All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:

What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)

Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Five Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)


Back to 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness


AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index


General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Beyond the Psychoscope:
A thought experiment and its implications

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK

23 April 2007


(1) The Psychoscope

In order to bring consciousness within the scope of science, we first need an objective experimental method of detecting it.

We assume that all other people are conscious in the same way that we ourselves are. But in the past it was also reasonable to assume that the Earth is motionless at the centre of the universe, or that you can overtake a ray of light if you fly fast enough in the same direction – both of which are in fact false. Furthermore, our ideas about whether various kinds of animals or computers are or could be conscious are pure guesswork.

Science can only deal satisfactorily with objective data, in other words, data open to public view.

Suppose we have an experimental subject, and two scientists. One of the scientists believes that the subject – person, animal, extraterrestrial or computer – is conscious, the other believes that the subject is not aware of his, her or its existence and is simulating human conscious thought and emotion with a complex set of predetermined algorithms. We need to resolve their dispute.

In the restricted sense of whether the subject is or is not conscious of a particular thing, we can satisfy ourselves by asking him, her or it to respond to changes in that thing. A driver who puts a car into gear when the traffic lights change is – for all practical purposes – conscious of the lights – and so is a computer autopilot designed to drive the car safely. But if we want to know whether that subject experiences the same subjective feeling of personal existence that we (or at any rate, I) do, we can only fall back on the conventional assumption that someone who seems to communicate normally must have a similar inner mental life. Beyond that, we have no observational evidence. Asking the subject is no good, as he, she or it may give an incorrect answer, or even fail to understand the question.

Therefore a science of consciousness will not exist until we have an instrument which will allow us to make direct observations of another person’s conscious mind. So let us invent the psychoscope – a conceptually simple device which is in any case likely to appear sometime during the next century or so.

Techniques of artificially growing human tissues from stem cells will soon lead to the development of sections of artificial spinal cord for implantation into patients who have suffered paralysis when their own spinal cord has been damaged by accident or disease. Once this treatment has been perfected, there will arise a new possibility: that of physically connecting two or more human brains together, in the same way that computers are plugged into a network. This network connection combined with a knowledge of how to make the attachment to a normally functioning human brain is what we call the psychoscope.

It would now be possible for you (a researcher) to plug your brain into mine (a subject) in order to observe for yourself the contents of my mind. What would you see?

Clearly, you would have access to my mental world in addition to your own, and I would equally have access to yours, unless some device in the psychoscope acted as a one-way valve on information flow. You would see and hear what I see and hear, you would become able to recall my memories and feel my bodily sensations, and I yours. We would experience the strange sensation of being in two places at once, which would take some getting used to, and might be highly disorienting at first.

Once we were acclimatised, our view of the world would presumably be much richer than before. Just as a single individual integrates sense impressions from two eyes to create a three-dimensional sense of space, two networked individuals with two sets of eyes in their different heads would have a much enhanced sense of space – and all the more so if the connection could be made through wi-fi terminals in the two heads, with no physical link at all. In this case the two individuals could maintain the connection even when they were thousands of miles apart.

We may anticipate the psychoscope being used by lovers to achieve the ultimate in intimacy – and by the police as the ultimate instrument of interrogation. The opportunities in entertainment and education could be mind-boggling. All these applications suggest huge potential markets for the psychoscope, and hence the likelihood of major investment in perfecting the technology.

But the question before us here is whether the psychoscope could be used to detect another person’s consciousness – in other words, whether that consciousness objectively exists over and above the sense impressions, thoughts, feelings and memories of the brain being examined.

If one examines one’s own consciousness, I think it becomes apparent that consciousness is not any kind of substance or object in the mind, but rather a certain quality of feeling associated with those thoughts and impressions to which the brain is paying attention. It is not that I am some kind of disembodied person inside my head, but rather that the thoughts and impressions of which I am thinking at any moment carry sensations of personal identity, continuity and desire (or, if painful, of rejection). These include a flow of fantasies, memories and expectations which arouse various emotional responses, and the private mental dialogue I have with myself (I find that in my case it is more a dialogue than a monologue, because when I say something to myself I often react to it as if someone else had said it).

