Which is more likely?
Isn’t saying that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain just as much a non-explanation as saying it is a fundamental property of all matter?
To begin with, I think that it is necessary to separate the notion of personal states of consciousness from the vastly more general phenomenon of awareness.
Despite continuing evidence that human beings are less unique and special compared to other species than we had believed in the past, there are still ways in which Homo sapiens exhibit superlative talents. While we may no longer be able to point to any one particular trait, such as tool use, language use, or bipedalism that makes humans fundamentally different from everything else in the universe, the overwhelming sophistication of human life is surely an order of magnitude greater than that of any other organism we have encountered.
We know now that human neurons are not very different from those of other species, however, the human brain has almost twice the ratio of brain to body mass and energy of expenditure than the next closest contender (Bottlenose dolphin). We have every reason to correlate this surplus brain capacity with the success of the human species in overcoming their natural limitations and extending their habitat in uniquely un-natural ways.
If we set aside the special case of human consciousness for a moment, what can we really say that a brain does for an organism which cannot be found in organisms which lack a brain that has to do with deciding whether that organism is aware or not? There are zooplankton, for instance, with no brains who have eyes made of just two cells. We can imagine that anything using such primitive sense organs would have a vastly degraded experience compared to stereoscopic human vision, but the general premise of using optical sensation to navigate the environment is no more or less an indication of consciousness than our own.
As neuroscience and biology progress, it seems that rather than finding a clear threshold of phenomena which begin to appear more conscious, the threshold continues to fall. Here are some interesting things to consider:
- Neurons themselves now seem to have a nervous system of their own.
- Epigenetic studies show experiences have hereditary impact (Trait vs. Fate).
- Ephaptic coupling shows neurons communicating without using the synapse.
- Quorum-Sensing shows bacteria making group decisions.
- Worms remember things after their heads are cut off
- Plants sense danger and tell each other about it.
This even extends beyond the level of living cells:
- Universal protein fluctuations in populations of microorganisms
- More evidence found for quantum physics in photosynthesis
- Tiny volcanic moon controls Jupiter’s auroras
- Trophic cascades change the way that we think of ecology and geology: How Wolves Change Rivers
Add to this the continuing lack of resolution on ‘fringe’ issues such as NDEs, OBE’s, paranormal phenomena, the increase of the placebo effect, statistical anomalies in random event generators (REGs) and we get a picture of consciousness emerging from brains as seeming awfully anthropocentric.
If we consider the possibility of a material panpsychism, in which consciousness is a property of matter, it is not clear that we have solved the fundamental problem. The so called Hard Problem of Consciousness and Explanatory Gap address this lack of understanding about what a phenomenal quality of aesthetic presence would be doing in a mechanistic universe in the first place. By focusing on the structure of the brain and function of neurons, we are hoping to deflate the mind body problem. The mind can be seen simply as the functioning of a neural body – a vast network which exploits biochemistry to represent computations in this as-yet-not-understood, but inevitably discoverable way we are familiar with as our naive experience.
If we look at this approach more closely however, I think that we should find that all we have done is to miniaturize the mind body problem, so that it now exists at an arbitrary scale (neuron-mind neuron-body, peptide-mind peptide-body, connectome-mind connectome body, etc.). The metaphor of hardware and software has, in my view, led a generation of cognitive scientists and consciousness enthusiasts down a misguided path in which the very systems which we use to serve our conscious user experience (screen, keyboard, GUI, software) are mistakenly identified as serving the hardware (CPU, RAM, storage, network).
To truly go beyond the hard problem requires that we look at ‘looking’ itself. Understanding sensation and awareness as a phenomenon in its own right requires that we suspend all previous judgments and delve into completely new directions. In my own hypothesis, I see consciousness as not only a property of matter or physics, but is the sole property from which all possible properties must extend. This doesn’t require a human-like deity any more than the belief in matter requires that the universe is a large human-like body. It is more a matter of understanding how nested symmetries of a primordial sensitivity could produce what we know as matter, energy, spacetime, information, and subjective experience.
