Synopsis 3/16/17 YHouse Lunch Talk IAS

Synopsis 3/16/2017 YHouse Lunch Talk IAS

Speaker: John Horgan, Director, Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology

Title: The Mind-Body Problem and Scientific Regress

Abstract: (By the Speaker) “The mind-body problem, which considers how matter generates consciousness, morality and meaning, is the deepest of all mysteries. In this talk, science journalist John Horgan will review recent research into the problem. Are scientists progressing toward a solution, or do their results bolster the so-called “mysterian” position that the mind-body problem is unsolvable?”

Present:  John Horgan, Ed Turner, Anna Feinstein, David Fergusson, Michael Solomon, Naoki Yajima, Bob McClennan, Sean Sakamoto, Piet Hut, Ayako Fukui, Olaf Witkowski, Nicolaas Rupke, Susan Schneider

Prior to the start of the talk we held an informal discussion on the Origin of Life alluding to topics including spontaneous chemical evolution, RNA and nucleotide chemistry, energy tracking in living systems, and alien seeding.

John began by saying he had an interest in the Mind-Body Problem even as a child when he experienced De-Realization and De-Personalization, psychiatric terms for feeing the world is dissolving.  He later became a science writer giving him opportunities to explore this further.  David Chalmers proposed the term the Hard Problem: How can the brain create mind?  Some have expanded this to the Really Hard Problem:  How does the brain relate to issues such as morality and free will?  John offered the Mind-Body problem as “When we wonder who we are, What we are, What we could be, What we should be?”  Although Descartes is often credited as the first Dualist, Socrates considered the problem as well.  We often speak of Materialism – the Mind is a property of Mater, Idealism – Matter is a property of Mind, and Dualism – Both matter and mind exist.  John credited Francis Crick in his 1994 book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” with proposing that we look at what is happening in the brain that correlates with consciousness.  In 1994 the first Tucson Consciousness Conference was held.  Many physicists at the conference suggested that Quantum Physics could help.  Others proposed Information Based theories with complex processes.  John reported that Christof Koch was at the conference representing Crick and Koch seemed to be the voice of reason.  John wrote about this conference for Scientific American and on the topic later in his books: The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Science in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1996), The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication and Explanation (1999), and Rational Mysticism: Spirituality meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment (2004).  New tools for mapping the brain have become available since and he continues to follow these developments.  About five years ago Christof Koch, currently president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, began to espouse Integrated Information Theory (IIT).  This theory, invented by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi in 2004 and developed since, says that whenever systems exchange information consciousness appears.  Even subatomic particles exchange information and thus have a degree of consciousness.  Max Tegmark, a physicist at MIT questioned whether Dark Energy is conscious.  Koch has said, “You know we should not be Baryonic Chauvinists”.  The theory allows for levels of consciousness depending on the amount of information transferred.  If all the members of the NYU philosophy department texted rapidly would they become a consciousness and each member become a zombie?   John has coined the term “Neo-Geocentrism”.  This evokes Geocentrism, the pre-Copernican idea that the universe revolves around us, updated with the idea of human consciousness is fundamental in some way.  If Information is everywhere, then the entire universe is conscious.  He sees the popularity of Buddhism as evidence of a Universal consciousness.  Neo-Geocentrism says that Humans are at the center.  At the most recent Tucson conference there was a lot of interest in psychedelics that John saw as promoting Neo-geocentrism.   Deepak Chopra spoke in Tucson giving a straight Idealism perspective.   As a journalist, John looks at how a field progresses and he sees little progress.

The presentation was interrupted briefly by questions.  Anna asked, If all the universe is conscious how are humans special in Neo-Geocentrism?  John does not see this as contradictory, but as a question similar to the origin of life.  How did life arise from inanimate objects?  Susan offered that Nick Bostrom has good articles on our being in an alien computer simulation.

Continuing the talk John considered himself a hardnosed sceptic who sees no progress and sees some regress to superstition in recent developments.  His most recent book on Mysterianism says that the question is just too broad.  He now thinks that perhaps each of us is entitled to his/her own idea of consciousness, answering the Mind-Body Problem in whatever way empowers you.  In his new book, he has interviewed people with a professional interest in Mind-Body, but who have divergent views based on personal experiences – personal loss, a brain tumor, depression, mental illness.  John ended saying that Religions and Science have required Universal Answers, but he prefers Individual Answers to these universal questions.


