Sunday, December 20, 2015

Conscious Horizons Expanding

It has gradually been dawning on people that the thing common to us all – our immediate consciousness — is a complete mystery. How do you get feelings of aesthetic appreciation, acts of spiritual love, or the thought processes that led to Einstein’s general theory of relativity — out of brain matter?

The big trend toward materialism started with the 17th century Scientific Revolution. It climaxes in the 20th century with behaviorism and other attempts to eliminate or invalidate the mental. The renaming of academic departments of psychology as departments of neuroscience illustrates this expulsion of psyche from the Academy.

But there are signs of reversal of this trend. The various attempts to explain away the mental side of nature ultimately failed, not squaring with logic or experience. One big thing remained a thorn in the side of materialism: the blatant irreducibility of our own consciousness. A pain in the philosophical neck, science can’t explain it or its relationship to the brain. This is the famous “hard problem”.

Unfortunately for our materialist friends, nowadays there’s much talk of animal consciousness. Despite Darwin’s groundbreaking study, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, until about thirty years ago it was taboo to talk as if non-human animals had feelings — joy, pain, hope, fear, love, and so forth. Ideology would conjure them right out of existence.

You may feel good when your dog gazes into your eyes with gratitude after giving her a treat.  But be assured; there is nothing going on behind that gaze. Behind the curtain of the seeming drama of terrestrial animal life, all is blank, all is void. Thus the wisdom of scientific materialism.

But a cure of this almost inconceivable obtuseness is possible. The cognitive ethologist, Marc Bekoff, explains why scientists deny animal feelings in his extraordinary book, The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007). For one thing, critics dread being seen as “unscientific”. It could mean loss of prestige or you could lose your job.

There’s also this: if animals have feelings, humans would have to reform their treatment of animals. We would question behavior that tortures, exploits, and destroys animals for commercial or scientific ends. Animal consciousness has subversive implications, and threatens to rattle the moral imagination.

Research is full of amazing accounts of animal behavior and sensitivities, for example, the story of the octopus, told in a book by Sy Montgomery whose title says it all, The Soul of an Octopus (2005) and whose subtitle says even more: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.
But now something else. I was struck by an online BBC story, “Do We Underestimate the Power of Plants and Trees” (November, 2015). Scientists from Italy, British Columbia, Japan, and Tel Aviv make surprising claims about the behavior and awareness of plants.

An excellent documentary online, What Plants Talks About, features James Cahill, an experimental plant ecologist who uses time-lapse photography to show how plants move and behave in directed ways. Cahill demonstrates how a plant moves toward a target and “knows” the difference between a nutrition patch and a decoy.

Researchers from Alberta, Canada, describe the foraging behavior of roots and the amazing, deep underground world below the visible forest. They describe the hidden social life of the forest. Forests, we’re told, are systems of cooperation.

All these researchers admit there is a mystery. Plants have neither sense organs nor brains. Yet they seem to have perceptions and show directed movements. How is that possible? It looks as if the whole world of life, animal and plant, is rooted in a great living consciousness.

So then is the entire physical universe also somehow part of a conscious reality? Panentheists think so, for example. For a brilliant essay on this topic, see the concluding chapter by Michael Murphy in Beyond Physicalism (2015, eds. Kelly, Crabtree, and Marshall) If the whole of nature is conscious or at least, as quantum physicist Henry Stapp suggests, proto-conscious, what about another question we might ask: what happens to our inner life after our bodies die?

The idea of after-death consciousness makes scientists even more squeamish than the idea that Rover has a sense of humor or that brainless plants show awareness. Disembodied centers of consciousness are impossible to a physicalist but not to one who construes consciousness as an irreducible factor in the natural world.

As the consciousness of animals was officially banished from existence by ideologues, so has science performed a similar magic act of wiping out the very notion of afterdeath consciousness. But attitudes on both are going through sea-changes.

Consider this analogy. Early thinkers began with a pretty tiny, contracted conception of the physical world. Think of the pint-sized Ptolemaic mundus and then fly forward to the present, to our vast, expanding, accelerating universe. The conception of physical reality has grown enormously into infinite outer space and way down into the fey world of the quantum.

Why then, I’d like to ask, should the mental or spiritual dimension of reality turn out to be any less vast, astonishing, and momentous? As far as I can see, our mental horizons are now trending toward expansion. The need for such expansion has perhaps never been so urgent.

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