current models and is convinced that a new paradigm will not only find a way to incorporate gravity, but understand the universe, and thus our consciousness, to not be computational at the most elementary level. Penrose began this train of thought via long reflection of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which shows that there are things that are true but cannot be proven. Penrose sees this as clearly implying that the inability of computation to explain these truths reveals a truth that exists outside of computation itself. As we go more deeply into quantum strangeness it becomes ever more apparent that something is wrong with our model of a computational universe in which Schrödinger’s equation left us with his famous cat. This cat metaphor was in fact Schrödinger’s protest that we are missing something important.
Penrose poises us at the end of one metaphor searching for what will turn out to be the most radical rethinking of reality in human history. The critical implication is that the coming metaphor must stem from an ability to think non-computationally and without subject/object distinction, i.e. non-metaphysically.
An Ontological Inquiry
Let’s return for a moment to Heidegger’s eradication of metaphysics as the reduction of A is A to A=A. It is the transition from poetic thought to computation, with the displacement of Being to an imaginary metaphysical realm. It is the promotion of reason from adaptive tool to privileged mode of thought. It is the provisional triumph of the bit on/bit off computational reasoning that begins in the initial collapse of superposition. But it isn’t our only, or even most elemental mode of knowledge.
Reason is a recent adaptation, but our primordial ancestors lived esthetically. In truth, we still do. We refer to our emotions as feelings. We sense the world and resonate. Our moods are primarily esthetic states of resonance. In German, the word for mood is Stimmung, which literally means voicings, as the voicing of strings. Edmond Burke, among many others, claimed that we are feeling creatures first and employ reason secondarily as a means of justifying our emotions. He meant that somewhat pejoratively, but perhaps we are better served reestablishing the nobility of the senses. We dwell esthetically in this world, and esthetic sensibility can provide profound knowledge. To the extent we dwell with music resonating through our voicings and poetry on our tongues we are the experience of the mystery of Being itself.
Now let’s return to my often-cited example of the last scene of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Most readers find it overwhelming and it is useful to consider why. What distinguishes those words from others? Some words, such as the citing of the oscillation frequency of the point in the electromagnetic spectrum we call blue bring to mind a vague concept that is entirely different from the presence of blue in a Van Gogh painting. The written score of a Beethoven symphony is dry and empty compared to the experience of a presentation of the work. And right there we hit on the essential difference: presentation. Esthetic works presence a palpable aspect of reality that feels very different from description which substitutes A=A and conceals essence. The poetry of Dostoevsky’s words does the same. Dostoevsky gives us no rational discursion or systematic explanation of morality, but rather the manifold presence of morality nonreductive. Esthetics is primordial apprehension of the world prior to the collapse of superposition, and therefore prior to computation. In that last scene we simultaneously experience the primordial love of father and son, the wanton cruelty that threatened and destroyed, the urgent need to forgive and love, and the unfathomable tragedy that comes from cruelty – and much more that is beyond my meager ability to articulate. It is a non-temporal and non-spatial empathy (a feeling or vibrating with) that overwhelms in its nonreductiveness. A provisional but not entirely terrible metaphor might be the orchestrated resonance of nonobjective nonreductive vibrations of microtubules responding to the music of poetic language.
Reason and esthetics provide two essentially different types of knowledge. The former is reductively practical and indispensable for our survival. Being reductive it is superficially focused and adapted to a limited spectrum of physical reality. Following Heidegger, I call this knowledge correctness. Esthetic knowledge is profoundly non-reductive and gives us an intimation of the powerful underlying reality of Being-in-itself prior to our reductive cognition. I call this truth.
Science and philosophy have always accompanied each other. Pre-Socrates, esthetic philosophy held sway. From the time of Bacon onward science became dominant and provided guideposts along the way pointing to fruitful areas of philosophic exploration. We have reached a point in our travels where science as mathematical description has led us to a strange neighborhood whose secrets we know not yet how to question, and poets must discover our new metaphors.