Tag Archives: neuroscience

Robert Epstein on Why Your Brain is not a Computer

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This essay posted at aeon.co will be of interest to a few of my futurist friends and those in consciousness studies.

Robert Epstein holds nothing back as he hamburgerises the sacred cow of cognitive science: the presupposition that the brain is like a computer. It’s a little short on definitive evidence for the claim, but is in my opionion on the right track. Though it does slay one sacred cow, it fails to recognise another is just nervously entering the philosophical slaughterhouse: the materialist reductionism upon which the dominant model of consciousness is implicitly founded. But that would be a sacred cow too far for any respectable academic. If we bring the discussion on the field properties of consciousness to this discussion, then we might really get somewhere. But it’s a nice start, nonetheless.

On a side note, Ray Kurzweil’s mad idea to load brains onto computers does not necessarily dissipate (as Epstein argues) if consciousness does hold field properties. But then one might ask the question, what would be the point? 🙂

A couple of quotes from the article:

“Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.”

“We are organisms, not computers. Get over it. Let’s get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the DELETE key.”

https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer

The Neuron With No Clothes

Our knowledge of the nature of the objects treated in physics consists solely of readings of pointers (on instrument dials) and other indicators. (Therefore) what knowledge have we of the nature of atoms that renders it at all incongruous that they should constitute a thinking object?(Thus) science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. – Sir Arthur Eddington.

What do we really know about the intrinsic nature of consciousness and its essential role (if any) in the nature of cosmos? Probably a lot less than many would assume. There is no question that our knowledge of brains has expanded massively in the past century. But what does all this data about brains really tell us about consciousness? Not a great deal, I suspect. Yet mainstream psychology and neuroscience continues to ignore the obvious implications of the question: “Are brains and minds the same thing?”

Instead, these discourses tend to ignore the question, replacing it with an unquestioned presupposition: mind equals brain. Worse still, much of science still tends not even to bother with consciousness, intention, and the importance of the role of the perceiver. Ironically, the scientific detachment that was born of the awareness of the fallibility of first-person perception has typically led to the dismissal of the role of mind in nature, evolution and cosmos.

Galen Strawson in a well-known paper entitled “Realistic monism: why physicalism entails panpsychism” points out some of the logical inconsistencies in materialist science. Strawson is incredulous at the denial of personal experience which lies at the heart of the materialist worldview that still dominates much of science, especially biology, psychology and neuroscience. This, he states, is akin to the denial of “the existence of experience.”

At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that grass is green.

Strawson is correct. What is it about first-person experience that science is so afraid of? What has created this absurd rejection of the “I”?

We could of course run through the history of science in the past several hundred years, talking about the necessity to challenge religious authority on matters of reason, and the subsequent discrediting of theology or mysticism in providing adequate explanations of most mundane things (it has to be admitted). We could also talk about the rise of more sophisticated ways of knowing such as calculation (e.g. Newton), classification (Darwin), analysis (Comte) and experimentalism (Hemholtz) by the mid nineteenth century. And we could acknowledge the massive impact and success of technologies which arose from that – the microscope, telescope, computer and so on – and how these in turn generated exponential increases in our capacity to “perceive”, collate and analyse data.

Out of all this a new culture, a new paradigm, a new way of looking at life and cosmos emerged. Materialism was a defining feature of this science. In this schema, things – including people, animals and minds – were at their very basis material objects, regardless of what properties or behaviours they exhibited at a macro-level.

All this has been widely discussed by philosophers of science, as have been the many challenges to such a reductionist approach to knowledge. Those challenges have always been around, of course, with perhaps the emergence of quantum physics early in the nineteenth century representing the most pronounced challenge. And yet even today materialism – and the denial of mind – remains strongly embedded in many of our sciences.

​Strawson’s paper argues that any rational take on the relationship between cosmos and mind has to admit at least a “micropsychism”, if not quite the idea of panpsychism (that consciousness is present in all things, to some degree). He states that “realistic physicalists… grant that experiential phenomena are real concrete phenomena… and that experiential phenomena are therefore physical phenomena.” He argues that everything concrete is physical and everything physical is comprised of physical ultimates. Conscious experience is part of that concrete reality. Therefore consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of cosmos.

Although I do not specifically define myself as a panpsychist, clearly the idea is quite compatible with the existence of the non-local mind. If there is at least a little bit of mind found in all things, it helps to explain how it is that minds can perceive of things that are not readily perceptible with the eyes, ears and other sensory organs. I believe the latter is now undeniable. I base that conclusion upon three sources: my own extensive experience with expanded and non-local mind; first-person insights gleaned from the world’s great wisdom traditions and recorded for posterity; and upon the scientific data which has been gleaned from psychic research for more than a century.

