1. Conversations on Consciousness

On Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016, a group calling itself the Midcoast Exploration of Consciousness (MEC) met for the first of an ongoing series of once-a-month meetings at the public library in Belfast, Maine. The purpose of MEC meetings is to allow people in the region to witness the unraveling of the last great scientific mystery of mysteries – the mystery of consciousness, because it seems as if this ancient mystery is beginning to give up its secrets through the probing of new tools and ideas. To organize the MEC project, which is a big project because of the multifaceted nature of consciousness, it was separated into four grand topical areas. The monthly meetings visit these topic cyclically as much as possible given the availability of contributors. The four areas are ontology (what is it?), pan-consciousness (what things have it, e.g. octopuses? or can have it, e.g. robots?), neuroaesthetics (art, music, poetry, love and all that), and alt-consciousness (religious ecstasy, nirvana, shamanic states, brain trauma, drug-induced states and more).

About seventy people are on the MEC mailing list (which people come to a meeting depends on the topic). These are mostly college educated professionals, some retired, that want to experience the intellectual excitement of seeing a great mystery in the process of yielding its secret. Imagine being able to do this in the 1920s when quantum mechanics was being created, the intuitively incomprehensible fact that something could be both a particle and a wave – be both a point and a surface — was becoming unavoidable, and the grand project of physics – to make all things predictable through deterministic laws – was seen to be fundamentally impossible, confounded by the QM uncertainty principle. In the 1920s, a world-transforming field was being born. Who could have foreseen that it would eventually enable creation of such things as cell phones? Such a birth is happening again now for consciousness studies, and who can foresee the consequences?

To complement the MEC project, we offer here a blog that parallels the four topical areas – ontology, pan-consciousness, neuroaesthetics, and alt-consciousness — starting with otology. The ontology blog takes the form of a series of conversations between Julia, a neuroscientist, and Dan, a philosopher. They are discussing the neurological origin of consciousness. This subject is massively dealt with in articles and books by philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientist, so there will not be much new here. But it is presented in a form congenial to the varied backgrounds of MEC participants. The goal of these conversations is to develop the point of view that the relationship between the conscious phenomena that we experience – feelings and sensations – and the neurological activity to which they are tied is one of ontological unity, a marriage of the non-physical and the physical into a unity of Being. Julia argues that feeling and neurons firing are one and the same thing and, despite our deep intuition to the contrary, there is nothing more. Dan disagrees.

We said that the ontological issue of consciousness is massively treated in the literature. Moreover, it is as old as philosophy itself and as such might be seen as inherently unsolvable. But in the last half of the 20th century, the nature of the subject changed from primarily philosophical to largely scientific as new tools for sensing neural action in the living brain were applied to the problem.  Debate and arguments shifted from the humanities side of campus to the laboratories on the science and technology side. People trained in the sciences saw a rare opportunity to develop a new field. What happened then can perhaps best be described using ideas Thomas Kuhn developed in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which gave us the over-used phrase ‘paradigm shift’. In Kuhn’s terms, consciousness studies in the late 20th century was in a pre-paradigmatic state, meaning you could not assign a graduate student a problem that she could solve using established procedures, that is, by applying paradigms, the way she could solve, say, a galactic lensing problem using the equations of general relativity.  Kuhn would call the general-relativity solution an example of “normal science,” that is, research done using established paradigms. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, we are looking at the potential to transform consciousness research from its pre-paradigmatic state into normal science. Now we are talking about not just a paradigm shift, but a paradigm creation.

Julia and Dan close out the ontology blog by considering a leading attempt to create a paradigm for consciousness studies, the so-called Integrated Information Theory (IIT) proposed by University of Wisconsin psychology professor, Giulio Tononi. After concluding the ontology blog they begin the pan-consciousness blog by discussing efforts to apply IIT to non-animal (e.g., trees) and non-biological (e.g., robots) consciousness.

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