The Four Problems of Studying Consciousness

The Four Problems of Studying Consciousness (and their suggested solutions):

I. The Problem of Disorientation

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to any study of consciousness is that both the study and the study-er are aspects of consciousness itself. Infinite regress seems unavoidable, as well as a host of other ambiguities, some of which are embodied in timeworn philosophical puzzles. Everything from “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, to “If a tree falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, to Descartes “Je pense donc je suis”, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave have to do with the issues of the origination of perception and it’s irreducibility to an objective fact. These same ambiguities have surfaced again more recently and confoundingly in quantum physics with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the observer effect, in cosmology with the anthropic principle, and in mathematics with self-similarity, incompleteness, and non-orientable topologies (e.g. Möbius strip, Klein bottle).

II. The Problem of Ubiquity and Ineffability

Another issue related to subjective orientation is the inability to escape one’s own perspective. To quote Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. This is distinct from disorientation as far as it describes not only the limitation on the degree to which subjective and objective perception seem absurdly juxtaposed, but the extent to which this absurdity can even be understood. We cannot get outside of our own perception to say what it is or what it is not. The “Elephant in Every Room” is our own awareness. Sanity. Order. Experience. It is impossible not to take it for granted on some level. The universe that we make sense of is one which seems to already make sense. Our ability to derive coherence from our world is shaped by our experience, our learning of language and habits of attention. To reach beyond this anthropic frame of reference is insanity, or non-sense. Not only can we not get outside of ourselves, but when we try, our thoughts lose the coherence and intentionality which constituted the effort for self-transcendence in the first place. Wild absurdity and surreality can be somewhat intellectually domesticated or at least housebroken in the form of zen, (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”), poetry, art, etc. So powerful is the sensemaking of the human mind that it has ways to explain its own inability to explain how it explains.

III. The Problem of Authenticity

Circularity and recursion it seems, are unbearable to the psyche in a way that they are not to a machine. In fact nothing seems unbearable to a machine, although a physical mechanism (such as an electronic or industrial machine) will fail under certain conditions. To isolate an essential difference between a computational mechanism (such as a virtual computer, Turing machine, or computer program) and an authentically subjective phenomenon seems tricky because of the problems of ubiquity and disorientation, but both of these analytical obstacles can be theoretically overcome. As Frank Herbert’s fictional Gom Jabbar revealed genuine humanity through the administering of extreme pain, the tolerance for unbounded states could possibly be used to distinguish mechanism from sentience. A machine can be left running by itself by default, while a living organism, even though its biological processes have mechanistic functionality, has a high level non-mechanical nature which allows the possibility of it questioning, adapting, learning, and taking creative initiative. More sophisticated machines can seem to us to simulate these kinds of subjective behaviors, but we should not assume that such pseudo-intelligent strategies are felt internally. The machine cannot understand what it is ‘thinking’ because its ‘thoughts’ are imposed from the outside. They are the consequences of a non-native scripted logic from an entirely different perceptual frame.

Whether a particular behavior is caused by an externally superimposed command or a native sense and motive makes no difference from the point of view of a third person observer, it makes no difference if the person that brings you your coffee is a robot or a person. Functionalism focuses our attention only on the inputs and outputs, and all methods of producing a function are reduced simply to means to an end. This is not the case subjectively. From the point of view of a sentient subject, it very much matters why they bring coffee, how long will they keep bringing it, and what will happen if they stop. A robotic servant has no such questions (if they did, they would not make a very good robot servant). The sentient being is experiencing an autobiographical narrative while the machine is not.

We might attribute sentience to a machine, or convince ourselves that we can, but it is not clear that this equivalence holds water in the real world. So far we have no indication that any computer program or machine intelligence has had any feeling or desire to resist our control. All of our AI games and simulations thus far have only served to reinforce the peculiar presence of the absence of presence. No self-hood. No essence. It is a disorienting feeling. Talking to a voicemail system or a GPS device can be perfectly adequate, even superior from a functional point of view, but these technologies present only a silhouette of consciousness – a verbal enactment with no underlying capacity to care, believe, or doubt anything. The only criteria is syntactic; whether or not the voice input can be parsed into data which matches it’s algorithms. While the brain and the mind do make use of this kind of computation in part, we should not confuse the computer aspects of the brain with the user aspects of the brain. When we talk to a device, it is still us – our sense and motives that are driving the behavior of the device. We use the technology as a prosthetic to augment our own mind, to derive insights for our own agendas, but the device itself has no agenda itself other than whatever physical transactions are taking place electronically on a semiconductor level. The machine is processing our voice characteristics as an a-signifying code, transduced digitally from the acoustic to the electronic to the linguistic and back without any true cognition or meaning.

