Competing Models Of Consciousness

For lack of a better word, the existence of “the supernatural” is perhaps the second most foundational claim behind nearly every religion. From the monotheistic, patriarchal religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity, to the more esoteric Eastern mysticism, to Hinduism to today’s modern Aquarianism, the idea that existence extends beyond the physical plane is a key undercurrent. Each of these religions — and many more — claim that something akin to a supernatural realm exists. Very plainly one can see that without this “other world,” the foundational claims of many religions unravel from the core and reduce to metaphor at best. So, if I want to establish the plausibility of the MGH, establishing the plausibility of this “other world” seems a good place to start.

While I know I won’t be able to provide a proof that some scientist can repeat in a laboratory, I know I’ve got enough to utterly demolish claims that “there is absolutely no evidence for the supernatural.” That’s a common claim atheists make, and it’s simply wrong.

If reductionist materialism is correct, then there are no spiritual beings at all. Life and consciousness reduce to an arbitrary dance of molecular activity follow by permanent atomic dispersal, and thoughts, emotions and feelings become the mere results of brain chemistry. There is no free will, and all our decisions become akin to something like peculiarly well-timed forethoughts. This, in essence, are the core principles of what I refer to as cerebro-centric consciousness hypothesis (CCH), in which the brain is given ultimate priority and finality as causal explanation.

Next week, I intend to introduce a series of posts that I believe justify belief in the idea that the CCH cannot adequately explain the available data on human consciousness. Further, I will argue that a model of consciousness better described as a spiritual, waveform or holographic — one that operates irrespective of physical constraints, something like the immaterial consciousness hypothesis (ICH, introduced here) — is more consistent with the data, while retaining superior explanatory power. Before proceeding, I would like to establish clear parameters we can refer to as the discussion progresses [edit: the ICH has since been replaced with TMC as described here].

Now that we’ve introduced the hypotheses, it’s prediction time: what might we expect to observe if either hypothesis were true?

If the CCH were true, it follows that we should never see an example of consciousness existing without a brain, and that if we were to observe an instance of consciousness existing outside a brain, such would effectively falsify the CCH.

If the ICH were true, we might expect evidence suggesting that consciousness can persist after physical death, or that consciousness is not geographically located in the brain (although the latter point in and of itself would not falsify the CCH). We might expect things like ghosts and apparitions, demon possessions, alien abductions or other forms of psychic or spiritual phenomena.

What else might we expect? I want to cover all the bases and I’m hoping somebody has something to add.

10 Comments

  1. Sung Jun says:

    The problem is, most (if not all) “scientific” evidence for the paranormal and supernatural is highly controversial, if not outright pseudoscience. When it comes to things such as near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, even the most a believer can say is that they are “highly suggestive” of the ICH, and do not constitute proof. That said, I believe the experiences as being far too widespread to be mere byproduct of mass delusion, and that there might be something to it, although probably not in the way my feeble mind could anticipate.

  2. John Morales says:

    If the CCH were true, it follows that we should never see an example of consciousness existing without a brain, and that if we were to observe an instance of consciousness existing outside a brain, such would effectively falsify the CCH.

    I note that, if that is an empirical observation, this disembodied consciousness would be interacting with the universe — this means it’s susceptible to the scientific method.
    There is, indeed, a branch of science that investigates what evidence there is for the supernatural.

  3. cl says:

    The problem is, most (if not all) “scientific” evidence for the paranormal and supernatural is highly controversial, if not outright pseudoscience.

    Don’t get me wrong – there’s quackery out there, and I get the gist of what you’re saying, but what we can do here is make inferences from data, and meta-analyze. Other bodies of science such as cosmology and evolution are based entirely on inferences from facts, and we assign these inferences a great deal of epistemological warrant; why should it be any different with the so-called “paranormal” claims? At least, that’s how I look at it.
    I will add that your sentiment accurately paraphrases the “typical atheist objections,” but before I could agree with you in entirety, I guess I’d need to know what exactly you mean by controversial and pseudoscience. QM was controversial and relativity before it, and each had their handful of skeptics who are for the most part forgotten; yet both of them are true as can be.
    As far as the “most” part of the comment, well.. I don’t have the confidence to say I’ve studied a majority of the existing evidence, so I’d hesitate to agree there. What are some examples of what you’d call “controversial” or “pseudoscientific” studies purporting to prove the paranormal?

