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Learning experience: let’s take consciousness in from the cold

Until 20 years ago, scientists interested in empirical work on consciousness – our private subjective experiences – hid it by minimising or eliminating the “c-word”, the use of which was a career-limiting…

Despite being considered a scientific taboo in the past, the study of consciousness is slowly gaining momentum. emmakate deuchars

Until 20 years ago, scientists interested in empirical work on consciousness – our private subjective experiences – hid it by minimising or eliminating the “c-word”, the use of which was a career-limiting (or at least fund-limiting) move.

Consciousness defied scientific characterisation until, at the very beginning of the decade of the brain (1990-2000), the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick and others began a dialogue that made an empirical science of consciousness viable. For 20 years, the mainstream science of consciousness could be generically called the ABC-correlates of consciousness, and the most widely published science is the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC).

It sounds very simple: we measure a subject’s neuron behaviour while a subject reports an experience. Repeatable patterns emerge. We publish.

Now, following a tsunami of empirical work, journal articles and books, you’d think we’d all be gleefully splashing about in the nascent science of consciousness, shedding light on the natural world like never before.

But we’re not.

The overall message is in the negative: there is still no account of consciousness that an engineer might use to construct a conscious machine.

We don’t know what the role of consciousness is in humans (or elsewhere). We don’t know what causes it. We cannot explain its kinds. We can’t prove consciousness is necessary, present and is/is not operating in anything (organism, inanimate object or artefact).

Despite the overall negative result, there are many remarkable findings and reasons for optimism. To convey these, however, requires a little background.

Zeal Harris

Consciousness 101

For technical specificity, the science of consciousness has converged on a small but effective terminology. A few terms, cherry-picked from philosophy, seem to have stuck.

To “do” science-of-consciousness is to pursue an account of what’s called phenomenal consciousness.

Phenomenal consciousness refers directly to, and only to, a very specific thing: the privately experienced first-person perspective each of us has. It’s a unified composite of the following kinds of experience:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Smell: olfaction
  • Taste: gustation
  • Touch: e.g. pressure, temperature …
  • Situational emotion: e.g. mad, bad, glad, sad …
  • Primordial emotions: e.g. hunger, thirst, fear, orgasm …
  • Imagined, dreamt and pathological versions of all of the above.

Each of these experiences has a qualitative feel to it from a first-person perspective. Subjective qualities are referred to as qualia in the plural, or quale in the singular. If the brain is regarded as a subjective content-provider, then the “contents of phenomenal consciousness” are a collection of qualia.

Your visual scene may involve the “redness of red”. The red quale is used to construct a redness experience. This introduces the next phrase: that it is always “like something” to have qualia.

In our wakeful state, we can ask “what it is like” to be a bat or a rock or a computer or a bacterium. But if you are in that portion of sleep that is dreamless then “it’s not like anything”.

Finally, we have the phrase states of consciousness. These are overall brain states such as coma, slow-wave sleep, REM sleep, vegetative and so forth.

The science of states of consciousness is not the science of phenomenal consciousness, although each informs the other.

If you are in a coma, all phenomenal consciousness is gone, and it is “not like anything”. Not being in a coma is necessary, but insufficient, to generate any kind of phenomenal consciousness.

The above basic terms apply to scientist and lay-person alike and, after 20 years of grinding in the machinery of critical argument, could be taught to all in the knowledge that they won’t be suddenly overturned.

A single science outcome

The ABC-correlates of consciousness confirm that, contrary to appearances, the physics that causes phenomenal consciousness is contained in and unique to the cranial central nervous system (the brain).

This means phenomenal consciousness is not delivered by the spinal central nervous system or the peripheral nervous system or muscles or the huge nervous system in the gut.

This result does not mean the external natural world or a subject’s body is uninvolved in the generation of phenomenal consciousness.

It merely means the physics that makes it “like something” is located within the cranium in humans. In the case of visual consciousness the implication is that you see with your brain, not your eyes.

There are a significant number of simple findings such as this, and they’re easy to report when the background basics are understood.

Ay, there’s the rub

Some 20 years ago there were no mainstream institutions with specialist training in consciousness issues and science. Now they exist, but are sparsely embedded around the world, usually in cognitive science and psychology courses.

In the non-biophysical sciences and engineering, the science of consciousness is essentially invisible.

h.koppdelaney

This cannot last. Eventually, a form of fundamental physics must connect through the intervening sciences to neuro/cognitive science. Consciousness is expressed by a natural but trans-disciplinary process and, as such, training must be cross-disciplinary.

But beyond this is a much deeper implication.

