Putting Consciousness to the Test

· The word consciousness doesn’t travel very well. In China, it has a moral, Confucian connotation; in India, it has a “spiritual” dimension.

· Artificial Intelligence can simulate consciousness, it cannot be conscious — nor can it have a mystical experience.

· If the universe is conscious, we have to redefine the word consciousness and reimagine (quantum) physics.

What do we mean by consciousness? The word as it is commonly used and understood in the West is attributed to René Descartes. He defined it as “an intrinsic property of all thoughts.” An 18th-century French encyclopedia defined consciousness as “the opinion or internal feeling that we ourselves have from what we do.” John Locke defined consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” In recent years, the meaning of the word has widened considerably. Some in the quantum physics community argue that the universe is conscious. This notion makes consciousness both an anthropomorphic and cosmic phenomenon. Consciousness means different things in diferent cultures.

The Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF), a nonprofit that funds research at the intersection of science and religion, is preparing an international study involving 11 institutions in three continents to unravel the mystery of consciousness. The first stage of the so-called COGITATE study will pit two conflicting theories against each other to eliminate one or the other. The project was inspired by tests carried out in the 1920s on the conflicting gravity theories of Newton and Einstein. We all know that Einstein won. The former predicted the sun deflects starlight by 0.8 arc seconds, the latter 1.75 arc seconds.

Gravity, of course, is generally understood, well-defined, and measurable, if invisible. Notions about consciousness are fuzzy and still evolving. In 1995, David Chalmer introduced the distinctions between the easy and the hard problem of consciousness. He defined consciousness as “the feeling of what it is like to be something,” which is virtually synonymous with experience. Among the easy problems, says Chalmers, are finding neural correlates of consciousness and explaining the ability to focus attention, recall items from memory, integrate perceptions, etc. The hard problem: Why does consciousness feel the way it does? Why does it feel like anything?

The contestants in the first part of the COGITATE study propose conflicting theories about the neurological process in the mind: Global Neuronal Workspace (GNW) and Integrated Information Theory (IIT). The former argues that conscious behavior arises when sensory information collected in a cognitive “workspace” is broadcast to other brain centers. The latter holds that consciousness is not something that arises while turning inputs into outputs but rather “an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network.”

Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine

Initiators of the COGITATE study argue that an understanding of consciousness impinges on medical and legal questions as well as animal rights. The AI community is interested in the nature of consciousness in the context of machine intelligence. Both of these concerns — medical issues and the potential of AI — place consciousness in an ethical context.

On the other side of the spectrum are claims that the universe is conscious. Implicit in such claims is that consciousness existed before the emergence of humans. It raises the question of what kind of consciousness this would be. The universe has existed forever, while conscious humanity appeared only a few hundred thousand years ago. Evolution assumes a different scenario: the universe had the intrinsic conditions for life to emerge and for human consciousness to develop.

Early forms of biological life, like the tiny water-borne trichoplax adhaerens, had two binary modes: rest and movement. They relied on chemical signals and only moved when they needed food. Species further evolved by developing sensory organs like eyes and independent mobility to locate food, which led to the development of memory and situational awareness (“Earlier I saw food there”). The binary distinction between finding food or becoming food led to the development of instinct and, after many mutations, the human mind, the most complex piece of engineering in the known universe.

When the mind develops in childhood, neurons form connections with other neurons at the rate of 500.000 per second. It will make a minimum of 100 trillion connections. The quantum level that underlies the brain’s trillions of connections is more dazzling. A single neuron may have 100 trillion atoms. They play a role in the five chemical processes that are active in the brain — dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.

Each chemical has different atomic properties and operates on different electromagnetic frequencies, ranging from Delta (0.5Hz-4Hz) to Beta (14Hz-30Hz). They control movement, speech, thought, hearing, and they regulate everything from dopamine levels to the circadian rhythm of the body. Connected to the trillions of cells that make up the central nervous system of the body, the mind is a process rather than a thing.

Culture and Consciousness

The COGITATE study will deploy the latest brain-monitoring technology, including electrocorticography and magnetoencephalography. The researchers may find the neurological triggers that give rise to consciousness (or states of awareness) and give insight into the “wetware” of the mind. But given the complexity of the brain, they can only hope to identify zones of the brain with heightened activity. Moreover, the study will not shed light on the “content” of consciousness. The degree of awareness is determined by personal experiences accumulated through upbringing, environment, and education and differs in each individual. Moreover, consciousness as we understand the word has a cultural dimension.

