I think my generation may have done a few too many drugs in our youth. We simply believe too many things that defy both the evidence and any rational extrapolation of reality.
My generation (Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964) developed much of the modern world we all live in. Building on the knowledge of the generation before us, we developed microcomputers, high-level programming languages, molecular biology, the internet, social media, ebooks, genetic engineering, GMOs, click chemistry, fuel-efficient engines, lithium batteries, and more.
We also invented the multiverse, the Matrix, the anti-GMO movement, the anti-vaccine movement, chemtrails, and conspiracy theories in abundance. We may not have invented hallucinogenic drugs like heroin, LSD, or DMT, but we certainly popularized them. Then again, we popularized a lot of things: astrology, meditation, crystals, essential oils, etc.
The rise in the effectiveness of the scientific method (along with the new facts and the new inventions that followed) has been paralleled by increased pseudo-science and mystical/magical/spiritual beliefs.
In the midst of this Second Age of Enlightenment how did we turn away from evidence and reason? And how did we come to believe that personal observations and anecdotal evidence supersedes the scientific method?
Certainly science has had its failures, or at least, that’s how the public perceives it. Science and technology gave us the internal combustion engine, the coal burning power plant, nuclear power plants, and all the pollution that went along with those. Science and technology gave us wonderful new chemicals and plastics and littered our water and land with non-biodegradable waste.
Sometimes science seems confused. Science tells us fat is bad for us, then only some kinds of fat, then sugars and excess carbohydrates. Science says the planet is cooling, then warming, then simply changing. Science says smoking is good for you, then that smoking causes cancer and heart attacks. Science says the universe began in a Big Bang, then talks about multiple universes and cosmic inflation.
What’s the non-scientist to do?
Shall we simply “believe the authorities?”
The 1960s were a special time in American history. On the heels of World War II and the Korean War, the U.S. engaged in a war against Communism in Vietnam. Whereas young Americans had previously responded to a call to arms to protect freedom and democracy, the Baby Boom generation resisted the Vietnam draft. At the same time, other kinds of resistance against the authoritarian status quo grew, as black people and women in America decided they’d had enough of blindly obeying the authorities and conventions of the time.
I think, in our enthusiasm for a new age of peace and equality, we began to confuse the two kinds of authorities. One kind of authority is based on power and aggression; this is the authority of the boss and of government. The other kind of authority is based on competence and knowledge; this is the authority of the expert. The sixties made it clear we don’t always have to listen to the first kind of authority and then we started to realize even the “experts” don’t always have it right.
The Baby Boom generation started searching for its own way. By the millions, we rejected orders and knowledge given to us by those in authority. Science was that icky bunch of stuff you were forced to memorize in school (another authority) and it got rejected as well. Instead, we sought enlightenment inside, in our own experience, our own wisdom. We read Edgar Cayce, Lobsang Rampa and Carlos Castaneda. We learned occult arts like palmistry and the Tarot. We read about Tibetan Buddhism and the I Ching. We looked for our own paths.
When our unaided minds proved unequal to opening the third eye or to finding that connection with universal peace and “the all” we turned to natural and synthetic aids. We expanded our consciousness with LSD, felt at one with the universe with the help of DMT, peyote, magic mushrooms, or ayahuasca.
But have we gone too far?
Today this showed up in my newsfeed? The basic claim can be summarized as:
“Consciousness permeates reality. Rather than being just a unique feature of human subjective experience, it’s the foundation of the universe, present in every particle and all physical matter.”
Important scientists (like physicist Sir Roger Penrose and neuroscientist Christof Koch) along with several philosophers have given serious consideration to this perspective. As an empirical physicalist (called “scientific naturalist” by some), I believe in an objective universe of real matter and in the scientific method as the best way to understand it. But this special role of consciousness present everywhere in all things is in strong contradiction with my viewpoint.
Somehow (I think beginning in the sixties) we started giving conscious experience a privileged role it really doesn’t deserve. The experiences many of us had (perhaps while under the influence of hallucinatory drugs) made us believe there was some kind of hidden world that most of us couldn’t perceive, that if we could only open new methods of perception (the third eye, etc.) this hidden world would be revealed.
Even physics experiments, like the double slit (video below), led many to believe that conscious observation was an essential part of our universe.
(I believe this is open to many essential misunderstandings of the so-called observer effect.)
This led ultimately to two logical extensions: 1) we live in a simulation like the Matrix or 2) solipsism (i.e. “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am” as stated by Rene Descartes) where all we know is our own conscious experience, our own existence). Somehow we decided that our consciousness was more real than the real universe. By the way, I have another article in which I critique both simulation theories and solipsism.