Consider an explanation of scientific observation (empirical evidence) which we now know literally originates in the phenomenal consciousness of a scientist. Objectivity is revealed as ultimately mediated by the subjectivity of the scientist. To explain phenomenal consciousness is therefore (shock horror) to explain us – scientists and our ability to objectify.

If you chose to become a scientist prior to 1990, did you know that, for no reason ever given, you signed up for explaining everything in the natural world except scientists? Feeling a little uncomfortably sacred, are we?

Thankfully, 20 years on, we now get to apply normal scientific doubt to the centuries of taboo operating at the heart of our own activities.

A new experience

There are fundamental technical problems with the ABC-correlates paradigm and, taken on their own, these are complex enough. But the science of consciousness is also:

  • fundamentally entwined with the consciousness of scientists
  • central to the lives of all of us
  • poised to address the fundamentals of scientific behaviour in a way that has not happened in 300 years.

To rise to this challenge, I believe we are ready for a cross-disciplinary education in a few basics, and look forward to implementing a short tertiary course called Consciousness for Engineers and Scientists.

I like to imagine that one day it may end up being taught in secondary schools. Why not?

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38 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Harrigan

    PhD Physicist

    There's a very interesting pespective on consciousness and our understanding of it here

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/antonio_damasio_the_quest_to_understand_consciousness.html

    Thanks to to the author here for an interesting article. I have always thought of consciousness as an emergent phenomena from our neural processes. Those processes, when in certain patterns of active (or resting) stimulation, produce the mergenece of consciousness that we recognise and experience.

    It's a fascinating topic that requires input from many levels of neuro-science to explore and understand. There's also a great podcast available called "The Brain Science Podcast" that explores the latest work in the field. It's free and well worth the time to listen

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  2. Colin Hales

    Researcher in brain electrodynamics at the Centre for Neural Engineering at University of Melbourne

    Hi all,
    There's a link in the article under the words "simple findings" that leads here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i9kE3Ne7as

    The first half of the video is required viewing!

    MARK: Thanks for the encouragment and the podcast link. Damasio is well trodden ground for me and recommended to all.

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  3. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    An interesting and useful article.

    The science of phenomenal consciousness seems to have a prerequisite of being able to describe what is or what it is to be "like something". It seems to me that this is no simple prerequisite and, given the subjectivity of subjectivity, might vary with culture, language, education and a bunch of other things that wind up manifest in some way in that cranial central nervous system.

    It strikes me that a lot of this data and understanding of "like something" is inherently metaphorical, metonymical and/or based on simile and analolgy - almost by definition. ;-)

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  4. Chris van den Bergen

    OHS Consultant

    An article on something that I find incredibly fascinating.

    I have often wondered if there is an a currently unknown fundamental physical property connected to consciousness or if it is purely emergent from a combination of the fundamental forces already identified by physics. I lean towards some former, because I find it puzzling for a bunch of electrons, protons and neutrons (with the properties that we are aware of) in a specific arrangement to be aware of their own existence.

    I suspect this will not being something that is resolved in my lifetime.

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    1. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Chris van den Bergen

      Chris - I would question if that thinking is valid?

      A hydrogen atom has properties that it's electron and proton do not. H2O has properties that neither of its consituent atoms possess - the "wetness" of water is an emergent phenomena related to its (bipolar) structure and the interplay of the dynamical physical forces at work.

      There are many phenomena in the real world that emerge from the dynamical interplay of their constituents based on the physical forces at work and in turn the bio-chemical interactions they undergo. They do not require a re-ification as a separable "thing" in order to exist.

      There is no requirement for the consituent elements of our being (the stardust from which we are made and the protons, neutrons and electrons etc that comprise that dust) to be "aware" of themselves in order for consciousness to exist or emerge. Just like Hydrogen and Oxygen are not "wet", yet Water is.

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    2. Colin Hales

      Researcher in brain electrodynamics at the Centre for Neural Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Chris van den Bergen

      If I could slightly refocus your thoughts.... all of the 'facts' about electrons and protons and oxygen and hydrogen were arived at via observation (and related thought) mediated by the first person perspective of scientists: the phenomenal consciousness of the scientist.

      The real question I highlight in the article, and that is missing in this discussion, is the "what is it like to be electrons and protons and oxygen and hydrogen" ,... we surely are a massive collection of something, and that 'something' appears to be electrons and protons and hydrogen and oxygen when a scientist uses a first person perspective to characterise it.

      This is the twist in thinking that a basic course in consciousness, for scientists and engineers, would be able to carefully broach in a useful way.

