Neuroscientist And Buddhists Create New Theory, Stating “Consciousness is Everywhere”

New theory in neuroscience suggests consciousness is a natural property of everything, just like gravity. That development opens an entire world of opportunity for partnership between Buddhists and neuroscientists.

The science of consciousness has made great strides in finding a common language between science and spirituality by correlating the behavior of neuron and experience.  

While such correlation is significant for advancing scientific understanding, it’s not quite enough to realize key factors that explain the experience of consciousness.  

An article recently published by leading neuroscientists, Giulio Tononi, Christof Koch, consciousness is theorized to be an intricate and exponentially complex correlation between neural activity and experience.

 “we need… a theory of consciousness—one that says what experience is and what type of physical systems can have it. Integrated information theory (IIT) does so by starting from experience itself via five phenomenological axioms: intrinsic existence, composition, information, integration andexclusion. From these it derives five postulates about the properties required of physical mechanisms to support consciousness. “

“Consciousness Is Everywhere”,  … A Neuroscientist Theory

The theory holds that consciousness is an elemental property possessed by physical systems having particular causal properties.

The main postulates envision that consciousness is graded; is not unique among biological organisms; and can happen in some simple systems.

Conversely, the theory foretells that feed-forward neural networks, even complicated ones, aren’t conscious, nor are they constructed in an aggregate fashion.

The theory provides a principled account of both the quantity and the quality of an individual experience (a quale), and a calculus to evaluate whether or not a particular physical system is conscious and of what.”

In other words, our brain’s neural network does not experience consciousness solely on the fact that the network of neurons are unique, vastly complex, and interconnected

The Integrated Information Theory offers the following example:

If we were to program a digital PC to run a true simulation of the human brain, regardless of if the experiences offered in the program were to be practically equal to ours, the computer would experience virtually nothing.

So where does consciousness exist?

Integrating Spirituality

​”The heart of consciousness,” says neuroscientist Christof Koch, “is that it feels like something. How is it that a piece of matter, like my brain, can feel anything?”

In 2013, Koch, one of the world’s top professionals on consciousness, went to a priory in India to chat about that query with a grouping of Buddhist priests. He and the Dalai Lama discussed neuroscience and mind for a full day.

Koch offered up to date systematic ideas on the topic, and His Holiness counteracted with traditional Buddhist teachings. Yet, at the end of their conversation, the 2 thinkers concluded on pretty much every point. “What struck me most was his faith in what we in the West call ‘panpsychism’ the assumption that consciousness is everywhere,” asserts Koch. “And we have to scale back the suffering of all conscious creatures.”.

Panpsychism, the concept of universal consciousness, is a notable thought in some branches of traditional Greek philosophy, paganism, and Buddhism.

Exploring Consciousness

In his work on consciousness, Koch collaborated with an analyst named Giulio Tononi.

Tononi is the father of the most popular modern theory of consciousness, called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which Koch once called “the only really promising fundamental theory of consciousness.” – source

Tononi’s concept states that consciousness appears in physical systems that contain many alternative and highly inter-connected pieces of info.

Primarily based on that theory, consciousness can be measured as an unproven quantity, that the analysts call phi.

Tononi has a test for measuring phi ( the quantity of consciousness ) in a human brain. It is analogous to ringing a bell; scientists send a magnetic heartbeat into a human brain and watch the heartbeat reverberate through the neurons backward and forwards, side to side.

The longer and more clear the reverberation, the bigger the subject’s quantity of consciousness. Using that test, Koch and Tononi can tell whether a patient is awake, asleep, or anesthetized.

There are already pressing and practical needs for a way to measure consciousness. Doctors and scientists could use phi to tell if a person in a vegetative state is effectively dead, how much awareness a person with dementia has, when a fetus develops consciousness, how much animals perceive, or even whether a computer can feel. – source

The Scientific Pursuit Of Consciousness

Does your dog experience conscious thought? What about your neighbor? How can you be sure? This is a difficult challenge for researchers, given the need for objectivity. Neuroscientist Christof Koch explores the relationship between brains, behavior, and consciousness.  TedX talk (20:15)

The World Of Consciousness

IIT also marries these practical applications with profound ideas. The theory says that any object with a phi greater than zero has consciousness. That would mean animals, plants, cells, bacteria, and maybe even protons are conscious beings.

But scientists have hardly started to develop an experience of mind or consciousness itself. On the Buddhist side nevertheless, this is a debate that has been going on for millennia. The late Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche said that while mind, together with all objects – is empty, unlike most objects, it’s also luminous.

In similar fashion, IIT claims consciousness is an inbuilt quality of everything… yet only appears seriously in precise circumstances. Take for example how everything has mass, but only sizeable objects have conspicuous gravity.

In his major work, the Shobogenzo, Dogen, the conceiver of Soto Zen Buddhism, went as far as to claim, “All is sentient being; grass, trees, land, sun, moon,and stars… are all mind”.

Science Meets Buddhism

Koch, who became interested in Buddhism in college, claims that his private worldview has come to overlap the Buddhist teachings on non-self, impermanence, atheism, and panpsychism. His interest in Buddhism, he claims, represents a serious diversion from his Roman Catholic upbringing.

When he started studying consciousness, while working with Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, Koch thought the only reason to have an experience of consciousness was the need to invoke God.

However, rather than promoting the concept of “faith”, Koch and Crick set out to establish the study of consciousness as a respected branch of neuroscience and invited Buddhist teachers into the discourse.

The Mind and Life XXVI Conference held at Drepung Monastery in Mundgod, India, on January 17-22, 2013.

Adding to his developing vision of the theory of consciousness, Koch met with the Dalai Lama at Drepung Monastery  It was here that the Dali Lama told Koch, “the Buddha taught that sentience is everywhere at varying levels, and that humans should have compassion for all sentient beings.”

Till that point, Koch had not appreciated the weight of his philosophy.

“I was confronted with the Buddhist teaching that sentience is probably everywhere at varying levels, and that inspired me to take the consequences of this theory seriously,” says Koch. “When I see insects in my home, I don’t kill them.”

The Future

Koch’s Theory shows the potential of a true melding between science and spirituality. In the meantime , Buddhists around the globe are continually working to develop an appreciation of the mind.

Understanding the source of consciousness is a large hurdle, but Koch claims he is up to it… saying that his final aim is to understand the universe.

sources – lions roar, royal society publishing


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