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Machines Like Us interviews: Susan Pockett

June 20, 2011

Could consciousness be an electromagnetic field? Is our sense of free will merely an illusion? Neuroscientist Susan Pockett answers these questions—and more—in this lively interview.

Susan Pockett is Honorary Research Fellow in the Psychology Department at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work is currently involved in testing the hypothesis that conscious sensations (aka qualia) are brain-generated, roughly brain-sized, spatiotemporal electromagnetic patterns (a theory developed independently but concurrent with Johnjoe McFadden's Cemi field theory). This hypothesis, together with a considerable amount of empirical evidence which already exists to support it, answers to some commonly advanced objections to its plausibility and some material on its implications, and is laid out in her book published in 2000, called "The Nature of Consciousness: A Hypothesis." Pockett has also published articles in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, including one detailing Difficulties with the Electromagnetic Field Theory of Consciousness. In another book, "Does Consciousness Cause Behavior?," Pockett argues for the plausibility of considering consciousness as an epiphenomenon of neural activity.

Interview conducted by Norm Nason.

MLU: Thank you for joining me, Susan. Your fascinating work was one of the reasons this website was begun nearly six years ago, so I'm especially pleased to be chatting with you today.

SP: Well, that's very gratifying Norm. Your website has clearly evolved into a seriously useful record of some of the most interesting developments in this exponentially faster-changing era of science, so I'm honoured to be invited as an interviewee, let alone credited with helping to inspire the whole thing.

MLU: You have a remarkable job: thinking about thinking! What is your background; how did you become interested in studying human cognition?

SP: Actually I'm interested less in cognition or thinking than in the even more difficult question of the nature of conscious experience. What IS the experience of red? What is the feeling of silk on your skin? What is the sound of middle C? Such experiences all seem to be somehow different from matter, but ... what are they? This is basically what philosophers have always called the mind-body problem and Dave Chalmers now calls the hard problem. It's actually one of the most basic questions of human existence -- what is consciousness? The distinction between this and the question "what is cognition?" is that clearly a lot of cognition goes on unconsciously.

As to how I became interested in this hard problem, I really can't remember -- it's one of the two questions that have always fascinated me. The other is the nature of infinity, but I had no idea at all about how to approach that one. For a long time I didn't have any idea how to approach the mind-body problem either, so I compromised by becoming a neurophysiologist, employed by the New Zealand Medical Research Council. In fact I remember giving a talk to the Grand Round at Auckland Hospital in 1980 in which I started with a very poetic description of the fascinations of the mind-body problem (I was very young), and then said words to the effect "but it's too early to work on that so I'm going to tell you about some work I've done on how the nervous system develops in embryology." After that I spent 14 years working on relatively standard cellular neurophysiology questions using brain slices from rats, which turned out to be useful in that it gave me a hands-on understanding of local field potentials. Then the political situation changed, the NZ MRC was disestablished and I lost my fellowship and all my grants at the ripe old age of 44. At that point consciousness was just starting to be regarded as a subject fit to be studied by scientists, so I decided it was now or never and plunged in. (And haven't been paid since)!

MLU: I am amazed and gratified by what you and others have been able to accomplish on shoestring budgets. At the same time I feel frustrated that more formal recognition and funding isn't available for people like you who are working feverishly to explain some of the greatest mysteries confronting us. (No less frustrated than you, I'm sure!) Just the fact that something so fundamental as consciousness was not considered worthy of study until recently boggles the mind.

We all have an intuitive sense of what consciousness is -- seeing it from the "inside," as we do. But consciousness is a difficult thing to explain in words. For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell us why consciousness is such a difficult problem to solve, and what you have done to try to explain it?

SP: Yes about the funding difficulties -- and yes, perhaps part of the reason why funding is more than usually hard to come by in this area is that it IS so difficult to explain in words what we're studying. Last month I was at a Towards a Science of Consciousness conference in Stockholm, and the Swedish TV presenter who was moderating the plenary sessions took it into her head to ask all the speakers the same two questions before she would let them start their talks: "how do you define consciousness?" and "what are you passionate about"?  Everybody managed to rabbit on for a bit on what they were passionate about (except me -- I was very jet-lagged and just said "my theory") -- but NOBODY could give a coherent definition of consciousness. After the first dozen or so speakers had failed dismally at this, TV lady stopped asking.

