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Immediate experience

As regards the world in general, both physical and mental, everything that we know of its intrinsic character is derived from the mental side, and almost everything that we know of its causal laws is derived from the physical side. But from the standpoint of philosophy the distinction between physical and mental is superficial and unreal[14, p. 402].

Bertrand Russel may have been the fist to recognize the split between structure and essence that was still developing in science and mathematic in 1927 when he published the above quote. ``Causal laws'' is a less general term then structure but Russell was thinking in the direction this paper goes. Our ``mental'' stream of consciousness has an ``intrinsic character'' or essence and that is no where to be found in science. In the next section this ``superficial and unreal'' distinction is eliminated with the Totality Axiom.

This section completes the groundwork for that axiom by examining the nature of immediate experience. First it briefly explores the scientific evidence that correlates immediate experience with brain structures. Next it shows that immediate experience is not necessarily connected to memory and language. Driving or walking while ones conscious attention is focused elsewhere is used as an example of having immediate awareness which one cannot remember or report. Surprisingly the phenomena of ``blind sight'' provides an example of the opposite where one can have knowledge of something and be able to report about it even though one is not conscious of that knowledge. Having immediate awareness of something and being able to report about it are independent of each other. This and the correlation between brain structures and conscious experience suggest that brain structures not connected to memory and language have immediate experience. Finally that possibility is expanded to all physical structure by considering the hierarchy of immediate experience using as examples the evolution of consciousness as an embryo develops into an adult and the gradual dimming of consciousness in Alzheimer's disease.

The study of consciousness is becoming a respectable scientific field because we are developing tools to scan the living brain. In a limited way scientists can see consciousness as they see what regions of the brain become active during certain kinds of mental activities. This research is in its early stages but it strongly suggests that all immediate conscious experience involves physical brain structures and that in time we will have a detailed map of the physical transformations of the brain that correspond to particular experiences.

One example of this research involves phantom limbs. A person with an arm amputated can still experience sensation in the limb because the brain regions that process signals from the missing limb is still active. When such a massive loss of sensory input occurs the brain makes new connections to use the newly idle region of the brain[10]. These connections are made to active neighboring regions. There is a homonuculus or ``little man'' in the somatosensory cortex that receives signals for tactile stimulation. This little man is not shaped like the physical body. The lower part of the face is next to the arm. The result is that individuals with an arm amputated often feel stimulation of the lower face as stimulation in their phantom limb.

Even religious and mystical experiences seen to be connected with regions in the brain. It is possible to induce an out of body experience by stimulating a particular region in the brain[3]. There have been many other studies of physical states of the brain correlated with spiritual experience. A recent Newsweek cover story summarized this work[1]. That spiritual experiences are correlated with physical brain structures does not mean that spiritual experience are those brain structures, but it does suggest that possibility.

We naturally associate immediate experience with what we can report through language and what we remember, but consciousness is not necessarily connected to either language or memory. Some people can report what they see even when they have no conscious awareness of it. Injuries to the brain can produce ``blind sight''. A person so afflicted has no visual perception. Yet they can correctly answer questions like: is the apple in the upper or lower box? This is possible because there are two brain centers for processing visual information. The higher level center that developed later is responsible for visual perception. The more primitive center controls reflex reactions that must come faster than is possible with conscious deliberation. When a large rock is falling toward someone they need to move immediately, not think about their options. If this center is functioning, then one can ``see things'' and have knowledge about what one sees without knowing that one sees them. The person being asked about the apple thinks they are just guessing. Yet their answers are mostly correct.

Just as one can have knowledge about something one perceives without having immediate awareness of it, one can have immediate awareness of something without having knowledge about it. At times one functions on auto pilot. You might drive or walk for half an hour without being able to remember anything along the way. You were conscious and did not drive into a ditch or walk into a tree. But you were not paying attention to what you saw. Some lower level processing in your brain kept you safe and going where you intended. Conscious attention was focused on other things. You remember what you pay attention to, not everything you are conscious of.

Immediate experience is not only independent of language and memory but it also seems to exist on a continuum. A baby has experience but it is simpler than that of a normal adult. There is no reason to think that consciousness begins at birth. At what stage does a developing embryo begin to have immediate experience? Does it take a billion neurons, a million or only one? Does it take any neurons at all? Can a single cell have immediate awareness in some form? What about the gradual fading of consciousness in the tragedy of Alzheimer's disease? Immediate awareness never seems to end completely as the much of the brain becomes dysfunctional. Does immediate awareness end only at death? Does it end with death? As crazy as it may sound, several prominent thinkers from a variety of fields believe immediate awayness in some form is universal in all that exists physically. Some of these comments are in the next section.

Essence exists in our immediate experience but it is nowhere to be found in our scientific understanding. We are increasingly able to correlate particular forms of experience including spiritual experience with brain structures but we can never get essence from structure. We can explain why someone with blue-green color blindness can perceive some patterns but miss others. but we cannot explain why the color green appears the way it does or why it appears as anything at all. Robots with no conscious awareness could be programmed to have both normal color vision and blue-green color blindness. They would give the same report as we do about what patterns they can see. But they would have no awareness of green or blue. So how do we bridge what has been called the explanatory gap[12]. How do we explain the experience of the color blue? How could such a marvelous reality come into being from the matter in our brains and bodies? the Totality Axiom turns the explanatory gap on its head. It asserts that structure only exists as an aspect of immediate experience.


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