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This is a summary of a panel conversation with scientists that have varying experiences and approaches to what is consciousness, or, mind and awareness. The two hour program is facilitated by A. H. Almaas (the pen name of Hameed Ali) featuring panelists Chris Fields, Henry Stapp, Julia Mossbridge, Stuart Hameroff, and Donald Hoffman (right to left).

How Close Is Science To Understanding Consciousness?

I was asked to comment on this program at Facebook and as I watched it, I made some notes and I gave the program content some serious thought. This is not deeply steeped in scientific jargon. It isn’t an easy conversation for the average person either though. I do my best here to break it down. Here is the video program first, and my notes follow.




First off, as Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am” means to me that I cannot doubt that I have consciousness and awareness. Each of us may agree or not that what Descartes said is true or not. What I mean is that I cannot deny or doubt that consciousness is fundamental and essential to and for advancing human life. We may know little about how to advance awareness, and we may even doubt that our own past awareness is valid or reasonable, but we cannot doubt that there is awareness and that we are conscious. Consciousness is fundamental and essential for normal living; we must agree. Yet, our own experiences demonstrate that there are limits of conscious awareness. 

So, I’d expect that if we are attempting to define consciousness that we’d agree to contemplate the present moment and what awareness we can attain in a moment so as to progress. Working together for evolving collaborative science requires expanding this awareness, realizing of course that we each have a different realty. We’ll each benefit if we pay attention to the sensations of breathing; notice the feeling in our feet when walking; and whenever finding that the mind wandered simply call our awareness back to sensations. We begin this way to discover contemplative science; evolving science and our own awareness. 

Science, according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary simply is “knowledge attained through study or practice,” or “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world.” Science can move us forward into studies of consciousness by focusing on experiences of life, with increasingly good questions about consciousness and how consciousness is evolving in us as we attain awareness that we are connected in consciousness. Pause… we may not agree presently on that this occurs within consciousness. However, that we may explore, scientifically.

We all will agree that our awareness may expand to include more of what we had previously been unaware. Thus, as humans evolve awareness consciously, science may progress, and we might evolve further in truth toward global peace, human integrity, personal freedom, and social harmony. Or is that right? Do we care about those ideals?

My disappointment is that this discussion panel program is not really science, yet. I was surprised, these scientists stop short of agreement on a purpose. Consciousness science is necessary even though we do initially not understand that the varying experiences and limitations of a collective awareness. For example, the program did not advance a better question even as to what to look at…. such as, “How did absolute consciousness—indivisible, still, and unchanging—become this world of multiplicity and change?”

The purpose of science is to advance our understanding of reality. A purpose for advancing scientific studies of consciousness may include any hypotheses (scientific guesses) as to the outcome of experimentation. We’ll need a process that will be inclusive and still produce the best explanations for what we observe about consciousness. However, if consciousness is also evolving individually, indwelling, and cosmic, then reality is evolving and we may advance in progress to evolve language. 

I hope that my comments are worth something, so, I did my best to live up to the commitment that I made and to give this program an honest look, to provide some notes for readers, and to give some useful feedback about it.

The panel conversation presents contributions, individual working experiences and views related to consciousness, exploring scientific theories, consensus about anything relating to consciousness, and attempts at an operating definition of consciousness with an eye on a non-dual view of consciousness… looking deeper into assumptions and conclusions of perceptions.

They present a program that discusses consciousness, yes. However, as the program moves along, we discover that the distinguished participants do not each have a solution for making progress that is agreeable.

Panel Questions (paraphrased and just briefly summarized with my notes):

Q-1) As we explore the hard question of science – what is consciousness… What is your working definition for consciousness (in your scientific work)?
Youtube Fast-Forward Question 1

Chris Fields begins the field focusing upon RAW (phenomenal) awareness… touch, taste, auditory, visual … giving emphasis to how people experience memories as distinguishing them from now experiences. I wondered as I listened if many even have an awareness of self or that some experiences occur in the present (moment) more so than others.

