Essay on Conscious Water, or...
Santa Claus's Will
this essay came to be largely
due to my extended reflections on this subject triggered by the exchange
of ideas with Mr. Stuart W. Mirsky, in this
. Even though I disagree with his ideas almost completely, I feel
indebted to his questionings, to his opposing ideas (i.e. opposed to mine),
and to the civility and reasonability of our "debate." Sometimes disagreeing
may be more fruitful than agreeing. And for all that, I thank him.
I present here a way of thinking about the grandest
mystery that will ever be in the whole Universe: Consciousness. Paradoxically,
consciousness is the only thing that we truly have direct access to, the
only thing that we will ever truly come to know, and the only thing that
we have ever had or that we will ever have. This essay came as a "spin-off"
of my review of Daniel Dennett's book "Consciousness Explained" (1991). In
2008, after years, I finally read Dennett's book and felt utterly shocked.
With all possible due respect, I found that book an almost complete disaster.
So, I went on to its 2005 update, "Sweet Dreams." Basically, just as bad
as its predecessor. I will take Dennett's crippled ideas on this subject
matter as a starting point to my own (the reader is free to interpret it
as "to my own ideas" or "to my own crippled ideas"
On page 281 of "Consciousness Explained," Albus DumbleDennett
(aka The Anti-Santa) waves his wand and gives birth to his "theory of consciousness"
just out of thin air. It goes like this:
"And so I hereby declare that my theory is a theory
of consciousness. Anyone or anything that has such a virtual machine" (a
"Joycean Machine," that is, a von-Neumann-architecture based machine that
is the object of its own elaborate perceptual systems - note added by me,
Julio, using Dennett's words) "as its control system is conscious in the
fullest sense, and is conscious because it has such a virtual machine."
This above sounds to me creepily like Santa Claus's
Will, uttered at his moments of final agony as he dies along with all our
cherished dreams (real or false) of anything that might transcend the gloomy
limits of materialism. So I decided to give Santa a second chance. I thought
about the mystery of consciousness using a hypothetical scenario. One in
which we are to account for the emergence (i.e. the appearing) of consciousness
but not in humans. We are to account for its emergence in... water. Let's
see how we fare in this attempt to save Santa (and our dreams, hopes, and
theoretical options) from his evil brother Anti-Santa (just an important
note: keep in mind that, as a person, i.e. a citizen, a human being, etc,
Dennett seems to be a very nice fellow. I am fighting some of his ideas;
not demonizing him).
What is water? We can present many good (robust) materialist
definitions of it. One good definition tracks it as an emergent phenomenon.
It goes like this: ice + heat = water. So, since we live in a Universe
where water "comes and goes" (changes into ice and vice versa, among other
states/transformations), this equation is a way of "explaining" water.
It is telling us something about water. It is instructing us on what to
lawfully expect from water's behaviour. It is a theory. A good one. Now,
take this other one: ice + 9.11 o
heat = conscious water. Uhm. That is interesting. So whenever we have ice
heated to 9.11 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. water at this temperature), this
water is... conscious! Is there any problem with it? Well, obviously not.
I mean, it can be (that is, it is within the realm of "conceivabilities";
and for all we truly know, it is also within the realm of possibilities).
But, in Science (and in good Philosophy), we have to present the reasons
why we come to conclusions. So this water is conscious. Good. But who says
so? Your landlady is conscious (she is not a zombie). Who says so? Well,
SHE says so! So we come to the first tricky problem with consciousness research/philosophy.
We have to rely on the subject's report! (Compare to this: the water is
water, and not ice. Who says so? The water? No. You do! You can check it
for yourself. It is objective - Or, similarly: "your landlady is wearing
glasses"). Now, Dennett ruthlessly (just a word of effect
) undermines this very basis of consciousness studies with his heterophenomenology
(as presented in Consciousness Explained-1991; the version of it in Sweet
Dreams-2005 seems devoid of this problem) and with his Multiple Drafts Model
(let's call this pair H+M). What H+M leads us into accepting is that we cannot
rely on the subject. So how are we to discover the neural correlates of
consciousness (or any other physical correlates of consciousness)? The simple
answer is: we are not! Dennett destroyed the only tools we had... (bad boy).