This stream of thoughts, memories and sense impressions is me, is everything that matters to me and everything that I can ever be aware of. Everything in that stream is tagged with one emotion or another. I emote, therefore I know I exist.

Obviously, under normal circumstances, the thought of the continuation and enhancement of that stream is the most desirable thing possible, and the thought of its permanent termination is intolerable. (Sleep is only a temporary interruption – if I believed I would never wake up, I would not want to go to sleep.)

If this is an accurate reading of who I am, then when you network with my brain using the psychoscope you will become party to my consciousness, but you will not observe it as such. In fact, the attempt to observe it will simply merge your consciousness and mine into a single conscious mind, though inhabiting two bodies at once and seeing the world through two pairs of eyes at once.

Although you will not be conscious of my being conscious of my thoughts, what you will be aware of is that there is another inner dialogue going on, originating in my brain rather than yours. This independent stream of thoughts, emotions, fantasies and memories will be unfamiliar to you, and may conflict with elements of your own inner dialogue. You will experience my personality in a similar way to how you experience it in normal conversation, but far more intimately. You will share my consciousness, and I yours, but we will not, I think, observe each other’s consciousness as such, because our conscious minds will no longer be separate. There will no longer be two of us: we will have merged into a single conscious being. Breaking the connection would leave the two separate individual minds again, who share the memory of the experience, but who might be left with very different emotions from it.

What if you attach the psychoscope to my brain while I am asleep or in a coma? There are two possibilities: that you wake me, and that you do not.

If you wake me as soon as the connection is made, then we are back where we were before. But what if my brain is damaged: I am in a coma and unable to wake? Presumably you would not then be able to observe anything in my brain. If you can only become aware of what I am aware of, and I am out for the count, then there will be nothing there for you to see. But on the other hand it might be possible to adjust the connection to my brain to access areas which yield sensations which I do not experience even under normal circumstances.

In fact this raises the whole question of whether you could connect to my brain in such a way as to directly perceive impressions which I myself cannot observe – unless I reconnect myself to myself in the same way.

Alternatively, we may suppose that I am simply asleep and that your connecting to me does not awaken me. Perhaps you would be able to see my dreams – but that would make me able to see them too. Yet if you did not wake me up, I might be able to be both asleep and dreaming (in my head) and awake (in yours) at the same time. This would presumably cause my dream to become lucid (subject aware that he or she is dreaming, yet without waking up).

If you neither awakened me, nor caused me to transition into lucid dreaming, then our conscious minds would continue to be separate for the time being (and in this case I would not be conscious at all for the time being). Yet when I awoke, there would clearly be a rapid increase in the contents of my stream of thought even if I remained lying perfectly still with my eyes closed. This restarting of my internal dialogue would indicate that I was now awake. Again, though you would not observe my consciousness any more directly than you do during normal conversation and observation between two people, that conversation and observation would be carried to an extreme of intimacy which could never have been achieved before the invention of the psychoscope.

So how can the existence of my conscious self – my spirit, my soul, in religious language – be verified or refuted by an external observer? The psychoscope does not seem to offer a way to answer this question. My consciousness does not have the same objective reality as my physical body. The science of the brain does not lead on to a science of consciousness. There remains an impermeable division between objective (public) and subjective (private) realities, and yet the two are profoundly linked: without the objective, the subjective has nothing to be aware of; without the subjective, the objective lacks any observer.

(2) Beyond the Psychoscope

We seem to have established that one’s conscious existence is not an objective individual entity living in one’s head, but rather a certain indefinable quality of feeling that attaches to the goings-on in that head. This feeling has so far been totally private, but can in principle be shared by another person. Experiments likely to be undertaken later this century may demonstrate this sharing, and in so doing may corroborate, modify or refute our speculations so far.

How can this view of consciousness be integrated into our scientific picture of the world?

