Examining Consciousness

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Visions of the Impossible: How ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness’, author Jeffrey J. Kripal suggests that paranormal phenomena should be placed not only on the table, but center stage in our scientific discussion of consciousness.  He says we should get beyond the stigma that strange occurrences are somehow taboo to speak about in the science realm.  He’s right, but not entirely for the reason he states. It isn’t for lack of trying that investigators have desisted from putting an authoritative stamp on proving paranormal evidence as real and valid.

Kripal refutes his own contention that science has utterly failed to explain consciousness in his next paragraph, “we now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind”. A model explains the mechanism. Theory supports a model. Neuroscientist Steven Pinker summed up the Aristotlean model on Stephen Colbert’s show (2/8/2007) in response to Colbert’s challenge to describe how the brain works in 5 words or less. Pinker said “brain cells fire in patterns.” I take this to mean that consciousness emerges from complexity, but the patterns do not stop at the brain. Using the rest of the nervous system, the brain builds a map of the body and, by extension, a map of the environment as well. This map of the external relies on expectations based on principles, such as the principle that, when you turn a corner the street continues. If it doesn’t, there should be a dead-end sign. There would rarely, say, be something unexpected, like a sinkhole.
There are other external means to examine consciousness. For example, the Turing Test, named after computer pioneer Alan Turing, posits a human having a conversation with another entity. If the other entity can hold their end of the conversation, can be distinguished as human, then we may conclude that the entity has some form of consciousness, even if that entity is a computer. One might argue that a computer may be made complex enough to stump any human into thinking it wasn’t a computer. Try texting your friend random messages. Soon enough, they will get irritated and ask, in so many words, “Why are you being so irrational?” Now, it may be that you have some psychological issues, but there again, others become concerned when a person’s mental state reflects the lack of a conscience, if not of consciousness altogether. Generally, psychopathic tendencies make the average person question another’s humanness. We tend to urge psychopaths toward mental health treatment. If they act very badly, we tend to put them away, even call them “monsters”, because they are beyond reason.

I’ll relate one more test, a though experiment. Let’s assume you are sound in body and mind. One day, you lose your toes to frostbite. No more toes. Are you still you? Few of us would say “No, I’m the former me, minus toes.” Let’s keep losing body parts. You get in an accident and your legs need to be amputated. Are you still you? Of course, you experienced trauma, but again we retain our sense of self. Say you have further bad luck with heart disease. This time, you get an artificial heart transplant. It takes some getting used to, but you’re still glad to be alive. But then a disease takes your eyesight and your hearing away. Are you still conscious. Of course. No less so than Helen Keller. And this isn’t simply because you retain feeling, taste, and smell. Take those away, I argue, and you still have consciousness. In fact, you can whittle the brain down considerably, and the organ’s complexity continues to provide you a conscious self. No further proof is needed to show that brain is mind. However, I will provide one more.

Physicist John Archibald Wheeler, the guy who came up with the name “Black Hole”, posited that the universe follows the Participatory Anthropic Principle. Basically, things exist because we observe it, but not in the sense that, if the world disappears behind a closed door, we rebuild it from scratch when it opens. We build theories of how the universe works. We know what to expect. It is truly a wonder that the universe is predictable, because it means that we occupy a stable pattern. Just like the brain itself, humans and galaxies are composed of stable patterns of atoms. Without pattern, there is no consciousness.

My last thought. The phenomena Kripal mentions are categorized as paranormal. Full-time paranormal researcher Joe Nickell (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) has tested hundreds of claims like these using the scientific method to probe evidence. Like debunker James Randi, Nickell has yet to confirm a case as true. The magnitude of human experience provides us with many possibilities, and the potential for the strange, the coincidental, and the mysterious means that we all may encounter something we can never explain, perhaps more than once in our lifetimes.

A Patchwork Understanding

When God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and moon, the creation stared back, blinking in its newness, at once a fresh, fantastic whole, “a vast array” (Gen. 2:1), while simultaneously divided into separate worlds, bound together by invisible rules that humans, quite alone in their intellectual capacity, rose and began attempts to piece apart.

