Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Zoe Bandola & Becky Noyes


Summary by Vasiliy Vorotnikov

Class Reading:
“Introducing Consciousness” by Papineau and Selina
“Elemental Mind” by Nick Herbert
“God for the 21st Century”, Part 7 and 8, by Russell Stannard
“Closer to Truth”, pp 3-50
“Self-Serve Brains: Personal identity veers to the right hemisphere” by Bruce Bower

Zoe Bandola and Becky Noyes began class by introducing what they understand consciousness to be, types of consciousness, theories to of consciousness, and ways of testing whether one has consciousness.

Also, on the handout passed around the class, consciousness is defined as “the having of perceptions, thoughts and feelings; awareness. The term is impossible to define except in terms that are unintelligible without a grasp of what consciousness means”. Becky mentioned that consciousness is just something all of us have but cannot quite define (like life can be described but not necessarily defined), and therefore we have no answer to what consciousness really is. In fact, the term itself is very subjective and is left to the public’s comprehension.


Zoe and Becky then moved on to telling how the public’s understanding of consciousness evolved over time.

In 1600s, Rene Descartes presented his idea of dualism, or the theory that consciousness is separate from the body, and constitutes another realm of reality. Thus, the theory presents the idea of having two separate but interacting substances, where substance is an enduring and fundamental form of being that can itself have properties of various kinds (mind and body). Descartes was also the one to say “I think, therefore I am”.

Another spokesperson against materialism was George Berkeley, who, in 1700s, said “to be is to be perceived” and believed that everything experienced is caused by the mental processes, and not by functional operations in the brain.

Later in 1900s, John B. Watson presented an idea of behaviorism, stating that there is no subjective consciousness, only inclinations towards observable behaviors. Another person who believed in behavioral science was B.F. Skinner (famous for “Walden Two”), who supported the ideas of operant conditioning and nurture (not nature). Thus mental states can be real, even if the behaviors aren’t outwardly observable. As mentioned further by Professor DeVries, behaviorists would have been happy to eliminate all mention of minds in favor of talk about behaviors. So they actually doubted the reality of mental states.

Zoe and Becky then introduced us to four major theories of consciousness: dualism, materialism, quantum mind, Mysterianism.


There are several theories supporting this idea of dualism, or the idea that mind and body are separate. Descartes’ argument from possibility, a zombie is one. It is possible to create a zombie (a body copy) of oneself, but the consciousness will be different.

Leibniz’s argument from knowledge, the mill, is another supporting opinion for dualism. Suppose that a mill produced feelings and perceptions. We could enter the mill and see the insides; however, nothing would explain perception, because all we would see is objects moving and pushing against each other. Leibniz’s point is that even if we knew everything about the physical workings of the brain, nothing would explain perception.

Zoe mentioned that from the modern perspective, there is the argument about Mary the human vision specialist. In this story, Mary knows everything about vision, she knows every single function of sight and all the physical or material facts concerning vision, but she is blind and therefore does not have the experience others, who can actually see, have. One day Mary undergoes an eye surgery that gives her normal sight. When she opens her eyes, as claimed by the argument, she learns what it’s like to see. Yet the hypothesis was that she already knew every material fact about eyes already. So if she learned something new, there must be nonmaterial facts that she learns which, in turn, makes materialism false. So it’s impossible to tie consciousness to materialistic views.

Finally, David Chalmers proposes that science should expand its horizons into consciousness as a separate non-material unit from the body. He says that science could still cope with the phenomenal aspect of conscious organisms.


Materialism, as the presenters stated, is when conscious and physical states are one and the same.

Pain (feeling), which is considered to be a part of human consciousness, is considered by many to be the measure of physical brain activity rather than another type of force. Since pain is what one feels, then the feeling and the measure of physical brain activity are the same. However, would a zombie be able to feel?


Those believing in Mysterianism say that humans can’t understand consciousness because it’s too advanced for us, as Becky said, just like monkeys can’t understand calculus.

One possible assumption is that the reality is a resurrection of non-spatial reality from before the big bang. Mysterianism suggests we cannot make a connection between the reality before the big bang and consciousness.

Zoe and Becky then introduced us to Kurt Gödel, who had said that no mathematical system is powerful enough to generate all the truths of arithmetic. Humans must have a ‘non-algorithmic’ way of understanding things, and that’s how consciousness fits into the big picture. Becky then asked whether it was a good argument, as something to think about.

