Journal of Consciousness Studies Critical Reviews: Full Text


New Journals 21 September 1995


by Jeffrey Gray

New scientific journals commonly meet a need spawned by novel methods or by the opening up of a fresh field to experimental investigation. Journal of Consciousness Studies is a clear exception. There is as yet no agreed method for studying consciousness, nor even any consensus that it is yet (or ever?) amenable to scientific investigation. This new journal has emerged, rather, from a change in the Zeitgeist: consciousness is no longer taboo. As an example of this change, in 1971 I published a paper on consciousness that elicited just two requests for reprints; a quarter of a century later I am a welcome guest at conferences where I say exactly the same things! Has the field moved on, even if I have not? Is it yet part of the `art of the soluble’ (in Peter Medawar’s lapidary phrase)?

The editors neatly duck this question by subtitling their journal ”Controversies in Science and the Humanities” and setting its scope to cover ”all aspects” of consciousness, including psychology, neuroscience, physics, philosophy, artificial intelligence, and social, cultural, ethical and religious issues. The result is a heady brew, although neither psychology nor neuroscience so far figures much in the mixture. This is a pity, for it is here that speculation is likely eventually to find its strongest empirical constraints. In fact, experimental data of any kind hardly figure in the first four issues. In the one exception, an intriguing report (by Nunn et al.) of the effects on psychological performance of being hooked up to an electroencephalogram machine, the methods and results of the experiments are discreetly tucked away in an appendix. What there is most of so far is, perhaps surprisingly, physics, with Roger Penrose’s quantum-gravity theory holding centre stage (inspiring inter alia the paper by Nunn et al.); and, less surprisingly, philosophy, mostly alas going over very familiar ground.

The contributions about mystic experiences and theological issues avoid the wilder shores and, for the most part, provide education (or sometimes entertainment) even for the hard-headed (so long as they are not so hard-headed as still to suppose that the problem of consciousness is not a problem at all). So, do we need this journal, even if noone is yet sure how to make the problem of consciousness soluble? Yes, we do: there is no other journal quite like it, and one day we shall, I think, look back to its appearance as a defining moment when the prologue to the real play (whatever that may turn out to be) began. And, at the price, it’s a snip!

Jeffrey Gray is in the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK

The Times Literary Supplement

Learned Journals – November 25 1994, p. 22


How does conscious experience emerge from a physical basis? At first glance, this is the question about the mind that most needs answering. So it is curious that those who study the mind professionally have often avoided the question entirely. In psychology, the cognitive revolution did not make consciousness respectable: most cognitive psychologists have stuck to subjects such as learning, memory and perception instead. Neuroscientists have been known to speculate on the topic, but usually only late at night, after a few drinks. Even philosophers have been curiously diffident. Some have been exercised by the fact that there is a problem, others have been concerned to deny the problem altogether, but the focus of inquiry has remained elsewhere. As in all these fields, serious theories of consciousness have been hard to come by.

But consciousness is making a comeback. In the past few years, popular books on the subject by Francis Crick, Daniel Dennett and Roger Penrose have provoked widespread discussion. Not everybody agrees on just what the problems are, and almost nobody agrees on where a solution will lie, but almost everyone has an opinion. Philosophers are having a field day, neuroscientists are speculating a little earlier in the evening, and even psychologists have begun sheepishly to utter the dreaded C-word. At conferences on the subject, researchers from different fields are learning to speak each other’s language. New books are appearing every month; there are now three academic journals devoted to the subject.

The latest and flashiest of these journals is the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The first issue boasts interviews with such luminaries as Crick and Penrose, a number of conference reports, and refereed articles on consciousness, based in areas as diverse as quantum mechanics and Buddhist philosophy. The journal’s centre of gravity is outside the mainstream, with the editors admitting a preference for “radical” conceptualizations of the subject. The bulk of the first issue is devoted to scientific approaches of one sort or another, but we are promised a discussion of “ethical, spiritual, and social issues” in the future. All in all, the journal is surprisingly accessible to the general reader, and despite its biases it provides a useful look at the state of play in consciousness research circa 1994.

