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The 'What the F**k is Consciousness?' Debate

Is consciousness a construct of the human brain, or do our brains pick it up from the immaterial universe? We get all esoteric on you with some seriously interesting conspiracy theories.
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We rail on part-time scientists in the form of vaccine deniers and new age celebrity nutritionists here at the Banter with a great deal of pleasure. There's nothing more satisfying than debunking the pseudo-scientific nonsense people like Jenny McCarthy plaster all over the internet, particularly when we can pat ourselves on the back for saving children's lives. Ok, maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but we do see ourselves as having some sort of positive influence by debunking irresponsible celebrity fad 'science' that should be left exclusively to conversations in exclusive yoga studios in West Hollywood, not serious news websites reaching millions of people.

That being said, I'll make a confession and own up to having some slightly unconventional ideas about consciousness, reality, and the universe in general.

I stress that they are only ideas, and that I don't 'believe' in anything in particular (I'm not a scientist, so I don't believe I have the authority to come down one way or the other). But I do find alternative theories of reality and consciousness fascinating, and have done a good deal of reading on some of the debates going on in the science world.

Anyhow, I got into a rather interesting back and forth with a friend of a friend on Facebook discussing an article about respected scientist Dr Robert Lanza's belief that quantum theory 'proves consciousness moves to another universe at death'.

It's a complicated topic (and one that is flushed out in the debate), but the gist of it goes something like this: Traditional science believes consciousness is created by the brain, while more radical theorists believe the brain picks up consciousness, and therefore exists outside the human body in an immaterial world. Proponents of this radical theory believe this is supported by quantum physics (apparently microtubules in the brain have tiny quantum computers that pick up consciousness - a theory that has recently been supported by some interesting evidence).

Anyhow, here's the debate I had with an extremely knowledgable fellow named Pablo T., who took the view that the theory was complete and utter nonsense, and had quite a bit to say about alternative theories of reality. It's a long back and forth, but it raises some interesting concepts.


[note: the transcript has been edited for typos]

Pablo: “The laws, forces, and constants of the universe appear to be fine-tuned for life, implying intelligence existed prior to matter. "

--> oh come on, this is just restating the strong anthropic principle.
This is the result of selection bias: i.e., only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life will go unwitnessed.

"Lanza also believes that multiple universes can exist simultaneously. In one universe, the body can be dead. And in another it continues to exist, absorbing consciousness which migrated into this universe. "

Even if you accept multiple worlds theory, there's nothing there which implies the ability to migrate from universe to universe. Sure, alternate universe Pablo might not be dead, but that doesn't mean my 'consciousness' (ie. a complex biological feedback mechanism which has self-awareness) hasn't been destroyed in this life.

"Consciousness resides, according to Stuart and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose, in the microtubules of the brain cells, which are the primary sites of quantum processing. Upon death, this information is released from your body, meaning that your consciousness goes with it. They have argued that our experience of consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in these microtubules, a theory which they dubbed orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR)."

How is this any different from any religious claim regarding the soul? Where's the proof? There's no *mystery* about near-death experiences (NDEs), they've been explained without having to resort to quasi-religious terminology. Just because you use some scientific buzzwords doesn't mean the burden of proof isn't still on you. I don't see any proof there.

I'm all for quantum theory and I think multiple worlds is a likely scenario, but none of that implies such a thing as an immaterial form of consciousness. That's just using good science to promote wishful thinking.

Look, everybody has a natural tendency towards a dualistic view of the universe, making 'me' somehow disconnected and more special to 'the rest of the universe'. It's why we like to believe in souls, free will, all that jazz. We feel a lot more comfortable with the idea that we're more than purely physical creatures. But so far, besides the desirability of that idea, there hasn't really been any reason for that to be the case. It's a profoundly self-centred idea for a species to think that, simply because they happened to exist in a huge universe after billions of years and have the ability to perceive and think, that they must be the whole point of the thing. As mentioned earlier, that just a selection bias.

We're not the point of things, but we are pretty amazing creatures. Even without telling ourselves lies to make us feel better Sorry for the rant, I don't mean any offense. Everyone is entitled to believe what they want, I'm just skeptical.