As the presenters stated, in any formal system of sufficient complexity, there will be some true sentence that cannot be proved.
As Professor Moebius added, there is no formal mathematical system (sufficiently complex to generate elementary arithmetic with multiplication) that is both consistent and complete. What he meant by the system was a formal set of truths (such as Euclid’s geometry). Professor Moebius said we could think of the increasingly more encompassing mathematical theories as stories of a building. In order to close the arguments on the lower story/theory, we would have to walk up a spiral staircase to the next story/theory. This spiral staircase is never-ending because each new theory cannot be closed in itself.

Professor Moebius also added a comment that it is the self-referencing sentences in a theory that test its limits, which is what Gödel showed. These self-referencing sentences demonstrate to us Gödel’s incompleteness.

Professor deVries also mentioned the old liar paradox supporting this idea (whom if you ask two yes/no questions within another question, he will be forced to lie twice, and therefore tell the truth, creating this paradox).Another speculation of the existence of consciousness: reality may be a resurrection of a non-spatial reality that pre-existed the Big Bang.


Soul is defined as an ethereal substance particular to a unique living being. It’s what Zoe said to be an inner essence, life, or a spirit. The concepts of soul are similar to those of consciousness and are subjective rather than objective.

To add to their PowerPoint presentation, Zoe and Becky said Ancient Greeks thought that soul is something that makes living things alive, not lifeless.

In the “Classic Philosophical Views of the Soul” PowerPoint slide, Zoe and Becky mentioned Plato and Socrates assumed three parts of the soul. Mind is the reason, body is the appetite, and emotion is the spirit.

Professor Moebius and Professor deVries mentioned that if soul is something that makes humans alive, then after death something must happen to the soul. In order for the soul to exist then, there needs to be some sort of material body.

Also, it was mentioned that the scientific discovery of DNA caused some controversy in soul understanding. Soul could be visualized as something passed on as part of the genetic material, which then agrees with Aristotle’s perception of soul and body being inseparable. Are we then programmed by DNA?

Testing Consciousness

There are a few ways to test consciousness. The first is the Turing test, which is the idea of having a computer program simulate a human conversation (according to the consciousness sheet that Zoe and Becky passed around). This test refers to testing intelligence (specifically, artificial intelligence), or the ability to process thoughts depending on information given. Again, this test is very subjective, because how could we make the program feel or experience, both of which are closely tied to consciousness.

Becky said there is another test for consciousness called the mirror test. Anything that can recognize itself in a mirror is considered to be a conscious being. The surprising thing is that gorillas don’t pass the mirror test, whereas humans, apes, and dolphins do.
Professor deVries corrected that the mirror test only tests for self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is, in fact, different from consciousness because, in a way, it pre-supposes that consciousness exists.


Becky then asked the class which consciousness theory they support: materialism, dualism, quantum mind, or Mysterianism. About half the class raised their hands for materialism, Professor Davis supported dualism, a couple of people raised hands for quantum mind, and several voted for Mysterianism.

Some people did not quite understand the quantum mind theory and thus did not raise their hands.

Mr. Ferris volunteered to explain the quantum mind theory a little further. Quantum mind theory suggests that consciousness could be synthesized from non-living organisms over time, which we could imagine as the evolution of consciousness.

DJ then said that this theory makes sense.

Professor Davis then began defending dualism, and asked the class what the purpose of pain was. Android, he said, could be programmed to have all the protective functions but it doesn’t need or require any pain factors to be involved in its system.

George replied by defining pain in his terms. We learn not to do things that cause damage to our bodies, and that’s why we feel pain; so pain is merely a response to the stimuli.

Professor Davis then asked “What is the function of pain or is pain a function?”

DJ replied that pain cannot be a function and in his understanding, consciousness is the ability to make decisions not programmed in. DJ meant that whatever defines consciousness cannot be programmed into a machine by default.

Marty then brought up another story. A person got into some sort of an accident and got struck with a spike right through his head. Living through such tragedy changed his personality. The person becomes altered because of the brain damage done. In my personal understanding, Marty’s point is that of a materialist, because it suggests that the mind and body are part of one and the same substance. If there were two separate entities of mind and body, then why would a person with a damaged brain become a completely different person?Someone said that everything we don't know in the physical universe, we make up, before we have the technology to explain it in scientific terms.

Someone asked whether consciousness could be thought of some kind of force that has not been scientifically defined yet.
Professor deVries then replied that the Universe could be considered to be a closed system and then how does this extra energy get created?

Professor Moebius then corrected that we cannot imagine a true closed system, as in thermodynamics, because there is always some outside source of energy, and energy is neither created nor destroyed. The main point of this was that we cannot easily state that our universe is a closed system because we can only test this hypothesis for the “observable universe”, and what is “observed” is only a small part of what there is or might be.

