Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Science — Rick Moran @ 9:54 am

Let’s put down our political playbooks today and put on our thinking caps.

What is “consciousness?” Even trying to define it can get you into trouble. Is it something only humans possess? How does perception affect reality? Does it affect it at all? How did we achieve self-awareness?

Endless questions which, in the Socratic method of argument, only means that the mystery of how, when, what, and who regarding consciousness will continue. It is the conscious mind that formulates the questions, and supplies the answers - inadequate though they might be. This is why the question of what is consciousness crosses so many disciplines and fields of study. Science, philosophy, religion, metaphysics - all have taken a stab at trying to tell us why we are who we are.

I have been fascinated by this subject despite my woefully inadequate grounding in science and philosophy. So it was with great pleasure that I came across this piece at Pajamas Media by Mike LaSalle who runs the blog Mensnewsdaily.com, a site that has linked here on occasion over the years. Mike’s piece posits a new theory of consciousness that is mindboggling; that nothing is “real” in the conscious sense until it is observed. In other words, we create our own consciousness by what we experience through our 5 senses.

This is certainly a far cry from how the Romans saw consciousness and especially how Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas viewed the mystery. Aquinas saw consciousness as a result of knowing our own moral choices as displayed against the backdrop of a moral universe. Fundamentally, knowing right from wrong made us human.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that science really got going on the subject. To this day, there is a school of thought that believes consciousness is little more than the interaction of brain chemistry. Then there was the metaphysical theory that consciousness is the result of the mind being in two places at once - the past and present - and that our self awareness is the result of placing ourselves in the near future. (All tenses being microseconds apart).

Then there is the belief that it is the electromagnetic field put out by the brain that creates consciousness. And the classical religious definition of man possessing the “spark” of life - a gift from the almighty - that posits consciousness as being evidence of our immortal souls.

But this LaSalle piece is really good stuff. It is generally based on the shocking realization that the universe seems to have been created specifically for life itseslf.

LaSalle explains:

Nowadays science identifies this phenomenon as the observation selection effect, wherein a “selection bias” must be factored in to cosmological measurements.

The gravitational constant is perhaps the most famous [example of the Goldilocks Effect], but the fine structure constant is just as critical for life. Called alpha, if it were just 1.1x or more of its present value, fusion would no longer occur in stars. (p. 87)

The Rare Earth hypothesis narrows the field of habitation down again, until the possibilities become too extreme to believe. In fact, the long odds against your reading this article are so remote as to be practically impossible. Yet, here we are, evidently snug inside the safe wave of the physical present.

You can look it up: “the Goldilocks phenomenon.”

By the late sixties, it had become clear that if the Big Bang had been just one part in a million more powerful, the cosmos would have blown outward too fast to allow stars and worlds to form. Result: no us. Even more coincidentally, the universe’s four forces and all of its constants are just perfectly set up for atomic interactions, the existence of atoms and elements, planets, liquid water, and life. Tweak any of them and you never existed.

Deterministic or random? Were there a trillion Big Bangs prior to the one 14 billion or so years ago where the laws of nature we are familiar with never materialized and the universe kept collapsing back in on itself? Was there a continuously expanding and contracting series of universes until our present universe was created that melded the laws of nature together perfectly so that you can be sitting in your chair reading this?

Or is there indeed an order to the universe that created this “Goldilocks effect” of living in a “just right” reality?

The latter is most attractive to people of faith because it posits a higher power intervening - even if just for a micro-second at the time of the Big Bang - thus proving the existence of God.

At any rate, this “selection bias” is a well known phenomenon in quantum mechanics. The theory of light is a good example. Light, we are told, is both a wave and a particle. But in order to study light, you must choose to observe it as either a wave or particle - you cannot do both.

The famous thought experiment (that riles cat lovers to this day) of Schrodinger’s Cat as explained in Wikpedia:

Schrödinger’s Cat: A cat, along with a flask containing a poison, is placed in a sealed box shielded against environmentally induced quantum decoherence. If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not a mixture of alive and dead.

LaSalle (who is reviewing a new book that explains the theory titled Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza) explains the theory this way:

[P]hysical reality is a process in which observation and perception dynamically precede the presence of time and space.

Consciousness creates its own reality.

How this is done is still a mystery. But the provocative idea that consciousness is based on what we observe, that there is no hard and fast reality by which our minds grasp an essential and undeviating truth of existence is elegant, radical, exciting, and scary.

Read LaSalle’s entire piece as well as a lot of the stuff he’s linked to. It will blow your mind - figuratively speaking, of course.


