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The Physics
of Being Aware

David & Andrea Lane

In response to a recent article I wrote with my wife, Andrea, (“Is Consciousness Physical”) Frank Visser was kind enough to give us an initial rejoinder with some pregnant questions[1]. I particularly liked what Visser wrote since it focuses some of the key questions confronting neuroscientists and philosophers concerned with explaining how and why human awareness has evolved.

The first question we have to tackle here is Wilber's position that even if one does indeed discover a neurological correlate to a mystical experience, nay any human experience, it does not capture the subjective nature of what we are experiencing at the time. For instance, it may be true that a dentist can objectively know each and every detail about why your impacted wisdom teeth are causing you so much pain, but his/her narrative, no matter how sympathetic it may sound or read, doesn't allow him/her to get directly into your experience of suffering at that time. As the well known philosopher, John Searle, at U.C. Berkeley, might put it: a third person description shouldn't be conflated with a first person narrative. The latter, while objective, doesn't reveal the subjectivity or the “interior” nature of the patient's dental pain.

David Chalmers in his widely read book, The Conscious Mind, in analyzing this conundrum calls “qualia” the hard problem in the study of consciousness. Chalmers believes the problem is so hard that he has tried to re-introduce a respectable version of dualism in order to resolve the paradox. Owen Flanagan from Rutgers University has suggested that the peculiar nature of consciousness is such that we will never be able to solve its essential mystery.

Other philosophers, however, especially those grounded in the neurosciences aren't so pessimistic and have envisioned a series of pathways by which both the subjective and objective nature of awareness can indeed be explained purely physically. As Patricia Churchland, author of the 1986 breakthrough text, Neurophilosophy, explains in her seminal paper, “What Should We Expect from a Theory of Consciousness”:

