Monday 6 May 2024

On the Trail of Human Consciousness

By Keith Tidman

Daniel Dennett once called consciousness the “last surviving mystery” humankind faces. That may be premature and even a bit hyperbolic, but not by much. At the very least, consciousness ranks among the biggest of the remaining mysteries. Two questions central to this are: Does the source of conscious experience rest solely in the neurophysiology of the brain, reducible to myriad sets of mechanical functions that necessarily conform to physical laws? Or, as some have contended, is consciousness somehow airily, dualistically separate from the brain, existing in some sort of undefinably ethereal dimension? 

Consciousness is an empirical, bridge-like connection to things, events, and conditions, boiling down to external stimuli that require vetting within the brain. Conscious states entail a wide range of human experiences, such as awareness, identity, cognition, wakefulness, sentience, imagination, presence in time and space, perception, enthrallment, emotion, visions of alternative futures, anchors to history, ideation, attention, volition, sense of agency, thought experimentation, self-optimisation, memories, opinions — and much more. Not to forget higher-order states of reality, able to include the social, political, legal, familial, educational, environmental, scientific, and ethical norms of the community. The process includes the brain's ability to orchestrate how the states of consciousness play their roles in harmony. As philosopher Thomas Nagel therefore concluded, “there is something it is like to be [us]” — that something being our sense of identity, acquired through individual awareness, perception, and experience.

The conscious mind empirically, subjectively edits objective reality. In the phrase of David Chalmers, philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, “there is a whir of information processing” as all that complexly happens. The presence of such states makes it hard, if not impossible, to disbelieve our own existence as just an illusion, even if we have hesitancy about the accuracy of our perception of the presumed objective reality encircling us. Thought, introspection, sensing, knowing, belief, the arrow of perpetual change — as well as the spatial and temporal discernments of the world — contribute to confirming what we are about. It’s us, in an inexorable abundance of curiosity, wondering as we gaze upon the micro to the macro dimensions of the universe.


None of these states, however, requires the presence of mysterious goings-on — an “ethereal mind,” operating on a level separate from the neuronal, synaptic activity of the brain. Accordingly, “consciousness is real and irreducible,” as Dennett’s fellow philosopher, John Searle, observed while pointing out that the seat of consciousness is the brain; “you can’t get rid of it.” True enough. The centuries-old Cartesian mind-body distinction, with its suspicious otherworldly spiritual, even religious, underpinnings and motive, has long been displaced by today’s neuroscience, physics, and biology. Today, philosophers of mind cheerfully weigh in on the what-if modeling aspects of human consciousness. But it must be said that the baton for elucidating consciousness, two and a half millennia after the ancient world’s musings on the subject, has been handed off to the natural sciences. And there is every reason to trust the latter will eventually triumph, filling the current explanatory gap — whether the path to ultimate understanding follows a straight line or, perhaps more likely, zigs and zags. A mix of dusky and well-lit alleys.


Sensations, like the taste of silky chocolate, the sight of northern lights, the sound of a violin concerto, the smell of a petunia, hunger before an aromatic meal, pleasure from being touched, pain from an accident, fear of dark spaces, roughness of volcanic rock, or happiness while watching children play on the beach, are sometimes called qualia. These are the subjective, qualitative properties of experience, which purportedly differ from one person to another. Each person interpreting, or editing, reality differently, whether only marginally so or perhaps to significant extents — all the while getting close enough to external reality for us to get on with everyday life in workably practical ways. 

So, for example, my experience of an icy breeze might be different from yours because of differences — even microscopically — between our respective neurobiological reactions. This being the subjective nature of experience of the same thing, at the same time and in the same place. And yet, qualia might well be, in the words of Chalmers, the “hard problem” in understanding consciousness; but they aren’t an insoluble problem. The individualisation of these experiences, or something that seems like them, will likely prove traceable to brain circuitry and activity, requiring us to penetrate the finer-coarse granularity of the bustling mind. Consciousness can thus be defined as a blend of what our senses absorb and process, as well as how we resultantly act. Put another way, decisions and behaviours matter.


The point is, all this neurophysiological activity doesn’t merely represent the surfacing or emergence or groundswell of consciousness, it is consciousness — both necessary and sufficient. That is, mind and consciousness don’t hover separate from the brain, in oddly spectral form. It steadfastly remains a fundamentally materialist framework, containing the very nucleus of human nature. The promise is that in the process of developing an increasingly better understanding of the complexity — of the nuance and richness — of consciousness, humanity will be provided with a vital key for unlocking what makes us, us


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