Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Zoe Bandola & Becky Noyes


Summary by Morgan O'Neill

Class Reading:
“Introducing Consciousness” by Papineau and Selina
“Elemental Mind” by Nick Herbert
“God for the 21st Century”, Part 7 and 8, by Russell Stannard
“Closer to Truth”, pp 3-50
“Self-Serve Brains: Personal identity veers to the right hemisphere” by Bruce Bower

Stuart Sutherland, in 'Consciousness: International Dictionary of Psychology,' defines consciousness as the having of perceptions, thoughts and feelings, awareness.

The theories of what exactly consciousness is have progressed over the years. There are four main theories:

1) Materialism: the conscious mind is identical to the brain.
2) Dualism: consciousness constitutes an extra realm of reality -Descartes was a notable proponent of this theory.
3) Quantum Mind: quantum gravity with microtubules may play a key role in consciousness and cognition.
4) Mysterianism: consciousness is inherently too difficult for human minds to comprehend.

Other theories include idealism, functionalism, phenomenalism, phenomenology, physicalism, and emergentism.

Descartes, a dualist, thought that the material and the mental realms are separate. He believed that mind and matter interact possibly in the pineal gland of the brain. Descartes said that a zombie could act like us in the everyday world and still not have consciousness, because it would lack that extra dimension. Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton, said that if one were to expand a human brain to the size of a room, and walk within it, one would still not be able to see consciousness. Thus it must be somewhere else; Leibniz was a dualist.

George Berkeley proposed the axiom: 'to be is to be perceived.' Nothing material exists, the only reality is a series of mental events. Kicking a stone was mentioned as a counterexample to this idea —if you kick a stone, you may perceive pain. But how can you prove that it's not just your brain telling you that you did kick a stone, and that pain results?

The school of behaviorism, primarily led by John Watson and B.F. Skinner, says that there is no subjective consciousness, and in the nurture vs. nature debate, nurture is the vastly more important factor that affects behavior. Today's concept of behaviorism is called functionalism. Becky and Zoe had a useful analogy to explain how it viewed consciousness – functionalism : mental states :: physics : atoms and quarks.

David Chalmers proposed that feelings/thoughts might be unique and irreducible to underlying principles. He said that science should allow a legitimate branch to study this possibility.

Materialists say that conscious- and physical- states are the same...if a physical duplicate (zombie) were to behave like a person, it must be conscious. Temperature provides a good analogy here: if our perception, or feeling, of temperature is completely dependent upon the surrounding gas' average kinetic energy, then perhaps feelings such as pain and varied emotions are caused simply by brain activity triggered by the environment. A separate realm then is not necessary.

Other theories were lightly touched on...

Quantum Indeterminism -there is no room for mental forces, we have identified all the fundamental forces. If we can explain everything in terms of the four forces of nature, then there cannot be a fifth force to describe consciousness; at least not one that can’t be described by the four fundamental forces.

Pre-Established Harmony -God makes sure that mind and matter are 'in step.'

Epiphenomenalism -the brain can affect consciousness, but consciousness cannot affect the physical brain. For example, a train creates smoke that follows it. If the train stops, the smoke stops. However, the train is not affected by anything the smoke does.

Mysterianism -monkeys cannot understand calculus. It is the same way with humans, consciousness is beyond our capability of understanding.

Another speculation of the existence of consciousness: reality may be a resurrection of a non-spatial reality that pre-existed the Big Bang.

Kurt Gödel says the mind must have 'non-algorithmic' powers. Dr. deVries explained that in this way: any formal system cannot prove at least one 'sentence.' To define the gap in that system's ability, one must use another system, which in turn has its own blind spots. It's not that things are unprovable, but that one system can't do everything. Dr. Möbius agreed, saying that no formal mathematical system is both consistent and complete. Systems are self-referential when we experiment, experimenters create controls to which test subjects can be compared. However, with consciousness, we cannot step back – everything we hypothesize and project is within the test subject, and there can be no control.

Dr. deVries mentioned the Old Liar Paradox: if a Creton tells you all Cretons are liars, do you believe him? How can you? You have no outside information pertaining to the Creton, so you have no way of knowing if he is telling the truth; there is no control.