This question is most pointedly raised in the context of the inverted spectrum problem, and I shall address it in that form. To illustrate, consider the possibility that your color experiences (color qualia) might be systematically inverted relative to mine; e. g. where you see red, I see green, and so on. Noting that there could be systematic behavioral compensation that would cover experiential differences, skeptics have urged that even looking inside would be unavailing . Allegedly, no conceivable test could ever reveal similarity or inversion in our color experiences. The lesson we are invited to draw is that consciousness is intractable scientifically because inter-subjective comparisons are impossible. Some philosophers think that this is not merely a problem about what we can and cannot know, but evidence that consciousness is a metaphysically different kind of thing from brain activity. In addressing this issue, I shall make one assumption: that conscious experiences are in some systematic causal connection to neuronal activity. That is, they are not utterly independent of the causal events in the brain.
To deny the assumption is to slide into a version of dualism known as "psycho-physical parallelism", meaning that mental events and physical events are completely independent of each other causally, and just happen, amazingly enough, to run in parallel "streams". Normal human color vision is known to depend three cone types, each of which is tuned to respond to light of particular wavelengths. Cone inputs are coded by color-opponent cells in the retina and lateral geniculate nucleus, and project to double-opponent cells in the parvocellular-blob pathways of the cortex. Cells in cortical area V4 appear to code for color regardless of wavelength composition of the light from the stimulus, and appear to subserve the perceptual phenomenon known as color constancy. Lesions to the cortical area known as V4 result in achromatopsia (loss of all color perception), in humans and monkeys. Also relevant to behavioral determinations of differences in experience is the fact that the relations between hue, chroma (saturation) and value (lightness) define an asymmetric solid (Munsell color quality space). This implies that radical differences in perception should be detectable behaviorally, given suitable tests. That is, "A is more similar to B than to C" relations between colors are defined over the Munsell quality space, and if there is red/green inversion, the similarity relations to yellow, orange, pink etc. will not remain the same.
Given the progress to date, it seems likely that the basic neurobiological story for color processing can be unraveled. For similar reasons, it looks likely that the basic story for touch discrimination and its mechanisms in the somatosensory thalamus and cortex can also be unraveled. For example, it seems evident that if someone lacks "green" cones, or lacks "red/green opponent cells, or lacks a V4, they will not experience the visual perception of green. Comparable circuitry and comparable behavioral discriminations seem to be presumptive of comparable experiences; that is, comparable qualia. (Clark 1993) The skeptic, however, insists that no data—not behavior, not anatomy, not physiology—could ever reveal qualia inversion. Incidentally, what is at issue here is not that minor differences in such things as hue or brightness might go undetected, but that even huge differences, such as red/green inversions or brightness/dullness inversion, might be in principle absolutely undetectable. To approach this matter somewhat indirectly, let us first consider a vivid example where it is evident that a perceptual inversion is likely detectable, namely, inverted "shape" qualia. Could Alphie have "straight qualia" whenever Betty has "curved qualia" (and vice versa) and the difference be absolutely undetectable? In this example, because two modalities—vision and touch—can access the external property, it seems easier to agree that together, behavioral data and wiring data permit us to make a reasonable determination of similarity and differences. That is, the problem is not essentially less tractable than determining whether two people digest food in the same way or whether two cats in free fall right themselves in the same way.
Much the same is usually conceded for pleasure/pain inversion, and within vision, of near/far inversion in stereopsis. Random dot streograms are already a very reliable determinant of (a) whether a subject has stereopsis at all, and (b) whether there is an inversion between two subjects. If we factor in data from "near/far" cells in V1, then insisting upon absolute undetectability begins to look unreasonable. It seems a bit like insisting that it is absolutely undetectable whether the universe was created five minutes ago, complete with all its geological records, its fossil records, history books, and my memories etc.
Skepticism carried to that extreme just ceases to be scientifically inter[e]sting, and becomes philosophical in the pejorative sense of the term. In the case of "shape inversion", the skeptic can remain a skeptic by going one of two ways, neither of which helps his sweeping anti-reductionist defense: (1) no qualia—not shape, not temperature, not pain not any qualia-- can be compared across subjects, even to a degree of probability. They are one and all, absolutely incomparable. For all I could ever know, you might experience the color red when I experience pain. (2) The neurobiology of shape qualia (rough/smooth, etc.) can be compared, and perhaps even the neurobiology of stereopsis, but color vision is different. The first appears to depend only on an anti-reductionist resolve, without any independent argument. In that case, we really are looking at a circular argument. The only escape from the circle is to fall into the embrace of dualism—and worse, of the deeply implausible psycho-physical parallelism rendition of that already implausible doctrine. The second makes a major concession so far as qualia in general are concerned. Having conceded that some qualia are scientifically approachable, the skeptic no longer shields subjectivity as such, but only subjectivity for certain classes of experience, namely color vision. This looks far less powerful that the original position, and it starts the skeptic down a slippery slope. For having made this concession, it now becomes easier for the reductionist to push hard on the point that comparisons in receptor properties, wiring properties, connectivity to motor control, and so forth, will augment—as it already does—behavioral data, and allow us to compare capacities across individuals. And similar arguments can be made for other single modality experiences: stereopsis, sound, pain, temperature, feeling nauseous, feeling dizzy etc. That is, as long as awareness of color has a causal structure in the brain—as long as it is not a property of soul-stuff utterly detached from all causal interaction with the brain—data from psychology (e. g. the color-hue relationships ) and neuroscience (tuning curves for the three cone types in the retina, wiring from the retina to cortex and intracortically) predicts that big differences in color perception will correlate with big differences in wiring and in neuronal activity. In the context of a more detailed knowledge of the brain in general, rough comparisons between individuals ought to be achievable, subject to the usual qualifications unavoidable in any science.

Wilber tends to see distinct, even if connected, realms between the body, the mind, and the spirit. Indeed, as he first suggested in Eye to Eye, there is a tripartite methodological schema which gives rises to differing truth claims,

“which means, in shorthand fashion, the investigation of sensory experience, mental experience, and spiritual experience: the eye of flesh, the eye of mind, and the eye of contemplation: all-level, all-quadrant.”

Now the problem that naturally arises here is that the eye of flesh and the eye of mind and the eye of contemplation are, from a physicalist perspective merely descriptions of varying functions within one's own single (even if messy and conjoined) brain. The danger here is that Wilber tends to conflate descriptive markers or activities with a hierarchical notion of truth.