Henry Stapp recalls William James declares that ‘States of mind’ succeed each other. According to James: (1) Every ‘state’ tends to be part of a personal consciousness. (2) Within each personal consciousness states are always changing. (3) Each personal consciousness is sensibly continuous. (4) It is interested in some parts of its object to the exclusion of others, and welcomes or rejects — chooses from among them, in a word — all the while. I am not sure from the initial description what is causing joining of mind into matter.

Julia Mossbridge says that there is great importance in that our conscious experience and unconscious experience differ. Here she focuses initially on that our personal experiences of consciousness differ and that this is greatly important and reminds us that there is an importance to our experiences of “me, not me.” Stapp and then Almaas pipe in regarding states of consciousness “waking, sleeping, dreaming, enlightenment.”

Stuart Hameroff, not at all addressing the question, asserts that there are collapses (by the uncertainty principle) due to separation in underlying of space-time geometry instabilities that will self-collapse randomly entangling with the quantum ‘environment’ and without ‘history’ or ‘memory’ of occurring in whatever state, one or another, they manifest into these cease in time. In living systems he says, shielding from random environment occurs. He then describes a bit about this as an evolution process. He says in defining consciousness, “it’s kind of like pornography, you know it when you see it.” So, as it seems from Hameroff, consciousness with memory, meaning and causal behavior is ‘tied’ to living being and platonic (space-time) values orchestrate consciousness with wisdom. He qualifies that the source entity of consciousness space-time geometry (matter not being fundamental). I’m not sure but how matter and mind are being joined in the initial statements that Hameroff is making at around 21 minutes in the program. Stapp points out that personal values seem to be entering into the evolution (rather? from platonic values). Hameroff describes how he and Sir Roger Penrose determined that platonic values govern choices as predominant influences. He eventually explains that there is structure at the Planck scale to develop space-time fractal geometry. Hameroff finishes up his introduction saying that consciousness is driving the evolution of the universe.

Donald Hoffman begins in agreement that consciousness experiences are important and summarizes many of the previous points of the definition. He adds that for moving forward, the assumption that consciousness has a structure that can be mathematically described. He summarizes that space-time is a representation of some consciousness and that space and time are not at all fundamental. Essentially, he’s saying that space and time are useful for experiences and to reproduce – a species specific solution for living situations.

So, there are functions of consciousness that the panel describe. However, as Almaas points out, a fundamental universal definition for consciousness is not defined. A common understanding, so far, is that consciousness is active; doing… feeling for example, perceiving, experiencing, and thinking. However, that consciousness is a fundamental and underlying unifying spiritual medium of living is not agreed upon with scientists. Yet, apparently, there is agreement that consciousness may be a fundamental necessity for human life. [I’ll note here, none of the scientists specifically address consciousness that interests me; that is the consciousness that is me.] Julia Mossbridge indicates that using the term, here, consciousness is confusing. She says spiritual teachers are referring to something different from what the scientists are discussing. The scientists are talking about consciousness is the fundamental ingredient for experiencing – anything. The spiritual teachers are saying consciousness is the fundamental essence of life; one mind. Chris Fields points out that the core concept of physics is energy and that energy is an undefined term similar here to the way this discussion is going about what is consciousness. He says it may be that it must be left undefined.

[Note: The hard problem of consciousness (David Chalmers 1995) is of explaining the relationship between physical phenomena, such as brain processes, experience, and qualia (phenomenal qualities). [Chalmers on the “hard problem” of consciousness and Chalmers, “Why Is Consciousness So Mysterious?”]

