When I got to the Science and Nonduality conference the first person I encountered was Wolfgang Baer, a physicist from San Diego who told me about his theory of consciousness at the heart of quantum particles –possibly as a newly discovered or theorized binding force of atoms. I then went to see Cassandra Vieten, President and CEO of IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences), speak about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which she described the “shift” that takes places in various phases as what “everyone knows” changes to something radically new which then becomes what everyone “knows.”
The underlying theme: the recognition that a science without acknowledgment of consciousness is a science essentially without a center.
So when I decided to speak to Cassandra and do my usual networking shtick she was sitting with another young guy whom I tried to be polite to but my focus was elsewhere. The following night that young guy, Tam Hunt, recognized me in the bar. After some bantering over drinks I was moved to ask him if he’d ever read the book Replay by Ken Grimwood—a cult piece of obscure fiction that I have read twice and which my best friend and I used to discuss endlessly. I was blown away that Tam had also read Replay. I am no longer blown away because having gone through Tam’s book of essays I now have an understanding of how much he has exposed himself to, and absorbed deeply.
One way to read these essays is almost as an encyclopedia of modern thought—and the last part of the book is actually a series of interviews Tam has had (in person and by email) with many of these thought leaders. For example he has buttonholed Lawrence Krauss, author of a Universe from Nothing and got the following quote:
“Science encourages awe and wonder, and the sense that there is more to the universe than we directly experience. The advantage of the spirituality of science is that it is real.”
I was going to review Krauss’ book myself but I looked at the index for the word “consciousness” and when it wasn’t there, I moved on. Krauss takes the “scientism” position that truth is the result of empirical evidence but never questions the role of the observer because it’s inconvenient to do so. Like many atheists (Dawkins, Bill Maher) he skewers the low hanging fruit of religion and then uses words like “awe” and “reverence” without examining the “qualia” of such a response deeply.
Tam’s questions are first rate and it’s no surprise because he’s a practicing environmental attorney.
His essays are introduced by a foreword from by Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, and author of The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach and Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Koch says, “The book keeps on returning to its central thesis –that all matter is endowed with consciousness, that every outside in the universe has an inside, only accessible to the system itself. That “inside” is what it feels like to be that system, whether it’s a human brain with roughly 100 billion nerve cells, or the 100 million of the mouse or the nervous system of the tiny round worm C. elegans, no larger than the letter ‘l’, with 302 nerve cells. Of course, what the system is capable of experiencing will scale somehow with the complexity of the chunk of excitable matter that gives rise to the mind in the first place.”
This level of insight got to me, because the “inside” is what scientists like Krauss assiduously avoid, and which forms the basis for the scientific revolution IONS and Cassandra Vieten are promulgating. But how to approach it?
Tam writes the following;
“The panpsychist view is that each little speck of matter throughout the universe is both a speck of matter and a speck of mind. And as matter complexifies, so mind complexifies.
This is not anthropomorphism as much as it is a legitimate “psychomorphism” because we realize that mind must indeed be part of the very fabric of reality if we are to explain our very existence as human beings. We are here. We have minds – or, to be accurate, we are mind. What we call matter and mind are two aspects of the same thing, the outside and inside of matter, respectively. We are part of nature.” (page 11)
This last is the 800 lb. gorilla of modern science—we cannot study reality “objectively” from the “outside” because we are inexorably involved in our own perception as consciousness.
In the essays in the first part of the book Tam examines what he calls “Absent-Minded Science” examining the work of many thought leaders, including noted philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett. Here is Tam’s “cross-examination” of Dennett:
“The tension in [Daniel] Dennett’s position is that by acknowledging (necessarily, it would seem) the reality of conscious experience, Dennett can’t also argue that purely externalist objective explanations of consciousness say all that can be said about conscious experience. Rather, if conscious experience is real, it is surely different than simply describing – in as much detail as one likes – the electrochemical processes of a human brain. No matter how much detail we provide about electrochemical processes, such descriptions will never say anything at all about the quality of the subjective experience.” (16)
Tam himself, not surprisingly has some interesting insights especially regarding physics:
“Physics takes the approach of asking the universe to “just please hold still for a second so that we can study you.” But it never does. The universe is always in motion, always becoming. Time is always proceeding forward. It is, then, a mistake to conceptually separate matter from time and to believe that this conceptual separation is indicative of reality.“ (page 22)
This points us back to the inescapable truth that Time is a function of Mind. On page 68 Tam makes a nice summation:
“Mind is inextricably part of nature and if we are to explain this undeniable fact we can no longer ignore mind in our scientific explanations.”
