THE QUESTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
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A (Relatively) Short Course in Academic Thought About The Mind, for the Non-Academian.
Background Assumed: General intelligence, appreciation of critical thought, patience with
intellectual structures, but most important: curiosity and wonder about science and humanity.
CONTENTS THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
1 Whence Human Consciousness?
2 What Is The Problem?
3 The Hard Problem
4 The Dualists: Consciousness Is Real
5 Physicalism/Reductionism: Not Really Real
6 The Zombies
7 Physicalists and "The Machine"
8 What Is the Purpose of Consciousness?
9 Mary and the Rose
10 Consciousness and "Self": Internal Versus External
A. More Thought Experiments
B. Do "Self" and "Personal Identity" Really Exist?
C. Externalism Revisited
11 Intentionality: The Old School
12 Content, Higher Order Theories
13 What Is Consciousness Like?
14 Society and Consciousness
15 Language, Mind and Consciousness
16 Evolution and Consciousness
17 When It All Began
18 Are Animals Conscious?
19 Can You Computerize Consciousness,
Are Our Minds Computers?
20 Godel: The End of Knowledge?
21 Degrees of Consciousness?
22 Is Thinking a Conscious Phenomenon?
23 The Theater Metaphor
24 The Brain: Parts and the Whole
25 The Injured Brain and Consciousness
26 The Importance of Emotions
27 The Importance of Memory
28 The Remembered Present
29 Neural Correlates: From the Bottom Up
30 How The Brain Might Work: Neural Networks, Etc.
31 Neural Loops and Constellations
32 Chaos and the Brain / Mind
33 Multiple Drafts or Strange Attractor Cycles?
34 Expanding Horizons of Space and Time
35 Phi: Integrated Information and Consciousness
FINAL QUESTIONS and AN APPROACH
36 Meditation and Being -- Is There an
Essence of Consciousness?
37 Can Consciousness Be Fully Explained
By Science and Physicalism?
38 Quantum Physics and Consciousness?
39 Is Consciousness the Cause of Anything?
Does It Affect Behavior?
40 Human, Animal and Machine Consciousness
(and maybe Alien Consciousness)
41 The God Question: Easy or Hard?
42 An Interactional Dualism / Virtual Reality Approach:
A. The Disappearing "Real World"
B. The Rise of Information
C. Consciousness As a Field Interaction
D. Many Questions
43 In Sum, One World
THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS
1. WHENCE HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS?
• Within the past decade, the study of human consciousness has taken on an identity of its own. It used to reside exclusively in the house of psychology, where it was either taken for granted (Freudians) or ignored (behaviorists) for the most part. Up until about 1980, many people, even many academians, assumed that human consciousness was a "given", something you didn't need to think about. It was either accepted uncritically as the locus of our perceptions, feelings, thinking and decision-making; or it was ignored, as the "behaviorism" movement held sway. Under behaviorism, the brain and mind became little more than a "stimulus-response" transducer, a pass-through device that determined behavior solely on environmental happenings. At best, "mental states" were studied for their "functional" role in the causal chain of human behavior. According to the "physicalist functionalists" who inherited the behaviorist legacy, consciousness and mind are important, but mostly as a step in a deterministic process, albeit a somewhat more flexible and complex process than the behaviorists would admit to.
• However, within the past 30 years there has been a lot of research on the structure and workings of the brain, and much of this research questions the nature and importance of consciousness. Many analysts have wondered and pondered whether in fact there is consciousness at all, in any important sense. An increasing number of thinkers have become interested in these questions and have produced a growing body of books and papers on the topic. Some of these people are neurobiologists, others are computer experts, but many of the authorities on the subject are philosophers.
• The major controversy is whether consciousness, as we seem to experience it and describe it, is real; or, is our vivid sense of conscious existence just a side-effect (i.e., an "epiphenomenon") of the brain's physical workings? I.e., is it something like an illusion? (But not really, because an illusion requires a conscious observer to mis-perceive it.)
2. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
• The problem starts with the fact that many (if not most) people think that their consciousness is like --- well, like having another conscious person inside our head, watching all the sense data coming in, and making decisions on how to respond to it. Is there then a very little person inside that little person's head? And a littler person still . . . Where would it end? (I.e., this boils down to an absurdity, a.k.a. a reducio ad absurdum).
• Some people replace this “homunculus” with “the soul”, a ghost-like immaterial living substance that can theoretically survive the body's death. This simply replaces one mystery with another, of course; at least the brain and mind can be probed and tested, whereas the “soul” is an entirely unexaminable notion. There is no reasonable way to separate it from "wishful thinking".
• Although the brain and mind can be examined, an ultimate "explanatory gap" seems to remain in place with regard to consciousness. We believe that consciousness takes place in the brain. But the brain is a three-pound mass of wet fiber. How do our lives and our feelings and our perceptions and our thinking and our dreams take place in a 6 by 8 inch shell? How do our lives and our feelings and our perceptions and our thinking and our dreams take place in a 6 by 8 inch shell? Admittedly, the brain is highly complex and extremely organized, having many times the data storage and computing capacity of the largest supercomputer now in existence. We still can't build a machine that can do what the brain does in terms of input signal processing and outputting commands like those directing the many components of the body. But the brain runs according to ordinary physical laws and programming routines that aren't all that different from what we can do with our computer software (especially the newer generation of object-oriented programming and neural network architecture). And it's similar to the brains that many other living creatures have.
• We seem to have on-going mental experiences (even in our sleep, i.e. dreams). We react to the redness of a rose (or the yellowness of a yellow rose); or the odd smell of gasoline; or the taste of a strawberry; or the cold feel of snow hitting your cheek. It makes some people want to write poetry or compose music. Modern-day consciousness analysts have a name and a concept to cover all of this: qualia. Qualia as a word is the plural of quale, which is an experience, e.g. the color green, the feeling of pain, the emotion of anger, the sound of C flat, the smell of camphor, etc. But there is no little man or woman in there experiencing these quales (i.e., qualia). There are just a lot of neurons and water and chemicals and electric signals, all hooked up in some complicated arrangement. It's really just a machine. So how is the vividness of experience taking place inside this machine?
• The vividness of phenomenal experience promotes in many of us a "gut feel" that consciousness is something more than the physical processes that support it (this feeling is called "folk psychology"). But still, our consciousness is thoroughly beholden to those physical processes. For every normal, healthy human being, consciousness just "goes away" for a few hours each day, when we are in deep sleep. There are also instances of suspension during injury or anesthesia. Nonetheless, it usually comes back much as it was left -- due to physical memory processes and structures in the brain. As such, the ontology of consciousness doesn't seem so ethereal after all -- it all depends on the workings of a biological machine, i.e. the brain. Philosopher Patricia Churchland says that our common-sense understanding of the mind is wrong, and that the brain is all that ultimately matters. And yet . . .
3. THE HARD PROBLEM
• Philosopher David Chalmers separates the problem of consciousness into a set of "easy problems", and an ultimate "hard problem". Chalmers says that the easy problems of consciousness are susceptible to the standard methods and metrics of modern science, and probably can be solved to everyone's satisfaction in the long run. These include differences between brain states such as waking, sleeping, intoxication and unconsciousness; deliberate versus non-deliberate control of behavior; the focus of attention; and awareness / discrimination of stimuli (hot versus cold, pressure versus pain, etc.). The hard problem is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective, phenomenal experience. Even if you believe that everything is a question of behavior or neuron firing patterns, you still need to ask just why humans say that they feel as though a little person is inside of their heads? Or that there is "something it is like" for all of our conscious experiences, i.e. every conscious moment relates somehow to every past experience. Just what is "experience", and why does it seem so vivid? Just what is "experiencing" that vividness?
• There are several models of consciousness that focus on "self-modeling" and simulating environment-body-mind interactions. The simulation view of consciousness promotes the notion that consciousness (as we know it) arose because of increasingly sophisticated brain-based simulations of organism-environment interactions. The evolutionary process selected and favored organisms with "mental simulation" abilities, i.e. the capacity to imagine (and thus better plan for) how the organism could satisfy its needs in the environment in which it found itself. Under this view, human consciousness is a highly sophisticated way of simulating and thus better dealing with the complex realities that human organisms face. Such an approach is a good example of a consciousness theory focusing on the "easy version" of consciousness.
4. DUALISM: CONSCIOUSNESS IS REAL
• The "dualists" are those who say that qualia and consciousness are real -- fundamentally real, not unimportant side-effects. Dualists view consciousness as a basic, irreducible feature of the universe. They say that there truly exists a hard problem. David Chalmers is obviously a dualist of sorts -- although Chalmers, like most modern dualists, is a Property Dualist.
• Property Dualism generally implies that conscious experience is a property of our physical universe, one that has not yet been convincingly identified yet in the way that gravity and electromagnetism have. As a property of matter and energy, and not something ultimately independent of them (as stipulated in the substance dualism view), consciousness is not believed by most property dualists to have a causal effect on the universe. As such, consciousness is said by the property dualists to be real, but epiphenomenal (without effect in the world). If this view is right, then you believe that you are acting according to your own free will, but you are wrong. Your brain circuits determine everything, and "you", as a conscious entity, are just along for the ride!
• The ancient Greek concept of "the soul" is something like what Chalmers is getting at (although Chalmers would not use a word such as "soul", since he needs to maintain credibility in the academic world). He talks of differing properties of the substance of matter/energy being behind consciousness (i.e., property dualism). But such differing properties and effects would have to be a function of an as-yet unknown body of physics. These hypothetical "alternate" or "additional" physics might also be an explanation for "the soul" (although not for the religious idea of the eternal soul -- which is more of a substance dualism conception).
5. PHYSICALISM / REDUCTIONISM: CONSCIOUSNESS IS NOT REALLY REAL
• The physicalists (also sometimes called materialists) and reductionists believe that consciousness isn't what it seems to the average person. Consciousness is not truly fundamental, but is more of a side effect. To them, there really is no "hard problem". There is no corresponding question regarding epiphenomenalism; consciousness to them must be causally inert, as it doesn't truly exist at all.
• It's somewhat like watching the sun set into the sea. The sun is not really dipping down into the ocean, although it appears to. Our science tells us quite convincingly that it's just an illusion; the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that we're on a round planet The reductionists say ... inside our heads, nobody is home; it's just a machine in there. spinning around the sun in a certain way, one which makes the sun appear to arc across the sky and into the horizon every day. The physical reductionists say that our illusion of consciousness and self-consciousness are questions of cultural programming and an inherent (evolutionarily selected) tendency to search for root causes of things we experience. There may be some survival value behind this, i.e. to expressing our joys and pains and loves and fears, especially in the social context. But inside our heads, nobody is home; it's just a machine in there.
• Two prominent schools within physicalism are functionalism and identity theory. Functionalism focuses upon the functions served by mental activity; the ultimate function of the mind, under functionalism, is to process sensory inputs and determine behavioral outputs. Obviously, one can go into much more detail, such as the functions that pain or laughter serve. But ultimately, the mind and its consciousness are like a computer program; the actual physiological structures and activities of the brain are of secondary importance. As such, a functionalist can easily imagine conscious states occurring in other "platforms" hosting similar "software", e.g in other species or in machines (once they can be made to assume important self-survival functions).
