Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence

One of the central issues in science today is the search for a comprehensive explanation for the subjective experience of consciousness, and what role “non-physical components” might play in coming to terms with the precise nature of consciousness.

A good place to begin is with our own very human emotions. In spite of having a clear and powerful biological foundation in brain physiology, our emotional responses are highly subjective in nature and what immediately stirs the feelings of one human being can produce nothing but indifference in another.

Difficult to define, feelings can direct us in ways that are, in one instance, intuitive and insightful, and in another, self-destructive and violent. Our response to stimulus of every sort can be examined, analyzed, and traced to specific locations within the brain, but our physiological responses are only part of the story. Our emotions and feelings can also be influenced by forces far removed from simple biology.

The interrelatedness of all life in the phenomenal world reflects the even more complex and comprehensive relationships that support our profoundly dynamic inner life, represented in the relationships between cognition and physiology, between neurons and experience, between electrochemical phenomenology and synaptic function. Indeed, one could easily draw parallels that reach all the way from the most basic subatomic phenomena to the vastness of the known universe. The complexity of the brain is a perfect metaphor for the complexity of the universe!

The relationships between these various components of life in the physical universe, like all such associations, have some aspects in common which are visible and comprehensible, others that are a great deal more subtle, and yet others which are utterly incomprehensible. In many cases, we can infer relationships between objects and phenomena based on observation or analysis of data relevant to the circumstances in which they occur, or by examining the bits and pieces left behind after centuries have passed. As cognitive creatures, with millions of years of evolution to support us, we can advance theories based on the observations and data accumulated over centuries of reflection and contemplation.

There are a few hopeful signs of progress toward an expanded view of what may be possible with regard to understanding consciousness. A recent book by Joseph LeDoux gives us plenty of “wiggle-room” to come to our own conclusions, without abandoning either science or the ineffable. In his book, “The Synaptic Self,” LeDoux makes a forceful case for his ideas regarding the importance of “synaptic transmission” in the achievement of consciousness.

Given the importance of synaptic transmission in brain function, it should practically be a truism to say that the self is synaptic. Not everyone, however, will be happy with this conclusion, (and will) counter that the self is psychological, social, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, rather than neural in nature. My synaptic theory of the self is not proposed as an alternative to these views. It is, rather, an attempt to portray the way the psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, or spiritual self is realized.”

His well-developed arguments in support of his theory make for compelling reading, but his willingness to entertain other points of view in the overall picture of consciousness, give them even greater power:

A spiritual view of the self isn’t completely incompatible with a biological one…It’s not that consciousness is only non-physical or completely physical. It’s that consciousness is made manifest through physical systems which (are integral to) the construction and awareness of self… (Consciousness) also has non-physical aspects which (contribute to the) complex processes which result in our vivid first person experience.”

His willingness to include “non-physical” components without abandoning neuroscience demonstrates the advantage to this approach. Regardless of your own emphasis regarding the nature of consciousness, LeDoux leaves the door open to all points of view, without sacrificing the importance of his own theories in the process.

I am currently working on a major writing project that involves, as one of the main components, the notion of a spiritual (non-physical) nature to humanity—a unique spiritual character that penetrates and permeates our lives. It is a culmination of many years of research and contemplation, and of struggling to find ways in which this nature is manifest in our lives.

I firmly believe that life in general, and humanity in particular, is not the result of a cosmic happenstance. I believe there is a greater force at work in the universe that supports and animates all life. The exact nature and character of that force may not be possible to describe in comprehensible terms presently, but I think a greater understanding than what we have currently is attainable if we take your suggestion and expand our fundamentalist view to achieve a broader perspective.

I am presently occupied by the relationship between the non-physical aspects of human consciousness and our subjective experience of consciousness, which lies at the very heart of one of the biggest questions of all—Is consciousness simply and only the result of brain physiology, or is it the quintessential manifestation of the spirit in our lives as humans?