The second tricky problem with consciousness research/philosophy
is also one source for "substance-dualist" views of reality (not that substance
dualism is right; I am just indicating one of its sources). When you have
Ice + Heat = Water, this equation is perfectly balanced (so say the physicists,
at least). It abides fully to the principle of conservation (one of the
Holiest tenets of Science). But when you have Ice + 9.11 oF
Heat = Conscious Water, there seems (SEEMS) to be something extra. It seems
(SEEMS) that conservation (of energy/mass) is being violated. And it is being
violated by the emergence of consciousness. Additionally, if you take consciousness
out of the scenario, the physical description of the world will be just
the same (for all our physical science can tell). So what tells us that
consciousness emerged? What tells us that consciousness is there? And if
consciousness IS there (as neuroscientists think in regards to awake brains),
WHERE did it come from and WHAT is it? So people have been trying for millenia
to grapple with it. Especially with WHAT consciousness is. If we truly live
in a material world (as some people believe), and if matter is all that
there is (as some people believe), then consciousness must be matter. If
consciousness is indeed something, then it must be matter. So, the emergence
of consciousness, according to the materialist account of it, simply MUST
be a violation of the conservation principle (but not a violation of materialism
itself). Or, instead, the emergence of consciousness is not the emergence
of something material (and conservation itself is not violated); rather,
it is the creation, by matter, of something immaterial; in a phrase: the
emergence of consciousness is a violation of materialism itself. Obviously,
there are ways around these two dreadful conclusions of mine. At least tentative
ways around... Let's take a look at them:
1- "Consciousness Does Not Exist." This is a perfect
solution to the problem. Those who say that consciousness is an "illusion,"
meaning that it simply does not exist at all, are in this group. Sadly
enough, these guys never get properly funded in their researches (for their
would-be funders seem to stick to the odd belief that they - i.e. the funders
- are not consciousnessless zombies...), and so they simply won't thrive.
[This is not to be confused with the almost useless notion that "consciousness
is an illusion" meaning that consciousness truly exists but is something
different from what people usually think. This latter view (or variations/deviations
of it) is rather popular, and seems to be often embranced by woo-woos in
disguise like Susy Blackmore and Dan(bledore) Dennett in their moments of
intellectual seizures.]. Note that "consciousness does not exist" equals
to "matter is never conscious."
2- "Consciousness is Always Present." That is panpsychism.
Matter would always be conscious. Let us leave this aside. [one very specific
variation of panpsychism is my present intellectual/philosophical/scientific
persuasion on this matter]
3- "Consciousness is Not a Substance, but a Property
of Matter." This seems to be the true darling of scientists and philosophers
of consciousness. Arguably, this is Dennett's option too. But this option,
unlike the previous ones (1 and 2), does not solve the problem at once
(that is, the problem of either violating conservation or, alternatively,
of wiping out materialism altogether). Actually, a property of matter could
even be ALWAYS PRESENT (and therefore render this equal to number 2 above)
or perhaps be NEVER PRESENT (and so be just like number 1 above). But the
trick is that, arguably, properties may come and go (emerge) without violating
the law of conservation of energy. And so, philosophers like Daniel Dennett
or like David Papineau, or like the writer Stuart Mirsky, may say that when
a working system (say, a set of neurons) goes from State A to State B, it
gets a new property, namely consciousness. Again, let's look at some backyard
1- Ice + Heat = Water
2- Ice + Heat = fluid Water
3- Ice + Heat = transparent Water
Being fluid and being transparent (I am assuming that
water is far more transparent than ice - if it is not actually so, let's
just pretend it so to be for the sake of theorizing) are properties of water.
It is what water is supposed to be. So the equation number 3 and 2 merely
SEEM to have more elements than equation number 1.
So we come to the crucial question in the philosophy/science
of conciousness debate: is there truly any difference between these two
a- Ice + Heat = fluid Water
b- Ice + Heat (9.11 oF)
= conscious Water
(if you want to stick to realism, change equation b to: working neuron
set + endogenous/exogenous restructuring stimuli = conscious working neuron
The answer, according to materialism, is NO.
But the fact is that, while mechanistic materialism
presents a good account of the comings and goings of water's fluidity, it
does not present a good account of the comings and goings of consciousness.
Unlike fluidity, consciousness is a cryptic property (assuming it is indeed
a property, and not a substance). Further, it is, so far as anyone can tell,
a property with no known function per se. Water flows through tiny
holes BECAUSE of its property of being fluid. But conscious water does not
flow through tiny holes BECAUSE of its property of being conscious. And,
similarly, nothing that "water" (i.e. nothing that humans) does is done BECAUSE
it is conscious. So, this is the kind of "explanation" that we do not have
for consciousness: thus far (and we have been trying for millenia...), we
have not found a way to fit consciousness into the causal chain of events
in the Universe.