• By contrast, the identity theorist feels that the mind and consciousness just are the physical processes going on in the brain, much as lightening just is a massive electrical discharge within the atmosphere. A somewhat similar but more flexible position is called supervenience, which is the notion that a thing, in this case consciousness, takes its primary characteristics from its constituent elements (just as a cabinet made of steel maintains the cold, strong and rigid characteristics of steel -- but also has its own characteristics, such as spaciousness and security). According to the physicalist/supervenience argument, even if consciousness does have unique incidental features that appear to be quite different from the electro-chemical neural processes occurring within the skull, consciousness still ultimately reflects the nature of the structures and processes that cause it, which are material and physical.
• One reason behind David Chalmers' "hard problem" versus "easy problem" dichotomy is to alleviate confusion about what is being talked about when the word "consciousness" is used. Various neuroscientists, computer scientists and others have proposed various "solutions" to the problem of consciousness Perhaps the key question of any consciousness analyst is, do you believe that there is a "Hard Problem of Consciousness" as Chalmers defines it? (e.g. Tononi's Integrated Information Theory, Penrose's quantum physics-based "Orchestrated Objective Reduction" model, Crick's "Neural Correlates" work and Edelman's related "Dynamic Core/Re-Entrant Loop" concept, etc.). What they generally mean is that they have set forth a paradigm regarding brain-mind dynamics which allegedly possesses explanatory powers over what we objectively observe and can share about consciousness. This is what Chalmers refers to as "easy problem" consciousness.
• These scientists often take a reductionist attitude by denying that there IS a "hard problem" to consciousness; they believe that the subjective experience of consciousness can be completely explained from the objective workings of the brain and mind. However, their writings often leave this assumption implied but unspoken (or if they do mention the "hard problem", they do not entirely follow David Chalmers' definition of it). Chalmers' hard-easy problem dichotomy attempts to call out such assumptions and make clear exactly what is being explained in these theories. Perhaps the key question of any consciousness analyst is, "do you believe that there is a Hard Problem of Consciousness" as Chalmers defines it?
6. THE ZOMBIES
• One way that the dualists try to prove their point is through a thought experiment about zombies. They ask us to imagine a human being that has everything except consciousness. Is this possible? Many people are willing to entertain the notion, for sake of argument. A philosopher's zombie could act the same as any of us, and yet have all of its mental processes occur "in the dark". Zombies could still talk to each other, still have friendships and love affiliations, still have enemies, cry tears and laugh at jokes. Arguably, the existence of zombies is just a question of computer-like programming; complex programming, but not inherently impossible programming. We now have robots that can act in very complex ways, but they don't have consciousness (at least we don't think so; once you start thinking deeply about consciousness, there aren't many definites). Against all of this, the argument goes, is the fact is that we do experience consciousness; this indicates that something is happening in us (and not in the "philosopher's zombie") that is beyond what we now know in our body of science. That something may not be magic, but it surely awaits an advanced future science to explain it -- so the dualist's zombie argument goes.
• The zombie dualist argument is speculative at best -- basically because the kind of zombie that is required just doesn't exist (or at least no one has detected one yet)! But the concept may be relevant in a weaker sense to consciousness research, in that there are known instances of humans beings having states of relative alertness, acting voluntarily, even carrying out complex tasks, and yet being without the normal features of consciousness; i.e., awareness of identity, continuous emotional engagement, ability to record new memories, and access to old memories other than very-short-run motor control and procedure memory (allowing short-term tasks). The phenomenon of sleepwalking comes most readily to mind. But psychologists and neurobiologists are also studying "absence automatism", persistent vegetative states, and blindsight (when people with working eyes who become blind due to cortex damage still have sub-conscious mental responses to objects in front of them). Dr. Antonio Damasio gives a good summary of these in "The Feeling of What Happens" (1999). These situations provide a real-world "ground level" that helps to determine and measure the features and components of consciousness.
7. PHYSICALISTS AND "THE MACHINE"
• The physicalists / reductionists have all sorts of research results from brain experiments over the past 25 years to support their arguments. A handful of studies, many led by Benjamin Libet, show fairly conclusively that consciousness is a half-second or so behind reality; you perceive what has already happened. Related studies show that you act before you are aware of making a decision. They add up to fairly strong evidence that most, if not all, human behavior has nothing to do with consciousness. The recent "Passive Frame Theory" attempts to synthesize this work, proposing that "consciousness" (in the "easy problem" sense of physiological mind-brain processes) is not involved in volitional decision-making. Instead, it provides a "central hub", an integrative process or platform by which decisions are be made, and thereafter rationalized -- i.e. given a apparently consistent mental story-line that seemingly justifies them.
• One possible critique of the Passive Frame Theory regards the not-always-apparent interaction between emotion and logical processes, which is reflected in a variety of studies showing that our seemingly rational decisions depend quite heavily upon emotional processes. Studies show that without emotions, the ability to make behavioral decisions is severely impaired. Of course, one can argue that the "passive frame" process captures this interaction; however, emotions have a significant conscious component, and they are played out as much in the spotlight of consciousness as in the shadows of the sub-concious. As such, "what's on your mind" may still have a lot to do with how you behave, and not totally vice versa.
• Nonetheless, many argue that the notion that you first make a conscious decision and next act on it may be mostly an illusion. It certainly is true that a large portion of human behavior is set up sub-consciously and executed "in the dark". For example, I have a little game to relieve boredom at work: I fire a rubber band against the wall of my cubicle and reach out in mid-air to catch it after it bounces. I know that I'm not thinking about how to catch the rubber band; my eye isn't even centered on it. It's all happening too fast. My arm just stabs its way into the air and most of the time I can snatch the twirling rubber band before my boss can walk by and tell me to get back to work. An amazing little machine at work there.
• So, when physicalism is taken to its farthest point, we obtain another answer to the zombie question: we are all machine-like zombies, in many ways and at many times. That we are fully-conscious NON ZOMBIES is the delusion!
8. WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF CONSCIOUSNESS?
• The reductionists say that consciousness is, at best, "epiphenomenal". It doesn't directly influence our behavior. Many dualists, especially property dualists, agree with this. They are hesitant to claim that consciousness is "something from another world", something beyond our science. As such, they have to agree with the reductionists that consciousness is "casually impotent", because they don't want to claim that mysterious psychic forces interact with the neurons in the brain as to help determine our behavior. The neurobiologists haven't found anything to corroborate that. Most dualists thus shy away from causality issues by agreeing with the epiphenomenal viewpoint, i.e., we're all just going along for the ride -- at best.
• As noted in Section 7 above, much of our daily behavior is clearly not controlled by conscious analysis (i.e., our "free will"). Breathing and the heart's beating is controlled by the autonomous nervous system (ANS), not by consciousness. But in addition, a lot of our daily acts fall into a grey zone, where they COULD be controlled by conscious process, but most of the time are not. For example, when we drive a car or ride a bike, we don't think too much about how we move the wheel and the gas and brake pedals, unless something unusual happens (e.g., an impending collision). Humans can do many things with low levels of attention to muscle movements. Think of a ballet dancer or a baseball infielder. They may be concentrating, but they are not making individual decisions on how to move their arms and legs and torsos. That is happening sub-consciously, in a "machine-like" way. People can even give speeches or be engaged in a conversation, and yet the conscious mind is thinking of something else. The words seem to be coming out, robot-like.
• Even though much of our actual muscle movements are not controlled by the conscious mind, we can still say that they are given executive oversight by it. Some studies following up on Libet's time-delay work indicate that we have "free won't"; we can start an automated set of muscle movements, e.g. a punch about to be thrown in anger at someone, then realize that it's wrong and immediately stop the process. So perhaps the relationship between consciousness and behavior is mostly "executive oversight" in nature.
• But even the "executive within us" often seems centered within and directed from the brain's "machine zone", i.e. subconscious. For example, many creative ideas seem to "just flash into our minds". When we are in a crisis, or are otherwise trying to solve a difficult problem, the most original and powerful solution concepts do not often result from plodding logic. Do these solutions come from a computer-like mechanism, or from the dualist's "other realm" where consciousness ultimately resides, or from some connection to an implicate / generative order of reality which underlies our current physics, as postulated by physicist David Bohm?
• As such, even the "executive" role of consciousness seems limited. Some consciousness analysts feel that the whole notion of consciousness having any executive role in determining our behavior is false. If so, then we are simply observers, something like the people who sit in the so-called "control booth" of a computerized subway car. The computer runs the subway train, and they just watch. They might still have a panic button to stop the train in an emergency; if the "epiphenomenalists" are right, our conscious minds don't even have that. Free will would thus be entirely an illusion.
9. MARY AND THE ROSE -- a thought experiment regarding "KNOWLEDGE"
• The dualists, i.e. the defenders of the substantive and irreducible nature of consciousness, have proposed a thought experiment to support their position. Based on a 1982 article by philosopher Frank Jackson, they ask you to imagine a woman named Mary who grows up in a world of black and white. She goes to college (a black and white college) and takes courses on brain biology and consciousness, and is taught that there is such a thing as color. She is taught how color works in the brain, how the optic nerves processes color and sends signals to certain areas of the brain, which process those signals and add color to the "binding" of a perceived object. But she's never experienced it herself; she just knows black, white, and maybe shades of gray.
• Then one day, Mary finally experiences color -- but not all at once, we don't want to overwhelm her. Just one thing -- a red rose enters her black and white world. She knows precisely what is going on in her brain, what neurons are lighting up, what chemical transmitters are flowing out from the thalamus and what stimulants are entering the blood stream. But until now, she didn't know what the experience of red color was like. Now she does. Then she goes on to blue, green, etc. In the brain, amidst the neurons, slightly different things are happening for each different color; but it's not such a great difference, physically. And yet the experience of each color seems quite new and different. Purple makes Mary feel one way, red makes her feel another, yellow does something entirely different for her, then there's seafoam, apricot, lavender, etc. The different experiences of color seem so much bigger and so much more significant than the fact that certain neuron sets are firing at slightly different frequencies. It seems as if she now has additional KNOWLEDGE regarding color; knowledge that could NOT be conveyed by science through its system of symbols, logic and objective evidence.
• That's the alleged difference between the physical electro-chemistry of the brain and the qualia of consciousness. This writer personally feels that MUSIC gives the better example of what conscious qualia is all about. The perception of color can be satisfactorily defined as the function of discriminating phenomenal visual input features, for purposes of enhancing survival (see neuroscientist Gerald Edelman's explanation of qualia in "Wider Than The Sky"). Musical notes can be similarly defined, akin to "mosaic pieces of consciousness". But a great song or a concerto can take completely take over one's conscious awareness, peaking and focusing it, mixing it with bodily reactions of emotion and feeling (and thus enhancing further the state of conscious attention and focus). This is perhaps captured in the flow concept of modern psychology. The universal and ancient nature of music across all human cultures speaks to the mental significance of the musicial experience.
