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First Update on Consciousness Studies

[ By Dr Johanna de Groot, SMN Meeting 2nd December 2007 at Killarney Heights, Sydney ]

Introduction

I believe there may be small and uncertain but perhaps significant steps forward in the formulation of a paradigm for the study of consciousness since I last spoke on the topic. Those steps are a new look at ontological relativity and a possible breakthrough in establishing the route of neural correlates. Finally I will add a note about the topics of the extent of consciousness and of machine-consciousness. First follows, however, a brief recapitulation of my previous paper.

Recapitulation of Previous Paper

There were major problems encountered by materialist-oriented scientific researchers in the study of consciousness as follows:

  1. The problem of replicability;
  2. The data being untrustworthy because conscious experience is disunified;
  3. The proposed connections between mind and brain, termed ‘neural correlates’, had as yet no evidence to support their existence; our mental life had not yet been shown to correlate with biochemical activity at the neuronal level;
  4. There was a proposal of ‘a subterranean process, where brain and consciousness are two aspects of a unifying, psychophysical mind’;
  5. I showed that the near-death experience proves mind does not emanate from the brain but exists separately and is the principle that brings life to the brain;
  6. I proposed we ask the question: ‘Is consciousness the same as the human spirit?’ (I referred to the report of a study done in China during the early common era on whether the human spirit could be destroyed. I assumed the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘spirit’ here could be used interchangeably;
  7. I reported the suggestion that the way forward in research may be to veer away from the physicalist approach and ‘use introspective reports as sources of data’;
  8. I presented my invention of ‘The De Groot Ladder of Credibility’ with its ten points, as a checking mechanism to evaluate the greater or lesser likelihood of the factuality of introspective data and/or self-reported experience.

Today I will raise four points all taken from this year’s Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Point 1 – Ontological Relativity

In their editorial introduction in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 14, Nos 1&2, editors Scott-Jordan and McBride wrote ‘A Potentially Integrative Prologue’. To progress the cause of an acceptable study paradigm of consciousness, they suggest there may be a need to practise ontological relativity (Atmanspacher). They describe the contribution of Anderson who distinguishes between Realist Approaches (those who make claims about what is metaphysically real) and Anti-realist Approaches (those who claim all concepts can be relativized to a particular epistemic perspective).

Scott-Jordan and McBride suggest these options can provide researchers with a means of shifting the levels of ontological-epistemological comparison in ways that allow us to be ontologically flexible. For example differentiating working with individual neurons, neural networks and the full brain, will allow a focusing on up to three different levels. We could suggest another lot of three categories in a similar vein, for example, true belief, some openness to the questions, and a stance of uncertainty. Such ontological flexibility may in turn lead researchers to recognise the ontological assumptions inherent in their own approach to consciousness, and in turn cause them to be more tolerant of the ontological assumptions of others. (pp. viii to xii)

To try this idea out practically amongst ourselves I suggest it could be useful to allow ourselves to study our own ontological-epistemological assumptions which would lead to a comparison of assumptions, their origins and how we might be influenced by them. Such an exercise could be initiated by answering three basic questions as follows:

  1. How do I know I have consciousness?
  2. Where does consciousness originate? and
  3. What happens to my consciousness at my physical death?

We could then share giving our reasons why we have answered the way we have or alternatively, one of us could collate the data and present the results at a subsequent meeting. This would possibly show a way into the areas of philosophy and worldview represented here today and provide us with a basis for discussing the context. Scott-Jordan and McBride state there might be progress towards a science of consciousness if the conversation shifts from the data to the relationship between the data, the concepts used to describe them, and the larger theoretical/philosophical context in which the concepts are embedded. (p. xii) I suggest that that larger theoretical/ philosophical context can be aspired to and examined by the type of exercise I have suggested.

In addition, the above-named editors of The Journal of Consciousness Studies suggest (from Sabine Maassens, p. 254) that there can be a ‘trading ground’ between the various ideas held by the accredited academic disciplines about the right questions to ask and to determine whether there can be a science. Accredited disciplines listed were: experimental genetic studies, neuro-biological studies, cognitive psychology, philosophy, history, politics, literature and I would add theology.