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    3. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      Mark,
      The difficulty with consciousness is defining its property. water is wet by virtue of its interaction with other molecules. Its a chemical process that is observed not inferred.
      What physical property is consciousness? How does it(or does it at all) interact with matter? What is a thought? If it is the sum of neurotransmitter transmission then do other chemical charges carry consciousness in other non-neural systems?
      I am far from a dualist and I am not inferring any mystical properties…

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    4. Metta Bhavana

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "What evolutionary advantage would it confer?" I think that question is its own answer. The advantage to a being capable of asking that is fairly clear. There is always a disadvantage of course: now I know I am here, what to do with that knowledge?

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    5. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Metta Bhavana

      Metta, you've misinterpreted my question. I posed the question as a rebuttal, not as a question that needed answering. And anyway, your answer was sophistry.

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    6. Metta Bhavana

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Can a question rebutt? My point was not meant to be sophistic, but loosely put via Wittgenstein, namely, never mind the meaning of a thing, what is its use?

      Consciousness confers obvious use advantages. Awareness of consequences outside the immediate situation means better hunting, mating, and knowing that seeds will grow into crops: abstracted and retrievable forward planning, using models of behaviour as found in mythical narratives, or textbooks, means widely improved variability of action…

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    7. Multisense Realism

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Metta Bhavana

      I am skeptical of evolutionary arguments for consciousness. I am not convinced that a universe devoid of awareness would have to invent an entirely new definition of itself just to make better cockroaches. If you have awareness or sense to begin with (panpsychism - panprotopsychism spectrum), then sure, evolutionary feedback would present opportunities to deepen and enrich sensory qualities and strategic faculties. There would be no reason to invent awareness out of whole cloth however just to accomplish…

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  5. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    I'm always happy to see science catching up with the dhamma. Scientific validation of what is already known is welcome.

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    1. Metta Bhavana

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Exactly Anthony! Good to see science catching up after 2500 years! I hope Colin will be open to the very precise, non-mystical consciousness models in the fifth century BCE Theravada Buddhist Pali canon and in the later elaborations of fifth century CE Abbhidhamma. He may find some surprises and welcome confirmation of the very significant work he is undertaking. Consciousness is naturally the next phase of interest for physics after gravity, time and space. The reason why this has been taboo has to do with "western" religion's limited and irrational sense of cosmology. Thankfully, we are today less likely to be burned at the stake for saying so.

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  6. Otmar Pokorny

    Independent Scholar

    "...we surely are a massive collection of something" (Colin). Although that something appears to be some configuration of particles, using your own subjective consciousness, you can independently confirm, for yourself, that you are a Gestalt of aware energy. All matter is concentrated energy, and all energy is aware-ized.

    How do I know this? Through my experience with consciousness. There is only one way to learn what consciousness is: by studying and exploring your own awareness, by changing…

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    1. Ron C. de Weijze

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Otmar Pokorny

      Re "When you look into yourself, the very effort involved extend the limitations of your consciousness, expands it, and allows the egotistical self to use abilities that scientists do not realize it possesses."

      Maybe it is exactly the other way around: if we apply scientific methodology, we can recollect and construct forms we believe, will fit the contents of our world intuitively yet precisely, until we realize our dream or we realize our mistake. This methodology establishes reliability and validity by independent confirmation, not experimentally but live, of what we hold True. And independent confirmation evolves into what I call constructive recollection.

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  7. Multisense Realism

    logged in via Twitter

    Excellent overview. You capture the crux of the issue in a straightforward manner. By acknowledging the inherent subjectivity in our objectivity (objectivity about not only our own subjectivity but everything else in the universe), I think you point out the right direction to find the objective truths about subjectivity. This is my approach as well (http://multisenserealism.com); find the objectivity in subjectivity and vice versa.

    In doing this, I find that symmetry itself, representing the capacity…

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    1. Ron C. de Weijze

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Multisense Realism

      I tried to post the following on your site to In a Nutshell, but somehow I do not get into Wordpress.

      We believe we know and we believe we sense material bodies and persons. Both sides are able to reflect the other coordinately. Independent confirmation within and between sides can keep us from derealization and depersonalization syndromes. The symmetry further unfolds when independently confirmed knowing and reflected sensing in the person or what is sensed and what is reflectively known in the…

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    2. Multisense Realism

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ron C. de Weijze

      Thanks for noticing that on my site, that was funny. Like Mullet-senserealism, haha. I think I fixed it now.

      I actually got the same weird WordPress fail yesterday too when I tried to comment on a WordPress site. Claimed I was using the wrong username even though I was already logged in to my own site.