• The "experience" of music seems to justify the notion that the "whole" is different in character from the "sum of the parts"; i.e., it obtains a new "ontology", a new being. "Experience" is arguably a KNOWLEDGE that is not fully accessible through science. As such, the science of today may not provide a complete description of the Universe, nor a sufficient way to know consciousness.
• Interestingly, Jackson's argument was anticipated in 1810 by Goethe in his book Farbenlehrer, an analysis of color vision in humans. Goethe considers Newton's theories of light and the human body's physiological response to light. He then points out that physics and biology disregard the most important thing -- our inner experience of light. Goethe, in keeping with the spirit of 19th Century Romanticism, claims that classic physics tells us nothing about the most important acts of the mind, such as the appreciation of beauty. Science, as a system of symbols and logic rules, has an inherent limitation just as Godel proved that mathematical systems of symbols and logic have an inherent limitation.
• However, the materialist/reductions would counter that Mary's different emotional reactions to variations in color-related nerve inputs are triggered by physical after-affects of the color perception processes in the brain, where small differences get magnified greatly. If Mary truly did know everything about how her brain worked from a physical point of view, and knew the exact state that her brain was in just before observing the rose, she should be able to accurately predict her responses in terms of body changes (respiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc.), in behavior (e.g., saying "that is wonderful!"), and in resulting future mental states. Thus, it's still a matter of matter and energy physics and organizational effects, not of magic.
• In that vein, philosopher Daniel Dennett criticizes the "Mary" argument regarding the non-objective knowledge allegedly conveyed by qualia. He conveys his criticism by positing a counter-example involving beer. Dennett points out that some "qualia" change with time (if not all), thus lending suspicion to the notion that mental experience has ontological status (i.e., actual "being", an irreducible quality). His case-in-point regards beer. Most people do not enjoy beer when they first drink it (and assumedly, Mary wouldn't either). It seems rather strange and thin and bitter. Only after drinking it on several occasions with the encouragement of their friends do most people start enjoying this beverage. The "quale" attached to the beer-drinking experience seems to change. As such, we cannot look at qualia as atomistic, as a fundamental building block in our picture of reality. Dennett cites this to support his contention that consciousness is ultimately an illusion.
• I agree with Dennett's contention that qualia are not the ultimate building block of consciousness; however, I disagree that this tarnishes the ontological status of the (subjective) experience of consciousness. Qualia is ultimately a function of underlying emotion and feeling states, and therefore is heavily influenced by body needs, environmental influences, social influences, memory, and cognitive notions. Admittedly, the qualia of any fixed set of sensory inputs (or imagined sensory inputs) is not itself fixed. The experience of drinking beer or viewing a red rose can cause very different mental reactions, depending upon the overall circumstances. Still, that does not denigrate the fact that there IS an impact on one's overall positive or negative "feeling of being", the "feeling of having lived", a more generic aspect of consciousness than any particular experience, sensation or mood. That, and not the quale itself, is where ontological significance is grounded, in my opinion.
10. CONSCIOUSNESS and SELF: INTERNAL vs EXTERNAL(determined by what goes on outside one's head, i.e. more objective in nature). These include: "Inverted Earth" (where they use the same names that we use for colors, and those names apply to the same things, e.g. the Inverted people call the sky blue -- but if we went there, the sky would be pink or yellow or such to us); and "Twin Earth" (where the Twin people talk about water, but mean something else, even though it serves the function of water for them). These scenarios have been used to debate the representationalist position that the true nature of consciousness is the mental representation of some putative fact (often physical, but sometimes more abstract such as as being in a state of love or sorrow); or of the overall set of alleged facts in a person's environment. This generally implies that consciousness is itself essentially a physically reducible entity, i.e. supporting the physicalist approach - see Section 12 for more on representationalism.
More Thought Experiments
• There are other thought experiments put forth by philosophers that are meant to investigate the feasibility and coherence of dualistic versus physical/material views of consciousness. If consciousness is more a function of things going on in the external, physical world, then a physicalist / reductionist approach may seem more credible. An important perspective on this question is provided by the "externalist" versus "internalist" ways of viewing consciousness. The internally-focused views are based largely on "inner sense", individual brain features, and subjective mind dynamics. Although such views can be consistent with physicalism, the idea that consciousness is mainly a function of external factors, i.e. things going on out in the real, physical world, makes a physicalist / reductionist approach seems more credible. (There are theoretical variations involving externalist dualism and internalist physical monism, e.g. views by William Lycan).
• One such scenario involves "Swampman", a perfect living replica of someone who perishes at the same moment Swampman comes to life, said replica arising instantaneously through some extraordinary cosmic accident (the original Swampman scenario, put forth in 1987 by philosopher Donald Davidson, involved lightening; but it could also have used the fictional transporter device from Star Trek). If we knew the person who died, call him Mr. X, and then encountered Swampman without knowing what happened, all would seem normal, as Swampman acts identical to Mr. X. But would it be the same for us if we knew what happened? When Swampman greeted us just as Mr. X would have, would we back away or be hesitant? Or do we accept Swampman as Mr. X, since his body and memories and behavior patterns were flawlessly copied? (No green muck on THIS Swampman!)
• Internally, Swampman is the same as Mr. X. Externally, they have very different histories. Which is more important in defining Swampman's identity and the nature of his consciousness -- the internal or the external?
• My own reaction to the Swampman scenario would be as follows: in the abstract, I would be willing to accept Swampman as Mr. X; the fact that Swampman is made up of different (yet functionally identical) atoms and molecules doesn't seem to matter; none of us retains the exact same set of atoms and molecules over time (thus I would sympathize with the primacy of internal mental states). But something else in me fears Swampman, because of the strangeness of what took place. Thus, I probably would treat Swampman differently than I would Mr. X. And most likely, so would the rest of society. Thus, Swampman could never be Mr. X, because EXTERNAL factors, i.e. the response of society, would not let him be Mr. X. If society decided to shun him and isolate him completely, arguably his very consciousness would degrade and be ultimately endangered, given the results of long-term sensory deprivation. By contrast, in the fictional Star Trek setting, teleportation is socially accepted, so the replacement being who arises at the end of the teleporter beam is accepted by society and maintains his or her identity and conscious being.
• As a sidenote to "Swampman" and Star Trek Teleportation: Computer Scientist Scott Aaronson would deny that Swampman or the teleported individual have the same consciousness as the person whom they would copy, because of quantum physics. Aaronson says that an inherent feature of consciousness is that it "participates fully in the arrow of time", because "it has to produce irreversible decoherence as an intrinsic part of its operation." I.e., Aaronson assumes that the process of consciousness is sensitive to tiny quantum fluctuations at one or more points within the brain. Quantum physics has an anti-copying rule (consistent with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) stating that physical process cannot produce an exact copy (guaranteed to any level of precision that you select) of a quantum particle, i.e. matching all of its characteristics (position, momentum, spin, etc.). Therefore, if consciousness is sensitive to all of these quantum characteristics, then one cannot "clone" an exact state of consciousness, given that you could never precisely clone the physical substrate in which it was occurring.
It is uncertain, however, if consciousness is really sensitive down to the level of the quantum states of the matter and energy processes which bring it forth. Other consciousness analysts feel that consciousness is highly dependent upon recursive processes, and while it seems to have chaotic aspects within it (see Section 32), such chaotic behavior is a function of complex but ultimately determinate recursive processes, and not of completely random quantum jitter. Arguably, in highly recursive macro-level systems, the quantum jitter of its physical substrate is completely washed out, beyond even the usual macro-level decoherence that protects us from experiencing quantum weirdness in our daily lives. The physical factors that intermediate consciousness are still not understood well enough to come to a conclusion on this issue; and thus for now, the Swampman / Teleporter question can still be argued assuming a perfect copy of conscious awareness could be produced.
• Some other thought scenarios also address the question of whether mental content is "internal"(set by what goes on in one's mind, i.e. more subjective in nature) or "external"
• The Swampman and Star Trek transporter thought experiments are key elements in a branch of ontological and metaphysical philosophy regarding the nature of "self" (including whether self and personhood as we commonly regard them exist at all). Self is defined, according to one point of view, as the subject of consciousness; it is that which experiences consciousness, knows itself through that consciousness, and knows that it is experiencing consciousness (thus the idea that we humans experiece something more than raw consciousness; we have "self-consciousness"). According to some of the eastern mystical-spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism, "self" does not fundamentally exist. Some western philosophers have found analytical rationales to support this notion. They contend that the ultimate question of whether we have "selves" and distinct personhoods is a "bad" or "empty" question. If self is defined through consciousness, and we can find independent reasons to conclude that self does not fundamentally exist or is mostly an illusion, then consciousness itself would be best regarded as metaphysically insignificant.
• Attempts to define "self" or personhood have focused on a variety of factors. The first factor involves physical continuity, the fact that our bodies are mostly the same over time. However, they do change as we age (and experience injuries or medical transplants), and roughly every 7 years we are made up of totally different molecules. A better approach to defining selfhood involves human memory, and memory plus psychology. The latter view posits that our personalities depend upon more than what we remember at any moment, they also depend on our "mental programming". This is akin to the fact that any particular computer's capabilities depend both on what is stored in its memory circuits, and what types of computing programs that it has. Philosophers, in their quest for bright-line definitions, have imagined cases in which even the memory + psychology criteria fail to answer whether a given entity continues to "be the same person". The research on split brain patients is a constant source of consternation in this field (more on split-brain patients in Section 25).
• More sophisticated approaches have been proposed including Robert Nozick's "closest continuer" and the "time worm" theory of identity, also known as "four-dimensionalism". However, all of these approaches fall short of a clear demarcation standard that would always avoid ambiguity, no matter how far-fetched a "thought experiment" is thrown against it (e.g. brain transplants, imaginary high-tech brain/body duplicating machines, transporters, mind-body switchers, combining two or more minds into one, etc). Some philosophers such James Giles and Derek Parfit thus assert that "personal identity" and "self" are ultimately meaningless; although there may be some benefit to using these words in everyday life, they don't reflect an independent reality. As such, consciousness itself is ultimately just a side-effect of physical phenomenon that can (now or eventually) be completely explained by science.
• The standard upon which these negative determinations are made appear to be ambiguity or indeterminacy. However, the rise to prominance of quantum physics over the past century indicates that ambiguity and indeterminacy are fundamental to the deepest levels of empirical physics. Godel's analysis of the logical consistency of even the simplest mathematical systems such as division and multiplication concludes that there is an inherent indeterminacy; even though we use and depend upon basic math many times each day of our lives, our intellectual conception of what that math is cannot completely self-justify itself. Recall that all scientific knowledge depends upon mathematical systems. Throwing self and consciousness out of the pantheon of fundamental reality, because of their ambiguity, thus seems a bit arbitrary.
