Why Do We Want to Understand Consciousness in the First Place?
Updated: May 14
The Key to Creativity is Thinking for Yourself
Is your brain yours or someone else’s?
There are two reasons for the two different kinds of researchers: To understand what it does (how it works), and/ or to understand what it is (what it’s made of). But what it is, in itself, is not represented by either of those things, it is rather a third ontology that neither is fast enough, or complete enough to capture in its entirety.
For decades, young people of a certain background and intelligence quotient have been drafted into ‘Intelligence’ agencies to study consciousness under various guises, but it wasn’t for purely altruistic or philosophical reasons, and it wasn’t just in the past. What these agencies were, and are, trying to do is to study consciousness (by way of intelligence) in order to control it, not just theirs, but yours too, and not for themselves, but for the agency they work for (which operates beyond government oversight in many cases).
This is in contrast to the spiritual (and mystery) traditions that study consciousness in order to control their own mind, to experience what it is for oneself. Because what it is in itself is what it is in yourself.
Researchers of the first kind will say that these mystical approaches have not seen any progress in thousands of years, while pointing to newer models involving neural correlates (Tononi’s information integration theory IIT and Paul Thagard’s semantic pointer competition SPC) which have demonstrated progress, but involve a bottom up reductive approach. But other people, among them leading theorists, criticize physics for not making any progress either. Lee Smolin, for instance, points out that physics has not made any new, meaningful discoveries since the mid-1970s, and Roger Penrose has criticized the new physics as a mix of fashion, faith and fantasy, while early physicists at the frontier of quantum mechanics are still widely quoted i.e. Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrodinger, who were all open to mystical ideas. The world back then was a different place though, and there were many more unanswered questions, but I wonder if they had lived, or if others had followed up on the more mystical implications of quantum mechanics, whether they would have continued to take the psychological/ subjective side of observation/ experience seriously, perhaps developing a subjective science of experience that complemented the objective physical sciences of observation.
Materialist theories such as IIT and SPC seem to stop at a certain critical point, namely the point where materialism breaks down (the scale of material particles), whereas idealist and also some realist approaches (Conscious Realism, Analytical Idealism, MBT, even Leibniz’ monads) take neural correlates and material particles and extrapolate them into universal Mind, arguably the source of all consciousness, where neurons are the second-person appearance of the first person experience.
Or rather than neural correlates, Donald Hoffman’s Conscious Realism theory suggests that conscious agents (agency being bestowed upon whatever is the most complex system at the time, which at one time happened to be, a single atom) are the ‘object correlate’/ fundamental units of consciousness. Each conscious agent being entangled with every other conscious agent, all of which are part of one mind, i.e. one universe where there are no brains, or planets or particles, but only a cloud of potentials ready to be expressed at any moment, i.e. movement. A moment, or movement; being the exchange of information (conscious agents) at the planck scale, or whatever is the shortest, most fundamental unit of time.
Before there was movement there was the unmoved. The potential of the unmoved is manifested in movement, which is also the beginning of time.
We have all heard that nature abhors a vacuum, but it is difficult to imagine nothing, just as it is difficult to think of nothing. Ideas come out of a vacuum and are translated into things. If we seriously have to consider what might be more fundamental, mind or matter, it seems unreasonable that matter would be an ontological primitive (a primordial thing or substance) floating alone in a vacuum of ideas.
The key to creativity is thinking for yourself. The question to ask therefore seems to be how are we able to come up with these ideas/ theories in the first place? Where do these neural correlates (which allow us to think) come from? Is there a science of experience which explains the processes of subjectivity in the same way that natural science studies objectivity?
In my opinion there are even harder problems than ‘The Hard Problem’, just as there are deeper theories than Quantum Mechanics. While these things may be unknowable, it is hard to dismiss them as unimportant, rather they are what makes experience and consciousness possible at all.
So Why Study Consciousness?
Ultimately, the reasons for doing something decide what the outcome will be. Nuclear energy was thought to be a good way to study nuclear bombs and nuclear physics, so applications in both military and energy made sense. They helped each other.
The reasons for studying consciousness, and searching for a theory of everything are similar. In some cases researchers genuinely want to find the truth, but in most cases they want to keep their job. This isn’t a good rationale for studying nuclear physics and it isn’t a good rationale for explaining the universe, because the universe that one ends up explaining is their own. Which is selfish, except, it doesn’t even serve the self, it limits it and what both science and mysticism set out to do is move knowledge, and more importantly, understanding forward. It is one thing to know something and another to understand it.
So why do we want to know, why do we want to understand? Is it to understand ourselves better or to understand others better. To change ourselves, or to change others to suit ourselves.
I guess if you think you rule the world (like a junior G-man) changing it makes more sense than changing oneself.