Ben: Interesting. Quantum physics would indicate that the universe is far more complex than anything we're able to fully understand. On a quantum level, things happen that are outside newtonian laws of the universe (or the 'material world'), like two electrons appearing at the same time. This would imply there is another dimension of reality that that we are not entirely aware of. There are stunning similarities between people who have near death experiences, across all age ranges and cultures. They report pretty much the exact same thing (seeing themselves from above, seeing a white, all encompassing light, feeling intense love and calm etc) and their accounts must be taken seriously. I'm not saying I believe in life after death, or the continuation of consciousness outside the human body, but there is a growing amount of converging evidence that would indicate it is at the very least, a distinct possibility. Scientists still have absolutely no idea what consciousness is, or how the brain perceives/creates it. So anyone who says they 'know' it's purely materialist (ie. the brain creates consciousness and doesn't receive it) is talking nonsense. They are speculating with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

Pablo: Oh really, because people have similar hallucinations that implies a soul, instead of a biological phenomenon which isn't partially culturally defined?

Some reading material:

"NDE's and especially OBE's are cited as evidence of disembodied spirits, separate consciousness, and, therefore, life after death. Proponents claim the consistency of testimonials and the life-changing effects indicate that NDE's are real.

Additionally subjects' testimonials of clarity of thought is presented as evidence of the reality of NDE's. However, consider Jansen's finding that "...30% of normal subjects given ketamine were certain that they had not been dreaming or hallucinating, but that the events had really happened." By its definition a hallucination seems real. In fact drunk drivers commonly admit perceiving clarity of thought. Jansen asserts, "A personal conviction of the 'reality' of an NDE does not invalidate scientific explanations."

The explanation that NDE's are in fact passage into the afterlife presents several contradictions. Jansen quotes Dr. Melvin Morse that "One of the many contradictions which 'after-lifers' can not resolve is that 'the spirit rises out of the body leaving the brain behind, but somehow still incorporating neuronal functions such as sight, hearing, and proprioception.'"[13] Such a separation of the "spirit" and the brain ignores scientific evidence that indicates consciousness is dependent on the brain.

Also consider that at times living persons are encountered in NDE's. If NDE's were real then expecting to see living persons there would be as reasonable as expecting the persons one sees in dreams to actually be there.

Religious figures encountered in NDE's appear as they are commonly depicted, although trends vary by culture. In other words one sees exactly what one expects to see. Additionally historical accounts differ from the typical Western NDE. "


The claim that scientists have 'no idea' what consciousness is or how the brain perceives or creates it is false.

To those who are aware of the development of the human species from the perspective of evolutionary theory, it is perfectly possible to understand the development of consciousness. Consciousness is an evolutionary emergent phenomenon, which came into existence either because it offers an evolutionary advantage or because it is the byproduct of something which does. A species which is able to predict the behavior of other creatures possesses an evolutionary advantage because this allows it to adjust its behavior to this. The way in which this behavior can be predicted is sometimes referred to as the “theory of mind”: one models the thinking and decision making process of other creatures within one’s own mind. People have mirror neurons in their brains which allow them to gain insights in the thinking patterns of others. As a matter of fact this is part of a perpetual feedback process, where beings which are better equipped to do so had a greater chance of survival. The ability to predict the actions of others in a sophisticated manner is clearly an evolutionary trump card.

This theory of mind is a strong candidate for a partial explanation of the development of consciousness. All of this simply illustrates that it is absolutely untrue that the development of our “consciousness” is some type of mystical process which is unexplainable based on our current knowledge. Although there are obviously things which we do not yet fully understand, we should not fall into the trap of filling these ‘gaps of knowledge’ with the magical solution of ‘free will’ or a ‘soul’. Humans have an emergent consciousness which follows from the principles of evolution.

I understand that it's interesting to hypothesise about things like this, but one should always be aware where the burden of proof lies. If you're going to claim there's such a thing as an immaterial entity which defines us, you have to present a strong case. If not, you're just doing wishful thinking.

Ben: Interesting points Pablo. However, there have been NDE experiences when the person is clinically dead with no brain activity whatsoever ( Dr Sam Parnia, a leading authority on cardiac arrest resuscitation in the UK has documented many more of these and is convinced that consciousness does indeed exist independently of the body. Dr Morse's criticism regarding proprioception/vision/hearing is not really relevant in my humble opinion. Consciousness by definition perceives everything, so seeing/hearing things isn't exactly a stretch.

You state that the claim that scientists have no idea what consciousness is or how the brain perceives or creates it "is false.” I’m sorry, but that’s simply wrong - it’s the greatest mystery in science and we are not even close to understanding it. We can locate areas in the brain that activate during consciousness, and we know that at the very least, the brain has something to do with it (whether it is picking it up or creating it). But that is purely mechanical - it still doesn’t explain what consciousness actually is, or specifically how the brain 'creates' it.

