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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Andrew Newberg and the problem of measuring consciousness

I will shortly introduce the Afternoon panel at the recent Mind-Body Symposium at the United Nations, September 11, 2008. (For the Morning Panel, go here.)

But first I want to comment on an exchange during the discussion between philosopher Elie During and MD neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. The subject is how to measure consciousness.

Elie During: Let me put it differently: in order to be scientific about consciousness and so-called spiritual experiences, do we need measurement? And if so, why? The feeling we sometimes get when reading the scientific literature on consciousness is that as long as it is not being somehow measured, a fact cannot be scientifically relevant. Is this true, is it still the case or are we past this? Doesn’t the “paradigm shift” you were mentioning earlier imply a different kind of science, one that does not rely so much on measurement? What else could it possibly be based on?

Andrew Newberg: I think it may still rely on measurement of some kind, but it may be going in the direction that you are talking about. I think that the spiritual perspective, the spiritual approach to learning and deriving information, as well as the scientific pursuit of that, are both valuable and important, and each has its specific uses. I’m not sure yet what exactly it would look like, but my goal has always been to find ways of integrating them in a manner that will enable us to discover what the best kind of measurement is. And that measurement may ultimately be a spiritual measurement, not a scientific one, or it may be much more of a physiological one.
All of my own training has been in the humanities, specifically in the little cluster of disciplines around English language and literature.

In language, incompetence is much easier to measure than competence. For example, if a person's grasp of English grammar is imperfect, I can spot and score errors. But where the grasp is perfect, there is nothing to spot or score. So the text looks blank, even though it is obviously full of meaning.

It is much easier to explain what is wrong with bad writing than what is right with good writing. Good writers can differ vastly in style.

A writing teacher like me can praise the writer's style ("crisp", "sensitive") but that is not nearly as specific as the terms in which we diagnose bad writing (= "She avoids the progressive tenses, probably because she was never taught to use them correctly in her "English as a Second Language Program" or "He does not transition effectively from one thought to another, probably because he does not know many transitional phrases.") Provided with specifics, a teacher moves from diagnosis to remedy fairly easily.

But what made George Orwell a peerless stylist? (Wherever possible, I assign "Politics and the English Language" as compulsory reading, to rid myself of reasons to scream at students.) J.R.R. Tolkien was also an excellent writer, but very different from Orwell (and always aware of the roots of English embedded deep in Anglo-Saxon). C.S. Lewis was different again; his writing reflects the classical rhetorical tradition.

You see? I can make observations about great writers, but I cannot simply grade them, the way I could grade "Johnny's" essay as a D-minus, recommending Johnny to the remedial writing program before his bad habits become entrenched.

Now, let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that consciousness - in which the ability to use language originates - behaves the same way as language. Using our present tools, it is difficult to measure when it is working well but easy to measure when it is working badly. In that case, loss of consciousness or lapses in consciousness would be much easier to measure and describe than consciousness itself.

Does that mean that consciousness doesn't exist? Of course not, any more than my inability to describe good writing as specifically as I can describe bad writing means that no one ever wrote well. That is not surprising because current methods of measurement are essentially the measurement of lapses or errors.

Where writing - which is an outcome of consciousness - has passed beyond mere lapses or errors, measurement fails; only description remains. Is it reasonable to think that consciousness is like that?

If so, where consciousness is a strong signal - like good reception on your TV - you won't notice it because you are paying attention to the program, not the reception. But when the reception is bad, you notice the reception, not the program.

In that case, the problem isn't really with the science of measurement, but with a faulty conception of what consciousness is. When we come to understand better what consciousness is, we will develop better means of measuring it. But I doubt that those means will be based on any materialist theory.

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