Archive for June, 2010

Picture: Peter Higgs. Is CERN, with its Large Hadron Collider, on the brink of revealing the ultimate nature of consciousness? Deepak Chopra seems to think that the Higgs boson, which CERN’s experiments might discover, has something to do with it. ‘Could this in fact be where materialism destroys itself from within?’ he asks, which seems like one of those Interesting Historical Questions To Which The Answer Is No.

My understanding of the Higgs boson is slight, but I don’t really see how Chopra’s conclusion follows here: if the existence of the Higgs boson is demonstrated, so far as I know that enables a resolution and tidying-up of some issues in physics, mainly to do with where particles get their mass from. (In my naivety I think I might have been inclined to think that mass was a metaphysical necessity on the grounds that you couldn’t make a coherent universe out of things which were under no obligation to keep still…)  That seems to be something that can only tend to strengthen materialism; but even if the boson isn’t found, we’ll merely be looking for a different account of mass. We won’t really be any worse off than we are already; arguably better off in having eliminated another blind alley; so if anything materialism is likely to be looking stronger whatever CERN may come up with.

It looks as though Chopra is really just using the Higgs as a pretext for raising again two earlier arguments. First, he thinks mere physics cannot account for the complex structures and the intentionality found in the world; we therefore need to invoke God – not in the form of an old man with a white beard, but a sort of universal consciousness.

I suppose you could connect universal consciousness with Higgs in a way. According to the Higgs theory, mass arises out of a universal Higgs field with certain interesting properties. We could hypothesise the existence of a comparable consciousness field, which endows certain entities passing through it with experience in broadly the way the Higgs field gives particles their mass. It’s not a theory I feel inclined to take up, but it might offer a way of developing an attractively clear panexperientialism, one where we might even be able to do some sums and make some predictions about the free-floating momentary experiences which I assume would be the equivalent, in this theory, of the famous boson.

But in fact that’s not quite what Chopra means: his second argument is rather that the role of the observer in collapsing wave functions in certain interpretations of quantum physics points us towards a reality in which consciousness is fundamental. He sees this as a step along the road to the perspective of Vedanta, where Brahman the all-inclusive consciousness is the self-interacting dynamic of observer, observed and process of observation.

Even on the most helpful interpretation of quantum physics, I think this reads much too much into the science: in fact I’d go so far as to say that if your reading of quantum physics requires the adoption of universal consciousness, a rather large ontological price, it seems a clear sign that your reading has gone wrong somewhere.

Generally I’d say the march of science is taking us away from universal consciousness rather than towards it. There was a time when it was reasonable to assume that consciousness was naturally out there in divine or panpsychic form and that human consciousness was best explained as some of that natural awareness taking possession of a body. Human consciousness was an inexplicable mystery and referring it to a hypothetical basic element of reality was an economical hypothesis.

Now, however, although consciousness remains mysterious, we can sort of see at least the broad outlines of the sort of way in which it might be naturalised as part of the functioning of a brain. There are some nasty gaps to say the least of it (the ‘meaning’ which Chopra alludes to can fairly be considered one), and many would still say the job is impossible, or impossible to our limited minds: but we’ve got a better hypothesis to work on and quite a bit of evidence that we’re broadly going the right way.

That partial clarification is enough to put the boot on the other foot, and leave us needing more explanation of God, or the universal consciousness. The story of human consciousness as we understand it now relies on the detailed physical interactions of biological material which is itself the product of a process of evolution: but this won’t do for divine or universal minds which have no physical structure and never competed for survival: they need some other explanation, of which there is no sign.

This need not be fatal for spiritual or panpsychic explanations: it might offer a bracing challenge and a spur to investigation and new theories. But it certainly suggests to me that waiting for quantum theory to vindicate Vedantic philosophy is, to put it mildly, optimistic.

(PS – The picture is meant to be Higgs, not Chopra.)

Picture: unconscious will. Does the idea of unconscious free will even make sense? Paula Droege, in the recent JCS, seems to think it might. Generally experiments like Libet’s famous ones, which seemed to show that decisions are made well before the decider is consciously aware of them, are considered fatal to free will. If the conscious activity came along only after the matter had been settled, it must surely have been powerless to affect it (there are some significant qualifications to this: Libet himself, for example, considered there was a power of last-minute veto which he called ‘free won’t’ – but still the general point is clear). If our conscious thoughts were irrelevant, it seems we didn’t have any say in the matter.

However, this view implies a narrow conception of the self in which unconscious processes are not really part of me and I only really consist of that entity that does all the talking. Yet in other contexts, notably in psychoanalysis, don’t we take the un- or sub-conscious to be more essential to our personality than the fleeting surface of consciousness, to represent more accurately what we ‘really’ want and feel? Droege, while conceding that if we take the narrow view there’s a good deal in the sceptical position, would prefer a wider view in which unconscious acts are valid examples of agency too. She would go further and bring in social influences (though it’s not entirely clear to me how the effects of social pressure can properly be transmuted into examples of my own free will), and she offers the conscious mind the consolation prize of being able to influence habits and predispositions which may in turn have a real causal influence on our actions.

I suppose there are several ways in which we exercise our agency. We perhaps tend to think of cases of conscious premeditation because they are the clearest, but in everyday life we just do stuff most of the time without thinking about it much, or very explicitly. Many of the details of our behaviour are left to ‘autopilot’, but in the great majority of cases the conscious mind would nevertheless claim these acts as its own. Did you stop at the traffic light and then move off again when it turned green? You don’t really remember doing it, but are generally ready to agree that you did. In unusual cases, we know that people sometimes even elaborate or confabulate spurious rationales for actions they didn’t really determine.

But it’s much more muddled than that. We do also at times seek to disown moral responsibility for something done when we weren’t paying proper attention, or where our rational responses were overwhelmed by a sudden torrent of emotion. Should someone who responds to the sight of a hated enemy by swerving to collide with the provoker be held responsible because the murderous act stems from emotions which are just as valid as cold calculation? Perhaps, but sometimes the opposite is taken to be the case, and the overwhelming emotion of a crime passionnel can be taken as an excuse. Then again few would accept the plea of the driver who says he shouldn’t be held responsible for an accident because he was too drunk to drive properly.

I think there may be an analogy with the responsibility held by the head of a corporation: the general rule is that the buck stops with the chief, even if the chief did not give orders for the particular action which subordinates have taken; in the same way we’re presumed by default to be responsible for what we do: but there are cases where control is genuinely and unavoidably lost, no matter what prudent precautions the chief may have put in place. There may be cases where the chief properly has full and sole responsibility; in other cases where the corporation has blundered on in pursuit of its own built-in inclinations it may be appropriate for the organization as a whole to accept blame for its corporate personality: and where confusion reigned for reasons beyond reasonable control, no responsibility may be assigned at all.

If that’s right, then Droege is on to something; but if there are two distinct grades of responsibility in play, there ought really to be two varieties of free will; the one exercised explicitly by the fully conscious me, and the other by ‘whole person’ me, in which the role of the conscious me, while perhaps not non-existent is small and perhaps mostly indirect. This is an odd thought, but if, like Droege, we broadly accept that Libet has disproved the existence of the first variety of free will, it means we don’t have the kind we can’t help believing in, but do have another kind we never previously thought of – which seems even odder.