Couple of follow-ups on my bloggings about the consciousness conference. These are just taking the two biggest categories of reader-response emails.
(1) Dogs that know when their owners are coming home.
You can say anything you like about political or cultural issues and reader-land barely stirs. Mention dogs, though, and the emails pour in. This says something about human nature — something good, in my opinion.
As skeptical as I am about Sheldrake and his findings, give the guy credit for some attention to scientific rigor. “It’s just that dogs have really acute hearing,” said several readers. Do you really think that a guy who’s written an entire book about the phenomenon hasn’t thought of that?
In fact Sheldrake’s presentation included a split-screen movie showing (a) dog at home and (b) owner several miles away in the town having lunch with a friend. At a random time, the owner decided to go home. She said goodbye to friend and got on an ordinary town bus. At precisely that moment the dog, several miles away, got up and went to the window, to sit there waiting.
Now that’s striking. It might of course be faked — bigger hoaxes than that have been perpetrated in the name of scientific inquiry, and one wants to see other researchers replicate Sheldrake’s results — but it at least shows that Sheldrake knows that to be credible at all, he has to meet the kinds of objections that naturally come first to mind, like the ones my readers have raised. If he didn’t know that, he wouldn’t be worth our attention, even as a possible faker.
(2) What about the soul?
As I said, the conference organizers cast their net wide, and there were a couple of elective sessions (i.e. in the evenings, when several sessions go on at once and you have to decide which one to attend) on religious topics. I didn’t attend them, just because there was in each case something more interesting to me that I wanted to listen to.
Speaking in general, though, the “consciousness studies” approach to these things is neo-Jamesian. I mean that by analogy with “neo-Darwinian,” i.e. that modern Consciousness Studies inquirers do what James did:
- 1. Observe people’s behavior.
- 2. Collect subjects’ reports of their own inner mental states.
… then apply methods of scientific comparison, classification, and analysis. In addition — this is the “neo-” — they use techniques not, or not very much, available to James:
- 3. Study brain activity using scanners (fMRI the most popular), electrical measurements, active probes, comparative studies of injured and healthy brains, and pharmaceutical effects.
Where does any of that get you with the soul? Not very far. Of course, if you take the weakest possible meaning of the word “soul” (“soul” = “consciousness” = “inner self” = “I”), then that is what they are studying. In common usage, though, “soul” means more than that: something like “the consciousness, or inner self, which can be in contact with some supernatural agent external to itself.”
To clarify the issue, take a subject’s report that “I feel a pain.” If our subject has put his hand on a hot stove, then what happened was:
- A: He put his hand on the stove.
- B: Nerves impulses traveled to his brain.
- C: A resultant event occurred in the brain.
- D: The subject had a conscious experience.
- E: He reported the conscious experience as “I feel a pain.”
Might C, D, and E have occurred without there being any natural (visible, audible, tactile, measurable) agent, in this case the stove, being present as a precipitating cause? Certainly, as shown by the well-known phenomenon of pains felt by amputees in “phantom limbs.” The nervous system can generate its own Cs, Ds, and Es without any As or Bs being present at all.
Now replace “I feel a pain” with “I am having a religious experience” or one of its equivalents (“I feel God within me,” etc.) Might this be a purely internal occurrence — a C, D, and E, with no causal A and B? It might be. Might it, alternatively, be a full A–B–C–D–E sequence? Sure it might: only then, since an outside observer watching someone having a religious experience can see, hear, touch, etc. no natural cause, we’d have to say that the agent is supernatural.
But see, we just stepped outside the domain of science, which is a systematic enquiry into natural phenomena. The religious experience itself (D) and its neural correlates (C), being events in the natural world, are legitimate subjects for scientific enquiry. The originating cause though — the A, the “stove” — is not, since it is supernatural … if it exists: which, as the “phantom limb” phenomenon shows, may not necessarily be the case. Science has, and can have, nothing to say about it, though individual scientists, as free citizens, may offer opinions about whether supernatural agents actually do exist. Those would be metaphysical opinions, though, not facts about the natural world, which is what science trades in.
The fascination of Consciousness Studies is the causal relation between C and D, the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. My inner subjective experiences are part of the natural world; so are the electrochemical processes of my brain. The two are plainly connected somehow, but how? That’s why people go to conferences with titles like “Toward a Science of Consciousness.” Well, that’s why I went.