The trouble is, it's all a bit circular. To give a coherent definition of something, you have to know what the something is. But what consciousness IS is exactly what we're all trying to work out. We all know we have it -- or rather I know I have it, and because other people look more or less like me I assume they have it too (though some like Dan Dennett seem to deny that and others don't seem to know what I'm talking about) -- but it's slippery. We can't pin it down. The best I can do in the matter of at least saying what we're talking about is to quote your earlier interviewee John Searle, who says: "By 'consciousness' I simply mean those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one wakes up in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night, or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one say, 'unconscious'."

OK, so let's ignore for the moment the fact that this sort-of definition still doesn't tell us what consciousness IS, and look at what it (consciousness) might be.

It might be a form of matter. This initially seems just plain wrong -- the very phrase "mind over matter" shows that intuitively we put the two in different categories. But intuition or folk psychology has a history of being wrong, and in fact there's a whole theory (initiated but now disparaged by philosophers, but still accepted as a given by many neurophysiologists) which essentially says that consciousness just IS the working brain. That's known as Psychoneural Identity Theory, rebranded by Francis Crick as "The Astonishing Hypothesis." For my taste there are rather too many holes in this idea. Not only does it intuitively seem wrong, it also demands that the matter making up conscious brains should somehow have radically different properties from the matter making up rocks, or tables, or speed-boats -- or single neurons kept alive in a dish, or recently deceased whole brains -- or even living brains that have been anesthetized. But none of the measurement techniques we have available can find any difference between the atoms and molecules that make up these various entities. So I don't find that theory at all satisfying. What are the other possibilities?

Consciousness might be "a process, not a thing." This one is called functionalism, and it's espoused by most psychologists. There have been huge debates about the validity of functionalism as a paradigm. As far as I can see it's fine for experiments designed to look at the processes underpinning cognition, but no good at all for studying consciousness. This makes it unsurprising that psychologists in general are functionalists, because it is only relatively recently that the discipline of psychology emerged from under the yoke of behaviorism, which basically denied the existence of consciousness altogether. Those psychologists who do now study consciousness tend to espouse functionalism because the father of psychology William James rightly pointed out that consciousness changes on a time scale of fractions of seconds. Things don't change on a time scale of fractions of seconds. Processes, or streams (as in ‘the stream of consciousness’) do.

Which brings us to the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness. The electromagnetic fields produced by working brains also change on a time scale of fractions of seconds. But unlike "processes" or "streams," electromagnetic fields are not abstractions -- they're real physical entities. Electromagnetic fields are LIKE things, but they're not material things. They can exist in the same physical space as material things. They're (relatively) easily measured. We know they're generated by functioning brains. We even know how they're generated by functioning brains. So my proposal is that some sorts of spatiotemporal electromagnetic patterns ARE consciousness.

MLU: And you have certainly done your homework with this unique and controversial theory. In your books and papers you have not only provided evidence to back up your thesis, you have also addressed criticism. Briefly, what objections have you encountered, and how have you responded?

SP: Probably the most common objection, the one everybody immediately thinks of, is that external electric or magnetic fields such as those produced by hairdryers, high tension power lines and MRI machines don't have any effects on consciousness. Of course it’s quite true that such external fields do not influence consciousness, but that can be seen as an objection only if you misunderstand the characteristics of the (putatively) conscious fields in the EM field theory of consciousness. In fact the theory specifically predicts that spatially unpatterned fields like those produced by hairdryers and so on will NOT influence consciousness. This is because, to use the terminology of physics, there is no coupling between these fields and the putatively conscious fields generated by the brain. The brain-generated fields are three-dimensional spatial patterns, which simply ride up and down on time-varying but spatially unpatterned external fields like boats on an ocean. In principle, it certainly should be possible to cancel the putatively conscious fields using an external field -- but to do this you would have to impose a external field that was precisely patterned with the inverse of the conscious field's spatial pattern. Since I don't yet know either the exact characteristics of any particular conscious field, or any sufficiently clever means of generating patterned external fields, I can't yet do that test of the theory. But fortunately I've recently realised that there is another method of cancelling the putatively conscious fields, which we'll come to later in the interview.