      Anyhow, that's a great comment. I'm going to have to mull it over for a while. I especially like the derealization-depersonalization dichotomy (I call ACME-OMMM http://s33light.org/ACMEOMMM ...actually I'm going to steal that if you don't mind and update it right now). Using that, I can describe Multisense Realism as a strategy of curbing excess or hyperrealization (OMMM) that is directly proportional to depersonalization, and hyperpersonalization (ACME) that is directly proportional to derealization (http://multisenserealism.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/aslide21.jpg)

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  8. Ralph Frost

    Paradigm Mechanic

    Nice article, Colin. Are you suggesting scientists may be unconscious of some important relationships?

    Here in the transition into the more unified scientific paradigm we certainly do face migrating away from the Cartesian subject-object split and so it's true the whole objectivity can of worms will come up. The thing with our classical "objectivity", though, is it is really just very strongly repeatable subjectivity. Throw the cannonball with force= ma at angle x and, yup, every time, it…

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  9. Colin Hales

    Researcher in brain electrodynamics at the Centre for Neural Engineering at University of Melbourne

    "Are you suggesting scientists may be unconscious of some important relationships?"

    :-) I'm suggesting that in general, across all the sciences, science procedure is inherited through mimicry (of mentor behaviour). As such, it is loaded with a with 300 year old presuppositions about the kinds of laws we produce and what constitutes evidence of them.

    For all that time the presuppositions did not matter. Indeed it was actually beneficial.

    ........until, 20 years ago, we started doing science on our scientific evidence system.

    Bazzinga! We hit oddities, and these oddities are the crucible of change. A change I think we may actually be about ready for.

    cheers
    Colin

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    1. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Colin Hales

      Colin,
      Thanks for the article. I understand what you state about percepts of empirical data being mediated by the perceiver, but how does this change things? As a epistomological point it raises questions about the quality of the data but unless you go down the path of cartesian scepticism and deny the veracity of the percepts how can it change what a scientist actually does in science?
      If you acknowledge that the world and the scientist may not actually exist (a la Descartes' "evil demon") it does not change the ontological content of the world, just puts it in doubt. If you ignore cartesian doubt the percepts are the same... I can understand that acknowledging the scientist as part of the perceptual chain makes the data non objective but thius does not change what can be perceived what can be done with the percepts. How can you adjust for the perceiver to make the data actually objective, outside of what is already known about cognitive biases?

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    2. Colin Hales

      Researcher in brain electrodynamics at the Centre for Neural Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Citizen SG

      "How does it change things?" Excellent question!

      Answer: _profoundly_

      What I publish here is the merest glimmer of the impact. To see exactly what that impact is, you have to step back and consider the following:

      1) Laws of Nature generated by an assumed observer

      2) Laws of Nature capable of expressing a universe with an observer in it that 'sees' the world behaving as per (1)

      Putting the observer in science has the impact of justifying TWO complete sets of mutually compatible scientific…

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    3. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Colin Hales

      Colin,
      Thanks for your reply. Your ideas are intriguing... I get that the observer as a subjective mediator of empirical data is part of the scientific process. My question is what can we do about it? One can't remove oneself from the universe to get objective data, one can't use a non conscious machine to gather and interpret data( it just adds a layer as the scientist's consciousness is eventually employed to perceive the data). The observer is always peering through the lens of his own consciousness…

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    4. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Citizen SG

      Addit.... Radical neuronal modification and perhaps augmentation...

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    5. Multisense Realism

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Citizen SG

      I don't think that there are any real or ideal forms external to us. There is only presentations within presentations which reveal common themes that make sense to every observer, each according to their own ontological capacities.

      Where to go from here is that we can stop wondering about how to simulate consciousness artificially and focus on extending our existing sense capacities. Some neural appliances won't even need to pierce the skin to help us get out of our heads. I say bring on the transcranial multisense feelies! Let's let the internet get the universe into our heads and our minds into the universe.

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    6. Colin Hales

      Researcher in brain electrodynamics at the Centre for Neural Engineering at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Citizen SG

      The way to see it is to stop thinking that a 'science' of consciousness is expected to literally deliver the experiences.... the first person perspective (1PP) is only ever accessed by being a chunk of the universe.

      This has nothing to do with descriptions (1) that are regularities in how things appear _OR_ descriptions (2) of a universe that reveal how an observer operates within the universe.

      (1) and (2) are both supported by the same 'empirical evidence' : the 'what it is like to be a scientist accessing a scientific observation'.

      Tricky stuff to get used to, isn't it!? Our language is only just starting to have enough nuance to allow the most basic outlining. I am glad I got your brain to encounter it... that's why I am here.... cheers

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    7. Metta Bhavana

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin Hales

      "I find the prospects rather exhilarating! " Indeed! From a sociologist's POV there seems to be remarkable set of convergences occurring around this subject which by themselves may mean one thing but chained together become the larger paradigm.

