Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “consciousness”

Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

Consciousness of absurdity and the absurdity of consciousness

It was G.K. Chesterton who said:

the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.

To which I would add that having a state of consciousness is more absurd even than having an altered state of consciousness.


Well, yes.

Back in the 1960s there was a genre of “theatre of the absurd”, and in one such play, A resounding tinkle by N.F. Simpson, one of the characters turns on a radio and hears a parody of an Anglican church service, with its versicles and responses:

V: Let us weep at the elastic as it stretches
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: Let us sing because round things roll
R: And rejoice that it might have been otherwise

V: How flat are our trays
R: Our sewers how underground and rat-infested altogether

V: As a river flows always towards its mouth
R: So is sugar sweet.

V: Let us laugh with those we tickle
R: And weep with those we expose to teargas.

You get the idea — but where is all this leading to?

It leads here:

V: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality
R: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At knowledge which is an illusion caused by certain biochemical changes in the human brain structure during the course of human evolution, which had it followed another course would have produced other biochemical changes in the human brain structure, by reason of which knowledge as we now experience it would have been beyond the reach of our wildest imaginings; and by reason of which, what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would have been familiar and commonplace. Let us laugh at these things. Let us laugh at thought.
R: Which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: At illusion
R: Which is an illusion, which is a phenomenon like any other.

V: Let us love diversity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us love simplicity.
R: Because there is neither end nor purpose to it.

V: Let us think and think we think because leaves are green and because stones fall and because volcanoes erupt in a world where seas are salt.
R: Amen.

Forty years later I came across this blog: Memoirs of an ex-Christian: I am my brain, in which the writer says, among other things

current advances in science, especially in neuroscience, are pointing to the disconcerting realisation that the soul is simply a product of, and is totally dependent on, the brain. In a fascinating article on the mystery of consciousness, published in the latest edition of Time, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard

I’d also read something similar in an op-ed article in a Sunday newspaper a couple of years ago, to the effect that some neuroscientists and psychologists who have studied human consciousness had come to the conclusion that there’s “nobody home”. Such a conclusion might fit well with Buddhist anthropology, which generally denies the “self”. It differs from Christian anthropology, which is based on the ultimate significance of the person.

But we didn’t need neuroscientists to tell us this. Philosophers have pondered it for centuries, and most moderately bright 16-year-olds go through a solipsist phase. For me it was triggered by reading “The new reality” by Charles L. Harness, which for me was a paradigm shift that shaped my understanding of paradigm shifts.

I suspect that the question whether there is a “ghost in the machine” is not one that will be answered by neuroscience. It ends up in a circular argument, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Pinker’s article gives numerous instances of the brain’s limitations and the way in which it can be deceived. Why should it not be deceived when it tries to understand its own functioning?

The blogger (following Pinker) goes on to raise another question:

For some, this idea can be incredibly disconcerting. Not only does it rule out an afterlife, but it also brings up the question of morality: how can someone be moral without having to account for their actions in an afterlife? Steven Pinker, in the Time article, argues that the materialistic view of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the supernatural view of an afterlife, as it forces us to recognise the interests of other beings.

Is this anything more than wishful thinking?

If we rely solely on what neuroscience can tell us, the only system of values we can derive from it is nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value.

Whether or not there is a ghost in the machine, one cannot derive values from the mechanism alone.

And Pinker errs when he says that “the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul”, because the biology of consciousness provides no proof whatever for the value of anything. He also errs if he thinks that Christian morality, for one, depends on the dogma of an immortal soul. It doesn’t.

Christian morality does indeed have unprovable dogmas as its basis, but it is just not the dogma of an immortal soul or an afterlife in which there are rewards and punishments. The basis of Christian morality is the idea that persons exist and have value. This is unprovable. But it is precisely the same dogma that lies at the basis of Pinker’s proposed morality, and it is equally unprovable, and it cannot be derived from the biology of consciousness. It is derived from the consciousness of consciousness, which is not quite the same thing.

A Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, once said, “It is the greatness of Christianity that we can see how small it is. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is of no importance.”

And perhaps this too can be paraphrased and extended, as I paraphrased and extended the quotation from Chesteron at the beginning. The importance of being a Christian is that we can stand the insight that it is absurd.

But it seems to me that those, like Pinker, who claim to be able to derive morality from the biology of consciousness, do so because they cannot stand the insight that it is absurd.

And then, of course, there is that fool Dawkins. (Sorry, that was a link to another deleted blog, but I saved the text, so here it is)

Jan. 8th, 2006 08:01 pm That fool Dawkins

Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.

There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.

So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..

Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss. – This journal has been deleted and purged.


This a “synchroblog” posting, which means that other bloggers will be posting on the same day on the general theme of “Altered states of consciousness”. Here are links to the other postings.

Added in July: here’s a belated link that would have been a worthy addition to this Synchroblog: Altered States, by Anthony North.

Synchroblog – altered states of consciousness

For the last few months a group of Christian bloggers have been doing a — blogging on the same general subject on the same day. Previous subjects have been syncretism, spiritual warfare and love.

This month’s topic will be “Altered states of consciousness”, and the synchronised blogging will take place on about 14 March 2007 (actual appearance of the postings will depend on time zones).

One of the interesting things about synchroblogging is that one can look at the same topic from a variety of points of view. So watch this space on or about 14 March.

And if you’d like to know more on synchroblogging, and perhaps take part yourself, click on the synchroblog label below, or on the Technorati tag here:

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