To progress this kind of questioning, I suggest we look at the semantics of the terms used for what may be described as consciousness, ask in what discipline these terms originated and how they might relate to each other. A list of words with similar meanings to consciousness could be: mind, awareness, psyche, soul, heart and spirit. We could spell out what we personally mean by each of these terms and their origin for us. Verbal sharing or a collated report can follow for our information. Alternatively, a simple study across a variety of individuals may also provide this data.

Point 2 - Possible Types of Neural Correlate between Brain and Mind

  1. Platt, in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 14, No 3, 07, pp. 36-53) discusses Persinger’s (1987) study of mystics and poets from which he states there could be demonstrated a potential ‘correlate’ between mind and brain. He describes how ‘intense verbal meaningfulness’ can be linked to ‘enhanced burst-firing in the left hippocampal-amygdaloid complex and temporal lobe, and allows access to non-verbal representations that are the right hemispheric equivalents of the sense of self… The creation of poetry and prose then,’ says Platt, ‘because of their strong semantic affect and the novel and unusual combinations of words, would evoke the strong electrical firing in the left hemisphere necessary to engage the right amygdaloid-hippo complex and from here into other homologous right hemispheric structures, which would produce the sense of presence and a possible message of seemingly cosmic significance’.

    That so-called neural correlate (whether valid as a correlate or not) could be that route, a normal interaction for all humans, between the two realities, mind and brain. Notice, however, that the increased firings of the brain arise from concepts in the mind and not vice versa, the immaterial realm causes the neural firings.

    On another note, Persinger in his original 1987 text adds that ‘Such phenomena are often preconditioned by adverse childhood circumstances. The wounded mind searches….’ He then states, ‘Whether aroused by intense verbal meaningfulness, meditation, pathologies, drug usage, ritualistic behaviours or aroused electromagnetically, the creative output can provide healing perceptions, a change of course and often an inspired poetic voice.’

    So we may assume that the route may be demonstrated between mind and brain by stimuli other than poetry and mystical experience. One could then ask if this is perhaps also the route of stimulus that arises from such things as encouragement, positive thinking, focusing and visualization.

  2. Another approach to detect possible neural correlates was suggested by Petitmengin (pp 54-82). He suggests that the possibility of studying in detail the transmodal and rhythmic dimension of lived experience, might contribute to reducing the apparently impassable gap which separates it (the transmodal and rhythmic dimension of lived experience) from the neurobiological processes, for example inarticulate and subtly or vaguely experienced memories and thoughts – that space of time before we are clear. No evidence has yet been provided.

  3. Stokes, (pp 83-100) has a slightly different idea. He proposes the ‘Incubatory Preparation Thesis’, a stage of weakened or lessened attention to some elements of a task or problem. Activation and strengthening of cell assemblies continue, he writes, after the initiating stimulus, so that much of the work is done for you. Strengthened associative connections have been formed. This is also an interesting proposal but needs further study.

Point 3 – The Extent of Consciousness

Arp (pp 101-106) speaks of Consciousness and Awareness. He believes there is no consciousness in tables, rocks or chairs, diminished consciousness in worms, fish, cats, babies and primates but bright consciousness in humans of all ages. He states ‘Consciousness includes everything bar the following psychological states: awareness, cognition, sentience, perception, and feeling. This last statement sounds to me like garble and points to a dire need to clarify the terms we use in the study of consciousness and in line with the suggestions of Scott-Jordan and McBride as mentioned in a previous point.

Point 4 - Machine Consciousness

The Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 14, No 7, ‘07 offered information about Machine Consciousness. Haikonen (p. 72) wrote that the development of conscious machines faces a number of issues:

  1. The apparent immateriality of mind;
  2. Qualia;
  3. Self-awareness;
  4. Consciousness-related cognitive processes such as perception, imagination, motivation, and inner speech.

To succeed, he recommends, this would need a systems approach, a complete system, transparent and seamless.

Conclusion 

Although we are still a long way off establishing a paradigm for the study of consciousness, there is perhaps a little less confusion. With the development of greater amounts of communication between researchers about their personal assumptions, as well as with a ‘trading’ and hopefully a clarification of concepts amongst the established academic disciplines, greater clarity of vision about the nature of consciousness may result. There appears to be some promise of progress in the search for ‘neural correlates’. Greater clarity is also required in establishing the extent of consciousness. Increased insight in all these areas will directly affect the progress of machine consciousness.

© Dr Johanna de Groot, 2008

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