In China, the word for consciousness is xin, a compound character that means “heart-mind.” In the Western view, consciousness arises naturally and spontaneously, in Confucian thought, xin does not develop naturally but must be cultivated. It develops in the framework and context of a collectivist, group-oriented culture that stresses mutual obligation and a hierarchical social structure. ​Group consciousness will have different neurological triggers than individualistic consciousness.

Indian notions of consciousness have been shaped by the yogic tradition, which holds that the mind has four main categories: buddhi (intellect), manas (memory, mental and physical!), ahankara (identity or ego), chitta (cosmic awareness). The intellect analyzes and dissects by accessing our memory of accumulated experiences, which, in turn, are based on our identity, be it nationality, profession, ideology, or religion. Cosmic awareness transcends intellect, memory, and identity and is aware ​of all that exists, from a blade of grass to supernovas​, ultimate reality and the source of creation​.

Modern notions of consciousness in the West have been strongly affected by Asia culture. India was the template for the consciousness-raising experiments of the hippies in the 1960s. Emblematic of the age were photographs of the Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. The subsequent New Age and Integral movements were influenced by both Indian and Chinese-Japanese Zen thought. The era led to the popular embrace of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, which even made it into corporate life, but its effect on society as a whole was marginal.

Psychedelics and Neural Networks

In the 1960s, Harvard professor Timothy Leary documented how LSD affects brain chemistry. He claimed psychedelics could reduce recidivism among prison populations. Many in the psychiatric establishment came to regard LSD and psilocybin as wonder drugs for treating depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. But hallucinogens were also associated with the 1960s counterculture. When the media began reporting stories about “bad trips” and psychotic attacks, authorities put a break on the experiments.

But the tide seems to be turning. In recent years there has been renewed media and medical interest in mushrooms (psilocybin), ayahuasca, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), ketamine, and other psychotic drugs for their potential to help treat a variety of psychiatric conditions. Harvard, which fired Leary all these years ago, is also back in the business of psychedelic healing.

A recent article in Harvard Health Publishing, “Back to the Future: Psychedelic Drugs in Psychiatry,” quotes Dr. Jerrold Rosenbaum, the director of the newly created Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Psychedelics induce the brain to change transiently in ways that appear to allow a reset to take place and permit alterations in previously ‘stuck’ ways of feeling and thinking about things.”

The author of the article notes that there are likely several ways in which psychedelics can accomplish this: new connections are briefly made in neural networks while the resting state of the brain (or the “default mode network”) loses connectivity — then it restores itself. It’s like rebooting your computer. This is how stuck patterns of thinking are thought to shift.

AI and Human Intelligence

In 2018, Harvard invited Indian yogic teacher, Sadhguru Vasudev, for a discussion on the mind with its leading neurologists. Sadhguru, one of the most articulate experts on yogic knowledge in the world today, echoes the views of Rosenbaum. Hallucinogenics, he says, lift certain blockages in the mind that are created by our identity (ideology, profession, religion, nationality, etc.). Drugs or alcohol induce people to temporarily step outside the boundaries of their identity. That creates access points for expanded awareness. Yoga creates similar access points.

Asked how anesthesia makes one unconscious, Sadhguru replied: “Anesthesia cannot touch consciousness. It can only take away memory. What you are referring to as consciousness is wakefulness. We do not consider wakefulness as consciousness. Being wakeful and being conscious are two different things… Consciousness (chitta) means you went beyond your memory and grasped the nature of reality as it is.” In Western terminology, chitta is a permanent “spiritual high,” being part of all that exists; a sense of illumination.

Using the four yogic divisions of mind, Sadhguru argues that Artificial Intelligence will be a turning point. He explains that most work done today is based on knowledge we acquired during our education and experience. This knowledge stored in our memory enables us to be an accountant, doctor, or engineer. AI will devalue this knowledge and hence our professional memory. Virtually all mental labor that can be captured in a mathematical form will disappear.

