Field theories of consciousness/Field theories of global consciousness
The philosophy of global consciousness: a brief history of God
The most ancient written field theory of global consciousness is that of the Vedic rishis of ancient India, who lived around 1500 BC. These seers taught that an all-encompassing field of pure consciousness exists, as a universal Self called Atman or Brahman. This universal field of consciousness was said to be the sole and whole cause of all physical phenomena and to include within itself all individual human consciousnesses. The idea that each individual human consciousness is merely a partial manifestation of the all-pervading Atman/Brahman is expressed by such famous Vedic statements as as “Thou art that” (tat tvam asi) and “I am he” (so ham). The state in which it is realised that ‘I am Brahman’ is called nirvikalpa-samadhi or changeless samadhi.
Clearly, this concept of a universal consciousness bears considerable resemblance to the God of Christianity or Allah of Islam, whose prophets lived somewhat later – but there are differences. For one thing, the putative relationship of human individuals to the global consciousness is different. While the rishis taught that each individual consciousness is a small constituent part of Atman/Brahman, God and Allah are seen more as heavenly fathers – in Christian societies declaring oneself to BE God is generally seen more as grounds for committal to a psychiatric institution than a sign of enlightenment. A further difference is that the Hindu scriptures (specifically the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Brahma-sutra) in some sense remove the proposed existence of Atman/Brahman from the realms of religious faith to the more hard-nosed arena of empirical science, in that they describe meditative techniques which are said to allow practitioners to experience for themselves the union of their individual consciousness with the hypothesized universal field. Such union is reported to be the ultimate bliss.
Of course, unity experiences are not exclusive to practitioners of meditation. Natural mystics from a variety of cultures have always reported powerful experiences of the merging of their individual consciousness with a universal field of being. Notable compilations of such reports are those of Richard Maurice Bucke (Bucke, 1901) and William James (James, 1902). Both these authors argued that the mystical experience of union with something larger was the original well-spring of all the major religions, whose less well endowed followers then proceeded to dispute with and kill each other over minor technical differences in their founders’ attempts to convey the experience. The real question, of course, must be whether the archetypal mystical experience that “all is one” really does reveal the objective existence of a universal consciousness, or whether it is (not to put too fine a point on it) simply the result of a temporary brain malfunction. Two flawed but honourable attempts at scientific investigation of this question are described later in the present sub-article.
Returning to the history of ideas about global consciousness, we now skip a couple of millennia to the 13th century, when the question of whether multiple consciousnesses actually exist at all or whether there is really only one universal consciousness was hotly debated in an intellectual brawl between Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and his colleague at the University of Paris, Siger of Brabant (ca 1230 – ca 1283). Siger thought that the Arab philosopher Averroes (1126 – 1198) was right, in that there really is only one intellect, which utilises individual human brains to think. Thomas (always more an intellectual than a mystic) disagreed, voluminously. In 1270 Thomas published a whole book on the matter, called De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas (On the unity of the intellect, against Averroes). The book was an intellectual tour de force, which combined a closer reading than Siger’s of Aristotle with a series of dense intellectual arguments - and it apparently settled the issue for the Bishop of Paris, who later the same year announced that the unicity of the intellect was heresy and “all who shall teach or assert [it] knowingly” would be excommunicated. This rather heavy-handed approach failed to stop Siger from arguing the case for monopsychism, although it did make him careful thereafter to say that it was clearly “revealed truth” that rational souls are multiplied across individual human bodies and he was only discussing the texts of the philosophers, not stating his own opinions. These somewhat unconvincing disclaimers notwithstanding, Siger was cited to appear before the Inquisition in 1277. Various sources claim either that he was sentenced to indefinite house arrest or that he fled to Italy; but all agree that he was later murdered anyway, with a pen, possibly by his Church-appointed secretary. Philosophy was a clearly a more perilous profession in the 13th century than it is today.
After this little episode, the position that human minds are not individual substances but “part of the infinite intellect of God” (so that “when we say that the human mind perceives this or that, we are saying nothing but that God … has this or that idea” (Spinoza Ethics Demonstration of Proposition 11 of Part 2)) was not openly espoused by anyone until Baruch Spinoza (1632-1674), who lived for a rather brief time in the middle of the 17th century. Like the Vedic rishis, Spinoza was a panpsychist. He believed (probably on the basis of personal mystical experience, although he also felt the need to justify his position by a series of intricate and often dicey intellectual arguments) that all is one i.e. that everything which exists is God.
George Berkeley (1685 – 1753), who was born shortly after Spinoza died, was a good Christian and thus never actually endorsed the idea that individual human consciousnesses are part of God’s consciousness, although this is certainly a logical extension of his view. Berkeley’s early ideas on consciousness were similar to those of the Vedic rishis, although probably arrived at by a different route. Basically, Berkeley thought that matter does not exist unless it is perceived. However, he acknowledged that matter does continue exist when it is not observed by any particular human consciousness – the bed we are lying on does not disappear when we go to sleep, for example – so he was left with the logical conclusion that the entire world exists only in virtue of the fact that it is always observed by God. This viewpoint is cleverly caught in a pair of limericks by Ronald Knox:
There was a young man who said “God Must think it exceedingly odd If he finds that this tree Continues to be When there’s noone about in the Quad.”
