Origin of the Conscious Mind

(A work in progress)
Dave Howard


There is little support for the substance dualism of René Descartes these days. It is scientifically unprovable since the two distinct substances purportedly exist on different sides of an unbridgeable categorical divide: the natural versus the supernatural. Being scientifically unprovable there is little hope of resolving the inherent inconsistencies of the theory. However, availed of non-invasive tools used to study the brain such as PET and fMRI, neuroscientists are hopeful of someday understanding scientifically what consciousness is, how the brain creates it. But does the brain create consciousness? It is impossible to deny that we are conscious, and it is nearly as impossible to deny that the brain has something to do with it yet with the explosive recent technological progress of robotics one can't help wondering whether consciousness might never have been an evolutionary requirement. It is not unreasonable to imagine that human construction of fully autonomous machines will soon be a possibility. If we will be able eventually to do it, then why also shouldn't natural selection, given the vast geological time at its disposal? Questions such as these lead us to ask why, if consciousness wasn't needed, do we have it at all?

Consciousness has never been proved to be necessary for survival and reproduction; such a proof would have settled the interminable dispute over whether this animal or that animal is conscious or not. Only if consciousness were proven unnecessary for animal life could we then suppose that it is possibly unique to our species. But that dispute continues. Descartes considered animals other than humans to be autonomous machines, and advances in animal physiology since his day have tended more to support his inclination than to  gainsay it. But those same advances also undermine the belief that consciousness was necessary for the evolution of humans.

If there is no actual selection pressure for conscious awareness then consciousness would seem more like an accident or an option than a mandate. But on the other hand, proof of the necessity of consciousness for survival would in no way rule out the possibility that its acquisition had been opportunistic rather than a sheer invention. It could have come along as a side effect of some other essential feature which had been selected for. If consciousness was an option and not a mandate, it would be a spandrel, having come as a "side effect" of some other feature or function in the brain which was required for the survival and reproduction of the organism. If that were the case, then searching for such a feature could lead to an understanding of the origin of the conscious mind.

We have known for over a century that the action potentials of billions of neurons produces an endogenous electromagnetic field, evidence of which can be monitored non-invasively with electrodes on the surface of the scalp.

The electromagnetic field which results from ionic currents and electric charges in motion has been known to be a fundamental constituent of the ontology of the universe since Maxwell's derivations of the field equations. Before Faraday's empirical research and Maxwell's resultant theory it was believed that the phenomena of magnetism and electrical charge would ultimately be found reducible to mechanical interactions of mass and energy. The equations however expressed new laws of nature which led to the understanding that electric charge is not derivative but a fundamental feature of the universe.

Most attempts to explain the origin of consciousness ignore what may be the most experientially relevant structure in the functioning brain—its electromagnetic field. It is holistic, continuous, and the analog character of our consciousness suggests that its substrate would most likely be a homologous counterpart in the brain such as a field of some sort. Yet the neuropil is the focus of most searches for neural correlates of consciousness. The electromagnetic field (EMF) is disregarded. The most probable reason for the lack of attention paid the EMF by neuroscientists is their intuition that it is irrelevant—evolutionarily irrelevant but produced by the highly relevant neurons. What better definition of 'spandrel' could there be?

Irrespective of whether required for survival or not, consciousness nevertheless might have been a fundamental constituent of the universe much the same as matter, energy, space and time. Assuming this to be the case the hypothesis of this paper is that the consciousness of a biological organism is identical with its brain's electromagnetic field. Simply put, the brain does not create consciousness: it harvests it. A corollary of this hypothesis is that the universe itself is therefore in some respects sensate.

Field theories of consciousness are not new, particularly those focusing on the electromagnetic field (McFadden, Pockett, E. Roy John, Barrett). Johnjoe McFadden suggests that (but doesn't explain how) a field theory resolves the binding problem, which I view like this: one can see a yellow car speeding along with a loud roar when the brain area for color vision is in one place, the area for motion detection is in another and the auditory area is yet somewhere else. How is it that the appropriate color, motion and sound become bound together so as to reference the car (rather than the nearby parked red truck) when the neural representations of these three categories are connected neither spatially nor temporally? This is known as the binding problem. It is frequently supposed that the binding of elements in visual-cum-auditory, etc., sensory events can be correctly integrated (so that, e.g., the color of the car is seen as yellow, not red, and it is seen as moving, not at rest) somehow by synchronous oscillations in the neural networks of the relevant sensory modalities. But it is never explained (a) how oscillations in disparate brain regions are associated simply on account of their synchrony and without physical contact, without some sort of fabric to knit them together, nor (b) how the oscillations of physical events such as action potentials can morph into phenomenal experience. However, as regards (a), the electromagnetic field brought about by action potentials of networked neurons may entrain distant loci into "virtual" contact by magnetic induction, thereby effecting a spatial and temporal categorization of modal elements. The true neural correlate of consciousness on this accounting is the field itself, not the oscillating neurons responsible for inducing it.

Focusing on the endogenous field they induce rather than the neuronal circuits themselves, McFadden has investigated the electromagnetic field's feedback and feedforward effects in the brain.  (McFadden, 2013) Bidirectional causal efficacy has been demonstrated by a number of researchers to occur ephaptically between field potentials and neuronal firing thresholds but this does not explain how an organism's possession of a behavioral repertoire results in the phenomenal experience that makes it like something to be the organism. As Colin McGinn asks, what turns the "water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness?"