One thing quickly becomes clear: the most puzzling questions about consciousness are just as puzzling as ever. A distinction is made a number of times between the “easy” problems of consciousness and the “hard” problem. The easy problems are those of finding neural mechanisms and explaining cognitive functions: the ability to discriminate and categorize environmental stimuli, the capacity verbally to report mental states, the difference between waking and sleeping. The hard problem is that of experience: why does all this processing give rise to an experienced inner life at all? While progress is being made on the easy problems, the hard problem remains perplexing. Even Crick and Penrose concede that so far they have little idea how the problem might be solved. They simply hope that if we do enough investigation in neuroscience (for Crick) or in physics (for Penrose), the faint outlines of a solution might be revealed. At this point, such remarks are not much more than an expression of faith.

But even without a solution to the hard problem, there is much of interest in the field of consciousness studies. The papers in this issue range from the conventional to the exotic. The most sober paper of the lot concerns the “binding problem” in neuroscience – the problem of how the brain integrates different pieces of information about the same object. A popular hypothesis has been that binding is achieved by groups of neurons oscillating in phase, but the philosopher Valerie Hardcastle suggests that the evidence here is weak, and recommends a higher-level approach to the issue. In tying together evidence from a number of different fields, this thoughtful paper illustrates the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to the science of the mind.

It is the quantum-mechanical papers that will draw the most attention. In a hypothesis that has been endorsed by Penrose, an anaesthesiologist, Stuart Hameroff, suggests that the key to consciousness lies in microtubules, large molecules found within the cell wall of a neuron. Noting that these are finely poised between the quantum and neural realms – small enough to maintain a state of quantum coherence, but large enough to affect neural activity – Hameroff argues that these could mediate a quantum role in brain function. This is recommended as a solution to the binding problem (through quantum non-locality), as an explanation of “intuitive” processing (through quantum superposition) and problem-solving (through wave-function collapse), and even as the key to the problem of free will (through quantum in- determinacy). Critics will respond that all of these problems can be handled by orthodox methods, but Hameroff’s ideas are at least provocative.

Another paper presents experimental evidence that EEG measurements on the brain affect performance on various cognitive tasks. The authors (C.M.H. Nunn, C.J.S. Clarke, and B.H. Blott) suggest that the measurement may cause the brain’s quantum wave state to collapse! Perhaps this is related to Benjamin Libet’s suggestion in a neighbouring paper that the brain has an associated “conscious mental field”, which may affect neural function. In both cases, however, the evidence is quite tenuous, and one might ask for a more rigorous theoretical basis for the strong claims that are made. On the other hand, the psychologist John Beloff provides a spirited defence of the claims of parapsychology, and argues that the experimental evidence has been dismissed more quickly than it should have been. There is room for a debate here: just when do well-supported prior convictions justify the easy dismissal of evidence for radically different views? No doubt many mainstream scientists will dismiss the evidence of Nunn et al and of Beloff without qualms. Is this reasonable?

Two of the most interesting papers relate Eastern thought to the study of the mind. Eleanor Rosch uses some ideas from the Buddhist Madhyamika school in developing a theory of the way that people think about causality, while Robert Forman discusses mystical experiences as revealed in the writings of the Hindu Upanishads. Rosch brings the Buddhist ideas to bear on issues in cognitive psychology, while Forman uses his study to help adjudicate a debate between “constructivists” and “decontextualists” in religious studies. In papers like these, there is no claim that a theory of consciousness is on offer, but the wide- ranging discussion provides useful insights.

To judge from this issue, one would think that researchers on consciousness come in four varieties: neuroscientists, quantum theorists, parapsychologists and mystics. This makes for a spicy journal, but it would be nice to see contributions from mainstream cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence in there too. It would be a great pity if too much spice caused conventional researchers to dismiss the journal altogether. But it is pleasant that we are promised discussions in the humanities as well as in science, with papers on culture and on the philosophy of mind slated for future issues. The journal will continue to have something for everybody.