Yes, I can focus my attention on the visual field in front of me, such as the computer screen I am looking at, or I can instead divert my gaze and ruminate about mathematical symbols that I can imagine in my head without recourse to anything presently in my visual field. Or, I can close my eyes in order to stop or alter what images seep into my cranium. Or, I can try to shut down my chattering thoughts by focusing on one image or no image at all, or repeating a mantra, or finding the source from which my awareness arises. But underlying all three of these activities isn't a hierarchy of distinctive modalities for truth ascertainment. What we are witnessing, quite literally, is the various ways we use our attention.

Wilber's descriptions run the danger of being taken as reifications (literally making a “thingy” out of a descriptive abstraction). There isn't a “physical” truth versus a “mental” truth existing on separate planes of existence. Likewise, calling something a spiritual truth implies some kind of transcendent ontology, when such is not at all the case. When I meditate I am not necessarily ascending to something trans-physical or trans-mental. Rather, one could just as easily argue that I am merely invoking a different aspect of my own awareness, such as turning my attention to attention itself or relaxing the grasping of objects in my visual field to be the field itself. But all of this can rightly be seen as various aspects of one physical being.

While meditative and contemplative disciplines certainly have much to teach us about how our brains work, I don't think using outdated and outmoded theological conceptual worldviews is helpful in understanding consciousness. Rather, it seems to be a huge impediment. For example, demon possession is no longer a viable descriptive marker to explain aberrant states of mind. We realize now that such misleading labeling obscured a deeper understanding of how the brain operates under certain psycho-social conditions. Because of our improved neuroscience, professional psychologists have more or less “eliminated” demonic possession as an accurate behavioral term. This doesn't mean that the belief in such has disappeared, but only that rational scrutiny of the phenomenon has demonstrated that this mental state and others like it were misleadingly identified and explained. We know better now because have a deeper and richer understanding through science of how our nervous systems react in varying conditions.

Likewise, terms such as Samadhi, enlightenment, Buddha Nature, while indicative of how certain religious systems described their internal practices, may also be “eliminated” and replaced with more neurologically precise terminology. To keep using outdated and theologically loaded terminology, as Wilber has tended to do, can unwittingly create fake or misleading truth hierarchies where none may exist.

Wilber, to his partial credit, has already admitted to some of this and thus he speaks of his own evolution with his slightly narcissistic appellations of Wilber I, Wilber II, Wilber III, and so on.

But I don't think he has gone far enough. Indeed, he hasn't really come to grips with how his whole AQAL system can be turned upside down and changed quite easily into Edward O. Wilson's reductive Consilience, where the exploration of higher realms of existence really does take on a scientific posture and which grounds itself in physics and chemistry and biology first. Wilber is prematurely pontificating about that which is trans-rational, when on closer inspection much of it may simply be sophisticated, if mostly unexplored, machinations of our own cranial capacities.

Do we feel this sense of exploration from Wilber's AQAL maps? No, we get rather the conceited sense that the cartography has already been charted and figured out and all we have to do is fill in the gaps. Wilber's Integral is theology dressed up in scientific jargon. But science is progressive only to the degree that it can be falsifiable.

So, the best thing for Wilber's whole ism (pun intended) is its rejection, not its acceptance. In other words, the focus should be on seeing where and when his pontifications are mistaken. His AQAL quilt is only as good as its patches, and if a certain patch of his research is weak or insufficient then that should be immediately shored up. Wilber is pushing so hard for his mosaic that he either forgets or ignores the numerable pieces that don't fit or are severely damaged.

This is why Wilber's reaction to critics and criticism is so telling. Wilber has already been rightly raked over the coals for his take on evolutionary biology, but what is even more worrisome is his reaction to Frank Visser and his website. Just re-read Wilber's varying rants about who should qualify as a critic and you immediately realize that much of his Integral has absolutely nothing to do with science, but everything to do with building up a cultic worldview that doesn't t even withstand his own critique of such things from his earlier book, Spiritual Choices.