Meanwhile, a second objection, this one often posed by psychologists in particular, is that this theory was proposed in the 1940s by the gestalt theorist Wolfgang Köhler and disproved experimentally a few years later by Karl Lashley and Roger Sperry. This objection again depends on a lack of understanding about the differences between the fields in Köhler's electric field theory of brain function and those in the modern electromagnetic field theory of consciousness. At the time Köhler was working, almost nothing was known about the details of how the brain works -- even action potentials and synaptic potentials were unknown -- so it was reasonable for him to propose the existence of transcortical rivers of electric current called figure currents to underpin visual perception. Lashley and Sperry individually attempted to test this idea of Köhler's by short-circuiting the hypothetical figure currents with metal pins or strips inserted into the brains of cats and monkeys. After doing this they didn't find any obvious differences in the animals' ability to see, so Lashley proclaimed Köhler's electric field theory dead. (Sperry was a bit more circumspect). In fact by modern standards I don't think either Lashley's or Sperry's experiments were particularly convincing, but the main point here is that with the benefit of nearly 70 years further knowledge of neurophysiology, the modern EM field theory doesn't propose anything like Köhler's figure currents (for which no evidence has since been found in any case). The fields the EM field theory talks about are simply 3-D patterns of local field potentials, which would not be affected at all by Lashley's and Sperry's pins and strips.

There are a number of more idiosyncratic objections advanced and answered in my 2000 book The Nature of Consciousness, but those are the most common ones.

MLU: One advantage of the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness is that it is possible to develop the means to empirically test it. In 2008 I briefly made contact with Russian researchers at the experimental physics department of Ural University of Physics and Technology who reportedly developed the necessary hardware components for an “electromagnetic consciousness” based on the electromagnetic field theory, but I have not heard anything from or about them since. Do you know of any other attempts that have been made to test your theory -- and/or do you have anything in mind yourself?

SP: I have no idea what those Russian guys were talking about, but as I recall they said they were basing their ideas on Johnjoe McFadden's CEMI theory, which is different from mine in a number of respects anyway. No, I don't know of any other experiments that could be construed as tests of my theory -- but yes, I have recently figured out a relatively do-able test which I would very much like to find an opportunity to carry out. Filthy lucre is, of course, again the road-block.

For the aficionado (because to explain it clearly in lay terms would take pages of text and pictures), the basis of this test is to voltage clamp the local field potentials evoked in particular radial layers of particular tangential columns of mammalian neocortex by an external sensory stimulus. The prediction of the theory is that this should prevent the relevant conscious experience. Since the ion channels involved in generating local field potentials are not themselves voltage sensitive, it should be possible to achieve this clamp without affecting the ongoing synaptic processing. Thus this experiment has the major advantage that would not only test the EM field theory, but also unequivocally distinguish between that and the psychoneural identity theory. If it were possible to change a conscious experience by changing the spatial field pattern and not the neural processing that produces it -- in other words to change consciousness by changing the field and only the field -- then Ockham's razor would say pretty unequivocally that consciousness and field are one and the same.

MLU: That sounds like an excellent experiment and I hope you are one day able to carry it out. As a side note, my friend Steve Grand recently received $54,000 U.S. in public funding for his research using an online service called Kickstarter (kickstarter.com). I am not sure if the service is available outside the U.S., but it might be worth looking into.

But back to our interview: You pointed out that there are differences between your field theory and that of McFadden's. What are those differences?

SP: Thanks, I'll take a look at that site. Regarding differences between my idea and McFadden's, there are lots of little things but I guess the main one is that Johnjoe still thinks consciousness DOES STUFF, via the action of its fields on neurons. I thought that too when I first came up with the idea that consciousness is an em field. It seemed like an excellent point in favour of the idea that we know em fields can make neurons fire, which rather obviously provided a mechanism by which consciousness could cause behaviour. So I enthusiastically looked in the literature, found lots of stuff about how brain-generated electric fields can and do influence neural firing, and put a whole chapter about it in that year 2000 book. Great. But then, after the book was finally published, the effects of those 14 years of recording local field potentials kicked in and I experienced an almost visceral realisation that (a) the main mechanism by which the brain generates electric fields actually does involve the generation of local field potentials (which are basically the extracellular manifestation of synaptic potentials); and (b) there's a reason why those critters are called LOCAL field potentials. You can only record them (at least with the degree of sharpness that's necessary to discern any spatial pattern) locally -- very close to where they're generated. So the idea that the brain-generated electromagnetic patterns the em field theory talks about could act in any specific way even on the motor cortex, let alone on motor neurons in the spinal cord (which is physically so far away that fields generated in the forebrain, for example, would be not just spatially smeared beyond recognition but actually non-existent there) simply didn't fly. And indeed, it turns out that when you look a bit more closely at all the published evidence about brain-generated fields' acting back on their own brains -- be it the early work I so happily cited in the book or the more recent stuff by David McCormick and others -- you find that the only neurons that are affected by these fields are the very neurons that generated them in the first place.

