Mind Neuroscience

How did consciousness become a problem?

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From Margaret Wertheim at Aeon:

I feel therefore I am

Giulio Tononi’s book Phi (2012) asks the question: ‘How could mere matter generate mind?’ As a neuroscientist, Tononi says this is a mystery ‘stranger than immaculate conception… an impossibility that defie[s] belief’. Nonetheless, he offers us an explanation of consciousness grounded in information theory that has been admired by both Tegmark and Koch. He wants to do for psychic phenomena what Descartes, Galileo and their heirs did for physical phenomena: he wants to explain subjective experience by generalised empirical rules, and he tells us that such experiences have shapes in a multidimensional mathematical space.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the idea that subjective experiences might have mathematical correlates any more than Father Coyne minds the notion of neural correlates. As an admirer of co-ordinate geometry, I like Tononi’s concept; at the same time, I don’t accept information theory as a bridge to subjectivity.

Neurological and informatic models of subjectivity will no doubt have their uses and values, as did mechanistic models of the world before them. Yet, like their mechanistic forebears, these theories are grounded in an insistence that subjectivity is a secondary phenomenon whose explanation resides in something prior. Chalmers wants to insist, along with Descartes and Locke before him, on the primacy of subjective experience or, as the philosopher Bitbol puts it, ‘that consciousness is existentially primary’. Rather than being something that can be ‘described by us in the third person as if we were separated from it’, Bitbol argues that consciousness ‘is what we dwell in and what we live through in the first person’. This feels reminiscent of what the German philosopher Edmund Husserl in 1936 called the ‘life-world’ of conscious experience, and I suspect that it is where we must look to locate the source of our selves. But I also expect that philosophers and scientists will be arguing the point for centuries to come.
More.

Wertheim is onto something there.

Consciousness is, as someone said, like looking into and out of a window at the same time. If that’s too Zen for us, consider: Consciousness means what it is like to be the subject of an experience rather than the observer. By definition, it cannot be reduced to what is observed.

If that’s the “hard problem,” then it is probably a permanent feature of the research landscape.

As I am writing a series on animal minds, I’ve had to think about this a lot. Philosopher Thomas Nagel perceptively suggested that, to understand animal consciousness, one should consider that there must be something that it is like to be a bat.

See also: Would we give up naturalism to solve the hard problem of consciousness?

and

Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away

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Note: I would have put up a YouTube at this point, on “consciousness,” but you will see why I didn’t.

On the other hand, this guy Bitbol may be one to keep an eye on:

26 Replies to “How did consciousness become a problem?

  1. 1
    mike1962 says:

    Not only is it a “problem”, but due to its utterly subjective nature, nobody knows if anyone besides his or her self is actually conscious. Which frustrates scientific inquiry that much the more. Asking if someone is conscious is like acting if God exists. Scientific inquiry cannot answer it. Nothing can answer it.

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    It is and always has been a hard problem. But the fact that we are able to recognize the problem and ask the questions is cause for hope that one day we will have an answer. Who knows, possibly even one that is naturalistic?

  3. 3
    George Edwards says:

    Yes, consciousness is a problem. The biggest problem is that we can’t even agree on a definition. This being said, we know that we can alter and suspend (and presumably destroy) consciousness by merely altering the physical brain. The best inference, therefore, is that consciousness is a result of the physical brain, not something outside of it. But, if someone discovers evidence to the contrary, something beyond near death experiences, I will follow the evidence where it leads.

  4. 4
    Dionisio says:

    How did consciousness become a problem?

    Is it really a problem? Why would anyone consider it a problem?
    One could argue that unconsciousness is a problem. But consciousness? 🙂
    Did they mean “understanding and describing what consciousness is”?

  5. 5
    Mapou says:

    GE:

    The best inference, therefore, is that consciousness is a result of the physical brain, not something outside of it. But, if someone discovers evidence to the contrary, something beyond near death experiences, I will follow the evidence where it leads.

    I don’t understand why this is such a stumbling block to so many. The colors that we experience cannot be explained by the physics of neurons and photons. Colors do not exist in the physical realm. This tells me that there must be another realm, one that complements the physical realm.

    I suggest that this other realm is the same spiritual realm that ancient thinkers have written about. It contains all abstract (non-physical) entities, including the non-physical entities that give us our color experiences. Half of our conscious sensory experiences come from those entities. There is no escaping the Yin-Yang duality of reality.

  6. 6
    OldArmy94 says:

    The brain is necessary for consciousness in our current plane of existence, but it is not a sufficient explanation. There is more.

