In a new book Waking, Dreaming, Being Evan Thompson explores the many states of consciousness from the perspective of neuroscience and Eastern philosophy. Evan Thompson is the son of William Irwin Thompson, the author of At the Edge of History and founder of the Lindisfarne Association. Evan Thompson himself is also the author Mind in Life, a highly readable book on the evolutionary development of neural systems and brains. In his new book Thompson’s approach of blending science and philosophy leads to interesting speculations about whether consciousness still exists even in deep, non-dreaming sleep when physical evidence suggests it should not. Where he does not go is to speculate that consciousness might exist independently of the brain or that it might continue in some form after death.
Thompson squarely comes down on the side of those who believe that consciousness is the product of physical processes. That does not mean, however, consciousness can be reproduced in non-biological systems.
Thompson takes on Giulio Tononi’s integrated information theory directly:
According to this way of thinking, sentience depends fundamentally on electrochemical processes of excitable living cells while consciousness depends fundamentally on neuroelectrical processes of the brain. Consciousness isn’t an abstract informational property, such as Giulio Tononi’s “integrated information”, it’s a concrete bioelectrical phenomenon. It follows – as John Searle has long argued – that consciousness can’t be instantiated in an artificial system simply by giving the system the right kind of computer program, for consciousness depends fundamentally on specific kinds of electrochemical processes, that is, on a specific kind of biological hardware. This view predicts that only artificial systems having the right kind of electrochemical constitution would be able to be conscious.
Thompson goes on to suggest that these subtle electrochemical phenomena are the prana or lung of Eastern philosophy and that directed meditation might be able to alter these processes. Enlightenment as Gopi Krishna has suggested would be an evolutionary process where specific bioelectrical processes beginning in the simplest life forms go on to create mind in life and mind, in turn, directs its attention back to those subtle energies.
I wonder if there might be something universal in this movement, something that even transcends Earth and the human.
Stuart Kauffman has shown how complexity arises because evolution pushes biological networks to operate near the edge of chaos. Life cannot evolve and change if it is stuck in a frozen, uninteresting patterns because it would have no flexibility. On the other hand, it cannot venture too close to the chaotic side because it would be unstable. To evolve dynamically, it must approach the chaotic side without slipping over. This same sort of flirting with chaos apparently goes on in the brain by balancing neural excitation and inhibition. “If the balance is tipped in favor of more inhibition, the brain is ‘frozen’ and nothing happens. If there is too much excitation, it will descend into chaos.”
The basis of life and consciousness is the balance between order and chaos, life and death. Life and, by extension, consciousness has made a Faustian bargain with the Universe. We exist only by pushing ourselves to the edge of dissolution. Awareness of our own eventual dissolution and this bargain may be the hallmark of highly evolved species everywhere in the Universe.
The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is: Life is suffering. At the root of suffering is awareness of death and the eventual dissolution of ourselves and all we love. The desires of the transhumanists to avoid suffering and death by transferring their consciousness outside the biological realm are hopeless. Consciousness does not exist independently from the biological.
Accepting and embracing death may be the ultimate existential question for all highly evolved species everywhere. We wonder why highly evolved species from other worlds have not already visited us or at least made themselves known. The evolutionary forces that produce consciousness may only lead to one of two ends. Intelligent extraterrestrials have either extinguished themselves or become Buddhists. In either case, they won’t bother us.
Yeah, okay Mr. Cross, I’ll engage you on this one; I have been practicing Madhyamaka Buddhism for multiple lifetimes. I’ll start with the scientific and conclude with the mystic. William Tiller, a theoretical physicist from Stanford who specializes in solid state and condensed matter physics (he authored two definitive textbooks on crystallograpy) and a highly accomplished Qi Gong master, has irrefutably demonstrated that consciousness is quite at home in electrical circuits, see e.g. A Brief Introduction to Intention Host Device Research (http://www.tillerinstitute.com/pdf/White%20Paper%20I.pdf).