Q:  Nicolaas began the discussion saying we now see increasing evidence of consciousness in lower members of the animal kingdom.

A: John answered that this supports Crick’s idea of consciousness evolving.  He noted the Solipsism problem: I can only know that I exist, but I can assume you exist too.  He asserted this assumption gets harder as you go further from Humans.

Q:  Ed said that panpsychism speaks of tiny amounts of consciousness.  But what does that mean? What is a fragment of consciousness?

Sean answered that he had asked Nico Schiff that same question at Nico’s Rubin museum talk.  Nico’s answer was that he knows more about ‘70s rock and roll than he does about wine.  So, he is more conscious about rock and roll.  Consciousness is about something.

A:  Johns said that is a behaviorist approach.

Q: Sean asked, What is Information?

A: Olaf answered information is relations between random variables that you are observing.

John said he had interviewed Claude Shannon (whose 1948 paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” is credited with starting Information Theory) who said Information is transmitted between two people or systems.

Q:  John asked Ed to explain how physicists can see quantum physics as explanatory?

A:  Ed said co-ordinate systems in General Relativity are analogous to this.  You can get results as a consequence of your co-ordinate system that don’t exist in space time.  For example, if you describe position on Earth by Longitude and Latitude, and consider standing on the North pole, then you cannot move north, but only south.  But that is strictly a result of the co-ordinate system.  (Ed later clarified that two parties moving along a line perpendicular to the equator would seem to be drawn towards each other by an invisible force as they approached the north pole, and this force is Einstein’s definition of Gravity, but is really a property of a sphere. Gravity curves space-time.) Being able to distinguish between a property of reality and a property of your explanatory co-ordinate system is necessary for both quantum physics and for explaining consciousness.

Q:  John recalled the Physicist John Wheeler’s attempt to fuse quantum mechanics and information theory as “The It from Bit”.  Again, he reflected on the anthropomorphic principle.  In the participatory universe, the observer plays a fundamental role in creating reality.

A: Ed said Wheeler was referred to as the poet laureate of physics for good reason.

Nicolaas shared a memory of hearing Wheeler speak at the Smithsonian about the Copernican universe.  Wheeler addressed eloquently a portrait of Copernicus that he placed on the stage.

Q:  Piet returned to the term NeoGeoCentrism and agreed that the term could be seen as either All is Conscious or I alone am conscious.

A:  John admitted that he is wedded to the term but sees how it could be misinterpreted.  He objects to panpsychism as unacceptably easy and as a form of anthropomorphism.

Q:  Susan cautioned that he is too dismissive of panpsychism.  She referred to proto-panpsychism as saying that the primitive experience is in the history of any particle. Scott Aaronson, an expert on Quantum Computation, spoke at an Integrated Information Theory workshop and challenged the theory by showing you could construct a simple recording device such as a CD recorder, that would seem much more conscious than a human being.

Q: Michael offered that it seemed like IIT describes consciousness by the largest number of data bits being transmitted, like a Google search engine ranking.  But would it not be Simplicity that is a greater measure of consciousness?  The most simple but obvious result transmitted could hold the most consciousness.

A:  John suggested that perhaps consciousness is an epi-phenomenon of information processing.  (We have considered this before as an Emergent property.)

Q:  Olaf had been considering a better definition for Information and had come up with, “Something that allows us to predict something about something else.”  He said that Tononi’s theory is true, but the way he grounds the theory to connect consciousness is questionable.

A:  John offered, “The information in a system is proportional to its ability to surprise you.”

Piet offered, “Information is the Difference that Makes a Difference.”

Q:  David offered a criticism of the conclusion that each individual answer the mind-body problem as he/she chooses.  This is like the Emotive Theory of ethics in that you express only a preference with no fundamental view.

A:  John defended his position saying successful theories generate applications. He made an analogy to mental illness.   In theory of mind there has been very little progress in treatment for mental illness.

Q:  Ed concluded the discussion by suggesting that from his scientific background he would not dismiss a Buddhist approach.  How do we know about consciousness?  By looking deeper within ourselves.  Contemplation/Meditation is Directed Investigation.

We ended our formal discussion here, thanked John Horgan for a stimulating presentation, and adjourned for coffee and further discussion.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael J. Solomon, MD


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