Does consciousness refute materialism? The Chronicle of Higher Education promotes woo

For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting antimaterialist views (see here for a piece defending woo-driven evolution). I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the supposed creeping incursion of science (“scientism”).

That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas.  Given his position, it’s not surprising that his piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although his piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):

People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and as these events cannot be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm that we cannot understand. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that materialism is far from being all there is to the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of “transhuman signals.”

That sounds bizarre, especially for a fairly distinguished educational journal, but anti-materialism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia. Every opponent of “scientism”, for example, seems to cite Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Falseas if it were authoritative, never noting that that book was roundly trounced by academics. (Nagel’s book argues that evolution is driven by some non-Goddy teleological and non-material forces that science can’t fathom.)

Kripal begins his essay by recounting two anecdotes (one by Mark Twain) about how people sensed other people’s deaths, and accurate details of how it happened, before they knew about the deaths. Read his piece for the details, which are indeed striking. And Kripal says that these incidents of precognition are common, suggesting that there’s something out there that science can’t explain. (He doesn’t, of course, note the more frequent instances of “precognition” that don’t come true.)

I’ll give a few quotes showing how Kripal proceeds from these anecdotes to his main “X-Files” thesis:

The early-Victorian researchers had it right: They called dreams like the two with which I began “veridical hallucinations,” or hallucinations corresponding to real events.

We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today. We tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through, at least in these extreme cases. Somehow Twain’s dreaming imagination knew that his brother would be dead in a few weeks—it even knew what kind of bouquet would sit on his brother’s breathless chest. Similarly, the wife’s dream-vision knew that her husband had just been killed and where his body lay. In those events, words like “imagined” and “real,” “inside” and “outside,” “subject” and “object,” “mental” and “material” cease to have much meaning. And yet such words name the most basic structures of our knowing.

Or not knowing.

Kripal then discusses why laboratory tests of paranormal phenomena—tests like the “remote viewing” study that didn’t get the million-dollar Randi Prize at last summer’s JREF meeting—invariably fail. The usual excuse among advocates of woo is that the lab somehow ruins the vibes that create ESP, telekinesis, and the like. But Kripal, in the good tradition of these pseudoscientists, has his own explanation:

Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories, the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. No one is in danger or dying. Your neighborhood is not on fire. The professional debunker’s insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile laboratory is little more than a mark of his own ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question. To play by those rules is like trying to study the stars at midday. It is like going to the North Pole to study those legendary beasts called zebras. No doubt just anecdotes.

Context matters. Methods that rely on or favor extreme conditions are employed in science all the time to discover and demonstrate knowledge. As Aldous Huxley pointed out long ago in his own defense of “mystical” experiences suggestive of spirit or soul, we have no reason to deduce that water is composed of two gases glued together by invisible forces. We know this only by exposing water to extreme conditions, by traumatizing it, and then by detecting and measuring the gases with technology that no ordinary person possesses or understands. The situation is eerily analogous with impossible scenarios like those of Twain, the wife, and the Swedish seer. They are generally available only in traumatic situations, when the human being is being “boiled” in illness, stroke, coma, danger, or near-death.

This comparison is unbelievable. Really? Comparing extreme physical conditions imposed on matter in the lab to human trauma? And, of course, there’s no reason why those “messages from the beyond” have to involve trauma, nor does Kripal explain why. And he doesn’t explain why all the great majority of people who die or suffer in the absence of their loved ones don’t send transhuman signals conveying their distress. Do they lack the right kind of transmitter?

In fact, as Kripal suggests above, he thinks “psychics sometimes do get rich”— his response to the frequent question of why psychics eke out a middle-class existence when, with their powers, they could make a killing on the stock market. (Actually, contra Kripal, I don’t know any people who have, at least by using their psychic powers. And why can’t psychics predict other things, like where the Malaysia Airlines jet is? After all, they’re not doing this in the lab.

Kripal’s agenda then becomes clear: he’s sick of those damn scientists telling everyone that matter and energy are all there is, and that, based on its record, materialistic science is likely to be able to explain all natural phenomena. (In principle, of course, since we don’t have the data to explain everything.) That leaves little room for religion.

And then of course there’s the nagging problem of consciousness. This is truly a God of the Gaps for Kripal (though he doesn’t push religion), for he takes science’s failure to explain the hard problem of consciousness to mean that science can never explain it, and that consciousness must therefore reflects some non-material phenomenon that will forever elude science:

In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.

Actually, as I’ve pointed out many times, science does not take “nonmaterial” or spiritual phenomena off the table. It’s perfectly acceptable to test psychic and paranormal phenomena like ESP and spiritual healing, and, in fact, those tests have been done. But they always fail, and so, as Laplace said, we no longer need those explanations. It’s not that we’ve taken non-materialism off the table—it’s simply fallen off the table. Kripal then goes after consciousness as a material phenomenon:

. . . We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

Note the “as such” there. Nobody says that the phenomenon of consciousness doesn’t exist, merely that we don’t understand the evolutionary and neurological basis of how it works and how it came to be.  “As such” is a weasel phrase, meant to obscure the fact that we consider consciousness an “illusion” in the sense that, while it exists, it isn’t what it seems: it isn’t a little immaterial man sitting inside the brain and observing it all. It isn’t a disembodied “I.”

Then comes the whining about marginalization that inevitably accompanies this turf defense:

Humanists have paid a heavy price for their shrinking act. We are more or less ignored now by both the general public and our colleagues in the natural sciences, whose disciplines, of course, make no sense at all outside of universal observations, and who often work from bold cosmic visions, wildly counterintuitive models (think ghostlike multiverses and teleporting particles), and evolutionary spans of time that make our “histories” look insignificant and boring by comparison.

I am aware, of course, that there are signs of life in the humanities. I am thinking in particular of the development of “big history” in historiography and of the new materialisms, vitalisms, and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy, as evident in Thomas Nagel’s recent well-publicized doubts about the adequacy of neo-Darwinian materialism, expressed in his book Mind and Cosmos.

Well Nagel’s book was well-publicized, but not well received. It was a work of philosophy of science, and was criticized heavily by both scientists and philosophers (see above). The people who liked Nagel’s message that There Is More Than Materialism were the theologians and the humanists who feel that science is stepping on their toes. I doubt that the “vitalisms and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy” have gotten much traction beyond Nagel!

Kripal clearly shows an infection of God-of-the-Gapism, otherwise known as Paley’s Syndrome. Note his conclusion that what science hasn’t explained is what it cannot explain (my emphasis):

After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, as far as we can tell, this presence is sui generis. It is its own thing. We know of nothing else like it in the universe, and anything we might know later we will know only through this same consciousness. Many want to claim the exact opposite, that consciousness is not its own thing, is reducible to warm, wet tissue and brainhood. But no one has come close to showing how that might work. Probably because it doesn’t.