IV. The Problem of Commonality

The Hard Problem of Consciousness and the Mind-Body Problem hinge on the deep division between our native subjective experience (naive realism) and our knowledge of the physical world. This issue has reached something of a fever pitch in neurology as medical technology has given us ever more evidence of the reality of the division rather than alleviating the paradox. We find no trace of our feelings or qualities of our experience in the cells and molecules of the brain. There is only synchronized association by time and position, but that seems to be all that they have in common. We feel, think, or do something and an MRI will register a pattern of activated brain regions which are reliably repeatable but which have no semantic significance independent of our subjective experience. The activity in the brain is incredibly complex and sophisticated spatiotemporally and materially, but in all other ways the activity appears generic. The biochemistry of the brain presents nothing extraordinary to explain the necessity for or a mechanism by which any kind of immersing, 3-D polymorphous theatrical presentation such as we experience could emerge. There appears to be no direct correlation between our subjective experience and the mechanics which ostensibly produce that experience.

Functionalism can only speak in metaphysical terms of ‘information’ or ‘interpretations’ to describe how semantic significance and the presence of qualia might arise. Ultimately these descriptions have medical value but provide no insights into the nature of consciousness. Instead, they actually obstruct inquiry and confuse the issue by bringing the reality of consciousness itself into doubt. It is as if the chasm which separates subjective phenomenology and objective physical science is so vast, the prospect of bridging the two sides so daunting, that we tend to regress into pre-scientific defensiveness. Some thinkers are compelled to argue that consciousness must be explained away – reduced to generic processes and probabilities which can and will be reproduced and simulated eventually. Consciousness in this view is seen as a ‘bag of tricks’ which binds to otherwise meaningless hallucinations for an evolutionary advantage. Other thinkers argue that consciousness is primary, and that it is physical reality that should be explained away through the ephemeral implications of quantum physics and the incompatibility of consciousness with physical substance. Both of these intellectual postures seem to harden into a bellicose incuriousity, with each side exaggerating the shortcomings of the other while bolstering their own position with ever more dubious rationalizations. Taken to their extremes, each position falls into pathological hyperbole – a monosense universe in which either we ourselves or the universe is not real.

V. The Symmetry Solution

To resolve the problem of commonality, we should clear our minds of our personal affections for either one of these intellectual dead ends and set out to consider other alternatives. We can begin this by noticing what the problem looks like in detail. What are these things like and what about them seems different from the other? It should not escape our attention that the experience of the internal self and the world of what we experience as being outside of ourselves are not merely different, they are precisely opposite in many ways (perhaps every way?).

Subjectivity seems to be private, interior, continuous, signifying, proprietary, figurative, and uncertain. We experience a perpetual now within which we can choose to focus our attention different subjects and objects. We can consider this or that. We can consider experiences which are happening now and we can superimpose happenings from memory or fantasy from the ‘not now’. We can blend these experiences into a fluidly flowing fugue of truthful fiction, or we can partition them rigidly as facts and errors. Sometimes the choice seems to be ours and in other cases the choice seems to be made for us. We can stand aloof from our perceptual reality, in profound monastic detachment, or we can be completely enveloped by the minutia of one ordinary thing after another

These two extreme perspectives reveal another aspect of the commonality problem. Big picture thinking tends to be abstract and theoretical, while concrete experience is tends to be small minded and provincial. It is difficult to bridge the gap between the universal truth and ‘news you can use’. Subjectivity and objectivity then, not only present two ends of the sense continuum but where they meet, in the profoundly esoteric blending and the hard junction of pedestrian common sense can be considered the opposite two poles of the continuum.To arrive at a description of the objective universe we have only to run through the list of subjective qualities and turn them upside down. Instead of ephemeral private experiences through time, we think of the universe out there as persistent public objects across space. Instead of a shapeless interiority which ranges from active teleology to passive spectatorship, the universe is a spaciously exterior teleonomy (unintentional progress, like evolution) which is unconscious. Where our experience pieces together bits of information to build coherent patterns, the universe breaks down patterns through entropy. The subjective experience explores through comparisons of ‘either/or’ while the objective universe can only be a paradox of ‘and’. Since the objective universe independent of any subjective orientation would be formless, it cannot said to be ‘real’ on it’s own. Likewise the ideal side of the universe, independent of any objective referent to serve as content for it’s perceptions cannot be said to be real. Even if perception could take place, it would be only a solipsistic fiction.

