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Discussion 4 to Meditation 537
Consciousness

by: George Rush

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Thank you for your comments, Bernardo.

There's no question consciousness is "associated with" a temporary process in the brain: a fast, complex pattern of bioelectromagnetic excitations. Almost all of human experience and capabilities are due to "subconscious" brain processes and can probably be mimicked artificially with suitably advanced technology. Only basic subjective sentience - the "I" which experiences - can't be accounted for. It's sui generis, unrelated to concepts like process, force, mass, momentum, algorithms or information. Now, the brain process is implemented by particles - electrons and many others. It's tempting to think sentience must be a property of one or more of those particles. But it doesn't have to be a matter particle (fermion); it could be a force particle (boson), part of the fields which govern the brain process. The only alternatives seem to be that sentience is supernatural, or it doesn't exist at all.

Even if sentience is in a particle, that doesn't mean it's anything like a "soul". First, it would have to contain, or have, our subjective experience throughout life. It's entirely possible the particle lasts only milliseconds, and is constantly replaced by another; that continuous identity is an illusion due to brain memory; that far from lasting after death, we (the subjective experiencers) don't even last more than an instant. Second, there should be only one mind-particle, with some free will; if there were no free will there could conceivably be lots of "you"'s sharing the same experience, whose "decisions" and "actions" are meaningless illusions. Third, even if there's one stable particle, like an electron (fermion) or photon (boson), it has to survive death, not be annihilated. Fourth, the particle has to retain something of our identities, meaning it has to have some "on-board" memory. If, once the brain stops, it becomes identical to any other electron (or whatever), and one's identity is completely lost, it's not soul-like.

So the issue can be stated: If sentience is the property of a particle (matter or force), what are the chances it's a single permanent particle with some memory?

Responding to your comments:

Bernardo Arroyo: ... as far as we know, consciousness seems to "disappear" when such an animal's brain dies. Like fields do when the processes which generated them cease or change.

- if the "soul-like particle" leaves the brain at death, then it also would seem to "disappear". In fact, it could even stay there; once the brain stops functioning it would be unable to affect the body anyway.

BA: Furthermore, as far as our memories tell us, our consciousness "appeared" at some point when our brain was formed or perhaps even as it developed in our first months or years of life.

- The lack of previous-to-birth memories is a negative; of course it can be explained, but the more things you have to explain away, the less likely the soul-like hypothesis becomes.

BA: However, unless some day consciousness is detected in a lot more detail in our brains, this will remain unproven.

- There's no doubt in my mind that science will figure it all out someday.

BA: The idea that consciousness might be a property of matter is very interesting and thought provoking, but it sounds to me somewhat redundant. Like saying we think because we can. Yes but how does thinking work?

- The "property of matter", or rather, particle, is needed for only one thing: the very basic capability of experiencing, of awareness or sentience. Quite likely we'll never explain it further, any more than we can explain what electric charge or mass "really is".

BA: I inderstand that this is not merely a circular argument, because the consciousness property C would allow even the smallest particle to be conscious or at least to have a "lower level" of consciousness.

- exactly.

BA: But then again, if our consciousness is of a "higher level", what makes it so?

- As mentioned above, our complex brains provide all the higher level functions.

BA: And which other animals or how complicated a brain needs to be in order to have the type of awareness that we experience as consciousness?

- I imagine that all mammals are similar to us, except dumber. Something like an insect would have a very different, much reduced consciousness; still, they would share the same basic sentience, I suppose.

BA: Does an "illuminated" person really have an even "higher level" of consciousness as a result of his meditations?

- I think it's the opposite. There are two types of meditation, which have buddhist names I've forgotten. In one type, you learn to ignore all thoughts and percepts, reaching a state of uninvolved sentience. It feels rather like a "soul": timeless, changeless, incorruptible. My cat achieves that state effortlessly whenever she's fed, content, warm and comfortable. The other type of meditation is similar, but active. You pay attention to the world and act in it, but egolessly, "going with the flow". The best example is martial arts sparring. You want to react immediately to your opponent's moves, without preconceptions or distraction, fluidly; as Bruce Lee said, "become water". If, after a lot of effort, you manage it, you're like my cat whenever she stalks a bird: totally focussed in the moment. That feels more like a process: only movement exists. Either way, you're reaching not a higher level, but a lower one. Admittedly, most meditators (including Buddha) disagree; they believe they're "enlightened" far above a mere cat. But in my opinion, humans are nowhere near as special as most of them would like to think.

BA: Isn't this reasoning, again, going in the direction of the effect of a process? Or am I misunderstanding the concept of this property C?

- I think meditation takes you "down" to a clearer perception of reality, not "up". But of course this is no proof.

BA: In regard to the definition of consciousness, I define it to myself simply as my notion of being. ... And I am certainly interested in reading about George Rush's definition.

- You got it in one! My three-word definition: consciousness is "what I am", i.e., "my notion of being". We each have access to one and only one consciousness, and must define the word accordingly. Although science will someday learn every detail about how the brain works, and where consciousness is contained, it will never improve on this definition by one iota.