To come to grips with this so called hard problem (see Chalmers below), panpsychism, a type of metaphysical theory about consciousness held by a number of 19th century philosophers (Fechner, Wundt, Lotze, Wm. James, Royce, Clifford) is being revisited these days. 'Panpsychism' literally means that everything is conscious, or that consciousness is in everything. If everything is conscious, then this must have been the case since the beginning—since the Big Bang. Consciousness would not have evolved, since it would have existed as an aboriginal element of the universe, inhering in elementary particles.

It is then supposed (by the panpsychists) that an amalgam of these particles comprises the conscious awareness of the organism. But how the individual points of view of billions of conscious atomistic particles in the brain are combined to form the singular  point of view of an organism has never been explained. This difficulty is known as the combination problem. 

Thus we have two different types of theory on offer, each of which has interesting potential, but each of which also has a major problem. The problems are quite different and yet fortuitously complementary—it seems that each theory has the potential to resolve the problem that besets the other. Panpsychism's biggest problem, the combination problem, is due to its inherent atomicity, whereas it is the so-called hard problem of explaining how the physical becomes experiential that beleaguers electromagnetic field theories. The combination problem doesn't occur in a field theory because a field is a unity, not an aggregate, and the hard problem doesn't apply to panpsychism because panpsychism assumes consciousness to be a fundamental constituent of the universe's ontology, not a creation of evolution.

The Theory

The proposal in this paper is, therefore, to retain panpsychism's remit (fundamentality of mind) but to apply it instead to the universe's electromagnetic field, ascribing aboriginal status to consciousness, and attributing it to the electromagnetic field and not to individual, irreducibly atomistic, elementary particles. This proposal moots the hard problem and provides a holistic physical monism as a correlative of consciousness, thereby obviating the combination problem as well.

Since the universe is spanned by a single unitary electromagnetic field it would follow that a single consciousness of some sort, or a protoconsciousness pervades the cosmos. Cosmopsychism is the name given to theories of this sort (Freya Mathews, Itay Shani, and others). 

Cosmopsychism brings with it a problem which is a sort of inverted combination problem. Rather than a problem of how to combine things which are inherently separate, it is a problem of how to separate that which is an amalgam or some sort of holistic unity into individual components, viz., individual consciousnesses. It raises the question of what separates one individual consciousness from another when they are all thought to derive their essence from the universal field? How does an organism sequester its own private bit of mind away from the universal field? What prevents mind-reading, for instance? A 'quick and dirty' response to this is that the local inputs to the field, generated from the synchronous firing of neuronal tracts (a) may suffer some attenuation simply in exiting the brain due to the conductive meninges and skull and (b) attenuation over distances of mere millimeters would at any rate suffice to prevent intercranial signalling.

But there is a more all encompassing explanation of the "individuation" or privacy of consciousness. It is known that persons become conscious of sensory experience for a duration of milliseconds and then funnel only a portion of the experience into working memory. The portion not stored in memory is lost and cannot be recalled, nor reported on—it is denied to have occurred. Called sensory memory, it's existence was demonstrated by George Sperling (Sperling, 1960). It is the gateway from the senses to the mind, and as a gateway it culls information not of imperative priority as a way to delegate and conserve resources.1

What we generally consider to be instantaneous awareness of the stream of consciousness is actually retrospection of that portion of the previously stored awareness, or if still ongoing, of the reverberation of what remains after the culling. Since the only electromagnetic impetus of sufficient amplitude and frequency to trigger memorization (synchronous oscillation) is of local (within the skull) origin, external influence from the universal field at large is therefore invisible to the organism's retrospective awareness. Unlikely as it might be, anything that should dribble into the brain from external field effects would simply not be remembered.

Another potential criticism of the theory is that consciousness is thought to be discontinuous. It is commonly believed that periods of consciousness come and go—deep sleep, anesthesia, and coma are examples of supposed unconsciousness—and yet electromagnetic activity can be recorded by electroencephalograph from the scalp during these periods. If electromagnetic activity is a sign of consciousness how is it that the person appears to not be conscious? 'Consciousness', as the term is used here does not imply wakefulness. When dreaming during REM sleep, one is conscious. The difference between a dreaming person and a person in a so-called "dreamless sleep" is that memory is being recorded in the first case, and is not in the latter. Thus when the sleeping (or anesthetized, or comatose) person "returns to consciousness" they will have no recollection and therefore nothing  to report even though they have been having some sort of awareness. There is no empirical evidence unconsciousness is other than an absence of memory;  a living organism never loses consciousness other than by dying.

Defense of the Theory

Dualism. In two dozen years a fourth century will have come and gone since Descartes recast the age-old search for the soul (which has probably been debated over flagons of mead) as an investigation into the origin of consciousness. Known as the mind-body problem, no credible solution has yet been found. Many avenues once thought to hold promise have run aground, some on logical shoals, some embattled by empirical improbability, and some just tainted, as Thomas Nagel has noted, "with the faintly sickening odor of something put together in the metaphysical laboratory." That is not to say that no progress has been made though. Something is learned from every failure. The merit of Descartes' contribution lies perhaps more in his having brought the conversation into the modern vernacular than in what in particular he said. Dualism which held sway (in the west) from Plato to Descartes now has few professional adherents (but has, sad to say, an almost universal public acceptance in the US today).

Physicalism and its problems. It had been thought that if, in fact, mentality were to have a physical origin it would somehow be produced in and by the brain—selection pressure would bring about its emergence at some point in the evolution of life. This assumption of the physicality of consciousness arguably located the mind within a causal chain linking consciousness with the body, replacing Descartes' dualism with a material monism—consisting of a single type of substance—devoid of supernatural entities. Descartes hadn't needed to explain how consciousness came about because according to him it was provided by God, one conception at a time. As that hypothesis is now abandoned it has become incumbent on materialist theorists to provide an explanation of the purported physical genesis of consciousness.

