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Sci Tech    H4'ed 3/25/10

Consciousness, Values, Science, and Nature

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Considerations about the nature of consciousness are not just academic exercises. Our beliefs about what we are, even if more-or-less implicit, can have a profound influence on our values, personal relations, and political perspectives.

Science is not entirely helpful in considering consciousness and values, although it has become, for many people, the final authority on every question, the arbiter even of which questions are worth asking. And the appeal to science for beliefs and perspective has been for many of us a liberating alternative to the domination of religious and superstitious dogmas. But a disciplined science is restricted to the analysis of things that can be observed, and scientific observations involve the reduction of mental activity to biology, and the reduction of biology to physics. The problem is, if the objects of science are (meta-scientifically) assumed to comprehend all of reality, rather than just the limits of observation, then consciousness becomes a non-essential bi-product of brain function, and there remains no compelling basis for values like freedom, rights, culture, love, and life. Physical things can be justifiably destroyed and re-cycled, biological things can be killed and consumed. Nowhere within the domain of science can "things" like ourselves be discriminated based on intrinsic worth.

So while science doesn't necessarily eliminate our values, it renders them groundless, and consequently, more or less heedless.

To look beyond science for the nature of consciousness and justification of values doesn't require a religious or mystical turn. A naturalistic perspective can appreciate science without regarding it as an all-encompassing metaphysics. Our own self-awareness, and a reflection on the deliberate things we are able to do in the world, can be considered evidence of something beyond strict scientific understanding, just by accepting that legitimate evidence need not be directly or exclusively physical. We can't objectively observe consciousness like we can the workings of a machine, but we have our personal experience to acknowledge, we can observe the physical manifestations of our conscious intentions, and we have an affinity with values that can be as solid and certain as any sight or sound.

Consider the evidence of these remarkable features of consciousness:

Consciousness can be PURPOSEFUL. We are capable of envisioning an innovation or change of circumstance, planning various means to achieve it, then performing a number of actions to make it happen. Each of the actions has a purpose beyond its immediate effect - the achievement of a goal, the innovation or change of circumstance envisioned. But there is nothing in the fields of biology or physics that is recognized as having purpose. Even the most complex chain of chemical reactions in the metabolism of a cell is believed to be the result of random mutations that recurs and persists only because it enhances the survivability of the organism. Each reaction is considered to be a singular cause-and-effect event, with no wider significance except in the interpretations of science.

Purposeful behavior is thus radically different from physical and biological mechanisms, as science understands them. A science-based metaphysics can speculate that purpose has evolved in humans (and other animals) simply because there's an evolutionary advantage in the ability to unite a number of behaviors to achieve a result, but that only trivializes its significance. Evolution can only exploit natural possibilities. To be able to make oneself disappear with the snap of one's fingers when confronted by a predator would be an evolutionary advantage, but it's evidently not possible. What unites a group of purposeful behaviors is the imagined goal, and unlike a physical effect, a goal precedes its causes, even if only in concept - and a goal, the unifying effect that causes a series of behaviors, evidently is possible. And an effect that precedes and unifies its causes is (remarkably) beyond scientific explanation.

The functionality of computers provides a revealing contrast to actual consciousness, and I'll elaborate on the contrast with several comparisons in what follows. Regarding purpose, computers are thought by some to have it at least in potential; its eventual realization is believed to be a problem only of developing better technology and increasing complexity. But a computer is designed to execute planned instructions, each one entirely distinct from the others. What gives a computer the semblance of purpose is the person who has programmed it by composing a series of directives to achieve some specific goal or goals. The purpose exists before the computer is even switched on. And there's no reason to think that the output of an inorganic series of instructions has meaning and purpose except extrinsically, for a conscious reader of words on a screen or printout.

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Jim Arnold Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages. I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.

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