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Can Science Accommodate Conciousness?

So, a little over 2 weeks ago, I went to a talk by Bernard Carr on whether science can accommodate psychic experience.

Taking a standard reductionist view of science that everything can reduce down to physics, although it is often more useful to view things on a larger scale through the other sciences, science becomes primarily focused on matter and how matter interacts. It doesn't really consider the mind/consciousness within this (ok, this is questionable for sciences such as psychology, as it's questionable whether this is entirely about the functioning of the brain or whether an individual consciousness plays a role. Some would even say consciousness is entirely about the functioning of the brain and so this whole train of thought falls apart, but that would be less interesting, so I'll put that thought to one side).

If you want to consider things like psi scientifically, particularly for things like telekinesis, where there is a clear interaction between mind and matter, you need to consider the more general question of whether science can accommodate consciousness, which to me sounds a far more interesting topic to think about.

As a cosmologist, Carr, asked the question about this drive for a theory of everything, where we keep extending the theories to take into account other forces to the point where cosmologists are now considering things like M-theory (and we're now going well beyond my knowledge of physics with things like that). What if this could be extended further to include notions of consciousness? Would it be useful? What would it predict?

I'm fairly skeptical about the whole psi thing, although being able to move bottle tops with my mind would be quite a fun thing to do and if someone claimed it were possible and wanted to show me how I'd certainly be open to giving it a go. However, Carr, came up with the valid point that although a lot of scientists rule out this sort of stuff, some of the results predicted by string theory are equally bizarre and equally unproven and yet far more acceptable.

So, taking that further, this got me thinking (a not entirely new thought) that although scientific models at their core have a proven evidence base to show this is a good model in the scope that we're looking at, when you go beyond that scope and start making predictions outside of this, you start going into the realm of belief. Admittedly, in terms of science you then experiment and prove this belief right or wrong and adapt your model accordingly and this is how we progress.

This then gets me thinking about belief in general (particularly religion, which seems to keep cropping up in conversation lately - probably due to the time of year and the people I've been talking to) and the thought that these are just personal models of reality based on our own experiential evidence and predictions about the nature of reality based on those. In fact, I've heard a lot of very religious people say that these sort of things are beyond our comprehension and religion is just our way of understanding it, which fits this quite well. Then again, I was a mathematician and not a very religious one, so I probably would view it this way.

Whereas much of the scientific models of reality are experimentally verifiable, but only cover a narrow focus of the materialistic stuff, religious models cover everything, but generally appear less easily verifiable (after all, even if there was a god and he were to strike me down with a thunderbolt, I might just put it down to a freak weather occurrence).

So, in a way we already have several models for this sort of stuff, they're just not expressed mathematically. This doesn't mean they can't be. After all, talking to Newton about string theory would probably have confused the socks off him, he didn't have the mathematics for this.

So, whether science can accommodate consciousness, seems to me more of a question of what science is. Is it purely about the materialistic world or can it include theories on other aspects of reality?


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12th Apr, 2009 14:51 (UTC)
Yes, assuming god exists (which puts me on shaky ground) and if he does he would be beyond comprehension.

Surely, you still try to understand him as best you can using the experiential data you have from your clues/glimpses and have a mental model, admittedly inferior to the real thing due to limitations of human understanding and experience. Now, surely, that is scientific?

Religion gives indications as to the nature of god(s) (where applicable), but in many obviously wouldn't be able to describe him/them fully as the assumption is that he/they are beyond our comprehension. As such these are then surely, as much models of that part of reality as your own personal belief.
12th Apr, 2009 14:26 (UTC)
But surely that makes a large amount of string theory not science?

Are theories based on results which have been proved by extending this so the theories themselves are not proved, not science? I think most people would say they are, but if that was the case, where do you draw the line?

It's worth noting that research into psychic experiences and similar fields receives a lot more skepticism then more mainstream science (although questioning this research isn't a bad thing obviously), so does the fact it has to stand up to a more critical eye play any role in the lack of hard evidence.
12th Apr, 2009 15:23 (UTC)
If string theory isn't science, it's because it doesn't make predictions yet. Whether that's enough to disqualify it is a sociology-of-science question.

It's worth noting that research into psychic experiences and similar fields receives a lot more skepticism then more mainstream science (although questioning this research isn't a bad thing obviously), so does the fact it has to stand up to a more critical eye play any role in the lack of hard evidence.

How hard is it to prove, if it's real?
12th Apr, 2009 15:16 (UTC)
I hate to argue*, but ... three things.

First, you kinda glide over the most essential aspect of science. It's like comparing the flavor of Soylent Green vs. Spam and only mentioning as an aside that, oh, Soylent Green is people.

Second, the problem of consciousness doesn't actually look that hard in the era of computing and neurophysiology - Daniel Dennett offered a fairly plausible story of consciousness back in 1991, which kinda suggests that a reductionist explanation is at least logically possible.

Third, religions make experimentally verifiable predictions. Don't just take their word for it when they claim not to.

* By which I mean: I love making pronouncements, but hate having to defend them.
12th Apr, 2009 18:00 (UTC)
OK, science is about making predictions and verifying them experimentally. However, the predictions are as much science as their verifications. I would, personally, call string theory science, even though it's validity has yet to be tested.

I think I'd have to read Dennett's book as the wikipedia page doesn't give much info on his theory. Carr did discuss a number of arguments on both sides of the fence on this matter, and I'm fairly sure Dennett's name came up.

At no point did I say that religious predictions weren't verifiable. However, there are numerous big things, such as the existance of higher beings, the nature of the afterlife, etc, etc, which are predicted by these things, but aren't easily verifiable.
12th Apr, 2009 18:10 (UTC)
String theory is a very interesting border case, and I do not feel qualified to call which side it falls on. I'll agree that predictions are an essential part of science, though.

Consciousness Explained is not a bad read at all - dense, perhaps, but quite interesting. I haven't followed up on how well his theories stand up to the test, however.

I'll concede "not easily verifiable".
12th Apr, 2009 18:24 (UTC)
Carr wrote a presentation on this topic "Can Psychical Research Bridge the Gulf Between Matter and Mind?" published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research in June 2008.

Seemed interesting, so I picked up the details at the talk, although I've not requested a copy yet.

Anyway, to pass on the details in case you're interested, it's available from Society for Psychical Research, 49 Marlow Road, London, W8 6LA for £10.

Will have to add Consciousness Explained onto the list of books to read.
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