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.


OriginalJim said...

I saw two videos recently that had me thinking about consciousness in animals. One was a dolphin sucking air out of a tube, and blowing air bubble rings, like a human might blow smoke rings. Why did it do that? To me, it looked like it was just playing.
Another video. A crow stands at the peak of a steep snow-covered roof. The crow stands on a small disc of some kind and rides it down the snowy roof, like a snowboard. The bird then grabs the disc in its beak, flies up to the peak, and rides down again.
While friends thought "Aw, how cute" I was a bit shaken. Do animals have a concept a fun? If a little tiny bird-brain can comprehend fun, can most animals? If animals conceive of fun as we humans do, are emotions and concepts like these more universal than we've been told.
I grew up being told by science that humans tend to anthropomorphize animals and ascribe human emotions and motives to them, where there are none. Now, in my 50s, I'm rethinking all of that.

Michael Grosso said...

Jim,amazingly until the recent 30 or so years most scientists rejected the view that animals were conscious or had any mental skills. Thank goodness, all that is changing and the evidence is overwhelming that animals have all sorts of mental powers. And that would include a sense of fun--play among animals is training for real animal life.
Appreciate your comment on something I wrote a while back.

jjams said...

Science has a false way of logical thinking and what can be proven is very little yet we are led to belief much has been proven yet has not !
Our Sun cannot to proven what they say it is because we have none to subject to testing in the laboratory ?
Cosmology is assumption of how things we believe function without all the laws of physics being known and now is reduced to math basically !
In the Laboratory a neutron cannot be compressed yet neutron stars are said to exist being compressed into small dense stars ?

Science is actually 90% theories and these theories grow into dogma like the the Core Fusion Theory of our Sun that has failed every test and prediction without a change of theory and continues to be in our test books still today !
The Neutrinos are not occurring and the Surface of our Sun is cold where as the Corona is at Fusion Temperatures ?
Science academia has invented away for there theory to barely hold up by adding a thermal blanket inside the Sun to keep the heat from the surface as if this heat never saturates the thermal blanket and photons take 40,000 years to escape to the surface of the Sun ?

This dogma has gone way too far now !
Ancient History is fiction in many cases , The Egyptian Pyramids were never tombs !
All the tombs are in the Valley of the Kings with adorned walls and artifacts but you will never find such things in a Egyptian Pyramid because they were built for another purpose that has been hidden from us !

Yet Cosmology is the most lost science using a bad road map of assumptions based on the unfinished Relativity theory Einstein did not want to publish because he knew it was not finished at all !

In the East reincarnation was known to be our afterlife endeavor yet the West denies even the possibility ?
Hidden is the truth and the rest is unproven to a larger extent , science is a road block to reality of truth !

Intelligent beings thru out our Galaxy is the rule and we are not alone and science academia hides this too but for the folks that have fragile narrow beliefs they needs time to bring them along to the fact we have made contact and the ETs are here now !

Edgar Cayce used his consciousness to access true knowledge library I believe is the Akasiac record of all knowledge stored somehow for us all to use !

Oh there is no Dark Matter , only misunderstanding of the vast laws of physics of time matter and space !
The truth is so fantastic it is beyond the best science fiction story ever written or imagined !
True Science encompasses the super natural laws a Devine being invented building the Universe !

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