The Mystery of Consciousness

Sam Harris has another post on consciousness: The Mystery of Consciousness II.

While we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we do not know why it is “like something” to be what we are.

Well, this is my stab at it.

Here’s an analogy. Take a long loose spring and connect it rigidly at both ends, and then impart a wave motion on the spring. What is the wave? In one sense it is only the motion of individual parts of the spring that together, because of the physical laws governing that motion, describe a wave in space. Though we can describe the wave – precisely, mathematically – we cannot capture that actual ‘wave’. We can record it on camera; we could copy it in another spring, or the same spring over time. But what we can’t do is capture the actual wave. Take away the spring, or simply stop its motion, and the wave magically vanishes.

This is how I see consciousness. Not, trivially, ‘brain waves’, though they are one aspect of consciousness – it’s output, maybe its ‘waste’, as heat is from an engine.

The one significant difference is that in consciousness the device (brain) in which this ‘wave’ is occurring is able to monitor itself – at least in terms of some vague abstracted representation of its inner operation. Just as the pressure in a balloon is the vague representation of the motion of the particles it contains, so consciousness is a representation of what’s going on in the brain.

The brain (like the entity it controls) is complex, so it’s no surprise that a representation of it would be complex too – at least one would expect complexity if that representation is to prove useful, but not so complex in use that it becomes so cumbersome it proves use-less.

An over-simplified analogy (for this would not(?) count as consciousness) would be if the spring was made of a network of microchips (retaining the connected elasticity of the spring) that could monitor accelerations and produce an overall vague representation of the action of the spring, as represented by some higher abstract level system (as an IQ figure summarises related but different task performances). What does it feel like to be a micro-chip spring? Would different waveforms emerge as different ‘thoughts’ or mental experiences?

In a sense the wave in the spring is an illusion – there is no ‘wave’ that is independent of the spring’s motion; it has no physical actuality itself, unlike the moving particles of the spring (avoiding any deeper physics and philosophy regarding the particles that make up the spring). Even if a micro-chip spring is monitoring its own (brain) wave activity, there is no actual wave.

Perhaps there is no real consciousness in actuality. As materialists we already accept there is nothing else but the ‘matter’ we are made of (whatever form it takes). Perhaps consciousness is only the residual analysis of the activity of (only part of) the brain, by (only a part of) the brain. So complex, yes, that it fools the entity that is ‘experiencing’ it into feeling it is something else, something additional.

This feeling of something additional seems crucial, and is possibly the cause of the feeling of consciousness, the feeling of what it is like to be something. Where does this feeling of something being additional come from? I think the clue is in the ‘only part’ aspects of what is being perceived and what is doing the perceiving. And I think it is related to the evolutionary process that got us to where we are today; and, significantly, to where we were, whenever we first realised we were conscious.

This ‘awakening’ is one that happens to us as individuals, during development, but it is so far back into our infancy, and maybe back to the early stages of brain emergence and development, in the womb, that at the time we don’t have the language, or the other experiences of self or others, that are required to register it – and certainly not enough to remember it in any senss that is meaningful to an adult. The awakening may happen gradually, or it may be a pretty sharp event, a spark – we simply don’t know.

And this awakening has a parallel in the wider sense of human culture. We have no cultural memory of when we humans (or our non-human ancestors), as individuals, and as communicated among ourselves culturally, became conscious and culturally self-aware.

So, what would it feel like to an entity (trying to avoid anthropomorphic sentiments) that had recently started to monitor its own behaviour, and then realised that, wow!, it can ‘see’ itself monitoring itself!? Wouldn’t it ‘feel’ just like this? Wouldn’t it feel like (given the unity of that feeling) that there is something that it is like to be that entity, to identify with it, to call itself, ‘I’?

Now, think of the micro-chip spring being able to have some autonomous control over its behaviour. Wouldn’t it have to develop strategies for controlling its wider entity that accounted for the fact that it didn’t have, couldn’t have, full and instantaneous control of every aspect of itself. At the limit this is a measurement problem: to monitor itself ‘completely’ it needs to monitor the monitoring system too, which would require more capacity to monitor, which in turn would require monitoring, and so on. Like all biological systems there’s a balance – and we seem to have reached ours, for now. We have limited ‘consciousness’: limited awareness and control of the wider entity that is represented by ‘I’.

