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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Where IS Consciousness? What MAKES us Conscious?

Turn over any stone, molecule, cell, or anthill, open the cover of a book, or the backplate of a computer, and you will not find a bit of consciousness anywhere. You will be rewarded for your efforts as much, perhaps more, if you remove a man hole cover from a city street.

Go looking inside the brain of a human being and you will only see stuff. Probe around with an electrode and you may get a response, but you'll not notice to what particularly, or why the response occurs.

Is this a bias? Are these futile searches simply proof that we don't understand consciousness at all?

You will notice a generalized electrochemical activity in areas of the brain in response to certain stimuli. We have mapped 'locations' where the brain seems to do its processing. The Frontal Lobe is associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving, the Parietal Lobe associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli, and so forth.

The purpose of this essay is not to review where modern psychologists have mapped responses to familiar faces, colors, sights, thoughts, or memories 'occurring' in the brain. Rather I'm observing that our mappings of consciousness, are for the most part self-serving. Having observed activity in the human brain while we think, and also experienced subjective consciousness simultaneously, we won't admit for instance, that worms might be also be conscious, albeit on a different level. Since we've assumed consciousness is a product of the mind/brain, it is located in the brain and therefor it cannot exist elsewhere.

Consciousness as an activity, i.e. thinking about something other than what one is seeing, is proof of subjective consciousness. Consciousness for a Western thinker, is a materialist concept. It's the one quantity that has no matter, needs no further investigation, since it is proof of itself. [Descartes, "I think therefor I am".] Since Decartes and Newton, materialists confined their energies to investigations of nature as matter exhibiting behaviors, that can be described via mathematics.

But have we given the consciousness of animals a fair shot? Certainly not, and while advances in psychology have postulated levels of consciousness in other creatures our scholarly culture is fairly dismissive of consciousness outside the human realm. Yet is is known ravens reason extremely well, they devise games to amuse themselves. Cobras remember faces. Our materialist Homo sapiens centered philosophy is slowly having to admit to faults in our paradigm.

If definitions of consciousness are thus ever expanding, and so long as they expand continuously and continue to embarrass the current generation of science, one can be assured that whatever our definition of consciousness, it is inadequate. The fundamental assumptions of science change continuously, this means by definition, the picture provided by science at any moment is incomplete.

The act of sight involves many levels of information filtration, suppression, and conformation to images rooted in experience. We do not see images the same way as a camera image supplied by the eye at all. That's just the sensory organ that does bear some similarities to a camera. But for human sight, the powerful organ is the brain, run by a highly subjective and complicated process, as unique and creative as remembering or replaying a powerful experience.

We do imagine that our mental perambulations occur in our head, within our brains. This indeed is what our science has taught us. And I agree. But I raise this obvious point simply to be able to counter that the Ancient Egyptians did not believe this at all. These were advanced human beings capable of elegant technologies, to whom the essence of a man was not located in the head or brains at all, but rather the liver stomach, lungs, and intestines. The Sons of Horus as they were called, were protected by four Gods assigned to their care after death, Imsety, Duamutef, Hapi, and Qebehsenuef. A dead pharaoh's four essential organs would have been put in jars resembling each of these gods for reassembly and rebirth.

The pharaoh's brain though, thought to be the origin of mucus, was discarded.

I raise this point to stress our notion that consciousness resides in the brain, is first and foremost a learned concept, proceeding from a science that has taught us that the brain is the body's computer. Had we been taught that our imaginings reside or originated in the heart, (still assumed by many to be the origins of love) we'd probably believe it.

So while we may sincerely believe that consciousness is a product of the brain, we also know that some brains may be technically alive, but cease to produce the signals of consciousness that modern science looks for with electroencephalograms, CAT scans and other forms of non-invasive monitoring of brain activity. I point to instances of the so called 'brain dead' victims of accidents, or the 'near dead' from disease, or even monks who are so deep in mediation they can't be aroused by outside stimuli.

Consciousness has no substance, quantity. We not isolated bits of it in a jar, and haven't produced means of storing it. It we define it as energy it seems refuses to play to the rules of electromagnetism and defies description by advanced mathematics.

Wait? Is this disconnect with matter really true? When I replay a video on YouTube am I not engaging in correspondence with an inert form of stored memory? No consciousness there right?

So what are the boundaries of consciousness? If we cut the mind away from all exterior stimuli, eventually it will cease to function. Does this mean that consciousness is to a degree reliant upon a semi-conscious exterior world?

It might be we have to enlarge the notion of consciousness to any system that processes information and energy. Yet this leaves a ton of unanswered questions.

No science has yet revealed where consciousness goes after death, or even after brain death, when the other organs may continue to function. It's as mysterious to our 21st Century science as it would have been to 17th Century materialists. But pagan Native Americans did not have doubts about this issue. Neither did the Ancient Greeks. Mythos and religion provided a structure for knowing. It seems where we are in the unfortunate position of knowing we don't know.

Consciousness might be described as distinctly subjective experience. So if a tree falls in a forest, does not the rest of the forest take note of this trees demise? Don't the birds hear it? Doesn't the ground give birth to new trees to take its place. Don't funghi rush in to decompose the dead limbs?

