Monday 9 January 2017

Is Consciousness Bound Inextricably by the Brain?

From Qualia to Comprehension

Posted by Keith Tidman
According to the contemporary American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, consciousness is the ‘last surviving mystery’ humankind faces.
Well, that may be overstating human achievements, but at the very least, consciousness ranks among the most consequential mysteries. With its importance acknowledged, does the genesis of conscious experience rest solely in the brain? That is, should investigations of consciousness adhere to the simplest, most direct explanation, where neurophysiological activity accounts for this core feature of our being?

Consciousness is a fundamental property of life—an empirical connection to the phenomenal. Conscious states entail a wide range of (mechanistic) experiences, such as wakefulness, cognition, awareness of self and others, sentience, imagination, presence in time and space, perception, emotions, focused attention, information processing, vision of what can be, self-optimisation, memories, opinions—and much more. An element of consciousness is its ability to orchestrate how these intrinsic states of consciousness express themselves.

None of these states, however, requires the presence of a mysterious dynamic—a ‘mind’ operating dualistically separate from the neuronal, synaptic activity of the brain. In that vein, ‘Consciousness is real and irreducible’, as Dennett's contempoary, John Searle, observed in pointing out the seat of consciousness being the brain; ‘you can’t get rid of it’. Accordingly, Cartesian dualism—the mind-body distinction—has long since been displaced by today’s neuroscience, physics, mathematical descriptions, and philosophy.

Of significance, here, is that the list of conscious experiences in the neurophysiology of the brain includes colour awareness (‘blueness’ of eyes), pain from illness, happiness in children’s company, sight of northern lights, pleasure in another’s touch, hunger before a meal, smell of a petunia, sound of a violin concerto, taste of a macaroon, and myriad others. These sensations fall into a category dubbed qualia, their being the subjective, qualitative, ‘introspective’ properties of experience.

Qualia might well constitute, in the words of the Australian cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, the ‘hard problem’ in understanding consciousness; but, I would suggest, they’re not in any manner the ‘insoluble problem’. Qualia indeed pose an enigma for consciousness, but a tractable one. The reality of these experiences—what’s going on, where and how—has not yet yielded to research; however, it’s early. Qualia are likely—with time, new technologies, fresh methodologies, innovative paradigms—to also be traced back to brain activity.

In other words, these experiences are not just correlated to the neurophysiology of the brain serving as a substrate for conscious processes, they are inextricably linked to and caused by brain activity. Or, put another way, neurophysiological activity doesn’t merely represent consciousness, it is consciousness—both necessary and sufficient.

Consciousness is not unique to humans, of course. There’s a hierarchy to consciousness, tagged approximately to the biological sophistication of a species. How aware, sentient, deliberative, coherent, and complexly arranged that any one species might be, consciousness varies down to the simplest organisms. The cutoff point of consciousness, if any, is debatable. Also, if aliens of radically different intelligences and physiologies, including different brain substrates, are going about their lives in solar systems scattered throughout the universe, they likewise share properties of consciousness.

This universal presence of consciousness is different than the ‘strong’ version of panpsychism, which assigns consciousness (‘mind’) to everything—from stars to rocks to atoms. Although some philosophers through history have subscribed to this notion, there is nothing empirical (measurable) to support it—future investigation notwithstanding, of course. A takeaway from the broader discussion is that the distributed presence of conscious experience precludes any one species, human or alien, from staking its claim to ‘exceptionalism’.

Consciousness, while universal, isn’t unbounded. That said, consciousness might prove roughly analogous to physics’ dark matter, dark energy, force fields, and fundamental particles. It’s possible that the consciousness of intelligent species (with higher-order cognition) is ‘entangled’—that is, one person’s consciousness instantaneously influences that of others across space without regard to distance and time. In that sense, one person’s conscious state may not end where someone else’s begins; instead, consciousness is an integrated, universal grid.

All that said, the universe doesn’t seem to pulse as a single conscious entity or ‘living organism’. At least, it doesn't to modern physicists. On a fundamental and necessary level, however, the presence of consciousness gives the universe meaning—it provides reasons for an extraordinarily complex universe like ours to exist, allowing for what ‘awareness’ brings to the presence of intelligent, sentient, reflective species... like humans.

Yet might not hyper-capable machines too eventually attain consciousness? Powerful artificial intelligence might endow machines with the analog of ‘whole-brain’ capabilities, and thus consciousness. With time and breakthroughs, such machines might enter reality—though not posing the ‘existential threat’ some philosophers and scientists have publicly articulated. Such machines might well achieve supreme complexity—in awareness, cognition, ideation, sentience, imagination, critical thinking, volition, self-optimisation, for example—translatable to proximate ‘personhood’, exhibiting proximate consciousness.

Among what remains of the deep mysteries is this task of achiveing a better grasp of the relationship between brain properties and phenomenal properties. The promise is that in the process of developing a better understanding of consciousness, humanity will be provided with a vital key for unlocking what makes us us.


