Monday, April 11, 2011

A Heap of Consciousness

Ira brought up his concept at our recent Philo Club meeting, which he claims he shares with Einstein and Spinoza, that the sum of many consciousnesses is another super consciousness. He uses the fact that the sum of a multitude of neurons constituting the entire brain add up to a consciousness as a proof by analogy.

The trouble with this approach is that it produces the "Problem of the Heap." If there is a heap of grains and one grain is subtracted, does one still have a heap? If the answer is yes, and one keeps subtracting grains, at what point does one cease to have a heap? If one assumes there is a super consciousness, and one subtracts individuals, at what point does the super consciousness disappear? Both problems are born in the concept of vagueness. A heap is a vague concept and so is consciousness.



Howard Pattee said...

Joel, this is a classical problem in physics― how do you decide whether you have a collection of individual molecules or a gas? As individual molecules their motion is deterministic and reversible; as a gas their thermodynamics is irreversible.

Bohr illustrated the problem with a story: A child goes into a candy store and asks for a penny’s worth of mixed sweets. The clerk says we don’t have any mixed sweets, but here are two sweets, you can mix them yourself.

The fact is that if you know too much about details, then you miss the collective behavior (and vice versa). Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says if you look at a photon as a particle, you won’t see any wave interference (and vice versa). If you look at the synaptic details in the brain you won’t see any intelligent behavior (and vive versa).

The problem is that there seems to be no clear way to describe what is going on in between these two complementary views or models.


Ira Glickstein said...

Joel, what I share with Spinoza and Einstein is strict causality (determinism), not the idea of the sum of many consciousnesses. At the Philo Club meeting, I was trying to put a scientific interpretation on the faith many of my religious believer friends have: "Don't worry about tomorrow, God is already there." That idea may account for the confidence and calmness and courage some religious people and their societies have in the face of turmoil and troubles.

I cannot acccept a God separate from and above the Universe. Yet, I think the future is totally determined, so, in a way, the future already exists. It is reassuring that the forces of Nature, including plants and animals, will play their parts according to strict cause and effect. It gives me the courage to face the natural decline in my mental and physical health as I age as well as global economic and political turmoil.


The idea of a super-conscious is based on the Gaia hypothesis, that "... proposes that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life in the planet. ... The Gaia hypothesis was formulated by the environmentalist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. Initially received with controversy by the scientific community, it is now studied in the disciplines of Geophysiology and Earth system science, and some of its principles have been adopted in fields like Biogeochemistry and Systems ecology. ..."

I know I am conscious and my sence of "self" comes from the interaction of billions of neurons, each of which is a eukaryotic cell. These cells are not at all a "heap" (like a pile of sand) but are a structured association determined by my genetic inheritance and refined by trial and error over billions of years.

For a heap, removing one grain still leaves a heap, until you get down to some small number. But, removing one neuron, if it is a critical node in the association, may cause the entire structure to cease operation.

It is a scientific fact that a large number of tiny electro-chemical machines (cells) can be strung together by trial and error evolution of genes and natural selection to form a conscious animal.

No neuron in my brain right now "knows" that I am typing English words on my Laptop, that I have a conscious feeling of "self", memories of my past, and plans for my future.

Given the above truths, it is at least a hypothetical possibility, perhaps a probability, that large numbers of animals can be associated into societies and civilizations by evolution of memes and natural selection to form consciousness at the group level.

Just as individual neurons are unaware of nothing above their immediate neighborhood of electrical pulses and chemical signals, individual humans may be unaware of any higher-level consciousness above their daily life struggle. Yet, our society and civilization may have a feeling something like consciousness, along with memories of the past and plans for the future.

At the Philo Club meeting, I speculated that Western Civilization may have a "plan" to dominate the other civilizations of the Earth by spreading our ideas of free sexual expression and hedonistic living to undermine those who have not yet developed the ability to handle these disruptive concepts. We initiated this "plan" centuries ago by sending Christian missionaries, explorers, and armies to disrupt "primitive" cultures. Then we hit them with the global market economy and genetically modified grains, and so on. Yes, it is all part of a great "plan", the details of which we are implementing as I speak.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

No, Howard. I think we've had this reversibility discussion before. It would be better if Ira explains what he was saying. It's my impression that he was talking about some mystical super-consciousness that is capable of warring against other super consciousnesses on an international level. I may have totally misunderstood him at the meeting.

Howard Pattee said...

Ira and I have been discussing these two ideas for decades, so I have a pretty good idea of what his views are. See if I have it right.

His first point is that as individuals we have no way of knowing whether a collection of individuals has a higher form of behavior, because we could not recognize it. It is the same principle we find at many levels. As I said, from the point of view of the individual neurons in the brain you won’t see any intelligent behavior, yet the collection of neurons displays intelligence. Why not for higher organizations?

The second point is the case for the metaphysical concept of determinism. Belief in determinism makes time a kind of illusion for us individual observers, but for God or Nature it may appear that everything happens eternally.

Spinoza may have been influenced by Boethius (480-452): “Since God hath always an eternal and present state, His knowledge, surpassing time's notions, remaineth in the simplicity of his presence and, comprehending the infinite of what is past and to come, considereth all things as though they were in the act of being accomplished.”

The Principle of Least Action as well as some modern physics theories consider this view of timelessness. Look at the links to Spinosa’s concept Sub specie aeternitatis for philosophers’ views.

I can be critical of both these views, but only because that is my job.


joel said...

Actually, what Ira is talking about sounds more like what is described at

Here's a couple of excerpts:

"DÜSSELDORF, Germany (March 23-25, 2006) played host to the progressive scientific symposium
"Wisdom and Science in a Dialogue: The new Planetary Consciousness," organized by the Club of Budapest. Sixteen distinguished speakers presented concepts of integral consciousness and interconnectedness through ancient wisdom teachings (including Kabbalah) and modern science."

"In order for this worldview to spread, László mentioned actions set in place for its dissemination-the World Wisdom Council, The Wisdom Channel (an internet-TV channel), and an internet-based university among others. The meeting ended on an active note: that there is a lot of work to do, and this is just the beginning of a major shift in human consciousness."

joel said...

I was about to ridicule my friend Ira on my blog ( for his "crazy" ideas concerning Gaia, the Earth goddess. But first I had a chore to do. I needed to repair some ripped screening caused by my dog attacking a squirrel. Out I went with my trusty aerosol can of contact cement. As soon as I masked the area off and got on my rubber gloves, the wind whipped up. Ferstunkena wind! Then I realized that the wind blows anytime I want to do spraying of any kind!
Aha! Absolute scientific proof that Gaia exists and doesn't like aerosols. :^)

Ira Glickstein said...

That squirel and the wind, not to mention your dog, are all coordinated by someone you love and who loves you to keep you active and alert so you will live a long and healthy life. (The Gaia told me so :^)

Here is a clickable link to your blog where I found some interesting material as well as a photo of you and the power behind you as well as one of your beautiful paintings.

Ira Glickstein