Essay on Conscious Water, or...
Santa Claus's Will

Acknowledgement: 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 link. 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 oF 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 equations:

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 equations below?

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 set).

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 (CC):

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 report.

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 either.

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 path.

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 Universe.

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 of matter.

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.

May, 2009

Addendum 2011 (in January 2011): Perhaps one of the most interesting passages in my exchanges with Mr. Stuart Mirsky was at the very beginning of it (at 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. Stenger 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 double-slit experiment (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...