The term "to explain," in Science, has, to my understanding,
the following fruitful meanings:
1- To faithfully describe the place and role of a phenomenon (i.e. a
thing or an event) in a given causal chain.
2- To describe a phenomenon (thing/event) by depicting its structure,
its features, its properties, etc.
Dennett did not succeed (nor has anyone else ever...)
in explaining consciousness in the meaning 1 of "to explain." As to meaning
2, a successful approach to it would be the identification of which physical
states are conscious, and which are not. This is perhaps the Holy Grail
of Consciousness Research, that is, the identification of the Neural Correlates
of Consciousness, as Francis Crick used to put it (or the PHYSICAL correlates
of consciousness; just in case it is not only neurons that can be conscious.
Maybe E.T.s and computers can too...). But this identification suffers
from numerous philosophical, theoretical, and empirical difficulties. Just
to name a few of the obstacles for us to find the correlates of consciousness
a- We have to rely on the subject's report.
b- We are left in serious trouble in regards to any
living creature but humans (not to mention non-living creatures, including
computers, robots and rocks).
c- Current brain-imaging technics, which purportedly
provide good basis for CC in the human brain, are far less reliable than
most people imagine. There is a good description of these problems in the
recent book "Irreducible Mind."
d- Some theories (backed by good evidential data...)
regarding the functioning of the mind, like the Multiple Drafts Model (and
a number of others as well!) put additional strains on the task of spotting
what is conscious or not in our brains. Just an example: I say now that
I was conscious of the green light shown to me ten seconds ago. But how
can I truly know NOW that I was in fact conscious THEN? Maybe it was just
unconscious perception that got into memory and that is now being consciously
accessed. The Multiple Drafts Model, to my reading, warns us of similar
possibilities. And the net result is: less and less reliability of the subject's
e- Identification of Neural CC's are dependent not only
on subject's report, but on subject's memory. As such, it faces three quite
substantial problems: first, the presence of false memories (or, alternatively,
the presence of false memories of having been conscious at a given occasion
in the past); second, the "absence" (i.e. forgetting) of true memories;
third, the unsurmountable incapacity of one's experiencing (and thus of
remembering...) unconsciousness! By sheer logical definition, unconsciousness
is unexperienceable. If we can not, even in principle, experience unconsciousness,
how can we tell if it really exists?
Even if all these obstacles listed above could be overcome,
and very trustworthy CC came to be identified (that is, if "explanation"
according to definition 2 were achieved), the lack of an "explanation" of
the type 1 (i.e. the place and role of consciousness in the causal chain)
would leave fully open the possibility of things like "philosophical zombies,"
especially in light of Darwinian Evolution mechanisms, for all the
rationale governing darwinism is based on the type 1 definition of "explanation"
(that is, the place and role in the causal chain).
So, Dennett & Friends step up to us and declare:
"Consciousness is a process-based system." Alright. What is the problem
with it? In principle, none. But what is the worth of it? In truth, none
In sum, on the one hand we have consciousness as something
that, 1, has no known role whatsoever, 2, cannot be objectively detected,
and 3, can only have its physical correlates identified through highly
faulty procedures; and on the other hand we have Mr. Dumbledennett (et
al) claiming to have laid consciousness... explained!
Dennett's ideas may very well be correct. But THIS remains
to be demonstrated. And he did not advance an inch on this astronomical
I would like to repeat something I said above: consciousness
is, so far as anyone can tell, a property (or perhaps a substance) with
no known function per se. Water flows through tiny holes BECAUSE
of its property of being fluid. But "conscious water" does not flow through
tiny holes BECAUSE of its property of being conscious (rephrasing it in real-world,
or common sense, terms: conscious neuron-networks do not perform the functions
that they do BECAUSE of the fact that they are conscious). And, similarly,
nothing that "water" (i.e. nothing that humans) does is done BECAUSE it is
conscious. So, this is the kind of "explanation" that we do not have for
consciousness: thus far (and we have been trying for millenia...), we have
not found a way to fit consciousness into the causal chain of events in the
Why is it so? We have found, or invented, the Theory
of Relativity. That is an almighty intellectual achievement. We have found,
or invented, the Theory of Quantum Mechanics. Super Almighty. Similarly,
we have developed mighty concepts and theories in countless areas where
we try to explain the Universe. How come we cannot come up with a reasonable
theory for the function that consciousness plays in this whole crazy Universe
that surrounds us? One quite possible option, given the State of The Art
thus far, is that consciousness simply does not have any function whatsoever.
And, further, that it simply is not there to be explained. It simply is.
