Our future sanity

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

In an earlier article in this blog, which I titled Our modern madness, I argued that our present day consensus that reality exists 'out there,' separate from our minds, is an enormous leap of faith from a logical standpoint. Notice that, although there is empirical, scientific evidence that reality and mind are one and the same thing, my argument in that article has been eminently based on common-sense alone (therefore, my use of the word 'madness'). That has raised several questions and criticisms online. Here, I'd like to elaborate further on my earlier article, tackling the key questions and criticisms brought up.

The notion that reality is a kind of shared, compound thought is called idealism. On the other hand, the notion that reality exists 'out there,' independently of our minds, is called realism. My claim has been that idealism is a more skeptical, parsimonious, and cautious worldview. Here, I'd like to expand on why I think this is the case. Indeed, we can make the following four statements about reality:
  1. My conscious perceptions exist;
  2. Other conscious perceptions, separate from my own, exist;
  3. There are things that exist independently of conscious perception;
  4. Things that are independent of conscious perception create conscious perception.
Notice that the statements are ordered according to how likely they are. Indeed, statement 1 is the famous cogito ergo sum, 'I think, therefore I am.' If I can be sure of anything at all, it is that my conscious perceptions exist. So statement 1 is the most certain we can ever make. Statement 2 requires a small leap of faith: It states that there are other conscious entities (e.g. other people or animals). We can never be absolutely sure that anything else is conscious; for all we know, everybody else could be unconscious zombies faking consciousness in a very convincing manner. But the leap of faith here is small, since it merely postulates other instances of a category (i.e. conscious perceptions) that we know to exist. Statement 3, on the other hand, requires a much more significant leap of faith, since it postulates an entirely new category (i.e. things independent of conscious perception) for which I can never have any direct evidence. Indeed, everything we can ever know comes into consciousness the moment we know it, so the belief that there are things outside of consciousness is an abstraction beyond knowledge. Statement 4 is even worse: It postulates that things we can never know to exist actually cause our conscious experience of reality.

My own worldview, as discussed in my books and other articles in this blog, requires statements 1 and 2 to hold. In other words, it acknowledges the most certain and then requires merely a small leap of faith. The reigning materialist worldview, on the other hand, requires all four statements above to hold; a gargantuan and gratuitous leap of faith. This is what I called our modern madness.

Another criticism often leveraged at my worldview  because it rests so much on a form of extreme scepticism, direct experience, and the questioning of abstractions  is that it entails solipsism. Solipsism is the notion that all that exists are my own conscious perceptions. In other words, reality is purely my private dream. There are no other conscious entities, like other conscious people; they are merely figments of my own imagination. Now, notice that solipsism entails the acknowledgement of statement 1 above, and the rejection of statements 2, 3, and 4. It is the most sceptical ontological position one can take. But it is not my position. I believe that, once acknowledging that conscious perceptions exist (statement 1), it is a very reasonable step to extrapolate this to other entities as well, based on the similarities of their form and behaviour to my own. So I accept statements 1 and 2, therefore rejecting solipsism.

Finally, some people confuse the claim that all of reality is in consciousness with the idea that everything is conscious. There is a profound difference between these two notions. When I say that everything is in consciousness, I am saying that things exist only insofar as they play themselves out in the mind of a conscious observer. For instance, when you dream at night, everything in your dream exists only insofar as it is in your mind; the stuff in your dream does not have an independent existence. But that does not mean that every person or animal in your dream has a consciousness of their own; they do not ground a subjective point of view separate from yours; there is nothing it is like to be a character of your dream. So my worldview entails that, like a dream, reality exists only insofar as it is in consciousness, but not that everything in it is conscious. For instance, while acknowledging that other living entities are likely conscious (i.e. statement 2), I do not subscribe to the notion that rocks, windmills, home thermostats, or computers are conscious. Technically speaking, my worldview does not entail panpsychism.