So, the questions arise: has consciousness been explained? Is it likely to be explained at any time soon? After a while, I found that I had a curious reaction. The approaches here are too wild for the easy problems, but not wild enough for the hard problem. When it comes to the explanation of cognitive functioning, conventional methods seem to do just fine, and it is hard to see why things like quantum mechanics need to be brought in at all. But when it comes to the hard problem of conscious experience, all the quantum mechanics and parapsychology in the world does not add up to a solution. Why should quantum coherence in microtubules give rise to conscious experience? The question seems no easier to answer than the corresponding question about information- processing in neurons. Radical as the approach is, it is ultimately not radical enough.

Still, a journal like this serves a useful function, both in stimulating thought and in letting a thousand flowers bloom. After all, the problem of conscious experience is so hard that when a solution finally appears, it will probably look crazy. So it makes sense to have an unconventional journal on the scene. That way, when the crazy solution comes along, it will find a natural home.

DAVID CHALMERS. Reprinted in full by kind permission from the Times Literary Supplement, November 25 1994, p. 22.

David Chalmers is McDonnell Fellow in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis.

The Times Higher Education Supplement

To err is mechanical?

Oxford University Press, 457 pp., UKP 16.99, ISBN 0 19 853978 9

ISSN 1355 8250, two issues a year
UKP 15 (Individuals) UKP28 (Institutions)

Reprinted in full from the Times Higher Education Supplement, No. 1148, November 4 1994, by kind permission.

In recent years, consciousness has become a respectable field to work in rather than one attracting deep suspicion, as is perhaps indicated by the number of conventional scientists participating in the Ciba symposium on Consciousness held some years ago, and the more venturesome conference, concerned with the Scientific Basis of Consciousness, held earlier this year in Tucson, Arizona. This interest has shown itself in the founding of a new refereed publication, the Journal of Consciousness Studies, intended to cover all aspects of consciousness (including philosophy, religion and phenomenology), rather than focusing narrowly on traditional neurophysiological or psychological investigations. The editors suggest that the 1990s should be not only the decade of the brain but also the decade of the mind (which they observe may not be the same thing). They suggest also that the conventional assumption that the problem of consciousness can be reduced to that of understanding the brain carries the risk (emphasised by philosopher David Chalmers) that this may be merely addressing an aspect of the problem that is ultimately trivial. The alternative “hard problems” are to be the theme for the second issue.

The first issue begins with interviews with Roger Penrose and Francis Crick. Crick supports the above “conventional assumption”, as well as seeing no evidence for consciousness having a causal role in the functioning of the mind: he believes that research into the way the brain works will lead in itself to an understanding of consciousness; just as DNA turned out to have special properties that could explain in a satisfying way certain mysterious and fundamental features of life, certain aspects of brain functioning may turn out to be exactly what is required to understand consciousness. Crick agrees, however, that it remains to be seen whether such an approach will ever explain qualia (the qualities of individual conscious experiences, such as why red appears to us as red).

Crick equally doubts whether anything beyond chemistry will be needed to account for how the mind (or the brain) works. Here his prejudices become manifest: “no one has demonstrated even in outline what mysteries of the brain’s functioning would be explained if it made use of subtleties that quantum mechanics may make possible”; ideas of people like Frölich, whose theory (a calculation that suggests that under certain circumstances oscillations may develop spontaneously in living organisms) are ones that “nobody else believes”. Crick admits that Roger Penrose’s ideas are “coherent”, but feels they are not relevant since they do not take into account psychology. Is this a valid objection? It is generally accepted that psychological processes involve computation, and so if, as has been suggested, quantum computational processes are faster than ordinary ones, then that fact alone would provide a role for quantum mechanics in the functioning of the mind. Again, some might disagree with Crick’s abrupt dismissal of Frölich’s ideas.