The price to be paid by a theory that shifts authorship of the soul from God to evolution is that it must now explain how evolution can create the phenomenon of experience from physical elements not known to have any experiential properties. A further complication is that of assuming there to be a cut-off point somewhere along the evolutionary ancestral line at which organisms on one side would have minds and those on the other side would not. This contributed to the second major rift in the way consciousness has come to be viewed.

In 1996 the Australian philosopher David Chalmers published a book (The Conscious Mind) from which the phrase 'hard problem' became a shorthand reference to the dilemma of explaining how experience can evolve out of elements which have no experiential properties. Chalmers wrote:
It still seems utterly mysterious that the causation of behavior should be accompanied by a subjective inner life. We have good reason to believe that consciousness arises from physical systems such as brains, but we have little idea of how it arises, or why it exists at all. How could a physical system such as a brain be an experiencer? Why should there be something it is like to be such a system? (Chalmers, 1996, p.xi)
He points out that most books and papers written about the subject today deal mainly with easy problems such as how "the brain processes environmental stimulation" and/or the integration of information. These are easy problems, and doubtless important ones, "but to answer them is not to solve the hard problem: Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?" (Chalmers, 1996, p.xii)

The public perception of the obstacles to discovering why there is consciousness indicates just how hard the hard problem is—it is conceptually challenging. It is commonly imagined that when neuroscientists have discovered exactly what processes occur in the brain that correlate with conscious awareness they will have understood what causes consciousness. They will not.  If a correlation is found between neuronal activity and conscious awareness it is just that—a correlation and no more an explanation of consciousness than a pulse is an explanation of how the heart pumps blood. They will have discovered those neurological processes that correlate with behavior, or the will to behave, or the reporting of experience, but the introspective access to experience will remain unaccounted for. The mind-body problem is at heart a metaphysical—not a physiological—problem.

Cognitive scientist and former editor of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences Stevan Harnad puts it this way:
If organisms were indeed mindless, then there would only be the “easy problem” of explaining how and why organisms can do all those things they can do (swim, fly, learn, communicate) . . . . But if organisms do have minds, the hard problem is to explain how and why such survival/reproduction machines would evolve minds: What is the added causal role and adaptive value of having a mind, over and above the causal role and adaptive value of just having the behavioral capacities themselves, to do whatever needs doing in order to survive and reproduce: those behavioral capacities that the slow but growing successes of modern robotics are showing to be implementable mindlessly. . . .(Harnad, 2016)
Panpsychism and ontological fundamentalism. A dearth of promising attempts to solve the hard problem has prompted a growing minority of philosophers (Coleman, Goff, Seager 1995, 2006, G. Strawson 2003, 2006) to revisit panpsychism. Writing about it in his Principles of PsychologyWilliam James (James 1890) rejected the idea that the evolutionary succession could contain some organisms with and some without consciousness. He wrote that consciousness:
however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution. 
    "If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things." (James, 1890, 1950, p.149) [James's emphasis]
Despite his feeling that consciousness "must have been present at the very origin of things," he spent most of chapter six criticizing what he acerbically referred to as the Mind Dust theory which held that consciousness is ubiquitous, and possessed by the smallest indivisible building blocks of the universe.

Having subscribed whole-heartedly to the idea that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of the universe ("present at the very origin of things"),  he then ironically developed an  argument against the possibility proposed by the panpsychist theory that an aggregate of conscious elementary  particles could combine their individual consciousnesses to form the mind of an organism such as a human being.

He searched for a logical explication of how bits of aboriginal consciousness inhering in elementary particles could combine into the unitary macroscopic consciousnesses of biological creatures like us, and failed to find it. In his mind, an aggregate always remains an aggregate—separate entities can't "self-compound" into a new unity.
Aggregations are organized wholes only when they behave as such in the presence of other things. A statue is an aggregation of particles of marble; but as such it has no unity. For the spectator it is one; in itself it is an aggregate; just as, to the consciousness of an ant crawling over it, it may again appear a mere aggregate. No summing up of parts can make an unity of a mass of discrete constituents, unless this unity exist for some other subject, not for the mass itself.
            Just so, in the parallelogram of forces, the 'forces' themselves do not combine into the diagonal resultant; a body is needed on which they may impinge, to exhibit their resultant effect. (p.159)
James searched for a way to rescue panpsychism from this so-called combination problem but over a century later it is still unresolved. If individual particles possess consciousness as a fundamental property then combining their properties would be combining multiple points of view, and this seems on the face of it impossible. If particles possess consciousness they are subjects and a biological being, say a human, composed of billions of these particles, would then have a fragmentary subjectivity composed of billions of different points of view and yet as a subject would be expected to have  a distinct and solitary point of view. How to reconcile this inconsistency?

Moreover Chalmers has this to say about the effect of the aggregate nature of the proposed particulate physiology on the well-known unity of our psychology:
Our phenomenology has a rich and specific structure: it is unified, bounded, differentiated into many different aspects, but with an underlying homogeneity to many of the aspects, and appears to have a single subject of experience. It is not easy to see how a distribution of a large number of individual microphysical systems, each with their own protophenomenal properties, could somehow add up to this rich and specific structure. Should one not expect something more like a disunified, jagged collection of phenomenal spikes? (Chalmers, 2003)
The problem results from assuming that consciousness occurs at the level of elementary particles or their properties. It was thought that if consciousness were physical, not located in a supernatural realm as Descartes would have it, and if it also were a natural part of the original composition of the universe rather than having emerged as a product of evolution, its location would have to be at the level of particles which are irreducibly simple. This is because if the entities underpinning consciousness are not the most basic elementary particles we would still be owed an explanation of how these composite particles come to be conscious when the ones they are composed of are not. Thus the hard problem would return with a vengeance.