Scientists and philosophers have often expressed bafflement at what is known as the “hard problem” of consciousness: “How can three pounds or so of jellified fats, proteins and sugars possibly be identified with the ineffable ‘raw feels’ of awareness: the taste of beer, the sound of cicadas, the redness of red?” [1]. Neuropsychologist Paul Broks writes: “The self has no location”, and “consciousness is not a ‘thing’ to be located” [2]. Our view clearly agrees with this. So if consciousness is not in the brain, where is it?

One possible answer is given by the psychic field model of consciousness.

A probability field in quantum physics is non-localised: it is everywhere and nowhere, and the particle modelled by that field might take part in an interaction at any point, in principle, anywhere in the universe. So let us start with a simple model in which conscious awareness is a property of a psychic field, coextensive with the physical universe, and capable of interacting with that universe at certain specific locations.

The conscious mind cannot be discovered by dissecting a human brain. In the same way, a radio may be playing music, but one can analyse the transistors and capacitors in that radio forever without finding any trace of Tchaikovsky or Duke Ellington. The music in the radio receiver is coming from the field, and the radio is merely responding to that field. The radio is localised, but the field is not.

Our hypothesis is that, like the electromagnetic field, the psychic field permeates the universe, carrying not energy, but pure disembodied awareness. It carries the subjective sense – the inner feeling – of the exhilaration of joy, the agony of pain, the redness of red. We assume that any sufficiently complex information-processing system, such as a brain, interacts with that field at a particular location in space. Neurons in the brain do not become conscious any more than transistors play the fiddle, but in both cases the material components are precisely organised in such a way as to resonate to an otherwise invisible part of reality.

What are the details of this interaction? Firstly, it is clear that information flows from the brain into the field – whereas the radio is a receiver, the brain is a transmitter. Awareness thus has sensory data to be aware of. Does this information flow involve an energy flow? Does the brain lose energy, which goes into the field? Perhaps not; maybe the information is transmitted in pure form, without any accompanying physical energy. In any case, only tiny amounts of energy need be involved, and it is not clear how they might be detected.

Does information flow back from the field into the brain? I am inclined to say: no, the field provides a pure dispassionate observer. The information flow is one-way.

My reason for saying this depends on the answer to the next question: if there is just one universal psychic field, and if it is receiving information from many separate brains, why are those brains not directly aware of each other through the field? Clearly they are not (unless telepathy is ever a reality).

Or, to put the same question differently: why am I me alone, and not somebody or everybody else? Are there a potentially infinite number of different “wavelengths” in the psychic field? Or is my separate existence an illusion caused by the one-way flow of information?

Our thought experiment with the psychoscope suggested in any case that my sense of private individual uniqueness is an illusion.

My sense of self depends not so much on the particular details of my life – that I play the saxophone, that I work for Oxford University – as on the intangible feeling of personal existence that attaches to everything I think and do, combined with the total inaccessibility of other people’s inner lives. I could give up music for something else, or go and work somewhere else, but I would still have the sense that I am me in a very special way. You (presumably) have this same feeling attached to everything you think and do – but when the psychoscope is invented we will apparently be able to share it. This means that the sense of self must be transferable from one individual person to another. Consciousness itself is essentially a particular quality of sensation which is common to all people (and intelligent aliens), though we may not realise it. It is a property of the field, not the individual.

But if my separate identity is an illusion, then my death is also an illusion!

One reason why the thought of death is intolerable (to me at any rate) is that I am only party to my own private view of the universe, and so, from my perspective, extinction of that private view is equivalent to extinction of the entire universe. Okay, so there are six billion other people on this planet, each of whom could say exactly the same thing. But most of them I don’t know at all, and even in the case of the ones I have met I’m only guessing that they’re conscious. And even if they are, I simply cannot accept a universe in which they go on while I am extinct. If I am annihilated, then they are too.

If, however, my feeling of my unique existence is a property, not of my physical brain, but of the psychic field, then destruction of my brain will not obliterate that feeling, though it may impoverish it for a while.

How this will feel, subjectively, as one dies, is impossible to say. What we can state with confidence is that it is impossible to rule out the existence of states of consciousness which are unknown in our current condition. If the psychic field is analogous to the electromagnetic field, it may be able to support a wide variety of phenomena. Dying may not feel very much like falling asleep or even like waking up; it may feel perfectly indescribably different from anything in our material existence.