The Penrose interview is concerned chiefly with his new book Shadows of the Mind, a sequel to The Emperor’s New Mind. The arguments in the earlier book were not entirely accepted by the scientific community, and Shadows of the Mind consists in large part of Penrose’s responses to criticisms. His view of consciousness, held in common with a number of other physicists, is that its unitary nature (the way that each individual’s field of consciousness presents itself as an integrated whole, separate from any other person’s field of consciousness) can be related to the phenomenon known as quantum coherence observed in lasers, superconductors, and in the situation discussed by Frölich. (By contrast, Crick and co-workers hope for an explanation in terms of synchronised firing of neurons, though this attempted alternative has encountered difficulties.) Currently the situation is very much a question of both sides asserting “I am right, you are wrong”, but the dispute is one that is in principle resolvable by the due processes of science, and we will have to wait to see what the future will bring.

Much of Penrose’s book consists of a deeper examination than in The Emperor’s New Mind of the question of whether the actions of the human mind can be duplicated by some mechanical process, as many workers in the field of artificial intelligence believe will ultimately be possible, or whether new concepts will be needed in order to explain them. His arguments derive from the paradoxes connected with the possibility of mechanising thought and reasoning that first became apparent with the work of Gödel and Turing. What these two were able to show is that once we are able to indicate in a precise fashion which processes we are agreed will constitute a valid proof of propositions in general, it becomes possible to write down in terms of this definition a statement, which I shall refer to as G, that in some sense asserts that the statement G itself cannot be proved by the specified proof criteria. If G were provable by the specified proof processes, it would then follow (provided that the proof criteria are valid ones) that G is true, which, by virtue of the way G has been set up to refer to itself, implies that the specified proof process is unable to prove G. We have thereby arrived at a contradiction: G is provable and at the same time is not provable. We are forced to infer that the premise from which the contradiction arose, ie the provability of G, is false; in other words G is not provable. But since the non-provability of G is what G “asserts”, it follows that G is true, despite being not provable!

Except for the omission of the technical details concerning the construction of G, the argument of the previous paragraph amounts to a proof of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem stating that corresponding to any valid proof process there exists a true statement that the given proof process is unable to prove to be true. The feature of this situation of interest to those (such as the philosopher J.R. Lucas) wishing to assert that our minds do not function on the basis of a mechanical process, is that we appear to have been able to use our capacity for insight to see a truth (namely the truth of the statement G), that the mechanical process concerned cannot “see”. And, however complicated that mechanical process may be, one can always go one better than it and construct a corresponding new statement G which we know to be true, but which the mechanical proof process cannot prove. Apparently we can do better than any machine.

But this latter assertion has been contested (see for example Douglas Hofstadter’s arguments in Gödel, Escher, Bach). The problem is that before we can argue unequivocally that the Gödel statement is true, we have to convince ourselves that the proof process forming the basis of its construction is valid, and ultimately the task of checking this will be too great for the human mind.

In Shadows of the Mind, Penrose skirts this kind of difficulty by applying the Gödel argument not to the kinds of explicit inferential systems that mathematicians use but to the kind of computer program that workers in the field of artificial intelligence claim will eventually be possible, creating a computer which can be trained to do as well as or better than human mathematicians. Such a machine, not subject to human limitations regarding the complexity it can handle, ought to be able to understand the application of the Gödel argument to the principles that specify its own powers of reasoning. What will happen then? According to Penrose, a contradiction. The machine is able to convince itself, on the basis of the Gödel argument, that it cannot without a contradiction arising accept a result that it does accept, and a state of profound self-doubt will ensue.

Is this new argument valid? As of writing this review, I find myself not entirely convinced. The assertion that the machine makes “infallible pronouncements” seems to play an essential role. It may be the case that a machine that merely does mechanical things such as arithmetic or algebra can declare its output to be infallible without risk of running into contradictions, but that a machine that is intended to duplicate human thought processes may not be able to afford such a luxury. Turing, at any rate, seems to have believed that the possibility of error is an inevitable concomitant of our intelligence although Gödel thought that mathematicians had an ability to perceive the truth directly. Whatever the right answer may be, it can reasonably be asserted that Penrose has opened up new areas of debate on these difficult issues.

