Thursday, August 30, 2012

David Hutchinson - The Future History of Consciousness

This article appears in the current issue of The Integral Review (July 2012; Vol. 8, No. 1). Hutchinson feels we are the verge of a "momentous shift in knowledge and ability with consciousness." Maybe. To me, it looks like a small percentage of mostly affluent, Caucasian, first-world people of privilege may be moving into a worldcentric perspective.

Meanwhile, our neuroscience of consciousness is beginning to grok that mind is a culturally, temporally, and environmentally embedded body/brain, and that consciousness is an emergent property of mind.

The problem seems to be the disconnect between the science (consciousness as emergent property) and integral spirituality (consciousness as an a priori condition of the universe) - while this is an interesting paper, I'm not sold on his argument for the coming singularity.

The Future History of Consciousness
David Hutchinson 

Abstract: Consciousness is the key fact of life, yet the study of it is in its infancy. Spirituality and science both hold valid truths in this field, and they are bound to meet in a practical sense as science is moving rapidly into the subjective areas such as dreams, thought processes, and awareness. We are on the edge of a momentous shift in knowledge and ability with consciousness, driven by exponential change in theory and technology.

  • “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” (Clark, 1962, p. 32)

For every one of us, the experience of consciousness is the key fact of life—its highs and lows, agonies and ecstasies, beauties and transcendences, poetry and squalor, fears and loves, the tingle and spark and slap of every moment. Experience happens to the individual, and is filtered through billions of unique bodies and minds. For millennia, the turn and shape of consciousness has been a personal matter, subject only to the influences on an individual: reading, thought, diet, illness, drugs, meditation—but no more. The times are changing, and the twenty first century will see a revolution in the way we understand, work with, and experience consciousness. We can prepare for it, brace ourselves, use it wisely, or let the rising swell sweep us out to a vast and uncharted sea.

The understanding of consciousness and the mind is in its infancy today, especially as it relates to technology. Tools to analyze the brain at the working level of neurons are just emerging, and maps of the brain are about as detailed as Columbus used when sailing out for the New World. But watch out. The future is tapping on the windowpane, asking to come in. Neuroscience, computational models of cognition, and analytical tools are racing ahead, but nobody knows what is around the next turn.

Technology is not a settled field; I suspect it never will be. It is moving too fast, and its knowledge and effects are multiplying at an exponential rate. Nobody knows what will be possible in fifteen years, much less a thousand. A thousand years from now there will be human beings, but will they have the same limbs and organs as today? Will they have new senses, augmented brains? What will they think, dream, imagine? What stories will they tell their children? Will they be as gods, and look back with fondness on their mortal ancestors of the 20th century?

“Two voices speak for the future, the voice of science and the voice of religion. Science and religion are two great human enterprises that endure through the centuries and link us with our descendants” (Dyson, 1998, pp. 6-7).

In my life I have sat around campfires, and dissected corpses; pored over Sanskrit verses, and visualized tesseracts; I have listened intently to the voices of science and the spirit. They both speak with authority, and both have a claim to describing reality. How can that be? For several hundred years, religion and spirituality have railed against the notion of scientific reductionism, seeing it as a kind of blindness to a true understanding, and the depiction of the world as mechanical, inert, dead. William Blake wrote, “May God keep us from single vision & Newton’s sleep" (Blake, W., quoted in Damon, 1965). Science is rejected by theologians east and west as the great Satan.

A hundred years ago Sri Aurobindo described two negations. “Thought comes to deny the one [spirit] as an illusion of the imagination or the other [physical reality] as an illusion of the senses.” (Sri Aurobindo, 1972, p.7). He was addressing the problem of how the mind responds to two radically different experiences (physical sensation versus the inner spirit), and how a strong belief in one leads to an absolute denial of the other. It is more than a difference of opinion or culture. It is a complete denial of the one by the other. He wrote that at the dawn of relativity and quantum theory, but it is still valid. The paths of science and spirituality were never farther apart than they are today.

The divide between singularitarian technodreamers and spiritual savants is as wide as the universe. You will not find chanting or prayer at a transhumanist conference, nor will you find a demonstration of artificial intelligence at a spiritual gathering. They are members of separate clans who speak different languages. Chakras? fMRI? Reincarnation? Neural decoding? Even their gods require interpreters if they want to speak to each other. Language, books, computers and networks have each brought spectacular leaps forward in the development of consciousness.

But we stand on the edge of a shift that will dwarf all the preceding. Imagine: it is a few years in the future, and machine learners will be reading through millions of books and journals, billions of web pages, trillions of pieces of information, to save, categorize, parse, summarize, and synthesize. Then in the blink of an eye, a natural language interface will be marketed, allowing you to have a discussion with this worldwide exocortex, a brain outside your brain holding the world’s knowledge. A year later there is a brain-mind interface available that gives you instantaneous access to the world brain. And then you can talk to anyone, anywhere, through this medium, with the power of thought alone.

Through this series of inevitable, fantastically realistic, and fully practical steps we have entered a new world, where our understanding of knowledge, wisdom, education, and the very nature of humanity has shattered, and must be put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty.
Read the whole paper.

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