Category Archives: Consciousness

Posts that address the issues raised when defining consciousness.

Occam’s Beard

Skeptics can be so much fun. We really do need them, otherwise we’d likely still be living with notions of medical science being attributed to four humors, none of which were that funny. Still, sometimes it gets tiresome to read endless references that take Occam out of context. You see, one of the foundations, if not the very keystone, of modern scientific method is that of parsimony, aka Occam’s razor. The idea is simplicity itself. If there are multiple possible explanations for a phenomenon, then the simplest is most likely correct. But only if it supports your biases. The reason I raise this question is the materialistic dismissal of “consciousness” as merely a by-product of having a brain. The reasoning goes like this—nothing exists that can’t be measured by science. Since that which isn’t material can’t be measured, the most parsimonious explanation is that it doesn’t exist. QED.

This way of looking at the world has become so common that those of us who question it are given a condescending smile and a paternalistic pat on the head. But my thinking about this goes back to Occam himself. William of Occam (or Ockham) was a late medieval churchman and thinker. As a scholar he possessed a sharp mind. As a friar he also possessed a soul. There was no disconnect in those days. His observations of the natural world led him to the reasonable conclusion that if a simpler solution sufficed, a more complicated one need not be posited. So far, so good. This is not, however, to suggest that more complex things may not be going on. Quantum physics, for example, suggests that things aren’t quite so easy to explain. And what about poor Occam’s soul? This very component that made William William has been dismissed as mere illusion. Did it therefore not exist?

Is it more parsimonious to suggest that “mind” (or soul, or consciousness, whichever you prefer) is mere illusion, electro-chemical signals flitting between highly specialized cells just happen to give off a fiction of consciousness, or would the simpler answer be, as Occam himself believed, we have souls? We have no way to measure such things, but to claim they don’t exist is to rob a great thinker of his very mind. Any of us who experience consciousness know that it’s no illusion. We feel the pains and joys of this same body day after day and, if we’re honest, we believe that we’ll continue even after this fleshy substrate wears out. There’s a profound logic here. Science doesn’t know how mind affects matter—how I can decide to type and my fingers move. The most parsimonious answer, they claim, is that it only seems to be so. A far more honest answer would be that mind is real. And I’m sure Occam himself would agree, even if he preferred to call it a soul.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Universal Growth

Maybe the universe isn’t expanding, maybe it’s growing. Always tinged with a healthy dose of pantheism, I’ve often opined to those who will listen that life might be more than animals and plants and microorganisms. But then again, I don’t have the numbers to back me up. These aren’t just the ravings of a guy who wanted to be a scientist but whose religion prevented him, they’re also pretty close to those of a scientist who became a religious guy. When more than one person sends me the same article I figure I’d better comment on it. Those who used to be professors can’t help but professing, after all. So I read Meghan Walsh’s Ozy story, “Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-up Darwin.”

England spent his education on science only to turn to religion along the way. That’s pretty unusual, according to the standard social discourse, but I suspect it’s more common than we’d like to let on. There’s no clause in science that says you can’t believe in anything. Even Richard Dawkins has beliefs. Many scientists have been suggesting, of late, that perhaps physics and religion are converging. (Some of us from the other side of the equation have been saying so for years, but who believes a religionist?) Before I’m misunderstood, I’d hasten to add that I don’t mean religion as in literal trumpets sounding as a white horse and rider descend through the atmosphere. Nor do I mean in the sense of the minutiae of the Talmud. What I mean is the symbol systems that religion has long used may have been in some sense in line with what science has been trying to tell us.

According to the story, England thinks that matter may be self-organizing. That means life occurs where matter exists. Before I become too close a friend with my sofa I have to remind myself that this doesn’t mean everything’s conscious. Although my reading of Thomas Nagel does have me wondering even about that. You see, religion has historically been one of those disciplines where imagination has had a valued role to play. Those who accuse it of being doctrinaire and evil need to talk to a few more people. Religion has always claimed there’s more to life than what the senses reveal. Science professionally limits itself to the inferences of those senses. And you can get away with paying religion specialists a lot less. What’s not to like about this situation? If the universe is growing, there’s room for us all.

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.

World Stories

worldofstoriesAlthough I’ve not formally studied it, Buddhism has long been part of my thought process. Like Thomas Merton—and this may be the only point of comparison between us—I find little difference between the contemplative worlds of Buddhism and Christianity. Mindfulness knows no denominations. I suspect David R. Loy’s book The World Is Made of Stories would cause anxiety for some. Those not comfortable, for example, with paradox. Or those who believe that only the literal is meaningful. Separated by the vast land mass of Asia, eastern and western ways of thinking about the world—telling their stories about the world—diverged widely in antiquity. There was a kind of “rediscovery” of south and east Asian thought in the late nineteenth century western hemisphere. Since then occasional famous explorers such as the Beatles, or professional practitioners such as the Dalai Lama, have brought Buddhism’s ideas to the mainstream, but because they coexist well with Christianity there has been no cultural reason to displace them.

I found Loy’s world compelling. All is narrative. That’s the way human brains work. If you’re reading this right now, you’re following my narrative. If you’re not really paying attention, another narrative has gripped you. Science is a narrative just as religion is. It is the way we think. The internal monologue. Consciousness itself. Stories. People will follow a story quite naturally, which is one of the reasons it’s such a shame so few people read for pleasure. We can watch our stories (what is a sporting event but a narrative playing out before a fan’s eyes?) and many people do. The written story often, however, takes us deeper.

Contemplation is an endangered species. Although I found the enforced quiet days at Nashotah House (such as Ash Wednesday) to be an onerous rule, I would arrive home with little to say in any case. The world of busyness that we’ve made our business can choke the meditative spirit. Although some workplaces offer yoga sessions (themselves based on Hindu spirituality) they hardly encourage meditating at your desk. It seems the natural enemy of productivity when, in reality, it increases it immensely. Who doesn’t work better after a vacation? The business world often presents the religious life as one of indulgent non-productivity. I remember being made to feel stupid asking for one Good Friday off while working my first full time job in retail. When cash transactions grew to be too much I’d find a church on my lunch hour and just sit. Now I only find time to read Buddhist books on the bus on the way to work. Look deep enough and there’s a story in that.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.


When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.