The Battle for the Internet
An Appeal for Seriousness

A Movement Building

A Happy New Year to my readers! I promised myself that round about now I would flower forth with the usual insightful commentary (hem hem!), but no such luck. Still bound by the slothful bonds of Christmas, seemingly.

However Rupert Sheldrake is up and doing, and has sent me a couple of links, which I thought I’d share in the meantime. The first is a piece by David Gelernter, a computer scientist, railing at the anti-humanistic trend in objectivist science. It struck me as a particularly powerful statement of the kinds of things I talk about here regarding attitudes towards consciousness and the philosophy of mind. True, the website is a US neo-con forum, so it ties in with a rightwing anti-science agenda. But the author is a computer scientist complaining about the popular tendency to equate consciousness with computers, which is a bit unusual.

The other link is to a short paean to pansychism by neuroscientist Christof Koch, who considers it to be 'the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe'. As Rupert notes, Koch has a reputation as an aggressive materialist, who once tried to get him banned from a consciousness conference. I recently read his most recent book which however was a lot fuzzier than one would expect. Rupert sees this as a big shift on Koch's part.

The fact that these sorts of positions are becoming ever more articulate and passionate, and coming from scientists and philosophers, is suggestive of a movement gradually building.


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I especially like Gelernter's comment: -

"Nowhere is its bullying more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.

Your subjective, conscious experience is just as real as the tree outside your window or the photons striking your retina—even though you alone feel it. Many philosophers and scientists today tend to dismiss the subjective and focus wholly on an objective, third-person reality—a reality that would be just the same if men had no minds. They treat subjective reality as a footnote, or they ignore it, or they announce that, actually, it doesn’t even exist".

Psi experiences are just as subjective as other mental events. And, it seems to me, that the what really bugs Psi critics is evidence that actually Psi impinges on objective reality.

So Gelernter is absolutely right, it's a very astute observation for him to have made.

Interesting article. I am officially out of my pay-grade here but a couple of things occured to me.

Whilst my own view is that programming a computer is nothing like a mind controlling a body, there were a few comments that didn't quite gel with me:

1. You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another.

Well I'm not sure that is necessarily true if one considers possession or obsession. In some cases it appears two minds may operate in the same body simultaneously.

2. You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain.

See above.

3. Software is transparent. I can read off the precise state of the entire program at any time. Minds are opaque—there is no way I can know what you are thinking unless you tell me.

Is this necessarily true, at least in a limited way, considering the possibility of telepathy?

4. Computers can be erased; minds cannot.

I think he means software can be deleted. I guess this might be possible if we consider clinically dead person kept alive by machine but where there mind is elsewhere. It's perhaps 'deleted' from the body but running elsewhere.

5. Computers can be made to operate precisely as we choose; minds cannot.

Mind can definitely be programmed as far as I can see, if the right techniques are deployed. In fact it seems possible to me that one can 'program' oneself.

In fact, if reports are to believed, the mind can exist without any kind of physical body at all. Perhaps the analogy to this is a program operating 'in the cloud' resident in many places simultaneously?

Curiously, the observations I make seem to rely on psi phenomena.

The discussion of emotion as a state and therefore having no computational equivalent also struck me as potentially inaccurate too, in that computers exist in various states at different times. What is an emotional reaction but a condition brought on by some sort of external or internal stimulus?

Can we not recognise what state we or someone else is in? I suspect often we can, even if we may not experience it in precisely the same way, because it has certain characteristics which we interpret as that emotion, though we can sometimes even fool ourselves.

Sorry for the ramble :)

"You can transfer a program easily from one computer to another, but you can’t transfer a mind, ever, from one brain to another."

He may be a computer scientist, Paul, but he's obviously never attempted to run a C program compiled on Windows, on a Unix machine.

I'm only semi-serious, BTW. I suspect I know what his counter to that would be. Indeed, the computing analogy can be useful descriptively, but I think we have to be careful lest it is taken too far - as he implies himself.

That said, I see no reason why the mind (or even 'objective' reality itself) shouldn't be described as conglomeration of self-referential working processes - that co-operate to flag internal and external change (whether Psi exists or not). Because, to me, it is self-evident that that is exactly what it going on.