Reply Dear Sir, Your astonishment’s odd: I am always about in the Quad. And that’s why this tree Will continue to be Since observed by Yours faithfully, GOD
This view, that the world is essentially God’s dream, is called Idealism.
Other major philosophers who have advanced pantheistic or panpsychic ideas include Hegel (1770-1831), who on the traditional reading combines the pantheistic idea that God is identical with the universe with theistic ideas about the developing self-consciousness of God – and Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860), who (inasmuch as his idea of The Will can be said to refer to a global consciousness) also holds that there is only one consciousness shared by everyone, but sees this consciousness as irredeemably evil and thus more akin to Satan than God. Among scientists, in the 19th century Gustav Fechner, the father of modern psychophysics, wrote in glowing terms about his concept of an earth-soul, precursor to the modern Gaia mind.
Modern field theories of and evidence for global consciousness
(1) The unified field theory of consciousness
The main modern field theory of global consciousness is John Hagelin’s unified field theory of consciousness (Hagelin 1987). This theory is a direct descendent of the Vedic tradition, arising from its author’s practice of Transcendental Meditation, a method of teaching Advaita Vedantist meditation that was franchised in the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Hagelin was originally trained as a quantum mechanic, and the unified field theory of consciousness proposes that consciousness is identical with his own idiosyncratic mathematical version of the putative unified field.
The main supporting evidence put forward for the unified field theory of consciousness is the reported existence of the Maharishi effect. The Maharishi effect is an increase in quality of life and decrease in violent offending that is reported to occur when approximately 1% of the population of any given geographical area repeatedly meditates in such a way that all the practitioners in the group achieve pure consciousness (ie consciousness without any contents) at the same time. The proposed explanation of the Maharishi effect is something like: (a) consciousness is the unified field, (b) attainment of pure consciousness by an individual meditator injects “a wave of coherence” into the unified field (c) if many individuals put such waves of coherence into the field at the same time, the effect spreads and becomes so strong that other individual consciousnesses in the vicinity are affected (even though they themselves have never experienced pure consciousness) (d) these essentially broadcast effects act to lower individual stress, increase life satisfaction and thus decrease violent crime, over an unspecified but limited geographic area.
Empirical data claimed to demonstrate the existence of the Maharishi effect have been published in a number of independent, peer reviewed journals, (Orme-Johnson et al 1988; Dillbeck 1990; Hatchard et al 1996; Hagelin et al 1999). However, criticisms have also been published of both the statistics purporting to demonstrate the effect itself and of a certain lack of clarity about why or even whether the unified field theory of consciousness might reasonably be considered to predict the Maharishi effect (Schrodt 1990; Fales & Markovsky 1997).
A second bit of experimental evidence that such a global field might exist is the claim that the EEG of several pairs of different subjects became coherent during time periods when 2500 meditators were practicing the technique of ‘yogic flying’ together 100 miles from the EEG laboratory (Orme-Johnson et al 1982). In this paper the claimed statistical effect is marginal (p = 0.02) and too little information is supplied to allow adequate assessment of the method of measuring coherence from non-digitized data, recorded on magnetic tape. If these authors still believe their early conclusions, it would seem a good idea to repeat the experiment using more clearly described and up-to-date methodology.
2. Other field theories of global consciousness
As we have seen, panpsychist views are not exclusive to the Vedas. Most religions (with the notable exception of Buddhism) promote the idea of a conscious God, and the idea of a universal consciousness also resonates with notions such as Bohm’s implicate order, Jung’s collective unconscious, Radin’s conscious universe and the Gaia mind.
On an empirical level, action-at-a-distance or field effect claims similar to those of the Maharishi effect have also been made by Roger Nelson’s ElectroGaiaGram (EGG) project. In this impressively organized experiment, physical random number generators stationed around the world are reported to have departed from randomness at times when many individual consciousnesses were all paying attention to the same emotionally potent world event (Radin & Nelson 1989; Nelson 2001). But again, criticisms similar to those of the Maharishi effect have been levelled at the statistical analyses of the EGG data (May & Spottiswoode http://noosphere.princeton.edu/papers/Sep1101.pdf ), and a priori it is not clear that any theory of consciousness specifically predicts the alteration of random number generators by a collective consciousness that is focussed not on changing the behaviour of random number generators, but on witnessing some completely unrelated event.
It is probably worth noting at this point that the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness described in the main article does allow for the conceptualization of a form of global consciousness, as the totality of all the individual conscious electromagnetic fields generated by individual brains. However, the standard physics of electromagnetism dictates that the individual conscious fields proposed by the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness would not ordinarily propagate well through space, because their oscillation frequency is too low (of the order of 1-100 Hz). The optimal antenna for picking up a radio signal is about one wavelength long. The wavelength of a 40 Hz electromagnetic oscillation is approximately 8,000 km. So on the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness, either a major increase in power (such as could conceivably be provided by a large assembly of brains all doing the same thing at the same time), or a very sensitive detector (such as could conceivably be provided by the brains of a few, rare, ‘psychically gifted’ individuals) – or an 8,000 km wide brain – would be needed to underpin any kind of action-at-a-distance effects of or on human consciousness.
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