In the rest of the book Penrose wishes, as previously, to use the alleged impossibility of duplicating the operations of the mind on a computer, even in principle, to argue for the existence of new physics in human minds. This new physics will, he suggests, involve both quantum gravity and a process known as wave function collapse which seems inextricably bound up with the quantum theory. The arguments are interwoven in a complicated way, but would appear to boil down to the idea that a proper theory of quantum gravity might solve a number of difficulties and provide an optimum way out, given that such a theory is in any case needed by physics. Penrose’s strategy is therefore to try to show that all the mysteries are correlated with each other, in such a way as to make it plausible that there are genuine relationships between them. His proposed connections are: (a) gravitation may provide a mechanism for wave function collapse: (b) wave function collapse may provide the non-computational process needed for a theory of the mind; and (c) structures in the cell called microtubules, of considerable current scientific interest, are ones where quantum computation may occur (a recent proposal of Stuart Hameroff, which Penrose discusses in detail).

I am not altogether convinced by these arguments. On a technical point, it is not clear that we have to go to quantum gravity to find noncomputable processes – standard quantum field theory with its infinities that have to be argued away seems to offer sufficient scope for this already! More generally, while it is my own belief (unlike perhaps that of the majority of scientists) that physics is in need of revision at a fundamental level, I find Penrose’s arguments too tenuous to argue strongly for the particular form of resolution of difficulties that he proposes. His strategy of making minimal departures from orthodoxy may not be the right one, and alternatives that see consciousness as having to be integrated into science in a more radical way – for example the idea espoused by Henry Stapp, Euan Squires and others, related to an earlier proposal of Evan Harris Walker, to the effect that mind is a separate entity, outside present science, which influences the process of wave-function collapse – may lie closer to the truth than the idea that gravity is essential. (Penrose does, however, move further from orthodoxy with his defence of Platonism in mathematics, left rather dangling in the air, with which he finishes the book.)

But perhaps this is too severe a criticism. In the minds of a number of scientists, science is presently at a point, analogous to the years preceding quantum mechanics, where radical revisions will be necessary if science is to accommodate all the known facts. In such a transitional situation there will be many who glimpse intuitively particular aspects of the better-defined truth that the future will ultimately bring. Such intuitions, though incorrect in some ways, may facilitate progress towards the subsequent more correct understanding. At the present time, Penrose’s speculations may well have an important influence on some people. Moreover, the book contains entertaining illustrative examples of fundamental paradoxes such as the “Quintessential Trinkets” which serve to illustrate Bell’s theorem, and the ingenious (purely imaginary) “Elitzur-Vaidman bomb-testing problem”.

The inaugural issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies includes an article by Stuart Hameroff detailing his theory, developed in collaboration with Penrose, that arrays of the tubulin molecule, found in the microtubules of the cytoskeleton, can act as a “cellular automaton” able to perform computations. A paper by C.M.H. Nunn, C.J.S. Clarke and B.H. Blott describes a remarkable experiment that would, if valid, confirm the quantum theory prediction that observing a system changes its state, thereby giving strong support to the view that quantum effects are important in the functioning of the mind. In their experiment, a subject’s EEG pattern was measured and performance deficits were observed dependent upon which particular measurements were being made.

Benjamin Libet in his paper proposes an experiment where the effects of consciousness would be separated from those of neural activity, the idea being to isolate a portion of neural tissue so that it cannot send information in the usual way to the rest of the brain. The chosen tissue would be one which produced a specific experience when stimulated, and the researcher would see if the subject still reported an experience if the tissue was stimulated in the isolated condition. A positive outcome would suggest the existence of a “unifying field of consciousness” connecting the isolated tissue to the rest of the brain.

Valerie Gray Hardcastle discusses the “binding problem”, that is how the mind or brain connects the different aspects of one entity into a single unit. She argues that binding is not a process in which specific parts of the brain are somehow linked together – rather the brain has its own collective patterns of activity (“attractors”) into which individual parts become linked.

At a more conceptual level, Robert Forman considers the role of language in describing mystical experience, and suggests that language may sometimes act in an unusual negative way – where instead of describing to us what it is we are supposed to conjure up in our minds, it performs a process of disconnection, urging us to stop thinking that we know what a particular experience will be like.