What lies at the heart of the debate is the mind-body problem. Even if one rejects the evidence for psychic phenomena and the extended mind, we still have the issue of how we get consciousness from brains. How does conscious experience arise from the firing of neurons? Implicit within the mechanistic paradigm is that consciousness IS the firing of neurons. Because if it isn’t, then what is it?

A key issue is how to explain why it is that our experience of mind is so utterly different from what we experience when we look at, say, a brain in a vat, or an fMRI scan of neuronal activity. Clearly there is something very qualitatively different between brains and consciousness. What exactly does that difference represent, and what is the relationship between these two things?

The question has not been adequately addressed in neuroscience. As Lawrnece Le Shan points out in his wonderful book “A New Science of the Paranormal,” there is an explanatory gap which lies at the heart of the mind-equals-brain model. We have sensory inputs, we have electrical signals and we got them neurons firing and then… wala! Thought, sensation, consciousness.

Such is one of several very, very big “miracles” that go unimaginably unexplained within modern science. The other two big, big problems which I can point to are how the cosmos arose out of the nothingness that lies at the moment before the Big Bang; while the third is the puzzle of biogenesis. How did life arise from lifeless matter? For the last query, reductionism arguably works for the bio-machinery of the organism, but fails miserably to account for the rise of consciousness.

And after all, the most wonderful and surprising aspect of life is consciousness, at least as it exists in multi-cellular organisms such as we human beings. An explanation for the emergence of life which fails to account for the origin of consciousness is a bit like an account of airplanes without bothering to mention that they tend to fly. Such “explanations” are ultimately merely descriptions.

Lawrence Le Shan points out an obvious double standard with a common criticism of psychic research. In the latter critique, it is incredulously stated that research into phenomena like ESP, telepathy, precognition and so on fail to provide an adequate explanation for how information might travel from one place or mind to another place or mind without some mechanical process to mediate that transfer (note: the idea of “travel” is highly problematic in regard to non-locality).

Yet as Le Shan indicates, this explanatory gap merely mirrors the explanatory gap in psychology and neuroscience regarding how we get consciousness from neurons. As yet there is no adequate explanation, and this remains more than a merely small problem. It begs the question of what the essential nature of consciousness actually is!

And still the discourse continues without so much as a pause for reflection, hailing His Majesty the Neuron With no Clothes. Perhaps it is about time that we finally admit that the emperor is totally buck naked – and duly tell him, such that in the long run we save him from further embarrassment, when he is informed that his game is up.

PS: If you wish to be kept up to date about research and developments regarding The Coming Consciousness Revolution (interviews, videos, the book project, important links to other works etc.) just email me at newsletter@marcustanthony.com, and I will send you updates every month or so.

Marcus

Are You Ready For the Coming Consciousness Revolution?

As I write this I am sitting in a street-side cafe in Bangkok. It’s the Landmark Hotel cafe, actually. I wish I could say that I am staying at the Landmark, but alas I find myself resident at the less resplendent Belaire Hotel, just across bustling Sukhumvit Road.

It’s very busy around these parts. The area is a sea of noisy traffic – old buses, taxis, mini-vans and tuk-tuks idle past. On the narrow footpath just below me, people – mostly western tourists – stroll past, their relaxed pace a measure of their leisurely holiday-mindedness.

Bangkok is rather crazy, with no apparent order. Street vendors pop up like mushrooms every few metres, and I have to wonder whether anybody regulates anything around here. Certainly, I have seen no uniformed police or other officials during my time here.

It’s madness, and yet this great leviathan of a city has its own perfection. There’s a kind of serenity in the hustle and bustle of life in this politically-turbulent Buddhist country.

As I sit here, cooling my body and mind with an ice-coffee, I watch the show roll on by. And I am contemplating the nature of time, space and free-will. And there’s a reason why I am deep in such existential thoughts. For I just came from my hotel, where I was following the result of an international cricket game played between Australia and New Zealand. The game played was part of the World Cup of cricket, so it was a major sporting event for the two antipodean nations. But for me there was something else about the game that was far more profound.

The thing is, precisely one week ago I awoke early in the morning and had a premonition about the outcome of the game. I often have these kinds of premonitory visions, as I have previously stated in my writings. The premonition of the game wasn’t so much a dream or a mind-movie. It was more a flash of immediate knowing, where information is pumped into the brain – from who knows where. In such experiences the knowing is immediate. It often requires no verbal input or sequencing of events. It’s just arrives uninvited, like a mysterious stranger knocking at your door than just as suddenly vanishing into the night.

