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Thread: What is consciousness?

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    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
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    What is consciousness?

    In our studies of Buddhism and meditation, there's emphasis on stilling the mind, or understanding the nature of the thoughts that race through our mind. We talk also of 'being mindful', that is, awareness of everything around us, influencing us.

    Where is the mind? I tend to think it's in our consciousness. It's in our brain, of course, but not in the part that's an extension of the central nervous system. It's in the brain that's active when we are making sense of our surroundings, making choices based on past experience or making decisions based on emotional state. That's our conscious mind.

    Philosophers and scientists have tried to define and discover the nature of consciousness. I don't think that a universally accepted model has yet been found. Personally, I tend to come at the question from a scientific point of view. That may not be the best approach, because it excludes alternative mystical or spiritual angles.

    A leading theoretical physicist, Dr Roger Penrose, has been looking at the question "What is Consciousness" for more than fifteen years, and his ideas are based on quantum theory.[1] Within cells in the brain there are microtubules of tubulin protein. These contain electrons that can become entangled with each other. The theory goes on to suggest that microtubules in other cells can be affected, and that multiple brain cells can form a coherent whole, with quantum effects being responsible for that coherence.

    The work of Penrose is by no means widely accepted. It may be partly right, but waiting for someone else to add some important refinement before it becomes digestible to some others working in the same field of research.

    I would like to think that he's on the right lines by bringing quantum physics into the explanation. It's known and accepted that quantum effects can be detected over a distance. I think about 150 meters is the most that's been reliably measured. If that is so, I would like to think that it could lead to an understanding of telepathy or remote viewing, by the transmission of quantum effects from one brain to another. That would be an example of the transmission of consciousness from one being to another, over distance.

    It would also provide a basis for communication between animals and humans. At present, humans who practise it say it's like sending thought-pictures to the animals and seeing what images the animals provide back to the humans.

    I'm digressing. What I am saying is that there's no good theory of consciousness at present. It's time there was one. We suppress consciousness when we are asleep, and we turn off consciousness when administering an anaesthetic. The next step must be to see where and how the changes occur between those two states, conscious and unconscious.

    A reliable theory of consciousness could lead us to a better understanding of the mind, and eventually lead to improvements in meditation.

    Reference [1] https://phys.org/news/2014-01-discov...roborates.html

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    I think there's another state of consciousness. It's the one where are awake and aware, and so conscious, but where our unconscious or sub-consciousness is also up and about, working underneath our awareness. Like an iceberg, most of what goes on is hidden from us. Maybe this is the cutting edge of meditation, working on the unconscious using our conscious awareness. A reliable theory of consciousness, as woodscooter suggests, would help the whole process.

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    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
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    I agree with what you say, philg. The larger part of the working of our mind goes on at the unconscious level, providing influences on decision-making of which we are quite unaware.

    The Abhidhamma expounds on the arising of thoughts and sensations, but it's by no means a reliable theory of how consciouness works. To me, the Abhidamma explanations serve to add further confusion to the subject.

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    I've studied quite a lot about this. One of my hobbies is to write my own versions of Buddhist stuff, updating to incorporate science where possible. Brain scans show that meditation can make changes to deeper subconscious structures, with lasting effect.

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    Greetings! If you don't mind, I would like to add a bit of my humble opinion on these matters.

    As a matter of fact, I'm very tightly connected with scientific methods in my daily life, due to my specialization, so I would like to add a few more conceptual discourses on your topic, woodscooter.

    Where is the mind? I tend to think it's in our consciousness. It's in our brain, of course, but not in the part that's an extension of the central nervous system. It's in the brain that's active when we are making sense of our surroundings, making choices based on past experience or making decisions based on emotional state. That's our conscious mind.
    That is a kind of question, that can be strictly reduced to a specific type of question, called an ontological one, as it is commonly accepted in modern philosophy studies. In fact, the question to which we can reduce your one is "What can be called a mind and what is the form of its existance?"

    As the practical studies of more than 3000 years of human attemtps to get to the core of this problem, it seems to me that it may be conpectually impossible to answer to this form of question, due to a great ammount of factors. (It may be interesting to study one of the approaches to the ontological commitment problems through the prism of language, for example with the help of the following article on the role of logic and language in ontology problems.)

    Since, as it seems to be, buddhism is a first of all practical study, we may be more efficient to ask questions of the different matters, for example: "How does our mind perform?", "What is the interface to communicate with our mind?", "How do the response of our mind can be analyzed?".