A further consequence of ascribing consciousness to elementary particles is that it suggests an interpretation of consciousness as a property rather than a substance, implying property dualism. And since the standard model of particle physics is causally closed, it could be argued that even as a physicalist theory, introducing a property which purportedly would inject will and intent into the causal chain would abrogate the conservation laws.

Nevertheless the idea that consciousness might exist at the root level of reality in the universe, that it had preceded the evolution of biology rather than having been born of it, holds an allure despite the combination problem which remains today the biggest obstacle to a panpsychist solution of the mind-body problem. Thus a closer scrutiny of James' arguments is called for.

Electromagnetic field theory. The entirety of chapter six in his Principles of Psychology can be viewed as a swan song for panpsychism. The chapter begins with James' endorsement of hylozoism,2 as he characterized the fundamental nature of consciousness, and ends in disillusionment—he could find no coherent physical candidate to replace the supernatural soul.

The main problem with panpsychism, he argued, is that:
the theory of mental units 'compounding with themselves' or 'integrating'...is logically unintelligible; it leaves out the essential feature of all the 'combinations' we actually know. 
        All the 'combinations' which we actually know are 
EFFECTS, wrought by the units said to be 'combined,' UPON SOME ENTITY OTHER THAN THEMSELVES. Without this feature of a medium or vehicle, the notion of combination has no sense. [James' emphasis]
     ...In other words, no possible number of entities (call them as you like, whether forces, material particles, or mental elements) can sum themselves together. Each remains, in the sum, what it always was; and the sum itself exists only for a bystander who happens to overlook the units and to apprehend the sum as such; or else it exists in the shape of some other effect on an entity external to the sum itself.
    ...Just so, in the parallelogram of forces, the 'forces' themselves do not combine into the diagonal resultant; a body is needed on which they may impinge, to exhibit their resultant effect. (p.158-159)[my emphasis]
Where he writes 'forces' the word should be interpreted as the sort of forces billiard balls apply to one another, because as regards a force field there is no medium required. At the time of James' writing it was believed that there was a luminiferous ether which supported the electromagnetic field much in the way the atmosphere supports sound transmission, and although the Michelson-Morely experiment three years earlier had failed to detect the ether it would be another fifteen years before Einstein's special theory of relativity would dispatch the ether to the graveyard of caloricand phlogiston.

It is now known that the electromagnetic field needs no body in order to combine the resultant of two or more interacting field sources. The resultant of the forces combined can exist in the free space surrounding the sources. The combination of forces is not an aggregate but a new force vector.3  The one entity which escapes James' argument is the EMF.

Of the four known forces of nature, gravitational attraction is too weak to have any effect on the operation of neural processes, and the nuclear forces act over distances too infinitesimal to affect the brain.  In the brain's environment only one sort of field is thus of any consequence, the electromagnetic field (EMF), and remarkably it happens to be generated by the activity of the very neurons so assiduously studied by neuroscientists—and yet is thought an irrelevancy by most of those same scientists.

As a candidate to replace the idea of consciously-propertied elementary particles as the substrate of experience in the universe, being holistic the EMF could quite naturally provide a solitary point of view rather than a composite of many disparate points of view—not at all a "disunified, jagged collection of phenomenal spikes," as Chalmers has suggested—and all while binding together the multitudinous contributions from billions of neurons into a virtual unity.

Moreover since the EMF is ontologically fundamental the interaction between mind and body can be mediated by the EMF without violating causal closure—unlike what would happen at the behest of a supernatural entity, or even due to some unknown physical property—because the EMF is already a part of the repertoire of physics, and therefore is, so to speak, already baked into the equations.

Virtual Topology: inside/outside. Bertrand Russell wrote that the "only legitimate attitude about the physical world seems to be one of complete agnosticism as regards all but its mathematical properties." (Russell, The Analysis Of Matter, p. 270-271)

He pointed out that we only know the extrinsic characteristics of the entities with which the science of physics deals but that we can't rule out the existence of an intrinsic mental feature of them:
Common sense believes that we know something about mind, and something about matter; it holds, further, that what we know of both is enough to show that they are quite different kinds of things. I hold, on the contrary, that whatever we know without inference is mental, and the physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure—features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the physical world is or is not different in intrinsic character from the world of mind. (Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, p.224)
Sir Arthur Eddington's memorable expression of this was that we only understand physical stuff extrinsically—by the way that it affects the pointer readings of our instruments. Each of these men, in his own way, suggested that physical material may have an intrinsic nature unobservable by a third party but perhaps introspectively available.

Eddington tells us:
we realise that science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. The physical atom is, like everything else in physics, a schedule of pointer readings. The schedule is, we agree, attached to some unknown background. Why not then attach it to something of spiritual nature of which a prominent characteristic is thought. It seems rather silly to prefer to attach it to something of a so-called "concrete" nature inconsistent with thought, and then to wonder where the thought comes from. We have dismissed all preconception as to the background of our pointer readings, and for the most part we can discover nothing as to its nature. But in one case—namely, for the pointer readings of my own brain—I have an insight which is not limited to the evidence of the pointer readings. That insight shows that they are attached to a background of consciousness. Although I may expect that the background of other pointer readings in physics is of a nature continuous with that revealed to me in this particular case, I do not suppose that it always has the more specialised attributes of consciousness. But in regard to my one piece of insight into the background no problem of irreconcilability arises; I have no other knowledge of the background with which to reconcile it.
Consciousness can accordingly be thought of as the intrinsic mode (viewed from the inside, as it were, via introspection) of the electromagnetic field, the extrinsic mode of which we only know by inference from the way it affects the pointer readings of our instruments. It is not that there are two entities, or two sides to one entity, it is that there are two perspectives from which the one entity can be viewed; when consciousness is known introspectively it is analogous to viewing it "from the inside" (viewing its intrinsic nature) and when its physical manifestation is perceived it is analogous to viewing it "from the outside" (viewing its extrinsic nature). The inside/outside metaphor is an analogism used didactically to aid conceptualization.