Is this not a display of consciousness by a system, by an ecology?

A dichotomy of matter and spirit has long divided the philosophies of East and West. Whereas Western scientific materialism has studied the universe from the vantage point of matter, its behaviors, mass, and interactions with fields that are hidden from human view such as electromagnetism, and gravity, doesn't mean that we discount the existence of gravity.

Could it be that our refuge, home base of 'safe thought' has always been decidedly and profoundly materialist? We see an inanimate universe. But yes we believe in matter. We sense, or at least believe that our senses tell us of of matter's existential being. We do not accord the same belief to consciousness. We refuse to grant it the same reality as a lump of rock.

Most modern cognitive psychologists shirk from the problem of consciousness. Those that face it head on, do so with an elaborate chimera . . claiming that it's entirely 'illusion'. But the 'illusion' they speak of smells more of 'delusion' because essentially they seek to deprive consciousness of essence, of fundamental reality, not material reality, but a permanence, a pervasiveness that may be as common in the universe as matter itself.

Fields of gravity, strong, weak forces, and electromagnetism are not as accessible to our senses as say the weight or imagined permanence of a stone. Our belief system extends to edges of forces and fields which are invisible, and we use physics, mathematics, to create the bridge of understanding of what we can't see. Laws of gravity, magnetism, and optics connect a world that can be sensed with the world that cannot.

Indian philosophy on the other hand views matter and consciousness as equal and opposite forces, yin and yang as it were, one not being able to exist without the other. Without consciousness no matter. Without matter no consciousness. Matter is 'enlivened' by spirit. Without consciousness matter has no meaning.

This leave Western physics in a quandary, left hoping to discover proof of consciousness such as might be written in equations. David Chalmers calls for a new set of ideas that can simplify the dimension of consciousness, and describe perhaps with a new set of variables, as matter and energy are described simply by modern physics. Most certainly our understanding of the cosmos has come against a 'Hard Problem' as Chalmers puts it. We can explain most things, but not the consciousness we possess as living beings.

And indeed it may be we cannot explain consciousness because possibly we incorrectly assume, or have assumed historically, that we Homo sapiens are the only ones that possess it. Only recently have we admitted with modern psychology that other mammals dream, think and are perhaps conscious.

Should we not think of consciousness as a dimension that is spread throughout the universe, varies in intensity, just as light and gravity vary in intensity. Shouldn't we extend the aspects of consciousness to beings greater than man as well as all beings smaller.

And, should we not consider what the fundamental units of consciousness are? A photon does exhibit semi-conscious behavior when subjected to twin photon experiments in a quantum  mechanical analysis. If the photon, or all leptons which are universal exhibit perplexing behavior that seems to mirror human action, then can we not extend a field of consciousness right down to the sub-atomic level?

Consciousness seems to break the back of modern physics, which is hopelessly materialist in origin. Our belief system took legs with the materialism of Descartes and Voltaire thru Isaac Newton who endowed modern science with a notion that God was the architect of all things, but that to understand God one needed to study nature.

God as the unseen element, the misunderstood dimension, persists in Western science up through Einstein, who said when face with the prospect of quantum mechanics, "God does not play dice."

Belief systems persist.

Forget all you know or think you know about consciousness - it's a topic that may not fully be understood by earth organisms. We believe we know consciousness exists, but as I shall show you, the converse of that statement is not knowable; the 'knowledge' of a 'state' of self-awareness may only be an illusion.

But the illusion, for the living, is what is most real. Here I don't speak of illusion as a psychosomatic phenomena, or a electro-biological bit of chimera, a phantom-scope within the brain. Rather I think of illusion as meaning something much more profound. The extreme product of thought, of mental activity, of consciousness itself.

Consciousness manifests itself through illusion. It produces illusion. It produces dreams. It produces movies, equations, novels, short stories.

Philosophers may tell you that consciousness is the product of a process that has no dimension, . . . that consciousness may reflect on what is not conscious, but what is not conscious may not reflect upon what is.

I argue that stones and pools of distilled water are as conscious as we are, but not in the way we are and believe that what is missing from this discussion is an admission that human thought processes are extremely limited, that most of our picture of the world that we carry about us is there to save us from the emergency of not knowing.

Certainty is comforting. All beings must possess a quantity of it.

Most human knowledge at its periphery, is in fact a bunch of blank pages where just about anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's.

Do physicists fully understand matter and energy? They do not. They have equations that model and describe matter and energy, but this is not understanding.

The Ancient Greeks possessed a number of cosmologies radically different from our own today, but those ancient philosophers were no less certain of what they felt they knew.

Are we getting closer to a complete understanding of the mysteries of the universe? Of creation, of dark matter? Yes on some matters, but within a frame of reference that is decidedly human. This leaves a universe full of mystery, with much left to be discovered.

I may stub my toe and see evidence of physical damage. Knock me on the head - if I black out one may argue that consciousness is a 'product' of the brain. Maybe so. Does this mean consciousness is 'in' the brain. Or that consciousness was 'made' by the brain? This is difficult. Go looking in the brain and you will find activity, yes, the cells there are doing something, burning energy, communicating with electro-chemical signals . . . but I want more than that. Find me the part that says: “I am, and I know that I am!”