It is not explainable, but rather, it is the esplanade itself. It is a most
basic feature of the Universe. It seems that David Chalmers (philosopher),
Stan Franklin (mathematician - see Machine Consciousness, JCS, 2003), and
Erwin Schroedinger (late physicist) held similar views. Maybe for not similar
reasons, or with similar implications.
So, on the one hand, we have all this immensely exuberant
correlation between myriad of consciousness states and physical states
(NCC, in Francis Crick's terms). And on the other hand, we have consciousness
as something with absolutely no function whatsoever. How do we account for
this? It seems more and more certain to me that there is only one way to
account for it. First, consciousness IS a fundamental aspect of the Universe.
Secondly, it is changeable, and as matter changes itself, it gets consciousness
changed. Thirdly and finally, the starting point for this consciousness
cannot be a proto-conscious state. You simply cannot have this correlational
exuberance if you start from bottom up. The only way to have it is if you
start from top-down. Therefore, the primitive conscious state, rather, is
Hyper-Conscious. Brahman. And this gets changed, filtered, by the changes
So this is my version of the filter theory of consciousness.
A filter theory of consciousness has been presented in the recent book
"Irreducible Mind" (2006). It draws on the works and thoughts of William
James and Friedrich Myers. Their theory is rather different from mine,
both in creation stimuli and in scope. Sometimes (rarely, though) they
do seem to come close to this brahmanistic view.
The final question might be: where is Brahman to be
found, and what are we to expect from the other modes of organization in
the Universe concerning the possession of consciousness? (i.e. what are we
to expect from rocks, fetuses, bacteria in isolation, bacteria in colonies,
galaxies, human crowds, etc). The answer to the latter is, for now, utterly
mysterious. As for the former, almost as much so. But perhaps the best candidate
for Brahman-like consciousness would be the most simple of the Universal
structures, as one might find at the very beginning of the Universe or at
its very end. At the present time, I would suggest we may find it in a single
photon... Especially when no one is looking at It
Special note on these quite bizarre ideas of
mine above: before you create a religion based on what I have written
above (which, just by the way, I strongly disrecommend...), I must add a few
notes to fit all this above into the overall scientific and social modern
context. First, my ideas above are all based on the assumption
that consciousness has, per se, no function whatsoever. This is,
I claim, a very reasonable assumption given the fact that (as I understand
it) no one in the last three thousand years has ever been able to come up
with a sound suggestion for what the function of consciousness might plausibly
be. We, Homo Sapiens, are so intelligent that we have managed to
discover (or maybe invent...) the Theory of Relativity, the Theory of Quantum
Mechanics, and the Theorems of Incompleteness (Goedel, 1931). If we have
not found the function of consciousness so far (and consciousness is a phenomenon
that we face almost on a 24-hour-a-day basis...), most likely it just does
not have really any function at all. Topmost, the traditional scientific
procedures would just dictate that we, provisionally at least, treat consciousness
this way. Second, consciousness would, thus, be affected by
matter (be filtered by it; similar to what is discussed in the recent book
Irreducible Mind), but it would not affect matter. Third,
weirdly enough, consciousness is, to my knowledge, the only phenomenon that
is acted upon but that does not act upon anything. Fourth,
despite this, we can indeed think of its dynamics; that is, we can think
about how it might change as matter changes; and that is what I have done
above, and I have concluded that the only plausible starting point for consciousness
is a Consciousness Plenum, Hyper Conscious Brahman. All modes of consciousness,
all types of memory, past, present and future, would be part of this Brahman
Stuff. I cannot think of anything more hellish than that, for both the most
extreme pleasures and the most extreme sufferings would be there side by
side. Perhaps it is time we started pitying the Holy Lord... Finally,
since all this above is not religion, but an attempt at scientific thinking,
it just happens that I, naturally, may be... wrong.
But, for the time being, the ideas in this essay (most or all of them, arguably,
several centuries old) are what I consider to be the most plausible picture
available to us concerning the mystery of consciousness.
Addendum 2011 (in January
Perhaps one of the most interesting passages in
my exchanges with Mr. Stuart Mirsky was at the very beginning of it (at www.amazon.com
when I was "charged" with a specific notion of consciousness that I, for
my part, then denied endorsing. I reproduce below the first pieces on that:
Mirsky's First Piece
of Comment on it: Dennett's point is to demonstrate that what
we call consciousness can be adequately explained as a complex process-based
system of a particular type (physical activities performing certain tasks
in a certain way on a physical platform capable of running these activities)
while the reviewer repeatedly takes Dennett to task for failing to account
for consciousness-as-unified-entity which somehow appears in the universe
(presumably ex nihilo).
