Sense and consciousness

Consciousness is at once mundane and profound. It’s mundane because it’s as common as the air we breathe. It’s profound because it shapes our view of the spiritual world.

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

The Mystery of Consciousness. John Searle

Consciousness is by nature non-physical. For most of us, it seems to be “centred just behind my eyes, right in the middle of my head,” says Jay Ingram in his book Theatre of the Mind – Raising the Curtain on Consciousness. That’s not the case for everyone. Some locate consciousness in the back of the head, or even the throat or heart.

Sometimes consciousness seems not to be in the body at all, as when you think of the last time you were on the beach; you might see yourself from behind, from above or just about anywhere except inside your head.

Consciousness leads us to imagine beings without bodies. The existence of ghosts, gods, angels, devils seems perfectly plausible. If gods exist, then religions are a natural consequence.

The speculation is endless. If our minds are as separate from material bodies, then it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that we continue to exist after we die. And maybe those non-physical beings materialize in the bodies others as in reincarnation.

There are some indisputable qualities of consciousness. John Searle, in his book The Mystery of Consciousness lists them. For one, consciousness is completely subjective: it’s all about us. Another is its singular nature. Despite drawing from widely different senses, it presents us with one view. The pain of stubbing your toe occupies the same world as what you are reading.

However, the impression that consciousness is non-material is wrong. It seems to me that the mind and body are one and that dualism, the so-called mind-body problem, is a consequence of the misunderstanding of consciousness. That would explain why mental illness can be treated through chemicals or through the mind. George Johnson explains:

“Depression can be treated in two radically different ways: by altering the brain with chemicals, or by altering the mind by talking to a therapist. But we still can’t explain how mind arises from matter or how, in turn, mind acts on the brain (Globe and Mail, Aug. 5, 2016, Magic in the machine)”

The two treatments only seem different if we are convinced that the mind and brain are separate.

Just what consciousness is remains a mystery but here are four explanations from the most plausible to least.

Neuroscientist Michael Graziano proposes that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself, similar to a dream. Consciousness is simulation of the workings of the brain –the firing of neurons and synapses. “The machine mistakenly thinks it has magic inside it.”

Along the same lines, Jay Ingram suggests that consciousness is a story that our brains tell ourselves: “consciousness is a highly processed and abstracted version of the world outside the head, an invention more than an impression… (p.27).”

John Searle: “In my view we have to abandon dualism and start with the assumption that consciousness is an ordinary biological phenomenon comparable to growth, digestion, and the production of bile (p.6).”

And lastly, consciousness is built into everything including molecules and atoms. Called panpsychism, advocates see themselves as minds in a world of minds.


How science works

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are contributing to global warming in a significant way: 97 per cent of tens of thousands of scientists from a variety of disciplines are convinced of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).


But consensus alone doesn’t make it true. Albert Einstein make that point in 1931 when a book was published renouncing his theory of relativity. The title, “100 Authors against Einstein,” said it all.

Einstein replied: “Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” His point was that consensus does make a scientific fact. He wasn’t right just because he was Einstein. He was right because thousands of scientists found that he was right.

Revolutionary ideas aren’t necessarily true but many are. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, lists some:

“The Copernican model, germ theory, the vaccination principle, evolutionary theory, plate tectonics and the big bang theory were all once heretical ideas that became consensus science. How did this happen?”

It didn’t become true based on the results of a poll. The results of a poll done in 2011 by Associated Press-GfK showed 77 per cent American adults believe in angels.

By the consensus model alone, angels exist. Both the majority scientists who believe in AGW and the believers in angels must be right. However, if we apply the test of consilience, one belief tumbles. Consilience is defined as the linking together of principles from different disciplines to form one comprehensive theory.

The 19th-century philosopher of science William Whewell argued for a “consilience of inductions.” Inductive reasoning is defined as that which derives general principles from specific observations.

“For a theory to be accepted, Whewell argued, it must be based on more than one induction—or one single generalization drawn from specific facts,” explains Shermer. “It must have multiple inductions that converge on one another, independently but in conjunction.”  Call it a convergence of evidence.

Whewell wrote in his 1840 book: “Accordingly the cases, in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, they belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains.”

The flaw in the belief of angels is that inductive reasoning isn’t used, let alone the more rigorous test of consilience. To meet the standard of consilience for angels, not just one generalization from many facts must come about, but many generalizations must come together.

One the other hand, it’s not difficult to study whether climate change is caused by humans. That’s because there is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion.

So, what about the three per cent of scientists who don’t believe in AGW? Perhaps they, being in the minority like Einstein was, are right. But they fail the test of consilience and have a number of flaws including cherry-picking, curve-fitting, and disregard for inconvenient data.

“That is, instead of the 3 percent of papers converging to a better explanation than that provided by the 97 percent, they failed to converge to anything,” says Shermer.