Why is he so sure, given that many things that people once considered unexplainable have now been explained by science? What if we’re able to construct a computer or robot that is conscious? Why is Kripal so sure that’s impossible? I’ll tell you why: because he’s not only religious, but a humanities professor harboring great anxiety that science will shrink his kingdom.

Finally, Kripal uses David Eagleman’s example of a Bushman finding a transistor radio, and, fiddling with the wires, decides that the voices it emanates come from some of the circuits, because when those circuits are disconnected, the voices go away. (This reminds me of the paternalistic movie “The Gods Must be Crazy“, also involving the Bushmen—who, by the way, are usually called the San). How can that individual possibly imagine the presence of radio stations, distant cities, and civilizations? It is beyond his ken.

So, says Kripal, our consciousness is like that radio: it receives messages whose source is likewise beyond our ken. Those messages are “transhuman”: beyond the material domain—and sometimes coming from the dead.

William James, Henri Bergson, and Aldous Huxley all argued the same long before Eagleman. Bergson even used the same radio analogy. This is where the historian of religions—this one, anyway—steps in. There are, after all, countless other clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.

[The radio model] puts back on the table much of the evidence that we have taken off as impossible or nonexistent (all that Platonic stuff about the human spirit). In this same generous, symmetrical spirit, it is not that materialism is wrong. It is that it is half-right.

Such a radio model certainly has no problem understanding how Mark Twain could have known about his brother’s imminent funeral, why a wife could know about her husband’s distant car wreck, or why a Swedish scientist could track a fire 50 miles away. The mind can know things distant in space and time because it is not limited to space or time. Mind is not “in” the radio or brain box. The payoff here is immense: The impossible suddenly becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes predictable.

What we have been doing for the past few centuries is studying the construction and workings of the physical radio. But the radio was built for the radio signal (and vice versa). How can we understand the one without the other? It is time to come to terms with both. It is time to invite Plato back to the table—to restore the humanities to consciousness. The rest will follow.

I am baffled why our lack of understanding of consciousness means that we will never be able to explain it in material terms. The whole history of science suggests otherwise. Most of us are now determinists about the brain: what feel like libertarian decisions made by a dualistic “ghost” in our brain are illusions: those “decisions” are made in our unconscious by factors we don’t understand. (I’m ignoring the argument about whether that determinism is compatible with any notion of “free will.”) New neurological experiments show that our decisions can be made some seconds before we’re conscious of having made them. Other experiments show that we can either impart a false sense of volition to people through psychological experiments, or remove a sense of volition even when subjects are behaving “willfully.”  Experiments on the brain show that we can affect human emotions or behavior through simple mechanical or chemical interventions.

In other words, the materialistic methods of science are slowly showing us that our sense of being “free agents” is an illusion. We do possess that sense, but we don’t have the ability to choose other than what we did. Our sense of dualistic free will is an illusion; it is a real sense, but it is not what it seems.

Why, then, should our sense of consciousness be otherwise? We’ve expelled the Ghost of Dualistic Will from science, and the Ghost of Consciousness is next in line.

I will believe Kripal’s adherence to “transhuman signals” when we’re able to confirm them as repeatable phenomena—after all, I don’t completely rule out the supernatural—rather than as erratic anecdotes.

What’s clear is that consciousness is the new creationism. Like creationism, it was once something explicable, at least to a certain mindset, only by invoking God  But all signs are that consciousness will go the way of creationism: a vestigial remnant of our religious past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

126 Comments

  1. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    “conscousness”?

    /@

    • Mark Reaume
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      When couscous becomes self aware.

  2. s. pimpernel
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Why do we need a brain then to be conscious at all? I’ve met a number of conscious individuals I thought didn’t have brains though, so maybe we don’t need one.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      I reckon it’s to do with economy: The world is far too complex to be handled by a series of procedures dedicated to particular functions, so we have to create a model of ourselves and evaluate it in the context of a model of the world. So, one can see why consciousness might be useful, it is just baffling how the mind pulls it off.

    • Dale
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Not the brain we need to lose, it’s the “mind” that doesn’t exists. I used to have a mind of my own but I traded it in on a brain….as such.

  3. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Fixed, thanks!

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Error are preserved for eternity in the URL … :-D

      /@

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        D’oh!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        I thought the post was about couscous at first. It would be good to somehow link couscous with consciousness but you’d have to be concise and conscientious!

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

          Then you’d have to deal with the consequences consecutively, consensually and with consideration of the circumstances of cuscuses in Cusco and Cuscatlán.

          /@

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

            Quite considerably!

  4. Pliny the in Between
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Neurophysiology is amazing. It can even create the perception that there is more to it than biochemistry and anatomy.

  5. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    “dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does”

    If all the information was available in the present to determine future events, then that would mean that our thought processes were not able to influence the future and our deliberations would then have no purpose.

    Even if we could predict the result of a horse race, we wouldn’t be able to decide to put money on the winning horse, because whether we put down a bet, or not too would already be a fixed event in the future that someone could have dreamed of as well.

  6. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    This quote sums up all that’s wrong when most people try using their intuition to attempt to describe consciousness:

    “Forget about minds,” he told her. “Say you’ve got a device designed to monitor—oh, cosmic rays, say. What happens when you turn its sensor around so it’s not pointing at the sky anymore, but at its own guts?”

    He answered himself before she could: “It does what it’s built to. It measures cosmic rays, even though it’s not looking at them any more. It parses its own circuitry in terms of cosmic-ray metaphors, because those feel right, because they feel natural, because it can’t look at things any other way. But it’s the wrong metaphor. So the system misunderstands everything about itself. Maybe that’s not a grand and glorious evolutionary leap after all. Maybe it’s just a design flaw.”

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Source?

      • Michael Fugate
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Blindsight by Peter Watts

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Everytime you hear someone in the Humanities complain about scientism, dig further. You will most likely find, not a Humanities scholar, but a theologian or ardent theist. When they or others imply that crank non evidenced assertions such as, “the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm that we cannot understand” are typical of the Humanities is tantamount to claiming that Michael Behe’s assertions about intelligent design represent all science.

    • gbjames
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I suspect you are right about this.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

        I agree. Every person I have met who is really into music, art, history, sociology, psychology…they really dig science. They are certainly not afraid of it.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

          Hmm.

          Professionally into art and music, or more casual consumers?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Pooh. I multitasked and my sentenced got messed up. Oh well, I’ll leave it to yous all to fix my grammar in your minds. :)

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      We may have to start talking about Three Cultures, because while you may be correct as far as non-art humanities are concerned, I can attest to the fact that very many on the arts side of the humanities qualify as “Scientism!!1!1″ finger-pointers.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        What are the arts side? Do you mean Music? I can attest that English is not guilty of scientism on the whole though they have their theologian quacks. Most of my English professors were atheists, materialists and didn’t fear science though they sucked at math so they usually had to get help in that area. I don’t however think of English as an art side as it isn’t much on creativity. Art History. Now that may be a weird one.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          Yes, I mean the creative arts.

