bookmark_borderIs Pure Consciousness Possible?

Some practitioners of meditative disciplines or people who have had mystical experiences claim to attain a state of “pure consciousness” (PC). PC is supposed to be a state where one is conscious, but is not conscious of anything. That is, it is completely objectless, or if it has any object at all, the object is nothing but consciousness itself.
I see two problems with the idea of PC. The first is that I have doubts that such a thing is possible, and the second is that if it were possible, it would be useless.
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Is PC possible?
(1) Degrees of consciousness. Affirmation of PC appears to treat consciousness as all or nothing. But we have very good reasons to reject this characterization. Consciousness appears to be something that can fade in and out. It is possible to occupy the boundary of consciousness, as one emerges from or drifts into sleep, or as anesthetic takes effect or wears off.
Suppose a meditator enters a state of PC and is then given an anesthetic. What would happen? Would one gradually become less and less purely conscious until one would reach a point where one would not be conscious at all? What would degrees of PC be like? What would be the fact that would distinguish a state of PC from a state without any consciousness at all?
(2) Some descriptions of PC locate it on a continuum with states of consciousness containing objects. The objects within consciousness fade away leaving only the PC. But why should there be such a fading away? Why isn’t there simply an instantaneous transition to and from PC? After all, if PC is possible, then there must come some point during the fading in and out process where objects don’t continue to fade in or out, but appear or disappear altogether. There must be some binary point of transition. Why and how would a gradual attenuation of object-consciousness culminate in an object-less consciousness rather than in an absence of consciousness?
(3) One of the main theories of consciousness in the philosophy of mind is the Higher-Order Thought (HOT) theory. According to the HOT theory, consciousness by its very nature involves a relation between a lower-order and a higher-order thought. But it seems that such a thing is not possible in pure-consciousness, unless it is somehow possible for the higher-order and lower-order thought to be identical (that is, PC would consist in a conscious thought C where the lower-order thought that C is about is C, itself). In fact, it seems to me this would have to be what PC would be if it were possible. The alternative would be that one would be conscious without even being conscious of being conscious, which seems to me to be incoherent.  Certainly one could not know that one was or had been conscious unless one could say what that was like, and this would be impossible if consciousness was completely objectless. A problem here is that if C is the sole object of C, then if one were to stop thinking about C, it seems one would thereby either necessarily either have to be conscious of some thought other than C, or lose consciousness altogether. Yet it seems that those who defend the possibility of PC never claim that the latter happens. Loss of focus in PC does not result in unconsciousness, but rather in falling back into object-consciousness.
It is premature to claim that the HOT theory is certainly correct, of course. But it does appear to have some favoring empirical evidence:
(4) There seems to be no way to verify any claim to have experienced PC. Suppose I claim to have experienced PC. Couldn’t I be mistaken? We have all had the experience of driving somewhere and then being struck by having no memory of the trip. But this is clearly not a basis for claiming an absence of all conscious experiences en route. So if I can arrive at the end of a highway exit ramp without any memory of having been conscious at the beginning of the exit ramp, it seems I could also find myself at the end of a meditation session without any memory of having been conscious during the meditation session.
What good is PC?
Suppose that PC is possible. The bigger problem with PC, as I see it, it that even if it turns out to be possible, no useful conclusions about consciousness can be drawn apart from the fact that it is possible to be objectlessly-conscious, or conscious of consciousness alone as an object.
(5) No conclusions can be drawn about whether consciousness has a material or immaterial basis, whether or not it is possible or impossible to be conscious without a brain, whether God exists or doesn’t exist, or whether aardvarks are smarter than armadillos. Since there is no object in PC, nothing can be learned about anything by means of it.
(6) It is beyond controversy that much of human thought is unconscious. So even if someone is in a state of PC, it is entirely possible – in fact, certain – that there is still unconscious thinking going on. If there were no unconscious thought or perception occurring during PC, it would be impossible to rouse anyone from it by poking or talking to them. It may be that any thought that can be held consciously can also be held unconsciously. I initially thought that PC would have to be an exception, but on further reflection, it now seems to be that if it is possible to think consciously of nothing but consciousness, then it is also possible to think unconsciously of nothing but consciousness.
I conclude that pure consciousness is either impossible, or useless.

bookmark_borderWhy I Do Not Equate Religious Belief with Mental Illness

I’m not a psychiatrist, but as a teenager I worked for an elderly woman who I later found out was a paranoid schizophrenic with organic brain decomposition. (As an aside, if you have any empathy at all, it’s impossible to get to know someone like this and not find their situation heartbreaking.) I agree that you cannot talk the mentally ill out of their delusions, hallucinations, etc. But this would only be relevant to the claim that all religious belief is mental illness if it were the case that all religious belief is the result of mental illness. But I don’t think all religious belief is the result of mental illness and I’ve never seen a convincing argument for why we should think otherwise.
For my part, I’m impressed by work in the cognitive science of religion which supports the idea that most humans have a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). HADD explains why most people, especially most neurotypicals, have an overwhelming tendency to explain mysterious phenomena by appealing to invisible agents. It also explains why people on the Autism spectrum, who have varying degrees of mindblindness (and so to varying degrees are unaware of the beliefs, desires, and even (in severe cases) the existence of visible agents), are more likely than neurotypicals to be naturalists.
If that explanation (HADD) is correct, I wouldn’t call theistic belief a mental illness any more than I would call other types of cognitive biases a form of mental illness. Instead, if I were going to use labels at all, I would call supernatural belief the result of an often effective but imperfect cognitive mechanism, a mechanism which is the byproduct of blind evolution by natural selection.
Also, if it were the case that someone cannot be persuaded to change or give up entirely their religious beliefs, then we would expect that testimonies of converts and deconverts would make no mention of rational arguments. But that isn’t what we find. There are many people who became atheists because of something they read, whether it was Richard Dawkins’ GOD DELUSION, Bertrand Russell’s WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, or whatever.

bookmark_borderWhat are Atheists For?

