On his new blogoflove, Simon Buckland has today written about an article which appeared in The Guardian. The article refers to a research programme at the University of Sussex, set up by neuroscientist Anil Seth. Simon wrote to me yesterday to tell me about the article, and it stayed on my mind for some time, because it was a very good example of some of the fundamental misconceptions about consciousness which exist in mainstream science and much of the conservative mass media. I then got the idea for writing this blog (and, as it happens, Simon has written about it too).
Interestingly, when I went to bed last night, I had a dream about this article and the researcher.
In the dream I saw and felt the consciousness of Anil Seth, and "saw" that underpinning this reductionist quest for knowledge of consciousness is an attempt to repress emotionality - i.e. the shadow, the unwanted parts of the psyche - fear, shame, grief etc. In particular there is a pervasive sense of impermanence - the fear of death. In other words, behind this consciousness research project there is an unconscious attempt to control conscious experience!
The attempt to deny emotionality is one of the psycho-spiritual imperatives of modern science. The attempt to manipulate and control the environment and reality so that painful emotions can be avoided is one of the typical functions of ego. It is “normal” for human beings at the level of consciousness development which the vast majority of us experience at this time in human history.
As with all human enterprises, the culture of science - and its methods - reflects the consciousness of those engaging in it. The scientific method is a wonderful invention and had brought tremendous progress, but it contains a mentality of control and power; its knowing comes via measurement, classification and analysis. These are the ways of knowing of the egoic mind - separate and alienated from the cosmos which has spawned it.
The scientific method cannot deliver us beyond the threshold of the level of consciousness from which it emerges. That would be like expecting the American constitution to incorporate laws which require the permanent dissolution of government. As Einstein himself noted, problems are not solved at the level of consciousness at which they were formed.
Science is often depicted as an impartial, empirical attempt to study nature, but the truth is that science is founded upon metaphysics. There are typically-ignored presuppositions which underpin all science – every conference, every written paper, every experiment, every observation. Some of these metaphysical presuppositions are implicit in Anil Seth’s arguments. Let’s take a look at a few here:
Consciousness, since it's generated by the brain, is not likely to be localisable to one region. It's likely to be a distributed process that's going to largely depend on the thalamocortical system, which is a big chunk of the brain but, by no means, all of it.
That consciousness is genrated by the brain is not a fact. There is no proof of this in science or philosophy. It’s an assumption which Seth makes, and passes off as a truth.
In terms of how the world works, ontologically, consciousness must be. Otherwise, something dualistic is going on, there's something about consciousness that's different from the universe that is not part of the natural world.
The perception that consciousness and matter are different is a reflection of a relatively unrefined capacity for perception, again delimimited by “rationality’ a medium of consciousness. The ancients thought fire, air water and earth were different because they did not have the capacity to “see” the common bonds they share – atmoic structure. Consciousness and matter are part of the same underlying substrate. Having said this, consciousness is not constrained by matter, any more than water is permamnetly constrained by a glass. This can be experienced directly in non-ordinary states of consciousness - but not by reading, studying, calculating or employing the detached observation of scientific experimnent.
Consciousness is dependent on the laws of physics, chemistry and biology and we may not know all of those laws yet but we're not going to need anything else.
As Seth hints at, the “laws” of science are in fact not laws at all, but approximations which reflect our current level of knowledge. This in turn reflects the current level of perceptual acuity of those making the observations, and in turn their level of consciousness development. Further to this we can add the mediating influence of dominant paradims which regulate not only what can be concluded and reported, but the very questions which can be asked in the first place.
Seth’s conviction that we are not going to require any additional knowledge to solve the hard questions of consciousness in confidence misplaced. How can we possibly assert that we will not require additional wisdom when we have just admitted that we don’t even know wjhat the laws of science are?
Still, to his credit, Seth doesn't rule out a "higher order" explanation.
The right level at which to explain the phenomenon is a different question. I'm less confident that the right level to explain how brains generate consciousness is going to be at the level of this neurotransmitter or this molecule or something like that. It may turn out that the best explanation comes at a higher level.
Who knows what Seth is alluding to here? We have to concede that what Anil Seth is pepared to say to a reporter for The Guardian and what he really thinks (or questions) may not be exactly the same thing. Being a scientist, he's probably very cautious of speaking any heresies. One wouldn’t want to be excommunicated from the priesthood.
That then, is the final irony. Even as the scientist investigates one of the final frontiers of human knowledge, he is not permitted to transverse the distance to spirit – for this is the territory of “the psi taboo”, as parapsychologist Dean Radin calls it.
Even those of us who have lived and experienced verifiable experiences of consciousness which demonstrate (to ourselves) that mainstream dominant depiction of mind and intelligence are fundamentally flawed, have to concede that there is much we don’t know. We are limited by the perceptual apparatus that constricts our minds. Yet this apparatus (note, I did not write “brain”) is not static. It shifts and changes as consciousness evolves (or devolves). And with that evolution, the hard problem of consciousness will dissolve. It will not dissolve under the monological gaze of the microscope.