As you say, though, some of his other points are questionable e.g.: -

"You can run an endless series of different programs on any one computer, but only one “program” runs, or ever can run, on any one human brain."

How does he know? Has he found a way of taking a core-dump of someone's brain? Hasn't he heard of subroutines, or COM/DCOM objects and the like that facilitate communication between applications (in the case of the latter, across networks between different machines - useful, maybe, to carry the analogy into Psi territory).

Anyway, it's Sunday morning. And my hardware needs some more caffeine! :)

You could always recompile it for Unix of course and get the same behaviour :)

I'm sure he's a great computer scientist but I do wonder how much he knows about psi phenomena and the mind in general.

You would think so, Paul. But I've recompiled C programs written on Windows a few times and had a surprising amount of hassle - for various reasons (some of them my fault). Got there in the end, though.

As far as your second point goes - not much about psi research, probably.

True one can sometimes compile the same software on the same platform and seemingly get different results of course lol.

As Rob alludes to in the original al post it's interesting that at least some if the issues are starting to be raised.

It is, yes, Paul. A bit overdue, some might say. But there are signs that the pendulum may be about to swing back. Let's hope it doesn't go too far the other way ;)

But there are signs that the pendulum may be about to swing back-----> can you elaborate Steve?

I am really enjoying these posts and this site.

One of the ways that I encourage others to conceive of, say, 'mind' [or 'consciousness' ]
is to ask them to look at the words we use;

We say 'my brain' - we do not say 'I, brain'.
We say 'my mind' - and not ' I, mind'.
This is self evident.

Then, it is an easy and logical next question to ask; who is the 'I' who speaks of your mind? That is, presumably, 'you', and although you use your brain/mind as a tool, it is not necessarily the totality of 'you'.

Many thanks,


"In fact, if reports are to believed, the mind can exist without any kind of physical body at all. Perhaps the analogy to this is a program operating 'in the cloud' resident in many places simultaneously?"

Your thoughts are interesting, Paul, because David Gelernter 's ideas are good, but it do not convince me and he does not mention the psychic research, which is what interests me primarily.

Computationalism and psychic research are rarely discussed in the same article, as if the psychic research never existed, which seems to me a fatal mistake, but if we take seriously psi phenomena, then we have a strong reason to reject computationalism because if computationalism is true, then it seems that the mind can not exist without the brain, but psi phenomena suggest that the mind continues to exist after biological death, as NDEs, apparitions, mediumship and children who seem to remember past lives.

By other hand, it is possible that after the biological death the mind to run on another body unknown to modern scientifics, the long body, which could be an usually invisible body made ​​of a material unknown to modern physics, the ethereal body, or a network of all the bodies of the species, in this case the human species, so that it remains compatible with computationalism. What do think?

Michael. In addition to what Rob said in his post...

The signs are that the worst ideological excesses of the skeptical movement are becoming more widely appreciated - generally and in academia also. More people are now aware that the movement actually exists than when I was doing research into the accuracy of the skeptical literature back in the mid-1990's.

I'm referring specifically, BTW, to skeptical attacks on academic research into Psi - past and present, where those attacks consist of ideologically motivated and hypocritical misrepresentations of fact, sophistry and (sometimes) lying. I am, most emphatically, not referring to all criticisms that 'skeptics' make about every 'belief' about Psi or unsound research as, sometimes, I am in agreement with them. As I've stated before recently here: nobody is ever 100% wrong about everything.

The TEDx business and attacks on Sheldrake's Wikipedia page, and other events (e.g. have drawn a lot of unwelcome negative publicity towards the movement over recent months.

So that's why I agree with the basic point of Rob's post. I know that the TEDx affair was noticed in academia outside of Psi research. People, especially, scientists will be increasingly asking who these people that claim to be representing 'science' are and who gave them their mandate. And the insulting, often hysterical, overall tone of the movement is even starting to draw flak from within skepticism (it has done before, but it is refreshing to see a current example): -


this dawning of understanding that insulting someone and/or dismissing them as delusional and/or mentally ill just might not be the (reasonable ;) thing to do !!! bravo ! kudos to your subtlety of thought !!



I loved the comment from the guy who says that he's trying to wean himself off the habit.

