Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Consciousness, Design and the Nature of Reality

Dr. Lyle Culver (Miami-Dade College), Nelson Abreu (IAC instructor), and Manori Sumanasinghe (architecture designer, IAC volunteer) begin a discussion between consciousness and the built environment from cave paintings to Steiner's Goetheanum to IAC's Projectarium (Miami Dade College TV, 2010).

Consciousness, Design and the Nature of Reality

by Nelson Abreu 

Philosophers and consciousness scholars have a particular interest in what it is like to be or experience something, or qualia. The very existence of qualia continues to be the vexing problem of reductionist approaches to consciousness. In other words, if awareness of self and our surround was developed according to the predominant biological evolution theories, is awareness just another accident of evolution, an illusion that ends when the brain ceases to exist? The persistent question remains: is there even a biological survival advantage to experiencing qualia? The most respected intellectuals in the field have come up short, as witnessed during the 2004 Tucson Toward a Science of Consciousness, where some resigned the problem as impenetrable (Pinker) and others simply argued it does not exist (Dennett), comparing it to the psychological value of financial stock market shares. 

The latter argument states the obvious: color, taste, love, pleasure, curiosity, motivation, creativity, humor, beauty and other subjective experiences may have physical correlates, but they are not physical per se. Since most consider reality to be limited to what can be repeatedly, objectively measured, they reach the conclusion that everything else is not real. This is an epistemological bias, rather than a scientific conclusion.

For instance, while it is challenging to scientifically demonstrate that consciousness can exist beyond the brain, it is supported by a growing body of evidence (eg. remote viewing, near-death experiences and out-of-body experience research, anomalous physical effects) and a long history of anecdotal evidence from around the world. On the other hand, it may be impossible to demonstrate that thought originates in the brain, for instance. All we can show is that there are neural correlates to mental experience.

Consider, for instance, the nature of color. We can attempt to study color in objective terms such as the frequency of electromagnetic waves in the visible light spectrum. This frequency can be measured in a scientific way, but it is not color itself. Color is subjectively experienced and observed and it is known that two or more people can interpret visible light of the same frequency in different ways for biological and subjective reasons. Color, then, exists only in our minds and could be viewed as an extension of ourselves.

Physics is the study of laws that govern reality, engineering attempts to manipulate those laws to solve challenges though technology, and architecture is the study of the built environment: each approaches color a different way (for instance, as frequency, as a signal, as an aesthetic element). We may judge it in purely objective terms, but our judgment of color, spaces, forms, our experience of the built environment (or of anything in our physical reality for that matter) is something inherently internal. The logical progression is to view everything we consider “solid” or “physical” as an extension of ourselves. More than a poetic statement, we challenge anyone to successfully argue otherwise. 

For instance, when we admire a beautiful sunset, the sense of beauty exists only in our microcosm. However, sight (of the form and color of the sun), though facilitated by physics and physiology, is experienced internally, as is the warmth we feel on our skin. The sun is particularly interesting, as the light that reaches our eyes and skin has had to travel for minutes and then processed for milliseconds before it comes to our visual and tactile awareness. However, if we were concentrated on driving a vehicle, our eyes might receive the same light energy but not be consciously aware of the sunset, let alone awed by its perceived beauty. How do we know the sun exists? We base the conclusion that it exists in some objective way on the consensus that others also perceived it and share similar, though, not identical, experiences of the sun. This means that we base our perception of an objective reality on subjective observation. 

In fact, there is no way to prove that something exists independently of observers, as our judgment of reality relies on some form of observation or measurement, which is itself ultimately internal. This view is supported by quantum physics as argued by some of the greatest minds in history, like physicists Bohr, Schoedinger, Pauli, and Wigner. In a Letter to the Editor of the Journal of Conscientiology and his recent book The Observer Effect, Swiss consciousness scholar and physicist Massimiliano Sassolli de Bianchi stated that particles studied by physicists do not exist. They “appear” into existence when we make a measurement. In other words, they are an interpretation of our interaction with nano-scale reality. There is no evidence that they exist as real corpuscular entities that are independent of the observational process.

Everything we consider physical, including the natural and built environment, and our own bodies is composed of this same energy and is, therefore, intimately tied to our microcosm. External reality makes no sense without internal reality, each one giving meaning to the other, acting as two complementary aspects of one reality. The surround, the theater is inside us, it is us, and we are therefore not limited, localized entities, as is also supported by remote perception research.

