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Lions Roar : July 2016
do I take our own theory? The theory predicts that any complex system— maybe even a cell or bacteria—will have consciousness. These Buddhist teachings inspired me to take the consequences of my theory more seriously. Such as to not harm animals? As a scientist, I have to use animals in my research. If you have the right attitude, which is to try to eliminate disease, then it’s justifiable. You use the animals with compassion. You use them sparingly. You treat them as conscious entities. You minimize their suffer- ing. I asked the Dalai Lama the same question, and he gave me the same answer: it’s a tradeoff. You know, my daugh- ter died of SIDS. My father died of Parkin- son’s compounded with Alzheimer’s. A friend of mine killed herself in the throes of schizophrenia. If we want to eliminate these curses, we have to do some animal experiments. But, when I see insects and bees at home, I don’t kill them anymore, because it feels like something to be them. How do you measure consciousness? We can approximate it as a theoretical quanitity. Phi measures the complex- ity of a system and to what extent it’s integrated. One way to measure that is just like you would measure to what extent a church bell is integrated. You hit it with a hammer and listen to its reverberation. If it’s a well-made bell, it will reverberate for a long time. You can do that in the brain by shocking the neurons with a brief mag- netic pulse. You cover the scalp with electrodes and measure the reverbera- tion from this little shock propagating throughout the brain. From those measurements you are able to judge whether a person is asleep, anaesthetized, or awake. Clinicians are quite excited because this could be the first tool for measuring consciousness that works practically at the bedside. What are the practical applications of measur- ing consciousness? The most practical application is also the most urgent one. In the U.S., there are roughly 10,000 patients in persistent vegetative states. They may open and close their eyes, but otherwise it’s very difficult to communicate with them. You’re not sure if there is anyone left inside or if it is just a body that lives on. For the patient’s loved ones, this is a terrible dilemma. With proper care, this person can live for another ten or twenty years. In the extreme late stages of dementia, you want to know: is there anybody home or have they totally gone? Is their mind conscious? Do they experience any- thing? Those are terrible cases. That’s the biggest application. The other question that’s urgent is computer consciousness. We are now wit- nessing the birth of computer intelligence. This has legal and ethical implications. Is a machine conscious? Does it feel like anything? If so, it may acquire legal rights, and I would certainly have the ethical obligations towards it. I couldn’t just turn it off. Finally, there are broader but impor- tant questions such as, when does con- sciousness start? Is it when the baby first cries? Or does consciousness happen earlier? What about a very young fetus? And which animals have higher levels of consciousness? What are your hopes for your work in the future? I want to understand the universe before I die. ♦ KIYOSHITAKAHASESEGUNDO/COLOURBOX.COM Skillful Means for Engaged Buddhism see entire calendar, teachings, and more at www.upaya.org santa fe, nm 505-986-8518 ext. 12