• One thing that can be gained about consciousness from an analysis of self and personal identity is that self, if it does exist, depends upon memory; although not solely in the sense of mental rememberances (however, such rememberances certainly do enter into what makes up the "self"). Person identity is a function of a variety of "recursive systems" operating over time, Self, if it does exist, depends upon memory; although not solely in the sense of mental rememberances including body memory (the fact that your body usually doesn't change very quickly), mental memory, psychological memory, and also social memory (which is critical in cases where a person loses their own self-memory, e.g. Altzheimers Disease). The "time worm" theory of identity put forth by David Lewis and others is ultimately another way of saying that human society likes stories; when there is a story, the subject(s) of that story gain some sort of substantial identity. When a continual experience of consciousness becomes a story (over time), the subject of that consciousness takes on a "personal identity". The physical processes that underlie consciousness itself are seen to involve memory; consciousness as we experience it requires a "feedback loop" system which cobbles together a "composite echo" of all of its inputs, and all of the intermediate conclusions that it draws from any particular set of inputs from any one instant.
• So, both "self" and "consciousness" are ultimately functions of echo, of feedback, and of memory (in the more expansive sense of the word, i.e. including mental memory, physical continuity, psychological continuity, and societal memory). The relationship of feedback-looped information to consciousness was discussed both by Prof. Douglass Hofstadter in his "Strange Loop" concept, and by Dr. Giulio Tononi in his "Integrated Information Theory" of consciousness (see Section 35 -- although in Tononi's works, the role of feedback is not immediately apparent; you have to closely examine his "integrated information" specifications closely to see how they ultimately require feedback looping and thus formation of "echo"). It is also implied by Gerald Edelman's "Re-Entrant Loop" concept of how consciousness develops.Alva Noe has become a popular supporter of an externalist approach to mind, consciousness and self. In a New York Times blog, Noe said that "we need finally take seriously the possibility that the conscious mind is achieved by persons and other animals thanks to their dynamic exchange with the world around them". Noe feels that the essential purpose of "the mind" is to mediate our body's sensory and motor capacities in response to the world and environment surrounding that body (as opposed to creating an "inner mental world" that poises itself in contrast or even opposition to the surrounding environment).
• This approach has been termed "enacted mind", or "extended cognition". The mind, in Noe's view, is shaped more by the match between environmental and bodily properties, and less by a "me apart from and against the world" dynamic. Noe asserts that the mind's perceptions are not fundamentally a matter of internal representation; “what perception is, however, is not a process in the brain, but a kind of skillful activity on the part of the animal as a whole". This extends all the way to the phenomenon of consciousness. Noe states that "consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do . . . human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process . . . looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for dance in the legs".
• The importance of relational dynamics can be seen through the "brain in a vat" thought experiment that is so frequently used in teaching philosophy of mind. Scientists in the future could hypothetically create a device that would cause "in silico consciousness", akin to the plot of the science-fiction movie "The Matrix". See Sections 19 and 40. In this situation, the scientist-creators of this consciousness would program and feed electronic signals into the machine that would support a delusionary experience of a world similar to our own, one rich in human and other environmental interaction. HOWEVER, in creating this operating code and initial input structure, the creator team would itself have to reflect the myriad layers of relationships that their own conscious lives entail. So, even if an internally-contained "machine consciousness" were to become possible, it would need a highly social and external context to be inputted from its creators.
• The importance of societal interaction to the development and maintenance of human consciousness is further considered in Section 14 below. Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey in particular emphasized in his "just so theory" the role of social dynamics during the course of hominid pre-history in bringing about the biological and social evolutions that led to our modern experience of consciousness. Humphrey feels that consciousness emerged through the need for humans to be "natural psychologists", giving them the ability to ask of their companions "what would I do if I were them?"
• However, the limits of externalism as a comprehensive and exclusive theory of consciousness become apparent in Noe's writings regarding art and neuroscience. Noe argues against efforts in modern neuroscience research to understand "aesthetics" (i.e., "neuroaesthetics") solely in terms of brain structures and their functioning. He asserts that art itself cannot be contained by the notion of beauty, as "not all art works are beautiful . . . and not everything we find beautiful (a person, say, or a sunset) is a work of art". Noe's unstated "theory of art" requires social group-think as a basis for what individuals ultimately perceive to be art. What winds up being called art must be interpreted in the context of social dynamics (even when a work is not widely recognized as art but is only regarded by an isolated few as "artistic"). According to Noe, "art, by disclosing the ways in which human experience in general is something we enact together". As such, a person's experience of art is examined as a small but important aspect of conscious experience, and is found to be highly dependent upon external social and environmental factors -- much more so than "what goes on deep in the head".
• Unfortunately, Noe's art example requires a rather hazy and imprecise concept of what art is, one that is almost by-definition socially mediated. Perhaps that approach is necessary in order to usefully discuss what art is or is not in our modern world;Neither the internalist nor the externalist perspective seems entirely adequate; this dichotomy provides many useful perspectives on consciousness, but hardly provides adequate grounding for a "final theory" but do the characteristics of "art" necessarily apply to the phenomenon of consciousness? Even if we accept that the concept of art is most usefully examined through the lens of sociology and anthropology, a person's experience of "the beautiful" or their other emotional responses triggered by what we call "art" today, can still be seen as strongly individual in nature. When a person reads a poem, views a painting, hears music, watches a movie or a play, etc., their ultimate response will certainly be influenced by how people around them react to the art itself or to what the artist might be trying to convey, along with how, when and where it is expressed.
• But aren't we still ultimately going to feel it or not feel it (even when we want to like a song or a show because all our friends do)? And when we do "feel it", are our feelings specified externally? Is my encounter with a Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor or Stravinsky's Firebird interchangeable with yours, save for the differences in social and personal experiences that we have had in our lives? This problem is examined in a slightly different but largely related fashion in the classic thought experiment regarding Mary, the colorblind neuroscientist who regains her color perception and encounters a red rose for the first time -- and also in my own reflections on the "experience" of music, see Section 9 above. In sum, neither the internalist nor the externalist perspective seems entirely adequate; this dichotomy provides many useful perspectives on the nature of consciousness, but hardly provides adequate grounding for a "final theory".
11. INTENTIONALITY and CONTENT: THE OLD SCHOOL APPROACH
• Over the past century, scientific studies of biology and human behavior have added greatly to human understanding of the brain and its workings. Within the past 50 years especially, the dynamics of brain / mind functions have been documented by the neuroscientific community. But up until the late 1800s, philosophers had the most to say about consciousness and the mind. Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume all had much to say on the nature of our minds and self-awareness. The dawn of mind science was heralded by the psychology writings of William James (1842 - 1910). Unlike preceding philosophers, James made use of systematic documentation regarding behavior, and had some access to anatomical studies of the body and the brain.
• Despite James, however, the study of the mind in the late 19th Century was done mostly through armchair observation and discussion / debate between philosophers. Perhaps the most significant philosophical approach to the mind was called "intentionality". Franz Brentano (1838-1917) was a dualist philosopher, who put forth the notion of mental "intentionality", as to challenge physicalist and reductionist views of consciousness. Brentano pondered the fact that our minds and mental states usually refer to something other than themselves. That "something other" is generally based on our sense perceptions, and thus "intends" toward "the environment", i.e. either some part of the body itself (e.g., aches and pains) or something in the world surrounding the body. However, those "intents" could also focus on dreams, imagination, mental apparitions, things that don't exist in the surrounding environment (unicorns, leprechauns, etc.). So, reasoned Brentano and his like, the mind must be inherently different than the physical environment that hosts it.
• Although the concept of "intentionality" was found lacking as an argument against materialist reductionism, philosophers turned the concept in on itself, pondering the implications of the relationship between mental activity (both conscious and subconscious) and the physical environment (including body and brain). The philosophical discussion wandered in various directions, such that the term "intentionality" took on subtle variations, depending on which "school" was discussing it. Under one development, the "intensional" means the essence of something, the idea or concept behind it, whereas the "extensional" refers to a real-world thing; e.g., a chair versus "chairness", ice versus coldness. There are other interpretations focusing on intentionality and its relationship to "representation" within the mind (i.e., "mental content"). The concept of "intentionality" has a long and varied history within academic philosophy.
• This writer feels that philosophical arguments regarding intentionality are often a time-consuming diversion that do not add much to the understanding of consciousness (although John Searle, a well-noted consciousness philosopher, does much useful work with intentionality). Philosophers still use the term and discuss it in great detail; but I believe that consciousness and "mental content" can be better understood using more precise scientific concepts such as evolutionary processes, emergent systems behavior, mathematics and physics, and cognitive psychological models. Most modern authors of popular works regarding consciousness don't broach the topic of intentionality. It has become an esoteric subject for academic philosophers, and may die off over time as younger philosophers increasingly focus on scientific studies of brain dynamics and physical correlates of subjective experience. However, the discussion of intentionality certainly did contribute many insights regarding the classic Socratic and Platonic inquiries as to how and what the mind knows. Further insights were contributed by philosophers in their discussion of "universals" and Jungian archetypes -- but again, empirical biology and language anthropology can now say more about those matters than most armchair philosophers can.
12. CONTENT and REPRESENTATION THEORIES,
"HIGHER ORDER" THEORIES
• There are instances where philosophical ruminations about the processing of mental information do serve to formulate hypotheses for later empirical investigation by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. (A number of modern philosophers are working closely with psychologists and neuroscientists in designing experiments and analyzing empirical results regarding consciousness and other workings of the mind, e.g. Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland). Furthermore, these hypothetical features of "mental content" can become building blocks for the still-theoretical and still inchoate definition of consciousness. As such, variations in beliefs regarding the nature of mental content underlie variations in belief regarding the nature of consciousness.
• For example, philosopher Fred Dretske feels that there is a significant difference between perceiving an event (e.g., watching or hearing someone play the piano -- aka "object" and "property" awareness) and believing in the event (having a belief that someone is currently playing a piano -- aka "fact" awareness). Do conscious perceptions, including sensory experience and emotions, require underlying abstract thought to support them? The hearing and/or seeing of the piano being played is a raw, basic form of consciousness. The belief regarding the piano being played (or previously being played) is a more abstract concept involving concepts for both "piano" and "played", and is also called a "tokening". Dretske believes that basic conscious experience does not require abstraction, although conceptual thinking, e.g. the belief regarding the piano music, obviously does. I can testify to having experienced instances where my mind was "on hold", so as to take in a scene without any mental analysis or conceptualization of it.
• Others feel that even basic forms of consciousness such as sensory perceptions require underlying abstract thought, i.e. "Higher Order Thought" (a.k.a. the "HOT" theory of consciousness). Such concepts would include "there is a me", "me/I am hearing something like piano music or seeing something like a piano being played", "something is causing me to hear and/or see these things" [hopefully they are real, but it could be a dream or a hallucination]. These "higher order thoughts" supporting consciousness would usually be subconscious; they are also know as "transitive" forms of consciousness, i.e. mental states whose object is another mental state. Contra, some people feel that there are certain self-involved conscious experiences that are beyond words, beyond mental abstractions. Philosopher Alvin Goldman asks "how could possession of a meta-state confer subjectivity or feeling . . . why would being a referent of a meta-state confer consciousness on a first-order state? [the first-order state being the sensory / perceptual experience]" H.O.T. seems to require a faith in the ontological strength of abstractions that are formed by and used within the mind, akin to Plato's faith in the reality of "the forms".