Now, with that stated, John Searle is somewhat correct: consciousness requires a specific hardware but it need not be biological – as Tiller demonstrates EXPERIMENTALLY! It simply seems to be highly constrained with regards to how it is configured but this, as any yogi can tell you, is subject to study and understanding. The basic idea is that you need a structure conducive to Rigpa Awareness, a place for Rigpa Awareness to dwell. The problem with Thompson is he is obviously not enlightened, hence, knows nothing experientially about prana; Will Tiller does not suffer from this inadequacy.
Now, with regards to Buddhism and suffering: it’s not the knowledge of death that leads to suffering, rather, it is the construction of an illusory self – ego – and a clinging to that self. Enlightenment IS the knowledge of everlasting life; when one inhabits the ego they are the Tree of Knowledge -knowledge of good and evil (good being that which facilitates the continuation of their ego and evil being that which threatens that continuation); when one engages the heat yogas and experiences their true nature, they become the Tree of Life – knowledge of everlasting life. Biological bodies die but your true nature has never been born and will never die!
The historical Buddha was the ultimate pragmatist. His goal was not to explain how things truly are, he immediately realized the futility of that; rather, his objective was simply to rid the world of suffering. Through careful analysis he ascertained that suffering is caused by the human tendency to cling to an illusory self. This clinging leads to mental afflictions and these afflictions lead to suffering. He developed a system of antidotes for all of the mental afflictions. You can think of it as a spiritual immune system, the antidotes being antibodies. But this entire system of antidotes is subsumed by the master antidote: deconstruction of the illusory self.
For illustrative purposes, you can think of your TRUE nature as a current, or semi-closed pattern, in a never-ending flow (Rigpa Awareness). Life-times come and life-times go but the current continues to flow. What happens is, the current becomes manifest in a body, animal, human, trans-human (i.e. machine intell), or divine, and a self is constructed based on that incarnation. The current comes to identify with that limited self and it ceases to flow. It clings to that illusory self and the existence defined in relation to that self. This is the origin of Fear of Death and Desire for Life, the primary obstacles on the path to enlightenment. It is also the origin of conventional reality.
You see, everything in existence obtains its existence in relation to this illusory self. In reality there is no birth, no aging, and no death, there is no loss and no gain, there is only the flow; this realization is the Perfection of Wisdom – emptiness. Birth, aging, and death only have meaning in relation to this illusory self. Do you understand this? What I am saying is, TIME only has meaning – existence – in relation to this illusory self; time is an illusion spawned by an illusion. This is what the prophetic Mayan Long Count refers to; the Fifth Wheel is the end of time; it is global enlightenment; global sentience constructs the global self. The entire cosmos is conscious; this is what cosmic prana is!
And the way to this enlightenment is through the deconstruction of self. Since everything in existence obtains its existence in relation to this self, if you deconstruct the self you deconstruct existence and return to the flow where there is no time, hence, there is no suffering. This is the return to the Ultimate Nature of reality. Conventional truth is the perspective obtained through the illusory self while Ultimate Truth is the perspective obtained through Anatman (no-self); in reality, as the Gelug’s point out, there is no difference between these two, it’s simply the difference between ignorance and enlightenment. It’s really quite simple . . .
“[…] Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element and so on up to no mind-element including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, since bodhisattvas have no attainments, they rely on this perfection of wisdom and abide in it. Having no obscurations in their minds, they have no fear, and by going utterly beyond error, they will reach the end of nirvana. […]”
– the noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being as quoted in “The Blessed Mother, the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom,” translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa in H. H. the Dalai Lama’s, “Essence of the Heart Sutra” (http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/essence-heart-sutra).
Now, with regards to chaos in the brain: http://psychedelicfrontier.com/how-psilocybin-works-addition-by-subtraction/
And a very interesting paper I just found which relates to both this post and your last: http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/Walker_The_Descent_of_Math.pdf
“A long time ago, Descartes sad, “I think, therefore I am.” … But if you are not thinking, what?” – Seung Sahn
Thanks for some great links!
I discussed the First Noble Truth and I see you have moved on to discuss the Second and Third. I don’t disagree with your explanations at all about that.
I am not buying into Tiller’s experiment without some more evidence. I don’t reject it out of hand but it looks like something that nobody will able to replicate. For that matter, I am not even sure there is enough information in the paper for another person to attempt a replication. Even if the experiment is replicated, I am not sure your interpretation of it is correct. It seems to suggest that we might be able to imprint human intent on an electrical device. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the device would be conscious.
