The overwhelming misfortune of humanity is not that we are ignorant of the existence of truth, but that we misconstrue its nature. What errors and what sufferings would have been spared us if, far from seeking truth in the phenomena of material nature, we had resolved to descend into ourselves and had sought to explain material things by our own being, and not our being by material things – if, fortified by courage and patience, we had preserved in the calm of our imagination the discovery of this light which we desire all of us with so much ardor. ~ Louis-Claude de St-Martin
A friend of mine asked me to read this interview from Wired Magazine, concerning a neuroscientist’s interpretation of panpsychism and his views on how consciousness arises in the brain and other complex integrated information systems, and give him my thoughts on it. Instead of just shooting off a text message, I wanted to write my thoughts down in a slightly more fleshed-out form. While still basically just notes, here are those thoughts as they occurred to me. For the record, I am not a neuroscientist; further, I deeply respect what neuroscientists do, even if I do not always agree with their (admittedly tentative) conclusions. I am thus sharing these thoughts out of interest in the topic, and not any claim to expertise.
First thought: I love how things which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Hermetists, Platonists, and other contemplatives have known for, literally, millennia are called “new” and “radical” and “revolutionary” when a physicist or neuroscientist says them with a lab coat on, but when a mystic says them wearing a dhoti, a robe, or a nice pair of jeans and fitted t-shirt, they’re dismissed as “delusion” or “irrational”. It’s all in having the right uniform.
Next thought: This is an interesting interview, and Koch’s hypothesis is an important one. From the perspective of a contemplative, however, it is incomplete. Koch still relies on the threadbare assumption of reductionism: that consciousness somehow arises from matter. This belief is based on the metaphysical assumption that there is no metaphysic, which is rather self-defeating. Rather than consciousness “arising” from integrated information systems, I would say that integrated information systems are the material structures which most efficiently permit of conscious experience within the matrix of matter.
According to Samkhya and Yoga, matter is just the grossest phase of Prakrti (roughly, “Nature” and “Substance”), while Purusha (“Consciousness”, “Spirit”, “the Essence of Personhood”) exists, in a sense, separately. They mix and mingle in the form of cosmoi, but Purusha is never truly native to Prakrti and, thus, to matter. Consciousness can thus be separated from matter, but this does not end consciousness; rather, the breaking-down of a complex integrated system represents the elimination of a single vertex of mingled consciousness and matter. While it is far from perfect, it is helpful here to remember the common metaphor of brain-as-radio receiver; if you take a hammer to your radio, you do not thus destroy the signal, but only the tool by which you experienced it. The difference is that, in the case of consciousness and the brain, the “experience” goes both ways. The “signal” is not a product merely transmitted, but is itself the substrate-independent essence of experience-as-such; cut off the receiver, and it may appear to the outsider as if the signal itself has disappeared, but all that has happened is that it no longer has a ready medium of communication.
Koch briefly mentions his interest in Buddhism, and uses the vaguely Platonic term “panpsychism”, but has fallen into a common trap in the modern West of believing that Buddhism, Platonism, and the like, can somehow be extricated or rescued from their spiritual contexts. Not only is this not possible — a reductionist Buddhism is not Buddhism at all — it is not desirable, for it undercuts the very element which makes a methodology like Buddhism capable of teaching us anything significant. In short, it removes the method from the methodology. A deeper study and practice of Bauddhadharma would, I think, be every bit as valuable to Koch in the development of his hypothesis as his neuroscience research itself.