Neuroscientists search for what is called the NCC, or neural correlates of consciousness. Suppose that a neurologist has every reason to believe that she has at long last discovered the NCC, which she observes by examining my brain. Her observation is of purely extrinsic characteristics of the field induced by the activity of my neurons, and hence the NCC. Simultaneously I, being conscious, am aware of my thought processes. I am observing the intrinsic nature of the EMF in my brain. I am on the "inside"; she is on the "outside."

Neurons are the dynamic  matrix sustaining the complex spatiotemporal detail of the electromagnetic field. Neurons and neural networks garner the great majority of attention from neuroscientists, probably because they are visible (with some magnification). The electromagnetic field is not. It is conceptually more difficult to visualize than that of action potentials coursing through networks of actual biological cells. People attribute more importance to things they can see.

The neuron's phases are, roughly speaking, cyclical. It fires, then returns to its previous state and is set to fire again. As a sequence of action potentials passes along a series of neurons like a wave, each neuron returns to its previous (ground) state, ready to fire again. There is no uninterrupted connection between neurons once the action potential passes. What combines them into a unit so that they might be apprehended by the mind? And what combines the effects of diverse networks in different parts of the brain? This is the binding problem. The analogy is so strong with James' description of the combination problem that I am compelled to reapply a few of his artful sentences to neurons instead of to microparticles:
the theory of mental units [neurons] 'compounding with themselves' or 'integrating'...is logically unintelligible; it leaves out the essential feature of all the 'combinations' we actually know. All the 'combinations ' which we actually know are EFFECTS, wrought by the units said to be 'combined,' UPON SOME ENTITY OTHER THAN THEMSELVES. Without this feature of a medium or vehicle, the notion of combination has no sense.
         ...In other words, no possible number of entities (call them as you like, whether forces, material particles, or mental elements) can sum themselves together. Each remains, in the sum, what it always was; and the sum itself exists only for a bystander who happens to overlook the units and to apprehend the sum as such; or else it exists in the shape of some other effect on an entity external to the sum itself.
    The electromagnetic field is the "medium or vehicle" James seeks for the combination. This is a solution for the binding problem.

Cosmopsychism. It is known that aside from isolated pockets of space surrounded by electrically shielding material, regions called faraday cages (e.g., microwave ovens, etc.), the electromagnetic field spans the universe. There are no barriers where the field is terminated, nor where it commences. Therefore, as the skull and/or meninges obviously do not provide a faraday cage-like environment since  EEG signals can be detected from the scalp, it can be concluded that if the EMF, being the ground of consciousness, is ontologically fundamental then the entire universe must be in some sense experiential.

Others have speculated, trying to avoid the combination problem, that the entire universe may be a singular subject of experience. None of the theories of cosmological panpsychism, or cosmopsychism, that have so far been advanced (Mathews, Shani,  others) pick out the electromagnetic field as the most likely correlate of consciousness. Mathews and Shani both ascribe consciousness ubiquitously to the whole of physical reality, interpreted from a unified field theoretical (or geometrodynamic) perspective. Mathews uses the metaphor of an ocean to describe this imagined  unity, replete with waves and vortices, much like the electromagnetic field, but she fails to make the identification.

A problem is encountered straightaway that is the inverse of the combination problem which afflicts panpsychism. Variously called the individuation (Mathews), decomposition (Chalmers, Shani), or derivation (Nagasawa and Wager) problem it requires an explanation of how individual macro consciousnesses can sequester experiences away from the cosmic mind and become individual minds. It will be argued that merely dropping the assumed requirement of ubiquity and just adopting the EMF as the correlate of experience decisively resolves the problem.

The resolution. A criticism will inevitably be raised: If consciousness is identified as the EMF, then why is the preponderance of electromagnetic phenomena detected within the brain not introspectively available? During periods when conventional dogma assumes a subject is unconscious, such as during deep sleep or under anesthetic, EEG still remains and yet is not introspectable. Why would not the entire electromagnetic field of the brain, including that of the massive neuronal population of the cerebellum or the electrical activity of the brainstem and spinal cord, etc., be available to introspection during any periods when EEG is detectable? The answer to these questions will also furnish the explanation of why there is no "individuation problem" attending the EMF theory. It is a question of memory.

Awareness as retrospection. The psychologist Edwin Boring has proposed that all reported introspection is actually retrospection. Boring writes:
[L]et us try to imagine a condition of progressive amnesia in which consciousness is normal but no memory persists for more than a second of time. . . . Without memories of a second's duration no introspective report would be possible, nor would there, if the subject had no memory at all of what was immediately past, be any moment in which he would be aware of his own consciousness.
          It was once suggested that sleep is not unconsciousness after all, but a state of concentrated attention upon a fatigue sensation. Could we disprove such a theory? Suppose the same sensory phenomenon could occupy the range of consciousness all through the night. Since the sleeper is aware only of his fatigue he will not have been aware of his consciousness. He could not remember the fatigue afterward, for of what could such a memory consist? A mere imaginal reproduction of the fatigue would not date it as having occurred the night before or at any particular time at all. The subject would not even know that the memory was a memory.