  1. In about 540 to 340 BC a school of thought named the Eleactics, whose leader was Parmenides, was based in Elea. Parmenides believed that thought was being–each is interchangeable with the other. Logically, what cannot be thought cannot exist. Other Eleactics included Xenophanes, Zeno, and Melissus. If you equate thought with consciousness, as in conscious thought, you have what LaSalle was on about: not exactly a new concept…

    Comment by mannning — 7/11/2009 @ 2:13 pm

  2. Wow — did we read the same article?

    So consiousness is based on what we observe. If Hallucinations are created in the conciousness, then you’re in a bit of a pickle.

    DeCartes (despite all the flaws in his thinking) made a pretty convincing argument that observation cannot be the genesis of truth or conciousness hundreds of years ago. Observation requires interpretation, which demands conciousness. Observation cannot create conciousness if observation requires conciousness to be observation in the first place.

    When I look down on my desk, I observe a laptop. But I only observe a laptop because my conciousness distinguishes between what “is” the laptop and what “is not” the laptop. Visually, the image is a mass of colors that I impose dividing lines upon. Conciousness creates the observation and imposes bias, not the other way around.

    Jaques Derrida was a champion of this in the mid 20th Century (Postmodern Deconstructionism), as was Michel Foucalt to a lesser extent. If you really want to feel your mind melt, dive into some of his stuff.

    Comment by busboy33 — 7/11/2009 @ 2:45 pm

  3. Sorting out reality from hallucinations or simply noise seems to be the gist of early mental training of the baby, but I am sure most of us do not remember much of the process whereby we now easily apply ever more sophisticated observational and interpretational rules to what we are seeing.

    At this point, I must stop. The morass looming around me is full of words with multiple definitions and connotations. “To observe” is one! “To interpret” is another!

    Comment by mannning — 7/11/2009 @ 4:09 pm

  4. Consciousness…Reality…Truth…ye Gods!

    Comment by mannning — 7/11/2009 @ 4:12 pm

  5. Ok, there is a reality but your senses can only grasp a little reflection of that reality. Wasn’t there something of Plato and the cave? Evolution then made a leap and with all the limited reality we perceive, we were forced to make judgments. So you can wish the lion away all you want but you better climb a tree before ‘reality’ eats you. Animals can all do that. So now consciousness? I’m thinking so I am?

    However, I’m not too big of a fan of; it was perfect because it was made for life. How do we know that? Maybe ‘whatever’ tried something a gazillion times before it was right. What was before the Big Bang?
    Naturally we look at these things in a anthropocentric or egocentric viewpoint because your consciousness will definitely be different when you die although ‘reality’ still exists. However, you consciousness at this moment is as real as the tree in front of your house. Hmm tough topic…

    Comment by funny man — 7/11/2009 @ 4:38 pm

  6. @funny man:

    ” I’m thinking so I am? ”

    Cogito ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. When do we as a society determine when a body needs to be let go? When the heart stops? We can artifically cycle the blood. When the lungs stop? We can get around that. Organ failure? Loss of limbs? Loss of senses? All surmountable.

    When the brain stops? Even assuming every other aspect of the body is functioning perfectly, no thoughts means walk away because they’re dead.

    Comment by busboy33 — 7/11/2009 @ 5:36 pm

  7. I personally think I am dreaming this. I expect to wake any minute and discover that I have a probe plugged into the back of my head… wait a minute, I think that was a movie I saw.

    As Morpheus aptly put it… what is reality?

    Comment by lionheart — 7/11/2009 @ 7:41 pm

  8. Ok, there is a reality but your senses can only grasp a little reflection of that reality.

    How do you know that there is a reality, and that you can perceive only a little of it?

    Comment by mannning — 7/11/2009 @ 9:17 pm

  9. It must be like the five blind men and the elephant!

    Comment by mannning — 7/11/2009 @ 9:17 pm

  10. Consciousness creates its own reality? This notion resolves all metaphysical issues by making man The Great Creator. I’m hungry, so I imagine up some food to eat. To send men to the moon and back safely, first I conjure up a moon, after which it is no great feat to imagine them to and fro. You see, I don’t need mathematical calculations, or scientific probabilities and improbabilities. I imagine them only for my amusement.

    Comment by manoman — 7/11/2009 @ 11:17 pm

  11. @manoman:

    How do you know you don’t have food in front of you? Your senses tell you. If your senses told you that there was food there, then you would eat it.