What should we rely on more, our personal experiences or science?
Neuroscientist Sam Harris notes that consciousness is “notoriously difficult to define.” Then he goes on to say:
“By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience.”
I don’t agree. While the experience of consciousness may always be subjective, the thing itself has a structure. But it is not obvious. For example, if you could look inside your computer, you would be very hard pressed to find a “unit of arithmetic”, something that experiences addition. Yet your computer can add. This ability is an emergent property of a specific structure of hardware and software, a capability without understanding. The computer has no idea how to add, there is no basic “addingness” property inside it. Yet it can add and show you the result.
Here’s another example of an emergent property.
Say I drop grains of sand onto a tabletop, slowly building up a pile of sand. Eventually, the pile becomes unstable and collapses (the physics of this are fascinating). Now, if one is a “strict” reductionist and says everything about how the pile behaves is known from how grains of sand behave, well that’s obviously incorrect.
The behavior of the pile of sand is a function of the sand grains, the tabletop, gravity, and the structural relationship between these things. If one is a reductionist in the sense of seeing that the components and their relationships together determine the behavior of the aggregate, this would be my view. Such aggregate behavior is emergent from the components and their relationships. There is no single component you can use to understand the structural integrity of the pile of sand. There is no where you can look to say, “Where is the integrity of the pile of sand.” There is no basic unit of structural integrity.
That’s how consciousness works.
Consciousness is funny and it’s even odder that we put so much stock in the validity of our experiences. Psychologist Julia Shaw has demonstrated just how easy it is to plant false memories of experience in our mind, how to hack memory.
Experiences like the “Rubber Hand” (video below) demonstrate just how easy it is to transfer conscious experience into an inanimate object. This isn’t because there’s some inherent element of consciousness that we can connect with in things like a rubber arm and hand. Rather, it’s because consciousness is so easily fooled.
THE RUBBER HAND EXPERIMENT ✋😱✋Follow The Spectacular Show for more amazing videos from Rick Lax!
Posted by The Rick Lax Show on Friday, January 19, 2018
But we knew this all along. Dreams give us very realistic conscious experiences when we’re sleeping. In our dreams, we talk with people; we move around and do things. We experience visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory sensations that aren’t anywhere except inside our minds. Schizophrenics have difficulty with the barrier between their imagination and their perception; sensations that originate inside the mind overlap with perceptions of the external world. Drugs like LSD make this kind of “sensory confusion” even more evident. Why, then do we rely so much on the validity of our conscious experience?
The only other thing we have to rely on as an arbiter of truth is science and many of us do not have good experience with that in our education. We reject the authority associated with expertise as readily as we reject the arbitrary authority of power. We have gone too far.
Science is misunderstood. It’s not just a collection of facts, though there is much basic information to learn if one wants to have a view of the natural world that is consistent with the way things actually work. Once one has a sufficient base, one can begin to build hypotheses about things that are as yet unproven. But the heart of science is the scientific method.
The method is simple. You have an idea of how things work that is consistent with a set of facts. You make a model for how you think the facts all fit together. Then you make an hypothesis or prediction about something that hasn’t been observed before. Then you test it. That is you observe how some part of the universe works in comparison to your prediction.
The real strength of the scientific method is in how we make observations. The method must be public, clear, and obvious. It must lead to observations that are reliable (or consistent) and they must be repeatable by others (providing they make the same kinds of measurements). Ultimately, it is this making public, this sharing of multiple subjective experiences under rigorous circumstances that gives science its power.
Science needs skepticism. Even those who don’t believe the results must be able to replicate them. If belief is required to repeat the observation, it is not science. This is unlike the vast majority of consciousness-based, pseudo-scientific, spiritual “observations” where being in the “correct mind frame” or “just letting go” or “believing” is a crucial part of the ability to observe or experience. Knowing how easily one’s consciousness can be manipulated should make one wary of relying on personal experiences of any sort as some kind of mystical path to truth and wisdom.
Physicist Richard Feynman once said “What I cannot create, I do not understand”? I think sometime in the next 100 years, we’ll demonstrate an understanding of mind, self-awareness, and consciousness by creating a concept-processing device that exhibits these properties. I think it will combine elements of what is known as graph-based knowledge systems (similar to semantic networks in some ways) and neural networks. Once we have developed a theory of such conceptual systems and built self-aware, conscious systems, we will have a deeper understanding of our own consciousness.
As with past scientific advances, the mysticism that surrounds the idea will then slowly disappear. The wonder, the amazement that such a thing exists will remain, I hope. And I hope we will welcome the new conscious entities we create into the sentient family.