• One interesting implication of Dretske's paradigm would be that most human action follows from the "tokens" of perception, i.e. from the immediate beliefs that are formed from what we see, hear, smell and feel. In general, we don't react to base consciousness, which is pure perception. However, there may still be scenes that we react to without any "concepts" or "tokens", scenes that touch off an instinctual, hard-wired response. E.g., a rock seen in mid air, growing larger and larger quite quickly, indicates that we are soon going to be hit with it. Thanks to evolution and genetics, this input is quickly recognized and handled in an emergency manner, triggering evasive action before the 1/2 second delay involved in consciousness formation would pass.
• Some philosophers concerned with the question of consciousness have taken intentionality and content analysis to a somewhat extreme position, a position known as “representationalism” (see, e.g., M. Tye and W. Lycan). Under the representationalist view, phenomenal consciousness (i.e., sensory / perceptual experience; phenomenal consciousness does not include the more abstract mental states such as beliefs, concepts and motives) reduces to mental representation. All potentially conscious perceptual experience allegedly involves the representation of something. Generally speaking, that “something” is physical, external to the mind; it can include the body, and in instances of misperception and hallucination, environmental interactions and malfunctions of the brain. The ultimate truth of the phenomenal perception is not the issue here. If a perceptual experience involves representation, it can potentially enter the realm of consciousness (but won’t always; e.g. "blindsight"). Conversely, if we have a phenomenal conscious experience (generally the same as a “quale”, singular for “qualia”), it must represent something from “the real world”. Note: Representationalism as discussed with regard to consciousness can be somewhat different (although still related) to the philosophical concept of representative realism.
• Representationalists in the body-mind field see representation as the sine qua non for phenomenal consciousness; if not entirely sufficient, it is still held to be essential. The essence of qualia is held to be environmental representation. This viewpoint generally supports physicalism and externalism, but allows some meaning to the concept of “qualia” (albeit very limited meaning). Higher-order theories are closely related to representationalism, although they also tie trans-perceptual mental activity (such as beliefs and concepts) into the necessary conditions for consciousness (see e.g. D. Rosenthal, and Lycan’s “higher order representationalism”). The basic varieties of representationalism do not do this (see, e.g. F. Dretske). Also, certain versions of dualism and non-reductionism assume some of the basic tenants of representationalism (see, e.g., D. Chalmers). Also, there is a version called internalist representationalism, where the uniqueness and importance of the “self” is defended within the context of physicalism and material structures of the brain. (The concept of “self” and its importance to the human race is often denigrated by those favoring physicalist reductionism.)
• Representationalism is still a controversial notion; there are philosophers who vigorously argue against it (e.g. Ned Block). One point they make is that different environmental situations can conceivably create the exact same perception in a person (think about the movie “The Matrix”). Furthermore, in deep meditation, when the “monkey mind” is finally calmed, something is still felt. But just what does that perception “refer” to? The essence of pure existence? Or just some chemical changes within the brain? The issue, as with most philosophical complexities, ultimately refers to something simple; in this case, whether trees falling in the forest are important events in and of themselves, or whether the true importance is what finally reaches the mind.
• A variety of thought experiments have been developed to refute or support the representationalist view. Ned Block put forth the "Inverted Earth" scenario, where residents use the same names that we use for colors, and those names apply to the same things; e.g. the Inverted people call the sky blue -- but if we went there, the sky would be pink to us. Their eyes and brains are a little different, so pink light waves look blue to them. Also, if an Earthling were taken to Twin Earth and brainwashed, eventually the pink sky would seem blue to that Earthling. As such, two different physical realities can cause the same mental content. The word "blue", as a mental concept, is thus internally determined by the brain and its workings (if not by any ethereal dualist factors). Contra this, Hilary Putnam proposed something called "Twin Earth", where people talk about water but actually refer to something else, something having a different chemistry than H2O, even though this "Twin Water" serves the exact same function on Twin Earth that H2O serves on our Earth. Putnam argued that water on Twin Earth was NOT Earth water, and as such, the concept of "water" (or any other word) is externally determined by the physical environment; as Putnam said, "meaning just ain't in the head".
• Higher order thought avoids some problems regarding the nature of consciousness, but creates others. It doesn't seem useful at first to say that "I am in pain because I am having a thought regarding my present experience of pain". However, studies of brain injuries do indicate that pain is as much a mental interpretation as it is a raw physical reality; there are numerous examples of people who feel and are aware of a serious body injury but do not find it painful; and likewise, people who feel pain where there is no injury. In my opinion, higher order thought doesn't go high enough. It tries to attribute qualia to one's subconscious linking of their own self-concept to the concept or concepts behind the qualia (e.g., sweet flavor, blue color, buzzing sound, square shape).
• I believe that there is a more generic background condition to consciousness, i.e. "the feeling of being". Either phenomenal sensory experience or pure abstract thought (i.e., "access consciousness", see below) can amplify this background "ontological sense of being", making us feel more stimulated, "more alive". Usually our mental states involve mixtures of raw sensory input and abstract thought, interacting with and altering each other on both conscious and subconscious levels. But ultimately, it is a generic "feeling of being" that distinguishes our wakened selves from deep sleep or anesthesia or zombie-hood. As to what exactly that "ontological feeling of being" is, admittedly I cannot say, other than that it is a reality that "emerges" from the complex system dynamics of the healthy brain interacting with the surrounding universe. As to whether this "feeling" can be tested through experience will be discussed further in Section 36 regarding Meditation.
13. WHAT IS CONSCIOUSNESS LIKE (and does that mean anything?)
• One of my own problems with what I've read thus far about consciousness is the use of the phrase "what it is like" or "something that it is like" to describe conscious experience, a.k.a. "phenomenal consciousness". Based on a 1974 essay about bat consciousness by Thomas Nagel, many analysts (originally Ned Block, 1995) say that the essence of phenomenal consciousness is that there is "something that it is like to be conscious". Such a rationale seems tautological (circular); the "is to be" sentence construction is a warning sign of sorts. I believe that consciousness is a process and an experience that is NOT like anything else (psychologist Daniel N. Robinson and other dualists agree on this point; they believe that consciousness is "sui generis", i.e unique and not reducible to other things).
• That's why consciousness is such an interesting and troubling area of study. You can't say that consciousness is "like" eating ice cream, or "like" rafting through the Grand Canyon. Consciousness cannot be separated from any experience that it might be "like"; by definition, any and all "human experiences" involve consciousness, in fact they depend on consciousness. (And it can be argued that consciousness depends upon stimulative experience; sensory deprivation experiments indicate that consciousness dies off after severe, long-term lack of sensory stimulation). There is no "metastructure", no external framework with which to analyze the question of consciousness. The best you can say is that a particular conscious experience is somewhat like another. And on and on, until you finally point back to the original experience. There is nothing bigger to ground it upon, as with other scientific notions. Philosopher David Papineau argues that consciousness is an inherently vague concept.
• As far as consciousness being like an abstract concept, i.e. "consciousness is like coldness" or "solidness" or "justice" or "quantum physics" or "quality" (remember Robert Pirsig?), this would seem a bit more acceptable. But in the end, the answer that "feels right" to most people is that consciousness is like having a conscious person inside your head, watching all of the sensory inputs and memories and thoughts going on. This is called the "Cartesian Theater". We know that there is no little person in a Cartesian Theater inside our heads. But paradoxically, that still "feels" like the best explanation. Ultimately, consciousness is like . . . . consciousness. That's not an intelligible answer, which hints that the question of what consciousness "is like" is ultimately unintelligible, as Colin McGinn and Papineau seem to argue.
• Another way to see the weakness in the "what it is like" analysis of consciousness is to ponder the counterfactual: i.e., "what is that which is NOT like consciousness like?"
• The analysis made sense in the context in which philosopher Thomas Nagel used it. In discussing the nature of consciousness, he asked "what is it like to be a bat?" The point is that we can't experience what it's like to be a bat, i.e. to perceive the world with a very different [and much smaller] brain while using very little eyesight but lots of hearing and smelling. Consciousness is ultimately subjective, and thus not sharable and comparable. There is no common ground, no epistemological metastructure to allow such sharing. And some would disagree that a bat has consciousness at all (depending on how you define consciousness; the bat probably doesn't have a self-concept, doesn't have the ability to think in terms of "me", although perhaps phenomenal consciousness can still be experienced without this). But many consciousness writers (including, disappointingly, David Chalmers) use the concept of "something-it-is-like" in the positive sense, as though such a comparison exercise might convey a deeper understanding of consciousness.
• The notion that "there is something it is like to be a conscious organism" may however make some sense with regard to the close relationship between consciousness and memory. As will be discussed in Section 27, the high-levels of consciousness that humans know requires the integration of memory functions into the consciousness formation processes in the brain. Memory acts as something like an "echo chamber" that amplifies sensations and smoothes the "conscious narrative" into something closer to a movie than to a constant barrage of unrelated images. To say that any particular instant of consciousness is "like" anything implies that it is similar to other previous conscious experiences held in memory, and thus can be framed within a meaningful and understandable mental context.
• The question certainly would be valuable as a Zen koan, i.e. an impossible question meant to break the intellect and open one's mind to a better appreciation of raw existence (i.e., the intangible "feeling of being" discussed in Section 36). But as far as being a logical teaching tool, the question of "something it is like" is ultimately confusing. The experience of human consciousness can only be like itself. To compare it against anything known by humans necessarily subsumes the experience of consciousness. There is no "North Star" to find your way to a deeper intuitive understanding of consciousness. The journey is essentially circular, though not without some linearity to it. Self-consciousness, a.k.a "apperception", is ultimately the mind thinking about itself thinking about itself thinking . . . Perhaps consciousness is indeed a "strange loop", as Douglas Hofstader asserts. But, as with other descriptions such as "emergent phenomenon" and "like something", the strange loop concept is ultimately another clever description, but not a fundamental explanation of consciousness.
14. SOCIETY AND CONSCIOUSNESS
• The growing body of research regarding "mirror neurons" (see the interesting writings on this subject by neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran) may support the idea that consciousness is to varying degrees a function of social interaction and language. The existence and actions of mirror neurons seem to indicate that the human propensity for social interaction is "hard wired", a genetic feature, more nature than nurture.
• In a nutshell, mirror neurons are neuron maps in the mind that are activated two different ways. Let's take an example of a mirror neuron map that goes off when we start eating something -- one that sets off salivation and gastric juice secretion so as to digest the food. The first way to set it off is to actually stuff an apple or a slice of pizza into Your brain is thus hard-wired to encourage social interaction, via mirror neurons. your mouth and start chewing. But what surprised researchers in the past few years was the discovery that the map also becomes active when somebody is just watching another person eating. That's why it's so hard to sit with somebody who is eating something and not start eating something yourself; your mouth waters and your stomach starts growling, even though they are empty. Your mirror neurons are pushing you into eating lunch with someone, not at your desk by yourself (especially in today's open offices). Your brain is thus hard-wired to encourage social interaction, via mirror neurons.
