(reading time: 8 mins)
The ancient idea that whatever enables human consciousness is a basic property of our material world is an elegantly simple philosophical standpoint. But few can conceive how it might work in practice without resorting to some sort of mysticism.
I believe a significant factor is the language we use to describing human consciousness, and in particular how we differentiate it from other animals’ awareness, revealing a long held assumption that our species is almost above nature. As a result, the more removed human consciousness appears to be from nature, the less plausible any suggestion of ‘awareness everywhere’ becomes. Continue reading…
(reading time: 6 mins)
Humans are considered the only truly conscious animals, because we are not just reacting to our environment but we do so through a rich complex inner world. However I think this complicated, self aware, highly subjective experience is just one type of intelligent awareness. In fact as I will argue here, there are even parallels between our subjective experience and a legacy computer system.
Most people would agree our species sits at the top of the evolutionary tree, the apex of the pyramid perhaps, because we have the most complete, even enlightened awareness in the animal kingdom. Analytic thinking, self awareness, subjective experience and so on, were long thought to be uniquely human traits, which makes their appearance in just one species an ever greater mystery.
There are two questions in modern philosophy, which I believe are largely created by a failure to compensate for the nature of human perception.
The (non) hard problem of consciousness
Philosophers like Daniel Dennet who treat this a non-problem, believe the question will eventually be resolved by more research into the brain itself. I have a slightly different take. I believe by asking this basic question about subjective experience; ‘how does seeing the color blue create the sensation of blue?’ David Chalmers is really asking (in a metaphysical not neurological sense) where do sensations of the external world finally end up?
After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.
The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.
However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, Continue reading…
(reading time: 30 mins)
How real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us. A problem I am calling the “consciousness gap”.
In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.
Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…
(reading time: 19 mins)
For the majority of western history the only mind considered worthy of examination was the human mind. This is in part because we lacked the tools to examine how other animals experienced the world. However western science also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage – religious traditions which taught that God has taken us, and only us, over that threshold of animal awareness into the realm of moral beings, because we were the only animals with souls.
Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has historically emphasised differences between humans and other animals, rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal cognition show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations on how this might be interpreted.
Taking a philosophical approach to scientific research might be seen as anthropomorphizing other species. Continue reading…
(reading time: 7 mins)
Is free will an illusion? Some recent neurological experiments have hit the headlines with that conclusion. The studies reveal that the conscious mind is sometimes slow to recognize a course of action the subconscious has already set in motion. Absence of free will is a possible explanation. Certainly most people don’t realise how much they invent reality to suit the events. Memory is highly subjective, and most of us occasionally use reason to justify decisions which are primarily motivated by our emotions.
Understandably scientists feel religion has got it wrong and science has got it right (generally true). Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Perhaps. Whether or not there is such a mission, there are significant problems with the assumptions behind these experiments, which mean going from free will may be an illusion to this proves free will is an illusion or even probably an illusion is quite a stretch.
You cannot be serious!
The cognitive studies involve simple motor tasks. For example, with brain activity being monitored, the subject presses a button Continue reading…
(reading time: 18 mins)
In the third and final episode of the excellent BBC series ‘Atom – The Illusion of Reality’ Dr Jim Al-Khalili asks the apparently unanswerable question: We are made of the same atoms as the rest of the material world, so why do we have consciousness when the vast majority of stuff around us does not? (I’ve paraphrased for brevity).
Similarly hard to explain, the measurement problem is the Achilles heel of physics as the more closely we study the building blocks of the Universe the harder it becomes to remain the independent observer of a material world and avoid determining the outcome of our experiments. The most stark example of this is the double slit experiment. The measurement problem remains because there is no entirely satisfactory explanation for what happens in the quantum version of this experiment.
I’m going to suggest there is a simple possible atheist’s interpretation. Philosophically based certainly, but with a practical value. A possible answer both to the measurement problem and the great unanswerable question of consciousness above. Continue reading…