          I should add, though, that this is my impression based on personal interaction with professionals in the creative fields. I can’t really point to published “Scientism!!1!1″ literature written by creative professionals.

          • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

            (IOW, maybe I just personally know more scientism-shriekers than you’d statistically expect.)

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              LOL! Weren’t you complaining about your FB friends earlier? :D

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Years ago I was at Navy Pier in Chicago and came across one of those hat stores which embroider any saying you want. I had them do a visor which read “Third Culture.” I got it from the Edge: intersection of science & humanities (= secular humanism.)
        So far, I have never worn it and run into anyone who knows what it means. Or, sadly, even asks.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          OMG.

          Kripal is right!

          How else shall we explain this astounding, serendipitous, independent convergence?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

            Nooooooooooo!

            • Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

              Musical Beef is your father? And what happened to your hand!?

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                🐥 they turned to wings

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

                …and then a cat nursed you back to health?

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

                🙀

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

                Not just any cat, but Edvard Munch’s cat! I’m impressed.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                Yes an existential cat!

              • Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

                Good, because it’s hard to rub an imaginary cat’s belly….

                b&

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Between this, the teabaggers, and the heroin epidemic (cf current Rolling Stone, which doesn’t seem to be online yet), I begin to sense that it is we who are the mice in the field that’s getting mowed.

  9. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    This is the Consciousness-God Rationalization. Yes we know science cannot disprove God’s existence. Yes we know science has not fully reduced consciousness to the material world (at least to everyone’s satisfaction). But it is science that has made all of the progress towards understanding consciousness and what it is not. Science has also delineating what is not god.

  10. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Despite making a living in academia, Kripal’s plaint is but one more reason why I rarely bother to read the Chronicle which so many of my colleagues find so indispensable. Kripal trots out his anecdotes like excerpts from “Tales from the Beyond” that I read as a kid and whines about the creep of scientism. David Chalmer’s supposed “hard problem” of consciousness that can’t be solved “in principle” is another refuge for the religionists like Nagels anti-materialist claims. Chalmers, who is cited in Christof Koch’s 2012 book “Consciousness” doesn’t care what we discover: “Dave taught me an important lesson about philosophers… I was astounded when he insisted that no empirical fact, no discovery in biology or conceptual advance in mathematics could dissuade him of the unbridgeable gap between the two worlds. The Hard Problem was not amenable to any such advances. I was aghast.”
    Despite 150 years of parapsychology research and no evidence of that other world and 150 years of neuroscience with no evidence of soul, collective consciousness, or mind beyond the function of a physical brain it seems like Chalmers, Mr. Kripal and many of my colleagues just don’t like the idea we might one day bridge those two worlds.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      but… but… Zombies! There. I just ran rings around you, logically.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      Not only Chalmers’ zombies, but also this recent spate of zombie movies, zombie apocalypse simulations in the news media, and zombie TV shows. All happening at the same time, too. Clearly the simplest explanation is that there is some kind of substrate in the universe, heretofore undescribed by the most successful scientific model & undetected by the most precise experiments, which our consciousnesses are all tuned to, leading to a harmonic convergence of ideas. Clearly.

      P.S. someone at the door… excuse me…

      it was Occam. He wanted his razor back. …he was afraid I’d cut myself.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        And here I thought all those zombie shows was all about loss of identity.

    • eric
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      David Chalmer’s supposed “hard problem” of consciousness that can’t be solved “in principle” is another refuge for the religionists like Nagels anti-materialist claims.

      When people claim some problem is unsolvable (by science and related disciplines) I like to point to Zeno’s paradoxes and calculus. The concept of infinity lead to supposedly unsolvable paradoxes…until someone solved them. The other relevant lesson of that example is that Zeno’s paradoxes are still taught in philosophy classes as paradoxes, even though the solution is now 250 years old.

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        And why shouldn’t they? Philosophy still treats as respectable — if not sacrosanct, depending on the philosopher — Aristotelian metaphysics.

        Might as well teach the Four (Five?) Elements while they’re at it; at least then they might eventually discover the Philosopher’s Stone and get rich with cheap-and-easy transmutation.

        Bah…you got me started….

        b&

    • Dale
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      “I was astounded when he insisted that no empirical fact, no discovery in biology or conceptual advance in mathematics could dissuade him”

      If Chalmers has a mind, it’s certainly closed. Sam Harris is another one who can’t quite lose his sense of dualism, he’s written essays expressing the view that “consciousness” is ultimately mysterious and inexplicable. The “mysterians”.

  11. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    What’s clear is that consciousness is the new creationism.

    It’s not the new creationism: misunderstandings about consciousness is the old theism. It’s what creationism came out of: the idea that Mind is supernatural. The ghost in the universe — God — is the natural progression of the ghost in machine.

    This Science-finds-Spirituality argument regarding the nature of Consciousness and Mind isn’t a novel wrinkle, a fringe debate, or a strange and puzzling blip suddenly showing up on the science vs. religion screen. No. It IS the screen; it IS the debate. Finally, it’s being spelled out and we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, the basic assumptions of supernaturalism vs. the alternative explanation of naturalism.

    This one is the Big Enchilada. Every literalist fundamentalist who really DOES seem to believe that God is an old man in the sky with a beard who is worried about your sex life will make common cause with this argument when it comes to the existence of God because they must. God is a pure mental thing — which is not a “thing.” It exists in irreducible essence. God exists as simply and obviously as does an idea, a Perfect Idea which is a cosmic Reality.

    “After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience.”

    Ooh, look. Jerry has been reading that sophisticated knock-down argument theological apologetic from Hart’s heart and wondering what the heck is meant by “God is the fundamental ground of Being.”

    And here we have it. “Consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know.” That’s Hart’s God. That’s the sophisticated God. For variety, instead of “consciousness” they may insert agency, or intention, or intelligence, or love, or bliss, or creativity, or life, or goodness, or harmony, or peace, or acceptance and then call that God.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Jeffrey, rather?

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        No, I wasn’t clear. I meant that Jerry Coyne has been reading Hart’s book which pounds on the idea that God is not and never has been considered a “being,” but is instead the Ground of Being itself. WTF?

        And …. here comes Jeffrey Kripal to help expand on this idea by saying it another way.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          Ah.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          I meant that Jerry Coyne has been reading Hart’s book…

          And I was expecting today to be the day he announces that he is finished reading, and has been convinced by the flawless arguments.

          “Ground of all being” – I think that refers to sausage that contains pork, beef and chicken.

  12. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    “Such a radio model certainly has no problem understanding how Mark Twain could have known about his brother’s imminent funeral”

    “Understanding”? I wonder what Kripal will do with his Nobel money, which he will obviously win for having discovered, demonstrated, and explained the mechanism by which these “radios” receive and transmit information. This would be a perfect spot for Ben to post his favorite Sean Carroll link.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Indeed, ‘twould.