• Human self-consciousness may, in some ways, result from the dynamics of mirror neurons (certainly not in a "sufficient" manner, but very possibly "necessary" for consciousness). The mechanics of the brain encourage a certain amount of social behavior. Social behavior encourages language as the means of storing and sharing useful abstract concepts, like "coldness" or "heaviness" or "sweetness" or "danger", etc. Language and the abstraction process behind it encourage the mind / brain to come up with a strong concept of the self (in contrast with the concept of the group). A strong mental concept of the self, together with the semantics (i.e., early language building-blocks) referring to the self, may have helped to ignite consciousness (or at least the kind of self-consciousness that we modern humans know), given the strong sub-conscious associations between body and environment occuring within the minds of higher primates. As to this relationship, see Gerald Edelman's concept of "primary consciousness" and Antonio Damasio's "core consciousness" theory. The latter concept involves self-awareness / self-consciousness but not autobiographical memory, while the former concept is more basic. Damasio and Edelman feel that the complex form of autobiographical consciousness which humans experience is built-up upon such primary consciousness levels, as if in a layer-like fashion.
• Society and the idea of "self": The inward turning of the human brain's abstracting instinct was probably aided by the process described by Dr. Nicholas Humphrey's "Just-So story", regarding how hominids and early modern humans learned to classify and conceptualize the responses of other humans. If some early humans or tribal pre-humans saw that most others like them get angry when hit, smile when smiled at, frown when frowned at, want food every 6 hours or so, etc., then it wouldn't have been a giant leap to realize that similar responses are a part of their experience too. Thus, that pre or early human could conclude that there was a "person" behind his or her own experiences; there must be a "me" inside. This conceptualization was probably reinforced by language development, words being the storage jars for abstract concepts shared by society. Once the idea of "me" was established, higher level emotions could be generated and self-directed.
15. LANGUAGE, MIND and CONSCIOUSNESS
• The evolution of the human brain, the conscious mind, and the ability of humans to use language are tightly linked. A wide variety of animals use sounds to communicate, but their abilities are strictly defined and limited by their genetics. Some higher primates (like chimps and dolphins) have the ability to use a variety of sounds or hand signals as "symbols", and flexibly assign specific meanings to them. As such, they have "semantic" capability; they can assign sounds or gestures as symbols for a specific thing, e.g. a tree, or even a more generic concept, e.g. "good to eat" or "not good to eat". However, the human brain and body evolved so as to allow an expanded semantic repertoire, one that includes more abstract concepts such as "hot" or "cold" or "hard" or slippery" (and eventually "moral" or "immoral", "just" or "unjust", etc.). And, the human brain gained the ability to combine symbols for richer, more dynamic communication ability. The ability and rules by which words are combined into sentences and paragraphs is called "syntax", and allows further use of abstract concepts in problem solving.
• I had an experience years ago with a pet dog that made me aware of humanity's ability to utilize abstract concepts in our minds. It was still in grad school, and was studying for an exam. The family dog was getting old, and couldn’t make it up the steps from the back yard any more. I put the books aside and gathered up some spare lumber, and after a few hours I had fabricated a rather rudimentary but workable ramp over the stairway. The dog was in the house, so I got him out on the landing and introduced him to the new ramp. I fully expected him to gratefully acknowledge the genius behind it. But to my surprise, the dog reacted with fear to my new ramp. He couldn't understand what I had built; to him it was a strange thing, a possible threat. I couldn’t get him to walk on to it, despite repeated demonstrations of it supporting me without danger.
• I then realized how our brains differed. My human brain had the power of abstraction; it could appreciate the concepts of thickness, weight, strength, sturdiness, equivalence, etc. My dog had no such tools to analyze a novel situation. Old Shep couldn’t entertain the thought that “if it holds him, it should hold me, as he is bigger than I am”. The dog eventually did learn to use the ramp, after being tricked onto it with some red meat. But it took human ingenuity, manifested in language and abstract thought, to save the day.
• Is human consciousness affected by the ability to talk and to think abstractly? Do we have a different type of consciousness than say a dog might have because of this? Neuroscientist Anthony Damasio feels that language is not a requirement for "core consciousness". However, Damasio's fellow neuroscientist, Gerald Edelman, says that semantic ability probably corresponds with higher-level consciousness where there is an on-going sense of self (i.e., self-consciousness, which is required in Damasio's core consciousness). Edelman indicates that the higher primates probably experience this form of consciousness, and likewise have semantic ability (the capacity to form symbols for basic entities, e.g. food, water, trees, etc.). Humans, with their expanded abilities to abstract and conceptualize, arguably then experience the highest level of conscious experience, as we can most fully integrate our sense of self, our understanding of our environment, and our continuous emotions and feelings, including an at-bottom positive or negative feeling about being alive. These together determine our general moods and attitudes toward life; given our complexity, we are obviously much more prone to mood swings, including depression and elation, than a dog or even a chimp. Our ability to put our thoughts and feelings into words and share them with other humans heightens our self-conscious experience even further.
16. EVOLUTION AND CONSCIOUSNESS
• There is a fair amount of disagreement as to whether consciousness, in the sense of "the hard problem" (i.e. in the sense of qualia and vivid experience grounded in a "feeling of being"), evolved over the eons through natural selection, or is just an accidental effect or an incidental but illusionary side-effect from other features that promote survival. If "qualia", in its most ethereal "sense of being", were to have survival value, it would imply that our knowledge of physics is not complete; the mind would be seen to have the ability to influence known forces, e.g. deflecting quantum particles such as photons or electrons, or even moving bosonic matter. As a compromise that accommodates the reality of experiential consciousness and maintains the completeness of physics, some thinkers have compared mental phenomenon to "spandrels", areas of ancient buildings (above arches) that are not load-bearing but are necessary adjuncts to the load-bearing design. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, who generally takes strong physicalist positions, not surprisingly denies the relevance of this idea to human evolution.
• If consciousness, as an extremely subjective and individualistic entity, did not play a part in animal evolution, it is interesting to ponder why mammal species didn't mimic the eusocial insects, an arrangement that is relatively rare in evolution but quite successful when it does occur (consider the fecundity and survivability of the ant and termite, which together with other social species make up at least half of the world's insect biomass). If evolution favors the toughest and most fecund biological arrangements, why aren't we like The Borg from Star Trek? One must wonder why mammals and humans did not evolve with highly cooperative and specialized roles (queen, worker, drone, etc.) with minimal sense of independence and instinctual readiness to sacrifice at any time for the good of the colony. If evolution ultimately favors the toughest and most fecund biological / social arrangements, then why aren't we like The Borg from the Star Trek shows and movies? Why did natural selection guide evolving mammal species towards brain arrangements that fostered increasingly individualistic mental and behavioral states? Admittedly, mammals and humans certainly did develop strong social structures, probably assisted by genetic features such as mirror neurons; but again referring to Star Trek, the credo of humankind remains that "the good of the one outweighs the good of the many".
• Huge brains and prodigious cognitive abilities gave humans incredible survival advantages. But why wasn't that taken to an even higher level through the selection of eusocial mutations, e.g. hard-wired collectivism, self-denial and aggression control? Perhaps there would now be 12 billion humans instead of 6, all living at minimum survival levels (so as not to exceed the Earth's carrying capacity, as the real human race is now doing through resource-intensive living habits). The eusocial, non-self-conscious variant of the human race imagined here would have developed sophisticated data exchange and environmental control techniques but would have avoided wasteful investments into love, art, culture and ideology (and the warfare that ensues from it). Such a utilitarian arrangement would arguably be the most logical outcome of a natural selection process where individuating consciousness did not play a role (or played an unsuccessful role). So why did it NOT happen?
• Caveat: the previous is highly speculative, as this writer is not an expert on biology and evolution. It is presented to stimulate thinking, not as a declaration of truth. A Borg-like human collective is certainly not what I would prefer. Consciousness is an integral aspect of the physical environment that natural selection ultimately shapes itself around, and not simply a side-effect of it (nor a non-existent illusion) I am not here supporting creationist critiques of natural selection, but instead am considering the dualist contention that consciousness is a significant and unique ontological factor in the universe. Consciousness would thus be seen as an integral aspect of the environment that natural selection ultimately shapes itself around, and not simply as a side-effect of it (nor a non-existent illusion). Alfred R. Wallace, who co-founded the theory of evolution with Darwin, held a somewhat similar position. In a 2009 article, neurologist Francisco Di Biase speculated that consciousness emerges from the holograph-like interactions of brainwaves, which in turn reflect and are influenced by wave patterns within the quantum events and timespace structure of the underlying matter and energy within the brain structure, such that conscious experience takes its most fundamental characteristics (i.e. "supervenes") from a hypothetical "implicate order" undergirding all physical reality, including time, space, gravity, and quantum energy and matter phenomenon (as proposed by the late physicist David Bohm).
17. WHEN IT ALL BEGAN . . . when was that?
• The following questions are valuable not for their answers - there ARE no final answers to them at present - but as thinking tools.
• Question 1: When did consciousness begin in evolutionary history? That question brings up another question, i.e. whether animals have some form of consciousness (considered below). If "what you mean by consciousness" is limited to the self-aware, highly abstract form consciousness that we are familiar with, then you limit consciousness to the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. the current form of the human species. However, many researchers and academians believe that consciousness is a broader phenomenon that extends to our extinct human predecessors (the Neanderthals, homo erectus, etc.), and also to monkeys, dolphins, and perhaps to whales, maybe even dogs and other small mammals (but by that point in the chain, consciousness would be quite different from what we know).
• Even if you do limit your definition of consciousness to the human species, the question arises as to whether the first beings with modern human genes were conscious -- or did consciousness need something more than a big, flexible brain in order to "catch fire". That "something more" might possibly be the process of socialization and language. In other words, the point at which we learned to talk might be the point where the brain's electro-chemical potential for consciousness (again, depending on what you mean by "consciousness") was ignited and turned into actual consciousness. There is a Pink Floyd song called "Talk" which begins with a short speech by Professor Stephen Hawking. It goes like this: "For millions of years, mankind [i.e., the archaic pre-homo sapiens] lived like the animals; then something happened that unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk."
• However, the historical development of human consciousness remains an uncertain matter, although the process was most likely gradual with occasional periods of rapid advance. Important milestones include the first cave paintings from approximately 40,000 years ago. These paintings stand as the first significant expressions of self-reflection and intentionality in the human relationship with the environment. However, other expressive artifacts such as beads and ochre paint date back even further, to over 70,000 years ago (albeit, these are somewhat less symbolic and representational as opposed to paintings). Other major milestones include the evolution of symbolic speech, which started developing gradually about 200,000 years ago, then reached a point of "cultural takeoff" and rapid expansion about 40,000 years ago. Much later, by about 6,000 years ago, written symbolic language evolved from the needs of increasingly widespread trade and barter.