A sober, sane view of reality should be extremely sceptical of statements 3 and 4 above. For too long have we replaced reality with our mad systems of abstraction. We have become lost in the dense fog of unreal inferences, taken for granted without critical thought. It is time we woke up to what is truly real; to our immediate experience of reality. It is time we realized that everything physics has to say informs us not about a reality 'out there,' but about ourselves; about how our deeper mind, our unconscious mind, works.

Fortunately, there are signs of a coming paradigm shift that may restore our sanity. Not only are the newest empirical developments promising, as I mentioned at the top of this article, but also a general convergence of intuitions seems to be taking place around the notion that reality is a great thought, made of unconscious linguistic constructs. Even the resurgence of interest in psi phenomena seems to be part of this convergence (indeed, psi can be construed to be evidence for idealism), as discussed in the video above. Let us hope that we will all wake up to sanity; to a worldview that is concurrently more sceptic, meaningful, and freer from the grip of unreal inferences, including the most cruel and unreal of them all: that bodily death is the end of mind. After all, it is the body that is in the mind, not the mind in the body.

Note: I'd like to thank the participants of the Skeptiko discussion forum for the spirited debates that inspired some of the articulations above.

Disembodied trippers

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in some of my academic papers. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

As regular readers know, I have cited before a very interesting study recently done in the UK on the effects of psilocybin (the active ingredient of magic mushrooms) on the brain. The study caught my attention because preliminary reports suggested that the researchers observed only reductions in brain activity while subjects were having unfathomable psychedelic trips. This, of course, is counter-intuitive: If the hallucinations are not being caused by drug-induced brain activations, where does the trip come from? Now, finally, the complete scientific paper containing the results of the study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Summaries have also been published in Nature and in Scientific American. Here, I'd like to discuss these results in a little more depth than I did before.

To me, what is of significance in this work is not the psychedelic connection, but the idea that extremely intense subjective experiences can occur without accompanying brain activations; a kind of disembodied experience, if you will, which seems to contradict the currently-accepted notion that the brain generates consciousness. Preliminary reports on this study already indicated that the researchers had observed a reduction of brain activity, but the explanation could have been that the drug selectively affected inhibitory brain processes, thereby allowing excitatory processes to grow unchecked elsewhere. Let me unpack this a bit for you: Inhibitory brain processes are like bouncers guarding the entrance of the club of consciousness. Excitatory brain processes become conscious if they get into the club, but the bouncers prevent many from entering, so we never become aware of them. If the drug takes out the bouncers, the idea is that many excitatory processes that would otherwise remain unconscious now can flood into the club. This would explain the 'trip.'

The problem, having now studied the paper carefully, is that the researchers observed no brain activation anywhere. Quoting the paper: "we observed no increases in cerebral blood flow in any region." You see, if the club of consciousness got flooded because the bouncers were taken out, the researchers should still have seen the increases in blood flow corresponding to the excitatory processes now invading the unguarded club of consciousness. But they didn't. In fact, they observed that the more the drug de-activated the brain, the more intense were the subjective experiences reported by the subjects. This is profoundly anomalous. Subjects reported experiences like "geometric patterns," "extremely vivid imagination," seeing their "surroundings change in unusual ways," as well as experiences with a "dream-like quality." Without brain activations observed anywhere, and with the subjects stuck inside an fMRI scanner, I ask you: Where did all these experiences come from? One would expect, for instance, visions of geometric patterns to be caused by activations of visual areas of the brain. But the researchers not only did not observe these activations, they reported that "there were ... additional ... signal decreases ... in higher-order visual areas." How is this possible? It suggests that the unfathomable experiences of a psychedelic trip are disembodied, occurring somehow outside the brain; a disembodied tripper, if you will.

If you want to have an idea of the kind of structured, coherent, evocative, and unfathomably intense subjective experiences that people have under the effect of psilocybin, I recommend the Erowid experiences vault. If you browse through those reports, you will likely convince yourself that, if consciousness is indeed merely the result of brain activity, it is inconceivable that such experiences could occur without the brain lighting up like a Christmas tree. Yet, the opposite happens; the brain largely goes to sleep. Who, then, is having the trip? It doesn't seem to be the brain.

