ACCELER8OR

Nov 14 2012

The Great Consciousness Swindle: Why Philosophers Will Never Find Consciousness, And Why They Secretly Don’t Want To

As someone who writes regularly on aspects of the brain and consciousness, I have recently received a large amount of correspondence from people wondering what I think about a news article linking consciousness to quantum gravity in cellular microtubules, and how this model could offer “proof” of the soul’s ability to survive outside the body through some kind of nonlocal quantum hocus-pocus.[1] Even though this theory is presented purely as an exercise in theoretical mathematics, because it was suggested by Roger Penrose, a lauded and respected mathematician and philosopher, many people have jumped to the conclusion that this theory is not only correct, but that it somehow “proves” that consciousness is eternal, immutable, and can travel in and out of the body like a soul. My personal take on the theory is that it is garbage disguised as science, and not only is it wrong, it perpetuates a myth of consciousness that philosophers have been using to mislead gullible believers for centuries.

What is the myth of consciousness that Penrose is perpetuating? The central myth of this theory is that consciousness is a “thing”, and that consciousness “exists” in some “place” that we can’t  see. I call this the “invisible mind” model of consciousness, and the invisible mind model basically says, “Consciousness is so ineffable and mysterious that no material description is sufficient to define its boundaries. Therefore, we must assume that consciousness is an immaterial or ‘phantom’ presence we can’t locate or measure, trapped somewhere inside the organic machinery of the body.” This model is also known as Dualism, which claims that in addition to the material body there is also an immaterial “mind”, “spirit”, or “soul” that inhabits the host. The greatest feature of Dualism, as far as I can tell, is that Dualism claims the mind and spirit are immaterial and invisible, and therefore can never be accurately measured or described. And here is where the great swindle takes place. If I can convince you that something invisible exists, like an “invisible mind”, but I also say it is immaterial and can never be measured, then I have just made myself an expert in something that does not actually exist, but also cannot be disproven. In academia this is called “philosophy”, but in laymans terms this is called “bullshit”. I do not have a degree in philosophy, but I have a PhD in bullshit, and I can always smell it a mile away, and this theory of consciousness smells like bullshit to me.

The great Consciousness swindle, and the myth that Penrose and his ilk keep perpetuating, is the assumption that “Consciousness,” with a capital C, is so complex and mysterious that stupid blind neuroscientists can never explain it all with their crude, classical, materialistic descriptions. This, of course, is a complete intellectual fallacy. Scientists who study the brain understand that “consciousness,” with a lowercase c, is not a “thing” with a “location”, but is instead the abstract process of being self-aware, or a relative measurement of general self-awareness. When you talk about consciousness with a lowercase c, then it becomes easy to see that consciousness is not mysterious at all, it is a description of our everyday waking life. For humans, consciousness comes online when we wake up and goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. Consciousness gets hungry, tired, bored, excited, aroused, irritated, distracted, and so on, until we go back to sleep and consciousness disappears and we become “unconscious”. Then consciousness comes back online in a very limited “secure test environment” for a few seconds at a time while we dream, then it disappears again. And when we wake up the cycle resets and consciousness starts a new day. The system of consciousness is mediated by many areas and functions of the brain, and when one area of the brain is damaged the area of consciousness mediated by that area of the brain is also damaged. Consciousness is material, it is a material thing that relies on material neurons and material fuel and material stimulus to work correctly. We only think it is invisible because it is inside the head, but having looked in a few heads I can tell you for a fact it is not invisible in there. There is actual stuff happening in the brain as it twitches with activity, and that stuff is consciousness.

This materialistic description of consciousness simple, it is testable, you can see it in action. It is not mysterious and ineffable, it is functional and it works. How do we know this is the correct description of consciousness? When something goes wrong with your ability to think, do you go to a philosopher to tell you that your Consciousness is mysterious and invisible and cannot be measured? Does it help if he tells you that Consciousness is a function of quantum gravity in microtubules, or that your consciousness is a fundamental force of the universe that predates life? What if your doctor tells you that Consciousness flows through you like air or water, or that everything is Consciousness? Does that help you fix your brain to think better and manage your daily life? No, that doesn’t help at all, that is just some smoke blown up your ass by fake gurus who want to sell books. When you really have a problem with your consciousness you don’t go see a philosopher, you go see a neuroscientist who can diagnose you and fix the problem, because the neuroscientist generally understands how the brain works. The philosopher only understands bullshit about invisible minds, and that bullshit may be fascinating, but it will never fix your brain or help you understand how consciousness actually works.

