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Discussion 6 to Meditation 537
Consciousness, continued

by: George Rush

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Hello Bernardo, Im sorry I missed your reply a month ago. I hope you're still around to read this.

BA: It might be easier to continue this exchange in the UCTAA group in groups.yahoo.com. The discussion can be more dynamic there.

- I'll also post it at my Consciousness Studies forum. The rest of this discussion is included there for reference; this reply is at the bottom.

BA: If I understand it correctly, then, every particle would have the property and be at least slightly conscious. The sum of this smallest of consciousness and its relationships would then make an atom somewhat more aware of itself. A molecule would be even more conscious and the progression would continue into more complex structures with higher levels of intricacy and ever more clear notions of being.

- Let me emphasize the whole idea is purely speculative and may be completely wrong. However I claim it's entirely possible. Prof. Galen Strawson in the latest JCS makes a strong case for the concept; he calls it Micropsychism. You can read my response to that idea here. There it is shown that instead of a particle, the tiny experiential unit might be a wave, string or various others; but "particle" is the simplest case, and we can ignore others here.

- Your description makes sense. First critical question is, what does it mean to "be at least slightly conscious"? We don't know, but imagine it as very basic awareness, with no mind content. I use the word "aware" for that state, whatever it is; "conscious" means normal human consciousness.

- Second question is, what does "sum of this smallest of consciousness and its relationships" mean? Again, we don't know, but there are two major options. First, the individual awarenesses of the particles remain separate, the same as humans. (I assume there's no such thing as "vulcan mind-meld" or any merging of individual human consciousnesses, in spite of science fiction and old folk tales; and I assume you agree.) Second option: the individual awarenesses do merge into a single "higher-level" or "more aware" awareness, building up towards full human consciousness. Either is possible; you seem to lean towards the second, which I call "group consciousness". In that case, we have to explain how this merging of awarenesses works, since it's currently unknown.

- Moving up to atoms and molecules, using group consciousness, we might suppose that the merging comes about because the quantum waves merge, forming the nuclear and electrochemical bonds holding atoms and molecules together. We might conjecture that DNA molecules have the property of maximizing the strength, or complexity, of this wave; and so do neuronic structures found in the brain (I've seen both assertions defended). So group consciousness leads to replacing the "aware particle" with an "aware wave". See the paper mentioned above for more details. In this case we can imagine molecules as having some sense of their whole "body", as a structure. At the macro level, this might 'add up' to our human body-sense. One problem with this is we have to say a rock is aware of itself as an entity, which is far-fetched.

- On the other hand, if we stick with the no-merging hypothesis, atoms and molecules are [u]not[/u] more aware. Instead they are merely collections of a few individual awarenesses, the constituent particles. In this case we imagine an electron being "aware" of a proton or nucleus, and "wanting" to whirl around it; but there would be no overall sensation of the whole structure. In this model, a rock has no awareness (which accords with both common and scientific sense); only the individual particles, down at the micro level, would be aware of a few angstroms around them.

- What if the structure isn't simple, like a rock, but complex, like a computer or brain? You say, "the progression would continue into more complex structures with higher levels of intricacy and ever more clear notions of being", indicating that complexity and intricacy are directly related to "higher" consciousness. That's a very popular idea in Consciousness Studies, and a very fruitful area to explore.

BA: We don't know if humans are the most complex structure so far, but, at least from our perspective, it seems that we have the clearest notion of being. Would that make us (as some religions say) the pinnacle of living things?

- It does seem that way, doesn't it? But we're the pinnacle only intellectually.

BA: Or is it, as you said, that many animals are as conscious as we are, but just not as intelligent or at least not intelligent in the same rational way we are?

- Of course it's hard to specify - what does "as conscious as we are" mean? - but yes, that's my opinion.

BA: If I were to lose a limb, for example, gone with it would be millions of particles and their respective bits of consciousness. And in fact this is true, because I would be aware of the missing part and I would be conscious of being different and of having one less limb and of having lost some abilities. Whether this new image of myself would represent a "lower level of consciousness" is incalculable, but I am sure that I would not be able to ignore the change in my notion of being.

- Fortunately I haven't yet lost a limb, but I'm pretty certain no amputee considers himself "less conscious" than we are. Anyway, this is only a problem for the "group consciousness" conjecture. Without that, the assumption is that animal consciousness is found only deep in the brain; you can cut off the whole body without affecting it (assuming you have some very advanced life-support equipment, to keep the head alive and awake).

BA: In the end when we die, every particle retains its small part of consciousness, and therefore our consciousness is not really lost.

- Not that simple. What makes a human human? Isn't it memory, the ability to think, reason and plan, perceptions, emotions and so forth? All of these depend on structures and energy flows in the brain; and they're all lost when the body stops and decays. Only the very basic "awareness" of the individual particles would (presumably) remain. I'm not saying some sort of "soul" is completely impossible; I have no argument with any religious faiths; how would I know? But the obvious, logical, scientific assumption is that the human personality or "self" depends almost entirely on the complex relations and interactions found in the brain, and disappears when the brain does.

BA: Unless, again, some part of our consciousness comes from the particles themselves and another part from their inter relations. In this case at least one part of our consciousness would be definitely lost.

- Right.

BA: Anyway the idea of a soul, as described by most religions, seems as improbable as always.

- Well, not quite. With the conventional scientific explanation, as propounded by such figures as Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and many more, the probability of anything like a soul is exactly 0%. With micropsychism (which I consider quite likely) the chance of a traditional Christian-type soul might approach, say, 1%. The chance of something remotely like a soul, even if it's only a basic "null" awareness surviving, is quite a bit higher.

BA: A notion of being that would keep being aware of its existence, even when not alive, would contradict the idea that every particle that formed us took its own consciousness with it as they disgregated.

- exactly.

BA: Or do you, George, think that there is a way that this consciousness might be operational even if the brain is not working and the body is decaying?

- No, I don't. With micropsychism it's just barely conceivable, though; and not at all impossible that some tiny vestige of very low-level awareness survives.

BA: I've always thought that the difference between alive and not alive is not very clear (unless we define life only in biological terms). Could it be that life is also a property of particles? Do particles respond to stimuli and change evergy levels, for example, because they are a little bit alive?

- My best guess is that animals are "alive" because they have incredibly complex nerve pathways which funnel all the sensory impressions into one central area, the brain; and within the brain they're further processed and funneled into one single, whole experience. That funnelling and processing is the key distinction between alive and not.

BA: Do atoms and molecules tend to chemically react with one another because that is what life means at those levels?

- I reserve the word "life" for biological life, with its central processing; also with birth, death, and so forth. At the chemical level, particles have nothing like that. A reasonable guess is: they dimly "sense" electromagnetic forces - photons, charge or whatever - and react appropriately, moving toward opposite charge. (Similarly with nuclear forces.) Like an amoeba moving towards higher concentrations of food-chemicals. These impulses, taken together, are viewed by a physicist as the laws of Quantum Electrodynamics, etc.

BA: Is life a question of degree or level, and biological organisms are more alive than elements and compounds?

- The way I see it, only biological organisms are alive, not elements or rocks or inanimate matter. If robotics ever builds an artificial-intelligent mechanism like "Data" of "Star Trek NG", that view would have to be rethought.

George Rush