Tests for Determining Consciousness in Animals/Machines

The Turing Test
The Turing Test involves a computer simulating human conversation with a person who doesn't know whether he/she is talking to a person or a computer. If the person can't tell, the computer passes....Does it test for thinking? Consciousness? Intelligence?

The Mirror Test
If you can recognize yourself in a mirror, you pass the mirror test. Humans, great apes, and dolphins all pass this test for self consciousness.
Discussion within the class brought up the validity of this test. Infants cannot immediately recognize themselves in a mirror. Are they then not self-conscious?

The Soul

Wikipedia explains the soul as follows: In distinction to spirit which may or may not be eternal, souls are usually considered to be immortal and to pre-exist their incarnation in flesh.

The ancient Greeks thought that the soul goes to Hades when the body dies.
Plato and Socrates said there are three parts to the soul:

Mind – reason (logos)
Body – appetite (passion)
Emotion – spirit (pathos)

Aristotle believed the soul could not be separated from the body.

The Scientific Search for the Soul

1. Francis Crick and colleagues believed that the materialistic brain will eventually lend enough physical clues to lead to an understanding of consciousness.
2. Non-material conscious entities exist, but conventional material does not necessarily require consciousness.


Dr. Davis, a self-proclaimed dualist, said that body coerces the soul through pain, but the soul is the experiencer of things.
Someone asked, what is the purpose of pain? Machines could have all sorts of protective functions w/o pain being necessary.
George replied that we experience pain because there is no 'higher operator' telling us how to act. Thus, if we err and do something that is bad for us, a cause/effect mechanism resulting in pain teaches us not to repeat that action.
Dr. deVries brought up the function vs. purpose argument: pain is not well enough defined to build it into a machine.
Vasiliy said that pain is simply receptors telling your brain you did something bad to your body, and then you remember that and don't do it again. So, a robot can feel pain.
Dr. Davis returned by mentioning the thermostat example. A thermostat measures the temperature and adjusts according to built-in instructions. It turns off if too hot or cold, but it has no feelings.
Vasiliy brought up an example of a certain disorder that inhibits pain – if you catch on fire with this disorder, you don't know unless you see it, because pain receptors can't tell your brain something bad is happening..A student wanted to know what is the point of pain; Dr. deVries said that preventing harm was more efficient than fixing things.
DJ said that we shouldn't use robots as an example of consciousness, because being programmed to be conscious is not in fact being conscious at all. A curious computer is conscious, but if that curiosity is programmed, it is artificial and the computer is not actually conscious.
Tamsyn replied, aren't we programmed too? Also, can't robots feel pain in the sense that one person can't feel another's pain? We can only tell one another about it, but we have no way of knowing what that experience is like for a particular person.
Dr. Möbius helped clarify the issue of pain, as much of the talk was getting too much into specifics and losing sight of the larger picture. He emphasized that experience is the issue, and that pain is just one aspect of that.
Becky asked about the difference between happiness and pain, as two examples of experience. She says that trees experience, but this does not necessarily imply that they have a soul.

Someone said that everything we don't know in the physical universe, we make up, before we have the technology to explain it in scientific terms.
Dr. deVries said that physics tells us that the universe is a closed system.
Dr. Möbius warned him to be more cautious, because we don't know whether that is the case, and probably can't know. Our observable universe is (most likely) smaller than all that exists 'out there.' It may very well be an open universe.
Dr. deVries made the point that the four forces we've identified (electromagnetic, weak, strong, gravitational) are standardized and so we can rule out the existence of supernatural forces.
Dr. Davis returned with the possibility of something having acted upon the universe at the moment of its creation. This would be completely undetectable, and doesn't violate statistics/laws.

Mr. Ferris said that synthesis and growing complexity gave rise to consciousness over time, and it must be material. He explained the Quantum Mind theory to the class, speaking of evolution of consciousness as a natural process. Many members of the classs appreciated his explanation to the point of supporting the Quantum Mind theory the most of all those presented.
Dr. Davis confirmed the explanation by saying that materialists believed consciousness happened through Darwinian evolution (proposed by Daniel Dennett).

Someone asked what type of consciousness extends beyond the necessity (per evolution) to procreate.
Dr. Davis said that he didn't know how consciousness was created from complex molecules and structures, etc.

