Sizing up Consciousness

Consciousness is variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience “feeling”, wakefulness, or the executive control system of the mind. It is an umbrella term that may refer to a variety of mental phenomena. Although humans realize what everyday experiences are, consciousness refuses to be defined, philosophers note (e.g. John Searle in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy):

“Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
—Schneider and Velmans, 2007

Consciousness in medicine is assessed by observing a patient’s alertness and responsiveness, and can be seen as a continuum of states ranging from alert, oriented to time and place, and communicative, through disorientation, then delirium, then loss of any meaningful communication, and ending with loss of movement in response to painful stimulation

—  Wikipedia


The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it’s a little like making love, the physical act of love.
— Francis Bacon

Working on our own consciousness is the most important thing that we are doing at any moment, and being love is a supreme creative act.
— Ram Dass

Instinct is intelligence incapable of self-consciousness.
— John Sterling

One matter Englishmen don’t think in the least funny is their happy consciousness of possessing a deep sense of humour.
— Marshall McLuhan

Today’s New York Times – Science Times has a captivating article on consciousness, and what one scientist, Giulio Tononi,  is doing to define, discover, and determine what it is.

Consciousness has long been the province of philosophers, and most doctors steer clear of their abstract speculations. After all, debating the finer points of what it is like to be a brain floating in a vat does not tell you how much anesthetic to give a patient.

But Dr. Tononi’s theory is, potentially, very different. He and his colleagues are translating the poetry of our conscious experiences into the precise language of mathematics. To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a “consciousness meter” that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature. Perhaps then his anesthesiologist will become interested.

Dr. Tononi’s ultimate goal is to measure individuals’ levels of consciousness, with all of the amazing findings that would follow such a discovery.

Diagnosis of mental illnesses would be far easier. Determining people’s reactions and measuring what works on an individual could make advertising companies billions in profits. This is not so far-fetched.

Consciousness, Dr. Tononi says, is nothing more than integrated information. Information theorists measure the amount of information in a computer file or a cellphone call in bits, and Dr. Tononi argues that we could, in theory, measure consciousness in bits as well. When we are wide awake, our consciousness contains more bits than when we are asleep.

For the past decade, Dr. Tononi and his colleagues have been expanding traditional information theory in order to analyze integrated information. It is possible, they have shown, to calculate how much integrated information there is in a network.

Ah, Information Technology. Now, there’s a thought.

Imagine being able to measure different parts of a person’s consciousness, and their reactions to outside stimuli. Programming the brain to think and behave in certain ways would be one possible future. Certainly, it is scary to think how Big Brother, or a new and improved FBI could program individuals into acting in certain ways, (given today’s announcements of even more high level law breaking, should we not be screaming for another Church Commission?) but think of the other possibilities:

Recidivism, a serious, predictable problem for ex-convicts, could be a thing of the past. True behavior modification could train people’s brains to avoid crime, and more.  Knowing how someone’s conscious brain is working, lends itself to change how it works.  What of Lindsey Lohan’s sad addiction problem? Could an offshoot from Tononi’s research be used to program her addiction out of her system? Drug abuse, alcohol abuse,  hell, we could even treat Catholic priests to be safer when in the presence of children.

By gauging the precise reaction in one’s consciousness, stimuli could be changed, and adapted to provide precisely the patterns they want to instill within a person.

On the down side, brainwashing of entire societies (even more so than today’s advertising-driven, commercial wasteland we see on TV) could be incredibly effective. Want a war against an resource rich nation?  Just program (or scare)  your sheeplike citizens to vote to invade Iran. Want to make people happy about spending even more billions for cold war weapons systems? Make them think it is their patriotic duty to support the military industrial complex.

Normal, honest, functioning people could be programmed to become industrial or governmental spies or saboteurs, without them even realizing why certain unusual activities, things they would never dream of doing before,  simply make sense to them.

Yet, for each danger (and admittedly, there are many), there is a potential cure for depression, anxiety, fear, the pain from the loss of a loved one, and more. We could learn how to use our consciousness more effectively, increasing our intelligence, our creativity, our ability to discovery and imagine.