  7. 7
    Dionisio says:

    I will follow the evidence where it leads

    No, you won’t, unless you want to.
    BTW, who are you?
    🙂

  8. 8
    Jack Jones says:

    @3 “This being said, we know that we can alter and suspend (and presumably destroy) consciousness by merely altering the physical brain. The best inference, therefore, is that consciousness is a result of the physical brain, not something outside of it. But, if someone discovers evidence to the contrary, something beyond near death experiences, I will follow the evidence where it leads.”

    Showing the brain being involved in thinking, perception and memory does not necessarily suggest that the brain causes those thoughts, perceptions and memories.

    Brain research studying different functions of the brain only shows correlations not causation.

    The correlations are entirely consistent with the idea that thoughts, perceptions and memories take place somewhere separate from the brain but are then processed in specific areas of the brain.

    Just like with a television or radio or a phone, the signal, the message is created somewhere else, but your cell phone is necessary to receive and process the message.

    If we were to measure the electrical activity inside your cell phone or electrically excite certain parts of it or remove certain vital parts of your phone, we could show that certain parts of the phone were involved in your hearing the phone message but we would not be proving that the message originated within your cell phone anymore than you can prove thoughts originate within our brains.

  9. 9
    mike1962 says:

    George Edwards: The best inference, therefore, is that consciousness is a result of the physical brain, not something outside of it.

    Imagine sitting in an otherwise dark theater, watching a movie on the screen. Now imagine the projector lights go out and you find yourself in total darkness. What you’re saying is like saying that since you are now in total darkness, this is evidence that the movie projector light is the proximate cause of your visual consciousness.

    Nobody doubts that brains are associated with conscious experience. But correlation is not causation. And triggers are not the things they trigger. (The trigger of a gun may cause the bullet to begin flying but the trigger is not the bullet.) The problem is compounded by the fact that due to its utterly subjective nature, nobody can know by scientific inquiry if anyone besides his or her self is actually conscious or not. That, you must take on faith, extrapolated from a data point of one (yourself), (assuming you are indeed conscious.)

  10. 10
    Mapou says:

    Jack Jones:

    The correlations are entirely consistent with the idea that thoughts, perceptions and memories take place somewhere separate from the brain but are then processed in specific areas of the brain.

    I fully disagree with this if only because I am a card-carrying dualist. Thoughts, perceptions and memories do indeed take place in the brain. They do not occur anywhere else. This is what the evidence says. There would be no need for the brain to process anything if they already existed elsewhere. It takes both the brain and the spirit to have conscious experiences. And only a small part of the brain is associated with consciousness. Most of it is 100% unconscious.

    Consciousness requires a knower and a known, a subject and an object. The two are opposites and complementary. This is true by definition. Duality rules.

  11. 11
    Jack Jones says:

    @10 “I fully disagree with this if only because I am a card-carrying dualist”

    That is dualism I am arguing for, the mind is not the Brain.

  12. 12
    Jim Smith says:

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that subjective experiences might have mathematical correlates

    The problem is that consciousness is non-physical (it is not limited by time and distance – http://ncu9nc.blogspot.com/p/6.....e_evidence). You can’t understand consciousness by analogy to anything physical. Outside the physical universe there are no analogues to time and distance that you can apply mathematics to. To assume there are is begging the question – assuming what you are trying to explain.

    Mathematics is produced by mind. Nature, the physical universe, can be described by mathematics only because it was designed by a mind that used mathematics in the design.

  13. 13
    Mapou says:

    Jack Jones:

    @10 “I fully disagree with this if only because I am a card-carrying dualist”

    That is dualism I am arguing for, the mind is not the Brain.

    You are not a dualist. You are what I call a spiritualist.

    1. Dualist -> Mind requires both brain and spirit.
    2. Materialist -> Mind requires only the brain.
    3. Spiritualist -> Mind requires only the spirit, not the brain.

    Both materialism and spiritualism are types of monism. They are both wrong, IMO.

  14. 14
    Jack Jones says:

    @13

    “You are not a dualist. You are what I call a spiritualist.”

    Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy.

    “Dualists in the philosophy of mind emphasize the radical difference between mind and matter. They all deny that the mind is the same as the brain, and some deny that the mind is wholly a product of the brain.”

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/

    As per the IEP, then I am a dualist.

    “Mind requires both brain and spirit”

    A Dualist does not say that the mind of man does not work with the brain, they just say the two are not identical.

    I agree that the mind relies on the brain in this “plane of existence” That does not mean mind and brain are the same thing however as I explained in a previous post.

    I would say that you hold the same view of the mind as a materialist as you have reduced the mind to matter and you believe thoughts are chemical reactions in the brain, it makes no sense to say chemical reactions are true or false anymore than saying a bottle of pepsi fizzes incorrectly when compared to a bottle of mountain dew.

