16th June 2011
What is consciousness? #1
Almost the entire theory of the Vedanta is a derivation based on our consciousness. The basic point is that when we are asleep (jn deep sleep – delta waves, not REM nor dreaming), we retain consciousness at some fundamental level, a sense of unity about ourselves and our existence. Indeed when people go into coma, they often retain consciousness, although it is often very difficult for our instruments to detect its existence.
From this observation is made a deduction in the Upanishads that there is a soul, and that the soul is immortal. (As Rajagopalachari notes, though, much still depends on assumption rather than proof:
No explanation or theory in regard to the ultimate cause of things can be free from difficulties or made proof against objections from a mere rationalist point of view. On the assumption, however, of an immortal soul as the basis of personality, it can be claimed that no theory can be formulated more in conformity with known laws of nature than the Hindu doctrine of karma. [Source] )
No doubt the consciousness-soul hypothesis is interesting, but one can't be restricted to theories that are now well over over 2,500 years old. We need to investigate the latest scientific theories on this issue.
When we come to science, though, we note that consciousness is not at all understood.
"Although consciousness is not a supernatural phenomenon, science has yet to explain it. In this world of high technology, where we seem to have an answer for everything, it seems odd that we don't yet have an answer for what makes us, us." [Source]
"Professor Ashok Sharma, who was a scientist at Harvard University, feels that science fails to understand consciousness as an independent entity. He says, "Science cannot integrate a non-physical entity, like consciousness, into its conceptual framework, and views human personality as a non-conscious physical system." [Source]
I have no misconceptions about the enormous difficulty of the task involved in addressing this issue. In particular, I'm unwilling to make an assumption about the existence of a soul, which Rajaji admits needs to be made in the case of the Vedanta. I need evidence. .
And so this is my first, introductory blog post. Limitations of time mean that I'm going to dip in and out of this topic over the coming months. The point of this post is to commence a scientific investigation of consciousness – through secondary data and critical thinking.
To begin with, this post documents potential sources of information. Your contributions/ suggestions for reading are most welcome – as well as your analytical comments on the topic. I'll keep updating this post over the coming months, and, time permitting, will then summarise the literature in a systematic and critical manner, followed (if time permits) by some preliminary views on this matter.
Articles/books I've read
A "Complex" Theory of Consciousness (Scientific American, August 18, 2009)
This article is a summary of Giulio Tononi's integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness. It is based on certain mathematical principles that are quite promising, but empirically has no clear basis, at least yet. [A detailed PDF paper on Tononi's theory is available here. His book is linked here.]
Articles/books I've not yet read
Does quantum theory explain consciousness? Ian O'Neill, Discovery News, 26 May 2011
Note that some of this material might be "crackpot" level stuff. So beware, if you wish to read it! Keep your cerebrum stuck firmly on your head.
How to Study Consciousness Scientifically by John R. Searle, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 353, No. 1377.
Consciously Thinking about Consciousness by Myron Tribus, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 343-351
A Theory of Consciousness by E. Roy John, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 6 (Dec., 2003), pp. 244-250
Investigating the Biology of Consciousness by Antonio R. Damasio, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences
http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/tononi%20iitoc.pdf, by Gerald M. Edelman, Giulio Tononi
Coverage in the New Scientist (this link doesn't go to the full article)
A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness by Bernard J. Baars
An integral theory of consciousness by Ken Wilber
An epistemological theory of consciousness? by Pete Mandik, Department of Philosophy William Paterson University of New Jersey.
A Dualistic Theory of Consciousness by Dr. phil. Peter Flury-Kleubler
Journal of Consciousness studies. This journal is focused entirely on the study of consciousness, and a large number of articles are available online in full text. It was previously edited by Joseph Goguen. It has been co-edited by the philosopher of mysticism, Robert K.C. Forman. Articles published include: James Newman (1997) Putting the Puzzle Together, Part I: Towards a General Theory of the Neural Correlates of Consciousness. in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 1, pp47-66. [Abstract here]
The shrinking brain of mankind
The apparatus of our consciousness seems to be evolving.
If Modern Humans Are So Smart, Why Are Our Brains Shrinking? Discover magazine, September 2010.
Is a scientific definition of consciousness possible?