Reply To: Daniel Dennet's claim that consciousness is an illusion

  • Don Salmon

    May 8, 2023 at 9:36 am

    Hi Peter:

    Rodney’s comments sparked some more thoughts and I decided to look up Walter Freeman. As I think I mentioned earlier, I”ve been intrigued by his theories for many years and when I just now looked him up, I remember why.

    Here’s an excerpt from an NIH article on him:

    “Olfactory system neurons sit at subthreshold levels most of the time but engage accelerating excitatory responses just above that level. This character is consistent with systems operating in a sensitive ‘edge of chaos’ regime and allows for quick burst or oscillation development with small increases in inputs. The second feature of the sigmoid non-linearity is the relationship between the slope and an animal’s conscious state (ibid.). When subjects are under anaesthesia, the slope of the sigmoid curve is very shallow; the slope increases with waking and increases still more with alertness.”

    So it turns out Freeman was an engineering student at MIT before going to medical school. I remember when I first took statistics at the undergraduate level (I was auditing the class while teaching music for dance at a nearby college) I happened to have the good fortune of getting to know a mathematical genuis in the class who was also a long time student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff. We used to have long conversations on the possibility that statistics could provide some profound insights into the process of karma.

    I remember particularly noting that the way karma is described in many Tantric texts seems to resemble complexity and chaos theories regarding evolution (something that Freeman often commented on – I mean chaos theories in large scale evolution, not karma!:>))

    I also remember seeing one Tantric text describing chakras as oscillating vortices of energy, that intensified in direct correlation with physiological activities in the nervous system and psychological development. At a crucial point of tension, there would be a sudden “leap” to a new level of consciousness or deveopment (similar to the one you all perhaps remember around age 10 or 11 when you truly became “self conscious” for the first time and the whole world began to change).

    Notice in the above paragraph the reference to “the edge of chaos” and the quick burst of oscillation development. This reminds me of the way many.psychologists as well as historians like Jean Gebser and Aurobindo Ghose describes massive collective changes in consciousness. Gebser’ evocation of the new consciousness associated with the emergence of perspective in art and the modern tuning that Bach used in his Well Tempered Clavier seems to reflect on a global scale (pun intended) the dynamic activity of the brain that Freeman studied so profoundly.

    But – let’s look at what Freeman and other neuroscientists say about perception (I had to learn how to model this when we learned a computer programming language in grad school for music composition – literally having to figure out the mathematics for each note – describing the precise waveform for each sound).

    Some object in the so called “world” – which neuroscientists tell us we have no direct knowledge of – begins to vibrate, which in turn sets in motion a medium – air, earth, water, etc – wich in tunr sets in motion a diverse set of structures in the inner ear, which is translated to electrical vibrations in the auditory nerve, which is transmitted to various regions of the brain, and

    at that point there is still silence, and of course, no “sound” in the phenomenological sense in the outer world, because sound is a quality – qualia- that only exists as a result of a brain of some kind.

    And where and how that becomes the experience of sound, neither Freeman nor any neuroscientist has yet figured it out

    Barrister and poet Owen Barfield gave what i think is one of the most beautiful illustrations of the strange mysteriousness of this physicalist view of the brain and the world:

    Imagine, he says, a rainbow. Is a rainbow”real” – real nowadays meaning, does it exist “objectively” – if there was no conscious observer.

    Almost everyone agrees, “No.”. You may have light and water vapor of some kind, but without perception, no rainbow. And for all of Walter Freeman’s beautiful mathematical analysis of the neurological basis of perception, the existence of the rainbow – the experience of it – remains, in the physicalist world view – an utter mystery.

    Then Barfield goes on to say, if we take a tree and ask, is it real, everyone will initially say, “Of course it’s real. A tree doesn’t depend on my perception of it.”. This was Dennis Overbye’s objection to my question whether a world exists apart from consciousness.

    But Barfield asks us to look a bit more closely, and use the same analysis we did for the rainbow. What is the “tree” apart from perception?

    If we say the color brown, or white – well, we know that the materialists tell us that brown or white color, or gray or whatever it is, only exists AFTER that complex process of light waves, retinal activity, optical nerve, occipital lobe analysis and transmission of that analysis to other areas of the brain, after which regions of the brain remain “on the edge of chaos” until somehow, miraculously, the perception of color or sound or whatever arises.

    But what about the solid FEELING of the bark ot the tree?

    Same analysis. Whatever percept you describe in the universe, meaning anything any scientist has described in the past several centuries – from subatomic particles to galaxies – if we apply the same neurological analysis, we end up with an utter mystery at the end of these complex brain processe.

    This is insane!

    To end on a lighter note, regarding the insanity of trapping ourselves in a solipsistic view, there’s a story that one time a professor was speaking to an audience about his views of the nature of reality.

    Upon announcing that he was a solipsist, a woman leapt to her feet and proclaimed, “Thank God! I thought I was the only one!!”