  15. 15

    The brain is organized in terms of making decisions. What the agency of thesedecisions is, is a matter of opinion. So the problem is solved, splitting it into a subjective and objective part. The decisions are objective, and the agency is subjective.

  16. 16
    Mapou says:

    Jones:

    I would say that you hold the same view of the mind as a materialist as you have reduced the mind to matter and you believe thoughts are chemical reactions in the brain,

    You are putting words in my mouth. bornagain has the same bad habit. Not nice.

    I clearly wrote that I believe BOTH brain and spirit are needed in order for the conscious mind to function. You, OTOH, claim that only the spirit is needed and that memories are in the spirit. You are wrong. We know exactly where memories are, in the brain.

  17. 17
    Vy says:

    We know exactly where memories are, in the brain.

    You make it sound like memories are material/physical.

  18. 18
    anthropic says:

    Since roughly 1 in 25 human beings have had an NDE, and their accounts of these NDEs share certain common elements, I fail to see why this isn’t strong evidence against the materialist view of consciousness.

  19. 19
    Jack Jones says:

    “You, OTOH, claim that only the spirit is needed and that memories are in the spirit.”

    I said nothing about the spirit, I pointed out that mind and brain are not necessarily the same thing.

    ” You are wrong.”

    If thoughts are just chemical reactions in the brain then it makes no sense to say that I am wrong. Chemical reactions just are, makes no sense to say chemical reactions are false.

    “We know exactly where memories are, in the brain.”

    What we know is that chemical reactions are neither true or false. To argue your position as truth requires free will, if your position is determined chemistry and I am determined chemistry then we would just be arguing how any other determined chemistry would be arguing.

    You say “You are putting words in my mouth”

    But you said “Thoughts, perceptions and memories do indeed take place in the brain.”

    That means my brain would secrete certain thoughts different to yours, just like the liver secretes bile.

    Funny to say what would be thought secretions, are wrong.

    My position is consistent with the IEP definition of being a Dualist, mind is not the brain.

    You seem to think what would be my thought secretion on your position is wrong.

    Very Odd.

  20. 20
    Mapou says:

    Jones,

    What we have here is a failure to communicate. I’m satisfied with leaving it at that. See you around.

  21. 21
    Robert Byers says:

    Its never been a problem to Christians who believe the bible.
    Its simple. We are material souls. All that is needed is to mesh the soul to the material. I say this is done by meshing us to the memory. In fact i say there is no mind. The mind is a memory machine.
    So perception from the senses simply goes into the memory and we read the memory. the soul perceives nothing in the world. Just a recording. A edited one .
    The only thing a non soul believer can say is that mans thinking is just one part of the memory machine dealing with another part and so giving a impression there is somebody in there.
    They can’t say that.

  22. 22
    bFast says:

    Anthropic (18) “Since roughly 1 in 25 human beings have had an NDE…” Source please? In my life I believe I have met one person who may have had an NDE. I have never had a dialog with anyone about their own NDE. I don’t buy 1 in 25 by any means.

  23. 23
    kairosfocus says:

    News,

    Without responsible, rational freedom, there isn’t even an us capable of thinking, arguing, logically and factually grounding and concluding for ourselves.

    Reppert, building on Haldane and Lewis, is revealing:

    . . . let us suppose that brain state A, which is token identical to the thought that all men are mortal, and brain state B, which is token identical to the thought that Socrates is a man, together cause the belief that Socrates is mortal. It isn’t enough for rational inference that these events be those beliefs, it is also necessary that the causal transaction be in virtue of the content of those thoughts . . . [[But] if naturalism is true, then the propositional content is irrelevant to the causal transaction that produces the conclusion, and [[so] we do not have a case of rational inference. In rational inference, as Lewis puts it, one thought causes another thought not by being, but by being seen to be, the ground for it. But causal transactions in the brain occur in virtue of the brain’s being in a particular type of state that is relevant to physical causal transactions.

    KF

    PS: I point to the Smith bio-cybernetic model as a basis for thinking out of the box. An in the loop controller interacting with a supervisory one.

  24. 24
    groovamos says:

    Seversky:
    hope that one day we will have an answer. Who knows, possibly even one that is naturalistic?

    Yes I bet you do and for all of the important reasons I assume, like as the final blow to intellectual and political opposition.

    What’s interesting is that within the naturalistic worldview, the final blow would turn out ‘actually’ to be the subscriber’s inevitable personal obliteration. Self annihilation. By definition.

    Talk about a logic that twists around and eats itself. And all this in “hope” of your opposition being defeated. (not to ignore additional accoutrements supposedly conferred by such belief)

  25. 25
    gpuccio says:

    Seversky:

    “It is and always has been a hard problem. But the fact that we are able to recognize the problem and ask the questions is cause for hope that one day we will have an answer. Who knows, possibly even one that is naturalistic?”