Sadhguru: “Artificial intelligence will take away the power of our memory, in the same way that machine tools took away the power of our muscles in the 20th century. Everything that humans are doing right now, gathering, analyzing, and processing data, will be done by AI. Ten years down the line, consciousness (chitta) will be valued over knowledge. This is the time human beings can focus on consciousness.”

“The fourth dimension of the mind is called Chitta which is pure intelligence. It is unsoiled by memory, it has no trace of any kind of memory, its just pure intelligence. If you touch this, then you have access to what you are referring to as the source of creation”

(SadhguruScience, 2019., Sadhguru. 2012)

When René Descartes first spoke of consciousness in the 17th century, he used it in a secular, philosophical context, as did John Locke. In the 20th century, the hippies associated the word with spirituality. They rejected traditional religion and focused on personal spiritual experiences inspired by Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. In 1966 Timothy Leary founded the League for Spiritual Discovery, a religion declaring LSD as its holy sacrament, and he co-authored The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which in turn inspired John Lennon’s song “Tomorrow Never Knows”

The New Age movement that followed the hippie era focused on Mind, Body, Spirit and it drew on esoteric traditions and the occult, Spiritualism, New Thought, Theosophy. New Age embraced the holistic form of divinity that imbues all of the universe, including human beings themselves. It also focused on focus on healing, particularly using forms of alternative medicine, and an emphasis on the notion that spirituality and science can be unified.

Spirituality and Psychology

In the 1970s, American philosopher Ken Wilber published The Spectrum of Consciousness, an influential book that linked eastern religious traditions with western models of psychology. Wilber popularized the notion of integral, a word used earlier by Sri Aurobindo, the Indian philosopher and yoga guru whose work has been described as Integral Vedanta and Integral psychology. The word integral was independently used by the Swiss interdisciplinary scholar Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin to describe human history as a series of mutations in consciousness.

Wilber drew on both Aurobindo’s and Gebser’s theories to develop his influential theory known as AQAL, (All Quadrants All Levels), the basic framework of Integral Theory. He suggested that all human knowledge and experience can be placed in a four-quadrant grid, along the axes of “interior-exterior” and “individual-collective”. His model included Freudian psychoanalysis, hermeneutics (which seeks to interpret the collective consciousness of a society), B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, and Marxist economic theory.

The pinnacle of Wilber’s model is said to be formless awareness, “the simple feeling of being” equated with a range of “ultimates” from a variety of eastern traditions. Formless awareness transcends the phenomenal world, which is only an appearance of transcendental reality. The AQAL categories, Wilber said, describe the relative truth of the two truths doctrine of Buddhism, which differentiates between two levels of satya (truth or reality): the “conventional” or “provisional” (saṁvṛti) truth, and the “ultimate” (paramārtha) truth.

Eastern traditions have figured heavily in Western discussions about consciousness in recent decades. At the same time, Western thought, with its emphasis on individuality, has impacted Eastern consciousness. But cultural differences remain. What we call consciousness developed in a cultural context that in some cases dates back 5000 years. Context explains why Japanese consciousness is different from English consciousness. It is what separates China from India. The growing consensus on the ecological danger facing the planet is merely the first sign of an emerging global consciousness.

Human hierarchy of cybernetics, the larger framework in which human consciousness develops. If we extend the diagram from the microcosmos to the macrocosmos, we would put the universe above humanity (Milsom/Laszlo, in Cybernetics: Theory and Application 1983)

That leaves us with the question of the much-discussed conscious universe, and notions about panpsychism, the idea that mentality or consciousness is in some form present in the physical reality. Scholars are debating whether the birth of consciousness was not due to a mysterious property emerging at a “certain level of the hierarchy of increasing material complexity,” but that it is an inherent property, implying the most elementary particles have these properties. What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does, they ask, but is instead a quality inherent in all matter?

British mathematician Roger Penrose believes the mystery of consciousness will only be solved when an understanding is found for how brain structures can harness the properties of quantum mechanics to make it possible. Penrose proposed that consciousness is rooted in the statistical rules of quantum physics as they apply in the microscopic spaces between neurons in the brain. Stuart Hameroff, professor of anaesthesiology, argued that tiny structures in the brain called microtubules, were capable of generating consciousness by tapping into the quantum world.

