What happens if we admit that we are thinking about thinking?


Young girl thinking with illustrated brain


(The points are numbered to aid quick reference and refutation.)

1. The argument of this paper is that if we actually admit that we are self-conscious, and that when we are doing consciousness research we are actually thinking about thinking, then a great deal, if not the whole of what currently passes for consciousness research is relativised. The point is relativised, not disproved.

2. Normal human experience is a divided unity. We know ourselves as a thinking centre of awareness with private, secret thoughts and feeling. We also live in an external world, which also includes our fingers, toes and stomach; though bodily sensations form an interesting borderline between internality and externality. Mind and matter exist in a monistic unity in ordinary experience.

3. Philosophical abstraction can destroy this monistic unity by a reductionism which attempts to eliminate one side of the mind/matter monistic duality, and explain it in terms of the other. Thus Berkeley’s Idealism, solipsism, and the cult of so-called “Christian Science” seek to reduce the stubborn externality of the material world to internal states of mind. This seems to persuade us to deny the practical assumptions at the basis of daily life. The most convinced Idealists jump out of the way of oncoming traffic. Conversely materialist reductionism assumes that all consciousness can be reduced to brain activity, though systematic reductionists assume privately that they have free-will when they compose their polemics against the independent existence of consciousness.

4. In arguing against reductionism, I in no way denigrate or deny the brilliant insights into brain function given by recent advances in neuro-physiology and pharmacology. They tell us a great deal about the physical brain concomitants of consciousness; they do not tell us what consciousness IS.

5. I totally take Chris Clarke’s distinction between models of consciousness, and models of the brain. I guess quantum logic may well help to point a connection between them. After all quantum theory relates to the subtlest level of material existence, so the material concomitants of consciousness must go down to this level. It is the point where observer and thing observed interrelate – Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle -, and quantum logic is not about the hard matter that one stubs one’s toes on; it is about highly abstract mathematical equations, which are mental entities anyway. It is extremely difficult to disentangle mind and matter at this level, and we are possibly asking all the wrong questions. Even so quantum logic does not provide a solution to the nature of consciousness, since quantum logic is but a subset of the set of all possible logics, and that set includes logics unknowable to human consciousness at its present level of enlightenment.

6. The argument for a monistic solution depends firstly on a refutation of materialist reductionism. Various forms of a refutation can be found in the writings of T.H. Green, Karl Popper, and also Mary Midgely and Keith Ward ( both Network members ). A recent book by D.R. Griffin “Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality” reviews some of the argument very well, and most of the ground was systematically worked through in the early centuries of the Christian era in the controversies between the materialists and the Vedantins in India. ( See S. Radhakrishnan “Indian Philosophy” vols 1 & 2 ).

7, Materialist reductionism is taken to be epiphenomenalism. This is the assertion that consciousness is nothing but a physical material activity like chemical reactions in the neurones, or flips in the quantum states of some electrons. The introspective experience of consciousness is therefore to be considered a mere illusory appearance, like a rainbow. It is something to be explained away in terms of things that are different from itself.

8. The systematic refutation of such materialist reductionsim depends on the following points: firstly reductionism depends upon a refusal to become self-consciousness.

8.1 When we think and decide we know ourselves as conscious thinkers and deciders. We do not think an electron has flipped a quantum level, or a chemical molecule has interacted. Reductionism involves a denial of self-awareness

8.2 Reductionism involves a denial of the self-awareness of science. Scientific facts do not litter the universe ready for us to stub our toes on. A scientific fact, be it observation or general theory, only be/o/comes a fact at the end of long process of verification and confirmation by a general consensus of scientists all dedicated to the impartial pursuit of truth and paradigm of finding that description which is true for all possible observers. Thus scientific knowledge involves a moral commitment to an exacting truth seeking process.

8.3 Thus scientific knowledge cannot be used to explain away consciousness because it itself contains a conscious component.

9. Point ( 8.2 ) can be illustrated further. Reductionism assumes that some external objects of materiality are the ultimate atomic facts of reality. All consciousness is therefore an appearance whose ultimate explanation lies in reference to these “ultimate atomic facts” ( UAF’s ) whatever they happen to be.

9.1 However these UAF’s are obviously the product of consciousness. Suppose we make them quantum states. But the latest speculations in quantum physics suggest the existence of “leptoquarks” and a “fifth force” of nature. If this becomes accepted all quantum theory is outdated. If it is not, then next year another theory will arise to replace the current ideas.. The advance of science, which is a conscious process of conscious development, renders all UAF theories obsolete. Once the brain was a telephone exchange, then a chemical factory, now it is a coherent quantum state, tomorrow it will be something else. But always it will be consciousness trying to explain itself away in terms of a sub-set of its own creation.