VI. The Realism Solution

It is understood how our stereo sense organs (eyes, ears) present us with a greater sense of reality than a single source could. This can be described functionally as triangulation but the experience is one not of additive sensation arranged like a Venn diagram intersection, but rather with an awareness of depth. With both eyes open and focused, we feel and we know that we are more directly in touch with the factual nature of our external world.

It may be the case that the relation between subjective phenomenology and objective universality makes epistemology possible. Whether we interpret the three dimensionality of our perceived external world as an indirect simulation ‘in here’ or a direct discovery of the world ‘out there’, the fact that it is wholly congruent with our ability to navigate the world suggests that our sense of the world is more accurate with this three dimensional realism than without it. This is not to say that this sense cannot be intentionally spoofed or produced independently of a real world referent (as in optical illusions or dreams), but it suggests that there is a concrete basis for realism beyond semiotic correspondence.

We may not always be able to tell that our dream is not real, but we find it even more difficult to deny the validity of what is. In an ultimate sense we cannot expect to be able to transcend our own subjectivity, so too can we not discount what relative objectivity we are privileged with. There is a degree of veridicality in our participation within physical reality which is not matched by merely realistic perception. As suggested by blindsight and synesthesia, (not to mention intuition) our sensemaking capacity extends beyond our conscious channels of sense. The fact that there is a difference at all between dream and reality, fact and fiction, suggests that a natural connection between proximal and distal reality is possible, at least in a loose overlapping sense. If everything were just solipsistic fantasy to one degree or another, why so much elaborate pretense to the contrary? Why fake realism so thoroughly?

Our connection to any real reality may be questionable philosophically, but the feeling of authenticity is certainly potent enough that the distinction between direct and indirect perception is really academic. Within our own perceptual frame of reference, our reality is real enough. The evidence of real consequences to our actions in the world is persuasive and internally validating of our own sanity. It is precisely the dissociation the realism of the world which defines delusion, dream, or psychosis. Were it not the case that realism had no roots in external correspondence, such unreality would be universally regarded as viable alternate realities. The willingness to entertain ungrounded solipsism as a reality is itself considered a degree of mental illness by many. As the saying goes, “Neurotics build castles in the clouds…Psychotics live in them.”

While we may play at blurring the lines between fantasy and reality or sanity and madness, it is sophistry to pretend that there can be no significance or authenticity that is exclusive to Earthbound realities. Fiction can inform reality and fact can inspire fantasy but there is no question that the distinct nature of the two arises from something more than only the degree of complexity. Physical reality is more than just a detailed and persistent dream, it is an investment in exhaustive universal continuity which no solipsistic or cinematic animation can match. At the same time, concrete physicality can have no realism without some kind of quasi-subjective experience to define and embody it.

VII. Privacy and Significance

In optics, the term specular reflection refers to the mirror-like reflection of an image, as opposed to the diffuse reflection of light illuminating a non-reflective object. This presents a good metaphor for realism in epistemology. We are able to distinguish between the mirror and the reflection through the mirror. Specular reflection not only follows our physical movements in a different way than diffuse reflection, but the composition of a specular reflection is qualitatively different. Specular reflection engages the viewer personally so that there is an awareness of a private, self-referential experience. Our sense is of a false view of the world being presented for us rather than an extension of the world. We watch, view, or look at reflected or false worlds – even in the case of live theater or a sporting event where there is no media literally redirecting perception, the nature of the spectacle is to figuratively divorce us from context literal context and transport us into an exclusive signifying narrative. Delusional states represent an overflow condition of this transportation, where the subjective sense of spectacle is insufficiently contained by the literal sense of the world. The fictive processes of the psyche dramatize and mythologize generic events and a-signifying coincidences. Similarly, in depression or other psychological flat affects, the personality grows incapable of indulging in positive imagination or entertainment it’s own sake.

