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Wanda - I'm Sooo Glad You Asked!!!

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on January 1, 2004 23:59:42 UTC

Hi Wanda,

In your post at

you asked exactly the questions that I think are most interesting and which I would like to explore.

"So the questions are:
1. What is [consciousness](hard)-
2. What does it consist of(easier)-
3. What media can it exist in(?)
4. etc."

I agree with your and Chalmers' designation of number 1 as the "Hard Problem".

"Probably the answer to 1 is given by the answer to 2,3,... Like we we do not really know what an elementary particle is, but we can understand what it is from its properties and its relationship to other particles."

Yes! I agree completely and you used exactly the same analogy I would use. People have speculated for millennia on what matter is. We have gone from various combinations of "earth, air, fire, and water" to the indivisible atoms of the hundred or so elements, to the strangely behaving constituents of those atoms, to the "it from bit" speculation of John Wheeler that those constituents are nothing more than information. In the meantime, without knowing exactly what matter is, science has been very successful in predicting how it will behave and in explaining most inorganic phenomena.

I think the same approach might be useful for consciousness. I.e. to pursue separately the question of what it is and the questions about how it works.

"My start on these questions is to claim that consciousness is the experience of information by which a live organism relates to the outside world."

That is very close to my start. My start on these questions is to claim that consciousness is the experience of information by which organisms know things. I think that the overwhelming preponderance of things we know have to do with our relationship to the outside world. But I don't think that is the defining or fundamental characteristic of the information. To me, the thing that makes an experience a conscious one, is that that experience is somehow known. To me it is the "knower" which embodies most all the mystery in this question.

When I introspect and ask myself what exactly is it that I consider to be "the real me" or my "self", I intuitively feel that the answer is that it is that part of me which has the ability to know.

Now, back to the question of consciousness, we do seem to agree that information is the stuff that is being experienced.

So, what exactly is information? Well, I think it was Gregory Bateson who quoted Shannon's definition that information is "a difference that makes a difference". I buy into that as far as it goes, but I think the definition begs the question, Makes a difference to whom? In my view, the answer is, information is a difference that makes a difference to some "knower".

Now, anticipating the same kind of receding objective as the pursuit of matter has experienced, I cut to the chase and propose that we simply posit a conscious knower as existing and leave it at that. In other words, in my ontological scheme, a primordial consciousness exists which has the capability to know, along with the required supporting capabilities of remembering, recalling, thinking, imagining, wondering, willing, etc., and that is all that exists. I think Berkeley got it right by supposing that everything else, including our physical universe, is nothing more than thoughts in this universal, primordial mind. And, of course those thoughts are partly composed of Wheeler's bits. I think Bateson's suspicion is correct: the universe is really nothing but a mind.

"For OBE considerations, the important question is what possible media can the sensed and imaginary information be stored on? Frolich proposed membrane dipoles. Penrose proposed water within microtubules."

Good question. I am not familiar with Frolich's proposal and I may have misunderstood Penrose. I thought Penrose proposed that the information was stored in the dimers making up the walls of the microtubules, but that's a detail not worth quibbling about here.

"There seems to be agreement that it has to be a Bose-Einstein medium."

I agree, there does seem to be. But, again, I think that is a detail we can ignore in this discussion.

"But for the consciousness to leave the body, we need the possibility of a medium that exists outside the body, as well as in it, I might add."

I agree. But the way you stated it, you have implicitly assumed that consciousness starts out in the body and then leaves it. (I am reminded of the wealthy lady from Boston, when asked if she traveled much, replied, "Travel? Why should I travel when I'm already here?") In my view, consciousness is resident completely outside the brain and body and thus doesn't have to "leave".

"Sounds like space so far."

Ummmm. I think I will not comment on that just yet. I think the nature of space is a little more complex than the usual views of it.

"Do we know of anything else that exists in and out of the body on which information can be imprinted? .....Radio waves."

Yes!!! Exactly!!! Radio is my favorite metaphor when trying to describe my views of consciousness. I frequently make the analogy, music : radio :: mind : brain. The music certainly appears to be coming from the radio, and indeed does. But there is a lot more to the explanation of the music than the radio you hold in your hand. There is the much more complex system behind it consisting of EM field, EM radiation, transmitting station, recording equipment, musical instruments, musicians, and concert performance. I think doing neuro-physiological studies of the brain are analogous to studying the radio instrument in isolation.

"But the information imprinted on radio waves is only imprinted at their source."