As I mentioned earlier, I have cited this British study before as a way to substantiate my hypothesis that the brain is a mechanism for localizing and limiting consciousness to a space-time locale, but does not generate consciousness. Surprisingly, the researchers acknowledged this explicitly in the paper by referring to Aldous Huxley's analogous idea of the brain as a reduction valve of consciousness. They wrote: "This finding is consistent with Aldous Huxley's 'reducing valve' metaphor ... which propose[s] that the mind/brain works to constrain its experience of the world." To help you know precisely what Huxley's hypothesis was, here is a quote from pages 10 and 11 of his book The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (2004 edition):
The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of … perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed … by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.
Also interesting is the researchers' observation that the highest de-activations of the brain occurred in areas associated to what we normally call "ego functions;" namely, the default-mode network. This is consistent with the age-old idea that the ego prevents us from seeing reality as it truly is; from perceiving the unity and transcendence of conscious experience. As I wrote earlier in this blog, I like the metaphor of the brain as a whirlpool of consciousness, which localizes consciousness like a whirlpool localizes the water of a stream. When I read this part of their paper, I couldn't help but visualize the de-activation of the ego functions as analogous to someone inserting one's hand in a whirlpool, disrupting the "loopy" flow that maintains it, and thereby allowing the water molecules originally trapped in it to escape.

Technically, the study seems extremely well designed. To counter the uncertainties of measuring brain activity with an fMRI scanner, the researchers used two different signals: Arterial Spin Labelling (ASL) and a Blood-Oxygen Level-Dependent (BOLD) signal. The results across the two were consistent. Several other protocols were used to tackle each conceivable loophole and ensure the reliability of the results. Moreover, the researchers were able to explain why earlier studies on the effect of psychedelics on brain activity seemed to lead to different conclusions: Because earlier studies used PET scan measurements over much greater time scales, they may have detected merely a "rebound" of the psilocybin effects on glucose metabolism. All in all, the study is compelling and clearly carried out with great care and professionalism.

To conclude, I think that, although this research represents a milestone in our understanding of the relationship between mind and brain, it is just one study. Its results must be replicated before definite conclusions can be arrived at. Yet, there is a broader pattern associating peak subjective experiences with reduced blood flow to the brain, as I wrote in another article. Taken together, this study and that broader pattern are extremely compelling. They strongly indicate that the brain is a mechanism for limiting and localizing consciousness, but does not generate consciousness. When some specific brain functionality is taken out, consciousness relaxes and expands. Death, seen this way, may be the ultimate liberation of subjective experience.

The materialist "theory" of consciousness

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

In a recent talk he gave at the 2011 Singularity Summit (see video above), neuroscientist Christof Koch, the world's leading consciousness researcher from a scientific perspective, has named Giulio Tononi's "theory" of consciousness as the best current attempt at a causal explanation for how consciousness emerges from the otherwise unconscious matter of the brain. This is significant, for it identifies the best line of argument available today in the current paradigm. Therefore, defeating this argument defeats the best that materialism currently has to offer as far as consciousness. In this article, I hope to raise significant doubts about whether Tononi's "theory" is a causal explanation for consciousness at all.

As one can see in his article, Tononi looks at the amount of information integrated by a given brain process (which he calls a "complex"). This amount is ultimately represented by a variable "phi," derived from the topology of the elements in the complex. When "phi" crosses a certain threshold, the complex is considered conscious, a correlation refined through empirical calibration. If this sounds somewhat arbitrary, it's because  at least in my opinion  it is, as I hope to explain below. In the video above, Koch provides a summary of Tononi's ideas, so here I will not elaborate further on it.

