Monday, February 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Consciousness

Last week's article on reality selection and this recent discussion over at Magick of Thought both hinge on a fully developed understanding of how consciousness works. The problem, though, from a scientific perspective is that nobody really knows for sure. Neuroscience has made great strides over the course of the last twenty years as far as understanding the brain goes, and we can say with some certainty that there's a relationship between the brain and consciousness, but what that relationship is remains an open question. Even brain scanning only gets us so far, since nobody has ever figured out a way to measure consciousness as a thing-in-itself.

This recent article from CNN by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, author of the new book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, explains the problem of conflating what we experience as consciousness with sensory representation mapping and/or the functions of memory. Simply, it is a phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts.

But while mapped representations are a necessity for consciousness, as far as I can imagine, they are not sufficient for consciousness to occur. For example, several orders of computers aboard a Boeing 747 represent with great fidelity many parts of the airplane body — moving parts of the wings, undercarriage, rudder — not to mention outside temperature, wind speeds, levels of fuel, and so forth. And yet we do not expect even the most integrated computer among the 747's computer family to be "conscious" of what goes on in the plane, except in a metaphorical sense. That top computer knows a lot about the plane's behavior but it does not "know," in the sense that the reader and I know, at this very moment, that we are alive and puzzling over the mysteries of consciousness.

What is different about us? Plenty, I would say. Beginning at the top of the scale of differences, the 747 lacks a self in the sense that you and I have one. I have proposed that selves are built from, but not limited to, myriad, integrated representations of the structure and operations of our bodies, and of the sum total of memories of what has happened to our own body in its history. The 747 does not have the equivalent of that part of a self for the very good reason that it does not need one to comply with the demands of its captain. But we do.

Somehow quantifying that fundamental difference is the real key to understanding magick from a scientific perspective. If we could measure state of consciousness X and resulting probability shift Y, and then build some sort of correlation between them, we would be able to establish a replicable model of how magick works that would stand up to laboratory testing. From there, we could then move on to optimization of mechanics and further testing in order to establish once and for all what the best and most efficient methods are for achieving particular outcomes.

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Unknown said...

It is because they have made such great strides that the probability of finding a palatable answer is so unlikely. Brain wave readers and brain scanners are good enough right now, that if there was any deeper materialistic answer to consciousness, memory and all that other stuff that any honest neuroscientist throws his hand up at, we would have found at least a trace by now. There really isn't much more advancement left for those machines, a lot of what their doing now is just increasing speed, and getting a larger area at a slightly higher resolution.

It took me a while to come up with a way to say what I think without saying what I believe but have no evidence for. I think you are tying to study magic like you would an extant, mature and hard science, when you should be approaching it like an immature science. When the sciences you know today were getting created, the men who worked on them had to observe the workings, and then make their own tools of objective observation based on what they knew of suspected would work. You don't have any tools, by which I mean literal ones like a microscope, because you haven't gone about seeing if anything reacts to magic in a way that is reliable under the same conditions most every time. That will give you at least the beginnings of a hope for the laboratory results you want. If you went about it seriously you would either find some or at least get on the right track. I can think of some ways of producing the same effect and getting the same result, but it would be another thing entirely to get a visual or auditory reading of that, which I think is something you wouldn't be satisfied until you got.

Scott Stenwick said...

I think you are tying to study magic like you would an extant, mature and hard science, when you should be approaching it like an immature science.

Well, I have to say, I disagree with this statement entirely with regard to the experimental work that I actually do with magick. I'm well aware that it can't be treated like a hard science, and rather am trying to approach it much as the early behaviorists did in psychology, tracking results and trying to come up with some reliable statistical methods. That's not what they do in the hard sciences - those relationships are already well-understood in most cases.

I also disagree that if there were anything in the brain that related to consciousness we would have found it by now. Roger Penrose, for example, has proposed that quantum consciousness may be mediated by structures in the brain called microtubules, which are small enough to interact with particles on the quantum level. One piece of evidence that his research team has managed to find is that these structures seem to stop working when patients are anesthetized, but they are so small and hard to measure that it's difficult to get much more accurate data.

I'm not saying I think Penrose is right, since there are a lot of possible explanations for anesthesia interfering with the function of particular structures. But what his team has found is certainly more than a "trace" of something whether or not his interpretation is accurate. Furthermore, if you start looking into research going on right now in consciousness studies there are a number of other hypotheses being explored that may be promising. Now is most certainly not the time to throw up our hands and insist that we're never going to be able to understand the phenomenon so we should just quit trying.