Photos, Artwork, & Musings on Life, Spirit, Entheogens, Time, & Travel

Consciousness Theory, Shamanism, and Ontology

I just came across this interesting article on the brain’s structure and the nature of consciousness that was published by Wired last year:

A Neuroscientist’s Radical Theory of How Networks Become Conscious


For the last 15 years, I’ve been exploring consciousness from a deeply shamanistic perspective with my main purpose to attempt to determine the borders of ontology. This is a quest to determine what is actual and real as opposed to creative fiction. Humans are very good at creative fiction and many idea structures, especially religious ones, are fully and totally believed by many, as if they are real even though they cannot be shown to be ontologically “real.” I – my own consciousness – was subsumed into a fully Christian belief system for the first 46 years of my life. Others have been and still are fully subsumed into that and other, incompatible belief systems. In order to try to get a more reliable view or a better understanding of that border between what exists outside of human interpretation and what is caused by human invention, I have been led to work with some of the great “visionary plant medicines” of the world that seem to transport us into other realms and give us a perspective on our normal, mundane perceptions.

Working extensively with ayahuasca has opened me up to a frontier of exploration into a state that is beyond our everyday perceptions and it may represent a valid window or portal into another dimension of reality. Just as physical tools like microscopes and telescopes have, for the purposes of knowledge acquisition as well as of beauty and wonder, given us a view into worlds vastly smaller and larger than we can personally otherwise “visit,” these substances might be giving us an extremely useful view that we cannot normally access.

The question of ontology is not easily resolved, however, and that is due to our lack of understanding about the nature of consciousness itself, and how the brain functions in that regard. Much has been written and speculated about this, of course, and no one has the answer, but new ideas are emerging. This article is from a neuroscientist, Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and is from a basically reductionist viewpoint (although he delightfully calls himself a “romantic reductionist”): that any and all systems that are complex enough in the right ways, can be considered to be conscious. Here are a couple of excerpts:


Koch: “It’s not that any physical system has consciousness. A black hole, a heap of sand, a bunch of isolated neurons in a dish, they’re not integrated. They have no consciousness. But complex systems do. And how much consciousness they have depends on how many connections they have and how they’re wired up.”


WIRED: “I still can’t shake the feeling that consciousness arising through integrated information is — arbitrary, somehow. Like an assertion of faith.”

Koch: “If you think about any explanation of anything, how far back does it go? We’re confronted with this in physics. Take quantum mechanics, which is the theory that provides the best description we have of the universe at microscopic scales. Quantum mechanics allows us to design MRI and other useful machines and instruments. But why should quantum mechanics hold in our universe? It seems arbitrary! Can we imagine a universe without it, a universe where Planck’s constant has a different value? Ultimately, there’s a point beyond which there’s no further regress.”


WIRED: “I’ve read that you don’t kill insects if you can avoid it.”

Koch: “That’s true. They’re fellow travelers on the road, bookended by eternity on both sides.”



It’s interesting to follow this article’s discussion as it traverses that narrow, fuzzy zone between empirical science and “faith.”

I am, however, attracted to this view of the physicality of consciousness. It seems more “right” because it is more holistic and scaleable. It neither arbitrarily excludes non-human systems from being capable of consciousness, nor tries to place human consciousness on some magical platform of superiority. Where such structural views or mappings of the machinery of consciousness can be limiting or “go wrong” is in stopping with the understandings we gain about the tool itself and deny or disregard the information that comes through that tool (the brain in our case). This hurdle manifests every time someone claims that consciousness altering plants or medicines are “just drugs” or cause “only hallucinations”.

As humans, some of us will certainly continue to push the frontier of knowledge in this direction, however obscure our pioneering pathways or how strongly we may be rejected or vilified in our pursuits. Perhaps soon, however, we may also witness other “self sentient” beings, such as a truly self-aware internet, come into their own consciousness – beings who will be able to assess their own experiences and develop their own data. Hopefully, we’ll be able to compare notes.




4 responses

  1. Debra Reynolds

    How can one place understanding on experience ? There are so many that words can’t explain. I believe that through the plants we are given experiences of what some may call a religious revelation, but deep inside it has nothing to do with a god, it is nature. The religion of nature and human understanding of it. But do we have to understand it ? Does understanding of it change the experience ? Im not sure I can even understand enough to put a word to it. I do thank you for a chance to ponder it. I do love the way you write and most of all the subject matter. Thank you your friend Debra

    October 26, 2014 at 10:43 am

    • Dear Debra,
      I appreciate your comment very much.

      It does seem to many that we cannot (and, perhaps, should not) try to know or define the ontology, the level of “realness,” of the experiences we have with the visionary plants or other modalities of consciousness shifting (ie: meditation, sensory deprivation, etc.). It’s as if there are two domains that can only be experienced directly but never evaluated. If that is true, then it’s true, but that also positions us at the end of the road (at least while being in a human body) for trying to understand now who we really are and what the nature of the universe is. We are the ones who appear without explanation upon Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Stairs (see my posts on this), not knowing who or what we are, where we came from, or where we are traveling – only that we are here and that the stairs go endlessly upward and downward, beyond us and out of sight.

      The things I experience but cannot explain, I truly accept as they are and with a deep sense of wonder and laughter at myself, but then, I am also a scientifically minded human who is driven to push the boundaries to try to learn what can be learned. That is how we progress and perhaps evolve. That is what I mean by being an explorer or pioneer in an unknown, unmapped territory.

      I do not think this is wrong, nor do I think it is a fruitless endeavor, as long as I do not allow myself to become dogmatic about anything. There is too much unknown about non-ordinary realities to claim anything as ontologically true right now. The universe is immense beyond conceiving and full of many kinds of magic. We don’t have to understand it, and I know I won’t, but I am curious how much of the underlying principles and mechanics of this magic can be deduced, and whether it is possible to separate those from human creative fiction. I have a deep desire to know what is truly going on! That said, and when such trails become vague, I still stand back and take it all in with true wonder and joy.

      October 26, 2014 at 11:23 am

  2. Koch comes from the viewpoint of Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory.

    Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist, has some pretty extensive discussion about it on his blog and there was a very active debate.

    My own viewpoint which is scattered through the debate is summed up here:

    That post also includes links to the Aaronson posts.

    Aaaronson view, which is mine, is that ITT is flawed because it predicts ridiculously high level of consciousness for simple electronic circuits.

    I think consciousness is a property of living organisms, that it is an extension of the capacity of living material to accumulate and store information, but that is does require living matter.

    November 2, 2014 at 10:27 am

    • Thanks, James. The exact nature of what constitutes life and consciousness still eludes. While I have reservations based on my personal experiences, I do understand your reductionist viewpoint, but I still wonder if the ability of life to manifest or host consciousness is something that can be replicated or modeled artificially someday. Silicon does seem too simplistic for this. I think the real breakthrough in AI will come when we are technically capable of designing and controlling organic computational structures.

      November 7, 2014 at 6:21 am

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