Now here is my critique: Tononi's "theory" explains consciousness no more than a speedometer explains how a car moves. In other words, it doesn't causally explain consciousness at all; it is merely a heuristic indicator for the presence of consciousness; an ad hoc rule-of-thumb, if you will. When the needle of your speedometer moves up, you know that your car is moving. But that needle movement gives you no insight into the fact that there is a combustion engine freeing up energy stored in the molecular bonds of hydrocarbons, thereby making such energy available for turning a crankshaft connected to the axis of the car's wheels, which in turn grip the irregularities of the road and, through Newton's third law of motion, cause the car to move. The latter would be a causal explanation, but Tononi's "theory" entails nothing analogous to it.

Let us look at another example of a true causal explanation to drive home what I am trying to say: the Krebs cycle of cellular respiration. This cycle is a full causal explanation for how energy is made available to an organism's cells. We know the inputs of the process: molecules of sugars and fats; we know the chemical reactions (oxidization) that progressively free up the energy stored in the molecular bonds of these sugar and fat molecules; we know in what form this energy becomes available to the cells (namely, ATP); we know where all of this takes place (in the mitochondria); and we know how the cells put the ATP to use. In other words, we have a closed and complete causal chain that permits us to infer the properties of the observed phenomenon (i.e. the ability of cells to perform work) from the properties of the inputs of the process (i.e. sugar and fat molecules, and cell structures like the mitochondria).

Tononi's "theory" does not offer us any such causal chain. It does not permit us to infer, not even in principle, the properties of the observed phenomenon (i.e. consciousness) from the properties of the inputs of the process (i.e. interconnected neurons). It only offers a heuristic correlation without a theoretical framework that allows us to understand where consciousness comes from, or why a certain level of information integration leads to such an extraordinary property as being conscious. Nearly all relevant questions remain unanswered by "phi," just like all relevant questions about how the car moves remain unanswered by the speedometer.

Tononi's "theory" does have practical applications. If it can, for instance, help us, on an heuristic basis, tell whether a patient in a vegetative state is actually conscious or not, it has great value to society. But this kind of pragmatic application should not be confused with an ontological explanation for the nature of consciousness. That a certain story is useful does not entail that it is true. It's useful to pretend that gravity is a force acting at a distance between two bodies; we've put a man on the moon by pretending just that. But that does not mean that such magical action-at-a-distance really exists, as Einstein showed (gravity, after all, is merely the effect of a curvature of space-time).

Materialism has consistently failed to give us a proper causal account for how consciousness emerges from matter. Koch's and Tononi's story, if anything, makes this painfully clear. Is it not time to look more broadly?

Important observation: This article should not be construed as an attempt to dismiss the value or importance of the work of either Christof Koch or Giulio Tononi. I deeply respect and applaud their courage in attempting to tackle the problem of consciousness from a strict, scientific perspective. Their courage has lacked in science for decades. However critical I may be of their progress or claims, whatever progress there is is to their credit. Besides the immense, potential practical applications of their work in medicine and psychiatry  which hold regardless of ontological interpretations  their efforts may be fundamental even in exhausting the current scientific paradigm; a necessary step before science can progress to a broader view of nature.

Scientific dogmatism and chance

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Professor Robert Jahn. Source: Princeton University.

Today I was watching an episode of a 1994 series of BBC documentaries called "Heretics of Science," specifically episode 5, about Prof. Robert Jahn, former Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science of Princeton University. Prof. Jahn is the founder of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory, original home of the Global Consciousness Project. The documentary is quite balanced. It gives a fair assessment of Prof. Jahn’s work and his conclusions in favour of the mind-over-matter hypothesis; and then paints a dramatic picture of the nearly religious dogmatism of the scientific orthodoxy when confronted with such paradigm-breaking evidence. I wanted to share some thoughts with you on this, as well as on the relationship between scientific dogmatism and the tricky interpretation of statistical data.

In the documentary, Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg makes an astonishingly dogmatic pronouncement about Prof. Jahn’s work. He does not at all criticize the merits of the data or the analysis in question; he simply states that, were Prof. Jahn to be correct, it would invalidate four centuries of labour on refining our current scientific worldview. The unspoken suggestion here is that, for that reason, Prof. Jahn must be wrong. This is irrational and exudes fear. Science is supposed to be unbiased when confronted with data. Prof. Weinberg should either articulate why the data are invalid or offer a different explanation for them. To state that Prof. Jahn cannot be right simply because his conclusions violate our current worldview is as close to religious dogmatism as it gets.

