Apr 9, 2019

awarenow bookshelf | The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku is a physicist, a charismatic popularizer of science and its future potentials and a leading figure in the string theory. In the previous years, I have enjoyed his numerous videos, especially where he described what an 11th dimension means.

The Future of the Mind (2014) by Michio Kaku

So, being naturally curious, I purchased his book The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014).

To be short, after reading I have mixed feelings about the book. Too often it happens that a person who is very intelligent in one field, say that of natural sciences (physics, quantum mechanics, etc.), demonstrates a very limited and narrow understanding of another area — in this case, transdisciplinary consciousness studies.

There are 15 chapters in the book; some are with provocative titles such as “Telepathy,” “Telekinesis,” “Altered States of Consciousness,” “The Artificial Mind and Silicon Consciousness” etc. Unfortunately, the titles are sometimes more provocative than of substance. Kaku claims to describe potential futures of the technologies which already have some working prototype. For instance, an exoskeleton, virtual reality, or “telepathic” communication through brain interfaces, or nanotechnologies or genetic modification to treat mental disorders.

Alas, Kaku’s understanding of mind and consciousness, of various philosophies of consciousness, those schools of thought and experimentation that have developed through centuries (including 21st century) is shallow, if non-existent. He demonstrates no knowledge of psychology, philosophy or contemplative studies of the mind. He is locked within a scientific mindset, the one that is capable only of a 3rd-person perspective, while not understanding 1st-person and 2nd-person perspectives.

One example of it is his misunderstanding of the problem of qualia and the hard problem of consciousness. He completely misses the point of the psychophysical problem, the problem of mind and matter relationship, what David Chalmers called the Hard Problem of consciousness. Kaku mistakenly interprets the issue of qualia as a sort of “understanding” of “feelings and subjective sensations,” rather than the very fact of interiority, of the presence of subjectivity, of awareness. 

So, Kaku mistakenly writes: “In the future, a machine most likely will be able to process a sensation, such as the color red, much better than any human. It will be able to describe the physical properties of red and even use it poetically in a sentence better than a human. Does the robot ‘feel’ the color red? The point becomes irrelevant since the word ‘feel’ is not well defined. At some point, a robot’s description of the color red may exceed a human’s, and the robot may rightly ask: Do humans understand the color red? Perhaps humans cannot understand the color red with all the nuances and subtly that a robot can.”

Kaku misinterprets qualia as some “understanding” (whatever that means) rather than interiority, awareness, the presence of living consciousness. In his understanding of consciousness as a model of current and future events, he demonstrates a purely 3rd-person objective perspective, the perspective that ignores the most obvious fact of existence — our very own alive awareness. This sort of awareness that is unlikely to occur in a robot or AI, no matter how realistic it can be in its exterior appearance. There is no substance of awareness, no first-person perspective, no aliveness of interior presence.

In a New York Times book review (March 7, 2014) Adam Frank eloquently writes:

* * *

“Like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, Kaku believes the most critical advances in silicon computing will still serve our needs and not the coming robot overlords (if we do create them). By mapping out the ‘connectome’ — the explicit account of every neural connection in your head — Kaku tells us it should be possible to reverse-engineer every person’s brain. Reconstruct this connectome in a computer, and you will have downloaded yourself into that machine. In this way, the future of the mind, your mind, in particular, might last as long as there are computers to run your connectome.

But are you nothing more than the sum of your brain’s connections? Here’s where Kaku stumbles. It’s been almost 20 years since the philosopher David Chalmers introduced the distinction between ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ problems in the study of consciousness. Easy problems, according to Chalmers, were things like figuring out how the brain cycles through signals from the arm allowing you to pick up an object.

Researchers developing the next generation of prosthetics will tell you this ‘easy’ problem remains pretty hard, but as Chalmers rightly pointed out, control of the arm is nothing compared with developing a scientific account of the vividness of our own experience. It’s the internal luminosity — the ‘being’ of our being — that constitutes Chalmers’s hard problem, and that eludes Kaku’s engineering-based perspective.

The problem is that we still don’t have much in the way of a working model of consciousness. With a physicist’s eye for economy, Kaku tries to provide one through what he calls a “space-time theory.” It’s a model of consciousness with a graded scale of awareness based on the number of feedback loops between environment and organism. Thus, in Kaku’s view, a thermostat has the lowest possible level of consciousness while humans, with our ability to move through space and project ourselves mentally backward and forward in time, represent the highest level currently known.

