Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Thoughts of Dust

On the Thoughts of Dust

by Douglas M. Stokes

(Previously published in the Society for Psychical Research April 2009 Paranormal Review)

In these pages (Stokes, 2004) and elsewhere, I have argued for the existence of multiple selves (conceived as spheres of pure consciousness) within each human being. Such a modular view of the human mind is frequently adopted by modern neuroscientists to address such phenomena such as behavioral conflict between the hemispheres of split-brain patients and “blindsight,” in which a cortically blind patient evidences knowledge of visual targets that she does not consciously perceive.

Descartes’ Error

When Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am,” I do not believe his error lies in the second clause (the affirmation of the existence of a continuing and unified self), as such writers as Dennett (1991) and Churchland (2002) would have us believe. The experience of oneself as a continuing field of consciousness is for me immediately given. If I cannot even know that I am a field of consciousness that continues from moment to moment, then I cannot know anything. To second Descartes’ conclusion, the knowledge of oneself’s existence, at least from moment to moment, cannot be doubted.

For me, Descartes’ error lies not in his conclusion, but rather in his premise. As a continuing field of consciousness, I do not think; rather, my hapless brain does the bulk of my thinking for me. As has been made abundantly clear by modern research in cognitive neuroscience, my thoughts, my feelings, and the other elements that make up my personality are dependent on brain activity, and if that activity is radically altered or discontinued, they will not persist in any recognizable manner. However, my true self, construed as a field of pure consciousness, might persist, either trapped in a vegetative brain or on to new adventures.

To me the evidence of a continuing self is not that it thinks, which it cannot do without massive assistance from a brain, but that it has feelings and experiences (termed “quales” by the philosophers). Thus, a rectified version of Descartes’ statement might be: “I’m nauseous, therefore I am.”


I have termed the multiple spheres of consciousness within each person “mini-Shins,” which is an adaptation of the term “Shin,” coined by Thouless and Wiesner (1948) to refer to the conscious self in a way that avoids the theoretical and religious baggage that accompanies the use of the word “soul.”

Each such self, if receiving input from widespread areas of the brain, might fall under the delusion that it is the sole center of consciousness in the person.

The informational span of even the executive sphere of consciousness may be quite unimpressive. The psychologist George Miller famously proclaimed that the human mind was able to hold only 7 + 2 items in consciousness at one time (and I question the plus sign for me and my fellow sexagenarians). Whatever else you might say about fields of consciousness, they generally seem to be stunningly stupid all by themselves.

For instance, due to attentional blindness, subjects even fail to notice a gorilla walking among a group of players passing a basketball back and forth (Simons & Chabris, 1999). Thus, mini-Shins may not have a very impressive informational-processing capacity (unlike the brain).

The Evolution of Consciousness

Advocates of the anthropic principle maintain that the laws of physics and the initial conditions of the universe appear to be delicately designed to allow the evolution of conscious observers. The prominent physicist and mathematician John Wheeler (1983) suggested that under quantum theory, the universe could not exist unless it contained a conscious observer to collapse its state vector and thus grant reality to it. Similarly, Walker (2000) argued for the existence of disembodied “proto-consciousnesses” scattered throughout the universe, whose job it is to surf the vast void, to render reality from the vast fog of uncollapsed possibilities.

However, the universe itself appears relatively indifferent to at least human consciousness, which has only existed for a measly half a million years, compared to the 13.7 billion years of the universe’s existence (which itself is an amazingly short time when one stops to consider that the Earth itself is 4.6 billion year old).

The vast reaches of space appear to be filled primarily with eerily beautiful lifeless voids sprinkled here and there with dust, clouds, and seemingly uninhabited, lifeless rocks. Given our perhaps carbon-based prejudices, most of the universe appears to be indifferent to, if not outright hostile to, the presence of conscious observers. If, as the advocates of the anthropic principle maintain, the laws of the universe appear to be designed to support conscious observers, it does not seem to be a very “cost-effective” design (the recent discoveries of a large number of extrasolar planets not withstanding). Thus, some (e.g., Hill, 2005) have argued that if the universe is designed to produce any observers at all, it appears that most such observers would be inhabitants of lifeless rocks and clouds of plasma, rather than snuggled warmly in the neocortex of a primate brain. As noted above, Walker (2000) suggested that the universe is suffused with proto-consciousnesses, which though observation cause quantum potentiality to become reality, even in regions remote from carbon-based life-forms. If so, these proto-consciousnesses or mini-Shins can apparently be imprisoned in brains, at least for brief periods of time. However, if they are like most other things in the universe, from antiprotons to Z particles, it is likely that they are capable of being reshuffled and recycled from physical system to physical system, in a process that might be described as a form of memory-less and more or less continual reincarnation.