    When it comes to things such as near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences, even the most a believer can say is that they are “highly suggestive” of the ICH, and do not constitute proof.

    I’m not so sure of that. While I’m fairly confident we can’t make spirits dance on command, and that we’re a long ways from establishing proofs of the paranormal that are akin to gravity; I think we can be more confident. Depending on the relative strength and clarity of the evidence, of course.

    That said, I believe the experiences as being far too widespread to be mere byproduct of mass delusion, and that there might be something to it, although probably not in the way my feeble mind could anticipate.

    I wholeheartedly agree. I think it’s borderline arrogant to simply dismiss the full sum of human experience that’s been recorded since primitive times. The modern atheist must reject ALL of those claims a priori and simply claim ALL of their subjects were deluded, despite the fact that he or she was not there. Who are we moderns to say that thousands or hundreds of years ago – or even today – some truly “out of this world” things didn’t happen? It just seems closed-minded and arrogant, in my opinion.
    Oh, and don’t underestimate yourself my friend; not only would I argue that your mind is not feeble, and fully capable of understanding these things. Not only that, if they are in fact real, your mind can experience them.

  4. cl says:

    I note that, if that is an empirical observation, this disembodied consciousness would be interacting with the universe…

    I see no need to force that supposition, but hold that thought for a moment:

    — this means it’s susceptible to the scientific method.

    What exactly do you mean by, “susceptible to the scientific method?”

  5. Sung Jun says:

    Well … NDEs and OBEs are said by skeptics to be products of dying and/or drugged brains, and as such the visions of the afterlife reported by so many patients are likely peaceful illusions created by their brains in order to help themselves cope with their oncoming demise. This faces its own difficulties, however. If consciousness can exist in such a minimally functioning (i.e. low-to-nonexistent EEG) brain, why does it need a brain at all? Isn’t consciousness usually explained as emerging from the sum of healthy brain activity?
    Failing that line of objection, some shift the discussion to the exact (real-world) time the patients experience their visions. Yet again, however, this has problems. If the experiences don’t happen during their periods of zeroed brain activity, how come they can report facts from those time periods that they could not have ever known?
    My own personal opinion is: given how a lot of (known) laws of physics would need to be violated in order for consciousness to just separate from the body like that, even if it were true, that’s one heck of an explanatory gap in our science. But we don’t yet have a comprehensive explanation of what consciousness is to begin with, thus we can’t yet have a comprehensive explanation of what death entails for our egos. This is why it’s such a controversial and touchy topic.
    I would love to just believe in an afterlife and get on with my day, but my inquisitive nature says, “Let’s wait and see.”

  6. John Morales says:

    1. Holding. :)
    2. Note my emphasis in this adumbration: (I quote Wikipedia):

    Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.
    A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

    Given such evidence, the scientific method can be applied to it.
    That’s what I meant by what I wrote.

  7. D says:

    I have a third option: what if there are other bases for consciousness, and it’s not just “brains or nothing?” Or did you perhaps mean “whatever physical mechanism” by “brain?” If so, then I’m curious as to whether you would call a photon physical, or a quark, or a gluino. What’s an example of an immaterial thing? Then I’ll have a whole mess of questions, but I’m trying not to think of them in advance, because then I’ll just get stuffy and try to make my stuffiness fit whatever your questions turn out to be.
    The reason I’m trying to take this little detour is because I’m not even sure what I think here, so this is really exciting to me! I can’t wait to read what you write in the coming week.

  8. D says:

    Last line of the first paragraph above should read, “…make my stuffiness fit whatever your answers turn out to be.” (emphasis added)

  9. XPK says:

    D, those are really interesting thoughts. Thank you.

  10. D says:

    Glad I could provoke some questions, XPK!

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