Keeping an open mind

I am trying to keep a small field of inquiry in this blog – just consciousness and mostly from a scientific point of view. Of course, this ignores a lot of very interesting material, but it is consciousness that is most puzzling. I am also trying to keep as open a mind on the subject as possible. By open mind, I mean open scientific mind; there are limits to my open-mindedness. I really have very little interest in ideas that are not based on careful observations. (Even poetry is based on careful observation.) I also avoid ideas that are not about the physical world.

Keeping an open mind always takes some effort. My rules of thumb are:

  • Avoid semantic differences. It is easy to misunderstand and reject ideas that use words that have been defined in a different way than I am used to. The word ‘mind’ illustrates this. I separate consciousness from cognition and thinking from awareness. And I associate the word mind with thinking/cognition and not with consciousness/awareness. Thus when someone uses a phrase like ‘conscious mind’ I have a problem with exactly what they mean. I have to decide from the context and the other ideas they put forward whether that are talking about consciousness, cognition or a combination of these. I don’t want to reject an idea out of hand because they use words differently than I do.

  • Don’t set a lot of store in individual reports. It is not a linear chain of evidence that is convincing but a strongly woven fabric of evidence. If something is shown by a number of different researchers using different tools, methods, situations and subjects, than it is robust. Something shown by a single observation is extremely fragile. The more involved the set-up (as with various scans) the more fragile the results. When a couple of different scan types, EEG, some animal neuron recordings and some anatomical/chemical observations all point in the same direction this is real data as opposed to a single scan.

  • Be careful about what causes what. When two events are correlated that does not mean that the earlier event causes the later one or that the logically simpler causes the more complicated. The arrow may be in a counter-intuitive direction or both events may be caused by a third. The consciousness of will is an example. We can be relatively sure that the desire to move causes the preparation to move causes the movement. But we cannot be sure that our consciousness of desire, intent and action have any causal relationship with each other. In fact it is more reasonable given present data to assume that they do not. We are almost forced to think that desire, intent and action enter consciousness independently with variation in strength, accuracy, and timing, with no direct causal relationship between their conscious appearance.

  • Watch out for other agendas. Sometimes an explanation or description seems to be about consciousness but is really about something else – a dispute in philosophy, politics, sociology, linguistics, religion, computer science etc. It is a lot easier to notice someone else’s agenda then my own. My refusal to treat any part of mental activity as non-physical is a form of bias that I recognize in myself and do not intend to ‘correct’. On the other hand, my separation of consciousness and cognition is somewhat tentative. I could accept the idea of conscious cognition even though I have never experienced it first hand. I have never felt I was aware of the cognitive wheels turning, so to speak, as opposed to receiving the ‘brief summary’. So I am extremely suspicious of conscious cognition but do not reject it out of hand.

  • Be aware that a completely new way of looking at the data is possible. There are scientific revolutions and people do not see them coming. I think that consciousness is ripe for a revolution, but I am sure I have not guessed the shape of the ‘great new theory’.

  • Never trust a single idea because it is self-evident. Even ideas that look obviously true need evidence. For example introspection is not what it seems when examined with careful experiments.

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