Consciousness, Economy and Earth (1)

, San Diego

Consciousness, Economy and Earth [1/3]

I’ve lived two lives so far. In the first, I studied every kind of science, from physics to economics. (I know that there’s more than one view on whether economics is a science! I plan to write more about that, next year). I thought that molecules ultimately explained everything of practical relevance. And that mathematical analysis was the most powerful approach to almost every ‘big’ problem. In the worlds of financial decision-making and investment, I was professionally successful. I felt that AI (artificial intelligence) was bound one day to vindicate the worldview I subscribed to. In particular, with cognition reduced to computation (one day!), any idea that ‘we are more than our neurons’ would be overturned.

In my second life, what became obvious to me was the inability of science to reduce consciousness to matter. This ‘obviousness’ was not a theoretical point. (I did go into the theoretical side of this issue for more than a decade! As I’ll explain below, it is obvious that standard attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain-dynamics are fundamentally flawed. Not on philosophical grounds, but on scientific ones.) It was just that the orthodox scientific framework was incapable of explaining the personal experiences I was having. I had to shift and expand my worldview to accommodate both irreducible consciousness and the conventional scientific order. And this shift turned out to have unexpected benefits. It became easier and easier to make sense of experiences beyond the ‘merely personal’ i.e. of events and trends at societal, cultural, and planetary scales.

We are living in extraordinary times. Many people find them confusing, and even scary. But a consciousness-based viewpoint often doesn’t even find them surprising! One of the Emerging Future Institute’s key differentiators is its emphasis on understanding dynamics in consciousness, in addition to more conventional factors and analyses. In this first of three related articles, I’ll explain what I mean by ‘consciousness’. In particular, I’ll deconstruct a common belief, that mainstream science ‘has already explained consciousness’. (If this belief were true, the nature and capacities of consciousness would be severely limited.) This deconstruction in turn establishes an intellectual rigor for the expanded views of consciousness I’ll use in the second and third articles. Those articles will show the value of a consciousness-based framework in analysing the globalization and climate-change debates.


But What is ‘Consciousness’?

A scientific approach typically delineates three kinds of consciousness. First, conscious experience. These are the sights, sounds, smells, and so on, that we experience everyday, typically without paying them much attention. (In fact, we often pay them so little attention, we forget to notice that they are not ‘the world’. They are mind-projected representations-of-the-world. This isn’t woo-woo esoteric-stuff: mainstream neuroscience agrees with this viewpoint. I’ll say more about this, below.) Then, there’s conscious function. For example, the function of conscious memory. Or, a movement of attention from one object in experience to another. Finally, there’s self-consciousness, i.e. the consciously-experienced thought or felt-sense that there is something to be labeled as ‘I’. Often, this ‘I’ is conceived of as the originator of choice and action.

But haven’t all these kinds of consciousness been ‘proved’ to be properties-of-neurons? Not at all. In fact, current attempts to do so are inherently contradictory. You can see the basic problem quite simply. According to the mainstream scientific project, conscious experience can’t affect brain-matter. Yet experiments ‘showing’ how experience relies in detail on brain-activity must use reports-of-experience. For example: a subject in an experiment reports “I’m consciously experiencing ‘red’”; experimental apparatus measures brain-activity; correlations of reports and measurements become a theory-of-consciousness (‘this activity means that experience, because that’s what the subject reported’). But reports can’t have originated from experience – because experience can’t affect material reality. So the brain-dynamics initiating report can’t be affected by the experience allegedly-reported! The whole paradigm fails: reports are critical, but unreliable (according to ‘everything’s-a-property-of-matter’ – the basic frame of orthodox science).

There have been ingenious attempts to fix this problem, while preserving the basic framework of physical theory. However … these attempts all fail! (The basic problem – technically, to do with ‘phenomenal judgement’ – hasn’t been broadcast to the public. Problems with consciousness undermine science’s whole project, to give a complete account of reality in terms of matter. The failure-to-broadcast isn’t an active ‘conspiracy’. It seems to be more a matter of cognitive dissonance: most scientists’ brains can’t compute the issue, because of its implications for their beliefs about science. So it’s denied, overlooked, and unreported.)

Let’s look the nature of consciousness in another way. Recently Bank of America reported the view that we ‘likely’ live inside a simulation:

Although I have severe problems with the ‘probability’ estimates associated with BoA’s commentary, the basic point is that we can’t rule out living inside a simulation. (Don’t understand that? Look at an object close by. Now cross your eyes. The object becomes two-objects. Showing? The visual ‘world’ is just a brain-projection. You never see the real world directly. The ‘real world’ wouldn’t split in two, simply because you cross your eyes … Magritte’s famous painting ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’ points to the same fact. Neither the painting of a pipe, nor visual experience of a pipe, are the pipe itself. Another way into the same insight is via virtual reality. We understand that the world we see in VR isn’t ‘the-real-world’. But the same understanding applies when we take the headset off! We understand that the 3-D visual scene we experience is a brain-generated representation-of-optical-sensory-data, in both cases. This kind of direct-understanding of reality may be one of the most extraordinary potentials of VR and AR, for humankind’s development.)


Now the fact that we don’t know whether we live in a simulation or not puts lots of other possibilities on the table, too. We have to be very careful, at this point. It’s tempting to believe that it’s possible to believe anything! (It’s definitely possible. But it’s not always useful.) What I find constructive is to make hypotheses and test them against evidence. Isn’t this just what mainstream science does? Not really. First, mainstream science assumes a position (more or less, ‘everything’s a passive property of matter’), and flatly rejects any hypotheses not congruent with that position. Then, remaining hypotheses may be subjected to experimental test, if the society of scientists deem them worthwhile. (There has to be some process of this sort, of course. But it ceases to have integrity when the majority of the gatekeepers are subject to a common, denied, distortion.)