A related question: What would it have felt like if our two brain hemisphere’s had been more independent, so that ‘I’ became ‘we-two’? What would that consciousness feel like? And what if we-two shared some of our self-awareness, say, but less of our motor capabilities? Or if our motor capabilities were unified, but our planning systems (our intent) were independent? Maybe evolution would have ditched these latter oddities and settled on a unified consciousness (how would a push-me-pull-you escape from threats?)

The split brain patients give us some clues, but if you ask them they don’t reveal two independent ‘consciousnesses’ – one half of the brain may be independent to some extent, but appears to be sub-consciously independent (i.e active, so not ‘un-conscious’ as in brain dead) – at least that’s how it appears from the outside. I wonder (haven’t quizzed those experienced in this area) if the other brain half is a locked in but otherwise self-aware identity.

As with the wave in the micro-chip spring I think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, and as such can be explained (eventually) by processes in the brain. The hard problem, what then remains of it, is like trying to capture the wave that the spring’s motion describes – or trying to attribute the higher level representation (in the micro-chip spring’s central control/nervous system) of the wave, as if the wave itself actually exists.

Finally I’d like to consider this higher level representation that I think we have, which we call consciousness. I don’t think its anything like as precise and as acute as we often like to think it is. When we talk of memories, when we recall them all the indications are that they consist of nothing more than states in the brain, probably distributed over parts of the brain. Any one memory (e.g. a face) seems to require memory ‘bits’ from many neurons, and many of those neurons may be used in forming other higher level conceptual memories too. We often get confused about memories – someone mentions the name of a person we met once, and we have a vague recollection of their face – but that recollection may be incomplete, or may even contain elements of one or more other people, so that when we meet the person again they are not quite as we remember them. We mis-remember incidents too.

We know to some extent that the act of recollection is itself somewhat an act of re-building, re-remembering, re-enforcing – and in the mush and complexity and chaotic activity of the brain we should know that our thoughts are bound to be pretty random in their content. The amazing thing is that they are precise and accurate enough (over time, shared and compared, recorded and repeatedly re-analysed) to build long standing concepts, ideas, philosophies, sciences, religions.

An additional thought that comes to me here is that this is why Plato conceived his Forms concept – the many actual and messy and very real shapes with, on the whole, three sort of sides, eventually distills out into the pure form of the triangle. It is the pure triangle and the mathematical model of it that is the approximation to messy reality of real near-triangles, rather than real triangles being approximations to pure forms, as if those pure forms exist in any objective reality. All the precise mathematical theory of our science, the assumed infinite precision of the pure maths, is never experienced in actuality. We can hold vague conceptual notions like ‘infinity’ in our heads, but do they represent anything real? We struggle too with zero, nothingness – just ask a physicist about the nothingness of space.

All this gives me the impression (and being a thought in my brain is also fairly vague at this moment, needing further development) that consciousness and its virtual particles, it’s thoughts, are just illusory phenomena. That they are patterns described by actual physical particles in the brain is where the real physical material objectivity lies. Consciousness, as we perceive it, is a representation of that activity, and nothing more.

Kant could critique ‘pure reason’ so easily because it is so insubstantial – there is nothing there in and of itself. All there is is experience. What we think we know about evolution tells us that our ancestors were experiential creatures – experience comes before and is prior to consciousness, and as such is more real in every sense: in the sense above, that consciousness is at most a pattern of behaviour, or a higher level model of that behaviour; and in the sense that evolutionarily our experiential heredity is far more engrained and powerful than our mental heredity. Mentally, on cosmic scales, we are novices. Our parochial view makes it look a big deal. When we consider our genius we have only ourselves to compare. No wonder our view is skewed.

The predominance we have given to reason, thoughts, consciousness, I feel has come about because when we first became aware, that consciousness is what we were most acutely aware of. Our thoughts about our physical experiences seem to show us that those physical experiences are fleeting passing phenomena: they change, moment to moment, and as we age. But our self-awareness unity seems to be the thing that persists, and as such adds to the illusion that it is a thing in itself, rather than a representation of the overall, average, statistically consistent patterns, in a material brain.

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