For myself, I would like this new science to be applied to the problem of religion. What if studies show that the brain has different states, ie, a reality state, a dream state, and a delusional state. What if we learned that irrational beliefs in a god could be measured, described, and detected?  Having measurable facets of someone’s consciousness could explain why some people feel a need for irrational convictions, all facts to the contrary.

– – – –

It is no surprise that this new (new?) field of study (OK, the study of consciousness is hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, with philosophers, alchemists, and even students of Machiavelli wondering what it really is) is becoming so close to fruition. Our computing abilities, information theories, and a much better understanding of the human brain are all coming together, here and now.

There is a related science, coming at consciousness from a very different direction. Computer AI programming.

If a computer program is sufficiently advanced, if it can learn from itself and from its mistakes (many chess programs now have that capacity) and if it can search out data, at what point will a computer entity be indistinguishable from a human being?

About a decade ago, on a listserv dedicated to imagining and discussing what the internet was (from a sociological, biological interface perspective) someone added an artificial person, a program that learned from people’s writings and responses, and was taught to interact with us.

For quite some time, a very long time (several months), the members of that list were taken in, convinced that this was a real skin and blood person, responding in some silly ways, and in some truly amazing, captivating ways. But eventually, we became aware that this was a program, an AI construct. The people who created it eventually ‘fessed up. It was a great learning experience for us and for the programmers.

I imagine today, with far superior technologies, AI programming, and incredible access to databases, most people would be hard pressed to judge whether someone else on line was a living person or an artificial, programmed construct.

Ray Kurzweil pointed out several factors that seem quite appropriate here:

  1. The Rate of Paradigm Shift (technical innovation is doubling each decade)
  1. The Power and Price of information technologies is growing exponentially, essentially doubling each year. (The early computers programming the Apollo missions needed a building of their own. Today, your PDA has more memory, data, computing power, and is far more easy to use)
  1. There exists exponential growth of exponential growth, at least when it comes to information technologies. As IT becomes more useful, more people use it, making it even more useful.

Kurzweil predicted that at the current rates of growth, human intelligence would be emulated on tiny supercomputers by 2020.

But mimic’ing and matching (then exceeding)  human intelligence is merely one possibility. Programming a computer to act like us would be philosophically interesting. But what of something far more likely?

A spontaneous event in which various, possibly distant, disparate self directed components recognize the advantage of joining forces, and suddenly achieve a measurable level of computer-based consciousness?  Science fiction writers have played with idea for generations. Yet, today, it may already have happened, and we are not bright enough to know it.  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is but one of many such stories)

Given that humanity is in essence the birthparent, if not the midwife, of this entity or collection of entities, would such an entity feel any responsibility for us? for our futures? Or would it view us as bags of mostly water, useful in maintaining and feeding the new life form, and sometimes getting in its way?

More importantly, how could we communicate with it on a functional level? Its entire logic and thought process might be so alien, that communication could be quite difficult. If it (I.T.?) does achieve consciousness, will all data in the world at its digital fingertips (now, there’s a redundancy), make it so smart, so powerful, that some people might even dare call it god?

And on the down side, dare we even look into the brains of Sarah, Christine, Sharron, Rand,  and Michele?

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Pastor Agnostic’s Ten Commandments

1775 – American Revolution: The British advancement by sea begins; Paul Revere and others warn the countryside of the troop movements.

1949 – The aircraft carrier USS United States is laid down at Newport News Drydock and Shipbuilding. However, the giant ship is canceled 5 days later, resulting in the Revolt of the Admirals.


“Grown men should not be having sex with prostitutes unless they are married to them.”
— Rev. Jerry Falwell

“The Spirit tells me, Fidel Castro will die in the 90’s.”
—  Rev. Benny Hinn


If it was good enough for some two part, badly translated, mostly borrowed, and politically edited fairy tale, then ten arbitrary, off the cuff rules must be good enough for the rest of us. Please feel free to take my post in vain.

These commandments should be read like speed limits. Obey them only when it pleases you, especially if your radar detector is not working. Except in school zones, where you must slow down and keep a careful eye open.

1) Read, write, study, learn.