I agree that consciousness was almost certainly an evolutionary mistake (and consequential advantage), but so what? That doesn't mean it is simply a projection of a complex brain. Why is it such a stretch to believe our brains evolved to 'pick up' consciousness, just as we evolved to pick up sound waves and light waves. You assert that consciousness arises out of complexity, but we don’t know this at all - it’s just a hypothesis. Right now, there is only circumstantial evidence, and absolutely zero evidence that it can be replicated elsewhere. AI is interesting, but there nothing vaguely concrete has been discovered regarding self awareness. The idea that the brain picks up consciousness is also a hypothesis, but given the gains in our understanding of quantum physics, new evidence of quantum vibrations within microtubules in the brain, and the data we have on NDEs, it isn’t quackery by any means. Personal accounts of NDEs isn’t solid scientific evidence, but it is still admissible as evidence (as are people who claim they are depressed - you have to at least take them seriously). I truly find it stunning that many scientists are unwilling to take a broader perspective when it comes to consciousness, particularly given the advances in physics that show we barely have a clue what is going on.

Pablo: Ben, about the NDE case that you're citing, it's apparently unlikely that the NDE happened while she was fully brain-dead, it says so on the page.

Could you explain to me why you'd need to refer or invoke a immaterial entity to allow for a person to be aware of his own existence? It just doesn't make sense to me: what exactly prevents a complex feedback mechanism such as a brain from being self-aware even within a physically determined material context? I fail to see any reason for that being unlikely or impossible. Just claiming for it to be so, doesn't make it so. Why can't a purely physical creature be self-aware? How does the immateriality help in any way?

Look, either your baseline is: 'I'll accept what can be proven and extrapolate from our current knowledge and understanding' or you start from 'I"d like this idea to be true and select my starting position from that, other's have to convince me otherwise'.

For me, the only honest starting position can be one where you aim to prevent yourself from being influenced by what you'd like to be true.

Practically everyone is a natural dualist, we all have a tendency towards there being 'something more,' believing in free will, things like that. But it seems like a bad idea to let the desirability of an idea be the indicator of it's likelihood.

Ben: Hey Pablo, I have no feelings one way or the other in regards to whether consciousness exists within or outside the brain. Increasingly, I have a harder and harder time accepting the premise of the materialist view of consciousness, precisely because of the advances in science make it harder to do so.

The emergence of quantum physics, and our inability to find a coherent overarching theory between that and Newtonian physics leaves a great big void that makes the known universe far, far more mysterious a place than you seem to want to accept. You talk about an 'immaterial entity' as if it's something ridiculous, but the very laws of physics themselves are 'immaterial' (ie. you can't see them). I'm proposing that the laws of the universe do exist though, just as consciousness itself may exist. It is just much harder to comprehend because you can’t touch or see it.

As for your other point that we need to take what we know is provable, then extrapolate - I completely agree. The problem is that when it comes to consciousness, we simply don’t know that much. You may well be right that consciousness is a product of complexity, and that other entities will become conscious (as some believe computers will), but as I said before, there’s nothing other than circumstantial evidence for this. It’s very interesting, but can’t be accepted as fact unless consciousness arises outside of biological life, spontaneously, and due to complexity. It’s a reasonable theory in my view, but just that - a theory.

The theory that human brains pick up consciousness is entirely reasonable too, given we know for scientific fact that some things operate completely outside the material laws of the universe. Obviously we can’t prove that (yet), but there is evidence to suggest that it could certainly be the case.

Pablo: Though it's a bit snarkily written, this pretty much sums up my point of view :

"Quantum consciousness (sometimes called quantum mind) is all too often a ham-fisted attempt to prove free will and/or god and/or magical pixies by jamming quantum physics into neuroscience.

Whether or not quantum effects influence thought is a valid topic for scientific investigation, but simply stating "quantum effects cause consciousness" explains nothing unless scientists can come up with some suggestion about how quantum effects could possibly cause consciousness. The argument goes:

I don't understand consciousness.
I don't understand quantum physics.
Therefore, consciousness must be a function of quantum physics.

It's god of the gaps with "quantum" as the all-purpose gap filler.[1] "

Look, if you want to find models for explaining the problem of finding a theory of everything, there's a world of string theory physics out there which is cutting edge and fantastically interesting. But there's really nothing in quantum physics which makes an immaterial conciousness a likely scenario.