What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion
Dominic Johnson*
Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
An explosion of recent research suggests that religious beliefs and behaviors are universal, arise from deep-seated cognitive mechanisms, and were favored by natural selection over human evolutionary history. However, if a propensity towards religious beliefs is a fundamental characteristic of human brains (as both by-product theorists and adaptationists agree), and/or an important ingredient of Darwinian fitness (as adaptationists argue), then how do we explain the existence and prevalence of atheists – even among ancient and traditional societies? The null hypothesis is that – like other psychological traits – due to natural variation among individuals in genetics, physiology, and cognition, there will always be a range of strengths of religious beliefs. Atheists may therefore simply represent one end of a natural distribution of belief. However, an evolutionary approach to religion raises some more interesting adaptive hypotheses for atheism, which I explore here. Key among them are: (1) frequency dependence may mean that atheism as a ‘‘strategy’’ is selected for (along with selection for the ‘‘strategy’’ of belief), as long as atheists do not become too numerous; (2) ecological variation may mean that atheism outperforms belief in certain settings or at certain times, maintaining a mix in the overall population; (3) the presence of atheists may reinforce or temper religious beliefs and behaviors in the face of skepticism, boosting religious commitment, credibility, or practicality in the group as a whole; and (4) the presence of atheists may catalyze the functional advantages of religion, analogous to the way that loners or non-participants can enhance the evolution of cooperation. Just as evolutionary theorists ask what religious beliefs are ‘‘for’’ in terms of functional benefits for Darwinian fitness, an evolutionary approach suggests we should also at least consider what atheists might be for.
Keywords: evolution; adaptation; religion; atheism; non-belief

bookmark_borderIs HADD Evidence Against Theism? Part 1

I’ve been thinking lately about whether HADD, on the assumption that it exists, is evidence for or against the existence of God. I’m starting to think it is neutral, but I’m posting this here for feedback.
Before diving into the details, let’s review a few items for context.
First, let’s address terminology. HADD is an acronym which stands for “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device.” HADD is a theory in the cognitive science of religion which says that most humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that agents explain various facts; this tendency seems to include all sorts of invisible agents, including God, gods, ghosts, and so forth.
N stands for naturalism; T stands for theism; and I’m continuing to use the same definitions I’ve offered before.
Second, I’ve written before about the structure of explanatory arguments. I’m going to adopt that same argument structure here. So, let’s dub the following argument “the evidential argument from HADD” against theism.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Formulated
(1) HADD is known to be true, i.e., Pr(HADD) is close to 1.
(2) T is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(T | B) is not much more probable than Pr(N | B).
(3) Pr(HADD | N) > Pr(HADD | T).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & HADD) < 0.5.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Assessed
For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that both (1) and (2) are true. If (1), (2), and (3) are true, then (4) is necessarily true. So what I want to do is figure out if there are any good reasons for thinking that (3) is true. Are there?
The “HADD Produces Many False Positives” Argument
Here’s one reason to think (3) is true, what I call the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument. This argument focuses on the letter “H” in the acronym HADD: most humans not only have a mental tool called an “agency detection device” (ADD), but this device is literally hypersensitive. Given ambiguous information, most human brains have a tendency to err on the side of assuming that an agent–maybe even an unseen or invisible agent–is responsible for the ambiguous information. This mental tool has survival value because it causes people to be on guard against potential predators. Furthermore, it’s better for ADD to err on the side of false positives than on the side of false negatives. So because HADD generates so many false positives, it is unreliable. On the assumption that naturalism is true (and humans are the result of unguided evolution), this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, nature is “blind” and so is indifferent to our beliefs about a non-existent God. On the assumption that theism is true, however, there is much more to reality than just “blind nature.” God not only exists, but cares about human beings such that God would not rely upon an unreliable process like HADD to produce theistic belief.
One reason to doubt this argument has to do with HADD’s reliability in the context of religious beliefs. First, it may be the case that HADD is notoriously unreliable in some contexts (such as hearing strange noises at night), but very reliable in other contexts (such as religious beliefs). Second, it’s doubtful that HADD is the only mental tool involved in the formation of religious beliefs. So what is the reliability of HADD when combined with these other mental tools? In order for the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument to work, it seems to me that we would need some way to show that the combination of HADD and other mental tools often leads to false positives about supernatural agents.

bookmark_borderReligious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism

The cognitive science of religion is a new field which explains religious belief as emerging from normal cognitive processes such as inferring others’ mental states, agency detection and imposing patterns on noise. This paper investigates the proposal that individual differences in belief will reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioning autism being an extreme style that will predispose towards nonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view was supported by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely than those in our neurotypical comparison group to identify as atheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely to construct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief was also higher in those who were attracted to systemizing activities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.