Tuesday, November 10, 2009
In Search of Consciousness, Part One
There is a mystery at the heart of all research into the human brain, and it is the mystery of consciousness. How, so the question goes, can a lump of non-conscious grey matter give rise to consciousness?
My own interest in this question began about six years ago, when I went through a period of deep introspection, and ultimately, epiphany, over the religion I was raised in. At one point, I ended up feeling like I could "observe", so to speak, parts of my mind in action which I had never before observed. In particular, I felt like I became aware that my subconscious mind had been filtering out certain evidences, questions, conclusions, and even feelings in a way, which would have caused me severe emotional distress. In a way, I felt like I became able, from some sort of detached state, to observe myself deceiving myself.
Becoming aware of this was very disturbing to me. I had no idea, never having read anything about the psyche, that it had been well established that the subconscious parts of the brain routinely filtered out all sorts of things, keeping them from the conscious parts, both for reasons of functional efficiency and to protect us from emotional distress. Thus, it was something of a revelation to read through a big, expensive book I ordered off of Amazon around that time, entitled "Essential Sources in the Study of Consciousness". This book is a compilation of articles written by top consciousness researchers, and a number of them describe studies showing the subconscious in action - including how it filters information (I was particularly struck by articles by Bruce Mangan and John Kihlstrom, psychologists at UC Berkeley).
Even after I gained clarity on the religious questions which had tormented me, I continued to read about consciousness. I was wading into the topic for the first time, but consciousness, to my mind anyway, is surprisingly alluring to novice investigators. The main reason is that no one, not even the most famous consciousness researchers out there, can give any sort of coherent account of how consciousness might arise from non-conscious brain matter. So...it almost seems like even the novice investigator might be able to solve the mystery.
Here is an example. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book almost two decades ago now called "Consciousness Explained", in which he takes 500 pages to essentially argue that what we experience as consciousness is but an illusion, and that therefore, there is nothing to explain (perhaps the most brazen example of a non sequitir in the history of science writing). So clearly, if a famous philosopher can claim to have explained consciousness simply by claiming that consciousness is merely an illusion, which of course does not follow at all (the whole point is that regardless of whether we are merely imagining ourselves to be conscious or not, our capacity to imagine itself is the very thing which needs to be explained), then anyone could take a shot; no proposal could possibly be sillier than Dennett's, even though it was taken seriously by many (UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle is one exception, and has written one of the most astute criticisms of Dennett's silly ideas).
I read through dozens of books and articles over the next few years. Chalmers, Baars, McGinn, the Churchlands, Levine, Koch, Searle...I blew hundreds on Amazon. They were all interesting, but in the end, with one or two semi-exceptions, none of them really made sense. Here is why.
Remember that the question is: How can non-conscious matter give rise to consciousness?
Another way of putting this question is as follows:
How can a pile of rocks become conscious? After all, to hear all the consciousness researchers tell it, the brain was made up of matter no more conscious than rocks.
To me, early on, the answer was obvious...
But I am getting ahead of myself.
To be continued.