Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Materialist Model of Consciousness (I)

What is human consciousness? Is there a way to define it which does not invoke unwanted dualities (such as the Cartesian res cogitans and res extensa). If so, to what extent can it access reality - without self-reference or "noise" introduced from internal, subjective states? If the latter are inevitable, is there at least an indirect way to establish that a construct exists - for the outer "reality"? How is the scientist to rightly regard the metaphysician or orthodox believer - and their world views? To answer these questions I present a quantum-based model of consciousness.


The concept of Weltanschauung or 'world view' lies at the root of one's belief systems and to a large measure determines relations to one's fellows, as well to ethical and religious systems. While religious world views allow for emergence and transcendence, the materialist/realist world view does not - nor do its contemporary derivatives: physicalism, causal materialism or peripheralism. In the case of materialism (crude form), emergent properties were excluded by virtue of adopting a strictly reductionist ansatz - wherein the entire universe could be reduced to hard, material particles. This first appeared at the time of the Greek atomists Leucippus and Demokritos - who used it as a basis for the philosophy of Epicureanism. It may rightly be said, therefore, that this was the precursor of the reductionist/materialist/realist school of thought.

At the other end of the spectrum, was the Greek school of the Stoics - who countered the Epicurean and atomist philosophy by postulating that there was more to the cosmos than the mere sum of its parts. Thus, there was scope in the Stoic universe for the theme of emergence. Indeed, the Stoics conceived of the cosmos as an organic whole - not unlike the view of the Tao espoused by many Eastern philosophies today. The Stoics set the stage for the Platonic idealists wherein the "shadows in the cave" idiom for reality - as expounded by Plato, came to the fore. This was the precursor of the school of idealist philosophies, all of which questioned the validity of the existence of an external reality

In either case: realism/materialism or idealism, it must be understood that a context for "truth" is being defined. Clearly, one's affinity for scientific lines of thought will depend on where one stands in the spectrum of realism/materialism to idealism. That affinity will be greater, the more one embraces the former emphasis - to the essential exclusion of the latter. Of course, before issues of "truth" can be approached there must be some comprehension of what consciousness is - at least in terms of operational definitions.

For their part, religious and other transcendent world-views tend to take the position that the human person is tri-partite in character: a "soul", a body and a "mind". Rene Descartes, starting from a “divine” conception - developed his dualistic conception of res cogitans (thinking thing) and res extensa (extended thing). In the first category he included the concepts of "mind" - the central thinking thing - and "soul", which ultimately governed the mind like a rider guides a horse. In the second category, he included all corporeal or physical things, including the body.

At the same time, Descartes postulated a "center of consciousness" or thought within the brain - in the pineal gland. This notion of a center of thought or conscious mind has - at least in the West- been adopted as almost axiomatic. Indeed, it does appear that each of us possesses a center point to thought - or through which outside things enter and are perceived uniquely inside ourselves. From this original "center of thought" notion, the soul concept was elaborated beyond mere theological conjectures.

In the West, this Cartesian dualism or mind-body split, inevitably brought with it a metaphysical elitism or preference - with the "body" being given short shrift to the "mind-soul" or res cogitans. Platonic idealists - particularly within Christianity - were motivated to debase and devalue the physical/material realm while giving priority to the mental. Christianity, which extracted many of its doctrines from (Persian) Mithraism - splitting the cosmos into "forces of light and darkness", and Manicheanism - which viewed all flesh as an "evil" creation, was ripe for an ontological hijacking by Cartesian dualism, aided and abetted by schools of idealism. This hijacking was evident in the writings of many post-reformation theologians who took up the anti-flesh, anti-world cant of earlier Fathers such as St. Augustine and Tertullian. It culminated in the elaboration of more than 2600 Canon laws - of which more than half were proscriptions against one fleshly act or another.

It soon became plain that the religious proscriptions were offshoots of an idealist world view which sought to exclude all corporeal relations from what it regarded as the "exalted" realm of the "mind". This view also upheld "reason" and the action of the mind to be of far greater import than any mechanical activities, or desires of the body. Moreover, this exaltation – with no evidence to support it (neural network research hadn’t yet been invented!) made them believe that reasoning could only be done from a “high platform” of soul or God. Thus, in their limited imagination, no reasoning was feasible if soul or God were foreclosed.

In effect, it was a tacit effort to relegate the body (flesh) to the realm of the ob-scene (off-scene, or off the stage of life as it were). It is arguable from a number of points of view that this extreme idealism - already in place at the start of the scientific revolution in the early 17th century - called forth an uncompromising realism/materialism mindset as a corrective. This mindset, naturally, became entrenched within the epistemological arena of science. The so-called "battle between science and religion" is therefore, none other than a conflict between their larger philosophical contexts: idealism and realism/materialism.