. . .[T]hese instances go to show that consciousness actually depends upon memory for our knowledge of it, and that the concept of a consciousness that exists independently of memory is a concept pretty far removed from the actual consciousnesses that enter as subject matter into scientific psychology. And memory, of course, is relational. It means that an initial term is represented in a subsequent term, which reciprocally implies the first.   (Boring, page 224, 225)

. . .To be aware of a conscious datum is to be sure that it has passed. The nearest actual approach to immediate introspection is early retrospection. The experience described, if there be any such, is always just past; the description is present. However if I asked myself how I know that the description is present, I find myself describing the processes that made up the description; the original describing is past and it is presumably the new description of the description that is present. To find myself thus landed in an infinite regress is to find myself just where I seem to myself to be. Experience itself is at the end of the introspective rainbow. The rainbow may have an end and the end be somewhere; yet I seem never to get to it. (Boring, 1933, pp 228, 229)
Phenomena due to dreamless sleep, anesthetics, traumatic head injury, coma and so forth which conventional wisdom interprets as unconsciousness may not be evidence of unconsciousness. Such phenomena may instead be evidence of absence of memory formation during those conditions, or rapid extinction of memory that may have been formed. Awareness which leaves no record of its having happened cannot be reported, so is (incorrectly) assumed not to have existed. Hence the momentary experiential episodes  resulting from endogenous field fluctuations can only be discovered to have existed if they were recorded into short term memory.

Memory. It is sometimes asked what the brain is for if it doesn't produce consciousness. (McGinn, 2003; Searle, 1996)  

Brains create memory. Brains are also needed also for mobility, for feeding, for defense (and offense), for breeding, and—importantly—to retain lessons learned. There is plenty of work for brains to do—survival necessitated their evolution even if consciousness came "for free." In neural networks is incorporated the organism's behavioral repertoire which provides for the functioning and survival of the organism while consciousness rides along as the intrinsic nature of the accompanying EMF.

What factors determine which events are committed to memory? Nature is parsimonious when it comes to energy expenditure. In terms of memory we shouldn't expect brains to have evolved to encode into memory any more information than necessary for survival and reproduction. Memory storage of irrelevant data would impose an unnecessary burden on the energy budget. Only 'mission critical' situations and functions would have memory implementations and so nonessential conscious electromagnetic activity probably won't leave a residual memory trace beyond a few milliseconds, if at all. Hence a subject might be aware of some episode as it unfolds and yet have no memory of it milliseconds after it concludes.

Motile organisms typically have brains, whereas sessile ones do not. Survival requires memory of food sources, locations of sanctuary, etc., as well as the means of motility. Contrast these needs of animals with the absence of similar needs in plants. The mamalian hippocampus contains place cells which allow the individual to map its territory, a very useful ability for motile organisms (e.g., taxi drivers, at least before GPS and Uber came along), and of no use to sessile ones. Thus it should not be a mystery why plants do not have an analog of the hippocampus. In fact an inventory of the behavioral repertoires of motile versus sessile organisms makes it pretty clear why only the former even need brains at all. Plants don't need to remember where the food is. (However, in spite of this, electromagnetic activity can be detected in plants. Perhaps they too are conscious. see Mousavi, et al; Christmann; Grill).

There are plenty of functions acquired as the animal brain evolved and  consciousness wasn't one of them. They all seem to be contingent on the mobility of animals, learned improvement thereof, and memory—plants seem to get along fine without brains. Indeed the Sea Squirt, a member of the phylum chordata, when leaving the larval stage attaches head-first to some object where it will become sessile for the rest of its days, and proceeds to consume its brain. If you're going to live like a plant, who needs a brain?

Sensory memory. It has been hypothesized that all sensory experience is retained in memory for an extremely brief time before it decays. A selection from this memory becomes transferred to longer term storage, and the rest does not. To test this hypothesis an ingenious experiment was devised by George Sperling (Sperling, 1960, 1963). Sperling took his idea from the well known phenomenon whereby a light such as an ember at the end of a stick or a July Fourth sparkler rotating rapidly creates the illusion of an unbroken static ring of fire. It was known that from the minimum speed of rotation required to make the ring continuous the length of time that memory holds the light present in consciousness can be calculated.

Sperling demonstrated the existence of this form of memory, not subject to voluntary control, which has a millisecond decay-to-extinction time. Sensory memory, as it is now called, precedes short term memory. The transfer from sensory memory to short term or working memory is incomplete—only a subset of its contents can be recalled after some 250 to 1000 milliseconds. It has been confirmed that there is a form of sensory memory for vision (iconic), hearing (echoic), and touch (haptic). Tests to discover sensory memory of olfactory, gustatory, and kinesthetic senses have not been devised, but it is suspected that each sensory modality has its own version.

If sensory memory decays to zero in milliseconds under certain conditions and forms no short term memory trace an experience would therefore not be reportable by a subject. The epistemological point is that if the sensory memory of an episode decays without passing into longer term memory it will not be introspected and will therefore not appear to have been consciously perceived.

It is generally but wrongly assumed that consciousness may come and go in the living organism, even while a detectable EEG signal is continuously present; slow-wave, or "dreamless," sleep is assumed to extinguish consciousness as is also the administration of anesthetics. These assumptions are without empirical verification. By the time an awakened subject is queried all memory may have lapsed if slow wave sleep blocks transference from sensory memory to short term memory. The subject will then have nothing to introspect and therefore nothing to report, but will in fact have been conscious.