This you shall not find.

Proving the lack of existence of Consciousness may be near impossible. 'Prove to me that a pebble is NOT self-aware!' . . . This IS a problem.

Go looking inside a pebble, and you will find atoms, in slow rates of decay. They behave perfectly. Our physics admits that within their bodies, laws of energy are conserved. The atoms decay slowly, emitting photons. Look inside a heap of garden soil being struck by the midday sun, and you will find activity of a much more lively nature.

Photons come and go, molecules break down, recombine, give off electrons, fuse with other atoms, et cetera. Bacteria live, die multiply. It's a massive supercomputer at work. . . take ten pounds of garden soil and you have a computer the size of the human brain.

That soil is not designed to do the same things that a human brain can do. But it can rear a corn plant better than the human brain could.

Probe a portion of the human brain with an electrode, and you may elicit a response from the owner, a memory perhaps. The patient may experience a smell, a lost love, or a deja vu.

Now go there with a knife, and remove that diseased section of the brain. This has been done with patients suffering from malignant tumors.

And upon doing that you will find the memory is still there. Only some other function, interest or aptitude may be lost.

Now take the same patients and let them smell a rose and some will experience much the same result.

In other words how, in the absence of proof of where consciousness resides, can we not be sure that some of that consciousness is in the stimulus, as much as what has been stimulated?

Does this mean consciousness is partly in the rose?

Consciousness is clearly not what we think it is. . nor where we think it is.

We believe it resides in the brain. . but can we be sure? And what makes consciousness happen?

Surely self-awareness is more than a badge earned when one's computational power achieves critical size. Whatever the mass, of a Chihuahua . . (small brain, very intelligent by human measurement) or a Great Dane (larger brain, not so intelligent), a meerkat, or a giant ball of herring in the sea, consciousness and intelligence are not a quantities that one can locate, covet, or keep.

Some worms may be divided in two pieces and completely regenerate, and insofar as a worm may be admitted to having some degreee of consciousness, one may argue that by dividing a worm in two pieces one has produced two 'pieces' of consciousness, where one existed previously. As soon as one relates the consciousness to the mass one is in trouble. Does such an act obey a law of Conservation of Consciousness . . . two bits where one existed previously, does each bit have half as much consciousness? Surely I am not thinking that a worm is conscious in the same way that a human is. . . but it has nerves, that function in much the same way.

Remove a worm-sized bit of brain from a human being and there will be little change. Surprisingly, data from accident victims who have lost large portions of their brain suggest a bizarre kind of resilience to consciousness itself. . . while psychological trauma may do far greater damage.

A holographic effect, where the contents of our 'minds' seems to be spread and conserved throughout the whole seems to be at work.

And what of the modern mind, which makes use of computers, digital assistants, iPhones, and vast arrays of servers to extend the reach of his consciousness. Without these 'lifeless' entities, we would indeed perish in a kind of conscious death. We need these things to think what we do. Our consciousness has extended into libraries, museums, Google, Facebook all part of our modern consciousness.

All of this seems to suggest that consciousness is in some way a by-product of the physical and electro-chemical activities of the human body, a fragile, and ethereal quantity that has little direct connection to any specific locus in the body, but seems, on the whole, to be associated with the brain.

While consciousness may seem to obey laws similar to that of holography - two identical holograms with half the resolution result when an original is cut in two with a pair of scissors. Consciousness is hardly so simple. Studies of psychiatric patients whose Corpus callosum (the nervous tissue separating the two hemispheres of the brain) was severed by a primitive surgical practice administered by doctors in the West during the 1950's and '60s hardly puts the issue to rest. Such patients continue to converse, walk, and talk. Specific behaviors however were affected negatively. Consciousness was present, but in two places - the patient had in essence two 'brains'. Whereas the operations may have been indicated to relieve schizophrenia, evidence of a 'split' personality persisted.

Networking science may provide analogies most useful for understanding consciousness and self-awareness as shared systems. The human beings behind a PC at each 'node' of the Internet, are at least from a human perspective, the only conscious or self-aware components of the internet that we know of.. Humans are in charge. As of yet, no massive computer system has conspired for ideological reasons, against man its creator. Massive amounts of computational power dominate the the internet, far from the remove of individual minds. . . . yet the Internet is an extension of the human nervous system, and that is all that it is.

And so is partly conscious?

With biological death we'll note that consciousness seems to disappear once and for all. Yet few traditional cultures would admit this. All mythologies point to the immortality of the soul. Evidence of 'transference' after death, where the contents of the psyche of the departed seem to rush into the living are well documented.

Rituals of death worldwide are remarkably similar in this respect - procedures designed to provide a safe journey of the 'conscious remains' to another world. Paranormal experiences, ghosts, contact with previous 'lives' further leavens the notion that consciousness, the soul, the Self, all are part of a quantity that flows, body to body, mind to mind, animating matter, without being material at all.

For all our science we seem to be rattling around the doors of the Vedanta, and Shivaism. Matter and spirit.


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