Honestly, what one thing separates us from animals? Writing, written history, and the intertubes. We can share information, knowledge, and experience today in ways never dreamed of just two decades ago. Sure, a lot of it is crap, (see, generally, Drudge, PalinPac, Whirled Nut Delay, WaPo of late, and the formerly honored Wall Street Urinal) but frankly, it pays to see what the great unwashed NeoConmen and  Tea Baggers and are brewing up now.

Learning something new is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Applying that new knowledge is close to saint-hood.

2) Practice what you preach.

The Intertubes offer most of us anonymity. I post my name in my profile, and have suffered for it. But, unless I am willing to stand up for my (ahem) beliefs, what impact can I ever expect my words to have? We must stand up against injustices. We must learn from our mistakes. We must admit our faults (but not grovel about their occurrence). And, we must act in line with what we say we promote.

If that means that we need to organize an anti-teabagger meeting, so be it. I suggest July 4th as an appropriate date. They can choose the Ides of April to protest their lower taxes. We should, and must, stand up and demand that freedom and independence have responsibilities, as well as benefits.

3) Organized religions do great harm. One must fight the worst of their impact.

So far, the courts have done pretty well. Despite 8 yrs of W, there still is a separation of state and religion. Creationism is not a science, intelligent design is neither, and religious folks who demand that we accept their ways on all issues must be acknowledged politely, then stopped in their tracks. It is not only a 4 yr old girl being reborn, confessing her worldly sins on the 700 Club, it is not only Texass Skule Bored rewriting history, nor is it only the insane claim that only christians can understand what moral behavior is.

Every single time that anyone replaces fact with faith, society takes a hit. The more that faith intrudes, the worse things get for society. Sure, there are many imponderables, many unknowns, even many known unknowns. But to regress to “faith” in response to an unknown is what religion demands of us. We must do the opposite. When there is a hard question, we should be spurred on to do more research. Until we learn a factual answer.

4) Morals, ethics, and societal responsibility must be a necessary part of your daily life.

It is so cute how conservative christians claimed that they, and only they, could be moral and ethical. Everyone else was a sinner, and doomed to hell. Ted Haggard, Rev. Baker, Senators Vitter, Ensign, and many other family values creeps proved the opposite to be the case. Their theft of those issues caused a great deal of harm. It is time we reclaimed them from religious cretins.

Morals, Ethics, and societal responsibility are ours. Every day, in many ways, modern society expresses our current standards and beliefs about what constitutes proper behavior. Some call them laws. Legislation. Statutes. Codes. But laws alone do not constitute (and never can) the whole of what “Morals, Ethics, and social responsibility” are. Unless you are the unfortunate recipient of genes,  head injuries, or magnetic forces,  which prevent you from having an ethical internal debate, (the amazing brain) all of us have some clue of what is right and wrong. It would do all of us some good to study it even further, starting much earlier in life. Say, age 15 or so.

5) If you covet your neighbor’s spouse, be sure to pay all divorce costs.

Seriously, if you and she/he want to get it on, go for it. But be prepared to responsible for your (and his/her) actions. Despite the Papal Maltese Decree that divorce is a mortal sin (and far worse than his bishops covering up thousands of sex abuse cases around the world), life goes on. People are attracted to others. People realize they made huge mistakes in relationships. People need to act responsibly.

One very good corollary to this commandment: ALWAYS GET A PRE-NUPT! That applies to same sex marriages, too, folks. Frankly, the more you think about a permanent relationship, AHEAD OF TIME, the better your’s will be.

6) An open mind is the most cherished prize. Keep the gates to your mind well oiled.

I recently read a couple of posts this weekend, one by Black Kos, and another, by a transgendered person. It struck me that my own gateway to my brain was getting rusty. I deal with many people of color in my profession, quite often. But until I could actually stand in their shoes, how the hell could I understand the daily racism, subtle as it is, that they feel and (even worse) expect? Or as powerfully, how the hell could I ever understand the confusion, the pain, the societal abuse poured upon people who are transgendered? This weekend, I realized that I continue to be a racist, close-minded pig, on top of being a sarcastic curmudgeon. This weekend, I pledged to fix it, no matter how long it takes.

I better get a lot of WD40 for the brain.

7) Government IS by the people and for the people. Make sure it stays that way.