Today, the scientific community continues the legacy of the ancients to stitch together the multifarious secrets nature both hides and lays bare.  It is the drive to make sense of the universe, and interrogate each new phenomena to ensure our theories of it match those already tested.  The scripture splendidly portrays mankind’s propensity for combining, for structuring the apparent broken world in symbolic and practical ways.  As the early characters of the Bible sought to understand their place and context, they left us stories we can relate to as seekers and students.

The first people, Adam and Eve and their offspring, on discovering their nakedness, went about as best they could to find appropriate clothing.  They sewed together fig leaves (Gen. 3:7), but it wasn’t enough.  God made them garments of skin (Gen. 3:21).  With the occupation of shepherding not only wooly, but all types of animal, teaching them the beginnings of the way to understanding their surroundings and predicament, the creator showed them the start of the kindness that is forgiveness.

The first family grew steadily in knowledge, learning how to toil, to make furrows in soil, sow seed, and reap,  tend flocks, gather the output, and tease out products.  Because their lot now included pain and death, their time was limited.  They were what we now call the prototype Puritans exercising what we now call the Protestant Work Ethic: industry, frugality, and contentment with what one has.  No easy lessons for novices.

God counseled Cain, unsuccessfully, to take these things to heart, to become a fully realized individual, to avoid making errors, much less the same mistakes twice.  The creator used the term ‘master’, and today some of us strive to achieve a higher education that results in such recognition of competency.  However, mastery doesn’t require a certificate.  Still, should we not approach our studies with the same goal of mastery?  Why aim for less?

Yet, we put together a patchwork understanding trying to assemble a meaningful picture, a view from space.  Astronauts call it the Overview Effect, which is nothing short of an out of body experience, the body being our planet, all its inhabitants, and all of their cares and woes.  Mastery is elusive, of our awareness, emotions, over judgment.  Lack of it dogs us, or possession of it serves us, until each of us draws our last breath.

However we wish to characterize the early lives of humankind, that is, from a creationist or evolutionary standpoint, we can certainly agree that technology plays a civilizing part.  Tool use once defined what it means to be human, before Jane Goodall and other researchers observed that other creatures besides human beings fit this definition as well.  The sophistication of human tools, however, bears emphasis.  Genesis reveals the formidable technology already in use by its fourth chapter, where textile fabrications, musical instrument manufacture, and metalworking hint at what early people knew of complex materials and processes, the tanning of hides, weaving on looms, or of reeds into mats.  Weaving fabric is one thing; quite another is making tents sturdy enough to withstand wind and rain, large enough to house families, portable enough for nomadic life.  Imagine design after failed design before a yurt stretched over a suitable frame came to Jabal’s mind and translated to his hand.  Envision the successful design repeated for others to build, of detailed plans and measurements, the communication of tools and methods, of setting up and breaking down, of folding for stowage, of ropes and poles cut to exactly the right lengths, diameters, and other unknown specifications.  This certainly did not occur overnight, or even perhaps in one generation.  It is the profession the apostle Paul took up.

Consider the supporting understanding needed to make harps and hammers.  It seems the ancients relied on trial and error, experimentation (the application of theory to see whether a predicted outcome happens), or on the persistence of every-day miracles.  That animal sinew could be stretched between a U-shaped lyre and strummed must have seemed so.  That a ram’s horn or conch shell could be blown into to create a much louder and more resonant sound than the human voice seems so as well.  To imitate those attributes by artificial means must have been a leap, and must have made their builders seem ingenious to some, like magicians to others.  Put the instruments together and a new kind of community results.  Like spoken stories, those entrusted with verbal histories found them easier to recall when put to poetry, and from poetry to lyrics set to music.  The lyricists of Psalms and the orchestral directors encapsulated history and prophesy in their timeless word rhythms.  Not incidentally, the procedures for making stringed instruments closely match those for crafting weapons, particularly the recurve bow.  The Turkish perfected archery’s distinct compound design of horn and wood laminated with animal gut glued together in a strong, compact, portable form for shooting while riding horseback.  Nimrod, the mighty hunter (Gen. 10:8) must have known many types of bow and other weaponry used in the hunt, like javelins often launched from throwing devices to increase range, slings, and hidden tripwire traps with the flexibility and high tensile strength to snare and hold big game.  Nor is it a far cry from the metal work needed to make ringing horns and symbols to that of forged blades and shields for attack and defense.  Iron in particular required a heat substantially greater than that for the smelting of copper and tin into bronze.  Lacking a measure of temperature, the expert fire-maker found that different fuels and furnace designs facilitated flames that, by color, indicated the heat needed to smelt iron ore.  An open blaze couldn’t reach this stage.  Clay brick vessels were built to withstand and retain high temperatures for the long period of ore transformation.  But thoughts of taut ropes, bright tent flaps and clothing, the glint of crafted wood and metal must dim.  Our ancestor discovered soon enough the edict in Gen. 4:17 and on that all of a person’s sweat to create led to naught.