Q-2) How is your research/work addressing “the hard problem of consciousness” to contribute toward understanding that?
Youtube Fast-Forward Question 2

Stuart Hameroff leads off this time. Mental states/events with phenomenal qualities or qualia are accessed via human experiences and these are organized into full rich conscious experiences. He relates this to an orchestra warming up. Each musician has been piping in random notes and then in concert, we hear them produce a whole beautiful symphony. He adds that an orchestra has a conductor but with consciousness that the brain must self-organize the rich experiences [I somewhat disagree]. Hameroff says, “You can have consciousness even without biology” [I didn’t expect that]. He said, “I believe that consciousness is a process on the edge between the quantum and classical worlds.” He mentions that molecular geometry may be involved in the process of giving rise to consciousness.

Henry Stapp introduced a complex function of change into this saying, “we are left with a fundamentally idea-like universe” as he describes how matter forms according to mathematical rules and this is well defined and predictable but when we get knowledge about the structure, changes occur based upon the findings and the new form is compatible with the information and yet evolved. This, he indicates, is similar to how an idea leads to changes based on the findings of how useful the idea turns out to be. He says “matter really behaved like an idea, and so, we are left with a fundamentally idea-like universe.” Stapp indicates later that it must be taken to be a fundamental fact that consciousness is there… as the essential fact, we must become accepting that the hard problem takes us further from materialist views.

Chris Fields says, “If we understand the hard problem as why is there any awareness at all and if the question is have we come any closer to explaining why there is any awareness at all, I would say the answer is no. I don’t think we have a theory, at all, as to why there is awareness anywhere in the universe [I agree].” He points out that scientific work is contributing towards what awareness does, why awareness is useful, under what conditions a system will be aware of a particular phenomenon (mathematics allow prediction) but not why there is awareness. He thinks that pushing ahead, that science will recognize that awareness must be a fundamental assumption. “We really do have to drop this business of awareness being generated by a particular organization of neurons, which is the standard view in neuroscience, or a particular of something else [material]. It became very clear in the early twentieth century that there aren’t any material objects. We all agree that there are objective boundaries around things. We believe that there is an objective boundary around me and around the lectern and so on and so forth. If you look at the formulas… those boundaries cannot be objective.” Modern physics and science of particles demonstrate that boundaries do not really nicely divide realities that we perceive via our physical senses. Physical reality is not really so much what Newton taught.

Julia Mossbridge: “I don’t know that I agree that out individual consciousness does anything….” She acknowledges that to her understanding that the questions put to science as “the hard problem” originating from David Chalmers is the wrong sort of tact for questioning for scientists to answer and that she didn’t think that science might ever get answers that are fully philosophical or theologically satisfying. There can be correlations of the brain to consciousness. She explains that since experimentation indicates that the past can occur after the future, this makes investigating consciousness not the most interesting question for a neural scientist. For a neural scientist, ordering things occurs in time in one direction. [I didn’t understand what she’d think is unattractive. The next part made sense to me.] She makes a distinction between that she has private observer awareness but that everything else of which she does not have conscious awareness is so much more… that consciousness for her is the awareness that she has as ‘the observer’ and everything else is part of her unconscious. [Interestingly, Almaas asks, “…but they are happening? Where are they happening?” Now, here is what is interesting to me… I don’t agree that what is unconscious for me is happening. That is in my opinion a delusion. I cannot agree that we are one if I cannot know you consciously. I cannot agree that I am part of this body if I do not know it consciously.] Julia’s point is well taken, I think to agree that I am not conscious of most of what is perceived as reality. [Thus, perhaps this brain that I am linked to by some awareness is making up reality mostly unconsciously because reality is not something that I can comprehend. This seems consistent with what we know about how the unconscious works. It makes a cohesive experience from what is in the awareness and then it fills in the gaps.] Now, Stuart pipes in making an example that consciousness can occur in the brain before a dilemma that gets solved by the brain and that we can respond correctly, yet unconscious of what has occurred as processed in the brain then as we respond correctly. [I’ll add here that I have read many stories about people saying that time slowed or even stopped while they acted to save themselves or a loved one or a pet. I agree that consciousness must therefore be able to place in the brain the correct information that the brain then can use and thus, it may seem as though time slows or even stops as the person acts on that was stored by consciousness in the brain even though the person actually records the event differently, as though time slowed down or even stopped for several seconds.]