As noted by Squires (Conscious Mind and the Physical World, Adam Hilger, New York, 1990, p. 74): idealism is predicated on "the simple observation that all knowledge comes from sensations in the conscious mind. Thus, since everything I know, I know through my mind, it follows that in some way my mind is the only certain reality”. Moreover, a “soul” must operate the mind or enable its function, much like the Wizard of Oz operated the Great “OZ” from behind a curtain. To the idealist, it is inconceivable a brain could reason and function perfectly well in the absence of a soul, or by extension…God.

Perhaps the most damning critique of idealism has been offered by Squires (op. cit., 1990), p. 74) who notes that "the most useful argument against all such philosophies is that they discourage any endeavor to understand the sensations of the conscious mind." This is certainly true in so far as understanding is contingent on a reductionist approach - and idealism rejects reductionism in favor of holism (or the new euphemism "nonlocality") as the Greek Stoics once did. Certainly a "holistic" theory of consciousness would reject the notion of "conscious sensations" as separative, disjunctive and reductionist - and to that extent, be opposed to any endeavor to understand them! Squires also notes (ibid., p. 74) that while idealism may be "logically unassailable" it is nevertheless "foolish and sterile in practice".

From the above overview, one can safely say that idealist philosophies - which invest a paramountcy or primacy in the "mind" and a putative “soul” governor, have only disdain for scientific techniques applied to uncovering "dynamics of consciousness". Clearly then, any workable or testable theory of consciousness cannot come from idealism - but rather its alter ego: realism.


By contrast to idealism, realism is the underlying philosophy of science. It asserts that human consciousness receives experiences from an external world, quite distinct from that consciousness. As Squires notes (ibid., p. 74): "The images we obtain, involving for example eyes, ears, telescopes, etc. are images of a genuinely existing reality whose existence is not dependent on our being aware of the images." Squires notes that in quantum mechanics, for example, there is an observer disturbance of the system, but "just because we observe and disturb it is not to say we create it."

According to Flew (A Dictionary of Philosophy, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1984) realism is the belief that physical objects exist independently of being perceived. (Or to paraphrase physicist N. David Mermin: "The Moon is really there when nobody looks!") Arguably, therefore the notion of an "observation" only has significance in the context of a realistic philosophy, just as the question "What exists?" In order to even think of asking the latter, the implicit inference must be that there is a real, externally persistent world.

Thus, in the realist purview, the very existence of a brain with over ten billion neurons and trillions of synapses means ipso facto, that reason is enabled. No other outside agents are needed.


Crude materialism is a direct offshoot of naive realism. It is, in fact, the simple re-statement of the position of the ancient Greek atomist school that "whatever exists is either matter or entirely dependent on matter for its existence" (cf. Flew, 1984). A more modern re-wording would be to substitute the phrase "laws of physics" everywhere for matter. (cf. Squires, 1990, p. 77) thereby obtaining physicalism.

In physicalism, it is ultimately energy and fields which exhaust the universal set of constructs in the universe - with nothing left over. We need not concern ourselves with umpteen particles or sub-particles (quarks, leptons, muons, etc.) since ultimately all are subsumed under the umbrella of energy by virtue of Einstein's mass-energy equivalence relation (E = mc^2). Taken to its ultimate conclusion, physicalism would allow a "theory of everything" - for example a "grand unified field", unifying all the subsidiary fields.

A physicalist model of mind and consciousness would allow a wholly physical explanation of mind minus any distracting supernatural agents. Thus, such a model shows how a fleshly brain composed of billions of neurons can reason, without any assistance whatsoever from a supernatural controller or assumed law author. (E.g. some religionists claim reason is impossible without a supreme lawgiver not having made the processes for reason possible in the first place. But this is the classical argument from ignorance and also commits the ignotum per ignotius fallacy: postulating an unknown agent or cause to account for a not well understood process, e.g. consciousness or rational thought within it)

In what follows(subsequent two parts), I will present a theory of consciousness which adopts a "far realism" context. By “far realism” I mean that elements of inquiry are required beyond the immediately material. Thus we can’t hope to explain consciousness using blood, cells or even plain neurons themselves. We must go to the deeper level of quantum phenomena. One indicator that we must do so is offered by the scale size of separation between neurons, e.g. in the synapse. Thus, the synaptic cleft dimension (of about 200-300 nm[1])is exactly the scale at which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle[2] would be expected to operate. That necessarily implies quantum mechanics. We will see then that by invoking the appropriate processes that we can show the brain operates as a quantum transducer: converting quantum wave forms to signals embodied as thoughts.

No other creators are needed!

Next: Part II: Preparing the Model from appropriate wave functions.

[1] 1 nm = 10^-9 meter, or one billionth of a meter.
[2] This states that one cannot know both the position (x) and momentum (p) of an electron, for example, to arbitrary precision. If you know position x exactly you know nothing of the other. In one dimension: d p (d x) < h.

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