One answer to the proponents of the anthropic principle is that there may be multiple “bubble universes” evidencing different sets of physical laws and initial conditions. Alternatively, the universe may undergo cycles of Big Bangs followed by Big Crunches. In each cycle the universe may emerge phoenix-like from its ashes, perhaps with its laws and initial conditions reinitialized. Penrose (2008) has proposed that, in fact, the universe may have undergone an infinity of such cycles in the past. In either case, the reason why we find ourselves in a universe that supports the existence of conscious thinkers (vs. conscious observers) is that there would be no complex thoughts if the universe were a lifeless void. To paraphrase Descartes once again, “I think, therefore I must somehow be glued to a complex brain.” At least for the moment.

The Hierarchy of Consciousness

This view leads naturally to panpsychism, the view that consciousness pervades the universe. Many of the most prominent practitioners of human thought, including Leibniz, Spinoza, and Alfred North Whitehead have proposed that consciousness pervades all things and that, at root, the universe consists of a plenitude of spheres of pure consciousness, or “monads” in Leibniz’ terminology. In the early stages of my intellectual career, I scoffed at the notion that a rock might be consciousness. How silly my naive rejection appears in retrospect. It is a shame that the cosmos of Leibniz, Spinoza, and Whitehead has to be “discovered” anew by each generation, due to the fact this point of view is drowned in a seemingly ubiquitous sea of irrationalism on the part of all sides in the debate over religion.

One advantage of this view is that it does not need to explain how consciousness arose from insentient matter, which is perhaps the most vexing, fundamental and seemingly unsolvable problem confronting modern science and philosophy. Consciousness was here from the start. It is angels all the way down.

Our bodies are composed of a vast number of cells and bacteria, with only a fraction of them from our own species. In fact, our bodies seem more akin to a ferocious battleground for microorganisms, which are replaced from minute to minute, than to a unified entity. If one is to grant consciousness to animals “all the way down,” could not our white blood cells possess a (possibly dim) conscious capable of recognizing their foes and engulfing them? Might plants be conscious? While they seem less complex than us, rice plants contain upwards of 50,000 genes, compared to a measly 20,000 to 25,000 for a human being. Thus, appearances may be deceiving. Is it inconceivable that plants possess a glimmer of consciousness, perhaps operating on a much slower time frame than we do? If one watches plants in a speeded up movie, their behavior seems almost animal-like as they open and close their petals and stretch to capture the maximum sunlight. Do plants experience thirst when deprived of water (to say nothing of the Venus flytrap, which might be expected to experience pleasure as it emits a contented burp)? It is true that plants have no nervous systems; however, might we not be biased toward neurons because of our present unfortunate location? McGinn (1999) for instance begins his book The Mysterious Flame with a short story in which future silicon-based artificial intelligences stumble across the Earth and are astounded to find lumps of meat that can think (our brains).

Our brains are essentially comprised of colonies of single-celled animals (our neurons). What if these animals could move? Might their collective then be considered an even more complex brain?

Hölldobler and Wilson (2008) propose that communities of insects comprise “superorganisms” and that evolutionary selection acts on the colony as a unit, rather than on the on the individual insects. Can the whole of humanity be considered as a single super-brain? If so, are there (perhaps somewhat oxymoronic) mega-mini-Shins associated with the global sphere of consciousness? Goldberg (2009) has even suggested that in the future the Internet may develop into an “advanced intrinsic consciousness” (p. 54).

And what of the famous thermostat? Can it be said to be aware of the rise of heat? Might rocks as they weather and absorb radiation experience consciousness on an extremely slow time span? As I work in my current job I sometime catch glimpses of the patterns on my Windows media player that resemble the light show at the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I sometimes think that the consciousness of a rock might be something like that (as well as how much more peaceful it would be to be such a rock rather than to return to the Microsoft Word window at which I am toiling).