Yet, the most troublesome aspect of Wilber's theology (and, yes, it is more theology than science) is, ironically, how cheaply reductionistic it can be when it suits his lexical needs. His entire take on meme theory is illustrative of this. Labeling varying individuals and their thinking with color codes as a type of short-handed stereotyping isn't insightful but actually borders on a new form of intellectual racism. Instead of calling somebody white trash, you can instead slime him with the “oh, he's at the greem meme level.” This kind of label reductionism is completely at odds with anything pretending to be “integral.” Moreover, it is intellectually lazy, not to mention highly confusing as well, especially in light of how memetic theory was developed by Richard Dawkins and later by Susan Blackmore.

As for whether science can indeed decide the physicality of consciousness I think the answer is affirmative, even despite science's methodological naturalism. Quite simply, if consciousness is indeed beyond physics or anything within its known laws, then no matter how hard we try to ground mind to its neural structures there will always be something missing in such reductions. And, interestingly, this gap will loom even larger because our physical science will be unable to adequately explain it. Thus, one could argue that such a physicalist approach will shine a much more illuminating light upon the problem by showing exactly where, when, and how awareness is not the result of physical properties. But if we forego this grounded scientific quest prematurely because of already accepted quadrant categorizations (the type that Wilber is fond of proposing, even if he talks of some ultimate spiritual union) then we can and will succumb too easily and too readily and too naively to the Transcendental Temptation. Or, to invoke Wilber's own parlance, you cannot make a pre-trans fallacy distinction unless you have a deep and rich and nuanced understanding of all that is indeed pre. How else can one determine that which is truly trans?

Or, as I once wrote in my critique of Jack Hislop's highly readable but highly questionable book, My Baba and I, substantiating Sathya Sai Baba's supposed miracles, why does the Swami produce trinkets out of his hand and not the world's largest diamond ? Or, why not pull a Toyota Camry out of his ear? Because if did either of those two things it would force all us of take his claims much more seriously, even if we tried our utmost to come up with a common sense explanation.

Science, in other words, can indeed point to that which is not physical because of its ultra focused aim. Science can upend itself quite easily. The fact that it hasn't yet is why we remain so confident in its methods and its discoveries. But if in the future it comes across something that cannot be reduced to the four forces of the universe, we will be forced to reconsider.

But what has happened in the past and what is still happening today is that we want to invoke transcendent explanations too quickly in order to salvage a sense of the numinous, forgetting in the process that even if all things are indeed material bits the mystery of all this (and here comes the pun) isn't lessened by one bit.

The problem isn't with “all is matter” but with our outdated notion of what matter truly is. Matter, as anyone slightly conversant with quantum theory surely know, isn't flat, isn't grey, and it certainly isn't one dimensional. Matter is as magical and as mystical as any “heaven” described in religious tomes.

To underline our Wittgenstein-like difficulties, imagine that you are a devout Sikh and that after you died you entered into that most exalted of spiritual regions, Sach Khand (literally, “the truth realm”). Further imagine that you as soul/spirit were involved in a heavenly conversation with one of your numerous companions. You query, “Wow, we are in the land of truth and bliss. But what are we made of here?”

Your friend responds, “Ah, we are beings of light.”

Now for most of us hearing this conversation here on terra firma it sounds uplifting and we might even wish we could have something similar.

But is it really any different right now? What is matter anyways? From organisms to cells to proteins to molecules to atoms to electrons to LIGHT? The most famous equation in modern physics is Einstein's E=MC2 which if we pause for a second is as mysterious as anything written in our ancient religious scriptures and measurably more radical.

My point is that the resistance we have to reductionists who say, we are “just matter” is because we tend to think of matter as flat. It is, of course, anything but.Thus maybe the reason we opt for dualism or the idea that something must be “beyond” matter is because we haven't come to grips to the amazing plasticity and mystery inherent in matter itself.

In other words, we are using an extremely outdated and misleading definition of matter and in so doing losing sight of the wonderfulness of what physics and neuroscience is saying.We are not lessened because we are just matter. Just as we wouldn't be lessened in Sach Khand if we were made of just “light.”

Frank Visser rightly capture our semantic confusion when he queries, “How on earth could cells and molecules lead to felt states? Forget about psi – psychology itself is as paranormal as you can get!”