Well, as you might imagine, I found this realisation extremely discombobulating. If consciousness causes behaviour, and brain-generated em fields don't cause behaviour, consciousness can't be a brain-generated em field. For a while I seriously thought the whole idea was disproved. Disastrous.

But then I started looking into the question of whether consciousness really does cause behaviour. That turned into a very long story -- too long to go into detail about in this answer -- at the end of which I was (am) convinced that if consciousness ever does cause behaviour, it does so only very infrequently. Most of the time, behaviour is caused by the perfectly standard neurophysiological mechanisms (action potentials, synapses) used by the brain -- which then may or may not keep consciousness informed, a fraction late and basically only as a sort of professional courtesy. In other words, the brain is the driver of actions. Consciousness is largely an epiphenomenon, which doesn't really DO much at all. From a human point of view, this is upsetting only if you equate your self with your consciousness. If you regard yourself as the whole package -- brain and consciousness together -- the epiphenomenality of consciousness doesn't actually make any difference to your feeling of being in control, or having free will or whatever.

MLU: I think I'm in the "whole package" camp myself, for there are occasions when it feels to me that, indeed, my consciousness is just along for the ride. For instance, sometimes while watching a good movie I suddenly realize that I am smiling. In other words, I had been enjoying the film, but did not consciously realize it until becoming aware of the grin on my own face!

If consciousness is indeed a process and not a thing, do you believe that a sufficiently detailed model of the human brain -- an advanced computer simulation, for instance -- would be conscious? Searle, of course, says no, and Penrose feels that it is not even remotely possible.

SP: No, I don't believe a computer simulation could ever be conscious, or at least not anything that would run on computers as we currently build them. But that being said, I DO unequivocally believe that it will eventually be possible to generate consciousness using hardware instead of wetware. The trick will be to produce hardware that generates the right spatial electromagnetic patterns. This means that if you want consciousness (as opposed to intelligence), the whole connectionist paradigm is on completely the wrong track. Sure, artificial intelligence is possible using that means -- but if you want a conscious machine, the whole paradigm will have to be radically redefined.

MLU: If you received a multi-million dollar grand to build just such a sentient machine, in broad terms, how might it be designed? Where would you begin?

SP: Oh, what a delightful question! What would you do if you won the lottery? -- I love those discussions. Well, I think I would proceed on two fronts in parallel:

1. I'd put a bunch of engineers to work on the question of how to generate 3-dimensional electromagnetic patterns, on a sub-millimetre scale. I imagine the general approach would be some version of the mechanism that's used to produce spots of intense radiation in radiotherapy for cancer -- you aim two or more relatively low power beams so that they intersect at a particular spot, and at that spot there's constructive interference between the individual beams to produce a high-intensity field. But if I managed to hire clever enough people, perhaps one of them would come up with a whole new idea about how to do it.

2. I'd gather together another bunch of experts in neuroscience. Their overarching brief would be to determine the 3-D electromagnetic patterns that correlate with particular sensory experiences. I'd probably start with three groups -- one would work on auditory experience, one on somatosensory experience and one on visual experience -- and once a week they'd all have to meet and talk to each another, because it's very likely that there will be one basic pattern that goes with conscious sensations in general, with characteristic differences for each modality of sensation. Each of the three groups would consist of people who work on animals and people who work on humans -- neurosurgeons would be important parts of this second set. I'd start them off by suggesting a whole slew of specific experiments to get the ball rolling, none of which are currently part of any experimental paradigm that I'm aware of.

3. When uber-groups 1 and 2 had both made significant progress, I would probably open a third uber-group whose aim would be to translate the insights about what the wetware does that had been achieved by the neuroscientists into mechanisms that are easier to implement on hardware and interface with the products of uber-group 1.

So y'know, it's not going to be quick or easy -- or cheap. But I sincerely believe it's do-able.

MLU: I certainly hope so. Wouldn't it be interesting if a sentient machine was constructed in such a manner that its consciousness actually did cause behavior? If that was accomplished, how might its behavior differ from ours, and what advantage (if any) might it have?

SP: That would depend entirely on how you chose to build the machine, I suppose. You could, if you really wanted to, construct something in which the visual-type 3-D electromagnetic field evoked by an orange was hooked up to cause the firing of a machine gun or something -- the ultimate clockwork orange! But why would you want to?

