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Thoughts About Consciousness

By Matt Colborn

[Author and researcher Matt Colborn has posted on Paranormalia a few times. He's just completed a book on consciousness, and shares some thoughts here on how his views changed during the course of writing. Thanks Matt]

In my forthcoming book Pluralism and the Mind, (September 2011), I argue for a strongly pluralistic approach to the mind-sciences, for an approach to subjective consciousness that conceives it as active rather than epiphenomenal, and against the idea that subjective experiences and actions are fully reducible to current physics and neurobiology. In the course of these arguments, I examine debates over 'free will,' the self, purposiveness in the Cosmos, and the occurrence of psi phenomena.

Writing the book has inevitably changed my view on a range of issues. Most significantly, I have shifted from wanting to formulate a 'grand theory' of consciousness to an appreciation of the limitations of individual worldviews - which are invariably partial - and to a love of cognitive diversity. I have also learnt:

1. That there are a variety of valid ways of seeing human beings, and that these vary through time, across cultures, across disciplines and between individuals. I have come to value this variety and have become suspicious of attempts to reduce humans to 'nothing but' this or that particular thing.

2. That how we see human beings matters immensely and deeply affects how we treat each other. That, despite recent attempts to develop a 'positive psychology,' Western views of human beings tend to be rather negative and disempowering, especially in the light of certain beliefs about materialism, determinism, free will (or lack thereof) and certain interpretations of evolutionary theory.

3. That differing traditions often have something worthwhile to contribute in understanding human nature, and that it is wrong to assume the automatic superiority of an idea just because it purports to be 'scientific.' (Or, conversely, the automatic inferiority of an idea because it originates outside science). What matters is for individuals to develop their own ideas, strategies and beliefs that suit the challenges of their own lives and not try to distort their lives to fit into an imposed set of beliefs about human nature. Science may contribute to this, but it cannot be allowed to dictate terms.

4. That neuroscience is developing rapidly, in ways that have by no means uniformly positive implications for personal autonomy, privacy and civil liberties. I refer partly to the research programs that seek to reduce virtually every aspect of human personality to definable neurological patterns, to unlock the 'neural code,' to manipulate the human brain and to develop 'mind reading' devices. More public debate on the desirability of these developments is urgently needed, as with GM organisms and nuclear power.

5. Following 4, that there is an almost total lack of critical science journalism. Currently, popular science functions mostly in a cheerleading capacity for the wonders of science and technology. If this situation occurred in political writings, we would call it propaganda. We all need to be far more critical of both mainstream and non-mainstream claims, and especially aware of the often covert vested interests that constantly shape opinions in science.

6. Finally, I think that whilst we know a great deal, we understand very little. This is because knowledge is often concerned with minutiae, whereas understanding is holistic. If we want to understand subjective consciousness better, we need to develop our understanding and not simply assume that mechanistic and reductionist models are the be all and end all in understanding human nature. Life is far broader than our models of it can ever be.


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I recall a character in an Iris Murdoch novel saying that a good way of gaining insight into a philosopher’s work was to ask what they are afraid of, and how their philosophical position addressed those fears. In my view the same applies with our attitude to consciousness and what we label as subjective. In short, I think our scientific, humanist based culture is at best deeply mistrustful of the subjective and any role it might play in the world, and at worst is positively terrified. Hence the prevailing materialistic ideology that assumes consciousness arises wholly from mechanical & evolutionary naturalistic processes, and that it is only a matter of time before this becomes scientifically proven; thus explaining away free will, human creativity, culture and so on. This is at best a dubious position philosophically, and it seems to me is in retreat even within mainstream Western analytical philosophy (a good recent collection of essays on this is given in “The Waning of Materialism” ed. Robert C Koons & George Bealer, Oxford University Press 2010). But the grip it exerts on our culture – coupled with the view that believing otherwise equates with irrationalism – is still very strong, because I believe of this underlying fear we have of what we label subjective.

Where does this fear come from? The horrors recorded in human history – especially twentieth century history – testify to what people acting irrationally are capable of. For me that must be a factor. I also think that any view to the effect that physical science, even in principle, has inbuilt limitations disturbs some because of the extent to which we rely on science for our way of life and standard of living, and its maintenance in the future. Finally, there is the fear of religion and the attendant culture wars issues. I agree the standard of popular science writing is not what it should be, and this includes those writers of a liberal persuasion much of whose cheerleading of the materialistic position stems from the assumption that any concession to a non-materialistic position, or even a show of some humility about the limitations of science, is the first step towards conceding power to religious fundamentalists and their subsequent trampling over of all our hard won Enlightenment liberal values.

I agree with Matt that this is not merely nonsensical but damaging, not least to science itself which isn’t done any favours in the long term by being conflated with a materialistic ideology. Pluralism and the Mind, therefore, looks to address some important issue and I look forward to the book’s publication.

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