Keith said...

To supplement, if I may: There are, of course, myriad aspects to consciousness, just one being free will—whether we have it or not, and what neuroscience is contributing to that discussion. An earlier Pi essay, from last summer, briefly touches on that: Another aspect is what role consciousness—in particular, observation or measurement—play in physical reality. Leaping forward from such philosophers as George Berkeley, we encounter what the somethimes-weird, but extraordinarily successful, world of quantum mechanics might tell us. In the words of Eugene Wigner, just one among other physicists who have commented on this topic: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” The theoretical physicist Pascual Jordan weighed in, too: “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.” Among the curious connections between science and philosophy: that is, between consciousness/observation/measurement and physical reality.

docmartincohen said...

Actually, I wrote a comment already - but it disappeared! Strange things go on - at the boundary of mind and matter...

Your additonal points:

“It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.”

- maybe point at a second look at this issue. But as we've discussed by email - Pi has a relevant essay (on the double-slit effect and QR) in the vaults which I would like to post first - and then maybe we can follow that up.

Your last paragraphh seems to beg the big issue dogging philosophy since Descartes split mind and matter apart - is htere actually an 'us' - are there conscious minds spearate from reality?

Keith said...

At the risk of my being redundant, I tilt in the direction that eventually it’ll be (empirically) demonstrated that the brain is the seat of the ‘mind’. That is, that there is no distinction between the two, with the activities attributed to the mind being yet another manifestation of brain activity, to join the pantheon of other forms of higher-order (maybe even executive-order) cognition. Until that’s proven—or perhaps better, if that’s proven—speculation about the mind’s possible ‘otherworldliness’, for want of a better word, can continue to play itself out, with interesting hypotheses based on some variation of mind-body dualism. To take liberties with Gilbert Ryle’s colourfully descriptive—and famous—phrase, however, I likewise suspect there is no “ghost in the machine.”

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I find the post difficult to interpret. There is the language of science and the language of mind, and the language of mind is said to be ‘irreducible’ to the language of science. But the writer states that consciousness is both ‘irreducible’ and ‘traced back’ (reducible) to brain activity. Which is it then? It surely can’t be both. This is befuddling.

The writer further seems to have a time scale running through his post: the present and the wonderful. ‘With time’ we are destined for things ‘fresh’ and ‘new’. ‘Promise’, ‘achievement’, ‘hyper-capability’ lie ahead. It has me wondering whether the post contemplates consciousness or comforts the writer with religious dreams.

Keith said...

Thank you for taking a moment to comment. I find, however, that the preceding comment confounds the original post on at least a few levels. The challenge is, accordingly, how to unwrap the comment—or at least, parts of it. For the sake of (relative) brevity, I’ll selectively touch on only three of the topics laid out by the comment.

First, “[C]onsciousness is both ‘irreducible’ and ‘traced back’ (reducible) to brain activity. . . . It can’t be both.” Actually, it can be both. Consciousness and brain activity are, arguably, one and the same thing; in that vein, consciousness is nothing other than brain (neurophysiological) activity. In familiar correspondence, consciousness is thus like the other cognitive functions of the brain—or so it’s likely to be shown, by research, in the course of time. So, to put the point in terms closer to that of the original post, (1) consciousness is indeed traceable to brain activity, while (2) consciousness (as yet another activity of the brain) is itself irreducible. As my original post noted in reference to the philosopher John Searle, “consciousness is . . . irreducible,” while the seat of consciousness remains the brain.

Second, “The writer further seems to have a time scale running through his post: the present and the wonderful. ‘With time’ we are destined for things ‘fresh’ and ‘new’. ‘Promise’, ‘achievement’, ‘hyper-capability’ lie ahead.” Actually, the epistemological notion that humankind learns from investigation and reflection, leading to more-robust knowledge and better-informed understanding, is commonplace—maybe, even, banal. In other words, this expectation—and the ‘time scale’ referred to in your quote—shouldn’t surprise. Learning about consciousness is no exception. Neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, physicists, philosophers of the mind, and other specialists are making headway in understanding consciousness; however, much needs to be done to nail it down. (Nothing startling there, surely.) But with time, new theories, new empirical methods, and so forth, humankind will get a better handle on what consciousness is, and where that might lead. The possibilities—medium term and long term—are many and intriguing. I assume the commenter above doesn’t imply that consciousness is carved out as an exclusion from this process.

Third, as to the “religious dreams” the commenter refers to, it’s puzzling where that phrase is intended to lead—a bit of a logical rabbit hole, as best I can tell. Is the expression “religious dreams” intended by the commenter as an allusion to Freud, perhaps? Frankly, it’s impossible to give hot chase to the meaning, as the original post makes no express allusion to religion, or theology, or mythology—or anything remotely resembling the topic of ‘otherworldliness’ or the ‘ethereal’. Doubly so, given my more-than-passing nod, in a comment of my own above, to Gilbert Ryle’s colourful assertion that there is “no ghost in the machine.”

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