When it comes to advantages, I'm a great believer in the efficiency of evolution. We humans have evolved so that the only time we're conscious of every little movement making up a bodily action is when we're learning how to perform that action. At that stage, the action proceeds very slowly and jerkily. But as soon as we learn how to do it, we stop being conscious of the details and the action flows much more quickly and smoothly. So in that sense, you could say that consciousness is actually disadvantageous. Except that it does in some way seem to be necessary for learning and the handling of novelty.

MLU: I'm sure you are aware of the work of Giulio Tononi and his integrated information field theory of consciousness (not to be confused with an electromagnetic field theory). Essentially, he proposes that the amount of consciousness an entity has is equal to the amount of information processing it contains, and that this information is highly and innately integrated into one's mind (i.e., the color of an orange can't be separated from it's shape). The more information processing "horsepower" an entity has, the more "conscious" it becomes.

Similarly, Brian Pollard has built imaging equipment capable of constructing 3-D movies of brain changes while it slips into unconsciousness under anesthesia.

Both cases support the notion that consciousness is not an all-or-nothing state, but rather like a "dimmer switch," which might be dialed up or down--and even measured.

Although the researchers in these examples do not approach the mystery of consciousness from the same angle you do -- electromagnetic fields -- what is your reaction to their work and the conclusions they reach?

SP: Whew, that's a very multi-part question. OK, one part at a time.

First of all, with genuinely the greatest of respect to Tononi, who did some truly kick-ass experimental work in Edelman's institute, the "integrated information" theory seems to me nothing more than a bit of good old, mom-'n'-apple-pie hand-waving. Who could disagree with the idea that the more information processing a brain is capable of, the more consciousness it's capable of generating? But the question is, where does this get us? It doesn't tell us anything about how the brain generates consciousness, what kind of information processing produces consciousness and what kind doesn't, let alone what consciousness actually is. I mean, even the ancient PC I'm typing this response on is capable of enormous amounts of integrated information processing, but nobody thinks it's conscious. As for the specific suggestion that the colour of an orange can't be separated from its shape -- well of course it can. Damage the colour area of the visual cortex and the orange still has shape but no longer has any colour.

To my mind the question of what makes consciousness go away during anaesthesia is very much more interesting -- and therefore, of course, it has been very well studied using more traditional methodologies. When I first lost my research job in the mid 90s I hatched a plan to fund my increasing interest in consciousness by inventing a consciousness monitor for anaesthetists. Nothing along those lines was then available and it was just starting to be reported that patients occasionally do wake up on the operating table, unable to signal that fact because it's standard practice to paralyse and ventilate people to keep them still for the surgeon. At that stage there were already a huge number of papers in the clinical literature suggesting that middle latency auditory evoked potentials would be the best correlates of consciousness for use in such a device. These transient EEG events are relatively easily measured, they do go away in concert with awareness during clinical anaesthesia, and hearing is the last thing to go during the transition from waking to either natural sleep or chemical anaesthesia. So I duly applied for a grant, got the magnificent sum of $20,000 NZ dollars (which was then worth about $12,000 US dollars), built an auditory evoked potential monitor, convinced the local anaesthetists that this was a good idea, got approval from the regional ethics committee and tested the thing in the operating theatres at Auckland Hospital. It seemed to work OK, though obviously at least one more prototype was going to be necessary. But I couldn't get any more cash -- and about then a US company threw 10 million US dollars at the problem and quickly cornered the world-wide market. Today you'll find one of their anaesthesia monitors in pretty much every operating theatre in the developed world. They basically use EEG, but they process it using a measurement paradigm quite different from the rather obvious one I was using, which they have managed to keep commercially secret. Perhaps their paradigm has improved since the early days, but I vividly recall sitting next to an anaesthetist during one particular operation (before I gave up on the whole thing) and pointing out to him that this company's monitor said the patient was awake. He looked at the monitor, looked at the patient, said "oh that's just another number to worry about" -- and turned off the monitor.

So yes, there has been and is an awful lot of work on measuring consciousness during anaesthesia. Interestingly enough, although objectively all of that work does tend to suggest that consciousness should be NOT an all-or-nothing state, my personal observations (both of being anaesthetised and of watching other people being anaesthetised) tend to suggest that subjectively, it is. For me, going under anaesthesia was like having a black curtain rise from the bottom of my visual field -- when it got to my eyes I was out -- and waking up was like turning on a light switch. I describe those experiences (anonymously) in more detail in a 1999 paper in Consciousness and Cognition.

MLU: Machines Like Us differs from other science websites in that it takes the stance that science and religion are incompatible, and that religion for the most part has been (and continues to be) an impediment to science. In her 2009 AAI lecture, noted astronomer Carolyn Porco put into words our thoughts completely.