At first glance it does seem to absolutely amazing how we could get from molecules to self awareness.But, the same could be said about life itself. How can it be that a three letter sequence of DNA strung together in varying sequences can produce a giraffe, a shark, and a human being? Indeed, rearrange atoms and you can get a chalk board, a cruise ship, an orange, and the moon. But get it we do.

Likewise, getting from a cell to a self aware human being isn't a stretch if we understand how the complex arrangement of atoms can indeed produce things that we cannot possibly imagine to exist, but which played out over time do indeed exist.

Therefore, the problem that we have with the physicality of consciousness is the same resistance that our ancestors had with understanding probabilities and how very simple algorithmic sequences can produce truly astonishingly complex varieties, the likes of which boggle our imagination.

That we cannot imagine how matter produces consciousness tells us how limited our imaginations are when it comes to the wonders of physics. We shouldn't confuse our intuitive limitations with how the world works.

Physics is the most mystical endeavor known to humankind, if one truly comes to grip with the multi-dimensional aspects inherent in any particle that arises.

If one takes thinks of hydrogen and oxygen in isolation, it would be inconceivable to imagine that their combination would bring forth water. But that is precisely what occurs and nothing “more” is needed. Therefore, the “inconceivability” of something shouldn't be used ad hoc as a precursor for invoking the divine. Patience, in other words, is a highly necessary virtue if we wish to avoid making pre/trans leaps.

We have an almost built-in dualism within our awareness which gives us the convincing sense that our selves are not our bodies. This is what Visser is underlining when he mentions that destroying a television set wouldn't destroy television programs. T.V. shows come through the set but are not of it.

However, one could just as easily argue that if consciousness is akin to an electromagnetic wave then stopping production at its source would indeed cancel the television show.

The brain, in this purview, is the production facility and because of its centrality to self-reflective awareness, it seems fairly obvious that if you destroy the central nervous system you have killed consciousness.

Saying consciousness is physical doesn't detract from its majesty in the least, since as we have repeatedly mentioned matter itself is to use Rudolph Otto's religious terminology, mysterium tremendum and ganz andere.

We have to turnaround our understanding of matter and also how we view ourselves in the process. Matter is multi-dimensional and if the reconfigurations of tiny atoms can give us nature's wide diversity (from a rose to an airplane to a sunset to a cup of java to repeated episodes of I Love Lucy), then a complex set of billions of neurons may also give rise to varying degrees of awareness.

Or, we could use reverse engineering to give us a clue about why awareness is directly connected to physics. The difference between a rock and a chimp isn't something transcendent, but rather due to the complexity of atoms and molecules clustered within the central nervous system of our simian friends. Look to the complexity of matter first and you will readily see why and how awareness arises in some material objects and not in others. Invoking gods or spirits or Eros is literally nonsensical, particularly when the physics of neuroscience is still in its infancy.

Before we succumb to the transcendental temptation, maybe it would be prudent to show some patience and let out empirical sciences have a deeper stab at the problem first.[2]


[1] Email correspondence between Frank Visser and David Lane, July 17th, 2008. From which:

Your thesis is: let's first fully exhaust the naturalistic options before we turn to the supernatural, if at all. In terms of scientific methodology, that makes perfect sense.

But wilber's position is: whatever we will find on the neurological side, it will always correlate with inner states that will NEVER show up using that lense. And conversely, for every state, even the most "mystical", we will always be able to find a neurological correlate.

So the question "Is consciousness physical?" will never be decidable in a scientific way. The very way science is set up will always only yield material resulsts (because we operate with our physical eyes and hands during our research - the results are built in.

Therefore, the relationship between mind and body is perhaps more a philosophical issue, that cannot be decided by science. Wilber's position is a double-aspect (or tetra-aspect) theory of consciousness.

Your suggestion that it still has to deliver the goods, is right. Does integral have a research programme? But saying that it wasn't integral that discovered DNA is a bit unfair. It wasn't neurology that discovered the stages of development, or it wasn't sociology that discovered phenomenal states of conscisousness - that's his methodological pluralism.

