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.