Thursday, February 23, 2012

Altered States and Feng Shui

The Logical Endpoint of Sign War
There's a feng shui war on in the Hong Kong skyline...

I'm sick at home. Nothing serious, just a moderately nasty flu virus of some kind, with fever, aches and pains, and all the usual fun. In fact, I'm a good deal better today than yesterday, which is why I'm writing this here blog post.

My mind starts working funnily when I'm running a temperature. It becomes very very active, and something about my pattern-recognition wetware goes into overdrive. A quite a while ago I got a nasty stomach bug which prompted me to produce hundreds of naughty syllabic inversions from short phrases. You know, bucking a fox, that sort of thing. I don't remember any of them, but I had a witness so I wasn't just imagining it.

This time, I was obsessing about feng shui.

Feng shui isn't just about furniture arrangement. It's a system of geomancy; placing buildings, structures, roads, canals, and what have you in auspicious arrangements. I felt like I was just on the cusp of some great revelation. It had something to do with Qin Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor. I realized that what he was actually doing was engraving a spell on the Earth, which laid the foundations of China. Those canals, walls, cities, and especially mausoleum (yin feng shui, see) was the whole point of the exercise.

Yeah, it felt more impressive when I was actually thinking it. I'll let you know if there's any progress.

But it did bring home to me once again how deeply intertwined our physical and mental states really are. Yet the gap between neuronal activity and phenomena of consciousness remains unbridged. We're constantly learning more about how the brain/mind interaction works, but we're no closer to discovering what the mind is.

I kinda like it that way.


  1. Engraving a spell on the Earth? the word 'conceit' comes to mind -- though he was the first emperor after all... though your hunch is almost surely correct.

  2. That's because modern science doesn't see the mind/consciousness/spirit as something separate from the brain itself.

    Your brain is all of that. You can't separate them.

  3. That doesn't really answer anything. Does a lump of matter somehow become conscious? If so, how does that happen? If not, what other alternatives are there? Simply stating that they are not separate or separable doesn't really answer anything.

    1. There is no line between consciousness and brain. Unless you want to define exactly what you mean by consciousness.

      What we are is basically a big bag of salty water with lots of different cells working together to live and replicate.

      Consciousness is just the cells trying to work together. Us being able to think is just millions of year of evolution and basically a greater symbiotic relationship between all of our cells.

      Unicellular organisms do not have the ability for complex thought like we do, because they do not have many different cells working together. Rats have the ability for much more advanced thought and human beings even more so.

      It's actually quite simple.

    2. Hand-waving, David. Cells trying to work together in a symbiotic relationship, evolution, and, poof! consciousness. How? Simple, my arse.

  4. Also, I thought this was rather interesting.

  5. Reading this I was reminded of an ongoing mind-matter study that might be worth following. Sam Parnia is trying to find out if patients having NDEs during cardiac arrest can have verifiable perceptions of targets not accessible by physical means.

    There are some case studies of OOBEs with accurate perceptions of operating room procedures etc., but not a systematic study.

    At some point he was claiming to publish in beginning of 2012. If he manages to get positive results, it should result in a pretty interesting debate.

  6. No doubt. I would be inclined to be extra super careful about this kind of stuff. Extraordinary claims and all that commotion.

    Somebody just today told me about thinking of an individual they hadn't thought of in years, then finding out the next day that they died just about at that time. It's spooky when that happens. Also as good as impossible to demonstrate that there's anything there beyond confirmation bias and coincidence.

    And yet... and yet. The hard problem remains unsolved. There's a true mystery here, so close. So very close. And from where I'm at, OOBE's and spooky coincidences ~or are they?~ don't make it any more or less mysterious. Not the least bit.

    1. Actually, this is also thought of in science as just another case of a probability distribution. People think of other people all the time. Most of the time, you won't hear the next day that they died.

      If at some point this does happen, people think oh wow, I'm psychic.
      However the probability of this happening at some point in your life is actually quite high and as such not really a mysterious event.

    2. David, I was a loudmouth skeptic when you were still swimming around in your dad's balls. I know.

  7. Careful, sure. But the interesting thing about this experiment is that it's pretty easy to make it robust.

    On the other hand there's already pretty convincing evidence for ESP (summarized by e.g. Radin), but most people remain unconvinced. You can always invent loopholes and explanations if you don't like the results.

    One might say that if ESP is taken seriously, the hard problem falls away, since the most common materialist theories become ridiculous. Then the only possibility is that the brain does not create consciousness.

    Of course, the mystery still remains. Mystery of existence?

  8. I don't think the hard problem becomes any less hard if we drop materialism. The nonphysicalist explanations don't explain anything either. They have the same problem as theistic creation stories—they just push the question back a level. If 'the mind' is nonphysical, then how—through what mechanism—can it have an effect on the physical? Isn't something that affects the physical by definition also physical? If memories, karmic influences or what have you can exist without being encoded in neural structures, then what is the medium that carries them? Or, alternatively, how can information exist independent of a medium to encode it? If such a nonmaterial medium does exist and information in the mind is encoded in it, then what is the function of the brain, and why are mental states so tightly bound to brain states?