• Question 2: When does consciousness emerge in a modern individual human? Does consciousness develop in the womb, pre-birth? Or does it happen sometime after birth? If consciousness depends on interaction with society, then our time in the womb, and even our first few months, are not fully conscious. Only the experiences of relationship and society arguably develop the potential for full consciousness. The only way to test this could not be carried out: place a child straight from the womb in a minimum stimulation box, where he or she could be kept alive with as little stimulation as possible. If such a child could be kept alive for 20 years, he or she would probably be much like a "zombie" (or a sleepwalker or a "persistent vegetative").
• There are stories of feral children, human children who were lost and were brought up by wolves or some other species. When such children are found at a late age, e.g. in their teens, they usually cannot be humanized. The neuronal architecture of each person's brain is very dependent upon early environment (see "Neural Plasticity" in Section 24), and cannot be greatly changed later in life. Without human stimulation to guide the young child's neurons in forming the right network of inter-connections, the "fire" of human self-consciousness never ignites. Arguably, such humans never establish language abilities. As such, they never develop human-like consciousness, although they may experience a lower-level, non-reflective "primary consciousness" according to the tier-level theories of Edelman and Damasio.
• The question of fetal consciousness remains controversial, however. A significant number of developmental neurobiologists feel that the establishment of thalamocortical connections (at about 26 weeks) is a critical event with regard to fetal perception of pain, and arguably of other "qualia". Fetal brainwaves are detectable at about 6 to 8 weeks, but such brainwaves do not necessarily signal the presence of brain activity consistent with how humans experience even the lowest levels of sentient consciousness. Brainwaves reflecting auditory and visual system activation occur later, at around 24 weeks.
18. ARE ANIMALS CONSCIOUS?
• Are animals conscious in a way that approximates human consciousness, with its self-awareness, its qualia and its continuous emotional vividness? Is there a "HARD PROBLEM" for animals? Even if they have cognition, episodic memory, the ability to "bind" sensory input into a unified "picture" of their environment relative to themselves, and further have the capacity to discriminate various features of that mental picture and adjust their attention levels based on the importance of particular features in that picture -- would animals then experience "qualia" relative to those features? Is there a vividness to it all, a series of emotional reverberations from each moment of their lives that varies according to both the pieces and the whole of their "perception picture"??
• Most humans experience a continuous base-level of emotional feeling, in additional to the episodic emotions which result from daily life events; that background emotion goes with waking consciousness. Most animals don't -- or don't appear to, anyway. Their emotions are sporadic and basic, e.g. fear, anger, pleasure at finding food.
• Certainly the lower level reptiles and animals behave mostly on instinct, on responses which evolution "hard-wired" into them as the best response to challenges that are common in their environment. They aren't able on any level to picture their bodies in relation to the environment, and concoct novel responses to varying situations. For example, frogs know how to capture flies buzzing through the air just above them. But if a frog came across a group of flies that were lying still on the ground, it would pass them right by, no matter how hungry it was. Higher up on the evolutionary scale, animals did gain the capacity to "picture" their situation in the environment, allowing more flexible responses to threats and opportunities for food, sex and the other basics of survival. Some consciousness researchers, including Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman, feel that dogs and other "mid-level" mammals experience a primary or proto-conscious state, a mental state of awareness with a rudimentary experience of phenomenal "qualia", but not a clear sense of self.
• Dogs perhaps lie along the border where a zombie-like state is beginning to transition into rudimentary conscious experience. One writer wonders if what dogs and horses experience is something like human sleepwalking -- which is basically a zombie-like behavior without emotional expression. Unlike sleepwalkers, however, dogs do exhibit occasional playfulness and other human-like emotions, although one wonders if this is part of their evolutionary survival strategy, i.e. as mimes of human emotions and behavior. The dog's ability to make humans believe that they are emotionally interactive creatures may be an evolutionary adaptation, something of a trick, an exploitation of human social programming in the name of better food, shelter and survival opportunities. In other words, dogs were able to "domesticate" humans as much as they were domesticated by humans.
• It may be informing to compare "signs of conscious awareness" between dogs and wolves, the "in-the-wild" cousins of the dog. Dogs and wolves share about 98.8% of their DNA, and yet wolves show no sign of the "emotional intelligence" that dogs appear to possess. The dog's ability to interact emotionally with humans arguably emerged through genetic selection. Modern thinking increasingly accepts some level of dog consciousness; but what about wolves, then? This selection probably had a "natural" basis, perhaps stemming from a genetic mutation in certain wolves which made some of them more docile. Some analysts have postulated such a co-evolutionary theory about the transition of "lone wolves" into human-friendly dogs. Those wolves possessing the "friendly" mutation were then selected out to survive and expand because of their interactions and eventual affiliations with pre-historic humans (starting approximately 15 to 20,000 years ago). Later on, genetic selection favoring interaction and cooperation with humans was accellerated by intentional human breeding.
• But modern trends in thinking tend to accept that dogs experience some (but not all) human-like emotions, and have a hazy awareness of it; dog emotions and feeling arguably fall within the borders of an 'entry-level' grade of consciousness. A brain scan study indicated similarities between the brain activity patterns of dogs and human children. Admittedly, a dog is much more sentient than a rock. Still, to the degree that this sentience amounts to an early stage or degree of true consciousness, it is a consciousness largely shaped and formed by human consciousness. Dog consciousness would be much more in the character of human consciousness than any "proto-consciousness" that wolves might possess.
• Even higher up the chain are the great apes, dolphins and whales. These creatures have a base sense of their relationship to the environment; they also have more sophisticated memory capacity, and more capacity to "bind" the various features of their senses into a detailed, coherent mental picture of their surroundings. As such, they may have some sense of their own existence; they may "know themselves", up to a point. Apes and dolphins are generally able to pass the "mirror recognition" test, whereas dogs and cats are not.
• Antonio Damasio defines what the higher animals probably experience as "core consciousness", a state of self-knowledge that is nonetheless locked mostly in the present; one without an autobiographical sense of the past, nor a long-range vision for the future. Gerald Edelman says that the higher level mammals evidence such self-awareness in their capacity to appreciate other abstractions (dangerous, good tasting, hot, cold, etc.) through their recognition and exchange of "symbols", mostly common gestures and sounds. They have a crude language, but one stuck in the present, one without syntax. Only human beings, with their "extended autobiographical consciousness", have the need to tell stories integrating the past, present and future. As such, only humans have syntactical language, with its complex sentences and paragraphs (see the discussion on language in Section 15).
• A lot of sophisticated research robots today are becoming more like dogs than rocks. But neither the dog nor the robot (nor the dolphin or chimp) stay up nights pondering their meaning in the Universe, desiring to express such feelings through communicative mechanisms such as poetry or painting. Nor do they occasionally commit suicide, as only humans do. That is all unique to humans.
19. CAN YOU COMPUTERIZE CONSCIOUSNESS?
ARE OUR MINDS COMPUTERS?
• A big question being discussed by consciousness analysts is whether or not a super-complex computer could be programmed with super-complex software and super-complex environmental inputs such that it would have consciousness. The related question is whether or not our minds are really computers. Right now we don't have computers or programming capacity nearly complex enough to mimic the levels of complexity and organization in the human brain. However, some day we might. The materialists seem confident that some combination of programming and hardware might someday yield a machine that claims to be conscious, and that acts similar to our own conscious behavior. They claim that the bottom line would be environment and behavioral response, in keeping with the Turing Test (see Section 40). As with us, it's what happens outside, not what goes on inside, the physicalists claim. This reflects the "externalist" approach to the mind-body problem within philosophy.
• There's another thought experiment called the "Chinese Room" that attempts to prove that cognitivism, externalism and functionalist materialism (i.e., the view that consciousness is mostly a question of the right software doing the right functions) are wrong, and that artificial intelligence efforts based on standard computer algorithms will never capture the essence of human consciousness.
• The argument, from philosopher John Searle, is developed around the topic of language; language is obviously an important topic in the study of consciousness, as it reflects our way of representing and conceptualizing what we perceive and experience in our world, and then socially share that. Searle's thought experiment goes like this: imagine a closed room with a slot where people on the outside can write questions on a piece of paper and drop them into the slot. Then, right below it, there is another slot where a written answer to the question is delivered. The people asking the questions are Chinese, and thus the questions and answers are written in Chinese. Inside the room is some American guy who has no idea how to read or understand Chinese. But he's got a big, well-indexed book that tells him how to answer any combination of Chinese symbols. He does a good job in answering the questions of the Chinese people outside his room, but he has no idea what they're asking or what his answers mean.
• The question behind this experiment is ultimately whether the workings of the human mind, and the consciousness they produce, are like this system. Is it that the mind has a fantastic "algorithm" (akin to an instruction book or a computer program), Is it that the mind has a fantastic programming algorithm, or is there something deeper in its workings? or is there something deeper in its workings? If it's just a matter of having a good, comprehensive program, then we can arguably computerize consciousness; it's just a question of ramping up to the proper scale of program complexity, processor capacity, and input/output comprehensiveness. But if not, then just what is it that allows consciousness to happen within the gray matter under our scalp? (If it really is happening at all . . . ). Is it a question of a different kind of programming, e.g. neural networking, set up in such a way that consciousness somehow "emerges" from the system's complexity? Or is it something deeper still?
• A closely related thought experiment is Ned Block's China Brain, another criticism of functionalism. In Block's highly imaginary scenario, the citizens of China act as neurons do in the human brain, i.e they exchange signals (in this case by telephone or hand-held radios). As with neurons, each citizen takes "calls" from others; in each call, some simple message is passed on, perhaps a number from 0 to 9. According to a set of rules, each citizen calls someone in response to a certain number or pattern of calls (e.g., call citizen XWQ378BZ and send the number 9 if you receive three calls with the number 6 and two calls with the number 2 within the past 60 minutes). Some of these Chinese citizens serve as receptors for signals from a real human body; some of them serve as signal-senders back to that body. The experiment assumes that the set of rules followed by each citizen will, in the aggregate, result in the right signals finally being sent to the attached body, so as to keep it alive and flourishing.
• As such, the nation of China has become a fully functional brain. According to functionalism, China should thus have mental states including conscious experience and qualia. But just where and how is that consciousness manifested in this national brain? Interestingly, Leibniz proposed a somewhat similar thought experiment in 1714 (involving a mechanical mill instead of the people of China).
20. GODEL'S THEOREM: THE END OF CONSCIOUS KNOWLEDGE?
• Godel's Theorem roughly says that a formal system of logical rules cannot prove or disprove every possible statement that it can generate about itself, aside from the issue of not having enough empirical input data. There's always some sort of statement or proposition that the system will choke on. Every formal "computation" system has its limits -- no system can step outside of itself and look back in at itself. If this holds, the perhaps we cannot have a true science of consciousness, as science requires a subject and an object, an observer and the observed. The two are assumed to be independent. But with consciousness, ultimately, the two are tied together. Perhaps consciousness could still be discussed through the guidelines of philosophy, but not studied as a logical system. This summarizes the "mysterian" approach to consciousness, i.e. that consciousness is ultimately not comprehensible, not in the way that we understand lightening or radioactivity. However, other experts have said that "hypercomputation" is possible, i.e. computing ability beyond the "Turing machine" limit (perhaps by availing of quantum physical properties, i.e. quantum computing). Is the brain a "hypercomputer" or a "Turing Machine"? If the latter, it is subject to the Godel limit regarding things that can be known from within a system.