How do you feel about religion, and what implications does your electromagnetic field theory of consciousness have for various aspects of religion such as humans supposedly being created by God, or having an afterlife?

SP: Another splendid question! Religion is the unmentionable elephant in the room in all discussions of consciousness, so yes by all means, let's investigate this elephant.

First of all, I think it's pretty clear from my previous answers that I am a scientist through and through. I don't accept ideas that can't be tested experimentally. I am convinced that evolution is the mechanism that put us humans on earth -- we weren't created by God a few thousand years ago or anything like that. I don't believe in an afterlife -- if consciousness is generated by the brain, it has to disappear when the brain dies. I am not one of those people Carolyn Porco rather arrogantly dismisses as not thinking at all. And yet, all that being said, I don't agree that science is incompatible with at least some of the tenets of religion.

How can I say that? OK, let's look at the theistic religions first -- in order of emergence, the main ones are Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. The basic tenet of all of these is that some form of immaterial God exists. In Hinduism this entity is called Brahman in the Brahma-sutra and the Bhagavad-gita and Brahman or Atman in the Upanishads. There are also a whole bunch of lesser Hindu gods which personify various features of the world, but Brahman is the main one -- the universal Self of which our individual selves are only parts. The main task of Hindus is to realise that they are part of Brahman. In Christianity and Islam, God or Allah are seen as separated from humans, whose task is now to worship and obey -- but the main characteristic of the Deity is still seen as knowing all our thoughts at all times.

OK, now let's look at the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness. If nothing else, we have here an impeccably scientific theory about the nature of consciousness. It arises from perfectly standard, scientifically validated knowledge about how the brain works. I've outlined a viable experimental test of it earlier in the interview. So this is not (mere) philosophy, this is dyed-in-the-wool science!  And what does the electromagnetic field theory of consciousness propose? It proposes that The Electromagnetic Field as a whole, which as far as we can tell pervades the entire universe, is conscious. At any given instant in time, the em field as a whole contains within it all the conscious thoughts and sensations produced at that instant by all the human (or strictly speaking all the mammalian) brains in the universe. Sounds a bit like Brahman/God/Allah, doesn't it?

Well yes, maybe - but can this version of God actually DO anything? Doesn't God have to have a plan, reward and/or punish people, that sort of thing? Actually not if it's Brahman, but all right, let's look at that question. The hypothesis here is that the God/Jehovah/Allah of religion actually exists, not as an unknowable, supernatural entity, but as a collective phenomenon -- in essence, us. How does that tie in with the idea that God can act? Well, in geographic areas or times where/when the prevailing conscious thoughts of people are angry and vengeful, God/Jehovah/Allah is angry and vengeful -- and by golly, angry and vengeful actions occur. Where/when the prevailing mood is calm and loving, God is love -- and loving actions flow. The point is, this version of God can't throw thunderbolts or cause floods, as earlier versions were supposed to be able to do -- but It can in a sense act, through the actions of the individual humans that make It up.

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.

But this doesn’t invalidate the point I was trying to make. That point is, if the em field theory of consciousness turns out to be RIGHT (and I proposed earlier a scientific test which, Karl Popper and the problem of induction notwithstanding, has the potential to provide pretty strong evidence that it is right) there actually IS an entity in the universe that fulfils all the requirements for being regarded as “God." And that’s probably not something that we, as good, open-minded scientists, should gloss over too lightly!

But back to the interview: in answer your last question -- why is it important for us to understand what consciousness is? -- I suppose a relatively boring version of the answer is “for the same reason it's important for us to understand anything -- there's a huge selective advantage in evolutionary terms conferred by an intrinsic urge to understand how the world works." With regard to the understanding of consciousness in particular, I guess there are a few practical applications that I can see (and probably a great number that I can't, yet) -- but the main thing is that understanding consciousness is a vital part of understanding what we are as humans. Probably most people go through a stage during adolescence of needing to figure out who they are and why they're here, but then the practicalities of making a living take over and such questions are forgotten. It’s only a few philosophers, scientists and artists who never get over that early fascination. I guess we just never grow up.

MLU: Thank you for taking time away from your research to participate in this very enjoyable and informative chat. I wish you all the best.

SP: Thank you for the opportunity to have a little rave about my favorite topic, Norm. You certainly asked some incisive and interesting questions! More power to your elbow -- and to MLU in general.

Read more Machines Like Us interviews here.