Few topics generate more false confidence or genuine bewilderment than the nature of consciousness. At scientific conferences, debates about the origins of consciousness – especially the purposeful, intentional aspects of consciousness – resemble professional wrestling matches more than sober academic affairs. Skeptics hold meetings where they fervently reinforce their belief that intentions (like consciousness) are mere illusions manufactured by the brain. Popular books and movies promoting the power of intention, such as The Secret, are runaway bestsellers.
Why All The Fuss?
Because without conscious awareness there would be no science, no literature, no art, and no civilization—no one would be aware of anything. And without intention, the concepts of free will and creativity, central to the experience of being human, would reduce us all to purposeless automatons. Most ordinary people don’t like the idea of being machines; most scientists apparently do. I think this culture split may have arisen because it absolves scientists from any blame about their choice of clothes and whether or not their socks match. Machines can’t be held responsible for their fashion sense, so ipso facto we are machines.
Understanding consciousness and intention is also important because they are closely related to our conceptions of reality. If consciousness is literally caused by brain activity, then the universe begins to look like a clockwork machine. The behavior of machines is fully determined: They don’t have free will, they’re independent of observers, and they have no intrinsic purpose or meaning.
By contrast, if consciousness is fundamental and in some way gives rise to matter and energy, then the brain is more like a “receiver” of a distributed awareness, and the universe becomes permeated with meaning, volition, and intention. These two approaches lead to radically different worldviews about who and what we are.Which is more plausible?
It may be that, as in the myth of Tantalus, a fully adequate answer is doomed to remain enticingly close but beyond our grasp. Achieving an adequate solution may require something greater than human intelligence. As Einstein noted, and Kurt Gödel demonstrated through his famous Incompleteness Theory, it is (in essence) impossible to see outside a box while still confined within it. This of course hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. If machine intelligence evolves beyond human intelligence, which is not inconceivable, then one day it may fully understand why scientists can’t dress properly, but ironically we won’t be capable of understanding its explanation.
“There is substantial evidence in favor of intentional mind-matter interactions with random events, photons, cell cultures, and human physiology and behavior.”
Mind As Machine
Given the success of mechanistic models used in physics, biology, and the neurosciences, many scientists today view consciousness and intention as by-products of the marvelous machine called the human body. This machine is still mystifying in many ways but regarded in principle as no different than a fancy clock radio or a Buick. Radios and cars do not have teleological ghosts within them that care about creativity or free will, and so, according to the mainstream mechanistic view, neither do we.
This model has a great deal of persuasive evidence in favor of it. We know that brain injury, disease, and psychedelic drugs can generate dramatic changes in one’s behavior, perception, and sense of self. Computer simulations demonstrate that massively parallel neural computation can account for some aspects of the amazing pattern recognition and associative memory capacities of the human mind. Brain imaging devices reveal tight correlations between our intentions and patterns of electrical and hemodynamic activity in the brain.
Technologies relying on these observations are leading to new forms of “augmented cognition” – ways of artificially enhancing mental capacities. Rising interest is reflected in the growth of published articles, from a handful in the 1980s to more than a hundred in 2006 alone. Such advances suggest that mechanistic models of consciousness are pointing in the correct explanatory direction.
In light of this, the mechanistic paradigm has become the leading scientific contender for understanding consciousness. But successful paradigms tend to erect blinders against countervailing evidence. A few such challenges can be dismissed as minor annoyances that will probably go away if ignored. But if numerous challenges persist and evidence continues to support them, then the foundational assump- tions underlying the leading paradigm will eventually crack. A case can be made that we are headed in that direction.
Challenging The Machine Paradigm
Challenges to a clockwork view of the mind include the phenomena of extended perceptual and cognitive capacities such as intuition, genius, psychic and mystical experiences, and extended intentional capacities such as direct mind-matter interactions. Consider intuition, which is widely regarded as the source of creative genius in scientific discovery, technological innovation, business decisions, medical diagnoses, and artistic achievement.
Based on comparative reviews of the lives of scientific icons, scholars agree that nearly without exception the greatest mathematicians and scientists have relied more on intuition than on rational inference. Given its central role in advancing science and civilization, one might expect that science has thoroughly investigated intuition, but until very recently this area of inquiry has been carefully avoided. Perhaps this is because the quasi-magical aura associated with intuition has been an embarrassment to science, which prides itself on methodical, rational knowing.
While rare genius can be found at the far edges of intuition, nearer to everyday experience are more common for ms of nonsensory, nonrational ways of knowing, including psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance and precognition. These for ms of knowing appear to be incompatible with mechanistic, sensory-based, computational models of mind, and indeed it is difficult to imagine how one might build a machine that can sense what is happening at a distance in space or time without the use of known signals or forces. This failure of imagination underlies many scientists’ rejection of these phenomena. Despite such discomforts, experiments continue to demonstrate that these phenomena stubbornly remain.
Extended mental and cognitive capacities provide a formidable challenge to the machine-mind model, but an even greater challenge is intention. If mind is a machine, then free will is an illusion, and illusions cannot extend beyond the body. Yet here too there is substantial evidence in favor of intentional mind-matter interactions with random events, photons, cell cultures, and human physiology and behavior. The existence of such effects presents an annoying challenge to mechanistic models, and it suggests that reality itself may be more fluid than commonly supposed.
“Intention and Reality: The Ghost in the Machine Returns” by Dean Radin, PhD, first appeared in Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness (No. 15, June – August 2007, pp. 22–26), the quarterly publication of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), and is reprinted with permission of IONS (Websites: www.noetic.org and www.shiftinaction.com), all rights reserved. Copyright 2007.
Stay tuned for part II…
It will look like this: Intention and Reality – The Ghost in the Machine Returns