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Machines Like Us

Machines Like Us interviews: Susan Pockett

Monday, 20 June 2011

Well, all right, it's a bit disappointingly ordinary, but I suppose that sort-of flies -- but what about the non-theistic religions? Perhaps the main one of these is Buddhism (apologies if I omit yours, but this answer can't go on indefinitely)! Buddhism is mainly a set of instructions for learning how not to suffer as a result of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, which probably makes it more of a philosophy than a religion -- but it does incorporate this lovely idea of reincarnation. How does that fit with the EM field theory of consciousness?

Pretty easily actually. Reincarnation says that persons go into a state of non-being when their body dies and reappear in a new body when a new infant is born. Usually they don't remember anything of their past lives. It doesn't take too much ingenuity to convert this into the format 'conscious em fields' cease to exist when the brain generating them dies and come into being again when a new brain is born', does it?

The upshot of all this is that I humbly suggest the em field theory of consciousness as a very straightforward way of re-integrating science with at least the basic ideas underpinning all the major world religions. Given that the majority of people in the world for one reason or another believe in some form of religion, it seems to me very undesirable to promote a turf-war between science and religion. So if looking at the whole thing this way satisfies all parties, I think we should look at it this way.

MLU: I think the question of why religion is so widespread is an interesting one in-and-of itself, as there is some evidence to suggest that human brains are predisposed to religious beliefs. The tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy, but as Michael Brooks said in a New Scientist article called Born believers: How your brain creates God:

"The ability to conceive of gods…is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. 'You see bushes rustle, you assume there's somebody or something there,' [Yale psychologist Paul] Bloom says. This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don't have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real."

Finally, Susan, why is it important for us to understand what consciousness is?

SP: Before I answer that question, I can’t let your earlier remarks slide .... Yes, it’s true that we’re predisposed by evolution to see causes and effects, and yes it’s true that this is a good explanation for the common human feeling that “everything happens for a reason” (which hypothetical reason is often tacitly assumed to be “God’s plan”). As an aside, according to William James’s successor Daniel Wegner, this predisposition to see events as caused by whatever other events immediately precede them is also why we wrongly suppose that our consciousness causes our actions.