The suggestion that consciousness is inherent in all matter conjured up notions that are common in animism, in which all things are believed to be permeated by spirits. But that takes the word consciousness far beyond its conventional meaning. It projects anthropomorphic notions on nature and the universe. We know from quantum physics that all things and non-things are related. Electrons, protons, neutrons, and other particles are the building blocks of the universe, including tangible and intangible phenomena: the neurons in our brain, the air we breathe, and the light and heat produced by the sun. The subatomic realm unites all existence. But a cosmic consciousness does not imply that the cosmos is conscious.

Aether and Animism

Before the quantum revolution a century ago, scientists assumed the existence of the aether, traditionally referred to as the luminiferous aether. The Greeks believed the aether was a substance that filled the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. Descartes drew the aether into the domain of science, proposing that all forces are transmitted by direct contact. Aether was the “medium” that enabled two forces, pressure and impact, to be transmitted between bodies. While ether was regarded as imperceptible to the senses, it was capable of transmitting force on material bodies immersed in it. Aristotle had expressed similar views.

Newton addressed the issue of forces transmitted by direct contact with his Third Law of Motion. It states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (e.g. colliding billiard balls). But Newton, like Descartes, assumed that forces between bodies not touching each other, like two magnets or the Moon’s effect on the tides of the oceans, must have direct contact through an intermediate, contiguous “substance” like the aether.

“I suppose, that there is diffused through all places an ethereal substance, capable of contraction and dilatation, strongly elastic, and, in a word, much like air in all respects, but far subtler.” — Isaac Newton

Newton assumed the aether to be something with “ponderability” that participates in the movement and ordering of the planets and the universe, as well as a working force in optics, chemistry, and gravitation. In a letter to natural philosopher and chemist, Robert Boyle, he wrote: “I suppose, that there is diffused through all places an ethereal substance, capable of contraction and dilatation, strongly elastic, and, in a word, much like air in all respects, but far subtler.”

In the mid-19th century, the English scientist, Michael Faraday, first demonstrated the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Faraday showed that magnetism can affect rays of light. The Scottish scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, subsequently formulated the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together electricity, magnetism, and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell referred to aether as empty or “free space,” meaning it has no electrical currents with which to interact.

General Relativity virtually ended the debate about the aether. It replaced the aether with the notion of spacetime. But Einstein added a word of caution. In a lecture he gave in 1920, “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” he argued that aether and space can be explained in terms of electromagnetism. “The spacetime theory and the kinematics of the Special Theory of Relativity were modeled on the Maxwell-Lorentz theory of the electromagnetic field,” he said. “The Special Theory of Relativity forbids us to assume the aether to consist of particles observable through time, but the hypothesis of ether, in itself, is not in conflict with the special Theory of Relativity.” The quantum physics community, accustomed to a mathematical view of nature, routinely dismisses Einstein’s claim, simply saying he was wrong.

Theories about the aether were prevalent in most cultures but were especially influential in China. The Chinese equivalent of aether is qi (or chi). The word has also been translated as cosmic breath, spirit, vital force, and life energy. Sinologist Joseph Needham, taking his cue from particle physics, translated chi as “matter-energy.” Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, noted that the Neo-Confucians developed a theory of qi that bears the most striking resemblance to the concept of the quantum field in modern physics. The Chinese pictogram for qi is used in many Chinese compound words related to electromagnetism, including electricity. Qi conceptually accommodates Relativity and quantum theory, which scientists have been unable to reconcile mathematically.

Taiji (tàijí “great pole” or “supreme ultimate”) from Neo-Confucianist philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073).

Qi is a manifestation of Tao, the source of creation. The notion of Tao originated about 3000 years ago and can be seen as a sophisticated form of animism. It assumes that one invisible force permeates all that exists but manifests itself as an interplay of complementary (yin-yang) opposites. The tension between the opposites produces qi and accounts for the generation of all existence. The sages said: “When the yin and the yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water”. In the worldview of the ancients, first there is the universe, then human, a mere temporary guest in Earth’s cosmic garden. The universe is infinite, timeless, and beyond logical comprehension. All we have is a fraction of eternal time to be conscious of its wonders and to partake in its mystery.

With thanks to Joseph Dillard.

Further reading:

Author of When India Eclipses China Futurist Lawrence H. Taub on the Unexpected 21st Century