    Bottom line, you know absolutely nothing save what you experienced, and you experience through your senses (and whatever conclusions you draw from them). How do you know there’s a moon? You saw it, and you saw what you believe are the effects of it (seeing tidal shifts, determining that the moon caused them, etc.). Did you create the moon? As far as you are concerned . . . yes.

    The old koan “if a tree falls and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?” sums it up.

    Comment by busboy33 — 7/12/2009 @ 1:39 am

  12. Interesting article. One of my favorite topics.

    Light, we are told, is both a wave and a particle. But in order to study light, you must choose to observe it as either a wave or particle - you cannot do both.

    A simple question. A two dimensional representation of the skeleton of a cube, 12 simple lines can be visualized as a cube with two different perspectives. But we know that this is a three dimensional object with only one true perspective. Could it not be that Light can be both a wave and a particle at the same time on some higher plane of existence? Maybe on this transcendental plane of existence pi and phi are both simple finite numbers.

    Comment by Wramblin' Wreck — 7/12/2009 @ 12:08 pm

  13. No disagreement, busboy. It’s the nature of metaphysical propositions that they are neither provable nor disprovable. If we have no sensory perception, direct or indirect that, say, a tree has fallen, then we have no proof of it. Indeed, stripped of all possible means of determining so, we don’t know whether or not it actually has fallen. Any assertion that assumes it has is perforce a metaphysical proposition.

    My point was that the statement that human consciousness creates its own reality has profound theological implications that LaSalle (and perhaps Lanza?)in their cherry-picking of scientific improbabilities fail to address.

    Comment by manoman — 7/12/2009 @ 1:08 pm

  14. My favorite philosophers was always Hume. He once stated if someone stated “I had a mysterious force lift me up (or appear) and we talked for an hour a lot of people would go along with this. However, if you stated I was walking through a forest when suddenly a bear appeared and proceeded to walk alongside with me for an hour and then just left, nobody would believe you. Now which one is more likely?

    Busboy, you clearly remember your Latin better then I do mine. Always reassuring that the old Romans thought pretty much like we do today.

    Comment by funny man — 7/12/2009 @ 3:47 pm

  15. Ain’t metaphysics great? The adult equivilant of babies making turd-pies: Completely irrevelant, useless, and a pain in the ass to clean up the mess, but makes baby awfully proud of itself.

    It will always have “profound theological implications” (really, any knowledge will), but I hope the reason they ignored those implications is because “ne’er the twain shall meet” — theology can’t inform (or be informed by) knowledge.

    I mean, we’ve known for thousands of years that people don’t rise from the dead, that bodies don’t turn into pillars of salt, that spiders can’t seal off a cave entrance is a day, that a handful of people can’t fit two of every species onto a boat and care for their needs for more than a month (polar bears must have loved a month of the MidEastern climate), etc. We can date human history pretty conclusively back well over 8,000 years, but some people believe that the earth is 2,000 years younger than that. All of which has had zero impact on people’s faith, and rightly so.

    No matter what science determines (or thinks it determines), it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, change what people believe.

    (goes back to smearing feces on the wall and feeling proud of himself)

    Comment by busboy33 — 7/12/2009 @ 4:36 pm

  16. Look, from a scientific viewpoint, Dr. Lanza’s “seven principles of biocentrism” are utter nonsense.

    Principle no. 3 is the key one - it’s a blatant lie, from which, were it true, it might be possible to argue the other 6:

    “3. The behavior of subatomic particles — indeed all particles and objects — are inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.”

    No - not true - a wide-spread misunderstanding, but not what the science says.

    If you examine the classic experiment that demonstrated the quantum aspect of reality (it is not really a quantum “effect”), the double-slit experiment, you’ll see that it has nothing to do with whether a conscious observer is present or not.

    Comment by oneuniverse — 7/12/2009 @ 9:00 pm

  17. Let me try again. Ultimately I find fault with LaSalle/Lanza for pretending that citing some scientific improbabilities can in any way buttress a metaphysical proposition. Pace busboy33 on science and metaphysics, ne’er the twain shall meet, nor should they. It is more interesting, therefore, in the great scholastic tradition, to argue the implications of the metaphysical proposition so as to ascertain if it is even a worthwhile metaphysical proposition.

    Comment by manoman — 7/12/2009 @ 9:30 pm

  18. “Closer To Truth” is a half-hour of reflection on some aspect of “Cosmos, Consciousness, God” by Robert Lawrence Kuhn that shows on many PBS stations. It is sometimes quite interesting.