. . . Kaku acknowledges the existence of the hard problem but waves it away.

“There is no such thing as the Hard Problem,” he writes.

“Thus the essential mystery of our lives — the strange sense of presence to which we’re bound till death, and that lies at the heart of so much poetry, art, and music — is dismissed as a non-problem when it’s precisely the problem we can’t ignore. If we’re to have anything like a final theory of consciousness, we had better be attentive to the complexity of how we experience our being.”

* * *

Well said. Indeed, dismissing the essential mystery of our aliveness is a sign of ignorance as regards to consciousness and mind, the very topic of the book. Furthermore, Kaku provides a multilevel model of mind/consciousness based on McLean’s triune brain model. In itself, it is a great model, but if Kaku wants to speak about levels of consciousness and its evolution, he has to also present data from the field of developmental psychology (which he doesn’t). Notably, it is essential to take into account the constructivist schools of developmental theories as explored in the field of adult (vertical) development. 

When Kaku argues that consciousness is that “process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters,” which he calls the “space-time theory of consciousness” to emphasize that while animals create a model of the world mainly with space and one another. Humans are capable of generating a model of the world in regard to time (both forward and backward) — when he does so, he misses the point disclosed in the process of studying human development that perception and understanding of time (notably, self-understanding in relation to time) seem to be at least partially a developmental achievement that is not innately existent in human beings.

Furthermore, human consciousness itself can grow to an increasingly complex capacity of perspective-taking, as Susanne Cook-Greuter’s research in the theory of ego development in adults shows. This capacity can expand from merely a 1st-person perspective on one’s world experience and one’s place in the world to:
a 2nd-person perspective (that includes the view of a tribe or referent group) 
a 3rd-person perspective (a scientific and objective worldview)
a 4th-person perspective (that sees a plurality of different worldviews or paradigms, developing in time and cultural contexts, as equally important) to more advanced later 4th-person and 5th-person perspectives (which offer self-understanding in terms of vast historical and evolutionary processes — from the Big Bang to the nuances of the present-day historical unfoldings and the way they influence all our understandings, epistemologies, methodologies, and ontologies).

There are numerous studies of human consciousness development in infants, children, and adults (our consciousness can continue to grow when we are adults, and maturity per se is itself a phenomenon that evolves: to be mature today, in a postmodern world, is different from being grown up in a premodern society). Concerning adult development, these studies were done at Harvard and other universities in the United States and Europe. Such scholars as Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Michael Commons, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck & Chris Cowan should be consulted when one tries to understand the ways human consciousness evolves. Without that knowledge one’s understanding of consciousness is insufficient and shallow — this can be said about what Kaku demonstrated in his book.

Michio Kaku’s view of consciousness or mind is what Ken Wilber, one of the leading contemporary world thinkers, would call a flatland view. This flatland view is versed in understanding physical and matter-related realities but is very shallow and inefficient in grasping the complex interior truths of consciousness and culture, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity, of prehension and mutual prehension. Anyone who writes about mind and consciousness may benefit from reading Wilber’s paper “An Integral Theory of Consciousness” (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1997, 4 (1): 71–92). 

Wilber proposes that any sufficient understanding of consciousness requires taking into account a transdisciplinary view and 3rd-, 2nd- and 1st-person methodologies.

These methodologies disclose phenomena in what Wilber calls four quadrants, or four fundamental perspectives on consciousness. In short, consciousness is a space of interiority which is embodied in the organism and embedded in sociocultural contexts. It is not static — it is dynamic, and it has evolved through millions of years of evolution, and in every individual it continues to evolve and develop, providing vastly different vantage points and worldviews, each of which determines how one conceives reality (a child understand reality differently from an adult. A sage who reached her highest maturity understands reality differently from a typical adult).

On a bright side, Kaku’s book is easy to read. In conclusion and especially in the Appendix titled “Quantum Consciousness?” where Kaku returns to his home turf, his narrative and questions, he raises appeared as quite inspiring to me. So, based on this book, Kaku is a lousy source of insight into the nature of mind/consciousness, but he is still an insightful meaning maker regarding making sense of quantum physics and string theory and their relation to (the physical, exterior aspect of) the universe.

Reviewed by Eugene Pustoshkin, request 1:1 coaching session with him on www.awarenow.io

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