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Defining Consciousness, Life, Physics

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

One of the more popular objections to any proposal for explaining consciousness is that the term consciousness is too vague, or that any explanation depends on what way the term is used. I disagree. The nature of electricity does not depend on what people think the word means, and I don’t think that consciousness does either. When someone is knocked unconscious, there is little doubt about what it means. In general terms, it means that they are not personally present. They are not personally affected by their environment, nor can they intentionally cause any effects on their environment.

Is that an agreeable place to start for everyone?

Can we agree also, in light of the physiology of the brain-stem, which consists of sensory neural pathways and motor neural pathways, that the concept of consciousness is at least closely identified with input/output?

Can we agree that it could be possible that input/output could be sufficient to describe the fundamental nature of consciousness? Does consciousness need to be something further than that?

Here is where, in my view, the whole dependency of definition comes in. The issue is that input/output can either be conceptualized from the exterior or the interior. The Western perspective, even when it tries to model the interior perspective of i/o, does so from the outside in. It assumes that the proprietary feeling of subjectivity is fundamentally inauthentic – that a system can only be built from generic conditions, laws, processes, etc, and cannot be truly original in any sense. In this way, no neuroscientific account, or cog-sci account, can really claim an inside-looking-out perspective. The Western orientation does not allow for the possibility that person as a whole could act as an irreducibly singular receiver of experience an originator of physical cause. Taking a cue from relativity, however, I suggest that perceptual integrity is identical to inertial framing, so that the frame as a whole can drive the micro-frame conditions within it, and vice versa. This is not vertical emergence from the bottom up, but parallel emergence. Multiple levels of description.

Going back to consciousness being definable in terms of its difference from unconsciousness, we can see that the difference between the two has some similarity between life and death. Can we agree that life too differs from death in that it relates to input/output for an organism and its environment?

We understand that an animal can be unconscious without being dead, but is this a difference in degree or a difference in kind? Could input/output also be sufficient to define “life”. We might say that life includes reproduction and growth, however even a single cell organism which is not reproducing or growing at any given time is considered a form of life. Does that not seem that the quality of environmental sensitivity and the ability to cause biochemical effects in response to that sensitivity are even more essential to defining life?

To sum up then, I am asking:

1) Doesn’t being conscious really just mean the ability to receive sense and project motive?

2) Doesn’t life really mean the same thing on a lower, level?

From there, I would ask

3) Isn’t sense what we really mean by a ‘field’, and motive what we mean by a ‘force’?

4) Using relativity as a intuitive guide, can’t it be said that the concept of ‘field’ or ‘force’ are really metaphors, and that the way we contribute to human society is identical to the way that any vector of sense contributes to its context? Isn’t consciousness just a form of life which is just a form of physics…which is just a form of sensory-motive interaction?

  1. November 2, 2013 at 1:48 am

    Comment from FB thread: “I can agree with most of that Craig (I think), though as I noted earlier, I don’t think the essence of conscious need include the ability to project motive.

    This position of a completely passive consciousness has profound implications with respect to free will. It infers that our consciousness does not “drive” our behavior – it merely observes it. Our unconscious brain is in control. Our minds trick us into believing it is our conscious mind that is making decisions, when evidence (the Libet experiments for instance) show that these decisions are part of unconscious processing and we only become aware of them after the fact. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but that is where the science is leading us.

    I predict that many of those that abhor some of the ideas being popularized in the press coming from neuroscientists in the “free will” debate will object loudly.

    However, if they consider carefully the claims I am making they will realize that it actually supports the idea of free will more than it detracts from it. By claiming that conscious is purely passive, I have removed consciousness from the debate entirely, since it can have no effect on behavior. However, it does place all behavior squarely on the unconscious processing in the physical brain, which, as embodied beings precisely comprises our identities – who we are – our identity – is explicitly tied to our physical brains and bodies.”

    That’s a good point – motive is harder to get a handle on at first, but I think that we can agree that motive must derive first from sense. What we do, even just with our power to pay attention, represents a power to cause physical effects….to translate a private experience intentionally to an increasingly public ‘inertial frame’.*

    It gets complicated to talk about how motive manifests on a chemical or physical level, but I do think that my view (I call Eigenmorphism) begins to approach it in the right way. It has to do with tying the distance between chance and choice to the bandwidth of the inertial frame. Long story short, an amoeba has more degrees of freedom for its motive than do molecules in a quartz crystal. This is made complicated by the relativity of perception. Even if an amoeba were as consciously motivated as humans are, we would not likely be able to tell because of the distance between our inertial frames.

