Can consciousness be described by science?

I got a B.A. in philosophy from California State College at Hayward (now CSU East Bay) in 1970.  So you would do better to read the people cited here than my document.  But it’s something that I’ve always wondered about.

Can the phenomenon of consciousness be described by science?  Is this a problem of language, or of observation, or what?  Is it a problem at all? How would matter giving rise to consciousness (the subjectivity of experience) be explained, as opposed to just asserted?  I’m not aware that this has ever been done.

There is a materialist position that says consciousness is nothing but energy in the brain.  But how do you account for the subjectivity of that energy?  One can appeal to an assumed similarity between one’s own experience seen from the subjective side, and that of other persons.  When I experience the color red, my awareness is not of 400-484 THz frequency light.  The best I can do to verbalize the experience is to say that it is the color of a red apple, or a red crayon, etc.

What I’m trying to get at is sort of the “inside” and “outside” of experience.  Words generally point to phenomena from the outside.  Even when they point to inner experience, they point to it from another part of consciousness, as it were.  If I try to think of the pointing part of consciousness pointing to itself, well, I can do that, but can it simultaneously perceive itself as both pointing to and being pointed at? I don’t know; I don’t think introspection is capable of that observation.  Or maybe this is just too twisted.  The experience of my field of vision, that is, the experience of seeing, is radically different from my experience of things in my field of vision.  Not knowing if this analogy is valid scientifically, I nevertheless suggest an analogy to the physiological transition from the retina to the optic nerve.

The inside and outside views of consciousness are indeed radically different, and there are indeed various ways of describing the experience of the color red.  Perhaps a physicist working with the visible spectrum would be aware of it as 400-484 THz frequency light.  Examples of experiencing experience from the outside would be electroencephalography, positron emission tomography, functional magnetic resonance imagery (EEG, PET, fMRI), or watching someone watch a performance.  Experiencing experience from the inside is something we attest to verbally and with body language, and seems to rely on introspection on the part of the person receiving the communication.  If the receiver understands enough of the communicator’s circumstance, she or he can understand the communication.  Experience from the inside can probably also be communicated with telepathy, or, theoretically, by physically connecting the communicator’s and the receiver’s nervous systems.

Well, I had hoped that last paragraph would be more in the style of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  If it were, I imagine it would describe a case of communicating experience from the outside (take two cannon balls of different weight and drop both from a tower at the same time) and from the inside (a child learns the meaning of the word “red” and can use his learning to communicate the color red as needed).  Laying out the cases would demystify the problem, the mystery would be found to inhere in the language used to lay out the problem (“What is the interiorness of experience?” with an anxious inflection on the “is” and a mysterious emphasis on the second syllable of “interiorness”), the cases being different from each other, but not incomprehensibly so.

Another interesting writer on the connection between mind and physical reality is Carl Jung.  In his Synchronicity monograph, he discusses highly improbable yet meaningful events.  If I understood him, he posits sort of an acausal causation, a relation between two realities that are highly improbable to occur together, yet do, and their co-occurrence is meaningful but without causal relation.

I’ve only read popularized physics, and not very much, but Synchronicity suggests to me the EPR paradox (Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen), a thought experiment involving a causal (?) relation between two events at a distance from each other yet simultaneous, not bound by the speed of light.  Imagine a positron-electron pair that becomes separated to opposite ends of the universe.  The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics requires that a change in one particle requires a simultaneous change in the other, and that that change would occur instantaneously, before any communication of a signal to change, traveling at the speed of light, could get from one member of the pair to the other.*  At this point, if to your taste, your imagination can leap to an analogy to Jung’s synchronicity, say along these lines:  there is an undetected medium connecting the entire universe (instantaneously mediating those EPR events), which interfaces with our unconscious minds.   Thus a conscious being who has integrated his unconscious self (Jung was very big on integrating the unconscious), or I guess any being with something analogous to the human unconscious, can use or affect this medium to effect meaningful yet uncaused events (where we define causation as occurring at or below the speed of light).

Please see also

David Abram explains Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘flesh’ (chair) as ‘the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,’ and he identifies this elemental matrix with the interdependent web of earthly life.[7] This concept unites subject and object dialectically as determinations within a more primordial reality, which Merleau-Ponty calls ‘the flesh,’ and which Abram refers to variously as ‘the animate earth,’ ‘the breathing biosphere,’ or ‘the more-than-human natural world.’ Yet this is not nature or the biosphere conceived as a complex set of objects and objective processes, but rather ‘the biosphere as it is experienced and lived from within by the intelligent body — by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences.’”  Or better (from the same article):  “In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents a phenomenological objection to positivism: that it can tell us nothing about human subjectivity. All that a scientific text can explain is the particular individual experience of that scientist, which cannot be transcended. For Merleau-Ponty, science neglects the depth and profundity of the phenomena that it endeavors to explain.

 I personally wouldn’t call out science like that, but as someone from a religious background I do sort of root for the home team when it plays football against science, although I heard Sam Harris on Forum recently and found myself more sympathetic to him than to his religious opponents.  Mostly, though, I wish they would understand each other better.

*I seem to recall that recent (today is 5/28/2013) work in quantum mechanics has documented signal transfer between subatomic particles at ten thousand times the speed of light.



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