Privacy and significance are features of subjectivity which cannot be simulated. We may hallucinate our private meanings onto objective conditions, but there has never been an occurrence of the contents of a person’s psyche suddenly becoming publicly accessible. All sharing of our private reality tunnels must be accomplished through some kind of sharing or expression. The mind never explodes out into the world as a collection of objects which can be examined directly and unambiguously. Neural imagery promises to someday bring a form of public access to the contents of the brain, but this too is only an intersubjective sharing rather than a true externalization of internal realities. You still need to be a person to internalize and interpret another person’s experience.

Whether or not our experiences are objectively meaningful, we cannot deny our qualitative experiences of meaning itself. Multisense Realism proposes that meaning is a primitive subjective phenomenon rather than an epiphenomenon or emergent property of objective circumstances. To say that all meaning is subjective is to diminish the significance of significance itself. It is actually meaning which differentiates the real from the unreal, so that rather than a metaphysical labeling mechanism, perception in Multisense Realism is a direct presentation of the contents of the self in its native language. Physiology and neurology are limited to insights which can be gained through physical instruments. This external world of objects in space is the polar opposite of our internal world of experiences through time. What we gain in scientific certainty and universality we pay for in the loss of the sense and motivation of the self, the identity, and life itself. It can be argued that a scientific worldview does not preclude us from enjoying a rich and meaningful life. While that is certainly true, it is also true that this can only be the case if we do not take the scientific worldview completely to heart. If we apply scientific orthodoxy literally to our personal lives, we would be considered pathological if not sociopathic. Forsaking all concerns except those of evolutionary biology and biochemistry, we would experience no distinction between eating a hamburger and eating our own pets. Our friends and family would become convenient strangers who populate the unremarkable locations we frequent. We would truly be strangers in a strange land, skeptical robots which have only a what and how but no sense of who or why.

VIII. The Sensorimotive Solution

Privacy and significance are the antidote for disorientation and ineffability. While we may not be able to isolate a single ‘meaning of life’ that is objectively true in a public, universal sense (such a thing would be impossible since meaning is by definition privately oriented) but it does provide us with countless meanings. Meanings great and small, meanings within meanings, meanings which develop over time, which can be remembered and shared. The fundamental unit of this phenomenon is sensorimotive experience. It is the concrete capacity to make sense of ourselves, our world, and to participate in it.

Whether it is sensation, cognition, or exercising will, the minimum requirement for experience cannot be described in terms of any particular electrochemical mechanism but it can be reduced to basic experiential components such as flux and flow, symmetry, cyclic recursion, sequence, radial nucleation, etc. These elemental proto-experiences can be considered an alphabet of universal gestures underlying sensemaking. From neurons and electrons to archetypes and theologies, the sensorimotive periodic table serves as an implicit framework. Arithmetic and scientific sense elevate the most literal and unambiguous of these principles but they also distract us from the nuanced and poetic potentials of the cosmos.

Sensorimotive dynamics provide the reconciliation of literal and figurative phenomenology which solves the problem of disorientation. The ability to feel, be, and do is the tent pole of realism, keeping subject and object distinct while weaving the here and now with the resonance of the then and there. It is complexity expressed through simplicity and the eternal balanced with the unrepeatable. Significance builds within experience as a cumulative entanglement of meanings and motives. It is unbearable as it is ecstatic. We play games with our own expectations and frustrations. The essence of the cosmos is to sense and make sense. This is the nature and purpose of consciousness in the face of its opposite: Entropy. Meaninglessness. Unconsciousness.

Entropy balances and contains significance by dividing its physical substance across space. Even entropy however has it’s own reflected significance and grandeur. Our ephemeral and insignificant lives can matter all the more in their incalculable unlikeliness. The mind numbing quantities of moments and lifetimes present on this planet, in our species alone is something which is made to seem more staggering by our inability to experience it directly. The magnitude of our limitation as human beings makes a mockery of our greatest achievements and elevates our most ordinary capabilities that we take for granted. To think and feel, to imagine and act in a world we can make sense of, to live an ordinary life – all of these things are nothing short of miraculous in the context of the vastness of universe. Only through multiple senses can we know its reality. To begin this process, we should reclaim our individual authority. Subjective orientation is not an epiphenomenon, it is the essence of all realism and causal efficacy. Purpose, meaning, and experience are the fountain from which reality is emerges. Objectivity is an equally important counterpoint, through its unyielding, unfeeling impartiality appears to us paradoxically more real than our own experience. Like a diffraction grating, the material side of existence interleaves obstacles with vacancies through which sense seeks figuratively transcend and reconnect.

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