Book Review

The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Samuel Avery
Compari, 108 pp, paperback, 1995


The field of quantum mechanics has, in recent years, inspired a number of philosophers and scientists from other fields to speculate on the potential relevance of nonlocality phenomena and so-called 'quantum strangeness' to issues such as consciousness and causal indeterminacy. Unfortunately, in many cases, the authors of such studies, despite their boundless optimism, do not in fact seem to really understand such concepts as wave-particle duality, nonlocality and superposition, nor indeed have a real grasp of any aspect of quantum physics. It has been my personal misfortune to be surrounded by such people in real life, and listening to these people has been a source of considerable frustration.

Thus, it was with great skepticism that I picked up the book The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness. However, because the author is apparently neither a scientist nor a philosopher by profession, this gives him a fresh perspective which, in principle, could free him from preconceptions and baggage that might be brought in from association with these two groups, both of which have a long history of strongly-held and often conflicting opinions on the reality of the physical world.

Indeed, the external physical world is the first casualty of this book. The author points out that phenomena such as the constancy of the speed of light, space-time dilation, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics have been explained scientifically only by doing great violence to our normal concepts of reality. The author suggests that this can be resolved by considering everything in the universe to be composed entirely of 'images', and that those images that have 'dimension' correspond with external, physical objects, while images without dimension correspond to internal thoughts. He goes on to say that "experience in everyday life can be explained as a structural interrelation of the realms of consciousness". This is idealism in its purest form, but it is not entirely made clear how this helps explain the constancy of the speed of light or nonlocality.

The idea that consciousness could be a type of spatial manifold is intriguing, yet it is never explored with any rigor in the book. Equally without rigor, and without any compelling reason, physical mass is described as being a dimension equivalent to space and time. Readers of sci.physics will groan at the mention of this concept, which has been taken up by a famous Net Nut who has been promoting this idea of 'mass as a second time dimension'. (Note that this is entirely different from the dimensional concept of mass implied by some versions of string theory).

The author then discusses the way in which perceptions affect an organism's consciousness. These are also interesting questions. Organisms using different sensory modalities would conceptualize the world differently. For instance, a species lacking vision could well develop a concept of space-time quite alien to ours. There could be fundamental aspects of the universe that humans are unable to conceptualize because of a lack of some unknown sensory modality or appropriate neuronal structure. Many compromises are probably made in the design of the brain that preclude recognition of certain classes of patterns.

Nonetheless, it seems like overkill to dispense with the reality of the universe, as the author does, in order to explain consciousness. For scientists, the existence of an objective reality has been one of the most useful assumptions ever devised for testing knowledge. The biggest problem with theories of consciousness thus far is not a reluctance to abandon preconceived notions, but that progress is never made because the term 'consciousness' is not well-defined. Often it is confused with 'perception' or 'awareness'; but in fact perception, recognition, and even motivated behavior do not require consciousness, as numerous neural network simulations of perceptual and behavioral phenomena have shown. Rather than trying to solve the question of consciousness all at once, it would be more productive to ask questions like, "Does consciousness require perception?" or even "What do we mean by 'consciousness'?". Perhaps the term should even be dispensed with entirely, and 'subjectivity' used instead. Is subjectivity intrinsic to all matter, or does it exist only in 'intelligent beings'? Both possibilities create difficult philosophical problems. Before an answer can be found, these and many other questions will need to be formulated far more rigorously and precisely than anyone, including this author, has done so far.

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