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The Guardian asks, Why can’t world’s greatest minds solve mystery of consciousness?

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Okay. First, did you happen to notice, earlier?, Psychologists care less when patients’ problems are explained in biological terms. (Purely brain-based explanations inevitably dehumanize. The big problem is, they give us implicit permission to avoid emotional involvement.)

That is not a good beginning if a purely naturalist explanation is sought for the mind. One would expect a correct answer to lead to more engagement, not less.

Meanwhile, back to the Guardian:

Two decades later, we know an astonishing amount about the brain: you can’t follow the news for a week without encountering at least one more tale about scientists discovering the brain region associated with gambling, or laziness, or love at first sight, or regret – and that’s only the research that makes the headlines. Meanwhile, the field of artificial intelligence – which focuses on recreating the abilities of the human brain, rather than on what it feels like to be one – has advanced stupendously. But like an obnoxious relative who invites himself to stay for a week and then won’t leave, the Hard Problem remains. When I stubbed my toe on the leg of the dining table this morning, as any student of the brain could tell you, nerve fibres called “C-fibres” shot a message to my spinal cord, sending neurotransmitters to the part of my brain called the thalamus, which activated (among other things) my limbic system. Fine. But how come all that was accompanied by an agonising flash of pain? And what is pain, anyway?

Questions like these, which straddle the border between science and philosophy, make some experts openly angry. They have caused others to argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don’t really exist, no matter what I felt as I hopped in anguish around the kitchen; or, alternatively, that plants and trees must also be conscious.

Can we start by not listening to any crackpots at all? How about, pain definitely exists, but if we don’t have a nervous system we don’t feel it?

We won’t even dignify the “gambling, or laziness, or love at first sight” crackpots with attention.

A person who needs that should acquire a bong pipe and listen to tales from evolutionary psychology.

But did Darwin maybe prove that we can’t solve the problem?:

Solutions have regularly been floated: the literature is awash in references to “global workspace theory”, “ego tunnels”, “microtubules”, and speculation that quantum theory may provide a way forward. But the intractability of the arguments has caused some thinkers, such as Colin McGinn, to raise an intriguing if ultimately defeatist possibility: what if we’re just constitutionally incapable of ever solving the Hard Problem? After all, our brains evolved to help us solve down-to-earth problems of survival and reproduction; there is no particular reason to assume they should be capable of cracking every big philosophical puzzle we happen to throw at them. This stance has become known as “mysterianism” – after the 1960s Michigan rock’n’roll band ? and the Mysterians, who themselves borrowed the name from a work of Japanese sci-fi – but the essence of it is that there’s actually no mystery to why consciousness hasn’t been explained: it’s that humans aren’t up to the job. If we struggle to understand what it could possibly mean for the mind to be physical, maybe that’s because we are, to quote the American philosopher Josh Weisberg, in the position of “squirrels trying to understand quantum mechanics”. In other words: “It’s just not going to happen.”

But then, as our Guardian writer points out, a hot alternative possibility is that everything is conscious. It has descended to this:

It is the argument that anything at all could be conscious, providing that the information it contains is sufficiently interconnected and organised. The human brain certainly fits the bill; so do the brains of cats and dogs, though their consciousness probably doesn’t resemble ours. But in principle the same might apply to the internet, or a smartphone, or a thermostat. (The ethical implications are unsettling: might we owe the same care to conscious machines that we bestow on animals? Koch, for his part, tries to avoid stepping on insects as he walks.)

Koch must get his meals from some source that does not depend on ridding agriculture of most insects. Also, your tie clips have been trying to tell you something for years.

Even a stalwart, as the article goes on to note, expects no answers:

Chalmers has no particular confidence that a consensus will emerge in the next century. “Maybe there’ll be some amazing new development that leaves us all, now, looking like pre-Darwinians arguing about biology,” he said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if in 100 years, neuroscience is incredibly sophisticated, if we have a complete map of the brain – and yet some people are still saying, ‘Yes, but how does any of that give you consciousness?’ while others are saying ‘No, no, no – that just is the consciousness!’”

The most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong, and that naturalism by definition will not help us understand consciousness. No new paradigm, no answers.