The relationship between the psychic field and the material universe is in any case not a simple one. According to science, our conscious minds depend for their existence on our material brains, and hence on chemistry and physics. Physical particles depend on mathematical laws – but these are in turn a product of rational thought, which depends on conscious minds. So science tells us that, rather than mind simply depending on matter, the two are interrelated in a more complex and even paradoxical way.

We have argued that there is no flow of information from the field into the brain. Clearly this must be true of specific information about the contents of other brains. But there is one exception to this rule: the human mind is not only conscious, but knows that it is conscious. All discussions about consciousness itself, including this article, including even the existence of the word “consciousness” in the language, are cases where the material world is modified by the presence of the psychic field.

A world full of people who were unaware that they were conscious would be like a normal stage play. But in the real world people think about being conscious, and there are debates and even scientific conferences about consciousness – this would be like a play in which the characters on stage were aware of the audience, and incorporated comments about members of the audience into their speeches, while still remaining in character in the roles assigned to them by the playwright and immersed in the events of the play.

The physical activity of the material human brain therefore does respond to the presence of the psychic field, even though it cannot seem to sense other brains directly through the field. This capacity of our minds seems to be related to our abilities in language and abstract thought. Possibly brains more highly evolved than our own might interact with the field differently, though how this might come about is impossible to predict.

An obvious objection to the psychic field model is that it attempts to create an objective model for what is essentially private and subjective. Consciousness is not a thing, to be enumerated among other things in physics such as heat, light and sound. But I would reject this criticism.

As a Western rationalist, I need an objective style of model in order to feel I have some intellectual purchase on a problem. But in any case the property I have ascribed to the psychic field is not one that can be measured or otherwise pinned down. The field is not out there somewhere – rather it is inside me, it is a concept or a familiar form of words which represents the subjective feeling which is the most important part of who I think I am, and the most important part of who everyone else thinks they are.

In any case, since the development of quantum mechanics, even the mathematical idea of a field in physics has taken on a degree of abstractness and paradox which in the age of classical mechanics would have been unthinkable. On balance, then, the model is helpful, even though it may be a little simplistic. It offers an easily comprehensible alternative to both the monotheist concept of God creating immortal souls (and then trashing them if they don’t obey orders), and the materialist concept of consciousness as no more than a superficial chance byproduct of brain function.

Above all, it offers a way of thinking about conscious minds as both an intrinsic and a significant part of the natural universe. And it suggests that one’s personal death may lead neither to obliteration nor to one’s removal to a fanciful supernatural realm where rewards and punishments are handed out.

Rather it offers a model in which one’s separate and therefore lonely personal existence is an artefact of the interaction between the field and material brains at the current level of human evolution, and therefore the part of death that one really fears is also an illusion.

How might the psychic field relate to traditional ideas about God. Might we even call the field “God”?

Absolutely not. God is a concept of a supernatural yet humanoid creator who behaves very like a human tribal leader, and in both respects the field is quite different.

The psychic field is not imagined to be any kind of cause of the existence of the material universe – rather we are sketching a view of existence in which physical realities coexist with a field of subjective awareness, the two being mutually interdependent in some fundamental way. We are imagining a universe made of some underlying primordial substance which has both subjective and objective properties, the subjective ones represented in the psychic field, the objective ones in the spacetime, electromagnetic, quantum and other related fields.

There is no magical creator, and no speculative realm beyond the physical universe, but rather merely the hypothesis that it is fruitful to take a unified view of the known contents of our universe, in which the subjective and objective aspects of life are two sides of a single picture. We reject the materialist and idealist views that one of them must be completely explicable in terms of the other, in favour of a sort of unified dualism.

