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Is the brain a computer? Are computers conscious?

Posted on 18 September 2012, 12:54

In scientific investigation it is desirable to thoroughly understand the views of our opponents: it may help us to get closer to the truth. Orthodox Materialists for example, maintain that consciousness is “nothing but” the dance of electrons in the brain. This is probably the majority view in academic psychology today. For such Materialists the computational theory of mind has great appeal. The brain and its functions are being mapped in greater and greater detail; this area is concerned with vision, with hearing, sight, balance, speech, and so on. Damage to one part of the brain can impair short-term memory, separation of the two hemispheres has been observed to produce two independent seats of mind. We are all aware of mental impairment occasioned by alcohol and drugs, or by Alzheimer’s disease. These discoveries can easily persuade us that consciousness and mind is a function of the brain, and that the brain is the seat of remembering.


The question that has always been intractable is how the brain can produce conscious awareness. There is still no viable theory. This fact is widely termed “The Hard Problem.”  The Materialist psychological theory of Behaviourism had huge popularity in English speaking academia between 1915 and 1960. This theory held that consciousness was an epi-phenomenon of the working of the brain, like the noise made by an engine, and had no directive function. Introspection was taboo, because consciousness had no function: one simply studied behaviour.

Psychotherapy for Behaviourists came down to behavioural modification. [An exception to all this of course was that we always heard the introspections of the inner workings of the mind of the Behaviourist therapist.] Behaviourists solved the problem of conscious awareness by denying its significance. Although the theory blatantly contradicts universal experience, it was the majority view in academia for all those years.

Currently a popular academic notion is that conscious awareness somehow emerges from the brain seen as a biological computer.

John Searle (below) (a Berkeley philosopher) wrote: “Oddly enough I have encountered more passion from adherents of the computational theory of the mind than from adherence of traditional religious doctrines of the soul. Some computationalists invest an almost religious intensity into their faith that our deepest problems about the mind will have a computational solution. Many people apparently believe that somehow or other, unless we are proven to be computers something terribly important will be lost.” (Searle, 1997, page 189)


The thinking appears to be that as conscious awareness   seems to emerge from the biological computer which is the brain, so some kind of similar awareness must exist in our physical computers and more especially in the computers of humanoid robots. Thus we can find a Wiki article on Roboethics containing the following words:



“Robot rights are the moral obligations of society towards its machines, similar to human rights or animal rights. These may include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression and equality before the law; the issue has been considered by the Institute for the Future and by the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry.” 

“Experts disagree whether specific and detailed laws will be required soon or safely in the distant future.. Glenn McGee reports that sufficiently humanoid robots may appear by 2020.. Ray Kurzweil sets the date at 2029.. However, most scientists suppose that at least 50 years may have to pass before any sufficiently advanced system exists.”

“Neuroscience hypothesizes that consciousness is generated by the interoperation of various parts of the brain, called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCC. Proponents of AC [artificial consciousness] believe it is possible to construct machines (e.g., computer systems) that can emulate this NCC interoperation.”

To the non-Materialist, this talk may well sound ridiculous; but if you are a Materialist and reject the nonsense of Behaviourism, and if you think of the brain as nothing but a computational machine, it is only natural that you should believe that consciousness and even feeling should be generated in machines. Behaviourism results in pure nihilism and is unbearable: whereas seeing mind, consciousness, and feeling apparently emerging from computation gives us a chance to recognise a wider spectrum of what it means to be human. Higher and more spiritual aspects of humanity have a chance to be recognised and allowed for. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is avoided (“Natural reproduction has been done away with and children are created, ‘decanted’ and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres, where they are divided into five castes”), but this happens at the cost of having a belief in the emergence of conscious awareness in the computers.

“Computer science seemed to open up many possibilities for the understanding of memory, not least because the vocabulary adopted by pioneering computer engineers gave prominence to “memory” related terms. So we still find many psychologists discussing memory (often rather unreflectingly) within a broad framework according to which the brain receives “input” “encoded” by successive stages of the sensory pathways, and this input is passed into one or more forms of short term working memory or are part (a buffer) and thence (perhaps in recoded form) to an “address” with them and more permanent memory store (“external memory”) from which in due course it can on the receipt of appropriate cues be “retrieved” and further processed.” 