    Having said that, I do think that this effect is probably outweighed by an inherent increasing ‘indifference’ on lower level inertial frames, which is not relativistic. Part of what makes us human is a tremendously wide bandwidth of motive – a huge spectrum, relatively speaking, of potentials to surrender to automaticity or to really dominate external inertial frames, effect teleological change, alter our own character, etc. If nothing else, technology demonstrates the ability of Homo sapiens to diverge from zoological expectations through intention.

    As far as Libet goes, are you aware that Libet himself has spoken out against the interpretation you suggest is the direction ‘science is leading us’? I have written a lot on the subject: https://multisenserealism.com/?s=free+will

    here are some other links:




    The bottom line is that science is looking at entirely the wrong data to find free will. You cannot use an experiment that is designed to reduce human awareness to a knee jerk binary reflex any more than you can build a computer out of live hamsters. I held the anti-free-will perspective for many years. I reasoned that ‘you can only ever make what you think is the good decision and not the bad decision, and you cannot control what you think is good or bad, so you are not really free.’ That is not untrue, but what I overlooked was that it is still provides more freedom than no freedom at all. There is still a difference between deciding what seems like a good decision and having someone hold a gun to your head and tell you what you will decide. The psyche is not a monolith. It has sub-personal and super-personal layers which are also “us”. It is those layers which Libet measured. As every cell in our body is a self-modifying replica of a single cell, so too does every action of ever neuron correspond to a sub-personal expression of our will – at least in part. If you measure one part of the brain making a decision, it does not mean that part is ‘unconscious’ just because its consciousness is not instantly shared and reported on by every other part of the self.

    Besides that, it makes no sense that “Our minds trick us into believing it is our conscious mind that is making decisions”. It is truly laughably absurd. It is to say “The puppet on my hand works better when I make it act like it isn’t a puppet.” Just because it is counter-intuitive does not mean that it isn’t also idiotic.

    “who we are – our identity – is explicitly tied to our physical brains and bodies.”

    Eh, tied yes, but socialization, education, culture, are even more influential. It also goes the other way. What our physical brains and bodies become is explicitly tied to our identity, our opportunities and idiopathic, autopoietic tendencies. The Taj Mahal is explicitly tied to the bricks it is made of, but the Taj Mahal is also an icon, a destination, a work of art, etc. We cannot understand consciousness by working from a toy model of reality in which linear causality is presumed universal. If nothing else, neuroscience and quantum mechanics should tell us that this notion has expired.

    *motive = mind > brain > body. Motive which extends to body > public world becomes “motor”.

  2. Erik Andrulis
    November 2, 2013 at 3:37 am

    Consciousness is a irreducible spectrum, as pointed out by Wilber. The ineluctable fact that I’m conscious of the whole universe is that I am the universe.

    That means, quite paradoxically, that I am one consciousness experiencing myself as many, all the while being one.

    Peace, Ik

    • November 2, 2013 at 4:24 am

      What’s amazing to me is how wherever you pinch consciousness, it pinches back in a way that you can partially understand. You say it is an ‘irreducible spectrum’…I agree, and what’s more, it can be said to be both irreduciblity and spectrum-hood (diffraction) itself. As we experience ourselves as many, the ephemeral quality of the moment and the inescapable quality of eternity are paradoxically both conserved to an infinite degree…or at least infinite within our inertial frame.

  3. November 2, 2013 at 3:42 am

    I work as an art therapist with children with great neurodiversity, sensory and cognitive impairments. A lot of time is spent in our sessions building some awareness of each other through sound or rhythm and finding some shared sensory experience that we can manipulate and play with together. Some would consider their interests and their responses to the sounds and touch from their environment to be somehow strange and sad, oddly misplaced (I have to come to find them to be very fun). Recently I was at a musical performance with a highly experimental and arhythmic, beyond jazz type aesthetic. While the violin was screeching unpredictably, I was surprised to suddenly recognized the same body postures and repetitive movements that come from some of the children during our sessions appear in the musicians. These high brow, well trained musicians. Their bodies and movements responded in the same way it seemed, just what the body would do whenever it’s not embarrassed to respond directly to sensations. People often lose themselves to music, but the tensions and rhythms, balance, and postures were identical, perhaps because the improvisation of the music was based on immediate response to the auditory effects of sound and not a syncopated repetition, chorus, bridge, etc.
    I understand that this is a very anecdotal observation. Still I see a strong sensitivity in so many of the kids I work with. If not through logical conclusion, but because of direct side by side experience that I hear a lot of truth in the concept that we are so closely tied to our receptivity.

    • November 2, 2013 at 4:27 am

      Thanks, very interesting. Does it seem like in spite of the diversity of their differences they tend to synchronize as a group unintentionally?

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