Eleanor Rosch discusses the concepts of the nature of causality and the structure of events as seen in folk psychology, cognitive science and Buddhism, while John Beloff argues that evidence for paranormal phenomena is also evidence against regarding the mind as merely the brain.

In addition, the journal includes the text of a speech given by Ivan Illich, who proposes that we should not insist on being in an ideal state of health, but instead learn “an art of suffering appropriate to contemporary life”. Willis Harman reports on the quest of the Tomales Bay conference for an epistemology adequate to overcome the inadequacies of the existing paradigm in dealing with phenomena such as intuition and volition, taking into account the inescapable role of the personal characteristics of the observer. There are also reports on the Tucson conference and on the Athens/Olympia/Mexico series of conferences on Science and Consciousness, which have laid much emphasis on the influences of social and psychological factors over the direction of science.

There is a well-defined need for a journal that will publish high- quality work on consciousness while being at the same time less tied down by rigid views as to the suitability of material than are most journals. One hopes that the promise of this first issue will be fulfilled.

Brian Josephson is Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge.

The Tablet

12 November 1994

Fifteen years or so ago, mention of “consciousness” would have produced yawns from most researchers in the fields of psychology, neurophysiology, and philosophy of mind. But rapid advances in neuroscience, and an air of expectation that an ultimate physicalist explanation is imminent, have put consciousness on the map as a focus for serious study. One symptom of the trend is the publication this month of a new periodical – Journal of Consciousness Studies – which promises to explore the vexed question across several disciplines, including theology, philosophy, physiology, and physics. Its advisory board, including Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose and Margaret Donaldson, is a roll-call of the biggest names in consciousness publishing, and indicates that the choice of articles will be academically respectable.

Among the nuts-and-bolts workers is to be found Anthony Freeman, the first priest in the Church of England this century to be dismissed for unorthodox beliefs. Freeman will work as a “managing editor” on the journal, administering the refereeing of articles and acting as a non- specialist reader. He will also contribute an essay in the second issue, “on a theology for a post-modern age”.

In the first issue there is an interview with Francis Crick, whose book The Astonishing Hypothesis sought to persuade its readers that human identity is “nothing more than a pack of neurons”. The editors are at pains in their statement of editorial policy to distance themselves from any specific line on reductionism. “If `free will’ is just an illusion resulting from neuronal activity in the anterior cingulate sulcus, then our brave new world might wish to develop a form of `consciousness engineering’ to parallel the new technologies in genetics. If, however, as many people suspect, there is more to it than the brain alone, then we will need to look to other, more gentle, traditions for the wisdom to transform consciousness.”

John Cornwell Reprinted in full with permission, The Tablet – The International Catholic Weekly, 12 November 1994

John Cornwell is a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he directs a sociology of science project.

The Lancet

Volume 344, Number 8929, Saturday 15 Oct 1994
Exploring consciousness

There are “easy” questions about consciousness being answered in laboratories around the globe: what neural mechanisms underpin perception and cognition, what is the difference between waking and sleeping, how do anaesthetics work? Then there are the “hard” questions: how are we conscious of any perceptions, what are thoughts or feelings, and how do we experience a unified self? These are starting to move from the domain of philosophy into that of science. In a new journal, Harman [1] argues that the epistemology that underpins natural science is inadequate for the study of consciousness since it labels inner experiences as subjective and “unknowable” and is premised upon an external observer independent of the data collected. He then outlines the attributes of a provisional epistemology that permits research into the structure and evolution of consciousness.

A volatile mixture of refereed articles, interviews, and conference reports from all camps (reductionist to mystical) launches the 6-monthly journal into the centre of heated debates in the (newly named) field of “consciousness studies”. Those of us on the outside can finally enjoy at first hand one of the most exciting areas of research and theory-making.

Gene Feder

[1]Harman W. The scientific exploration of consciousness: towards an adequate epistemology. J Consciousness Studies, 1994; 1: 140-48.