Super//collider: Consciousness – Beyond the individual

Published on 4th November 2013, in super//collider

Is consciousness an illusion? Or a mere epiphenomenon; a byproduct of brain activity? Is it even generated by the brain, or is it part of some wider context ‘beyond the individual?’

Whatever the answers, conscious awareness is incredibly empowering. The very ability to experience our own experiences creates a further stimulus, the stimulus of the self in the world for us to respond to. Which is exactly what a team of panelists will do tomorrow evening, at a discussion tomorrow night organised by the Society for The Preservation of Wild Culture.

The panel for Consciousness: Beyond the Individual features an exciting range of skeptics, scientists and writers on parapsychology. In one side of the debate is Raymond Tallis, academic and author of Aping Mankind, a fierce critique of the inflated expectations of neuroscience to explain human consciousness. Tallis is teamed with Graham Nicholls, an artist and expert in out-of-body experiences and Anthony Peake, writer on parapsychology and author of a number of books on near-death-experiences.

Fighting the opposite corner is Stephen Law, editor of Think, a philosophy journal published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy and senior lecturer at Heythrop College in the University of London. Jane Aspell, senior lecturer in Psychology at the Anglia Ruskin University, and Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic Magazine, make up the rest of the team.

One of the main questions Wednesday’s panel will confront is whether conscious awareness can indeed be explained by mainstream science. While there have been astounding developments such as attempts to find the ‘neural correlate’ of consciousness, there are those that argue that this approach is inherently flawed. True understanding of the consciousness experience, which is ultimately highly subjective, may not be possible using existing objective scientific methods.

Qualitative approaches to consciousness research do exist but often fail to capture the essence of the problem. The alternative is individual observation, but as Deborah Hyde points out ahead of the event, we are not in fact very good observers of our own subjective experiences. Hyde argues that currently scientific research is the only valid tool with which to tackle the problem of consciousness.

Current theories also fail to address the more bizarre elements of human existence, such as out-of-body experiences (OBEs). The argument often posited by neuroscientists is that OBEs, which occur during near-death experiences, can in fact be simulated through brain stimulation. Tom Jeffreys, the event’s curator and chair, highlights an excellent point made by Graham Nicholls, one of the members of the panel. Nicholls points out that although neural stimulation can cause an OBE, to assume that all OBEs must be solely caused by neural stimulation is in fact a logical fallacy. To apply the argument to a different situation, although pain in a leg can be elicited through brain stimulation, it could not be argued that every time a person’s leg hurt the only cause was the neural simulation of pain. There might actually be something wrong with the leg. in other words, there can be a variety of causes for one effect.

Image credit: via Monolith Magazine, still from 1979 documentary the Secret Life of Plants

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