    Comment by HyperIon — 7/13/2009 @ 9:41 am

  19. For those interested in an “exotic” take on consciousness, I’d highly reccomend “The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind,” by Julian Jaynes. Though I disagree with Jayne’s primary thesis (consciousness is a recent historical phenomena)the data he presents on the enigma of consciousness is well worth the read.

    Comment by Mahone Dunbar — 7/14/2009 @ 3:36 am

  20. The Anthropic Principle as a concept has been around since Biblical times: the account in Genesis being a prime example of it in non-scientific terms. Of late, there has been an enormous expansion of scientific facts that tend to support the idea of a man-centered universe. Over 39 physical laws and 26 physical constants have been cited as having a very narrow range of values; if any one of them was outside of the range, life as we know it would not be viable.

    This has led to the more general idea of Intelligent Design and an Intelligent Designer as the origin and basis for the construction and evolution of the universe, life and man from the Big Bang till now. This concept is easily assimilated by many religions that believe in a God as the creator, but is anathema to the scientific community that is principally atheistic in outlook.

    The scientific community has gone so far as to propose a Multiverse in order to avoid the possibility of an Intelligent Designer, thus immensely complicating cosmology. Instead of “God did it” we have a Multiverse within which somehow our particular universe was “selected” by a “mysterious selector” because of its life supporting properties over the infinite number of universes or pocket universes that would not support life. So it appears that we have traded off a Mysterious Designer for a Mysterious Selector, plus enormous difficulties, if not impossibilities, in establishing the bone fides of the Multiverse. Ockham would be aghast.

    The many objections to God as the Prime Mover or Architect of the Universe include the memes: “who designed the designer”; and “how can something be created out of nothing (ex nihilo).”

    Then, too, the old accusations of “how can a perfect entity create such an imperfect world; and “how can an omnipotent and omniscient entity exist logically?” are brought out of the kit bag to confound the situation once more.

    The answer may well be simply: “we do not know how or why God has done what He has done and is doing, and we most likely do not have the mental capacity to understand Him fully.” This, despite the fact as we know it that even God must conform to certain physical rules (or so we believe).

    We come then to the questions of how and why man developed consciousness. Is consciousness a logical outgrowth of man’s existence, or was it put there originally by God very early on? Why, then, is man the only species that exhibits a rather full blown consciousness, insofar as we know (can it become even greater in some sense?)?

    In the recorded history of man, which covers perhaps 100 centuries, there is no evidence that his capacity to think cogently has grown measurably, while, of course, his knowledge of the world has expanded tremendously. Is consciousness a fluke, or an accident of cosmic proportions? Can we create consciousness in the laboratory? Some powerful thinkers believe it is possible, and are working to that end right now.

    Several scientists believe that the mere aggregation of a massive number of software constructs will eventually result in conscious thought. It would seem, however, that piling layer upon layer of logic onto a program or programs would merely result in a tortuous trail of logical steps leading to some end or another, and no spark of consciousness.

    In fact, it is quite acceptable indeed for scientists to explore the true makeup of the universe, and to postulate all the universes they want, all the Branes they need and all the brains they can fabricate. They will likely wander in those sets of constructs essentially forever, however. The morass of String Theory/Superstring Theory/M-Theory is one example. Even indirect proofs of the existence of multiple universes have been and will likely continue to be found wanting in the end. Consciousness in the lab will be a Holy Grail, too, for a long, long time. One must question the testability of these ideas.

    It appears, then, that we will have to believe either in a God who architected the universe and conscious man or in a Mysterious Selector, multiple universes, and some fluke of nature resulting in consciousness that can never be fully understood.

    Put your faith as and where you like it!

    Comment by mannning — 7/15/2009 @ 2:11 pm

  21. Thursday morning links…

    Taxes: You’re next. But first, drowning the rich
    NYT: Why we must ration medical care
    Related, remind me: What problem is a health care bill supposed to be solving?
    Thinking about consciousness. Rick Moran…

    Trackback by Maggie's Farm — 7/16/2009 @ 4:01 am

  22. Consciousness is the confluence of perception and memory.

    Comment by lenf — 7/16/2009 @ 10:02 am

  23. Lasalle’s piece was unfortunately a piece of twaddle that isn’t saying anything that isn’t old and either debunked or properly dismissed. The strong anthropic principle is just a philosophical exercise which doesn’t have much of anything to actually contribute to scientific understanding (rather like intelligent design).

    Comment by RWA — 7/18/2009 @ 10:20 am

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