A discussion then began concerning the difference between the experiences of one person compared to those of another. Dr. deVries introduced the class to the Inverted Spectrum Thought Experiment. Suppose two people see absolutely opposite colors. How could one detect this difference? It might be impossible. This is a good thought experiment to show how different types of reality are incomparable. We can’t know what, or how, anyone else experiences.
The theory of functionalism says that the inverted spectrum idea is impossible, because it implies 2 mental states that differ in a fundamental way, yet behave identically. Functionally they are identical. Consciousness then is epiphenomenal.

Zoe asked what the point was of a two-train analogy, with mind running along matter, expressing how it kind of disturbed her. She thought it might be unnecessary.
Dr. Davis replied by saying we don't need a meaning for consciousness because without consciousness, there is no meaning to anything.

Marty brought up an excellent example of a physical event that affected personality directly. Phineas Gage was working on a railroad and a rail spike accidentally went through his skull, into his brain where it rested. People around him noted a drastic change in his behavior and personality after this event. He used to be kind and easygoing, but he turned into a violent and angry person, consistently rash and unreasonable. These differences are attributed to the locations in the brain that the spike affected.

Dr. Davis, when asked again about the pineal gland and its purpose in dualism, said that it's a starting point, and more symbolic at our current level of understanding of the brain than much else.

DJ had a comment that referred to what Marty had said about dualism. He wanted to know why anyone would bother with dualism if it was so medically clear that physical changes affected the personality.
Dr. Davis returned with a concern that was reason of much of his belief: if you want to believe in a Heaven after death, you can't think that the soul dies when the body does.

Hannah had a good question of Dr. Davis. What is the function of the soul if it cannot experience through a body? Dr. Davis did not know, but he said that he's read a great deal of literature concerning the afterlife and the beliefs of different religions. Just about every one relies on the existence of Heaven, and he wants to believe they must be right in some way. Much of the class agreed with this sentiment. He said that he has used meditation to explore consciousness, and he's tried subtract experience in a stepwise fashion while meditating. Hannah asked if one can be conscious of one's consciousness, and Dr. Davis postulated that perhaps that's what happens when a person dies. Yet Hannah persisted: doesn't consciousness require experience?
DJ wanted to know of Dr. Davis whether the spirit has requirements. Must the matter it inhabits be alive? Can it be in a rock, and if so, can rocks go to Heaven?
Dr. Davis refuted that line of reasoning, saying simply, rocks do not have souls. Could a soul have a rock? The interface is not very well understood, if it exists.

Marty said that we change as people due to empirical events and conditions, so must the soul really be transcendental?
Mr. Ferris agreed, bringing to the conversation a biological perspective. He said consciousness requires energy, and therefore the conversion of ATP and other chemical processes. It is hard to imagine a soul without energy use.
Dr. Davis said that ethereal consciousness does not require material energy, as they possibly exist in different dimensions.
Dr. deVries informed the class of the pan-psychist Dave Chalmer's three universal entities: mass, energy, and information. He believes that everything has a qualitative aspect to it.

A student introduced his idea of consciousness thus: consciousness is the very short term memory of what has just occurred. It is more of an experience as opposed to an action. He said that dreams can only draw from experience. He stated that he would like to be a dualist, but cannot separate the physical from the mental. “ A soul without my memories is no longer me.”

DJ liked the idea of consciousness being only a near-instantaneous memory, but could not reconcile that with our ability to make plans concerning the future. If he could remember, and also plan ahead, what is the point in between those two realms? There then must be a present.

Dr. Davis brought forth the dualist's viewpoint, and said that as long as you are attached to your [physical] identity, you mistake it for yourself.

Mr. Ferris explained Antonio Damasio's 'The Feeling of What Happens” and how there is no such thing as a thought without a feeling behind it.


Consciousness was examined on many different levels during both the presentation and the following discussion. Theories ranging from inherent inability to understand consciousness to microtubules in spacetime were considered. Because of the nature of this subject, it is hard to quantify a change in opinions of the class over the duration of the discussion. However, as we were presented with a wealth of information concerning consciousness, it can be said that we can develop more informed opinions in the future.