    A leading theoretical physicist, Dr Roger Penrose, has been looking at the question "What is Consciousness" for more than fifteen years, and his ideas are based on quantum theory.[1] Within cells in the brain there are microtubules of tubulin protein. These contain electrons that can become entangled with each other. The theory goes on to suggest that microtubules in other cells can be affected, and that multiple brain cells can form a coherent whole, with quantum effects being responsible for that coherence.
    I came across this theory in his book "Emperror's new mind", which is a very interesting one, in many aspects.
    Quantum physics theoretical framework indeed can be impressively useful when we are talking about study of natural neural networks and our brain cortex, but, it seems to me that there are several main difficulties with this approach, and for now I would like to tell about the main one in my opinion (and this means that it is only my opinion, no more no less):

    As you may know, quantum physics heavily uses probability theory as the one and only instrument to model particle behaviour in the sub-atom distances. But it should be recalled, that probability theory is a mathematical framework to work with phenomenas, which we just cannot describe in another way, and therefore have to use some sort of calculations to make any predictions (and they sometimes may be unreliable, as we have to build our model on the basis of statistics, which can be deceiving).
    So, even though we may model some of our mind work with the use of quantum physics, using probability theory, we still cannot answer any ontological question, as we don't know how to describe "Where is probability", "What is the cause of chances of event to happen" and so on. So, this theory in fact is a very beautiful and promising one, but it's just a way to reduce one problem to another (though, mathematics always do things that way, and that doesn't mean it's not working well - in fact, it is working fairly well).

    I would love to write down a conclusion to all these construction, but, if you don't mind, I'll post it later on, maybe with some more help of common discourse on the science topic of this matter (not because I don't want to post it right now, but simply because of the tremendous lack of time).

    Thank you for your attention, and a very interesting topic to think of!
    Last edited by DMR; 18 Apr 17 at 10:10.

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    Hi DMR I agree that a shared definition of mind and how it comes into existence as some form of consciousness is important. Important too is how it relates to the structure that generates it, in our case, the brain. These then need to be balanced with an shared understanding of the qualia of existence, what it means for each of us when we say we are conscious of things. We could even go on to discuss how these relate to the Turing test for consciousness arising from an engineered brain. Would it be the same as our consciousness? How would we know?

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    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution, DMR. You make some good points. However,
    we may be more efficient to ask questions of the different matters, for example: "How does our mind perform?", "What is the interface to communicate with our mind?", "How do the response of our mind can be analyzed?".
    I can't fully agree with this. It can be useful to regard an unknown as a 'black box' and to enumerate what output occurs in response to what input. It gives us more information but sheds no light on the content of the box, or how the system works.

    I certainly agree that the quantum framework reduces to a statistical description of matter. It becomes meaningless to consider a single event, as the outcome cannot be predicted. This leads me to a digression which I have to bring up.

    The famous thought-experiment of Schrodinger's cat is widely misunderstood by non-physicists. The conclusion many take away with them is that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead until the box is opened,[2] and therefore the concepts of quantum physics are too difficult for 'ordinary' people to understand.

    But Dr Penrose takes the trouble to point out that Schrodinger reached this conclusion precisely to show there is a fault in the quantum model. The mathematics leads to a plainly impossible, or absurd, outcome.[3] The quantum model has been around for nearly 90 years, despite this plain anomaly.

    I'm no nearer having any idea of what is consciousness. It doesn't me help to label its effects, nor to study the language of consciousness. What's inside the box? That's what I'm wondering.

    References:
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interp...ntum_mechanics
    [3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technolog...explained.html

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    Hi Woodscooter. Another way I've investigated consciousness is to look at what is being done to change it in terms of drugs, electrical stimulation, electromagnetic impulses, and so on. The scary thing is the home kits you can buy to push magnetic pulses into different parts of the brain, to see what happens! Having looked at all the various possibilities now and in the near future, I think I'll stick to meditation.

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    After your post, philg, I looked up to see what people are doing with electrical stimulation of the brain.

    There's something fairly mild, involving a pulse generator connected to a couple of wet sponges on the forehead. Claims to improve memory and clear-headedness. Hmm.

    Then there's a coil or two for sending magnetic pulses into the brain with a range of about 5cm. That's probably what you were referring to in your post. People report all sorts of sensations. I would run a mile before trying that out at home. Sounds seriously bonkers.

    I'm sticking to meditation too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by woodscooter View Post
    After your post, philg, I looked up to see what people are doing with electrical stimulation of the brain.

    There's something fairly mild, involving a pulse generator connected to a couple of wet sponges on the forehead. Claims to improve memory and clear-headedness. Hmm.

    Then there's a coil or two for sending magnetic pulses into the brain with a range of about 5cm. That's probably what you were referring to in your post. People report all sorts of sensations. I would run a mile before trying that out at home. Sounds seriously bonkers.

    I'm sticking to meditation too.
    There's a lot of research going on at the moment to stimulate or repress specific areas of the brain for specific purposes. What worries me is stuff coming along in a few years which could manipulate the brain in ways that would have been pure science fiction not long ago. Look how people are going on shamanic 'holidays' to countries which allow the use of drugs such as ayahuasca, especially as they seem to 'work'.

    There's a danger if they don't work, of course, but there's also the danger that they might work. Imagine having a 'god area' stimulated, or imagine an experienced meditator having their brain waves recorded as they have enlightenment experiences, and then this recording used to reconstruct such experiences on another's brain. Without years of training in meditation and being on the path there is no telling what the consequences might be.

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