His “Panpsychist” theory is not really new. Similar “pantheists” would include Emerson and Spinoza, both of whom are covered in this book. But Tam brings us back to quantum physics nicely:
“…no modern panpsychist that I know of argues that a chair or a rock is conscious – despite the bad jokes often lobbed at panpsychists. Rather, the molecules that comprise the chair or rock presumably have a very rudimentary type of consciousness but the larger objects themselves (again, presumably) lack the kind of interconnections required to become unitary subjects. The subjects we know best are humans – each of us, in fact, knows exactly one subject intimately: ourselves. Clearly, then, some aggregates of matter do in fact produce a complex unitary subject and we call this our “mind.” The “hard problem” of consciousness is figuring out the relationship between mind and matter and why some matter gives rise to unitary subjects and why others don’t? Why am I conscious, and you, and my cat, but not the chair or the rock?” (page 26)
This became the gist of our discussion in the bar, where I was intrigued by the generational aspect of our different perspectives. I mentioned a Twilight Zone decades ago about a lonely guy on a remote asteroid far out in space who fell in love with a female robot. Viewers back then saw it as a “Twilight Zone” because such a “relationship” was unfathomable –from their (and my own) anthropomorphic perspective the difference between alive (animate) and inanimate was clear and incontrovertible.
Now decades later, when we have sequenced DNA, it no longer is so clear. As Tam writes, is a virus animate or inanimate? He makes the point that virus seem “alive” only when they are within a host –and he mentions Prions.
“Prions are self-replicating molecules responsible for various diseases such as “mad cow disease.” Prions are even simpler than viruses and self-replicating RNA. Prions consist of nothing more than a very simple protein enfolded in a certain way.” (page 54)
Our conversation and these facts made me wonder about my own prejudice regarding the innate specialness of organic life (based on carbon as opposed to silicon and instructed by DNA) and recalling Gurdjieff’s key question –what is the significance of organic life on earth and human life in particular? It would seem from reading this material that Tam might agree that awareness comes into being at certain levels of complexity as all (conscious) matter organizes toward “order.” Might we say that awareness is an emergent property of certain complexities of consciousness?
One might ask whether there is a reverse counter-evolutionary “intention” toward entropy or disorder? But the key point that Tam makes quite eloquently is that it is “inconceivable” that somehow mind could arise from nonmind. This is in alignment with my own fascination with DNA as “software” –because clearly such an intellectual product (like the program Microsoft Word I’m using to write this article) could not have come about by “accident.”
So how does one “explain” DNA? Among other interesting ideas, Tam identifies natural selection as a “tautology” –or a circular nonexplanation of “evolution.” He says, very convincingly, “So it turns out that the phrase “survival of the fittest” really means “survival of those who survive,” or “the fittest are the fittest.” (page 42)
Delving into Eastern thought, Tam also makes the fascinating point that our logic isn’t the only kind of logic. He points out that “Tetralemmatic [Eastern] logic has four legitimate conclusions: true; false; true and false; and neither true nor false.” (page 62) It would be interesting to try to write a computer program that is “tetrary” rather than “binary” wouldn’t it?
Tam’s other interesting concept is Integrated Information Theory (IIT). I personally love this which is attributed to one of Tam’s sources, Giulio Tononi:
“Information” means that a particular experience is one out of many possible experiences, which differs from every other one in its particular way. Imagine, let’s say, a complicated, buzzing street scene in New York or, conversely, just lying on the beach in Southern California and watching the sky, purely blue, hearing nothing, totally relaxed. The second experience is a very simple experience, just pure you, and the New York scene is very complicated. Well, according to the theory, they’re both equally informative even though it may seem like there is a lot more information coming at you in the New York street scene. Not because of how many pieces there are in each, but because they both are that particular experience by the fact that they rule out all the other possible experiences you could have had in that moment. Imagine watching a movie. For every frame of the movie, you have a different experience. No effort whatsoever. It’s the simplest thing in the world for us.” (page 352)
This brings us full circle to the beautifully stated problem with physics –the “frame” of the movie is purely theoretically and conceptual. In “reality” there is no stopping it, and all aspects are inherently equal in “information” –or ultimately another way, completely “empty” of meaning without the presence of a “mind.” IIT suggests that we can quantify the integrated information in any given system (a quantity called phi), which is a measure of the consciousness present in that system.
This is also intriguing to me because Phi is also the constant of the Golden Mean, or Fibonacci sequence, memorialized in ancient structures like the Great Pyramid which leads me to believe that this sort of “panpsychism” –or seeing mind expressed in mathematical perfection –has been viewed with awe within “reality” since before our own civilization ever moved out of caves.
I would sum up by saying that Tam is a thought leader to be reckoned with both for his breadth of knowledge and ability to articulate. My criticism of this book would be its organization; it is clearly a compendium of essays. At a minimum it could use a table of contents and an index. There are also several areas of focus that could each sustain a book of their own. But what this collection of ideas does do effectively is stimulate thought and inquiry of a depth I seldom encounter. I for one look forward to seeing where Tam Hunt goes from here.
This article is a book review of ‘Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays in Philosophy, Spirituality and Science’ by Tam Hunt. To purchase and/or find out more about the book please visit the following link.