To be sure, evidence in favour of mind-over-matter effects does not invalidate the scientific edifice built over the last four centuries; it only invalidates certain subjective extrapolations and interpretations of it. For instance, none of our technology would stop working tomorrow if a small mind-over-matter effect were confirmed; after all, presumably the effect has been going on all along, co-existing just fine with technology. Therefore, neither would the scientific underpinnings of this technology suddenly become invalid. But certain scientific prejudices – like the primacy of matter and the epiphenomenal character of consciousness – would have to be revised. Revolutionary indeed, but in no way a requirement for throwing out four centuries of science, as Weinberg suggested in his assessment.

From a psychological viewpoint, Weinberg’s reaction seems to reflect an unconscious but profound phobia of uncertainty. Yet, in all honesty, he is not alone in that: we all fear, at least to some degree, the idea of living in a world without the reassurance of certainties. Four centuries of scientific progress give scientists a strong (even if illusory) sense that they have largely figured nature out, which carries with it a measure of comfort – that warm fuzzy feeling that accompanies the illusion of knowledge. The mere possibility that some of that may have to be revised is terrifying. Indeed, I believe this to be one of the fundamental psychological motivators behind dogmatism in general, both scientific and religious. We tend to cling to our illusory certainties and hold on to them for dear life. Any attempt to take them away from us can be met with the kind of unreasonable, dogmatic, and somewhat desperate reactions we see in the BBC documentary.

We would like to think that the scientific method is immune to this kind of subjective values and behaviours; that the neutrality of data provides us with fail-proof criteria for judging the truth, independent of psychological biases. Yet we know since Thomas Kuhn that, in fact, such idealized picture of how science works is not at all true. In this specific case, the trickiness of interpreting statistical data offers a case in point. You see, all modern science is based on statistics. It’s not enough to observe an effect only once; after all, all kinds of unforeseen, random circumstances could have produced the effect by mere chance. So to tie the effect with a specific cause (or exclude a certain cause), one needs to observe the effect a sufficient number of times, under sufficiently controlled conditions. This is where statistics come in.

The experiments carried out at the Princeton lab are about whether mind can influence the otherwise purely random data produced by data generators – electronic coin flippers – thereby inducing a pattern in the data. Now here is the problem: Random data is defined as data where one cannot find any discernible pattern. Yet, theoretically, there is a chance to find any pattern in truly random data. This contradiction makes the interpretation of statistical results vulnerable to subjective biases and prejudices. Indeed, it impacts nearly all of modern science.

Here is what I mean: If one’s statistical conclusions are in accordance with the reigning scientific paradigm, it is enough to demonstrate that the odds of a certain effect occurring against mere chance are sufficiently small. In particle physics, for instance, odds of a million to one have been sufficient to prove the existence of certain (invisible) sub-atomic particles and secure Nobel prizes. However, if the conclusions contradict the reigning paradigm, critics can always dismiss the evidence on the basis that, theoretically, any pattern can be found in random data. This, obviously, is a double standard that injects bias and prejudices in what should be objective science. For instance, the latest results from the Princeton lab, produced out of the Global Consciousness Project, are claimed to have odds against chance of a thousand million to one. If this claim holds water, then, according to any unbiased scientific standard, this should be enough to prove the effect claimed. Yet, critics still dismiss the results on the basis that any pattern can be found in random data (see segment starting at 2:28 minutes of the video below).

As a human activity, science is as vulnerable to psychological prejudices as any other human endeavour. The tricky and even contradictory definition of randomness, as discussed above, opens a fairly large door for the creeping up of subjective biases into the core of scientific judgement, particularly when it comes to statistical evidence. This renders science conducive to dogmatism and, as such, not as radically distinct from religion as one would hope to assume. Yet, if blame is to be cast for this sorry state of affairs, the blame lies with human nature itself. Though scientists may fancy their art as something above human short-comings, they themselves are still just humans.