In view of the complexity of the quantum mechanical wave governing the behavior of individual physical particles, it might not be too big of a stretch to hypothesize that a single proton might possess consciousness. Edwards (2006) has argued that single neurons may be centers of consciousness, again based on complexity of input. Each of these centers of consciousness would fall under the illusion that it is the sole center of consciousness in the body.

Attributing consciousness to elementary particles would seem to ignore the usual roles attributed to consciousness by cognitive neuroscientists, which include attention and the binding of diverse neural activity into the unified perception of an object (as well as other functions, such as learning novel tasks and decision-making). In his recent review of studies relating to attention, Yantis (2008) notes that process of directing attention remains unexplained by current findings in neuroscience. Munz (2008) notes that the “binding problem” also remains unexplained, and he even attributes such “binding” to an entity outside of the brain, namely human culture.

It does seem as though the center of consciousness that is the “master of the brain” is somehow able to direct such behavior as the writing of this article. However, perhaps that center is just “lucky” enough to be in the right place and the right time to direct the writing of this article. (It might, for instance, be conceived as affixed to Broca’s area in the left hemisphere, as it does seem to choose the words I will use. Other mini-Shins might for instance have the jobs of moving one’s limbs. Sometimes when I think about it, I am amazed that that my arm actually obeys my directions and executes an intricate sequence of movements without any “micro-management” on my part.)

The Universe and All That

The physicist James Jeans (1937) famously noted that the universe resembles “a great thought” more than it does a “great machine,” given that quantum mechanics has undermined the mechanistic worldview of classical physics, which is grounded in the now discredited doctrine of local realism. Indeed, some have asked, if the universe is a great thought, why does it go through the trouble of actually existing? As Leibniz asked, why is there something rather than nothing? Also, if the universe is a thought, why does the thought appear to be of the consequences of an elaborate set of mathematical laws? As Jeans noted, God appears to be a pure mathematician. Similarly, the Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner asked, what explains the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics in describing the physical universe? Goldberg (2009) compares the universe to a great equation. He views the universe as self-created, as mathematical truths are fundamental and exist outside of space and time.[1]

However, if the universe is a great thought, why is it not more dream-like, with Alice and Wonderland capriciousness? The vastness and law-like nature of the universe explains why the idealist philosophical viewpoint that the world is mental in nature has lost ground to the view that the material world is the only reality, which ultimately led to the view that mind itself is impotent and has little or no standing in the physical universe.

However, even the very dust from which we were born and into which we will die may well still carry still the stuff of mind.


Churchland, P. S. (2002). Brain-wise: Studies in neurophilosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Edwards, J. C. W. (2006). How many people are in my head? And in hers? Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.

Goldberg, S. (2009). Anatomy of the soul: Mind, God and the afterlife. Miami, FL: Medmaster, Inc.

Hill, T. (2005). [Letter to the Editor.] Skeptical Inquirer, 29(1), 61.

Hölldobler, B. & Wilson, E. O. (2008). The superorganism: The beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies. New York: Norton.

Jeans, J. (1937). The mysterious universe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

McGinn, C. (1999). The mysterious flame. New York: Basic Books.

Munz, P. (2008). Why homo sapiens had to be saved by culture. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15(12),57-73.

Penrose, R. (2008). Causality, quantum theory and cosmology. In Connes, A., Heller, M., Majid, S., Penrose, R., Polkinghorne, J. & Taylor, A., On space and time (pp.141-195). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Stokes, D. M. (2004). The survival problem: Up close and personal. Paranormal Review, 3 (April 2004), 3-9

Thouless, R. H., & Wiesner, B. P. (1948). The psi process in normal and “paranormal” psychology. Journal of Parapsychology, 12, 192–212.

Walker, E. H. (2000). The physics of consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Wheeler, J. A. (1983). Law without law. In J. A. Wheeler & W. H. Zurek (Eds.), Quantum theory and measurement (pp. 182-213). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yantis, S. (2008). The neural basis of selective attention” Cortical sources and targets of attentional modulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 86-90.
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