When we experience our subtle energy field, we can sense that we can expand our perception and sense of self beyond the limits of our skin. In fact, our bodies sometimes feel “ballooned.” With the out-of-body experience, we realize are not our bodies and can “travel” or manifest far beyond it with senses that dwarf physical capacities. Finally, the mentalsomatic projection or experience of cosmic consciousness temporarily melts down our relative illusions of separation and of space and time altogether, while we sense a powerful connection and identity with everything and everyone and every time.

This brings us to the conclusion that the physical world, including what is human-designed, is an extension of consciousness.  What we design is a reflection of our inner essence. Art, therefore, can play an important role, complementary to science in the understanding of reality.

Consider, for instance, how Art has been used to better convey important ideas such as Liberty, Human Rights, and Ecology. Story-telling through artistic expression such as poetry, drama, song, painting, sculpture, and literature is often more effective for (or an important part of) educating and effecting change, when compared to a scientific paper or a prosaic lecture.

It could be argued that Art, when stemming from a mentalsomatic intention or more purposeful, can be a powerful complement to Science for the promotion of human evolution: songs against the Apartheid, novels that expose the horrors of slavery through story (Uncle Tom’s Cabin); film that increases awareness and concern for the environment (The Lorax); fictional novels and screenplays that suspend prevailing paradigms and immerse people in alternative realities and ideas (Astral City); documentaries that visually express scientific theories (PBS’ Nova); paintings that depict the tragedies of war in a way that statistics cannot (Picasso’s Guarnica); photography that artistically captures natural beauty and motivates us to preserve endangered species (National Geographic Society’s magazine); there is even art in public speaking, even on intellectual matters. In other words, the creative and effective use of techniques, analogy, metaphor, and even data is a craft or art of the clarification task, beyond mere instinctual or emotional catharsis, stimulation or consolation.

Art is increasingly part of our everyday lives, starting with the unique ways we manifest ourselves, like the way we speak, dress, and solve personal or career challenges. We also see that along with an increased level of automation and analysis performed by computers, comes a special relevance and competitive advantage for human intuition, creativity, and – yes – artistic expression, as can be witnessed by the pervasiveness of Design. It is no longer enough to produce a pen, a computer, a vehicle, a house or a chair that works well or a meal that is nutritious. 

We see that as affluence and education reaches more individuals and there is an abundance of choices, those who employ design principles make things and services that not only address an objective problem in Space and Time, but also consider the Subjective world of the individual (for noble or often self-interested reasons). There is increased attention to the internal aspect of humans that responds to comfort, user-friendliness, taste, aesthetics, sense of purpose, belonging, status.

The wealthiest company in the planet at the moment, Apple, owes its popularity in large part to Steve Jobs, who is now considered a genius of historical proportions. Part of his genius may be the realization that people appreciate the “luxuriousness” of design and are highly responsive to beauty.

Certainly, a high standard of quality, excellent customer service and effectiveness of a product are highly relevant, but the consumer’s microcosm also responds to the fact that someone else takes the time and effort to feed his or her senses: wheather it is a beautiful meal, “coffee art,” humor in an otherwise expressionless moment, or the spectacular shell of a public building. He also sought to “invent” the future, rather than survey what people thought they wanted with their current paradigms. In other words, design can be considered a way to honor the fact that we are more than our bodies, for it recognizes our intangible dimensions that separate us from machines and most pre-human animals. In fact, the idea for this essay stemmed from reading an article in American Way magazine about airport art and later enjoying one example of it in the airport rail tunnel at Denver International Airport.

Airport art depicted in an article
in American Way magazine

Nelson Abreu is an IAC instructor and scholar with a background in electrical engineering. In Filters and Reflections: Perspectives on Reality he joins other thinkers in describing how the “external” world we sense may not be as indifferent to our consciousness as we might think. In the related IAC course by the same scholar, Consciousness & Physical Reality, participants often re-evaluate their understanding of what is “solid” or “real” through insights from various fields, with an emphasis on consciousness-related physical or engineering anomalies. His evolutionary duo, architecture scholar, designer Manori Sumanasinghe and fellow IAC volunteer provided invaluable inspiration for this article.

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