Against the idea of consciousness residing in computers and robots, Searle cites the famous Chinese Room argument, which was directed at the central claim of strong artificial intelligence – specifically, the idea that running a computer program can of itself be sufficient for, or constitutive of understanding (John Searle, 1980, 1984, 1990) The essence of this thought experiment is that a person knows no Chinese, but who appropriately answers questions in Chinese by virtue of manipulating symbols or the according to the rules of a (hypothetical) computer program, would not thereby understand any part of the resulting “conversation.” Computing is by definition purely syntactical, and consists only of manipulation of uninterpreted formal symbols according to the explicit rules of a program. The occupant of the Chinese room does all that, but it understands nothing” pp21-2

Simulation is not duplication, and to act as if one understands Chinese does not guarantee that one does.

Here is no place to go into great detail, but those were some sketches of what we are up against in our studies of dimensions of consciousness.

Of course there is a multitude of verified phenomena that suggest that the brain interacts with a conscious awareness: OBEs, NDEs, distance viewing, mediumistic phenomena, precognition, psychokinesis: readers will be familiar with much of the evidence. The work of many leading quantum physicists strongly suggests that contrary to the idea that brains produce consciousness and mind, it would be more correct to say that mind produces brains, just as it most certainly produces computers as well as robots,  however humanlike they may behave.  evolutionary psychology of the hard problem


Wiki article: The ethics of artificial intelligence is the part of the ethics of technology specific to robots and other artificially intelligent beings. It is typically divided into roboethics, a concern with the moral behavior of humans as they design, construct, use and treat artificially intelligent beings, and machine ethics, concern with the moral behavior of artificial moral agents (AMAs)

Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Next blog October 2

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Private Dowding: How reliable a witness?

Posted on 07 September 2012, 0:45

Humanity has always sought guidance and inspiration from the world of spirit: prophets, seers, mediums, psychics, have been found in every society , at all periods of human history: what they have proclaimed has given rise to countless religious movements and philosophies. Writings thus inspired are found in the Holy Scriptures of the great religions, and there is general agreement that many of these writings are profound and are reliable spiritual guides. 

But how reliable are they? How do we decide, surrounded as we are by such various and discordant voices?

In earlier blogs I have discussed modern channelled teaching such as that of Seth, Stephen, ACIM and Conversations with God.  There are of course a multitude of books giving apparent communications from the so-called dead, of varying value. I have just been reading Private Dowding, the Personal Story of a Soldier Killed in Battle, channelled by Wellesley Tudor Pole. (Below) For a very good review of this book, see two excellent articles by Michael Tymn, at the end of this blog. Like Tymn, I warmly recommend the book, but, prompted by a number of unfulfilled prophecies in the book, I am asking, How reliable and worthy of acceptance is any such book? I am not writing as a sceptic: it is a straight question.


Firstly, I feel inclined to accept the story as a genuine communication: simple, sincere and moving.  The story has much in common with the many reports of Near Death Experiences, but is a personal story of an unmarried country school teacher, who had found his work boring and unfulfilling, and who had enlisted early in World War I, and was then killed by a shell nine months later. 

Dowding was to make contact with psychic Tudor Pole and communicate through him through the process of automatic writing. “I cannot see your pen, but I see my ideas as they are caught up and whirled into form within your mind.

By ‘form’ perhaps I mean words. Others may not feel this loneliness. I cannot tell whether my experiences are common to many in a like position. When I first ‘awoke’ this second time, I felt cramped. This is passing and a sense of real freedom comes over me. A load has dropped away from me. I think my new faculties are now in working order.”  (P.8)

“Never shall I forget my happiness. I sat in the alcove of a splendid domed hall. The splashing of a fountain reached my tired being and soothed me. The fountain ‘played’ music, colour, harmony, bliss. All discordances vanished and I was at peace. My brother sat near me. He could not stay long, but promised to return. I wanted to find you at once to tell you I had found peace, but it is only now that I could do so. On earth, the study of crystal formations was a great hobby of mine. To my intense delight I discovered that this splendid hall was constructed according to the law of crystal formations.

“Books appealed to me more than life or people. I am now suffering for my mistakes. In passing on these details of my life I am helping to free myself…. What a good thing the war dragged me out into life. In those nine months I learned more about human nature than I had conceived possible. Now I am learning about my poor fossilised old self. It is a blessing I came here. Though I do not regret, I like to hear what is going on in the region you inhabit. It seems a long way off already. I told my brother I wanted news about events on earth. He took me to visit an old gentleman who had been editor of a newspaper.” (pp.11-12)

“One great truth has become my constant companion. I sum it up thus: ‘Empty yourself if you would be filled..’ The Waters of Life can never flow through me until I have surrendered my whole self. I begin to see the wisdom of this.” (p.22)

Private Dowding has a spiritual Messenger who is instructing him:

“The Messenger told me that we are entering into the period of revelations, when all prophecies will be fulfilled. These things are beyond me. While he was speaking, I felt as if I were suspended in space, without
visible support. Those high and holy matters are of a spiritual nature. They do not belong to the realms of illusion. I cannot attain to such ideas. I hardly dare to contemplate them. I pass them on because I believe they may justify me in keeping the channel open between us. If I only report matters that interest me, connected with my present illusory surroundings, the avenue between us will close up. We cannot live on the celestial heights until we have completed our work in the valleys.” (p. 21)

I am uplifted by the words, and believe them to be real. But on pages 41-42 we read these unfulfilled prophecies:

“Messenger. My son, you need have no fear. Your world is now plunged in grief and chaos. The hour is dark, the outlook strangely gloomy. We can see the light behind the thunder-clouds. Improvement in world conditions is already taking place despite the war. Few kings will be left in Europe or, for that matter, anywhere. Russia will lead her people toward peace and joyful emancipation. The illumination of a New Day will be reflected in the soul of the Slavonic race and will become apparent everywhere. In time to come the dawn will break over Germany and the Northern peoples, sweeping before it the cruel darkness of ignorance and despotism. Tribulation will be great; revolutions must be expected, but nothing can withstand the light.

Vast changes lie ahead. Were I to tell you of these miracles, you would not credit them. We see regeneration in Persia, transformation in India; uprisings in the Far East and new discoveries; revolutionary events in the New World, North and South; but the light will grow. France rises again, purified, uplifted, and becomes the inspirer of the world in arts and sciences. Ireland comes into her own at last and becomes the cradle for great men and women.”

The Messenger’s prophecies made in the year 1917 do not, in the perspective of 2012, seem particularly accurate. Is the book as a whole thereby discredited? Not as a whole. Much of the book feels to me to be a moving and genuine communication from this dead soldier. But ...

Here,  Stephen’s parting words come to mind: “For what truth I speak is but my truth; my truth comes only from my experience, and alas, my judgements.”

Arguably, this is all we can expect from any spiritual communicator, what they know from their experience, and their thoughts about what might be. If this is the case, then on the one hand the character experience and wisdom of the communicator will determine the value of what they have to say, and on the other hand it will matter what we think to do with these communications. Of course we will ask the same question about communications from any living person: how truthful, how experienced, how wise, how qualified are they? What are they saying, why are they saying it, with what agenda?

That there is an afterlife we may accept the communications as real, and if there is indeed an afterlife it is very important we do accept it; but the questions remain.

The testimony also of living people warrants similar scrutiny: each one of us is limited in many ways in the scope of our experiences and knowledge, and is limited by our prejudices and psychological make-up.

I say this is not to detract from the crucial importance of these first-hand accounts of communications from the dead. I say this rather to emphasise that we need to evaluate them with the same discrimination as we would with those of the living. What kind of people are communicating ? What is their point of view? How experienced are they? Do they sound trustworthy? We need to remember that the so-called dead are not necessarily wiser than the living. We also need to remember that the world of the afterlife is very much the creation of the mind. With Private Dowding I note his interest in crystal formation, and his pleasure that the hall that he was in was formed according to the laws of crystal formation.  I suggest that his own mind and interests had a part in creating the environment in which he found himself. It has often been reported that adherents of various religious movements, in the afterlife discover that they are in the environment pictured in their religious teachings: they may not stay permanently in such an environment, and may move on to an environment where they may have wider vision.

Stephen spoke strongly against those who taught an angry and vengeful God. [Section 68.] “They have asked for the God that is close to their own hearts and minds; therefore, they shall be given what they asked for.”

In other words, if we create in our minds an environment in which such a God exists, that will be the environment in the afterlife in which we may find ourselves. We live in the environment that we create. It is not a punishment, simply a fact. In his review, Michael Tymn makes this point when Private Dowding is taken for a visit to a hellish realm, a realm created by the thoughts and desires of humankind.  It is emphasised that we are not necessarily imprisoned in such stagnation forever, but that we may get help and encouragement to move to a realm where there is more light, and growth.

As I have said, I would affirm that I consider that the communications in this book are really from the said Private Dowding, and that reading it is a good experience. I also have those reservations.

Wikipedia on Tudor Pole:

Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr - Michael Cocks

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“Children and the Light” by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick – ALF Rose had this experience many years ago when he was ill with pneumonia as a young child of four or five. Suddenly I was out of my body and floating near the top of the window in my bedroom. I could see myself in bed and my mother kneeling at the side of the bed. She was crying and looked very distressed. I gazed at this scene for a little while and remember that I didn't feel any emotion at all and was completely indifferent to what I saw. Without any warning at all I was travelling very swiftly through a dense forest. Read here
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