Global Resilience Solutions > 2016 > January

The Consciousness Trap

Every so often, as they have done for many decades, a distressingly orthodox neuroscientist feels the need to tell everyone that his subject is the ultimate answer to the great questions of life – by denying the very existence of consciousness itself.

Most recently, Michael Graziano’s article in The Atlantic, Consciousness Is Not Mysteriouscontinues this genre, rehashing the arguments that have been at the core of scientific orthodoxy ever since William James declared at the turn of the last century that “Consciousness is a process not a thing”- and are even further from being provable today than they were back then.

The Same Old Song

Consciousness, so the argument goes, is merely a byproduct of the brain’s attempt to describe its own activity in processing information. “Consciousness doesn’t happen,” Graziano writes. “It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualitative experience because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model.” What we perceive as our own consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of our physical brain. He also, of course, compares consciousness to other spiritually-inspired constructs that have since been disproven, such as the idea of light as a metaphysical force. We’ll get back to that.

Escape from Scientific Orthodoxy

David Weisher trained as a neurologist at Georgetown after colourful careers in military software and deep-sea diving, and he also thoroughly subscribed to this bit of neuroscientific orthodoxy, having rejected religion early in life. When his patients recounted near-death experiences, he wasn’t perturbed, but proceeded to enlighten their ignorant minds by recounting the experiments of Dr. Penfield, founder of American neurosurgery, who was able to produce out-of-body sensations using electrical stimulation of the brain. He regaled them with the standard neurological explanations of their experiences. After all, he’d already had a near-death experience of his own which he had attributed to the same causes.

But then a string of cases came along that were inconsistent with these explanations. Patients acquired knowledge about things in the real world that they could not possibly have known. Patients recounted sensory details more real and clear than real life, completely dissimilar to drug-induced out-of-body sensations. They observed what was happening to them in real time. One patient who was thought to be experiencing a seizure disorder had multiple experiences- testing showed that there were no seizures involved and the patient was neurologically normal even under 24-hour monitoring. The only problem was a cardiac disorder which caused her heart to stop beating for 20-second intervals. A pacemaker put an end to the condition, but the consistency and detail of her multiple near-death experiences was remarkable.

All of this led Weisher to re-evaluate his approach to the subject of human consciousness, much as Dr. Penfield himself had. This led him to write Mysteries of Consciousness: In defense of the mysteries.

The Science that Science Likes to Ignore

The science of consciousness hasn’t stood still in the decades since William James- it’s just that mainstream science likes to ignore much of the progress that has been made. “There are those in the scientific community that would like us to believe that we are homogenous on the subject of the nature of being,” Weisher writes. “Many in the cerebral sciences, surprisingly, have their own personal beliefs. Most in high positions of academia will not risk their career and position by differing from the “official” line of thought. I recall one of my colleagues informing me not to use his name in my book. ‘At least not until I’m dead or retired,’ he said.”

Some of those ignored developments include the discovery that human beings can process stimuli they have not yet received, that we store and transmit information through coherent energy fields, not to mention the many great discoveries about neuroplasticity- the brain physically changes in response to that qualitative experience we don’t have. Our consciousness also affects processes in the physical world. Oh yes, and light, that thing that is definitely not mystical or spiritual in any way, is emitted in coherent form by all living things and has been demonstrated to be a medium of information sharing between different organisms. We could go on, but since many of you are already familiar with this field, we can simply offer to direct you to appropriate sources if needed.

Existential Absurdity of the Position

The most important problem with neuroscientific orthodoxy is (surprisingly) not its shaky evidence. The REAL problem is the inherent contradiction that its conclusions set up: having just been informed that my consciousness is nothing more than an electrochemical illusion provided by an overactive piece of biological computer hardware I happen to carry around all day, I am expected to believe that it is vital that I believe that.

Really? Why? If the “I” doing the believing is just an electro-chemical illusion, then all courses of action I can take in my life are equally meaningless – end of story. Morality would have no meaning, for who is there for me to consider? My alleged self-interest would be just a relic of the self-perpetuating process of the species. In such a world, there can be no meaningful basis for any imperative. Empirical investigation cannot yield a single imperative that holds water under these circumstances without slapping on yet another illusion, a sentimental attachment to meaningless interests of the self, the group or the species, or else an insupportable morality ultimately derived from the values of debunked spiritual traditions.

In this context, what does it matter what I believe? My beliefs and actions cannot matter, because there is no “me” or at least no “me” that has spiritual value and will survive the death process. Fortunately, there are no neuroscientists either, just deluded biological computers not trying hard enough not to believe they’re neuroscientists.

The more they try to persuade me, the more I realise they’re incapable of consistently holding their own belief. And voilà, the materialist argument collapses on itself, as it always has.

Broad Frontier

Graziano’s article tries to conclude on a cheery note with the idea that we might very well be able to delude computers into thinking that they’re conscious too. Fortunately, we can do better, thanks to Weisher and the experiences he recounts. The amazing breadth, depth and cogency of what the human spirit can apprehend in the most extreme circumstances suggests that we are barely at the beginning of understanding what we are and the potential we hold. What we do know is that the consistent message and measure of these experiences is love and the human capacity to manifest it.
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger, M.A.


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