Shortcomings of the Mechanical Model for Consciousness.
In the preceding 3 sections, we have seen that many Western scientists have attempted to explain the phenomena of conscious life, by formulating a mechanical model for it. According to this theory, there is no outside source such as the soul responsible for consciousness; instead consciousness is most likely produced as a by-product of atomic and molecular interactions in the brain.
Now although this mechanical model of life, is an idea that has existed in science ever since the time of René Descartes, (who first proposed that animals such as dogs were soul-less machines that felt no pain); nevertheless, in the last few decades, this concept has received a fresh impetus from 2 important figures:
The first has been British biologist and author Richard Dawkins; who in his book, The God Delusion, has argued that human beings are little more than lumbering robots, with brains like genetically programmed computers. The second and more significant supporter has been Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, who after discovering the structure of the DNA molecule, switched over to studying consciousness.
In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, published a few years before he died, Crick puts forward the proposition that human consciousness is produced as a consequence of neurological activity in the brain. When neurons fire, consciousness is somehow produced. And because consciousness is a result of atomic and molecular processes in the brain, this in turn would imply that human beings do not possess free will or choice; rather their behaviour (in theory, at least) is fully predictable by a scientist who has knowledge about the state of each and every molecule in a person’s body.
Thus Crick writes: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. In short: You are nothing but a pack of neurons.”
This idea that consciousness can be reduced to something simpler, such as the particles of matter – as we have seen in our earlier video is known as reductionism. Now this “reduction to the constituents of matter” philosophy works very well for most things in the Universe, and is the fundamental basis upon which all 3 sciences of physics, chemistry and biology have advanced. But can it be applied to consciousness?
Is Consciousness Reducible to Atoms and Molecules of Matter?
The answer to the above question (as we have seen earlier) from the spiritual perspective of India’s Vedanta Philosophy, is a resounding no! According to Vedanta, it is not consciousness which can be reduced to matter; instead reality is the other way around. It is matter which reduces to something simpler and more fundamental, and that is consciousness! In fact the whole Universe reduces to consciousness!
This is the spiritual perspective. However, what is really interesting is that even from within the scientific community, we are beginning to hear the faint echoes of this Vedantic view, although it is at a very preliminary stage right now.
An increasing number of scientists are starting to seriously doubt the theory that the subjective experience of consciousness emerges from matter, i.e. from neurological activity in the brain. This is because while the firing of neurons can explain the mechanism by which a sensation such as pain or smell is transmitted; it cannot fully account for the experience.
To better understand this point, consider the activity of the brain during sleep. According to Dr. Giulio Tononi, a leading neuroscientist in the field of consciousness studies, at the University of Wisconsin; if the firing of neurons was responsible for generating the subjective experience of consciousness, then the neurological activity in the brain of a person who is awake and conscious; should be higher than that when he/she is in deep sleep and therefore unconscious.
But this is not what scientists observe. It turns out that neurons in the brain’s cortex are firing just as much as when a person is awake; as when he/she is in deep sleep.
As Dr. Christof Koch, another noted neuroscientist and former professor at Caltech points out (@ 7 mins in this video), “There seems to be an explanatory gap between the physics of your brain, and what your conscious experience is.” So while neurons are the necessary mechanism by which a sensation, such as the smell of a rose is transmitted; to believe that neurological activity also endows us with the conscious experience (or awareness) of “smelling the rose”, is nothing but a giant leap of faith.
It is for this reason that scientists such as Dr. Koch are abandoning the “brain matter as the source of consciousness” hypothesis; and are instead turning to a revolutionary new theory called the Integrated Information Theory (IIT), developed by Dr. Giulio Tononi, which offers an exciting new shift in the scientific understanding of consciousness.
Outlined below are some salient features of this theory. Upon reading them, one is sure to recognize some incredible similarities with the Vedantic view that has been presented in the video earlier:
Consciousness Exists Independent of Matter: Up until now, the traditional view of science has been that the Universe is composed of matter and energy – and it is out of combinations of the particles of matter that everything else in the cosmos, including consciousness emerges. This is the materialistic model which upholds the primacy of matter.
But according to Dr. Tononi, this view is entirely incorrect! Because what scientists have been missing so far, is that besides matter and energy, there is a third and yet more fundamental reality present in the Universe – and that is consciousness! This non-material field of consciousness does not emerge out of the combinations of matter; rather it exists independently on its own, distinct and separate from matter.
Note: This differs slightly from the Vedantic view, which states that consciousness is the only thing that exists, and that even matter emerges from consciousness; nevertheless it is a good step in the right direction.
Consciousness Exists All Around Us: This is the next natural conclusion that one can draw from the Integrated Information Theory (IIT). As Dr. Koch explains in his book: “Once you assume that consciousness is real and ontologically distinct” (i.e. exists separate) “from its physical substrate” (i.e. brain matter), “then it is a simple step to conclude that the entire cosmos is suffused with sentience. We are surrounded and immersed in consciousness; it is in the air we breathe, the soil we tread on, the bacteria that colonize our intestines, and the brain that enables us to think.”
Even Matter has Consciousness! What’s more, since consciousness is the omnipresent reality and no longer limited to being produced in the brains of animals and humans, therefore according to Dr. Koch, even moderately complex, integrated systems, such as the particles of matter (protons and neutrons) will possess consciousness – although in trifling amounts.
More interestingly, complex electrical devices such as “personal computers, embedded processors, and smart phones, too might be minimally conscious – like sparks illuminating the dark”, says Dr. Koch. Now to be clear, for such electronic systems, Dr. Koch is talking about a very rudimentary type of consciousness, which is far, far below, the consciousness humans experience even in moments of deep sleep; but nevertheless, the theory implies that such a consciousness exists, and in non-zero amounts!
Note that this is completely in line with what Vedanta says – that even in matter, consciousness is present, although in a dormant form. Here is a beautiful quote by Sri Aurobindo that expresses this point: “The spirit is there already in matter as everywhere else; it is only a surface apparent unconsciousness or involved consciousness which veils its presence.”
Acknowledgement: The topmost quote on Consciousness (from the Yoga Vasistha), has been taken from an English translation of the book undertaken by Swami Sureshananda, a devotee of Sri Ramana Maharishi.
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