Jesse Prinz gives a well developed perspective on neuronal synchronization as the correlate to attention and explores the question of binding. As always, neuroscience offers important details and clues for us to guide our understanding, however, knowledge alone may not be the pure and unbiased resource that we presume it to be. The assumptions that we make about a world in which we have already defined consciousness to be the behavior of neurons are not neutral. They direct and some cases self-validate the approach as much as any cognitive bias could. For those who watch the video, here are my comments:
To begin with, aren’t unity and disunity qualitative discernments within consciousness? To me, the binding problem is most likely generated from the assumption that consciousness arises a posteriori of distinctions like part-whole, when in fact, awareness may be identical to the capacity for any distinction at all, and is therefore outside of any notion of ‘it-ness’, ‘unity’, or multiplicity. To me, it is clear that consciousness is unified, not-unified, both unified and not unified, and neither unified nor not unified. If we call consciousness ‘attention’, what should we call our awareness of the periphery of our awareness – of memories and intuitions?
The assumption that needs to be questioned is that sub-conscious awareness is different from consciousness in some material way. Our awareness of our awareness is of course limited, but that doesn’t mean that low level ‘processing’ is not also private experience in its own right.
Pointing to synchronization of neuronal activity as causing attention just pushes the hard problem down to a microphenomenal level. In order to synchronize with each other, neurons themselves would ostensibly have to be aware and pay attention to each other in some way.
Synchrony may not be the cause, but the symptom. Experience is stepped down from the top and up from the bottom in the same way that I am using codes of letters to make words which together communicate my top-down ideas. Neurons are the brain’s ‘alphabet’, they are not the author of consciousness, they are not sufficient for consciousness, but they are necessary for a human quality of consciousness. (In my opinion).
Later on, when he covers the idea of Primitive Unity, he dismisses holistic awareness on the basis of separate areas of the brain contribute separate information, but that is based on an expectation that the brain is the cause of awareness rather than the event horizon of privacy as it becomes public (and vice versa) on many levels and scales. The whole idea of ‘building whole experiences’ from atomistic parts assumes holism as a possibility, even as it seeks to deny that possibility. How can a whole experience be built without an expectation of wholes?
Attention is not what consciousness is, it is what consciousness does. In order for attention to exist, there must first be the capacity to receive sensation and to appreciate that sensation qualitatively. Only then, when we have something to pay attention to, can be find our capacity to participate actively in what we perceive.
As far as the refrigerator light idea goes, I think that is a good line of thought to explore with consciousness as I think it should lead to a questioning not only of the constancy of the light, but of the darkness as well. We cannot assume that either the naive state of light on or the sophisticated state of light on with door open/off when closed is more real than the other. Instead, each view only reflects the perspective which is getting the attention. When we look at consciousness from the point of view of a brain, we can only find explanations which break consciousness apart into subconscious and impersonal operations. It is a confirmation bias of a different sort which is never considered.
“This is your sense of consciousness – it’s a mathematical relationship among causal elements, and so the mindfulness of the monk or the agony of the cancer patient, those are all different polytropes in this very high dimensional space, and you measure the size of them, the size of the conscious repertoire by the number phi (Φ).” –
Good stuff for the Easy Problem…still no Hard Problem solution. If high dimensional polytropes can represent agony or mindfulness – why have agony or mindfulness? What translates them into experience and why?
I still have not seen anyone recognize that the assumption of impersonal micro-structures translating into personal non-structures might be unfounded. When we underestimate consciousness, it becomes a synthetic product rather than the ground of being from which we cannot escape. Mathematics exists in consciousness, but consciousness, if it could exist in mathematics, would have no reason to exist in any perceptual forms. Data is data. Why would mathematical functions do all of this decoration?
I suggest that consciousness isn’t built up from nothing by tiny parts, it is recovered from everything by sensitivity.