Thursday, 25 March 2021

Does the key to consciousness lie within our brains?

I've just read the following article:

Does the key to consciousness lie within our brains?

Under the main title the article says:

Much recent research supports the view that science can describe consciousness.

Then the recent research is necessarily flawed. Science describes the material world, by which I mean the quantifiable/measurable aspects of reality.  Our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, although having quantifiable aspects, are not exhausted by their quantifiable aspects e.g. the patch of green I see may be of a certain size and shape and shade and reflect a certain wavelength of light, but the greenness itself resides outside the ambit of science.   This blog post by me is of relevance. 

Article says:

The study of consciousness remained solidly in the philosophical realm up to recent times as science had no way to measure it. That changed in the early 2000s with the arrival of brain scanning machines such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The Brain scanning machines scan the brain, not consciousness.

Article says:

It is a common belief that humans are exceptional and superior to other animals, because we are conscious and self-aware.

It is only a few scientists and other mavericks that would deny that all non-human animals lack consciousness.  Self-awareness?  I always have regarded this as meaning to be aware that one is a self i.e a distinct entity that endures through time.  In which case, I would imagine most non-human animals lack it, but certainly not all.

Article says: 

Scientists remain unsure why consciousness first evolved, or what survival advantage it gave us and other animals.

Scientists hold the view that consciousness per se has no causal efficacy.  If they are correct, then it could not evolve, nor convey any survival advantage. 

Article says:

Higher consciousness took millions of years to evolve, so scientists believe it gave our human ancestors a big survival advantage.

Then they are being inconsistent.  If consciousness gives humans a big survival advantage then necessarily it must be causally efficacious.

Article says: 

There are others, such as Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University who counter that since consciousness is the by-product of a working brain, that it is well within the grasp of science and scientists to study, describe and understand it. 

Let's leave aside how Dennett and others know that consciousness is a by-product of the brain.  Even assuming this, how does it follow that science is able to study it?  As I said at the beginning, it can't.  Even if consciousness is somehow produced by the brain it nevertheless resides outside the ambit of science.

Article says:

There has been much research over the past few decades that supports the view that science can describe consciousness. For example, neuroscientists know that looking at certain colours, such as red, influences brain activity, which can be read in a scanner. 

That's not science describing consciousness unless one identifies the experience of seeing red with characteristic brain activity.  So, here this is much more than the claim that brain activity somehow elicits consciousness, rather it would have to be the very same thing as consciousness.  But, it's not, and it's not for the simple reason that brain activity is exhausted by all possible measurements we can make of it.  In other words, its reality is cashed out in terms of all its physical properties.  Consciousness, on the other hand, such as the experience of redness, has no physical or measurable properties.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Guardian Article on Near Death Experiences (NDE's)

I read the following Guardian article:

What do near-death experiences mean, and why do they fascinate us?

Of the afterlife, [Kevin] Nelson [a neurologist] told me: “This claim is the most extraordinary in science, and there is no ordinary, let alone extraordinary, scientific evidence to support it.” (He added: “These are matters of faith.”)

A few comments:

What constitutes an extraordinary claim? A claim is deemed to be extraordinary if it is not consonant with our background beliefs about the nature of the world.  Those background beliefs are the assumption that materialism is correct, more precisely that the discoveries of science exhausts reality.  However, if we assume materialism, then there cannot be an afterlife, at least not in the form of a soul dwelling in some afterlife realm.  That doesn't just make an afterlife extraordinary, it makes it impossible.

So, since a proponent of an afterlife would scarcely embrace modern materialism, Kevin Nelson is transparently begging the question.  He would need to justify that modern materialism is very likely to be correct.  But I have argued that modern materialism is simply not compatible with the existence of consciousness, and here we're simply talking about our everyday embodied consciousness.  See my: Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.  In short, it seems to me that this assertion that an afterlife is an "extraordinary claim" cannot be substantiated.

Also, Nelson appears to be construing "scientific evidence" in the sense that we cannot derive a continued consciousness after death from everything we know about the material world and its structure.  That's true, but it conveniently leaves out the fact that we cannot derive normal everyday embodied consciousness from the  material world and its structure either!  Consciousness needs to be causally efficacious before we have evidence of it, and the causal efficacy of consciousness is denied by most scholars (we're talking here about consciousness per se rather than its neural correlates). 

Again, this can be circumvented by saying consciousness is identical (not merely caused, elicited etc) to neural activity. So yes, we can then have embodied consciousness, but not any unembodied consciousness.  But that again is to transparently assume modern materialism (NB I am specifically talking about materialism here, not just any position that holds the brain produces consciousness).  

And what is meant by saying an afterlife is a "faith"? Why is the hypothesis that our consciousness continues after the death of our bodies labelled a faith, but not the extinction (annihilation) hypothesis? By labelling the survival hypothesis a "faith" he appears to be implying that the "no afterlife" thesis should be the default, more reasonable, one. But why is it? I deny that it is. See my Brains affecting Minds do not rule out an Afterlife.