It is up to the rest of us to remain cognizant of all this and maintain critical judgement of what we hear from the bastions of science.

Wanted: a new paradigm for neuroscience

(An improved and updated version of this material has appeared in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Illustration of a chemical synapse in the brain. Source: Wikipedia.

In an earlier article in this blog, I discussed the extensive empirical evidence available today of the fact that the most intense subjective experiences correlate with a dampening – or even cessation – of brain activity. Examples of this are Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), mystical experiences induced through hyper-ventilation (which causes constriction of blood vessels in the brain), psychedelic trances, and Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) induced through G-LOC, brain damage (caused, for instance, by surgery or strokes), and even cortical deactivation through the use of high-power magnetic fields. This pattern of empirical evidence seems to contradict the current, materialist paradigm that consciousness is merely the result of brain activity. After all, how could the most intense conscious experiences correlate precisely with a reduction (and even elimination) of brain activity? There are two tentative rebuttals to this from the point of view of the materialist paradigm. In this article, I hope to show that both rebuttals are flawed.

The first materialist rebuttal is this: Brain activity is composed of both excitatory processes and inhibitory processes. Excitatory processes generate – well, correspond to – subjective experiences (perceptions, feelings, ideas, etc.). Inhibitory processes, on the other hand, dampen excitatory processes down, preventing them from arising. So the idea is that, when brain activity is impaired or reduced, the inhibitory processes are blocked. The consequence is that excitatory processes – which would otherwise be stopped before taking root – can now grow to become major subjective experiences.

This answer appears wrong on an empirical basis. If it were correct, one should observe not only a reduction of activity in certain brain regions (i.e. the inhibitory processes being blocked), but alongside it also a significant activation of other brain regions (i.e. the excitatory processes that can now take root). However, the study that identified the dampening of brain activity as the mechanism of action of psychedelics did not observe any significant activation elsewhere in the brain. So the “hallucinations” reported by the study subjects have no measurable signature in the brain; their unfathomable subjective experiences appear to have no grounding on matter. How, then, do they happen? Moreover, regardless of this particular study, it is hard to imagine that generalized reductions of blood flow to the brain (as occurs through hyperventilation, G-LOC, NDEs, etc.) can act so selectively on inhibitory processes that, although much less energy is available to drive brain metabolism as a whole, the net effect can still be a peak subjective experience. Any orthodox explanation for this today will be tentative, promissory, and generally contrived and convoluted. Do we really need to push this round peg through a square hole?

The second materialist rebuttal is that the excitatory processes are happening all the time in the brain, as part of the normal, background neural activity. Inhibitory processes simply prevent them from crossing the threshold of awareness. Therefore, no significant brain activation is necessary, since these excitatory processes are part of the sub-conscious, background noise anyway. By stopping the inhibitory processes, this background excitatory activity simply becomes conscious.

Just like the first rebuttal, this second one also appears to be false on an empirical basis. Functional MRIs can measure relatively small brain activations when, for instance, a person looks at an evocative image (e.g. a picture of war). These activations are clearly seen as areas of elevated blood flow in the brain. Since the subject’s emotional experience is postulated to be such activations, the intensity of his or her emotions should naturally be proportional to the level of blood flow in corresponding brain regions. Therefore, major mystical experiences – which subjects often consider the most intense of their lives – should correspond to levels of blood flow much higher than those of, for instance, a person looking at a picture. In fact, they should be higher than practically all ordinary cognitive activity. Yet, this is not what is observed in a functional MRI. How can that be?

The evidence shows that, although ordinary experience correlates well with brain activity, some extraordinary experiences reported by mankind through the millennia seem to have no material basis in brain function. If subjective experiences were indeed merely the result of electrochemical brain processes, then they should always, without a single exception, correlate with brain activation patterns. These activation patterns should also be proportional to the intensity of the experience. That this isn't the case is a fundamental problem for the current paradigm in neuroscience.

We need a new one.