There is much that is not well understood about the human subjective experience of consciousness, and even cognitive scientists, with all they know specifically about the cognitive process and brain function, cannot penetrate its mysteries as yet. There is also much speculation in the current literature of the cognitive sciences about how long it will be before we are able to emulate brain function artificially in such a way as to simulate consciousness as well.

What is missing from all these speculations is that even if we are able to somehow manage it, what we will discover will not be human consciousness. It may be similar in many ways and function as a device, but it will not be alive!! It may be powered by a battery or plugged in to a wall socket, but it won’t have LIFE!!

It would be a very narrow definition of what it means to be human to reduce us merely to the biological and cognitive processes that support consciousness. Our lives and our subjective experience of the world is dependent on a functional body coordinated by a functional brain, but what animates the organic material in our bodies and brains—what is essential to being human—cannot be comprehensively demonstrated by science alone.

No matter how advanced our technologies become, no matter how accurately we construct a device that emulates brain architecture and simulates consciousness, we will never devise a formula to manufacture a living, breathing, cognitive human person.

We are not simply a conglomeration of organic systems. We are part of a dynamic synergy of life in the phenomenal universe. Our conscious experience of life allows us to interact with life in its many manifestations. Our connection to the ineffable source of that dynamic synergy is only attainable through our awareness, but not generated BY our awareness.

As Carl Sagan once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” For many of us, there is an inner recognition of, and a compelling degree of emotional connection to, the ineffable that exists regardless of the physics used to otherwise describe the conditions of our existence. However inexplicable that connection might be, its existence is, for most of us, undeniable.

Our subjective experience of consciousness confirms it for us personally, but it is, so far, inadequate to serve as sufficient with regard to enlisting the confirmation of others.

With patience and persistence, I continue to pursue my ideas. I would be very glad to know what you readers think!

© January 2011 by JJHIII

2 thoughts on “Absence of Evidence is Not Evidence of Absence

  1. Your writing about a living being, and how one cannot be artificially produced no matter the technology, struck me as being particularly relevant to the news these past few days.

    How repulsive and offensive to learn of a person who has terminated the late-term pregnancies of a countless number of women, and as part of those actions, murdered living, breathing, human babies. This is not a story about abortion, which under strict rules is legal in this country. It is the story of a person who literally took the life of newborn babies, babies alive, crying, moving. Even though many people in this country think abortion and murder are one and the same, the law of the land makes a clear, definitive distinction between the two. Can people in this country prevent this scenario from ever happening, anywhere?

    The women who consented to the murder of their infants are to be pitied, reviled, and could so easily be educated about how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy–how to arrange for the adoption of an unwanted child–how to accept a child born to them with joy and with confidence in their ability to be a loving, caring parent.

    Please keep writing about life and its beauty – its value – and, its truth.

    1. One of the most significant reasons that I focus my writing energies on the nature of human consciousness, (aside from the profound implications of my contention that consciousness itself is a manifestation of a connection to a source that transcends the temporal universe,) is my own subjective experience of my humanity, which has been fortunate to include loving parents, grandparents, siblings, children and grandchildren, as well as a handful of extraordinary and beloved kindred spirits. The experience of being loved by the family I was born into, and parenting my own beautiful children, and holding and loving my current accumulation of five grandchildren (hoping for more) is the most compelling evidence of all that life is a result of a transcendent or spiritual source. If you do not experience the “human spirit” within yourself, though, detecting it in others will also be unlikely.

      Albert Einstein once wrote:

      A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe”; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

      Life on the physical plane is only a shadow of the fullness of our existence; a manifestation of a much deeper and richer completeness. Overcoming the illusions of life in the physical universe requires a leap toward the spirit. As Einstein suggested, we cannot expect to create a world where such tragedies as the one you described will be eliminated until we connect to the spirit of life.

      Consideration of the lack of compassion evidenced in such awful stories as the one about the loss of these children makes my efforts all the more urgent.

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