      The laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood.

      Precognition could only be possible if some sort of paranoid delusional conspiracy theory holds true, whether that would be of all scientists lying about their discoveries or of reality being some sort of illusion (brain-in-a-vat, mind rays controlling thoughts, whatever) or some other variation on the theme.

      It’s impossible to rule out such possibilities, but you’ve got to be crazy and / or woefully ignorant or misinformed to take them seriously.

      b&

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Yup.

        And of course Kripal’s claim that he and his theory understand the alleged phenomenon if precognition is, well, really, it’s a lie. Even if precognition was real and his theory was correct, he still can’t say he “understands” how brains receive and transmit the information he says they do. To be able to use the word “understand”, he’s going to have to do some actual explaining.

        • Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Absolutely. Even if he couldn’t suggest the mechanism(s) by which it operates, he would at least be able to offer a reliable, if rough, statistical model consistent with observed instances of precognition — if these conditions apply, you’re more likely to observe the phenomenon than if these other conditions apply.

          Wait? What’s that? Nobody’s actually reliably observed precognition, and certainly not at statistically significant levels? And the claimed observations are consistent with well-established theories of typical human cognitive failures and especially certain well-known fraudulent activities?

          My, my. No wonder Kripal doesn’t actually have a theory beyond “magic man done it.”

          b&

    • aljones909
      Posted April 3, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      I’d be more impressed by dreams foretelling the future if they were documented BEFORE the events happen. It reminds me of the stunning Fatima prophecy ‘revealed’ to Lucia dos Santos in 1917. The great war was to end soon but if people do not stop offending God, a worse war would occur during the reign of Pope Pius XI. It was ‘revealed’ in 1917 but it was 1940 before she told anyone about it.

  13. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Kripal begins his essay by recounting two anecdotes (one by Mark Twain) about how people sensed other people’s deaths, and accurate details of how it happened, before they knew about the deaths.

    Here is the way skeptics have been dealing with these amazing anecdotes (and the subsequent argument that you can’t test them because they only happen under duress.)

    First, they evaluate them against what we have learned about the unreliability of our memories — particularly when we are either 1.) under stress and/or 2.) highly motivated towards having undergone a particular experience. Skeptics also, when they can, try to check any details about amazing anecdotes.

    What we find is that people who undergo controlled tests and experiments will remember things which didn’t happen and misremember things which did. There are subtle distortions and sensitivity to suggestion. And that over time memories get both less accurate … and more certain. The stories will also pick up details.

    Anecdotes which can be checked almost always turn out to have a few critical areas which aren’t quite as reported — and this will turn an amazing coincidence into an unlikely one. It’s (usually) not that people consciously lie. They confabulate, or skew the specifics, or elaborate without being aware they’ve done so. They borrow from another story, or from something they repeated, and insist that this was what they said at the beginning.

    As Hume might say: Which is more likely; that the laws of nature have been suspended, and in a manner of your choosing, or that you quite simply made a mistake?

    • Robert Bray
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Mark Twain, in his Autobiography: ‘When I was young, I could remember everything–whether it happened or not. Now that I’m old I can only remember what didn’t happen.’

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Yes … and Mark Twain was a professional story teller. He’d be likely to embellish unconsciously because he tells stories. At this late date, it’s not possible to be sure of what happened when. There are no detailed records.

        One of the ways skeptics will examine amazing anecdotes is to look at their history. Have there been changes from earlier forms to later ones? Sometimes the part of the experience which is held up as the MOST significant and convincing aspect (“how do you explain that?!”) is missing from the earliest accounts. Red flag. Big red flag.

        It’s seen as a truism: when paranormalists finally hold up their best, most documented example and skeptics examine it, the skeptics find huge holes. The paraormalists then point to all the OTHER stories and insist they can’t all be wrong. But why not? When the best evidence falls apart, why should we assume that all those ghost sightings or mental connections or spot on predictions which aren’t as “well supported” must be the real deal?

      • bric
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        My, that looks like a bazinga! moment

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      And, perversely, I think most people would agree with Hume if a) the claim was more mundane, and b) the claimant wasn’t someone famous. People seem to be more willing to admit fallibility if the situation is unremarkable:

      “Fish again? We just had fish last week!”

      “No. You’re not remembering correctly. That was the week before.”

  14. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    ALERT ALERT ALERT

    Humanists have paid a heavy price for their shrinking act. We are more or less ignored now by both the general public and our colleagues in the natural sciences …

    There are two (2) common and popular definitions of “humanism.”

    One of them comes from the secular community, and it denotes “an approach to life that has a Naturalistic view of the universe, reason and science as the methods of understanding it, and an ethics based on a fundamental love and respect for humanity.” Given this interpretation, a “humanist” is a pro-science naturalist who rejects the supernatural. Scientists are practicing humanism.

    Another definition however comes from the humanities community. It contrasts the study of art, literature, and human-related topics (which include theology and spirituality) with its antitheisis — science and math. Here, “humanism” and science (and possibly even naturalism) are often seen as opposing approaches to life or views of the world. The scientists are colleagues.

    Which definition is the “right” one? I usually see it used the first way, but as long as a definition communicates its meaning then there’s no right or wrong. Both interpretations have a history and are therefore legitimate. The problem of course is that it’s very easy to get confused — and then communication breaks down.

    So be aware of this potential dual-meaning of “humanism.” Otherwise, it can get hard to figure out what the heck people are saying or where they’re coming from.

    You may now return to your regularly scheduled website.

    (sheesh but that was pretentious of me.)

    • TJR
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I suspect that people in arts/humanities departments might call themselves “humanists” because they can’t call themselves “artists”.

    • MP
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      I don’t think that was pretentious. I needed that explanation. I was only aware of the first definition and was confused. So, thanks!

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        Heh — I meant the “you may now return…” part. But you’re welcome.

        It used to confuse me, too. I’d be reading some self-identified ‘humanist’ and he’d start railing against materialistic atheism and scientism and I’d go “huh?”

        There are even more than those 2 usages. I’ve run into “Humanism came out Catholicism so Catholicism is humanism” apologetics. Semantic debates are among the most tedious — particularly if they slyly conceal or contain an actual argument on substance.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      We should call the second “humanitists” and, thus, those that decry science would clearly be guilty of “humanitism” …

      /@

  15. TJR
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    So, Kripal summarised even more briefly:

    “Look at these great anecdotes, and don’t look at the colossal number of false positives behind the curtain”.

  16. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Hahaha! Look here, it’s Deepak’s long-awaited holistic “Secret to Riches” revealed! (paraphrase):
    “Simply realize that your trust fund income means you’re already wealthy, try to enjoy it, and stop coveting more.”