    And yeah, I remain unconvinced by ESP and other 'paranormal' phenomena. There's a lot of suggestive stuff, but whenever someone looks closely enough, it seems to disappear. What's more, ESP and other paranormal phenomena would have such huge practical implications that if they were real, somebody would have weaponized them by now. Yet those guys who stare at goats never manage to get anywhere far, fictional treatments notwithstanding.

    So no, I'm not satisfied by any nonmaterialist explanation I've come across either. When examined critically, all the explanations ultimately leak like sieves, materialist and non-.

  9. N.b.: what I'm saying here is that I don't know. I don't have an explanation for the mind.

    The materialist attempts to explain the mind strike me as so much hand-waving, and the nonmaterialist ones strike me as more handwaving, albeit from a different direction. So if it's sounds like I'm turning on a dime to argue first with you, David, and then with you, Jussi, it's because that's exactly what I'm doing. I find both of these positions highly unsatisfactory, yet I don't know of any alternatives.

    This is a most frustrating state of affairs, but then that's life.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. [Lost my damn comment-I'll try again.]
    That reminded me of this:


    Sentience has something to do with embodiment and perception. Or the perception that embodiment affords. Yet not merely epiphenomenon.

    Have a lot of links about this as I'm outlining a novel type piece of work. Sticking point however is here.

    Is the whole just the sum of the parts? Or is it less than the parts as this paper would suggest [pdf]

    The Whole is Always Smaller Than Its Parts A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads

    Or is it as Sujato suggests on his Buddhist blog

    "The parts of a TV are not small TVs" in The True Wonder of the Mind

  12. Whoa, lots to digest there. Thanks. Only read the abstracts and Bhante Sujato's short and lovely text so far. Thanks.

    "Emergent property" and "epiphenomenon" are just two more labels, as far as I'm concerned. I think they're rather dangerous labels, too, since they will quickly lead to an essentialist morass.


  13. Obviously I don't know anything either, but we can play the game...

    >I don't think the hard problem becomes any less hard if >we drop materialism."

    The hard problem is defined as "how does the brain cause consciousness?" If you say it doesn't, the question becomes irrelevant. You might then have some new questions, but those are different ones. Just to be precise.

    >If 'the mind' is nonphysical, then how—through what >mechanism—can it have an effect on the physical? Isn't

    This assumes a sharp division between "physical" and "nonphysical". What if they are two sides of the same coin, somewhat like light and matter?

    Even if is so, of course you could ask about mechanisms. It is possible to describe light-matter interactions on some level. But we don't have the physics or the language for "mind-matter interactions" (or dynamics of mind-matter?).

    >alternatively, how can information exist independent of >a medium to encode it? If such a nonmaterial medium does

    Why not?
    I think it is somewhat materialistic to assume that you need a strictly material carrier for information (or any kind of carrier). There are theories proposing that information is more fundamental than matter.

    >exist and information in the mind is encoded in it, then >what is the function of the brain, and why are mental

    I like the idea of the brain as localizer and limiter of mind (or consciousness). It fits a lot of data, like "expansion of mind" in religious experiences and psychedelic drug experiences, OOBEs etc. In a recent study, psychedelics were found to dampen brain activity, with less activity corresponding to more intense experiences. It also fits ESP and psychokinesis and helps explain the rarity of those experiences (the mind usually being tightly "bound" to the organism, for functional purposes).

    >And yeah, I remain unconvinced by ESP and other >'paranormal' phenomena. There's a lot of suggestive >stuff, but whenever someone looks closely enough, it >seems to disappear.

    They are very elusive phenomena, but my impression from the literature is that there is far too much positive evidence to explain away. ESP studies have been conducted for decades, often with much more rigor than applied in other fields.

  14. Wooh, Jussi. I started writing a reply to this latest comment of yours, but decided I really don't want go there again. I spent years on alt.atheism and a bunch of skeptic BBS's back in the 1990's and early 2000's, and I am so done with that part of my life. I don't find these ideas any more convincing now than I did then, but I no longer have the energy for the debate.

    Besides which, I'm rusty, and no longer believe I have anything fundamentally better to offer anyway.

  15. Very good! I don't actually care much for philosophical debate, speculation on validity of ESP, or consciousness theories. I was just in the mood for bringing out some provocative stuff.

  16. The Reply button on top doesn't work, so here:
    What do you mean by consciousness ?

  17. The internal experience I have when I'm awake, that I believe you have when you're awake, that I believe my cat has when she's awake (only significantly differently in the specifics), that I don't know if a honeybee has when she's awake, and that I very strongly doubt a thermostat has under any conditions.

    I'm writing a long-ass rant on this right now, as a matter of fact. Expect it posted sooner or later. Probably sooner...

  18. Well here's something I'm just reading to add to the pile.
    Enriched with Information:New theory doesn’t limit consciousness to the brain based on the flow of information and neurological processing. Frankly it's a restatement of a good deal of what is said in Abhidharma using neurological/technological language.

    I'm a little bit obsessed with this topic so very much looking forward to your long-ass rant.

  19. I liked that. Seems a promising alternative to most AI research as we know it. Still has that poof! there, though, as even the article admits.

    That Hubert L. Dreyfus article was fascinating, by the way. Not a whole lot has changed since then in AI, Siri, Deep Blue, and Google Translate notwithstanding. Brute force still beats heuristics, and I kinda agree with him that the idea that that'll get us close to true AI is about as likely as climbing ever taller trees will eventually get us to the Moon.