The inability of a subject to report conscious episodes, the existence of which are predicted to occur when EEG phenomena are detected, fails to prove that there was no concurrent awareness. During deep sleep it is usually assumed that there is no consciousness but it is by no means clear that consciousness goes away when one enters slow wave sleep. It may be instead, as Michael Lockwood quizzically wonders, that when one drifts off to sleep one's "short-term memory span shrinks to a point." (Lockwood, 1998, p.84)

Anesthetics are assumed to extinguish consciousness, and yet more than a thousand surgical patients every year report having had anesthetic awareness during their operations. Is this phenomenon the result of a failure of the anesthetic to completely extinguish consciousness or is it the result of the anesthetic failing to completely inhibit storage of recallable memory? As long as this question remains unanswered it cannot be concluded that EEG detected during anesthetic "unconsciousness" contravenes this theory.

There is a type of memory which needs to persist only as long as necessary to produce its programmed behavior. Procedural memory is familiar to anyone who has spent hundreds of hours mastering a musical instrument or any of a number of other manual repetitive operations. When learning to play piano, for example, one may be agonizingly aware of the need to will each individual finger to perform. But an accomplished pianist, for example, can flawlessly perform complex musical works, and have no recollection after doing so of consciously willing each finger to depress the necessary key at the required time, it having been unnecessary to institute transfer from sensory memory to working memory for a task already well honed.

We now know that this type of memory is not stored in the same location in the brain as other types of memory. Henry Molaison, known in the literature only as H. M. until his death, unfortunately suffered epilepsy to such an extent that his hippocampi and portions of his temporal lobes were excised in hopes of lessening his seizures. After the surgery his short term and working memories no longer transferred into long term memory. Each day his memories started afresh. The investigator interviewing and testing him had to introduce herself over again each day. It was thus learned that the hippocampus mediates the transference from short-term to long-term memory. Henry formed no explicit long-term memories from the time of his surgery until his death 55 years later. Surprisingly, though, he was still capable of encoding procedural (implicit) memory which he acquired during testing sessions of his abilities on manual puzzles such as the Tower of Hanoi. His improved performance over time surprised investigators and led to the discovery that long term storage of procedural memory is facilitated by something besides the hippocampi (Corkin, 2013).

Procedural memory was the only sort of memory that he could retain long term, yet he seemed not to be cognizant of it. At each new session playing Tower of Hanoi he seemed totally unaware that he had ever played it before, and yet his ability improved with practice. Therefore some memory of the strategy involved in playing the game must have been encoded, and must also then have been subsequently retrieved. If Henry seemed unaware of this memory, can we then say that it was unconscious? As noted above, intact individuals also seem to have no recollection of the note by note playback of implicitly learned musical ability, for instance, or otherwise implicitly learned routines like riding a bicycle. Is the action performed unconsciously, or is it simply not remembered due to a mere millisecond retention period? Correspondingly, it would hardly seem correct to assume that Henry was unconscious on Tuesday since he couldn't remember anything about it on Wednesday. His episodic and autobiographical short term memory each day failed to be transferred to long term storage because the brain region necessary to encode it had been surgically removed, not because he no longer possessed consciousness.

A case study. There are two pathways in the brain by which information passes from the occipital lobe—the dorsal stream which terminates in the parietal lobe, and the ventral stream which terminates in the medial temporal region. Melvin Goodale and David Milner (Goodale and Milner, 2004) have extensively studied a subject, D.F., who has bilateral lesions of the cortical ventral stream. As a result of her trauma, she is unable to identify objects, qua object, seemingly conscious only of colors and textures. Nevertheless her dorsal stream is intact and consequently she has little difficulty reaching out and grasping objects, although she frequently will grasp an object quite deftly but in a manner unlike that which a person familiar with the object's use would tend to grasp it. The reason for this, it is surmised, is that she is unable to perceive the object as an object due to the damage to her ventral stream. A person with an intact ventral stream would tend to grasp the screwdriver by the handle; D.F. will likely as not grasp the screwdriver by its shank. She nevertheless does not report having any conscious experience of the object. 

Goodale and Milner (GM) theorize that the ventral stream is necessary for conscious perception whereas the dorsal stream enables action but does not provide perception. It could be the case, however, that D.F. consciously perceives her actions, which rely upon the dorsal stream, but simply cannot remember them. The inability to remember would make introspection impossible, as introspection depends upon retrospection. Reportage of experience is reportage of mediate experience, i.e., experience as mediated by memory. Therefore if certain experiences leave only millisecond sensory memory trace the experiences cannot be verified behaviorally, the point being, however, that D.F. may nevertheless actually be conscious of her actions as they are performed. EMF activity may always be an indication of consciousness even though no consciousness can be reported.

If actions such as grasping, which are modulated via the dorsal stream, are experienced simultaneously with their performance but result in no memory trace, then a differential physiological examination of the two inter-cortical routes might yield empirical insight into memory formation. GM write:
First let us revisit for a moment what natural selection has designed the two systems to do. Visual perception is there to let us make sense of the outside world and to create representations of it in a form that can be filed away for future reference. In contrast, the control of a motor act from picking up a morsel of food to throwing a spear at a fleeing antelope requires accurate information about the actual size, location and motion of the target object. This information has to be coded in the absolute metrics of the real world. In other words, it has to be coded in terms of the actual distance and size of the objects. In addition information has to be available at the very time the action has to be made. These two broad objectives . . . impose such conflicting requirements on the brain that to deal with them within a single unitary visual system would present a computational nightmare. (p. 73)
The ventral pathway employs relative metrics based on relations among objects perceived not relying upon the location of the observer. Physical interactions such as grasping of objects in the visual scene require that the brain analyze the scene using absolute metrics, or egocentrically, i.e., placing the observer at 0,0,0 rather than relating objects to other objects. This is accomplished via the dorsal pathway.

To be effective and reliable, actions must be initiated concurrently with the real-time analysis of the objects' locations. If the actions depended on recollections from memory of the objects' locations, inaccuracy would be introduced by movement of either the subject, the objects, or both during the time intervening between perception and recall.