    Seriously, do you think Deepak considered for a moment how this advice would sound to a person working two jobs trying to make ends meet?

    Deepak Chopra’s Secret to Making Money

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/101531979

    “To have a bright financial future, you need to start focusing on your financial health. April is National Financial Literacy Month and a great time to make this a top priority. Physician, educator and best-selling author Dr. Deepak Chopra says the road to wealth must include a holistic approach to wellness and emotional health.

    The “secret” to making money, he said, is knowing the difference between money and wealth.

    “Money is a symbol; wealth is a state of awareness that allows you to tap into your inner creativity in order to fulfill a need that somebody else has.”

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      The secret to the Secret is to speak in deepities. You can translate it into your paraphrase — but you can also interpret it as saying something no more controversial than “money isn’t the only measure of happiness.”

      So which is it? It’s whichever one satisfies you and makes you admire the wisdom of Deepak Chopra.

  17. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    let me guess, as soon as the problems with Kripal’s nonsense is pointed out to him, he’ll respond with the usual solipsistic/unable to know “anything” nonsense that theists always come down to.

  18. Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    If it “works like a radio”, then there’s an energy transfer. Where is that energy? Why has it never been detected? If it is energetic, moreover, it *is* material. (Doesn’t have to be a body; EM radiation is matter too.)

    I seem to remember that somewhere in the _Trreatise on Basic Philosophy_ Bunge works out how short range EM-used-for-ESP would have to be to remain undetected at the time he wrote (1983 or so). It was ridiculous then; it is off the wall insane now.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, analogy goes back to Descartes himself, with the analogous object being a musical instrument as it relates to the musician. It was pointed out then, as you have pointed out now, this argument does nothing to solve the interaction problem in substance dualism, and substance dualism died of that ailment long ago. The problem is worse in the other direction – how the hell do we suppose the radio announcers know what sounds to make, or even what sound is? It’s incoherent.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I think the point of the “radio” analogy is not to postulate an unknown form of physical radiation, but to point out that the information source may not be located where we think it is. If souls exist, or if minds exist independently of brains, there could be information transfer mechanisms we would be quite unable to detect. Of course we don’t think that they exist, but to assume they don’t in this context is begging the question.

      • Michael Fugate
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Why would this be so?

      • Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. The analogy does beg the question, which is not the origin of the information but the nature of its commerce. If the information transfer is taken to cause something, then how does it escape what Kim describes as “a strong pressure toward a degree of homogeneity over its domain” exerted by the causal relation? Saying that the information transfer mechanisms may be undetectable does not explain how they escape the requirements of causality, if we think they cause things like information transfer.

        • Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          I am not familiar with Kim’s book. Maybe I should be.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      What’s missing throughout these comments is a definition or explanation of what counts as “matter.” A magnet – ferrous or electromagnetic – seems definitely material; but the magnetic “lines of force”? In contrast to the magnet, they seem to be quite immaterial!

      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:08 am | Permalink

        Well, maybe immaterial, but not “immaterialistic”.

        In physics, one definition is that matter is stuff that occupies space and possesses rest mass, esp. as distinct from energy.

        Magnetic force is propagated by photons, which have zero rest mass. Yet other force-carriers – the W and Z bosons that propagate the weak force – are massive; so are they matter?

        In any case, “solid” matter turns out to be fundamentally made up of fields (see the Standard Model and quantum field theory)! And the reason why “solid” matter seems solid has to do with electromagnetic forces anyway … see Feynman’s “magnets” video.

        /@

      • Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Matter = that which possesses energy.

  19. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Precognition? I think that’s handled by the economic argument.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      More fundamentally, it would be a great tool to enable prey to escape predators. There would be an ESP arms race.

      • Sastra
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Nicholas Humphrey used that as an argument against psychic powers in his book Leaps of Faith. If you accept evolution, you’re going to have a hard time fitting in the belief that even animals have a “sixth sense.”

        What the proponents are doing is running life through two systems: the physical and the spiritual. When they want them to effect each other, they do. When they want them to be totally compartmentalized, they are. How convenient. Suspiciously so.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      OMG how did I not see this before? I love it!

  20. Beau Quilter
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    As I commented on the original article, you don’t need “coincidence” to explain most of these experiences:

    http://www.nature.com/news/evidence-based-justice-corrupted-memory-1.13543

    Elizabeth Loftus and others have presented studies that show how prone we humans are to false memories. When supplied with just a few details, our brains can create vivid memories of events that never took place, including the feeling that we had “always” remembered this.

    All humans tend to add “detail” to our memory, when such detail becomes available later. We think of photographs as “jogging” our memory – when more often they are adding details to the memory. It’s easy to see how an imaginative storyteller like Twain might have had a dream about death (perhaps even as specific as about the death of his brother), then after the funeral, his subconscious added the details to the memory of his dream. He says that he had the dream “several” weeks earlier, but our memory of time is just as unreliable. With something as unspecific as “several weeks”, it might have been months or even years that he had a vague dream about death before his brothers funeral.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Right. My father had an amazing anecdote concerning a mind reading act he witnessed which could not have been a matter of coincidence. He kept adding details over time and retellings. Unfortunately, the major detail he changed involved the size of the crowd — and that actually made the evidence LESS compelling, not more.

  21. eric
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. No one is in danger or dying.

    Well this would be relatively easy in principle (though expensive) to refute: do another study with cohorts of infantry before they deploy to active battle zones. We can pretty much guarantee statistically that some are going to die in the next year. Do they dream accurate dreams of their platoon-mates’ deaths?

    Second point: if he’s right, then what we have evidence for is not the tri-omni God, but a galactic jerkwad. Let’s think about this: you’re saying there’s a critter that can beam images of future traumatic events into our heads before they happen. But only does so when we are unable to stop them. That doesn’t sound like a message of love or kindness to me, it sounds like we are being psychologically tortured.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      But you’re supposed to derive comfort from it because precognition entails that the loved one is not really dead-dead. Our minds do not need to obey the rules and habits of physical bodies.

      I once read an interpretation of Monad’s famous Postulate of Objectivity as saying that ‘the universe does not play favorites.’ What he meant was that the laws of physics and chemistry and so forth did not CARE if you’re a good person or a bad one, if you want something or not, or if you are traumatized or calm. They are not morally sensitive in that way. Emotions do not effect them on some pure (and higher) level.

      Kripal is more or less denying the Postulate of Objectivity so that certain laws only come into play when it’s important to us. Love, or loss, or trauma allows us to “tap into” energies or forces in the same way that spiritual healers use their sensitive emotional nature to tap into vitalistic human energy fields. Dowsing won’t work with a machine: there has to be a person involved. Nature knows and recognizes the difference and it plays favorites.

      • eric
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        “Love, or loss, or trauma allows us to “tap into” energies or forces in the same way that spiritual healers use their sensitive emotional nature to tap into vitalistic human energy fields.”

