22 June 2012

Christian DeQuincey on Consciousness

A few weeks back I was perusing things in a rather New Agey shop in Port Townsend, WA, and came across a book that I decided to pick up.  Christian DeQuincey's Consciousness From Zombies to Angels (2009) is not as frivolous as it may sound - zombies are not only on TV these days, they play an important role in thinking about consciousness (or the lack thereof).  DeQuincey is a philosopher, and he argues that there is just no way that consciousness, or subjectivity, can ever arise from simply physical objects - there's an abiding mystery there of how consciousness could simply emerge of some excessively complex organization of material 'stuff' (such as, for example, our physical bodies with the brain).

So what is he proposing instead?  The basic idea is that some sort of consciousness permeates all physical objects, at all levels - termed panpsychism.  This is admittedly a hard notion to get one's mind around, and  given how hard it is to even get a handle on whether other animals like dolphins have consciousness (or whether some people around us are actually zombies), it's worth pondering.

But let's back up a bit.  What does DeQuincey think consciousness is or is not?  He argues against the idea of consciousness as 'energy' - "let's just realize the simple fact that all forms of energy are spread out in space.  Consciousness, however, doesn't hang out in any kind of space.  You can't see it, touch it, hear it, smell or taste it.  It's just not that kind of thing.  In fact it's not any kind of thing." (p 18) And this distinction causes what he analyzes as the big blind spot of science - that it has made the physical world the focus of all study, and thus has essentially pushed consciousness out of the field of study.

DeQuincey proposes a shift to what he terms 'looking-glass science' where there is a recognition of the role of the scientist's dual role of observer and the observed, a participatory practice - "Consciousness cannot be studied from the outside; it must be viewed from within." (p. 151).  Elsewhere - "Every item of scientific knowledge - the entire edifice of science - exists only because the data was experienced in some scientist's mind." (p. 143).

I liked several things that I found just in flipping through the book in the store.  One factor was that he is much more careful in his use of quantum mechanical ideas than most of the new age writers.  He writes: "It is not the case that the probabilities expressed in the quantum wave function are 'limitless' or represent 'unlimited potential.' The matrix of possibilities expressed in the mathematics of wave mechanics is a limited set of options, and the collapse of the wave function on observation brings one of those options into actuality" (p. 102).

Many may find DeQuincey's work insufferably new age and non-science, but I believe he does pinpoint some key problems in the overall (neuro-)scientific approach to study of consciousness and the mind from the outside via observations of the brain (which still must rely on subjective reports of corresponding experience).

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