The content of the vision was very clear. It indicated that the upcoming Trans-Tasman game of cricket would be a very exciting game. Australia would come very, very close to winning. Indeed, at the last minute they would be on the verge of victory. But ultimately NZ would snatch victory.

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Since many of my readers are North American, I won’t distract you with too many details of the game. As it turned out, today Australia batted first and posted a paltry 151 runs. In cricket terms, this is pathetic. Therefore when New Zealand began their innings (teams only bat once) I was feeling a little annoyed. It looked like my premonition was not going to unfold. The New Zealand batsmen raced away and were charging towards an easy victory, before they had a massive batting collapse. This meant that right at the last minute they were looking like losing. But I knew better. As the match reached its exciting crescendo I knew exactly who would win. NZ. And they did – by the narrowest of possible margins, one wicket.

I’ve had premonitory dreams and visions up to one month before sporting events. So it really does beg the question. Is the future already set? Is there really any such thing as free will? After all, players on a sporting field are making all kinds of choices. Some are well-considered, while others emerge from finely conditioned reflexes or pure inspiration. Yet if in the big picture the game is already won and lost before the first ball is kicked or hit, how can anyone really be making any choices at all? It’s a philosophical conundrum that would confound Confucius.

It gets juicier. The implications move well beyond the philosophical. What does the existence of premonitions tell us about the nature of time, space and consciousness itself?

Currently in psychology and neuroscience the dominant intellectual position is that there is no free will. This is based primarily upon one famous experiment. In the 1980s Benjamin Libet showed that our neurones fire a fraction of a second before we think we make a decision.

Despite this, and despite my experience with precognition, I believe that free will does exist. In fact, I believe that activating its full potential is central to human existence.

But there is nothing in mainstream science which accounts for human premonitions. Premonitions are considered “paranormal”, and not taken seriously. This is because they aren’t thought of as normal. Some have pointed out that this is circular reasoning.

So anecdotes and experimental evidence which pertain to seeing or sensing the future are rejected a priori, and often ridiculed. Yet millions of people continue to experience what they believe to be premonitions; and many also claim “paranormal” cognitive experiences related to ESP – intuitions that seemingly operate outside of localised space and time. I like to call this range of cognitive functions Integrated Intelligence, because I believe that they are a valid aspect of human mental life, and that they can enhance our mental capacities.

The scientific taboo against serious discussion of these matters is more than just a pity. It’s a cultural tragedy. For as we deepen our awareness and begin to fully understand that mind has non-local properties, it inevitably changes our worldview. Even more profoundly, it transcends our relationship with time and space. When we permit a full range of mental experiences to unfold, we begin to realise our deep connection to the world, to nature, and to other human beings.

Ironically, it is the philosophical and experiential refusal to allow such understandings that prevents so many of our academics and leaders from perceiving these things directly.

As I sit here, typing these words by a chaotic street in South-East Asia, there is a kind of deep tranquility which fills me as I simply allow what is happening around me, both in time and space, to be exactly what it is. This is the state of surrender that so many mystics have poeticised down through the ages. And therein lies our greatest capacity for free will.

And it’s a state that is not available to those who live within the delimited mechanistic representation of time and space which has come to dominate economically developed societies the world over.

I have no doubt that one day soon science will catch up with all of this. Although the precise pace and timing of the shift is unclear, I believe we are already in the initial stages of transition. The time will come when the evidence for Integrated Intelligence will outweigh the outmoded arguments of head-centric academics. Then slowly we will begin to correct this gargantuan cultural blind-spot which today has so deeply damaged the human psyche. Just think of how society will change, how people will occupy spaces in cities, town and in rural settings, once this deeper awareness filters into our hearts and souls. Science too, both as procedure and culture, will be forever different.

The transformations will be profound.

How such a future might look we cannot be certain. Perhaps, though, one can intuitively feel it.

What exactly are the limits to Integrated Intelligence? How might such an expansion of consciousness impact our lives, our societies, and our education systems? Our world? That is what I continue to explore with The Coming Consciousness Revolution project. I invite you to accompany me along the way, via these e-spaces which connect us all. If you would like to be a part of the project, please email me, marcus@marcustanthony.com, and I will keep you posted via my monthly newsletter. Or simply join me here as I blog regularly about related ideas, events and people. It promises to be a great adventure.

Marcus