So why the swindle? What is going on here? Why would someone want to convince you, me, and everyone in the world that an invisible mind exists? The obvious answer, to me, is that it is an easy way to sell books and publish papers without doing any actual research, because the thing that “Consciousness” researchers claim to be experts on is conveniently invisible. But beyond that, why would so many people willingly accept this non-description of invisible mind as “truth” when it is clearly a shell game far beyond the level of rational testability? I think the swindle reduces itself to the fact that humans have an inflated view of themselves, and also tend to invent invisible forces to explain things they don’t understand. Consciousness with a capital C is one of these mythical invisible forces that makes humans feel special about themselves, and if you claim to be an “expert” in this invisible force you never have to do any research or produce any results. But once Consciousness with a capital C is defined as a crude biological process that can be measured in waves of self-awareness that fluctuate throughout the day, all the philosophers who rely on Consciousness being a mystical primal force of the universe are out of work. They need to go back to talking about the soul or invent another invisible force to chase, because as of this article, the Big C Consciousness racket is officially over. I am calling bullshit on anyone who steps into this field from now on.

How do I know that the Consciousness swindle is a racket, for sure? What is my proof? In the logical deconstruction of the Dualistic definition of the variable [Consciousness] : “[Consciousness] is a mysterious metaphysical force that animates matter, and all animated matter is imbued with [Consciousness]”. Now take this same definition and substitute the words “God”, “demon”, “magic”, “spirit”, or “soul” in the place of Consciousness and see if the argument of the invisible mind changes. It does not. Let’s go back to the Penrose conjecture and say, “The mysterious force of [Consciousness] is mediated by quantum gravity in microtubules.” Now substitute the word Consciousness with the array of alternatives I described above. Does the argument change? No. Now substitute the words “hyperdimensional alien telepathy” or “quantum spirit beetles” or “psychoplasm” or “morphic field” or “subatomic pink elephant semen” for “Consciousness”. Now substitute all those words when talking about an invisible mind hidden in the body, or an invisible penetrating force that informs all organism-level intelligence. Does the Dualistic argument change one bit when we change the essential word of the argument to gibberish? The argument does not change. That is because if you are arguing for the existence of something immaterial that is invisible and cannot be measured, you have not really defined what you are looking for, and can insert literally any nonsense word or concept into the argument and it is the same fundamental argument. This is the core of the Consciousness swindle, and you can tell it is the same old swindle because the word  “consciousness” can be substituted for “God” or “soul” and it still means, “Something I claim is mysterious and invisible that cannot be measured that only I understand.” To me, this is the classical definition of bullshit.

When it comes to “consciousness” there is a lot of bullshit out there, and when bullshit comes from a respected scientist or MD and is picked up by the media, it is sometimes hard to tell how badly the bullshit smells. But when it comes to “theories of consciousness,” the proof is in the neuroscience. Modern neuroscience has neatly defined all the major brain functions and primary locations of the functions that mediate consciousness. Most of the “mystery” of consciousness has been taken out of the “consciousness is mysterious” argument. So if any argument begins with the presumption that consciousness is “mysterious” or that consciousness “has not been properly located or defined,” then that is immediately a bullshit theory. Any theory of consciousness that begins with the “mystery” assumption is not really looking for “consciousness”, it is looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul, or is looking for a way to sell books to people who do not understand the brain. Philosophers would rather believe “consciousness” is a “mysterious animating force” because it sounds cooler that way and it gives them something interesting to bullshit about. And for the people who buy into these theories of invisible mind, they are always happy to believe in mysterious invisible forces until something goes wrong with their own mind, and then they go running to a psychotherapist or a neurosurgeon like Sanjay Gupta fix their “consciousness” like it was a car engine to be tweaked and tuned. That’s because consciousness is like the humming of a car engine, and a good neuroscientist can diagnose operational issues of the mind just by testing and measuring. Neuroscience can’t fix all problems with consciousness, but it can fix many of them, and it can measure and diagnose almost all of them, which is way more than any trendy quantum theory of consciousness can ever hope to achieve. Because this is the simple truth: Any theory that purports to understand consciousness, but does not support the crude operational model of self-awareness built on a substrate of neural spikes in a synaptic neural network, is bullshit. Because the consciousness built on neural spikes in a synaptic network is our everyday consciousness. It can be modeled, measured, diagnosed, operated on, tested, damaged, and corrected. The other definition of Consciousness, with a big C, does not meet these tests, and does not help anybody understand anything at all. And what does that smell like to me? You guessed it.

