Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part Two

If Dennett's ideas (or perhaps better, non-ideas) were ludicrous, what else was there? One I found early on was proposed by Australian National University philosopher David Chalmers. Unusually for an idea published in academic journals, it appeared to have been inspired primarily by LSD and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album. But at least if it was spectacularly wrong, it had an element of the spectacular about it.

I find many of Chalmers's ideas unclear, but in a nutshell, he argues for panprotopsychism, the idea that consciousness may exist in the universe without depending at all on anything physical (i.e., it is a "fundamental property" of the universe, like gravity); and further, that it may just find more particular expression when matter comes together in a certain way. Amongst other things, Chalmers says that we are justified in believing that even crude information-processing systems, like thermostats, may be conscious.

The problem, I think, with Chalmers's creative ideas is that they seem unconstrained to the point of being inherently untestable (no doubt why British psychologist Susan Greenfield describes them as "unhelpful"). Somehow or other, we need ideas that empirically can justify belief in them, and I am not sure that conscious thermostats qualify for that. Still, I admire Chalmers for taking consciousness seriously, and for being bold enough to propose such ideas.

Another idea I came across early on was proposed by British philosopher Colin McGinn. Our brains, he says, are the products of evolution. This implies that the brain capacities we have are those which helped our ancestors survive. And because the capacity to answer the question of where consciousness comes from cannot conceivably be of any survival value, McGinn says, we may conclude that our brains simply have not evolved in such a way as to enable us to make any headway on this question, ever. It is simply beyond our capacity, as much so as nuclear physics is forever beyond the mental capacity of an earthworm to understand. In short, human beings will never understand consciousness. (Perhaps as a result of this evidently liberating conclusion, McGinn now spends a lot of time surfing).

This position has been dubbed "mysterianism", and has a few high profile sympathizers (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker among them). But like Chalmers's position, it seems unhelpful and also doubtful. After all, the human brain obviously possesses high-powered reasoning capacities. Humans have been calculating astronomical distances and orbits for millenia; we devise complex codes and decipher dead languages; we split atoms and create particle colliders and invent computers and create vaccines. We build rockets and fly to the moon. We have already discovered quite a lot about the brain, and there seems to be no reason why we could not in principle understand how consciousness arises. So while I understand that in its common formulation, the question at the core of consciousness research is stupefying, I still can't buy McGinn's conclusion that consciousness is in principle unfathomable to the human mind. It just seems like way too much of a leap.

Anyway, the more I read, the more intrigued I became. I even flew to North Carolina at one point in spring of 2004 partly to chat with Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan, a leading commentator on consciousness. He was surprisingly friendly and even invited me over to his house. We hung out on his back porch chatting for about an hour. (While we chatted, Flanagan's dog came bouncing up with his favourite tennis ball, and I threw it into the woods over and over for him to retrieve...).

But Flanagan, in the end, was as much at a loss to explain how consciousness could arise from non-consciousness, as everyone else was. In fact, I noticed that many commentators, particularly psychologists and neuroscientists (Christof Koch comes to mind), who by temperament and training are far more inclined to producing empirical results, ended up arguing that we ought to continue mapping particular brain functions, like how the auditory or memory system works, instead of sitting around trying to understand where consciousness comes from in the first place. Maybe, the argument went, if we focus on understanding brain functions we already have something of a handle on, eventually the answer to the Big Question will become obvious; in the meantime, let's get some stuff done. A practical enough approach; but the minutiae of how the visuo-motor system works held little appeal to me. It was the dark gap at the heart of everything that intrigued me...

Now, one recurrent claim in the pieces I read was that consciousness was an "emergent" property (John Searle and Michael Gazzaniga come to mind) of the brain. What does this mean? Well...unfortunately - and this is really the problem - it can mean lots of different things.

However, one common understanding of the phrase "emergent property" is that it refers to an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes. The free market economy is an oft-used example. Of all the economic systems yet devised, it makes the most efficient use of resources, so much so that the famed Scottish economist Adam Smith once wrote that at the macro level, resources in a free market ecomony seemed to be guided by "an invisible hand", i.e., by a top-down intelligence and power. But in fact, there is no such top-down intelligence or power guiding the free market economy; this is, so the argument goes, a macro-level property emerging from many millions of micro-level economic transactions made by single agents (buyers and sellers), each possessing a very minute amount of information, and who often do not even act particularly rationally (for those interested in this, check out Austrian ecomonist Friedrich von Hayek's work).

This is an immediately appealing example of emergence, because while we all know that buyers and sellers have relatively minute amounts of economic information (as in, this green coat is ten dollars cheaper than that one; therefore, I'll buy this one, the end), we can easily imagine how many millions of data-impoverished economic decisions, in aggregate could produce spectacular macro scale efficiency of resource usage and distribution, and produce the illusion of a super-intelligence guiding the whole system.

Unfortunately, the word "emergence", I found, is also used in very different ways.

More later.


Paul S. said...

Very interesting post. Have you considered the possibility that the explanation to consciousness might not have a scientific explanation.

The very fact that despite much research little progress has been in understanding consciousness seems to be an indicator to the truth of what many religions claim. Humans have a soul.

While I may ascribe to this belief from a Christian perspective, it is far from unique to Christianity. Maybe some of the hundreds of religions that have developed or absorbed the concept of spirit are onto something.

