One of the greatest stumbling blocks for neuroscience is the question of consciousness. We know the mechanism of the way stimuli from the outside world passes through the neural tissue to the brain, but we don't know how this gives rise to a subjective view of the world. In the West two major philosophical schools currently attempt to explain brain function and tackle the nature of consciousness. There are of course many associated positions but to keep it simple we will stay with this major grouping.
Dennett's neurophilosphy characterizes one extreme. He argues that consciousness and subjective experience are just the functions of neural nets (groups of nerve cells connected together). He derives this very incomplete and impoverished philosophy from his belief that only actions that you can see are the scientific basis of data, and that science must not take into account personal subjective experience.
The other extreme is characterized by the philosophy of Nagel, who argues that it is never possible to learn from an objective third-person point of view what it is like to have a first-person experience. Nagel argues that however much we understand about the functioning of a bat's brain, we will never know what it is like to be a bat. This view suggests that the explanation of subjective experience requires a new principle which is beyond neural nets.
Searle argues from an intermediate position. He regards subjective experience as being a property of neural nets but he does not agree with Dennett that at present a full understanding of neural net functioning is sufficient to explain consciousness. He sees consciousness as only brain function; in the way that 'wetness' arises from a combination of oxygen and hydrogen to produce water, so consciousness emerges from neural nets. His viewpoint is centred on brains, not people, stating that the world we perceive is constructed for us by the brain. Sadness is a brain function. How are you today? My brain is very sad, thank you.
One of the most fundamental realisations of the late-twentieth century was that science is culturally determined. It was Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book 'The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions' who introduced the term 'paradigm shift' and brought this concept to general attention. One barrier to scientific progress has been the failure of a core group of eminent scientists to shift their paradigm: their desire to hold onto their simple, mechanical, Newtonian science at all costs. It's a science that has been, and still is, outstandingly successful in examining and quantifying the objective world around us. But so far as the study of subjective, conscious experience is concerned, it is too limited. Western science can investigate only the physical aspects of any phenomenon – a 'view from nowhere' as it has been described. Yet a moment's thought, as Max Velman has pointed out, shows that all phenomenon are essentially psychological entities. It is the way the evidence is obtained that makes the difference between 'objective' and 'subjective' qualities.
'Scientific fundamentalism' – the belief that an understanding of the material properties of the world is sufficient to explain everything about it – is enormously restrictive for Western science when generating hypotheses about the nature of consciousness. However, this tendency for rigid thinking from a limited intellectual base is beginning to give way. A recent book by a group of the world's leading physicists examining the question of whether we live in a single universe or a multiverse was recently discussed at an evening hosted at the Royal Society in London. The theory of multiverses is a theory only – the only evidence put forward for them is that they are possible mathematically. But the point is that although physicists are divided on the issue, the topic is not taboo among the modern physics community in the way, for example, that telepathy is not even up for discussion among conventional reductionist scientists.
The current mainstream view of consciousness is that of Dennett – that psychological processes are generated entirely within the brain and limited to the brain and the organism. Our recent understanding of consciousness has been to a large extent built up by the use of imaging techniques (functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography) which record blood flow within the brain during different mental states, even some data on altered mystical states and those of special groups of people such as meditating monks, Carmelite nuns and people praying.
These data support the view that reductionist science will eventually be able to provide some explanation of some of the brain mechanisms underpinning consciousness, although it is doubtful if it will ever point directly to what consciousness (subjective experience) actually is. It will certainly not allow for the extension of consciousness beyond the brain; if consciousness is thought to be only the mechanical functioning of neural nets, it can never be non-local.
A recent step away from the reductionist mechanical science which assumed that causality within the brain was fully determined by the movement of small Newtonian particles, atoms etc., is now over three-quarters of a century out of date. It has been superseded by the application of quantum mechanical theories of brain function.
Schwartz et al show the causative effect of conscious processes very simply and elegantly. They point out that a placebo may consist only of chalk and is inactive when taken by mouth. However, if subjects with Parkinson's disease are told that it is a powerful anti-Parkinson's agent and will improve their walking, then the subjects do indeed find that their Parkinson symptoms alleviate when they take the chalk pill and they move more easily. But, more importantly, the brain areas linked to movement circuitry (the basal ganglia) become activated. This activation has nothing to do with the effects of chalk (Newtonian molecular causative system) but with the conscious or mental set of the individual (non-local to the brain) which gives chalk it's anti-Parkinson power.
Another interesting contender which links consciousness with brain function, although this is not accepted in the mainstream scientific circles, is a theory by Amit Goswami. He argues that consciousness is a basic component of the universe and exists like energy. His main contribution is related to the nature of the observer, as he maintains that there is only one observer, and this is a universal, undivided consciousness. This view reflects the descriptions of the fundamental qualities of the universe as they are usually described by people who have had wide transcendent experiences and report that the universe is unitary and that consciousness underpins all phenomena.
The quantum mechanical theories of Chris Clarke and Mike Lockwood and the quantum gravitational theories of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff are also possibilities. Quantum mechanical effects suggest that the universe is highly connected and that particles interact with each other at a distance (Rosen-Podolski Einstein paradox). The significance of this is that elementary particles can become entangled with each other and that in their entangled states they are linked with each other over huge distances. The argument runs that not only small atom or molecule size particles, but large conglomerates of particles, such as human beings, can also become entangled, and thus a linking together is possible. Thus the interconnectedness of minds through this non-local linking becomes a theoretical possibility.
The evidence from transcendent mystical experience suggests that consciousness is a unity and the ground stuff of our universe. However, discussing consciousness from a transcendent point of view seems to bear little relationship to what we experience here and now. So, more simply, one possible theory of consciousness is that it is universal and is a field throgh which we are all connected. Brain processes link onto consciousness in a way science has yet to define.
- Dr Peter Fenwick, excerpt from 'The Art Of Dying' by Drs Peter & Elizabeth Fenwick (Continuum International Publishing Group)
(This article does not cover all quantum consciousness theories that are too extensive to discuss in one article.)
Peter Fenwick, M.D., F.R.C.Psych., is an eminent neuropsychiatrist, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London. He is one of the world's leading authorities on near-death experiences and also the president of the Horizon Research Foundation, an organisation that supports research into end-of-life experiences. He is the President of the British branch of the International Association for Near-Death Studies and has been part of the editorial board for a number of journals, including the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, the Journal of Consciousness Studies.
Dr Fenwick will be presenting 'The Contribution That Near Death & End Of Life Experiences Can Make To Our Understanding Of Consciousness' at Gateways London in November. When we understand the latest research we can improve our own personal consciousness explorations to be more in line with reality. Learn More>>>