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.


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