So there are plenty of logically-reasonable hypotheses that are also data-consistent, which science won’t test (and won’t even admit as reasonable and consistent). I predict that the next fifty years will see science starting to admit its unnecessary limitations, and beginning to shift. Not to ‘anything goes’, but to a more reasoned and grounded position. Why? Because until it does, it simply can’t move forwards on its ‘explain everything’ project. After another fifty years of no-fundamental-advance (the last really deep insight was the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces in the late 1960s), the rigidly-held foundations will start to soften. There’s a couple of choices with respect to this inevitable shift. You can continue to insist that the current illogical and inconsistent scientific framework is should be the ultimate arbiter of what’s reasonable. Or you can get ahead of the curve, and upgrade your fundamental belief system to the science-of-the-future, right now!

Consciousness in the Science-of-the-Future

If you believe in the matter-explains-everything framework (as I used to), then anything other than consciousness-is-a-passive-brain-property is irrational. But absolute belief in the matter-framework is irrational, too! Hardcore fans-of-science will say, ‘But science is open to change, in the face of evidence’. (Disclosure: I am a hardcore fan-of-science. But not of science-as-it-is-now.) However, mainstream scientists haven’t acknowledged that there are experiments that can falsify the everything-is-matter paradigm. Denying there are experiments means no evidence can be gathered, and no evidence means no change. Clearly, this chain empties the credibility of the ‘science is open to change’ claim, at a fundamental level. This doesn’t refute science as a whole, by any means. For example, most of physics (apart from the foundational frame!), pretty much all of chemistry and a lot of biology escapes this critique.

Consciousness does not escape it, however. For example, let’s look at the idea that conscious experience affects brain-dynamics. (This doesn’t rule out experience-as-a-brain-property, which is the mainstream idea. It just says there’s a two-way street. Brains post objects into experience, and these objects in experience can then affect brains.) Is that logically-consistent? Well, there’s no logical inconsistency (unless you pre-adopt a belief system that explicitly rules it out!) Is it consistent with data? Actually it makes an experimental prediction, that’s not been tested yet (for the denial reasons mentioned above). So the experience-affects-dynamics hypothesis is really scientific! (Not current-version-of-science ‘scientific’. But the hypothesis will be seen that way, in the future, I predict.) And it’s certainly consistent with subjective data. When I say, ‘What’s the color of that shirt?”, and you look over there, and say “Red” … it’s your subjective experience that report was caused by your experience of ‘redness’. If you track that through, it means experience (‘redness’) acted on your brain, which then generated the report (by transmitting impulses to your larynx). So experience does seem to affect brain-dynamics! (Of course, that’s not a proof. You may be deceived in your attribution of causality.) Bottom-line: ‘experience-affects-brains’ is a logically-coherent, subjectively-plausible and experimentally-testable proposition.


Why is it important that experience can affect the brain? It means, if mind has functions beyond brain, these functions can be expressed by the body. Put differently: mind-beyond-brain can act in the material world. For example, the renowned (mainstream!) physicist Roger Penrose strongly argued that both genuine creativity and mathematical truth-perception are beyond the capacity of the classical brain. Although he attributed these functions to quantum activity, another proposal is simply that they reside in mind-beyond-brain. (Interestingly, Penrose subscribes to a Platonic view in which there is mind-beyond-brain! His failure to attribute any functions to this aspect of mind is somewhat curious …) Does mind-beyond-brain sound impossible? Remember, we can’t rule out living in a simulation … Which means we can’t rule out that simulation incorporating beyond-brain functions in mind … And as Penrose argued, we already have extremely good grounds for believing that mind does do things beyond the capacities of classical-brain. Just as for the experience-affects-dynamics hypothesis, mind-beyond-brain generates testable predictions. But these won’t be looked into until the passive-property-of-matter belief-system – the bedrock of orthodox science – is up for rational investigation.

But What’s the Practical Point?

So far, so interesting – but you may also be thinking, so philosophical. The point of everything I’ve written so far is to help you engage with a view of consciousness that’s beyond what materialist science (or any effective equivalent) would deem reasonable. All the while, staying completely onside with intellectual precision. (Of course, perhaps you didn’t need that help! I hope you found the journey engaging, in any case!) Roughly what I mean by ‘consciousness’ is an expanded conception of mind that incorporates matter-based science (for example, brains post data into conscious experience), but is not limited to it (for example, experience affects brain dynamics).

And why is a view ‘beyond materialist science’ useful? Because it allows us to take intellectual journeys that would otherwise be logically-contradictory. Logical-coherence is important. And these journeys turn out to be really helpful, if you want to understand what’s happening in the socioeconomic world, right now. Or if you want to participate most effectively in the climate change dialogue. Or … if you want maximal engagement in any number of predictive, preparative, or policy-choice activities!

In the next article, I’ll explain how a consciousness-centric viewpoint can help us to understand the extreme energies currently emerging around globalization (Brexit, Trump, …) And in the third and concluding article, I’ll first use the consciousness-based framework to analyze climate-change debates. And then I’ll put globalization, climate change, and the ‘post-Truth’ movement in a unified setting, demonstrating the power of a consciousness-dynamics approach in making sense of the 21st century.



Nicholas Wright
Nicholas Wright


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