Again, while the traditional idea of God portrays a highly intolerant lawgiver and political meddler, paranoid about the slightest challenge to his authority and supposedly interacting with people’s lives on a day to day basis, the psychic field is quite different: a model of a detached, calm awareness more reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy. If the world is a play, the field is not the scriptwriter or the director but the lighting technician, illuminating the action but without attempting to shape it in any way. It is as indifferent as sunlight whether it casts its awareness on joy or pain, on love or murder. It is our mortal, material selves – the actors on stage – who worry about these things, who strive to make changes to the world, to avoid pain and achieve our desires. The field lends all this turmoil a sense of reality which it would not otherwise possess, but does so equally to triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, health and sickness, logical deductions and fantastic imaginings, birth and death.

What of this illusion – as we suspect it to be – of the loneliness and separateness of the individual mind? Is it impossible for two people to communicate with each other directly through the field? Or might it one day become possible for brains more highly evolved than ours to receive impressions from the field?

Clearly, human technological evolution offers one avenue of progress, as neuroscience converges with computer technologies and genetics. People are increasingly interconnected through the internet and mobile phones, and – as we have already speculated – direct connections into the brain will presumably carry this process much further.

On the other side of the coin, thousands of years of prayer and meditation appear to have achieved very little. There has been no noticeable change in the state of consciousness of peoples in countries dominated by meditative religions such as India or Tibet, let alone in countries dominated by monotheism. Increases in social cohesion and interactive communication seem to result more from material and social improvements, which have been driven more by the Western materialist style of attachment to and engagement with the material world, not by retreat into one’s inner soul. This active culture arose through a chance configuration of social and economic conditions, not through systematic psychological exercise, or through a mutation in the genes controlling brain structure.

As a result, we are now seeing the East industrialising and expanding its economy, not the materialist West undergoing a social revolution based on meditation or any other psychological practice. Science and technology, with their supporting economic and cultural foundations, are the mainspring of human evolution.

The mental separation of individual minds is an immensely important part of our current state of social existence, as it makes cruelty possible, and a large proportion of human life is dominated by the pain inflicted, whether deliberately or carelessly, by one person on another. But someone who genuinely believed that their separation from other individuals was illusory would no more be able to inflict suffering on a fellow human being than upon his or her own self.

We may anticipate that the invention and marketing of the psychoscope will help to overcome this illusion. It will therefore have political implications which will tend to reinforce the current trend away from narrow individualism and tribalism and towards a global sense of common identity and solidarity of the human and other large-brained species.

(3) Postscript, added 28 February 2012

I have discovered the following passages in Freeman Dyson’s autobiographical book Disturbing the Universe [3]. The first refers to an episode during his childhood in the year 1939:

I tried hard to understand the deeper causes of the hatreds that were driving us to war. I concluded that the basic cause of war was injustice. If all men had a fair share of the world’s goods, if all of us were given an equal chance in the game of life, then there would be no hatred and no war. So I asked myself the age-old questions, why does God permit war, and why does God permit injustice, and I found no answers. [...]

Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow’s football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.

[...] In the summer vacation [...] I asked my mother to come out for another walk along the dike and I laid before her my message of hope and glory. [...] After I had finished talking I asked her what she thought about it all. She answered slowly, “Yes. I have believed something rather like that for a very long time.”

Later:

When my mother was past eighty-five [...] Sometimes we talked about the nature of the human soul and about the Cosmic Unity of all souls that I had believed in so firmly when I was fifteen years old. My mother did not like the phrase Cosmic Unity. It was too pretentious. She preferred to call it a world soul. She imagined that she was herself a piece of the world soul that had been given freedom to grow and develop independently so long as she was alive. After death, she expected to merge back into the world soul, losing her personal identity but preserving her memories and her intelligence. Whatever knowledge and wisdom she had acquired during her life would add to the world soul’s store of knowledge and wisdom. “But how do you know that the world soul will want you back?” I said. “Perhaps, after all these years, the world soul will find you too tough and indigestible and won’t want to merge with you.” “Don’t worry about that,” my mother replied. “It may take a little while, but I’ll find my way back. The world soul can do with a bit more brains.”

Interesting.


References:

[1] Paul Broks, “The mystery of consciousness”, Prospect, April 2007, p.38.

[2] Paul Broks, Into the Silent Land (Atlantic, 2003), p.125, 96.

[3] Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (Harper & Row, 1979), p.17-18 and 252-253.