"The overwhelming weight of evidence, from seven decades of experimentation, shows not a hint of a violation of reductionist, local, discrete, nonsuperluminal, non-holistic relativity and quantum mechanics - with no fundamental involvement of human consciousness other than in our own subjective perception of whatever reality is out there. Of course our thinking processes have a strong influence on what we perceive. But to say that what we perceive therefore determines, or even controls, what is out there is without rational foundation. The world would be a far different place for all of us if it was just all in our heads - if we really could make our own reality as the New Agers believe. The fact that the world rarely is what we want it to be is the best evidence that we have little to say about it. The myth of quantum consciousness should take its place along with gods, unicorns, and dragons as yet another product of the fantasies of people unwilling to accept what science, reason, and their own eyes tell them about the world.”

Ben: It's a bit of a silly retort to be honest, (although I am a huge fan of snark). Quantum physics tells us there is another realm of reality outside the known universe. The experience of consciousness appears to be telling us the exact same thing, so it's good science to explore the possibility that the brain has evolved a way of perceiving this. The discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules appears to validate this idea too (and NDEs etc), so it's far from 'New Age'. There are very, very good scientists who take this stuff extremely seriously, not just annoying yogis and spiritual gurus who jump on board whatever validates their world view.

I'd also add that I don't go along with the silly claims people like Deepak Chopra make about 'Quantum healing' etc, or think we can make meaningful predictions from a different interpretation of consciousness (nonsense like 'The Secret' and so on). I'd only go as far as saying I believe it when there is more concrete evidence one way or the other. For now, I just lean towards the more esoteric definition as it seems to make more sense.

Pablo: Ben, how is this different from the God of the Gaps argument used by religious people when there's something science can't wholly explain yet?

As to regards your earlier statement that we don't have a coherent overarching theory regarding the combination of Newtonian physics and quantum physics, I'd like to reiterate that we do actually have quite a good candidate in the form of string physics, which is admittedly extremely complex but very interesting.

The things we're told by quantum physics are based on very complex mathematics and on empirical observations. They very much go against our natural expectations and understanding about the universe. The things we say about conciousness and free will are fed by a natural tendency towards dualism which seems to be inherent in pretty much everyone. To me it seems like a pretty bad cut and paste job to just use the first theory as a means of allowing the second to be true.

I guess we've pretty much said what we can say about the subject. Out of curiosity, could you please refer to me the 'very good scientists' you refer to who believe that quantum mechanics allow for an immaterial source of consciousness?

Ben: Pablo, I’m not saying there is some mystical force filling in the gaps that science can’t yet explain. I’m saying that science itself (deductive reasoning) is paving the way for a far more complex understanding of reality and consciousness.

The only reason I take an interest in any of this is the data on Near Death Experiences. I’ve always discounted religious experience as any sort of evidence of God or a ‘supreme reality’ etc, and when I originally heard about NDEs I dismissed them completely as some sort of hallucinatory experience. But when you have doctors and scientists who specialize in consciousness and resuscitation saying it is completely impossible for the brain to be functioning when a person is clinically dead, yet people are coming back and vividly and accurately describing what happened to them, you can’t dismiss it.

Here’s an exchange between Wired Magazine, and the resuscitation expert Dr Sam Parnia who has recorded hundreds of these experiences:

Wired: Couldn’t the experiences just reflect some extremely subtle type of brain activity?

Parnia: When you die, there’s no blood flow going into your brain. If it goes below a certain level, you can’t have electrical activity. It takes a lot of imagination to think there’s somehow a hidden area of your brain that comes into action when everything else isn’t working.
These observations raise a question about our current concept of how brain and mind interact. The historical idea is that electrochemical processes in the brain lead to consciousness. That may no longer be correct, because we can demonstrate that those processes don’t go on after death.
There may be something in the brain we haven’t discovered that accounts for consciousness, or it may be that consciousness is a separate entity from the brain.

It’s all very well to dismiss it as a hallucination, or simply another part of the brain that is picking up on auditory and visual signals, but there’s absolutely no evidence of this. If you apply deductive thinking to this, the notion that our assumptions about consciousness could be wrong is in fact very scientific, and should be explored.

The very good scientists are the ones I mention above - Stuart Hameroff, Dr Sam Parnia, and Roger Penrose. You may not agree with them, but their credentials are impeccable.

[Pablo has an excellent article worth reading titled 'Free will and accountability: why a physically determined will does not preclude accountability'. You can find it here]