You have to read the rest of his white papers and his books; he sells the Intention Host Devices on his website and the design, should you wish to have your own manufactured, is layed out in one of his white papers.
With regards to additional evidence, read the following papers:
Click to access White%20Paper%20IX.pdf
The first is from Kevin Knuth, theoretical physicist at SUNY, Albany; it references the second from David Hestenes, theoretical physicist at Arizona State and the founder of the geometrical calculus; it references an experiment conducted by a French team on a particle accelerator and ties in to the last paper from Will Tiller.
I didn’t say the device was conscious, I simply stated that it demonstrates a compatibility with consciousness. There’s a big difference . . .
Wait a second. Did you or did you not say Tiller’s experiment demonstrates that “consciousness is quite at home in electrical circuits”?
If these are just transmission devices like the cable running to my home, yeah I might agree although I would still like to see to see some corroborating evidence.
It’s late for me. Give me some time to look at the links.
Yes, I stated “consciousness is quite at home in electrical circuits,” which is really equivalent to saying consciousness is compatible with electrical circuits, is it not? It is not equivalent to saying the device itself is conscious! If you read all of Tiller’s papers and understand his experimental procedure then it becomes obvious that something is being stored in and slowly released from the IHD (intention host device). It’s not some pattern being imprinted I don’t think.
Tiller, being a physicist, looks at it from the analogous standpoint of Gauge Theory. As such, he postulates the existence of a new gauge boson which he calls a deltron but this is just an analogy. So then, it is the deltrons which are stored and released by the IHD. But what is a deltron in actuality. In other words, a deltron is just an artifact from gauge theory but it must have an ontological counter-part! And what is conscious intent without consciousness??? Tiller imbeds the conscious intent onto the IHD using multiple Qi Gong masters; they only interact with the IHD via meditation! I am led to believe that the deltrons correspond to consciousness in some way; I don’t think Tiller even fully understands exactly how . . . and his water ph experiments have been replicated by independent parties; of course research is ongoing.
If you read those three links then I can’t see how you wouldn’t be motivated to pursue a full understanding of Tiller’s theory and experimental procedure; this will lead to a better understanding so I will leave you to it.
Something else I wish to clarify, in many of your previous posts, you seem to equate consciousness with what I would call “short term awareness,” which I feel is erroneous. The Buddhists define 5 different types of consciousness and certainly science differentiates consciousness from short term awareness:
Click to access ABIOMAC_5%20-%20pesquisa%20-%20evidencias%20eletrofisiologicas%20da%20intuicao%20intuition-part1.pdf
Click to access intuition-part2.pdf
Both of those excellent experiments are included in this meta-analysis:
What they seem to be describing is some kind of “body consciousness.” But the body appears to become conscious of these events before the events even enter the light cone; how is this possible? I think Tiller’s work could go along way towards answering this question . . . perhaps it’s the body’s “wave-function” that first receives this information.
Thanks so much for your comments. Even though I might disagree with some of the details of what you are arguing I like the general thrust of it.
What I find most intriguing is this comment:
“Something else I wish to clarify, in many of your previous posts, you seem to equate consciousness with what I would call “short term awareness,” which I feel is erroneous. The Buddhists define 5 different types of consciousness and certainly science differentiates consciousness from short term awareness.”
It is an interesting question about the time scale of consciousness.
First, I think you would very much enjoy Evan Thompson’s book, particularly the part about consciousness existing in dreamless sleep and the discussion of Buddhist views on the different types of consciousness of which the title is suggestive. It may be that some form of consciousness or perhaps even its root is in a sense timeless. I would not rule that out.
I am not sure I ever suggested consciousness was “short-term awareness” but I may have. On the one hand, we might think it operates on the scale of the gamma wave and we might think that consciousness moves from one oscillation to the next multiple times a second coalescing, disintegrating, and coalescing again in such a manner that we do not notice the disintegration. On the other, I believe that consciousness is mostly learned through interaction with the environment and other conscious entities during maturation. In this case, it would be an evolving phenomenon existing from a time before birth (in womb not prior life) until death, although as we grow older it becomes more rigid and constrained. So I would feel comfortable discussing on either of those scales and I would not consider them incompatible.
