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Consciousness, Values, Science, and Nature

By       Message Jim Arnold     Permalink
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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.

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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.

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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.

Consciousness can be RESPONSIVE. Everything that occurs with the objects of physics and biology involves an immediate reaction, but as conscious beings we are able to respond to complex situations in the present, in view of implicit values, even of future considerations that don't yet exist. When we're not being "absent minded", or performing habitual tasks, we can deal with ambiguous, unexpected, even unprecedented events in the moment they occur, situated in an ever-weaving fabric of place and time. A policeman can respond to life-and-death situations for which there can only be general guidelines. A flood victim without food can ponder whether it is right to procure, or wrong to steal, from an abandoned store. Rules of behavior (as with "instincts") can't apply and regulate reactions to all situations, but we nonetheless have the evident and distinct ability to respond to our surroundings as a coherent environment, uniquely, resourcefully, and with a presence in the moment.

In contrast to responsive consciousness, computer "intelligence" can only react to situations that have been anticipated and projected into the present by the imaginative responsiveness of the programmer. At best, a computer programmed for "artificial intelligence" can expand its repertoire by "learning" new interrelationships that can be identified and reacted to next time.

Consciousness is here and now; an object of science simply is. And a world where responsiveness is possible is fundamentally different from a world of reaction. A meta-scientific world-view can only attempt to explain the emergence of responsiveness with a "presto! " whereby a virtual infinity of mutations is claimed to have led to a whole new kind of reality, where the present awareness of a responsive consciousness supplants mechanical reaction as if by some miraculous leap.

Consciousness can be TRANSCENDENT. I don't mean "transcendent" in a metaphysical sense. To transcend is to encompass, to unify, by getting "outside" the elements of a situation. When a computer is mistakenly instructed to complete an impossible task it goes into an "endless loop", and would continue forever unless it is somehow interrupted. But consciousness is able to transcend a situation, to comprehend it from beyond the particulars, and immediately say, in effect, "this can never work - it's pointless to even try."

The evidence for conscious transcendence is abundant. When we derive meaning from a collection of words that goes beyond their individual and literal definition we transcend the elements of language to form a thought. Poetry is a celebration of transcendence; it is the essence of poetry to evoke an image or concept that can't be expressed in the literal combination of words, and it would be meaningless in a world defined by discrete linguistic elements and their serial combination. Even in everyday conversations, our comprehension can transcend the meanings of words. To hear, for the first time, someone say "that's bad" and realize they actually mean "that's very good", is to transcend definition - and to delight in (or abhor) the novel reformulation of the words. Language can of course be influential in our manner of thinking, but for transcendent consciousness, language is only the material basis, the stepping-stones of thought.

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Much humor, maybe all humor consists in the enjoyment of suddenly transcending a situation or juxtaposition. When at the end of each of the old Burns and Allen comedy routines George told Gracie "say goodnight, Gracie" and she responded saying "goodnight Gracie" the audience laughed at her chronic inability to transcend the literal. When you first heard the question "why did the chicken cross the road?" you probably searched for some transcendent explanation of motive; then when you laughed at the unexpected answer, it was with the sudden appreciation of your initial and unnecessary transcendence of the immediate and obvious. When the difference between a reaction and a response sneaks upon us in a joke framed like a trick, it can be a lucid and funny encounter with our own transcendence.

The transcendence of consciousness is scientifically inexplicable, except by a dismissive tautology. ("Every characteristic of behavior is simply a physical evolution or bi-product, therefore every characteristic of behavior is simply a physical evolution or bi-product".) In the meta-scientific view, thoughts must be reducible to, and determined by their elements - in language, a product of evolution. The irony here is that transcendence is required to deny transcendence; there is nothing in language itself to indicate that it may be an enclosure.

Just as the science of linguistics has been dominated by the belief that our thoughts are "determined", as if imprisoned by our language, anthropology was for a time dominated by a belief that we are "determined" by our native culture - until it was realized that the anthropologist has to transcend her culture in order to conclude that culture cannot be transcended. Anyone who is truly confined by their cultural beliefs would be unable conceive that their beliefs are only cultural.

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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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