• Roger Penrose has written several books postulating that the brain and its dynamics (i.e., "the mind") transcend normal "Turning Machine" limits on computation-capacity, through quantum mechanical processes deep within the neurons. As such, per Penrose, the brain is "hypercomputational"; and thus it can ultimately look in on itself and put forth a science regarding its conscious awareness. Penrose's theories have been rejected by some analysts. However, other experts believe that the workings of neural networks and the process of dynamic emergence from a complex system offer the potential for hypercomputation within the brain. The issue is controversial, and may offer interesting developments in the coming decades.
21. DEGREES OF CONSCIOUSNESS (or is it "on-and-off")?
• Common sense indicates that consciousness does vary. Emotion and feeling seem to indicate a "higher level" of conscious experience. Also, memory is an important aspect -- you remember more about 'peak conscious' moments than boring, routine tasks. Most of us hardly remember most of what we do during the course of a day. We are zombies, a large part of the time!
• As such, a key feature of consciousness is attention (and the closely related notion of "arousal"). This is a common-sense notion that was discussed very thoroughly by the philosopher-psychologist William James. Our minds work at varying levels of attention -- both overall, and with regard to certain mental impressions or activities (e.g., things we see, feel, hear, smell, taste, imagine or think about). Something in our minds, perhaps at a subconscious level, Something in our minds makes quick decisions regarding what is highly important and what can be ignored. makes quick decisions regarding what is highly important and what can be ignored (and every level in between). We drive to work along a very familiar route, with our attention levels somewhere in the middle. On normal days, we hardly remember anything about that drive 30 minutes after it's over. But if we perceive something unusual, e.g. a car pulling out too close to us, or maybe a set of juggling clowns performing on a corner where we are stopped for a red light, then some control device in the brain (having to do with the thalamus) speeds up our neuronal processes, engages more of them, and conveys more of the input to memory. This attention process is obviously partially "conscious", and partly sub-conscious in nature (see Section 23).
• Alertness and focus are similar to attention and arousal. Alertness usually implies some sort of "conscious" decision to increase attention in anticipation of something that we want to fully perceive. Focus refers to our mind's ability to select a portion of the overall sensory (or imagined) inputs that we can perceive at any moment, and allow them to gain most of our brain's "processing" capacity and memory buffer (working memory, and longer-term memory). An extreme example regards the mother who can hear her baby cry in the midst of a raging hurricane. But everyday, at just about every moment, an executive function in our minds decides to give increased emphasis to one portion of our visual field or our "body feel" or our hearing or our taste (or our imagination), to the detriment of other inputs. We seldom just "take it all in neutrally" (akin to Brentano's "mental bracketing" recommendations; albeit Brentano was warning against a more prejudicial, heuristic, value-oriented level of evaluating phenomenal mental inputs, e.g. based on religious biases -- perhaps seeing miracles or ghosts where there are none). Our minds are almost always looking for something special within the "big picture" presented by the senses, based upon our needs and our past experiences.
• A "peak experience" is a state of high arousal. It is usually associated with highly positive experiences, but can also relate to sudden, sever challenges. For example, when you are involved in an auto collision, the last second before the crash seems to go by slowly; your brain obviously goes into overdrive, as to search out any possible way to avoid or lessen the damage. Obviously, consciousness is not a plain-vanilla thing. It varies in intensity and specificity, in response to environmental challenges and inner state changes.
• From the neuro-structural perspective of the brain, the cortex contains a "salience network" which includes the anterior insula and anterior cingulate. This network plays a key role in identifying novel patterns or signals from the environment or possibly from within (e.g., thinking about a topic and then suddenly realizing something important about it). It then determines how potentially significant these novel patterns are to our survival and emotional concerns, and if sufficiently important, the network re-directs the brain's large-scale looping networks so as to assimilate these patterns. That is, the novel signal or pattern or thought is brought into attention, for behavioral decisions on how to respond.
• Dr. Susan Greenfield provides another perspective on degrees of consciousness [S. Greenfield, The Private Life of the Brain (New York: J.Wiley and Sons, 2000)]. According to Greenfield, a small child cannot experience the same depth of consciousness in response to most experiences as an adult, because they do not have as many potential associations available. E.g., for an adult, the sound of an ocean wave on a beach brings to mind a variety of concepts, memories and emotions, more than are possible for a young child. The adult brain can thus assemble larger neuronal networks or loops for most stimuli than a child can; the adult has more pre-fabricated neural assemblies to work with. See Section 31.
• However, a countervailing factor with respect to Dr. Greenfield's model regards the child's higher level of attention and arousal due to the novelty of most experiences. Because everything seems new to a young child, their degree of "qualia vividness" might at times be higher than for adults, despite the relative simplicity of a child's mind.
• A further perspective on degrees of consciousness is offered by Dr. Guilio Tononi with his "Integrated Information Theory" of consciousness, and his proposed "Phi" metric of it, as discussed in Section 35. Dr. Tononi's concept assumes a continual degree of consciousness based on the amount of "system knowledge" that is added to input information (i.e., inputs from either the senses or from memory areas, and often from both) because of the structure of the information processing. I.e., the degree of consciousness correlates to the degree of cross-talk between parallel lines of information processing, and the degree of feedback recursion (looping) in the system.
• Dr. Tononi readily admits that his concept would not limit consciousness to humans and higher mammals; it affords a miniscule level of consciousness to relatively simple mechanical and electronic devices, and increasing amounts to more complex systemized entries such as computer networks (Tononi's collaborator, Prof. Christof Koch, has entertained the notion that the Internet has some degree of consciousness). This broad definition and view regarding the quality of consciousness has attracted criticism, as will be reviewed in Section 35; however, it does support the common-sense notion that human consciousness, as we commonly know it and experience it, has varying levels.
22. IS THINKING A CONSCIOUS PHENOMENON?
• "Phenomenal Consciousness" versus "Access Consciousness": According to philosopher Ned Block, phenomenal consciousness is our awareness of how our senses report what goes on in the outside world (and within our bodies, e.g. a headache or leg cramp). Phenomenal consciousness involves "qualia", as discussed above; our responses to basic distinguishable environmental features like color, pain, sound patterns, smells, tastes, etc. "Access consciousness", by contrast, is the awareness and participation in cognitive thought and decision-making.
• The question arises, then, as to whether the act of planning, pondering and problem solving is a "conscious experience". I personally believe so, based on the involvement of emotion. We accept that phenomenal inputs easily trigger our emotions; The question arises as to whether the act of planning, pondering and problem solving is a "conscious experience" e.g. music that can make us cry or sing out with joy. But, more and more emphasis is now placed on the role of emotions in cogitation, in making decisions, in analyzing puzzles. I believe this connection is a two-way street; awareness and imagining of future consequences of an action or an anticipated event trigger positive or negative emotions, e.g. a good mood or fearful anxiety, which in turn feedback into the outcome of the analysis or decision process. But the thinking process itself also triggers a form of emotion, a subtle "background emotion".
• Some of us actually enjoy this feeling, especially when it yields an "ah-hah" experience, a breakthrough in understanding something. As such, the difference between access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness starts to blur. Access to the thinking mind is as much a phenomenon and an experience as is a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone.
23. ON STAGE: THE THEATER METAPHOR
• The topic of attention does not encompass the whole of conscious experience. The question regarding the ultimate nature of consciousness goes much deeper than how consciousness is used or focused. However, the effects of attention do lend themselves to objective observation and testing, and the field of cognitive psychology has taken advantage of that fact. Cognitive psychologist Bernard Baars has developed a metaphor for consciousness based around what is known about human reactions to controlled sensory inputs and variations. He calls this the theater metaphor, or the global workspace hypothesis.
• The theater / global workspace concept postulates that consciousness is a process whereby certain sensory information and mental states are widely broadcast throughout the working components of the mind, most of which are sub-conscious. E.g., we may be looking at a tree and ignoring everything else around it (especially if there is something different about it -- perhaps it's bark is an unusual shade of yellow). Or perhaps our emotional worries or our calculations of what to do next may distract us so much that we walk into a closed door. The spotlights on the theater stage can only show so much at a time. Consciousness is limited by attention, a process itself controlled sub-consciously.
• According to Baars, the elements of the "consciousness theater" metaphor include a stage (the mind's cortical mental processes which mediate the process of consciousness, e.g. re-entrant loops); spotlights (a metaphor for mental attention); actors (the functional or cognitive areas [i.e., neuron "maps" or "assemblies"] of the brain now in the spotlight of attention, now being focused on); an audience (i.e., the wide range of conscious and sub-conscious mind functions and cognitive concerns) which contributes comments and enhancements from the shadows; goals (survival, reproduction, social belonging, etc.); and memory / knowledge bases (largely at subconscious levels). There is also a director (or executive function, which decides which brain actors should be in the spotlight of attention based on environmental concerns -- this "director" is usually off-stage, i.e. in the realm of the sub-conscious); and "contexts" (moods and biases, often neurochemically mediated).
• The theater metaphor, like every other metaphor, can be useful; but as with all metaphors, it is subject to limitations. As Baars himself warns, his theater is not to be confused with the "little man in the Cartesian theater" metaphor, the most radical form of dualism. But despite its physicalist orientation, The mental theater metaphor is not to be confused with the "little man in the Cartesian theater" the theater metaphor only tells us so much about what goes on in the dark area off-stage, and in the dark areas on the stage itself (i.e., sensory input not being focused upon, and short-term memories not presently being drawn upon). For example, sensory inputs that are not currently subject to our attention (e.g., the feel of our clothing) can be quickly brought to conscious attention, if a sub-conscious process (also in the "audience") suddenly detects something novel or strange or threatening about it (e.g., a bee goes up our sleeve).
• And finally, the theater metaphor remains agnostic as to just "who" is included in "the audience". Certainly that audience includes sub-conscious motor functions that arrange to carry out orders from the stage, e.g. move your arm to touch the green object in front of you. However, the cognitive psychologists do not say just how the mosaic experience of qualia, and the feelings that they "bind" into (just as mosaic tiles sum up to an image), relate to the theater audience within this metaphor. Would qualia and feelings be an emergent effect of the audience's overall reactions? If so, then the most important aspect of consciousness occurs off-stage! The theater and its global workspace is a useful concept, but ultimately belongs to "the easy problem" of consciousness.
NOTE: MIND versus CONSCIOUSNESS: I have generally used these two terms interchangeably, but some analysts feel that the two concepts should be distinguished. Psychologist Steven Pinker and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield say that MIND means brain dynamics, i.e. the brain in motion. By comparison, CONSCIOUSNESS is something more specific, encompassing the processes that support cogitation and subjective experiences, i.e. "qualia". MIND would include autonomous body regulation such as balance and heartbeat, while CONSCIOUSNESS would not. See Section 21.
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Last Updated: August, 2015