[1] http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/quantum-scientists-offer-proof-soul-exists/story-fneszs56-1226507452687

James Kent is the author of Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason

Nov 04 2012

Upcoming Humanity Plus Conference On Writing — An Interview With Natasha Vita-More

Humanity Plus is sponsoring a conference on “Writing The Future” in San Francisco on December 1 – 2.  Among those presenting are Aubrey de Grey, Natasha Vita-More, Jamais Casio, Ben Goertzel, Max More, Sonia Arrison and David Brin.  Oh, and me.  I’m looking forward to it.

I interviewed Natasha Vita-More, Chairman of Humanity Plus, about the upcoming event and about the topic of writing

R.U. Sirius: What inspired you (and H+)  to  choose Writing The Future as this year’s theme?

Natasha Vita-More:I started thinking about the abbreviations of language and how human language grew out of symbols and how our cognitive abilities to imagine, problem-solve, and innovate has advanced. Yet, somehow we have reverted back to simple marks. This is easy and quick, and can be a lot of fun. It is also indicative of a tendency to quick-fix explanations and directions. Even though this can marvelously suffice for more lengthy bits of information, often they do not. A distinct amount of misinformation can be cut and paste into a new documents without references and often without contextualization, leaving readers to assume one thing or another, rather than the original meaning of the information, or the author’s original intend, and from which the knowledge sprung. Sometimes writers get it right – like Kevin Kelly, and sometimes they lead us off into the wilds of hyperbole, or second and third hand reporting. Having spent 20+ years writing about future-oriented ideas, I can identify my own lack of in-depth reporting. And having been interviewed for major publications for the same amount of time, I recognize how others misquoted me and even put words in my mouth. Fact checkers often avoid the obvious mistakes, even if you spell them out very clearly to them, if the article’s keywords beckon a high price from the publisher. This past year, I was hired by MIT Publishing to review another writer’s book on the future, and which covered transhumanist ideas. I noticed an excessive amount of mistakes in content and referential information. I also read a number of books and articles that were beautifully written and where the authors had taken the time to actually interview the people whose ideas they were covering.  This type of first hand reporting is valuable and we need more of it, rather than second hand—where a writer reads someone else’s book and then borrows the ideas into a new narrative, and then a third writer comes along and does the same, until it become a game of telephone-tag and we all know what happens to the content of sentence structure.

Several years ago, I started working on my own book where I am a co-editor and a contributing author. The book is titled The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology and Philosophy of the Human Future (Wiley-Blackwell 2013) and has 40+ essays by seminal thinkers. Our aim was to produce a book that does its best to get it right — to provide a reliable source of information for students, teachers, and the public who want learn about transhumanist ideas from the lips of those who either initiated a concept or formally contributed to the development of a concept.

The Humanity+ @ San Francisco was discussed by members of Humanity+. I pitched the idea of “writing” because I thought it would tie into the brain trust of San Francisco, our h+ Magazine, and the many transhumanists who are published authors — from science fiction, journalism, blogging, fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, comics, etc. et al.  The quality and scope of transhumanist writers is amazing!

RUS: How would you compare the power of the written word to create the future to the power of visual medias?

NVM:  I would compare them equally. Images are powerful influencers: what we see has a profound effect on what we do. Psychologists suggest that around 93% of our ability to communicate is based on nonverbal signifiers, such as visual images, and that our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than written words. Historically, the human brain favors images and we identify with certain shapes, such as the circle or the monolith or arrow. Environments that have wide-open vistas make us feel inspired and often shapes that are juxtaposed closely together make us feel anxious. Since human communication has evolved over some 30,000 years or so, and most of this was not verbal or written language, a visual is often easier to comprehend than a sentence or paragraph, not to mention James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But if we talk about the power of words, they can far exceed the implications of an image. How could I have drawn the paragraph I just wrote? It would have to look like a Hieronymus Bosch painting or series of Kandinsky symbols, or a swirling impression of Pollack.  Images influence who we are, how we behave, and what we do; but the written word takes us inside and often equally as deeply and passionately, and sometimes more so.