The article also says:

Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist affiliated with the department of neurology at Copenhagen University Hospital, told me that if “people are able to describe and report their experiences, even many years later”, then surely “they have been processed by the brain and stored in its memory centres.”

To say that memories are stored appears to me to deny that memories are a property of a [non-material] self.  I discuss such a self here.   So arguments are required as to why my conception of the self is unsatisfactory.  Apart from that, it seems that Kondziella is also begging the question since if the brain stores memories, then surely the brain produces the rest of our consciousness?  Besides, which, it seems this whole notion that memories can be stored is fatally problematic as I explain here.  Memories just exist and the fact that brains can impede access to them has no more significance then the fact eyeglasses can impede vision if the lenses are cracked. 


Friday, 5 March 2021

Lack of Meaning to Life in our Modern Western Culture

I read the following article that I entirely agree with and I highly recommend people read it.

Meaningfulness, Its Moral Implications and the Path Forward

Article says:

[T]he average person will spend about 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Most people report saying they are not satisfied with their current job and are mostly disengaged. In sum, the average person spends one-third of their lives unengaged and unfulfilled.


The majority of occupations under poorly-regulated capitalist societies manifest themselves to turn workers into cogs in machines; most work is either unengaging or tedious, which sucks the spirit out of the worker and leaves them drained for when they actually have time to do what they might find meaningful. 

I agree, and I have said much the same myself.  See the 5th paragraph in my Is there a better alternative to capitalism?  

Work doesn't have to be like this.  People need to be intimately and emotionally involved in the product they're creating, or the service they're providing.  I do not subscribe to the widespread belief that how much we get paid for some work is responsible for how much effort we put into it and, hence, our productivity.  Indeed, I wonder what evidence or justification there is for believing this?  Instead, I strongly suspect that what motivates people to work hard is the sense of achievement in producing something that other people really appreciate, together with the knowledge that not many others have the requisite skills to do what you've done. It's working towards some goal that has real value, and for others to exclaim "wow" when they see the result. It's pride in producing something, or providing some service. This, in turn, also makes the work enjoyable. So productivity and enjoyment go hand in hand. Unfortunately, as the author of the article points out, work in our modern industrialised capitalist society generally isn't like that. And, on that note, this article also may be of interest.  

Oh well, at least we have our loving spouses to greet us when the workday finishes? Well... as the article goes on to say:

Half of marriages end in divorce and nearly half of those that don't end in divorce are riddled with unhappiness—the latter frankly being a conservative estimate.

What we're all after is love, a total and complete mutual appreciation of another person's essence, a total empathetic identification with their being that will turn our souls inside out.  But, it seems, in the real world, that this is very rare.  Whether or not this is just simply the way we are, and love -- at least as I have defined it -- is extraordinarily difficult to attain, surely we can improve upon this present dire state of affairs? If love is not achievable, surely at least a life-long friendship with one's spouse is? 

Again, I think at least part of the problem here is the nature of capitalism where success and prestige are measured by one's wealth, whilst affiliation and empathy for others all too often takes a backseat.  We are all in competition with each other.  We are compared, all too harshly by our partners and others, against the "success" of our peers.  This can give rise to mutual resentment.

But surely our well-being and happiness are significantly enhanced by our other relationships? What about our close friends, work colleagues and so on?  The article says:

54 percent of adults also report that they regularly feel as if no one knows them well, nearly half report frequently feeling lonely or left out. Forty-three percent report that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others, and 59 percent feel that those around them do not share their interests and ideas.

Speaking on a personal level, I don't think anyone knows me! Least of all shares my interests and ideas, although, to be honest, I'm surprised that this figure is as high as 59%.

It seems to me that a lot of us live bleak, unfulfilling, lives, both at work and at home. And to what end? A decent wage allows us to buy the latest technological gadgets, but do they really bestow long term happiness? Not so far as I can see. I continually encounter people who declare they are depressed.

I have read that depression is virtually absent in hunter-gatherer societies.  Crucially, in those societies, life was full of danger.  Close brushes with death with the consequent comradeship and camaraderie when others save your life, and you theirs. The collective outpouring of emotions, the bitter and sweet taste of life in the raw. All this with the implicit feeling that death is just another journey and all will come right in the end.

Of course, I'm not suggesting a life full of danger is ideal.  But I do suggest that life ideally should be an adventure. A journey with ongoing meaningful experiences. And grounded with the feeling of purpose.  And that death is just another journey, rather than oblivion. That the Universe is full of love and meaning, and we are part of it.

I think that the way we live in our modern western industrialised world, together with our Weltanschauung, is simply not desirable. Happiness is not measured by our wealth, nor our technology. And our technology is destroying the planet to boot.  So, a radical change is required. A new way to live. A new relationship with the planet. A new outlook regarding what we are and our place in the world. But I can't see anything changing in a very long time. 

Often it's extremely hard to decide what is the rational thing to believe.

It's extraordinarily difficult for most of us to decide what the truth is on many contentious issues. Will we witness catastrophic clima...

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