        Well, if he’s saying that, its incredibly stupid not just from an “postulating an unknown force” perspective but from a causal perspective. If loss or trauma is what’s letting me tap into this mystical communications signal, I shouldn’t receive the vision until I’m actually feeling loss or trauma. The visions he’s trying to explain supposedly occur before the trauma. So is he posulating time traveling souces of energy in addition to mystical communication beams?

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:10 am | Permalink

          Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.

  22. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, as far as we can tell, this presence is sui generis. It is its own thing. We know of nothing else like it in the universe, and anything we might know later we will know only through this same consciousness.

    It would appear that that particular consciousness suffers from the illusion that our thoughts somehow magically intertwine and combine to make them one common entity that doesn’t consist of ordinary matter.

    And that billions of different minds fundamentally are gathered as one.

    “Good luck finding it in the lab!” ;-)

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Moreover, there’s a case to be made that prior to Descartes, perhaps, nobody thought *consciousness* was a big deal. There was mind-body dualism (in Plato hence also in Christianity) but consciousness specifically? Not really. It is sort of “ontological specialness of the gaps”. (Even in Descartes many of what we would call mental functions are perfectly material or have a strong material component: read his _Passions of the Soul_.)

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        Frankly I don’t get all the fuzz surrounding the questions of human consciousness. This idea that we are somehow special and on another level compared to other animals to me looks like a sure fire way to ignore potential knowledge waiting to be discovered. We’re nothing but clever primates without a plan.

        I’m increasingly leaning towards the perception that to some the hard problem of consciousness is unduly overrated and I’m inclined to ask “which one?” as a fundamental entry point to discussions about consciousness.

        • Posted April 2, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          I think Turing was probably right: that consciousness is something you recognize when you see it, from external appearances, rather than something that can be condensed into a mathematical equation.

          When we can interact with a program and it displays the same level of cultural awareness as a human might do, then perhaps we will have solved the problem of consciousness, even if we can’t conceptualize where the programs awareness is centered.

          • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            Actually, there’ve been some exciting new propositions that consciousness may well be the same mirror neurons that permit us to build models of others turned inward towards our own mental processes. Turing especially would appreciate the recursiveness. If these ideas hold up, the “hard problem” of consciousness will be solved in short order, and we’ll have working (but simplistic!) conscious computers.

            Of course, if this turns out to be true, we’ll shortly thereafter discover that consciousness itself is no more remarkable nor unique nor essential a mental facility than the ability to play chess. You could construct P-zombies simply by omitting the self-reflecting circuits, and they’d still be able to do everything their non-zombie equivalents could except describe why they think they’re doing what they’re doing. I suspect many will find that to be quite the letdown.

            b&

            • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              Or as Hofstadter put it (with out benefit of the knowledge of mirror neurons): “Mind is a pattern perceived by a mind. This is circular, but it is not vicious or paradoxical.”

              • Posted April 3, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

                It’s not circular; it’s recursive. Big difference.

                b&

  23. matt
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    wishful thinking parading as intelligence and sound refutation. his logic is confounding. excellent take down, j. coyne!

  24. Michael Fugate
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    He his PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and he thinks he may be spiderman?

  25. Stephen P
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    To play by those rules is like trying to study the stars at midday.

    Apparently it’s news to Kripal that some people do indeed study the stars at midday.

    • Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Hell, I’ll bet he not only hasn’t gotten the memo that there’re always stars above the horizon, but that there’s one particularly beautiful star that’s rather illuminating during the day….

      b&

  26. tristan eldritch
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “Most of us are now determinists about the brain: what feel like libertarian decisions made by a dualistic “ghost” in our brain are illusions: those “decisions” are made in our unconscious by factors we don’t understand.”

    This would mean in effect that your entire article is a series of post facto rationalizations of decisions which “you” didn’t make about Kripal’s position, but which were rather made in your unconscious by factors which you (and we) don’t understand. That is, the ghostly, dualistic “ghost” which “you” perceived deliberating over the merits of the article was an illusion, and the whole of your article is equally illusory, designed to make it look like you made a rational decision about Kripal’s argument, which of course you didn’t, as according to your own position, it wouldn’t be possible for you to do so. Since Kripal believes in the self and it’s capacity for choice and deliberation, he is at least not forced into the position which you are: one of pure faith that the “decisions” which are made for us by these mysterious unconscious factors can lead us to an accurate abstract picture of the world; pure faith because since these “decisions” are forced upon us deterministically by invisible unconscious factors, we have thus no way of consciously and rationally determining whether they are right or wrong.

    • eric
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      This would mean in effect that your entire article is a series of post facto rationalizations of decisions which “you” didn’t make about Kripal’s position, but which were rather made in your unconscious by factors which you (and we) don’t understand.

      Do you mean post hoc? Determinism doesn’t make everything post hoc, in fact it’s irrelevant to the issue. If a meat robot pays attention to stimuli appropriately and doesn’t ignore it appropriately, then that meat robot is not engaging in post hoc rationalization. OTOH if it does over- or under-weight some data source, it might be engaging in post hoc rationalization. But the question of whether we are meat robots or not is pretty much irrelevant to answering that question.

      Likewise, the question of whether we are meat robots are not is irrelevant to the question of whether Jerry’s position is logically valid. You seem to be implying that if JAC’s article is just the result of lock-step deterministic forces, that must mean his point is wrong or invalid. But we use computers to perform correct calculations all the time, so obviously deterministic non-free-will machines can do that. If we are all meat computers, then it can still be true that some meat computers (such as JAC) perform abstract analysis better than others (such as Kripal).

      • tristan eldritch
        Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        You’re right about my confusion of terminology re post facto and post hoc, apologies. “You seem to be implying that if JAC’s article is just the result of lock-step deterministic forces, that must mean his point is wrong or invalid.” Not really implying that it is necessarily wrong or invalid, only that if JAC’s position is correct, then he and we would have no way of knowing whether it was valid or invalid, without having pure, unadulterated faith in the capacity of deterministic and invisible unconscious factors. You use the example of robots and computers to try and avoid this dilemma, but this seems problematic to me for various reasons. Robots and computers are intelligently designed, and we apparently are not. Now, the fact that a computer can make accurate mathematical calculations without free will says nothing whatever about whether or not the deterministic physical factors which produce the illusion of conscious free will (and consciousness as such) are capable of transmitting an accurate abstract picture of the world. Computers are designed to produce accurate mathematical calculations – the human brain is not designed to produce an accurate abstract picture of the world, so we should be unsurprised by the former, and perhaps a little skeptical of the latter. (That the brain may have developed accurate temporal/spatial co-ordination along the way is a vastly different thing from an accurate abstract picture of the world.) If computers were conscious, then they would be capable of experiencing the illusion of making a correct calculation, and we would probably have to check all their results by hand! Even supposing your metaphor of meat robots and neural computers were to hold (and I don’t think it does), you would still only be left with mathematical and computable problems about which you could have any degree of certainty – with everything else you would be left with pure faith. Now, the question of the nature of consciousness is not computable at present – holding any position on the subject involves intuitions, inferences, philosophical arguments, and so forth. So, even if the crude metaphor of the brain as a computer held, we could not rely on the accuracy of the brain/computer in this instance, so I didn’t believe that appealing to robots and computers gets us out of this dilemma.