Your exstensive references to the (supposedly) paranormal or spiritual and the value of debunking this side tracks from the issue that EVERY state of mind, however mundane, already poses a problem for neurology: how on earth could cells and molucules lead to felt states? Forget about psi - psychology itself is as paranormal as you can get!

The hammer-argument at the end does not convince: hammer a television set and it will stop working - that doesn't make the tv cause the programs.

What intrigues me is how Wilber sees his "naturalistic" or "postmetaphysical" turn (in Wilber-5, implying that he WAS supernaturalistic and metaphysical in earlier phases?). As I have written on many occasions, labelling interiority as "intra-physical" explains nothing.

Comparing the state of consciousness studies to the study of life at the start of the last century is interesting: as we finally unravelled life, by discovering DNA, we will perhaps also discover the "mechanism" of consciousness.

But: it's the first-person sense of being conscious that defies explanation. As it is still the first-person senseo of being alive that still does so. No mechanistic theory will ever solve that. That is truly an "astonishing" hypothesis (in fact when I worked for a publishing house in the nineties, we considered translating Crick's book).

Your smell example tells me that we need a physical mechanism to contact the world of smells, not that the physical brain causes these smells.

Why is psychology still "lagging behind" with its folks psychology you ask, where other sciences have updated their earlier views. But this is begging the questions, because these other sciences study matter, not mind.

But surely, the naturalistic approach is much, much more economical then the other's - we now only have to worry about matter and its complexities. Rationally it makes sense, but it feels somehow incomplete and inconclusive.

And Wilber has tried to do justice to that existential feeling with his AQAL model (and yes: our feelings may delude us. As much as we see the sun set, this theory about the sun may turn out to be wrong, but the feeling of seeing the sun set still remains - as a fact).

[2] Email correspondence between Frank Visser and David Lane, August 9th, 2008. From which:

Well written and interesting stuff. Basically you are saying: give us more time and we will find out the physical basis of consciousness. That's a kind of belief. The opposite (not-enoughist) stance is a belief as well (which seems to be grounded in our experience/intuition). But it is uneconomical.

My feeling is that you don't sufficiently acknowledge the shift wilber made in his wilber-5 phase, which is explicitly towards the brain correlates of mind states, or some kind of "naturalism" (though he is ambiguous about how far te wants this to go). It would justfiy a footnote or something.

As I wrote in "My Take on Wilber-5":

This is the reformulation Wilber has in mind:

"What the premodern sages took to be meta-physical realities are in many cases intra-physical realities: they are not above matter, nor beyond nature, nor meta-physical, nor super-natural: they are not above nature but within nature, not beyond matter but interior to it."

The UR quadrant gets a very prominent role in this waking state 4Q model. Since every inner state of mind has correlates in the brain, the inner states become grounded in neurology and brain research.

To which Lane replied (August 10th, 2008):

Yes, I re-read your article on Wilber 5 and I can see what you mean.

I think the difficulty, as you infer, is what it actually means....

But a further problem, of course, is that the very language Wilber and others (including myself) use is still loaded with all sorts of metaphysical baggage and thus even as we get to a more post modern view of things, we are still saddled with cumbersome terminology that infers the opposite of what we may mean.

This is why I think the Churchland's use of eliminative materialism is instructive since it forces us to be more precise in our language and also allows an elimination of outdated or misleading terms.... like demon possession.... To which I would add Wilber's continued use of "spiritual" eye or "Buddha" nature, etc.

© 2008 by David Christopher Lane

David Christopher Lane is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount San Antonio College and a Lecturer in Religious Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Professor Lane received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego, where he was a recipient of a Regents Fellowship. Additionally, he earned an M.A. in the History and Phenomenology of Religion from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Dr. Lane is the author of several books including The Radhasoami Tradition and Exposing Cults (New York: Garland Publishers, 1992 and 1994 respectively). He is the founder of the Neural Surfer website. Professor Lane won the World Bodysurfing Championships in 1999 and the International Bodysurfing Championships in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2004.
Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Diem earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, where she conducted original research in neuroscience on visual perception on behalf of V.S. Ramachandran, the world famous neurologist and cognitive scientist. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay.
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