My First Reply to it:
SWM also says that I take "Dennett to task for failing to account
for consciousness-as-unified-entity," when actually I do not... I did not
talk about consciousness as being something united (unified) or not, nor
do I have made my mind about this matter, so SWM severly misread me (emotions...).
Mirky's First Rebuttal:
When you write "I did not talk about consciousness as being something
united (unified) or not, nor do I have made my mind about this matter, so
SWM severly misread me (emotions...)", you miss my point as well. The problem
is NOT that you make THIS claim explicitly but that your denial of Dennett's
claim hinges on a conception that consciousness IS just such a unified entity
which somehow appears in the universe (presumably ex nihilo, as I wrote above).
I had indeed often seen before the notion of consciousness
being something unified and the related problem of binding in consciousness.
I only came to better appreciate it, though, some months after writing this
above (that is, around mid-2009). And one thing that helped me in that was
the incessant complaint from the part of CSICOP physicist Victor Stenger
(at his email discussion list, avoid-L) that he could not find a single example
of top-down causation, or of any phenomenon that could not be reduced to
the behaviour of subatomic particles. I tend to consider Stenger pretty much
myopic when he deals with these notions. Nevertheless, he furnished me interesting
material for afterthought. In his book Quantum Gods
, page 157, he
says (discussing "emergence" and "bottom-up" emergence or causation and etc):
"Let us consider the first step in complexity, when
we move from describing a single particle to two or more particles, say,
electrons in quantum mechanics. Philosopher Paul Humphires points out
that 'quantum entanglement,' in which a composite system can be in a pure
state when the components of a system are not, leads to directly observable
macroscopic phenomena such as superfluidity and superconductivity
[Paul Humphries, 'How Properties Emerge,' Philosophy of Science 64
(1997): 1-17]. A more familiar example he does not mention is the Periodic
Table of the chemical elements, which would not exist without the Pauli
exclusion principle, which allows only one electron to be in a given
quantum state at any specific point in space.
" And then a little further
Stenger adds: "The complexity of chemical atoms, without
which life as we know it would not exist, results from electrons filling
various 'shells' as you move up the table. The Pauli principle naturally
emerges when more than one electron is involved, but it is still derived
from basic quantum mechanics. It is an example of emergence that is reducible
to basic physics, what might be called reductive emergence. Emergence and
reduction are not incompatible.
" And then, summarizing the definitions
of concepts he is using, "Basically we have reductive
versus holistic emergence and materialist versus spiritualist emergence.
I will maintain that emergence is both reductive and materialist.
As a matter of fact, it is not only "life as we know it" that relies on Pauli
exclusion principle. The very structure of matter, even at the single-atom
scale, seems to depend on it. The universe as we know it would not exist
was it not for the Pauli exclusion principle.
Now, the interesting thing to note here is that, as it seems, science has
not discovered many "holistic" (or truly macroscopic) phenomena in the universe...
And that is the very reason why Victor Stenger claims that emergence,
in all its known examples, is both reductive and materialist. The only examples
that seem to have been found, to my knowledge, are, oddly enough, quite "telling"...
First, it is often said that quantum entanglement
is one such example. Second, Stenger reminds us that Pauli exclusion principle
is another one.
And third, we have...consciousness
seems to claim that quantum entanglement and Pauli exclusion principle are
reductively emergent. I think this is a myopic view from him. Another similar
phenomenon, which I think is an extension of quantum entanglement, is the
so called collapse of the wave function, responsible for the fringes, or
absence of, in the quantum
(for example, with single electrons or photons
thrown at a time). What Stenger does not seem to understand (and that I may
understand wrongly..., so the reader be warned that this is far from being
a settled dispute!) is that both in quantum entanglement and in Pauli exclusion
principle we do have something truly macroscopic and fully holistic at play.
There is rule that is macroscopic, and this rule somehow instructs the particles
how they are supposed to behave. Now, this is quite outstanding. Yet, it
seems that usually physicists themselves do not realize this, Stenger included.
When it comes to quantum entanglement and double-slit, the rule is macroscopic
in a universe-wide scale! Perhaps Pauli exclusion principle is more local.
Consciousness seems to be more local (less than Pauli, though). So, yes,
I agree that there seems to be something unified when it comes to subjective
experience. It does not seem to be grained or digital (versus analogic).
So now I understand why so many people equate consciousness to quantum phenomena,
and accordingly they try to find in quantum mechanics the answer to the deep
puzzles that consciousness raises. I myself refrain from relating consciousness
to the quantum reality. But I do highlight the mysterious similarity...