        • eric
          Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink

          Not really implying that it is necessarily wrong or invalid, only that if JAC’s position is correct, then he and we would have no way of knowing whether it was valid or invalid, without having pure, unadulterated faith in the capacity of deterministic and invisible unconscious factors.

          This is still wrong. We set criteria for valid reasoning and the evaluate if our meat computer’s calculations meet the criteria. That’s how you know. If I ask two computers what 2+2 equals (in base 10), I can certainly evaluate that the one that returns “4” is operating correctly while the one that returns “3” made a mistake. I can do the exact same thing with other humans, and the fact that they may be meat computers makes no difference.

          Now, maybe you are confusing “knowing” with “absolute certainty”? Sure, we can’t have absolute philosophical certainty in any of our conclusions. Its always possible that we could be just plain wrong, or brain-damaged, or hallucinating, or in a matrix, etc… But again, this is not an issue of free will or determinism.

          So, the TL:DR version: any criteria for “knowing” less than absolute certainty can probably be met by meat computers. Absolute certainty cannot be met by either meat computers or free willed humans. So, this is a nonissue.

          • tristan eldritch
            Posted April 2, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

            It seems that either you are completely missing the point, or I am. Let me try to bring out the crux of the disagreement. You say “We set criteria for valid reasoning and the evaluate if our meat computer’s calculations meet the criteria.” Can’t you see the problem with this? Let us say a human subject is selecting the criteria for valid reasoning. They are looking at criteria A and criteria B as potential valid reasoning criteria. According to JAC’s view, invisible, unconscious factors deterministically select criteria A, and then the human subject experiences the illusion of choosing criteria A by “itself”. (Please correct me if this is a misrepresentation of the following: “what feel like libertarian decisions made by a dualistic “ghost” in our brain are illusions: those “decisions” are made in our unconscious by factors we don’t understand.”) You cannot avoid the implication of this: the human subject not only COULD NOT have chosen criteria B, but will also experience an utterly persuasive mirage of having chosen criteria A for the best possible reasons. It inevitably follows that the human subject cannot know if criteria A is the valid one; it must trust that unconscious factors which it doesn’t understand selected the right alternative, because the conscious human subject has no decision making faculties of its own – it simply experiences the mirage of having those faculties. It doesn’t seem to me that you are addressing this point at all – you are still assuming a conscious agent which can select valid from invalid criteria of reasoning, but according to the position you are defending, no such conscious agent selector actually exists. The position you are defending is either self-refuting, or requires that we have faith that the invisible, unconscious, not yet understood aspects of the brain that make our decisions for “us” are making the correct ones – because we have no capacity to make decisions about the nature of the world ourselves, only the illusion of having that capacity. Again, the fact that intelligently designed human artifacts can accurately perform formal mathematical problems does not address this problem on any level.

  27. Gordon
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    “the lab somehow ruins the vibes that create ESP”

    Bit like the white coat phenomena for blood pressure? Surprised that wasn’t thrown in

  28. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Jeffrey Kripal is a couple of things one of which I kind of like, and the other of which has been rightly castigated here.

    First of all, he’s a gay religious scholar who has fairly effectively argued for a hidden sexual (and often homosexual) subtext in a lot of religious mystical traditions. He got in a lot of hot water for his book “Kali’s Child” over this. His later scholarly focus on wildly nontraditional forms of spirituality Gnosticism and esotericism is an outgrowth of his.

    Secondly, he had at an early age a very powerful and apparently paranormal experience as a young man which apparently permanently convinced him beyond all argument of the reality of the supernatural, and the impossibility of a naturalistic explanation of the world.

    Thus re my first observation he resists the quasi-Freudian conclusion that religion is am expression of sublimated and semi-repressed (and naturalistically based!!!) sexuality, but instead he opts for a kind of sexual mysticism in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence, Alan Watts et al. (This is especially prominent in his book “Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom”.)

    I agree with humanist author Marty Klein that the meaning of sex is a human social constructed just like the meaning of God and the soul.

  29. Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Seems “God of the gaps” has morphed into “Consciousness of the gaps”.

  30. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I get annoyed when “the problem of consciousness” is raised against naturalism/materialism/science on two counts:

    1. I don’t see any in principle “problem.”
    2. Even scientists, and some atheists, when the great bogey-man of “consciousness” is thrown at them, seem to suddenly curl their tails in some level of deference. “Yes, well that IS a hard problem we haven’t figured out yet…”

    It just seems to give unearned ammunition to the other side.

    I’m only voicing a personal opinion, but I no matter how many times I read of the “Hard Problem Of Consciousness” and (Chalmer’s name inevitably being raised) it does not resonate with me at all.

    Given our complex neurology, that monitors not only sensations of the external, which can build complex representative models of the world out of such stimulus, and which also has structures in place that allow higher level monitoring and vetting of those representations…why WOULDN’T it “feel like something” to be conscious?

    That’s what I don’t get: what is the other outcome we are supposed to expect in it’s place, that makes our having “experience” so unexpected give materialism, or mysterious?

    It’s like the bizarre “point” made by some anti-materialists that if you look in the grain all you see are neurons, not “experiences.” Well of COURSE you don’t see the experiences. You don’t look at the circuits of a computer and see “Windows 7″ that way either.

    Or this one “It’s just such a STRANGE feature that our consciousness has this subjective characteristics – that only the individual is privy to that experience.”

    Again: what in the world would make anyone think it would be otherwise? Of course YOU don’t have MY subjective experience. You are a different body, with a different nervous system, with different experiences forming that nervous system, and we aren’t occupying the same space. We wouldn’t expect you to experience exactly what I am experiencing.

    The fact Chalmer can seriously advance the idea of Philosophical Zombies just points to this weird incoherence. When you say “let’s imaging an entity exactly like a human being in every material way…but which does not have consciousness…” that’s like asking “imagine two pots of water that are exactly identical in every way physically, but now imagine one does not boil over a flame.”

    Whaa? That makes no sense at all. If they have the same attributes, they will act the same way! You can’t just take away the attribute of “boiling when heated” from one version with no explanation of how that is plausible.

    Same with human brains. If you duplicate me physically, all our empirical experience (and our very logical notion of identity) entails I will be conscious. You can’t just magically take “being conscious” out of one version of me with no explanation for how
    that is plausible, let alone even logically viable. That Chalmer feels he can “imagine” this means no more than he can entertain a concept that isn’t very coherent…which plenty of people do all the time. To say this actually COULD BE the case – a being exactly like us materially but not conscious, just begs the question.