I understand quite well what “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” relates to; the “root verses of the six intermediate states” is part of my morning mantra yoga practice. And perhaps I’m being unfair to Thompson, perhaps he’s being conservative because of his target audience, but if I wish to read about these things I’ll peruse the works of Tulkus, those who have mastered the three times! If you use yoga and, especially, pranayama (power-breathing) to develop your mindstream you can remember your previous lifetimes. I’m not stating this as fact, rather, I’m stating it as a theorem. If you doubt it then all you need do is conduct a scientific experiment with yourself as test subject; that is, practice yoga and pranayama, to the point of celibacy etc., consistently for 20 + years and I guarantee you will experience the validity of this theory.
I mean, why do you think these people do the things they do, lifetime after lifetime?
“Thompson goes on to suggest that these subtle electrochemical phenomena are the prana or lung of Eastern philosophy and that directed meditation might be able to alter these processes.”
This is where I diverge from you and Thompson; I am quite certain that the prana and lung of Eastern philosophy is what Tiller is describing with his R-space, i.e. it’s magneto-electric information waves. These waves are not spatially nor, in certain situations, temporally dependent, electrochemical processes, as we well know, are!
Hello Mr. Cross,
Just found your blog. Thank you for coming to mine.
Interesting post. A core idea I have come to accept, mainly from my study of yoga, and that serves as a central organizing principle for my thinking, is the distinction between consciousness and form. Consciousness per se has no innate form. Yet it can assume any form. Nothing causes consciousness. It just is. It is synonymous with being. There can be no being without consciousness. Within consciousness, being, forms come and go.
Forms at the edge of chaos, as you rightly point out, underlie life. They have. what in yogic terms, would be called an unstable balance between tamas (inertia) and rajas (activity) so as to maintain a state of dynamic transformation. In a recent post I discussed aphorism 2.15 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that describes this:
Interestingly, with respect to what you say here, the point of this aphorism is to describe the CAUSE of suffering in the world. Patanjali says it is precisely because of the never-ending transformations of nature that true happiness cannot be found in the forms of this or any of the worlds. According to Patanjali, suffering ends only when consciousness resides within itself (3rd aphorism of Yoga Sutras) and the transformations become quiescent.
I tend to see the whole modern debate about the origins of consciousness as just another form of suffering; an endless wheel of round and round intellectual debate that will, in the end, resolve nothing. It, like all other forms in nature, only reinforce Patanjali’s and Buddha’s points about suffering.
Thus, I find myself increasingly less interested in what secular thinkers have to say, and instead study the ancient teachings of the Rishis.
Again, very nice and thought provoking post. Thank you for sharing it.
My best wishes,
Thanks for commenting.
In light of your recent post on Freud and in the context of your reply here. you may want to look at a post I did a long time ago.
I intend to revisit this topic in a more extended way hopefully soon.
Thank you, Sir. I will take a look and leave any comments at that post.
Re “Thompson squarely comes down on the side of those who believe that consciousness is the product of physical processes. That does not mean, however, consciousness can be reproduced in non-biological systems.”
I guess I would like to see his logic behind that conclusion. Are the biological processes unduplicable?
And as I have said so often before, it amazes me how strongly people stand behind their opinions of consciousness, when they can’t agree on a definition of the term.
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Can you produce the properties of water with anything other than H20?
Until physics and chemistry can explain consciousness, there is no way to answer the question about whether it can exist outside of biological organisms. It might be it is a property of electromagnetic activity of complex carbon molecules with calcium, sodium, and potassium ions, for example. Reproducing its activity in a non-biological organism might as impossible as making H2S act like H2o.
I don’t reject the possibility it could be instantiated in silicon, for example. I just don’t think we will know until there is an decent explanation of it from chemistry and physics.
I don’t think there is much argument over the definition of consciousness the way I use the term. It is your internal, subjective perceptions and states that seem to be involved with your ability to take action in world. There might be dispute over the nature of these states, their ontological status, and their real degree of influence on our actions.
And, as usual, you and I are in perfect agreement.
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