In the end, not only do we turn to dust, but our works as well disintegrate.  The heights we build topple.  As the Scottish poet Robert Burns put it, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley (often go awry)”.  Much more than that.  Wool felt wears and frays.  Ropes of hemp left out in the rain attract mold and rot.  Unkempt bronze turns green as it oxidizes, while iron left out unused rusts and flakes.

So, people learned to repair their precious goods.  They learned to patch.  They patched tears, bound snapped poles, restrung instruments, banged out dents and sharpened dull or chipped edges.  They made glues for various cracks.  Perhaps this is how mankind stumbled across medicines.  The first person to suture a wound probably took a cue from mending fabric, which the skin resembles.  They took advantage of the body’s gift to heal on its own, given the chance for closure.  Physical ills, it is said, inform us of the normal physiology, whatever normal means.  Dysfunction highlights the body’s proper function, but very specifically, down to the system and organ.  Disease, like that inflicted on Pharaoh and his household (Gen 12:17) sets people to search for the cause and the cure.  In ancient times, the cause was not easy to attribute to some factor, internal or external, as is the case even now.  It isn’t that we lack the tools.  We live in a world pocked with troubles, pains, and suffering.  Then as now we visit doctors who diagnose, prescribe regimens and therapies, who mend us back to wholeness.  Just so, in times of less acute crises, we try to figure out what’s gone wrong with us, what path to follow, which needle to pick up.  Often, what narrow decision to make turns on a problem vexing us.  In early Bible times (identified scientifically by the Bronze Age and early Iron Age), problems seems to escalate to conflict and war (Gen. 14:1-3).

Adam learned that his and his descendants’ times on Earth were short, and that, seed time and harvest would never end as long as the Earth did last.  Which is to say, it won’t.  With this in mind, the search for understanding takes on urgency.  Today, the generally long average human lifespan gives each of us an opportunity to come to wisdom, to mastery.  Some say the child who will live to 150 years will be born among us today.  Given that the first 20 are spent attaining maturity and the last in attempts to prolong it, we have many hours to stumble and perfect our values, attitudes, and behaviors.  We have been given the whole truth, whether we view it from scripture or from nature is indifferent.  Search to do better, to improve: that’s the job we’ve got.  Instead of conflict and harm, instead of resisting, we should, like our forbears, reach for our tools and combine what we can toward a better understanding of our lot on this planet.

Creation/Evolution Debate

I started watching the creation/evolution debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, streamed live on February 4th from Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky.  The timed and refereed debate followed a standard format: first Mr. Ham spoke, then Mr. Nye spoke, followed by rebuttals.  My takeaway has as much to do about the debaters’ skills as the subject.

First, a caveat: my younger self was on track to become an astronomer.  My mother bought me a used 3.5 inch refracting telescope. I saw Jupiter and the moon and various other blurry objects through it.  Later, I purchased a 6″ Newtonian reflecting telescope, which opened my eyes more to such exquisite objects as Saturn and nebulae.  But at the age of 23, I turned to the Bible for inspiration. This had to do with my lack of imagination about how inorganic material made the leap to organic compounds and then to metabolic processes that could replicate (i.e., living things).  I needn’t have worried. Even the best minds on Earth struggle with that leap.  I’ve read Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson, and other experts on the subject, and each have their own theories.  What they don’t do, however, is surmise that, since the path from clay to living things isn’t clear, that the leap

must be magical. Any explanation that requires a mystical (insert name here) is no explanation at all.

