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.”
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.
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.