Painting, graphic design, architecture, and sculpture whisper in our ears certain sentiments that are unique to us as the viewer or observer. But reading a passage is heard in our own heads through our own voices, and intimately so.

One thing to consider though is a person’s sensorial abilities. For example, someone who is dyslexic cannot always see the words clearly and an image is more convenient and familiar. Likewise, a person who is visually inept often prefers the articulation of words as not symbolic representations of reality, but actually factual meanings.

RUS:  Same question: How would you compare the role of the writer in making the future to that of the scientist and/or technologist?

NVM:  The writer has an advantage because s/he is writing for an audience and the scientist is usually tucked away in a lab.  The writer, like everyone else, has an agenda:  to report, explain, remark, critique, praise, politicize, and/or exaggerate, for example. If a reader is smart, s/he can recognize a writer’s style and reputation and objectify the content for what they write and how they write it. But sometimes writers are crafty and the readers are naïve. This is where things can heat up!

RUS:  Who is your favorite novelist and why?

NVM: Jane Austin is my favorite novelist because she is compelling. The characters are timeless. Even though you didn’t ask, I’d like to add my second favorite novelist:  Herman Hesse.  He was a major influence on my life. I started reading him when I was a teenager and absorbed each book hungrily.  I read every single book and some many times. Each story is a journey about self-discovery. Siddhartha, Journey to the East, The Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf —each one in my mind, is a wide-open vista to reflect on life and journey.

RUS:  Who is your favorite nonfiction writer and why?

NVM:  I think that my favorite nonfiction writer changes at each stage in my life, depending on what I want to learn. Many years ago it was Pearl S. Buck, and later it was Nietzsche. Over the past many years it has been Kevin Kelly because he is an insightful investigator, a reliable reporter, and his writing always seems to stem from his first hand experiences.

Aug 19 2011

Artist Jasmin Lim Experiments With Visual Perception

Mobius Wave, by Jasmin Lim

“I think of myself as an artist who experiments with photography,” asserts Jasmin Lim.

She has produced an original and imaginative body of work to support that claim, going back to her days at the experimental Independent School of Art. A graduate of the Visual Arts program at San Francisco State University, Jasmin explores the relationship between the logic of the camera and our own visual perception, raising transhumanist themes of redefining human capacities and human nature through technology. “The camera made me start thinking about what it is we are able to see with our own sensory systems and how perception is mediated and distorted. As well as what our limitations are and what kinds of tools enable us to understand more complex substructures. All of my works question the cognitive processes that we use to conceptualize the world. I focus on visual perception because it takes up at least a quarter of our cognitive processing, about 25 percent of brain real estate. I try to illustrate that perceptions are not fixed.”

Jasmin’s approach is epitomized by her memorable “Mobius Wave”, in which her photograph of the ocean is reinvented as a sculpture of a mobius wave. She relinquishes the fixed orientation that is ordinarily dictated by the photographic frame and replaces it with a continuous one-sided surface, in an almost tactile evocation of the endless interconnectedness of the world’s waters. And just as all these waters reflect and suggest each other, so too does the Mobius Wave involve multiple versions of itself. “The final object is the photograph of the sculpture, which is simultaneously a two-dimensional photograph, a document of a sculpture in three dimensions, and a document of an event, because it was a temporary sculpture, giving it the fourth dimension of time.”

Although many of her works are documents of her sculptures, the final art object is usually the photograph. But Jasmin has also made videos, and with “Untitled (Persona Case Study)” she is premiering a window installation at Artists’ Television Access for the month of August. “It’s about the writer Laura Albert who published fiction under the pseudonym JT LeRoy  and then was attacked in the American media after she was revealed to be the author. I’ve combed through innumerable texts from the popular media, the blogworld, zines, journals, as well as artwork inspired by her, ephemera from her experience in group homes as a teenager, and other texts that are not directly related but address similar themes about identity formation and different types of “truth” — literal and figurative. I’ve tried to show a more dimensional and nuanced representation of her story, and I’ve still only scratched the surface. But I’m hoping that the diversity of these materials will suggest to people that there is so much more to understand about her story and her art.”