I am very interested in understanding more about the brain and consciousness. Questions such as, "How can our free will express itself in a Newtonian (deterministic) world?"; "Does quantum physics provide the means for free will to enter the world?" have swirled in my head for over a decade.

I look forward to any more posts on the subject that you care to share with the world.

Cynical said...

You're asking great questions. To find your answers, you'll have to bootstrap yourself right out of your own system (you) and perceive yourself from an objective meta-perspective. Good luck. That's a power limited to metaphysical/multidimensional super heroes, and we don't share our powers lightly. Mwahahaha.

All kidding aside, I think we're bumping up against the fact that we can't bootstrap ourselves into a perspective that would allow us to consider the problem from "outside" the system.

WnGrl said...


Jewelz said...

Great post again. I would like to ask you about drawing on *knowledge on demand*.

I learned infant CPR (as all parents with little ones should learn) when my older kids were young. If you would have asked me to explain it to you, I could have. Just as I could have explained to you how to make spaghetti- I had the knowledge; it was there.

One night, on a whim, I decided to check on my youngest son who was 4 months old at the time. I walked into his room and saw to my horror that he had slipped between the mattress and the side of the crib. A screw had fallen out and he had slipped further so as to be dangling; hanging by his neck. By the time I found him, he was unconscious.

I could not, no matter how hard I tried, find that knowledge. I searched my mind and I couldn’t draw on it- the whole schema was gone. I know I comprehended the situation- it was a textbook scenario. But it was as though I had never learned any of the technique. I was no better off in that moment than someone who had no knowledge of infant CPR to begin with. I looked at my baby and screamed until his father came in and saved him.

A few moments later, and I remember this vividly, the answer “popped” back into my brain. I was also suddenly cognitively aware of other factors in the room that had escaped me. I knew what I should have done. It was there all the time. Kind of like the kid who studies and studies for the History exam and then forgets it all when it counts- and of course remembers it as he is walking out of class. Where in my consciousness was that knowledge when I needed it? How can I access it or other truths that I *know* next time I am in a situation where I need to deliver?

Tal said...


Interesting question. Here are a few thoughts.

In normal situations, sensory information is routed by the brain to the thalamus, a kind of central processing centre. From there, the information is distributed to other parts of the brain for further processing.

For example, a song on the radio would be sent to the temporal lobe where auditory processing occurs, as well as to the frontal lobe, where the sound will be "contextualized" and interpreted in light of already stored knowledge (e.g. "this is a cover of the Beatles song 'The Long and Winding Road'"). From there, the information is routed to the "primitive" part of the brain, and in particular, to the amygdala, where emotions are attached to the percept. So in this case, the percept may arouse in you feelings like love, wistfulness, or melancholy. The hippocampus, which deals with memory, also plays a role here; for example, as you hear the song, you may suddenly experience memories of when your uncle taught you the song once when you were small, when he was visiting one Christmas, and then recall the Christmas tree that year, and the smell of your mother's gingerbread Christmas cookies, etc.

However, if the brain ever detects "serious immediate danger" in the incoming sensory data, it immediately shuts down all the other normal routing processes and instead utilizes an emergency shortcut. It sends the information (which is actually in very crude state, not having been through the normal processing stages) directly from the thalamus to the amygdala, *in one single synapse*. (Amazing, huh?). The amygdala then initiates an instantaneous "survival" reaction based on its emotional response.

As part of this survival reaction, the amygdala initiates total brain focus on the danger and "commands" the release of a flood of adrenaline. The adrenaline immediately supercharges the heart rate, puts muscles and nerves on tense, red alert, and quickens breathing.

Now, where I was going was that while normally the hippocampus (which again regulates memory) and the amygdala work together very well, the neural and hormonal response to sudden crisis can be so severe as to impair hippocampal functioning. That is, severe sudden stress from danger can temporarily impair memory retrieval.

That's probably what happened to you.

June said...


That's a very good description of the process.Are you still working toward your degree?

Anonymous said...

That's a very good description of the process.Are you still working toward your degree?

Stephen said...

Regarding your reply to Jewelz. I have fund myself in similar situations. The most recent was last night when I was playing in a band. I have also experienced similar moments in the work place. In all cases I was prepared, I knew my stuff. How do you suppress the "emergency shortcut" and open or maintain "all the other normal routing processes"? Can you learn to control this behaviour or are you at the mercy of your brain's wiring?

Tal said...

Hi Stephen

I am a total amateur on this sort of thing, but my guess is that practice alone is not enough. But repeated practice in a simulated high stress environment may be; or at least, may be the best we can do.

This is why, I think, fire fighters will actually light an old house on fire for training purposes, warriors will train in simulated combat conditions - even performing certain drills and maneuvers under live fire at times, and sports teams will arrange "friendlies" with other teams prior to the season starting.

You may be interested to know that there is an old saying in rock and roll: one concert is worth two weeks of rehearsal. Same idea. It's why big bands, prior to the opening day of a big tour, will pop up unannounced to play their set at a club or something - there may be only 200 people there rather than 20,000, but it is still far more like a real gig than standing around in a rehearsal studio.

Other than that, I am not sure what we can do.

June said...

Merry Christmas to all!

IlĂ­on said...

Whatever the relationship between them, the brain is not the mind, and the mind is not the brain.

And the mind cannot be reduced to the brain, not to an effect of the brain; such reductionism "explains" the mind by denying its reality.