    Not so difficult, after all. It could be enough, just to start, to accept that consciousness is a fundamental part of nature.

    You see, the hard problem really arises as soon as we try to explain subjective experiences in terms of objects. The assumption is that nature is made only of objects.

    Just redefine your concept of nature, and the problem is no more a problem.

    Now, the simple truth is: either it is possible to explain subjective experiences in terms of objects, or it is not.

    If the second is true, which is what I do believe, then the hard problem will never be solved, unless we redefine nature to include consciousness and its subjective experiences. Then, and only then, we can start building a good map of reality.

  26. 26
    nkendall says:

    Setting aside the “hard problem” of consciousness there are other intractable problems with materialism:

    Streams of thought – Imagine Einstein on the street car riding home from his job at the patent office. He wants to resolve a problem that has been plaguing him. Seemingly, by executive order, he instructs his mind to get to work. His mind accedes, demonstrating the obvious truth that we have free will, and brings forth one brilliant thought after another with a few false starts perhaps. No real gaps; all related to the topic–intentionality through intention. Each thought, each instance in his conscious experience, is relevant to the previous thought and the next. He can effortless go back and forth, randomly revisiting each line of thought from any point even following interruption. But by what physical cause? Physics would produce order and consistent, repeatable outcomes; not complex novelty let along subjectivity.

    Dreams – Dreams are novel and unique multimedia presentations–mini movies. They incorporate at least three of the five senses and correlate with one’s own thoughts. During dreams we can change our view point as though shifting our eyes or head. We can following objects as they move through what appears to be our normal visual frame. This would require the spontaneous and instantaneous creation of novel imagery that is entirely consistent with each instant in the experience. Think of the information content of just the imagery itself, let alone the thoughts, the dialog and the tactile sensations. Think of how profoundly difficult it would be to integrate all this rich content together on the fly! And all this complex content would have to be derived from some other set of neural resources, i.e. other than those pertaining to the five senses through perception. After all, we are asleep, but we don’t know we are dreaming. The experience seems real. The imagery, the dialog, the sense of touch, our thoughts all seem perfectly normal. So the brain–some portion of it at least–materialists would have us believe, just happens to be able to precisely emulate our other senses. By what materialist miracle would that be? Evolution could have nothing whatsoever to say about this. There is nothing in the DNA that even hints at this ability and the images are related to one’s recent experience not something from the paleolithic.

    Near Death Experiences – Let’s me suggest that NDEs could be hallucinations, a position that really strains credulity. But if they are hallucinations they are can’t possibly be hallucinations of a physical brain for the same reason dreams cannot be the product of brain chemistry. In order to believe that NDEs are products of brain function one would have to believe that there is an auxiliary, let’s call it a “turbo” version of consciousness and thought that kicks in to place immediately after the neural components that are purported to account for our consciousness and thought in normal circumstances have been irreparably damaged. And this turbo consciousness must have access to memory and thought and somehow maintain the same sense of one’s self as NDEers typically report knowing who they are. But it would have to arise from an entirely different set of neural resources (the others having lost the ability given the severe damage) anxiously awaiting their day in the sun. Really! Some of these NDEers have been subjected to severe brain damage. Yet no matter the damage to the neo-cortex (Eben Alexander’s case), somehow their sense of self, memories, ability to think, all return to normal. If the brain is suppose to account for all this, the underlying functions have to be “stored” somewhere. If they are stored somewhere, don’t you think that the look up table, or whatever other computational-like device suggested by materialists to account for this, would be rendered useless? What extraordinary complex function could explain the resumption of these mental qualities? And all this is to ignore the commonality of experience NDEers report such as the life review with memories from different perspectives and with different emotions.

    The sooner we jettison the mindless philosophy of materialism, which has done incalculable damage to civilization, the better. It is a testament to the power of group think to realize that the supposed most brilliant minds from all the universities of all the world have collectively embraced this canard–a canard that can best be described as a colossal fool’s errand; with its participants endlessly spilling ink trying to construct one foolish model after another purporting to show how the electrical force could somehow produce that which we use to analyze it, among many other things. For me, ascribing brilliance to someone requires that they have gotten the big questions right; at least in their discipline. This means, if you are a philosopher or biologist and you have embraced neo-Darwinism and materialism, no matter how adept you are at turning a phrase, you may be smart but you are a fool nonetheless. Those at the Discovery Institute and many others on this forum, seem to have gotten the big questions right, they have been the lone voices of reason in a world gone mad. God Bless you all! You are doing God’s work.

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