      The technology to accurately read the brain/mind states (MRIs etc), the diffusion of knowledge via other technologies (WEB etc), the many and varied and hugely adventurous research tools deployed by a whole alumni of different disciplines, all directly…

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    8. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Multisense Realism

      Cheers MR.... I'll leave the ontological discussion about the reality of the external world well alone!
      I was thinking about the second part of your post and wondering how cool it would be to have an ultraviolet receiver augmenting one's vision.... Not glasses but a neuro module grafted to the visual association area in the occipital lobe. Then I thought: what new colors would you see?

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    9. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Colin Hales

      Ta Colin. It's getting way too meta cognitive for my primitive consciousness. I'll tell you what it is like to contemplate 'what it is like to be a scientist accessing a scientific observation'...hurty.

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  10. technosophics

    logged in via Twitter

    We've been working on consciousness-technology for a while now here at Technosophics. Our tech it is focused on making sense of subjective experiences by using them to get an expanded perspective on ourselves, our lives, our world. We then use this to find practical solutions to issues in everyday life, solutions that otherwise we would have never thought of.
    (http://www.technosophics.com)

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  11. Colin Hales

    Researcher

    Hi Technosophics..... interesting ideas....

    My overall project is called Bionic Brain. I am developing Inorganic/chip brain tissue to become the nervous system of robots, for human medical implants and for animal experimentation replacement.

    I guess I'll be done when I have a robot that will benefit from Technosophics offerings!

    Give me 10-15 years..... and wait for a robot to log in for a thorough zenning!
    :-)

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  12. Mark Pharoah

    Various

    I think that science just needs to start looking in the right direction for answers to consciousness:

    The Hierarchical Systems Theory (HST) of consciousness is a reductive explanation of phenomenal experience showing that it is an emergent property of dynamic systems characteristics.
    HST explains how a hierarchy of systems structures relate to one another and how and why each systems category evolves a unique set of behavioural and physiological characteristics.
    Details of HST and these systems categories, and how the theory impacts on our understanding of human characteristics can be found at http://mind-phronesis.co.uk/?p=651

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  13. Abraham Joseph

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi Colin Hales,

    Warm Greetings from Conscience of the society a philosophic non-profit ! We are there for the dedicated philosophic cause of conducting free-lance research on man's faculty of reason, among a few other similar philosophical causes.

    We have concluded our research results on Reason recently and published the findings ( Amazon (dot) com ) in a small book titled ' Is reason a sense organ? A super mind above the known mind ? Sure you would share the book and its propositions, which…

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  14. Pete Maxwell

    logged in via Facebook

    Agree with most of what you say, Colin.

    But I think the paradigm shift will not occur until we have learned to distinguish between intentional consciousness and pure awareness. The former is a relative phenomenon by definition and so solves no ontological problems.

    Anyway, as someone said, good to see that we are slowly catching up with the dhamma.

    Perhaps we should take Kant's 'proper subject for rational psychology' more seriously.

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    1. Colin Hales

      Researcher

      In reply to Pete Maxwell

      Hi Pete,
      Good to see the article still catches an eye here and there!

      From my perspective the distinction 'intentional' and 'pure awareness' is meaningless. The scientific target is a scientific account of phenomenal consciousness/qualia. This is the science of a 'first person perspective' and why 'it is like' something at all from the perspective of being a collection of natural entities. The relevant scientific questions are 'correlates', 'cause', 'kinds' and 'role'. So far, science has tackled…

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    2. Multisense Realism

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Colin Hales

      Not that anyone asked, but if anyone wants a nomination for a 21st century answer to F = MA which integrates first person subjectivity and causality, I nominate:

      TS ⊇ { ((ℵ↔Ω) ↑ ºt) ⊥ (ωª ↓ (H←d) ) }

      I wish I was kidding, but unfortunately this bit of symbol-crazy mess makes sense to me.

      It means:

      TS stands for Totality-Singularity: The inference of a perpetually largest inertial frame - an Everythingness which exists as ground of being in contradistinction to it's own self-diffraction…

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    3. Pete Maxwell

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin Hales

      Hi Colin

      You say ....

      "From my perspective the distinction 'intentional' and 'pure awareness' is meaningless. The scientific target is a scientific account of phenomenal consciousness/qualia. This is the science of a 'first person perspective' and why 'it is like' something at all from the perspective of being a collection of natural entities."

      I take your point. But I would guess your dream is impossible. A scientific account would need to take into account the entire phenomenon or fail…

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