9.2 Return to point 8 .2. Epiphenomenomalist reductionism posits one way causation. Brain function causes consciousness. But why cannot we have “downward causation” as Sperry asks? The actions of the forces of nature are reversible. Electricity ca~sues motion in the motor, motion causes electricity in the dynamo. But if the activity of the brain can sometimes only be explained by the working out of thought at the level of thought, then reductionism becomes impossible.

10. Again there is a problem of truth. No reductionist theory can account for its own truth or falsity. Truth or falsity is a conscious judgement. If all consciousness is to be reduced to brain function, say the flip of the quantum state of an atom, then truth disappears. If Richard Dawkins has theory A, when his brain considers it, an electron flips to the left, and he declares A is true.. When my brain considers A, an electron flips to the right, and I declare the theory false .But electron flips are not true or false; they are simply facts. The question of truth is a higher order conscious judgement on the facts, and cannot exorcised, or reduced into any bare statements of facts. The question as to whether alleged facts, are facts, is again a question of truth.

11. There is a suspicious set of logical contradictions in even the concept of any attempt to reduce complex human thought to any material explanation. The most ultimate material explanation we have is quantum physics. This is a highly sophisticated form of abstract mathematics Let us consider the mind of a mathematician going through some higher mathematics like the proof of Gödel’s theorem I am not a mathematical logician, but I imagine that any attempt to explain such a sequence of thoughts in terms of a sequence of physical quantum states must tie itself into logical knots.

12 Any self-aware thinking about thinking has to face the existence of paranormal phenomena. David Hey’s ground breaking research suggested that 36% of the population have some sort of paranormal experience. There is massive accumulated evidence for telepathy, telekinesis, and O.B.E.s. This is not the time to rehearse the evidence, but it must not be forgotten. No reductionist explanation of consciousness can withstand this evidence.

13. Any dualist solution to the mind/matter problem meets the problem of the interconnection. If mind and matter are totally distinct, then how do they interact? If they are not distinct, then what is the common sub-stratum through which they interact? If there is a common sub-stratum, then that is reality, not the mind/matter duality.

14. Thinking about thinking must therefore conclude that the mind/matter problem can only be solved in terms of a monism that includes both mind and matter. We know our individual minds from the inside through introspection. Matter we know externally We exist at the point of intersection. To take in our individual consciousness, the monism has to both include it and transcend it. This monism therefore has to be spiritual

15. This monism can be conceived in various ways according to the mind set involved. One way is to imagine that Reality is multi-dimensional as in super-string theory. 3D Euclidean space and Newtonian time are just 4 out of many other dimensions. In the totality there are other dimensions including those we must term conscious. There are many partial perspectives within many dimensional reality, and introspective self-awareness is just one. My stomach ache is a tiny aspect of reality. My inner awareness of discomfort is one perspective, and the physical fact of undigested meat in the duodenum is another perspective. Total reality is both perspectives, and all the others as well.

15.1. The same arguments apply to the significance of any neurophysiological knowledge of the connection between brain function and consciousness. Valuable as this knowledge may be, it can only be one perspective on something much wider. This something wider is systematically excluded from a neurophysiological description.

16. Thus thinking about thinking has both moral and spiritual consequences. The moral consequences follow from the realisation that though scientific knowledge may be value neutral, the process of scientific inquiry is value laden, since the process of science is committed to the values of impartial rational morality..

16.1 It follows that fully honest thinking about thinking puts individual consciousness as an isolated unity within a much wider frame. This confronts us with the possibility of movement from the individual consciousness into the wider dimensions of reality. A path of enlightenment and self-realisation is indicated. This has been the teaching of all the great religions.

16.2. The pursuit of enlightenment is the inner exploration of the realm of being. This must be the subject for another discourse. Nevertheless a self-aware consideration of human experience suggests that the way of enlightenment must transcend intellectual reason, but should not contradict it. Everyday consciousness is best transcended from a basis in an achieved balanced wisdom.

17. Any stance akin to the one outlined above is totally revolutionary, and relativises physical science into a small sub-set of the totality of possible human knowledge. If fuller and wider research into the reality of consciousness indicates that there are wider dimensions of spiritual being , then science as we know it becomes rather trivial. The traditional domains of philosophy, religion and mysticism become the centre of human inquiry into truth. It therefore becomes essential to insist that science as we know it, is the only truth seeking process in which we can have any confidence.

18. It is an interesting question to ask whether it is necessary for all researchers into consciousness to accept these points. If it is, then most present consciousness research is relativised into a dodge round fundamentals.

19. The moral and spiritual implications of consciousness research are important and will become increasingly so. Although knowledge of how to influence consciousness through manipulating brain structure may involve a crude and inadequate view of what consciousness is, nevertheless to some degree it is possible. As the history of lobotomy and tranquillising drugs shows, a crude reductionist view of consciousness is dangerous. An open monistic view of consciousness should induce a greater respect for what human beings really are.

by Max Payne