All part of growing up - as my mum used to say!

I think Hayley Stevens has recently received some rough treatment herself from other skeptics.

In the Christof Koch article:

1. Koch on Tononi - "conscious experience is a fundamental aspect of reality and is identical to a particular type of information—integrated information. Consciousness depends on a physical substrate but is not reducible to it...any system that has even one bit of integrated information has a very minute conscious experience".

How far down? Quantum physics can be written as "information" -(Anton Zeilinger talks of this and information and reality - properties do not truly exist until measured - are linked) but what about below this? Also there is the glaring issue of all matter dependent on the quantum vacuum. What's in that QV "soup"?

2. The "aggregate problem". Koch explains this with Tononi's theory for individuals, "every person living in the U.S. is, self by self, conscious, but there is no superordinate consciousness of the U.S. population as a whole."
This goes against the Global Consciousness Project data at PEAR, Princeton and seems to be against people's "psychic connections".
If it's said above (Koch), "any system that has even one bit of integrated information has a very minute conscious experience", then why does this preclude a kind of spreading over the human population as a whole? Hence the GCP results. Unless Tononi doesn't go down far enough.

3. Koch - "[the theory] does not discriminate between squishy brains inside skulls and silicon circuits encased in titanium."
Then that's an equivalence and a category error. Computers/software (designed) are finite and run with human-made rules, i.e. operationally, quite apart from the ultimate physics running in Reality (and below known Laws which are presently known to be quantum based). Brains are based within this ultimate physics, so to model them using (in time order over the years), mechanical ideas, telephone exchanges, computers, can only be a model.

To me, the Tononi model seems to be a materialistic form of panpsychism and one which cannot deal with the psychic connections between people.

There's more here from the upcoming 2014 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference which seems to underline a materialistic position by Tononi,

Hi Juan

I think I view the computational model as described simply as an analogy. Even the best analogies help so far, then seem to part company with reality at some point.

I don't think there is anything significant in the model as proposed because it seems to ignore psi phenomena. Whilst the absence of psi phenomena would make the understanding of consciousness more straightforward for many, as far as I am concerned, like you, I think it is an important factor which any model needs to explain.

I don't think we are going to see computers with human consciousness although maybe there are all kinds of vehicles for consciousness so who knows? Perhaps consciousness can make use of any suitable vehicle? That still wouldn't mean that the mechanism necessarily produced the consciousness as far as I can see.

As for the mind running on different platforms, maybe the computational analogy does fit there, although some see the physical and none physical bodies as being co-located, in which case physical death would simply be the shedding of one body but the mind would continue operating in association or through the remaining body(ies).

I don't have a firm view. It's way beyond my pay-grade :)

Physical death might just mean the elimination of a redundant peripheral :)

Thanks Paul.

If, when we eventually fall off our perches, we find everyone using dot matrix printers in the 'sprirt world' and data centres full of open reel tape decks and washing machine sized disc drives...what will that say about Tononi's ideas? ;)

I'll eat my hat Steve :)

Gelernter's long article resonates with Colin Andrews's latest book "On the Edge of Reality" in that both works seize on the connection between emotion and the deeper reality as the frontier of original thought. Andrews was the first to observe and then name the crop circle phenomenon. He is the most thorough researcher and has evolved the most profound insight into the highly anomalous events that surround many of them. He uses the crop circle as the prime example of how human emotion is affected by mysterious physical structures by providing numerous veridical examples of circle visitations causing strange lights or loud, persistent sounds and even time inconsistencies (one group of researchers once suddenly found themselves 35 miles down the road they were traveling but headed in the opposite direction).

Gelernter writes that emotion is the part of consciousness that cannot be reduced to physical cause and effect. Human intent of crop circle observers, or even dreams, has caused particular crop formations to appear in numerous cases. The most notorious and solidly scientific example of the effect of consciousness on objective reality is, of course, the results of the double slit experiment where observing the path of photons causes them to deviate from the path of unobserved photons.

Every significant act we engage in from picking a stock to invest in to choosing a life partner is motivated by emotion far more than logic. Yet emotion cannot be explained as an emergent property of consciousness any more than consciousness can be explained as an emergent property of mind.

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