Professor deVries then added that a set of forces that have been identified (the four fundamental forces: gravitation, electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear) are thought to be exhaustive. Any change in trajectory or any physical interaction can all be explained by these fundamental forces; we rule out the ideas of anything other than those 4 forces. I have to add that this is only the scientific version, or physics part of the whole picture, so maybe there is another force possible if we consider more dimensions and the force acting within this dimension would be consciousness.

To Professor deVries’ comment, Professor Davis added that assuming an intelligent design suggests there is something outside that could, without violating any physical laws, open a dualistic view on the world.

As I, along with a few more people, have mentioned, we are already programmed by DNA and the experiences; we could program a robot in a similar way, so that it will function and feel like DNA-based human beings feel, which is a strong assumption but is possibly a testable hypothesis.

Another question then followed: “What type of consciousness is beyond the comprehension of evolution views?”

Professor deVries then told the class about what’s called an inverted spectrum. Suppose there are two personas: Ralph and George. When George looks at the sky, his sensory state is the same as Ralph looking at the tomato. This inversion is undetectable, which provides a sort of dualistic view, allowing for two realms of mind and body to be separate.

DJ then made an interesting point: in a dualistic theory, if you die, you shut off the brain, you shut off the consciousness, which makes the 2 realms so closely related that you might as well think of them as one whole component, which precisely is a materialist view of consciousness.

Zoe then restated the question posed by Professor Davis, “What is the purpose of consciousness?”

Professor deVries made the following analogy to how the purpose of consciousness relates to the actions caused by the feelings we get (such as taking our hands away from fire as soon as we burn them): burning oil is the purpose to get Queen Elizabeth overseas, and not the other way around!

As Professor Moebius mentioned, it’s not the function of pain that is important, but rather the experience of pain is what’s really important. The question is how we feel and how unique are the feelings we get.

Becky said that trees don’t have consciousness and yet they also have a response to the surroundings, what we said to be the function of pain. To this, the class replied by asking: “How do you know trees don’t have consciousness?”

Hannah asked a question relating the topic to the Big Bang theory presentation: “If you’re a dualist, what happens, what’s above experience?” (What’s beyond the observable universe?)

Professor Davis replied saying that the soul is the subject of the experience. On the other hand, he does not know how this counts as an experience.

Then Professor Davis gave his argument for dualism. On a daily basis, many people go through some sort of relaxation process, some meditate. This practice, in essence, gives an experience of mind leaving body, which suggests mind and body have to separate, supporting the idea of dualism.

Marty mentioned a change through life. As people change, they undergo some sort of experience, change their views and modify their state of consciousness, always progressing it in some way. Consciousness, then, is a malleable subject just like the body and brain activities. The question that Marty then asked was: “Is there a transcendental subject that can coexist throughout life?”

As someone then noticed, consciousness produces some sort of mental representations, and thus needs to use some sort of energy or a driving force. What is, then, this force that drives consciousness? To answer the question, we could design a test. If some physical energy is used up for what we consider conscious processes in our heads and this is not explained by the four fundamental forces, then there must be another force behind consciousness.

Professor Davis stated that we cannot experience everything through our senses.

DJ asked the class a question. We think of brain and spirit. Are there some kinds of requirements for spirit? Does it need some material structure to support it?

Professor Davis brought up a point that materialists believe consciousness evolved by Darwinian beliefs, based on Daniel Dennett’s ideas.

Someone told the class to imagine a film strip spinning. A projection of light through a film strip onto the movie screen is a frame by frame and until you can see the picture, so the analyzing step comes after the frames have gone by. As an organism develops, the experience of frames drives that organism, including pain and other conscious feelings. Therefore, consciousness, separate from the body or not, always follows the experience itself, like a train with the smoke analogy.

As someone added, until you have the experience, you cannot have dreams.

Professor deVries added that when you are dead or in coma, no conscious processes take place. However, when you awake from coma, some sort of conscious processes begin taking place again, which also supports the idea of mind and body being inseparable and consciousness depending on the body.

Mr. Ferris mentioned Antonio Damasio, who studied consciousness and said that we take so long to focus on ourselves that we do not take time to consider other elementary things surrounding us. Amoeba, for example, might feel, but, if conscious, then on a very elementary level.

To summarize the ideas, here is a list of terms, tightly related to consciousness:

1. Dualism – the idea of mind and body being separate from one another
2. Materialism – the idea of mind and body existing together and matter being the basis
3. Quantum Mind – consciousness evolving through time
4. Mysterianism – consciousness is too hard for us to understand
5. Behaviorism – there is no subjective consciousness, but rather inclinations towards observable behaviors
6. Soul - an ethereal substance particular to a unique living being