I guess that depends on what you mean by "source". If you mean the ordinary information you get from a Sony Walkman, then you are right.

(A digression: People are sometimes chided for using metaphors from current technology. Newton's theories and Bohr's atom were explained using clockwork mechanisms, which represented the most advanced technology at the time. Now, we use the computer metaphor to try to explain consciousness and people snicker that we are in a similar trap. I am not among the snickerers because I think we can only explain things via metaphor, and we might as well use the most sophisticated examples we know about. So, in explaining my views, I freely use the current technology of computers, virtual reality, remote control, space probes, cell phones, and so on. And in that spirit, let's throw in NMR and MRI.)

If you think of normal radio communication, it is indeed one-way. But, if you think of RADAR, then something else happens. There is a source of the EM radiation at the RADAR station, but then when those waves hit the target, they bounce back to a receiver with information about the target. So what is the source here? The source of the waves and the source of the information are different. A more modern, and I think more suggestive, example is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) (I think I have that right). Here, the original source is a magnetic field. This field induces the secondary effect of radio waves emitted from the nuclei (I think) of certain atoms in a target. These radio waves, in turn, contain information about the target allowing us to make Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) images. So what is the source of the information here? Of course the source of the interesting information is the target, not the big magnets.

So, I suggest that radio waves, using the MRI analogy, are something which do "exist[] in and out of the body on which information can be imprinted"

"We need something like radio waves but for which something can imprint information both in and out of the brain."

I think the MRI example shows that radio waves themselves could imprint information both in and out of the brain.

"A medium that can allow sources of consciousness to operate at any point in space. A super space?"

Right on! (I especially like the part about super space.) I think radio waves could do that in principle, but I don't think they do in reality. If they did, I'm sure that by now researchers would have detected them and tuned in to them. (Rather than detecting the actual information traffic of a mind, I think that EKGs are analogous to ammeters attached to computer power circuits. They give a general idea of activity, but precious little about the information content. Similarly, I think MRI brainscans are roughly equivalent to trying to figure out what is going on inside a computer by reading out a set of thermometers placed within the computer.)

"3. What media can it exist in(?)"

So, it maybe could be radio waves, but since we haven't detected them, probably not. I think it is a form of radiation, i.e. a propagation of disturbances in a field, but that it involves as-yet-unknown fields. I think Sheldrake is on the right track in suspecting that such fields exist. But I have my own reasons for suspecting the existence of them. In a nutshell, here's the way I see it.

Before Faraday introduced the notion of fields in the 1840s, the mysterious "action at a distance" exhibited by gravity, electricity, and magnetism were well known (but not understood). It is interesting to me that when Maxwell showed the relationship between electric current, electrostatic fields, and magnetic fields, they turned out to be orthogonal. That is, the directions of the three are mutually perpendicular. Even more interesting to me than that, is the coincidence in the number three and the number of dimensions of space we experience.

For various reasons, I happen to believe that there are more than three spatial dimensions, and that the others are not "curled-up" or "small" in any way. Super space. It is clear to me that we cannot ordinarily access anything outside of our three dimensions of space, especially with scientific experimental apparatus. So, it occurs to me, if there is some general field in which we find ourselves, it could be that it exhibits different characteristics in different orthogonal directions. Since we have easy access to three of them, we soon discovered a predictive theory of EM fields and EM radiation. And, if there are different characteristics yet, exhibited in inaccessible directions, they just might carry the type of radiation needed to explain the relationship of consciousness to brains. It's just that since those directions are inaccessible to experiment, it's going to be hard to prove.

But, wait, there's more.... Since Maxwell was able to figure out how EM radiation worked strictly using mathematics, and before anyone built a radio or a transmitter, it should be possible for mathematicians to explore hyperspace and tell us what might be possible for radiation at higher dimensions. I am way over my head here (as Bruce well knows) but I suspect that's exactly what the string theorists are doing.

To bring closure, then, I think we need to get Sheldrake to ask the string theorists to come up with some kind of field theory that will explain the behavior of his Morphic Fields. Then I think we might get someplace. And, if I could make a humble suggestion to Rupert, I would say not to limit yourself by insisting that "Perceptual fields are rooted in our brains" ("The Sense of Being Stared at", Rupert Sheldrake, P. 207). Instead, consider the possibility that consciousness is located completely outside the brain, and that that consciousness has access to what is in the brain via a process similar to MRI, and that it can act through that brain similar to a radio controlled model airplane.

That's probably enough for now,

Warm regards and Happy New Year,


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