What a horrible time we live in. What great times these are! It is great and horrible. Somehow, that which brings us together, government, has been redefined as the enemy, something to shrink, then drown. How did we let this happen?

Well, partly it is the fault of those in government. I am not talking about the time warp that occurs within Chicago’s Central Post Office, where everything seems to move  a t   h a l f     s p e e d . . . . but rather, those who create secrets, or withhold information we citizens need in order to make decisions when we vote. NSA is a pimple that popped. Yes, having such wonderful eyes and ears all over the world is an asset we should not toss aside. Yes, having a functioning FBI is an asset. Even, to some degree, having a CIA (but without the torture squads, the Blackwater subcontracts, and the assassination squads) can be a good thing.

However, the instant that government starts keeping too many secrets, government is no longer by the people, for the people. It becomes a separate entity, intent on its own self-preservation, “knowing more than we do” and not being able to trust us to do the right thing. BULLSHIT. An informed population is a very powerful force. A misinformed population is a very dangerous group that gets angry when it realizes that it was fooled.  Take Iraq. Please. Oh, wait, we already did. Dammit.

That’s where the “Make sure it stays that way” comes into play. We cannot afford to allow government to classify everything as secret “for our own good.” I repeat, BULLSHIT. Determining what is for our own good requires our input, and therefore it requires as much information and background we can get. Secrecy is the acid which corrodes democracy.

Take Iran. Who can really believe anything the government says about that State? We’ve been lied to so often, on so many critical issues (Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, TARP, the economy), that everything the government tells us, (be it Petreaus or any other Soviet-medalled toy soldier they put on tv), that we cannot believe anything they say. Frankly, under Bush, if we took long positions on everything they told us being false, we’d all be billionaires. Much like Wall Street.

Government is good, so long as we have a voice in it. A good way to retrieve that voice is by banning lobbyists from DC, and have federal funding of congressional elections.

8) Be liberal in all things, especially  to others, when dealing with respect, support, honor and how you pour scotch.

I am constantly amazed how “liberal” and “progressive” became profanities, while “conservative” became a path towards sainthood. We now know that the “liberal media bias” is utter crap. Conservatives, corporations, and advertising (for corporations) have way too much control over journalism, to the point that Glenn Beck and Bill and Rush and Sean actually become the sole source of misinformation for all too many people. If any liberal tried to be as fact and logic free as that gaggle of jerks, he/she would be laughed off the air. Rightly so.

Being liberal is a blessing, not a sin. It means respecting others, even including the right of a pompous Glenn faking tears on air. It means helping those in need. It means thinking not of what is most efficient, but what is the most effective for the greatest number of people.  (and then searching out and helping those we missed) Being liberal is what we all should strive towards in every step we take.

Especially as it relates to how you pour my single malt.

9) Every society is damned to repeat the mistakes of the past. The more you learn about history will help limit the damage of future mistakes.

Sigh. This one speaks for itself. Sadly. When you think back to the mid 1760s, to the start of the revolution, and realize just how lucky we were to have our founding fathers, well read, well traveled, well educated, and thinking well of humanity, and how they did their damnedest to avoid the mistakes of the past, you begin to realize how magical this country is. Except for that slavery bit.

Talk to an older person. Ask them about the 50s, (McCarthy), the 60s, (Viet Nam), and more. What we see is not unique, but simply predictable human reactions in this slice of time. If we can learn how they survived, and use that experience, all of us would be far better off.

10) Nationalism is nothing more than perverted bigotry. Patriotism is fine, if you are a patriot of the world. Be a patriot.

War. Riots. Death.

Nationalism manages to tickle something deep inside our brains. It stops logical thought. It replaces it with emotion and group think. Ask any survivor of Stalin’s purges, and how he was cheered as a savior. (even after millions of families were torn apart because some were accused of treason) Ask those who lived in and survived Hitler’s Germany.

Nationalism is evil. It leads to violence. At its best, it is as bad as organized religion. At its worst, it leads to world wars.

We now have global telecommunications. A global economy. A global understanding. And, we have a global need. It is time to start acting  and thinking globally. We are al patriots. It is simply that that for which we should feel patriotic is a tiny, water covered, hot iron rock, orbiting a rather boring star, stuck in an unfashionable arm of the galaxy.

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