Also:

What great physicists have said about immateriality and consciousness

and

The human mind

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

8 Replies to “The Guardian asks, Why can’t world’s greatest minds solve mystery of consciousness?

  1. 1
    Timmy says:

    If the mind is fundamentally independent of the brain, free will is possible, genuine innovation and creativity are possible.

    If the mind merely emerges from the brain, humans categorically cannot have free will, and innovation/ creativity are illusory: all instances of apparent human “creation” must be reducible to natural algorithms.

    So where did A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field come from? Where did The Lord of the Rings come from?

    If the materialist nutjobs are right, let them explain, even in general terms, how Atlas Shrugged could emerge from an algorithm.

    The fact that atoms cannot be creative, yet humans demonstrate creativity on a regular basis, makes the brain = mind position laughable.

  2. 2
    mike1962 says:

    I don’t consider “mind” and “consciousness” to be synonyms. Mind, that is, the thought processes, personality, interpretations of sensory input, etc, is certainly determined by the brain. Try taking hallucinogenic drugs, drinking a bottle of scotch, get your brain damaged in a car accident or by a stroke, or simply go to sleep, and see if your “mind” doesn’t change.

    However, consciousness, the experiencer, “stands behind” all this, and is the thing that experiences the productions of mind and (highly processed) senses. That is the “hard” thing to explain. Chalmers suspects it is primary. So do I. Your consciousness is the most fundamental thing about you and all of reality. It is the starting point. Everything else could be an illusion, but your consciousness, by definition, cannot be.

    It is simpler to just ask: why can’t world’s greatest minds solve mystery of what the experience of blue is? That is, how do you go from molecular interactions to the experience of blue as we experience it? It’s easier for people to grasp.

    Plus blue is my favorite color.

  3. 3
    Timmy says:

    I think the more natural and accepted definition of “mind” is interchangeable with “consciousness”. Better: consciousness is a property of minds, not brains. The mind is the consciousness “standing behind” the brain.

    thought processes, personality, interpretations of sensory input, etc, is certainly determined by the brain.

    Influenced. Not determined.

  4. 4
    Petrushka says:

    Haven’t yet is not the same as can’t.

  5. 5
    Axel says:

    In a nutshell, for the reason Max Planck of this parish stated:

    ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.’

    … and what greater mystery could there be in nature than our consciousness?

    Bah! What did Planck know? He and his pals believed in intelligent design and God ‘n’ stuff!

  6. 6
    Robert Byers says:

    couldn’t be more wrong.
    Just recently i’ve been watching on youtube how researchers are rapidly overthrowing the old ideas in brainolgy.
    They are finally seeing the memory as 90% of what we use when we think.
    In fact we think with our soul/heart but use our mind as a tool. THe mind, to me, is a giant memory machine. THe bible says so too.
    They are rejecting we are immaterial souls. So they must say the brain is the source for thinking. this confuses the issues and frustrates accurate analysis and healing.

    There are no regions of the brain. Just regions of memory interactions.
    thats the equation.

    By the way when WE feel pain what really happens is our soul observes a memory of pain. in fact we could feel pain in a dream no less. The same mechanism.
    Pain or pleasure is simply reading our memories.We are meeshed to our memory. Immateraial meets material.
    therefore pain can be eliminated if we could eliminate the triggering mechanism for pain.
    this can be done.

  7. 7
    gpuccio says:

    mike1962:

    “I don’t consider “mind” and “consciousness” to be synonyms. Mind, that is, the thought processes, personality, interpretations of sensory input, etc, is certainly determined by the brain.”

    Good point. But I would rather say that the “mind” is certainly determined by the constant interaction between brain and consciousness.

    What I mean is that the formal contents of conscious representations are certainly managed by the brain, at least in most cases, but at the same time the brain processes are constantly modified by the conscious representations and reactions of the conscious “I” which observes and reacts.

    So, in a sense, the mind is determined by two kinds of inputs: outer inputs received from the brain, and inner inputs received from the mind itself and from the conscious reactions of the observer.

    The conscious reactions are the essence of true free will. And, IMO. also of creative cognition. For example, they are the true source of all new original CSI, as intelligent design theory clearly shows.

  8. 8
    Axel says:

    ‘Haven’t yet is not the same as can’t.’

    Not if you’ve got a promissory note, endorsed by R Dawkins, Governor of the Bank of Scientism, in your wallet, petrushka.

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