GM argue that "the brain has to compute precise parameters needed to specify an action immediately before the movements are to be initiated. By the same token it would make little sense to store this information for more than a fraction of a second, whether or not the action is actually performed. Not only would its value be strictly time-limited, it would be positively disadvantageous to keep the information hanging around in the system." (p. 77) Its "sell-by date" follows in milliseconds.

The subject may very well be conscious during the exact few milliseconds when the decision to act occurs, but retains no recoverable memory of it a few milliseconds later, and therefore will have nothing to report. It can thus be concluded that at least some of the brain's electrical activity may leave no memory trace even though it is a signal of conscious awareness. This fact is not incompatible with the notion that all electromagnetic field effects in the brain are immediately perceived consciously but that some are pruned off by millisecond decay spans depending on their relevance to survival. Therefore failure to account for "unconsciousness" in no way invalidates the electromagnetic field theory about consciousness.

Thus it is possible that what has generally been called unconsciousness for many years is actually the void left after the decay of sensory memory. During certain conditions such as coma or surgical anesthesia decay of sensory memory reaches 100 per cent. Once it decays short term memory is blank and there is nothing to be reported. The subject is then thought to have not been conscious during the time in question. During deep dreamless sleep the subject may be conscious of relaxing peacefully in bed, but failing to record the episode in working memory once sensory memory decays. Likewise in the case of coma. And surgery patients occasionally report having (frightening) memories of their surgery.

A caveat is needed at this point. The argument presented so far is intended to show only that a lack of report of conscious experience following  conditions such as deep dreamless sleep, coma or surgical anesthesia is not sufficient to rule out the possibility that the EMF is in some way the ground of experience. What is not argued is that there cannot be such a thing as The Unconscious Mind. The vast reservoir of intelligence, feelings, fears, urges, intuitions, etc. that is hidden from the "conscious" mind is not by any means ruled out by the foregoing arguments. The term 'unconscious' in the latter case is a noun. The same term is an adjective when arguing that an organism cannot be both alive and insentient. Much neural activity probably never generates the quality of EMF signal that would trigger sensory memory, but which nevertheless may produce a Hebbian connection. It is unlikely that all increases in synaptic efficacy could result in a memory trace.


If consciousness literally spans the universe-at-large, irrespective of the presence of biological matter, memory encoded in a brain creates the sense of personal identity. The only EMF events Jones's memory records are events occurring within Jones's brain, and so are unavailable to Smith. Awareness of our thoughts, sensations, perceptions etc.—the conception of self—results from memory and we are oblivious to EMF events occurring outside our brains because EMF field strength attenuates with distance (remaining in virtual contact but with diminished amplitude) so barring anomaly nothing outside the skull can affect one's "personal" field. And information within a brain can have no unaided effect beyond the skull.

Thus there is no "individuation problem." Physiologically electrical activity of neuron firings unites each organism's brain with the omnipresent universal consciousness by virtual contact, but attenuated greatly and therefore without the possibility of introspecting anything not stored in the organism's own memory structures. Each organism is part of the whole by virtue of its connection to the universal field, but possesses only the awareness of an individual because of the privacy of its memory.


1. Sperling reasoned that to account for the illusion of a continuous ring of fire the brain must retain the full brute present awareness of the ember for long enough after it has passed  for a complete cycle to be made, and that then it would necessarily drop out of immediate memory so that motion would be discerned. He designed an experiment to test the hypothesis that we see (are consciously aware of) way more than we remember a few hundred milliseconds later. He used a tachistoscope to present his subjects with a grid of 12 letters, three rows of four each, flashed on a screen for a brief interval of time. He found that the subjects could read three or four letters out of the twelve. 

Then he added a sound. About 250 milliseconds after the letters were flashed a high, medium or low pitch tone was added, the pitch of the tone indicating which row of letters he wanted them to read. But the letters had already by this time been flashed and were gone. Nevertheless the subjects could still read three or four of the letters from the requested row meaning that they had seen all 12 letters. The conclusion is that sensory memory is retaned in consciousness for between 250 and 1000 milliseconds before decaying, after which memory of no more than one fourth to one third remains.

(There is a disorder of the brain called akinetopsia in which the present memory fails to decay rapidly enough. Imagine watching a film when each frame persists for, say five seconds instead of the standard .04 seconds of most films before being replaced by the next one. For one with akinetopsia a moving object appears as a series of still images each lasting way too long. Crossing a street is a challenge because you can't tell how far the truck has moved that you are still seeing in the same place.) 

The startle reflex was likely evolved as a mechanism for over-riding this culling to capture worthily memorable events or traumas. Pew Research surveyed Americans who were at least eight years of age at the time of  momentous events such as the JFK assassination and 911. The percentage who could still remember details of their surroundings (in 2011) when they learned the news were, respectivly, 95% (JFK 50 years prior) and 97% (911 ten years prior). http://pewrsr.ch/18VoYlW

2. Hylozoism, the doctrine that all matter is in some sense alive. James intends by this that all matter is in some sense conscious.

3.  A stationary electric charge is surrounded by an electric field. An electric charge in motion, e.g., that of a charged particle creates a magnetic field. The electromagnetic field is the combination of electric and magnetic fields. Every charged particle in the universe affects every other charged particle in the universe. The extent of the effect depends on the separation of the particles. The strength of interaction varies inversely with the distance, and in the case of the field sources within the brain the degree of attenuation of EEG signal at the scalp renders the likely causal effect of Jones' EEG signal on the ionic current within Smith's brain not significantly different than zero. That keeps Jones' thoughts out of Smith's mind.


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