See, if we resort to a God of the Gaps, then anything may be explained where the scientific alternative’s jury is still out.  Any phenomena that we cannot immediately explain these days gets rehashed to have a supernatural origin.  That can mean aliens as well, since they presumably possess technology that, to us, appears indistinguishable from magic. Why don’t aliens show themselves to us? Perhaps for the same reason that neither angels nor devils do. Either they don’t exist, or the enormous distances spacefaring civilizations must cross in the universe suggests that we just haven’t met them yet. Perhaps they do exist, and so does God. They just don’t communicate because the energy to do so is, well, too much to expend to contact beings of uncertain (and, if only they knew, precarious) existence on a planet – our pale blue dot – so close to its sun as to be undetectable at interstellar distances.  So, being invisible to us, God and aliens may have something in common.

Mr. Ham uses a weak rhetorical strategy.  He refers to authority figures to make his first persuasive appeal to the audience.  During this, he gives away part of his complaint: that scientists who espouse creationism are derided, shut out, and silenced.  I agrees that a reasonable observer should expect more openness and acceptance from the scientific community of those with different beliefs. Homosexuality, you might recall, presents an area where stigma follows researchers and subjects trying valiantly to fight the cause of the disease, and explain its origin, such as by a genetic predisposition.  An appeal to authority works only when the authority can be trusted through secondary validation of experimental results.  If an experiment is non-repeatable, or its evidence non-reproducible, then the author’s work is discredited. It happens all the time in academic and scientific journals.  Discredited researchers either correct the flaws and bounce back, or they try to defend the results. Beware of those who vociferously defend their results. It suggest denial, especially when multiple persons in the larger research community scratch their heads wondering which left field the other is coming from.

Mr. Nye, on the other hand, makes his appeal through facts. In his opening remark, he uses the analogy of criminologists working back from a crime scene to understand the history of the event that caused a death. Even if you have a bloody knife as evidence, linking it to the crime requires substantiating the claim that this particular knife was used by a particular person with a particular motive. After eliminating other possible alternatives, the remaining alternative must be the truth. Still, a good researcher will ask, “Have we considered everything?”

I admit that Mr. Nye uses his celebrity status to effect. Sometimes showy people cannot help themselves. The same holds true for Mr. Ham. Both are sincere people attempting to convince us of a story’s worth. Unlike Mr. Ham, Mr. Nye doesn’t have a museum to run. He runs an active scientific organization, The Planetary Society, that urges the United States to spend money on space missions to discover more about our solar system and universe. Mr. Nye looks forward rather than back. Which brings up another point about Mr. Ham’s argument.

Contrary to Mr. Ham, historical science cannot be separated from observable science. Whatever scientists observe quickly becomes historical record. Take comet ISON for example. According to observers, it broke up as it made perihelion around the sun. Comet hunters and casual observers alike were hoping for more to reveal the wanderer’s characteristics. We have photographic images as evidence that it existed, and metrics that told of its elliptical orbit. However, no one is certain of the comet’s fate. Now, what if a group like Heaven’s Gate posited that aliens were riding comet ISON to, say, rapture the faithful away? Could the comet’s mysterious disappearance say anything about that? Here’s the old adage we must observe: absence of evidence of not evidence of absence. Apologists for Christianity often cite it. The photos and measurements of comet ISONs existence are all that we have to study the possibility of an alien presence on the ball of ice. As with imagery study of the Moon hoax, much is made of graininess to “explain” the raft of possibilities. There are a number of observations and artifacts from history that, studied again, reveal new facts.  Comet ISON may sit like an alter-Earth on the other side of the Sun masking an eventual alien invasion with millions of other celestial artifacts. If so, a few may postulate that the aliens are hiding from us hoping we don’t send a probe to discover the assembled, spear-rattling rabble. The story can become as insanely complex as you like.

I happen to be an agnostic. In fact, I prefer the late physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s view of the universe, which he posed as the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP). The observer creates the universe. However, this creation is not in the sense that human observers actually create matter and energy, or even that we’re lords of this domain. Rather human intelligence creates the philosophical and material concepts for explaining what we observe. This is how two hot debaters like Nye and Ham can agree on nearly everything else, like how to assemble a robotic arm, but disagree on the unknowable. It is a matter of projecting, or rather inductive reasoning, that suggests any more than that. God, chance, PAP: you name whatever it is. The real value is if the explanation holds up against many lights of what we already know for sure. In my view, creationism does not.

Custody of Student Transcripts

Sometimes I make it sound like it is a life or death issue. Well, that’s being human. Conducting surveys is one thing, but interpreting data or concluding based on data a certain outcome should be taken seriously; that’s another thing.

