Humanities for the Unbound Mind / Natural Science from the Observation Deck

Hello? Is there anybody really there? ~ The Question of Consciousness

Originally published December 3, 2012

Admittedly for a person with only elemental understandings of the workings of physics, using science to peer into the realm of the mind can be a risky business. But, it’s irresistible. Some of the biggest names in physics have approached the question and they have come up with some truly interesting ideas. A few of the resources I used to explore this subject include Through the Wormhole (narrated by Morgan Freeman), Dr. Michio Kaku, the “Global Consciousness Project,” and a little research on Dr. Erwin Schrodinger’s cat and Henri-Louis Bergson. Yep, all of them.  And this probably won’t be my last bit of wandering into this field. I also have to admit some research into the materialist’s point of view. Most markedly I would refer the reader to I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter and The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. It’s always nice to have a bit of balance.

There was a time when I could sit with my husband and discuss the philosophical application of various developments in physics. Sometimes things would get a bit wild and he would gently bring me back to some more conservative point of view. Not because he didn’t think I was “on to something,” but because he felt that the research didn’t support the thought – yet. Over the past several months we have spent time watching the series mentioned above and some of these old questions came to the fore. The inspiration for this post was the segment on the sixth sense.  (No teeth grinding from my more materialist friends).

In the cut that impressed me the most, Dr. Michio Kaku walks the viewer through Schrodinger’s thought experiment. Starting with the understanding that in particle physics any particle can be anywhere or everywhere (based on probabilities) until someone looks at it (measures). The thought experiment with the intrepid kitty in a box is an experiment that puts the cat in a situation where certain events may, or may not, kill the cat. Until we open the box, we cannot know if the cat is dead or alive and, therefore, it is both. This is the answer derived from the sum of the probabilities.

Kaku goes on to say that Henri-Louis Bergson took the experiment a bit further and decided that part of the act of measuring, of “looking” is an act of consciousness. The cat lives (or dies) because a conscience individual looked in the box and made that measurement. Then Bergson goes to the next step. The cat and the observer are in the same universe. So, who is to say that the observer is dead or alive? Another observer. Layer upon layer of observers measuring the universe into reality results in a universal consciousness looking back down the chain of observers to the scientist who looks in the box and sees — that the cat is alive. Confused yet?

Another part of the same program discussed the Global Conciseness Project. This, too, fascinated me both because of the reach (global) and the length of time the scientists have collected information.  This project uses random number generators which are located in population centers around the globe. What the scientists look for is anomalies in the stream of random numbers. Understanding that no matter how hard we try, no generator is completely random, the system builds in tolerance levels to seek only a certain level of unusual behavior. The most dramatic result in their records? September 11, 2001. Not only did the random generators deviate with the widest margins recorded to date, the change started before the actual event. Their site is linked above.

There are, however, different points of view that look at the relationship between mind and brain as purely physical. This would be a “materialist” interpretation. I mentioned a few references in the opening that are written by men who are perfectly comfortable in a world where our “minds” are nothing more than a construct of the biology and neurology of  our brains. That whatever it is that is “I” develops from birth by using a feedback loop between our brains and the outside world. In this case materialism means that there is nothing beyond the physical. I found much of interest in these books. I learned a bit about how pattern recognition and symbol making can result in the higher cognitive functions we think of as particularly human. But I couldn’t quite make that last leap and say “I Are Nothing but the Atoms of Which I Am Made.”

Personally, I find much wonder and awe in the universe in which we live. I never cease to be amazed at the wonders discovered by science, mathematics, biology, medicine and philosophy. I know that there are people who will tell me that all that “wonder” is possible with nothing more than the firing neurons in my head. However, I cannot look at the stars without yearning; I cannot let go of the feeling that there is “something more.”

What about you? Without throwing darts from either side of the equation, what do you think about consciousness? Is it possible that there is some part of our brains that does comprehend the world on levels we have yet to explore?

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