Donald Hoffman wants a mathematical model of consciousness and to work from that to solve the hard problem. So, from there, with consciousness assumed, a given, science must demonstrate how we get useful consciousness laws out of our physical reality. What I do find in published works is more in line with what Julia Mossbridge suggests… for example, a paper entitled “Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem” PDF seeks to explore relationship between biology and consciousness.

I mention (earlier, above) that this ‘hard problem’ is not well-stated as a question. 

Almaas points out that spiritual teachings indicate that we must ‘know’ consciousness and that in the knowing, there is release from suffering—of human suffering—occurring; that happiness depends upon this. 

Q-3) How is science going to address the human need to discover consciousness is essential for progress in successful living that eliminates suffering?
Youtube Fast-Forward Question 3  

Julia Mossbridge suggests the question for science ought not to be the hard question of consciousness, saying: “How do I bridge the gap between this fundamental duality of individual consciousness and everything of which I am [we—individually—are] not conscious?” Julia says that Almaas is speaking about a different consciousness. So, here we have the division. This being a conference of exploring non-duality, bringing into conference scientists is in dialog discovering that individual experience is something that we hold to dearly. Julia makes reference to ‘the one mind state’ as the unconscious. 

A successful science of consciousness must address aspects of ending suffering. A successful non-duality that begins with idea that the universe and all its multiplicity are ultimately expressions or appearances of one essential reality must guide science. Where we are exploring the brain, our experience of consciousness, science is reducing its focus onto mechanisms. Where we are exploring the mind and consciousness, non-duality is advancing non-physical awareness.

Donald Hoffman says that a mathematical theory that describes consciousness will include in it surprises of the greater, as yet, unknown reality.

Stuart Hameroff pipes in that spiritualists tend to classify his works as materialist and scientists complain that it is mystical but that there are advancements in medicine occurring because his science is undertaking to include contemplation on the hard problem of consciousness. Microtubules have quantum resonant vibrations in megahertz and kilohertz frequencies and from qualia form by quantum microtubule vibrations inside brain neurons 1) conscious experience, and 2) regulate neuronal firings and synaptic plasticity. As synapses are formed, these are maintained and regulated by microtubules and the associated proteins. Hameroff gives examples of medical breakthroughs.

Where Hameroff considers the qualia primitive, Donald Hoffman pipes in to assert that neurons do not exist, at all, when they are not perceived; nor do microtubules or space and time. These are forms of perception. 

Who is who?
A.H. Almaas is the pen name of A. Hameed Ali, an author and spiritual teacher who writes about and teaches an approach to spiritual development informed by modern psychology and therapy which he calls the Diamond Approach. 

Chris Fields is an independent scientist interested in both the physics and the cognitive neuroscience underlying the human perception of objects.

Henry Stapp is a mathematical physicist, known for his work in quantum mechanics and the place of free will in quantum mechanics.

Julia Mossbridge teaches courses in consciousness, cognition, perception and the influence of music on the brain. She is the CEO and Research Director of Mossbridge Institute, LLC. 

Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona known for his studies of consciousness.

Donald Hoffman is Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, Irvine. 

So, it is a diverse panel and they are operating with a variety of definitions about consciousness. I didn’t take much time to accurately record the opening statements and some closing statements and their views are not mine, so, please listen carefully and make your own interpretations. I am not a fast typist so I left out much of what was said so I could keep on moving through this presentation. I may inadvertently have changed the meaning of what was intended… not on purpose, I surely didn’t do that. I’ll appreciate any comments on how I might improve this article… thanks in advance.

Additional video and other resources are found in the comments following this post.

Thanks for visiting.

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Official video of the 2015 SAND panel discussion:
“How Close is Science to Understanding Consciousness?”