    Yes consciousness in terms of all the details in explaining it is “hard” in that way. But I hate when this fact gets confused with the idea that consciousness is “in principle” something extra mysterious and suggestive of dualism or whatever.

    Vaal

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:14 am | Permalink

      Yes! Positing philosophical zombies is begging the question of dualism.

      /@

    • Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Regarding P-zombies: exactly. I made the same point on a thread several months ago. For the idea of p-zombies to do any work, you’d first have to accept that physical science is wrong and impossible, because you’d be positing two identical pieces of matter that have wildly different attributes and behaviors. Your kettle of water that can both boil and not boil when heated is a good analogy.

  31. Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to mention another “unexplained coincidence”: The appearance in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience an article that purports to show “presentiment” and “predictive anticipatory activity”. This is of a piece with the work of Daniel Bem, a psychologist who claimed, I believe, that people could influence the behavior of random number generators. Here, the authors say that people can accurately predict future events with their physiology. The comments section of the paper (which I have not read) has an interesting discussion hinging on Sagan’s quote about “extraordinary claims”:

    http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00146/abstract

  32. Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    - follow up –

    The unexplained coincidence is the appearance of this paper of woo in my awareness on April Fool’s day. (It was published five days prior.)

  33. JimV
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see anecdotes of supposedly precognitive dreams as good evidence because I know from personal experience that it is possible to confuse/misremember the order in which two events occurred, e.g., the death and the dream. This is why controlled, double-blind studies are the gold standard.

    Besides, the main usefulness of intelligence, it seems to me, is to predict the future based on patterns abstracted from previous observations – such as, what will happen if I touch this hot stove. So it isn’t too surprising that some of our neurons are trying to predict the future as we sleep, providing a number of cases to cherry-pick, a few of which will be fairly accurate. (Most, as our host implies, are not.)

    People who put stock in such things and go on to invent unfalsifiable narratives around them could use a good dose of scientism, I think, which I personally define as not jumping to rash conclusions without good evidence.

  34. Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that, if ESP or precognition worked, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Monte-Carlo would have different industries.

  35. Bruce Gorton
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Kripal’s problem is that his hypothesis is in fact testable.

    If the human brain operated in the way he suggests, it would be possible to generate some sort of damping device to interfere with the transmission, without actually damaging the brain.

    One could for example, put people in Hazmat suits and have them work in radioactive areas, where there would be a high chance of at least some of the radiation generating interference.

    The thing is, when we have done that there has been no such interference.

  36. Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    “… We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today. We tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through, at least in these extreme cases….” Kripal

    Quite right. I have always thought that we have given-up our fight against witches too early. Clearly there are crop failures, floods and hurricanes, and there are little old women with hairy chins and cats, and we have history and the great minds of the past to support our contention that they are the cause. I hope that Kripal will join with me in ridding the world of witches by whatever means possible.

    I feel that Kripal should not put his trust in the ideas of Aldous Huxley, Rupert Sheldrake et al. I missed Huxley, but did meet his second wife, Laura Archera Huxley? In L.A., who told me that we shall soon be able to fly the Atlantic without the use of airplanes as we learn to master the mystic arts.

    With Kripal we have yet another example that the human brain is not merely the same brain as ours, but carrying different thoughts. It is an example of a brain programmed differently. (Human Sub-Set Theory) And like the religious brain, it operates on principles outside our understanding. All the irony and contempt from this thread passes through it making no impression, like a bullet through a gas-bag.
    Brains dedicated to woo seem not to need foundations of logic, but drift high above us; evasive and superior. It reminds me of the time I sketched-out the Periodic Table to fellow literature students at Oxbridge, who were incredulous. They had the unshakeable conviction that the universe was made-up of mysterious substances, each having mystical and emotional properties. Equally, they were unquestioning and superior, and looked at me as one ‘not in the circle of the knowing’.

    “It is nobler to be a fool who walks the clouds than an artisan who tills the earth!!”

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    That isn’t even weak. There is absolutely nothing there.

    – Kripal cherry picks 3 mystics, surprisingly Twain seems to have indulged in this: Twain on the idea of “mental telegraphy”, Amatuzio on “extraordinary stories” in “Beyond Knowing”, and Swedenborg in his “spiritual phase in which he began to experience dreams and visions” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanuel_Swedenborg ].

    – The necessary extraordinary evidence to these “extraordinary stories” isn’t there. In fact there is no evidence at all.

    – Kripal has to defend himself with a conspiracy theory!

    Oh, and Kripal poisons the well: observing anecdote is “lazy” instead of precise and useful.

    the sciences have utterly failed to explain consciousness. … no one has come close to showing how [reduction to biology] might work.

    No. Kripal is too late:

    “Graziano shows that the solution to the hard problem might be that the brain describes some of the information that it is actively processing as conscious because that is a useful description of its own process of attention, Schurger said.

    “Michael’s theory explains the connection between attention and consciousness in a very elegant and compelling way,” Schurger said.

    “His theory is the first theory that I know of to take both the easy and the hard problems head on,” he said. “That is a gaping hole in all other modern theories, and it is deftly plugged by Michael’s theory. Even if you think his theory is wrong, his theory reminds us that any theory that avoids the hard problem has almost certainly missed the mark, because a plausible solution—his theory—exists that does not appeal to magic or mysterious, as-yet-unexplained phenomena.””

    [ http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-toolkit-human-consciousness.html ]

    Similarly the LHC has now ruled out his “radio” idea. There are no such signals that lives within the Standard Model or that from without would be strong enough to influence a human brain.

    And really, how and why would such a thing evolve in (presumably) the small clade of hominids? I don’t think the biology works either.

    It’s not that we’ve taken non-materialism off the table—it’s simply fallen off the table.

    Love it!

  38. Leon Baradat
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Shorter Kripal: “All you neuroscientists get off my lawn!”

  39. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Many of the problems with people attributing paradoxical and magical properties to consciousness are best avoided by sticking to a minimal definition: we’re conscious only at times when we’re not actually unconscious, and we’re only conscious of perceptions and processes that aren’t completely unconscious.

    As an early teen I was in the habit of hopping on a bike and doing one or two laps round the block, multiple times a day. One time, lounging in a beanbag, I only thought of going for a ride, without consciously deciding to do it, and the next thing I knew, I was pushing the bike towards the front gate.

    With no memory of the intervening actions, I was now unconscious of them; but had I been conscious while getting up and getting the bike out of the shed? Maybe that’s a stupid question: consciousness is ALWAYS only recognizable in retrospect.

    This anecdote (or any more impressive case of retrograde amnesia) has a lot more to do with the nature of consciousness than those stories about prophetic dreams.

  40. Posted April 3, 2014 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on كريونكس مصر.


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