The response I recently received from Jim Wager of Scrip-Safe confirms such a scenario. He said that “The contemporary perspective of the higher education community is that the transcript is the official record of the school that summarizes the academic history of the student – enrolled courses, grades received, semesters enrolled, special academic actions (i. e Dean’s List), degrees awarded, and so on.  From this perspective the school owns the transcript, not the student.”

In the fast emerging consumer-oriented, commoditized education market, you’d better believe students will demand portable transcripts. To apply for one job, I need to shell out for five separate transcripts a total of $5+$3+$5+$7+$10, or $30 for a set of credentials above and beyond my degree, mere reproducible sheepskin by any counterfeiter, to any employer requiring to verify my background.  I believe this is an economic imperative that higher educational institutions hear and respond to the education consumer’s demand for a product that meets their needs.

This is all I have to say tonight. Good night.

The Old “Us and Them” Mentality

Ari Shapiro’s October 19 piece on National Public Radio aired with the heading “White Men, A Key GOP Demographic, Discuss The Romney Appeal”. In it, one biker interviewed stated, “Have you ever been hired by somebody that was broke? Have you ever been hired by somebody that was poor? Have you ever been hired by someone that was on welfare or food stamps?” he asks. “I don’t think I ever have. I don’t think I’m ever gonna get there. So the question is: Who the heck hires us? People with money.” The minute that argument came across the air, I smelled a rat.

Mitt Romney’s campaign has been appealing to certain constituents who would rather vote for someone else, but who feel Romney is their only choice. In our traditionally two-party system, the media, of course, haven’t shown the alternative contenders like Ron Paul who could, if aired, make a dent in undecided voters, taking a small slice away from either Obama or Romney. It’s a slice that could matter when voters actually get their ballots and find, to their pleasure, someone to vote for who goes unmentioned. At any rate, what causes me alarm about the interviewee’s comment is not the truth of his statement, but the surprise that he sounds like what Romney accuses 47 percent of American’s of being: dependent. However, he’s not dependent on the government, but on someone with money willing to risk hiring on employees in an uncertain economy. It speaks volumes on the devil’s choice the poor, unemployed, underemployed, and undereducated have, and they do weigh it every time they consider the breadline or the hiring line. They do the paycheck math, and it doesn’t matter where that piece of paper comes from.

The argument that giving rich people a break so that they hire people for their businesses is that the rich get a better return from simply investing any more marginal gains they get. Sure, a good deal of investment works its way through the competitive filters to actual manufacturing or technology industry startups. But those are high stakes gambles. Sure bets are government bonds, land, and other low-risk, long-term investments that could be liquidated more easily than cashing in (selling their share) on a business investment.

A better solution for self-reliance in this economy is touting sole proprietorships, making it easier for small businesses to obtain loans, bring products to niche markets, and support them as the hinge of family wage earning. After all, sole proprietorships make up about 70% of the businesses in the United States, and they tend to follow the same secure math-minding that many family budgets are constructed on. These people aren’t freeloaders, loafers, or dependent on the government for a hand-out. Encourage small business proprietorships, make it enviable and easy and common, and we can all make a living without dependence on corporations or our federal government.

Ronald Reagan’s Legacy to the Rest of U.S.

It is so very tiring hearing from the 2012 Republican presidential candidates about the effervescent legacy of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s policies and proud pontifications, in my opinion, harmed our country by accelerating concentrated corporate power. No one asks whether Reagan would have been held in as such high historical regard as he is if Mikhail Gorbachev of the U.S.S.R. had stood him down, refusing to demolish the Berlin Wall. It’s rather a sign that Gorbachev was open and trusting of the U.S., than it was of Reagan being a great communicator. In this, I think Reagan was a good opportunist. That he could naturally open his mouth was a given. That moment in Soviet/American relations was a long telegraphed punch, preceded by the leadership of Andropov.

Americans do not need salvation in the Newt Gingrich spooneristic type of Reaganism, nor from a prolonged house sitting by Obama. The common citizens who work hard in our country want stability and control over their future.

President Obama’s State of the Union Address

If you ask me (which you have no choice in the matter. I’m going to tell you anyway), President Obama’s speech last night was laying out Congress like a preacher.


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