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A Paradox In Modern Neuroscience

April 1, 2011

I just came in from a beautiful walk outdoors.  The weather has been gorgeous, the temperature is somewhere in the mid 60s, and many of the trees are finally coming into bloom.  Today seemed like the perfect day to do some thinking.   As I walked for miles and miles, I found myself drifting between various ridiculous daydreams and some thoughts on a rather difficult philosophical problem.   It would be too embarrassing to recount my daydreams, so instead I will focus on the problem I was considering.

Just yesterday I watched a debate between an atheist and a Christian on YouTube.  Normally I don’t get much out of these sorts of things, but it was late at night and I was too tired to do anything else.  One thing in particular struck me and got me thinking.  The atheist mentioned the few things he felt he was certain of, and one of the things he mentioned was his own subjective experience.   The great paradox in modern neuroscience is that the personal subjective world we feel we know best is also the world which is most elusive to definition and explanation.

Here’s the problem.  It seems that my brain is what is generating my personal consciousness and your brain is generating yours.  We might be tempted to say that consciousness is generated because our brains’ neurons vibrate and conduct electricity in some complicated way, giving rise to waves which then, somehow, generate our personal consciousness.  After all, we can do all kinds of experiments in the lab and something like this seems to be going on.

But there seems to be a problem.  What if brains are combined?  I posed this problem before in one of my previous posts.  If a skilled neuroscientist was to begin fusing my brain with yours, when would we stop being us as individuals and become “one” single organism, so to speak.  That’s very puzzling to me.  Would our consciousnesses start to fuse together when this happened?  Would both “you” and “I” subjectively experience reality through the single body once we were combined?  Or maybe as the brain-to-brain fusion took place the individual waveforms each brain was generating would change in the new fused brain, causing waves of a different sort, leading both of “us” to disappear into that void which we call “death”, and a new entity to become conscious?  It’s very weird to me.

I don’t understand what separates me from you.  When I lie down in my bed at night, I feel that nobody else is having that same personal experience I am.  When I take a bite of a slice of pizza, who else is tasting that besides me?  I don’t feel anyone else is but me.  That’s my world.  If a nice charming woman were there with me, she may see me take the bite, and watch me chew, but she doesn’t experience what “I” experience.  But then you start thinking about a mad neuroscientist kidnapping us both and beginning to fuse our brains together.  I’m sure it’s possible to wire us together to where when I eat the pizza she also “tastes” it as well.  All sorts of difficulties and philosophical nightmares come into play when you think about that fusion process.

Another sort of problem is thinking about Star Trek teleporters.  When you study modern physics, you see that matter is basically compressed energy.  It seems possible that in the future we’ll be able to materialize matter from raw energy based on some pattern we have loaded in a computer.  In Star Trek, they’d dematerialize a person, convert their body into information which is then stored in the computer, and then recompress the energy back at the other end in the transporter room.  Now what if you were to materialize the same person twice?  If this were done to me, would there be two mes?  I don’t think so.

I think I would experience reality through one body, yet another conscious “Jason”, almost identical to me, would come into existence.  If that’s the case, then consciousness not only depends on the brain waves, but also the environment in which that brain is located.   Even though we’d have identical brains, generating practically identical waves, the consciousnesses would be personal and different because we’re in different locations in space-time.

I can just imagine the madness.  Two Jasons are materialized due to a transporter malfunction.  I would stare at the second me and think, “You know too much…I don’t like this at all.”  I could imagine falling in love with the same girl.  He wins and I ask why she choose him over me only to hear, “Well, I had to choose one of you.”  Damn it all!  I storm into the office to talk to my other self, only to hear, “I can understand why you’re frustrated.  In fact, I understand better than anyone else ever possibly could.”  Then I get teary eyed thinking, “Who am I kidding.  I love you man.  Just look at you.  By the way… nice suit!”  He’d return a very familiar impish smile.  How could I hate such a man?  Then as I left the room he’d whisper in my ear a quote,

“Faint hearts never did win fair ladies.”
– Sir David Attenborough, The Trials Of Life

I’d explode, and just as I’m turning around he’d slam the door and lock it.  I’d slam my first into the door as I watch my mirror image from the other side of the glass window and hear, “Whoaaa!  I think I’m going to have give my GIRLFRIEND a call.  I wonder what she wants for dinner?”  Security would drag me out of the building, but I’d forgive him.  I never was one who liked to lose.

When you watch a movie like Star Wars, and look at the clone army, surely they don’t all share one common consciousness.  They may share a near identical brain, but their individual positions in space-time would make their experiences vary, leading to differently molded brains, and they would all be individuals.



When you go to define what we are, it seems that we’re not only our body, and not only our brain, but we are our relationships to every other atom in the universe as well.  You can’t define “us” without specifying this infinite number of relations.  Strangely, in order for us to understand these relationships would require a modification of ourselves because that knowledge would have to be stored in our brains, which would need new connections, creating a new relationship with the universe.  To fully understand ourselves would require an infinite number of relations stored in our “brain”.  This is impossible absent some sort of pantheistic view where you’re God, united and flowing with everything in a way which we might call “understanding”.  But maybe if we were advanced enough, we could try to cram as much information in your brain as possible.  Your head would become far more dense than a neutron star, space-time would warp around you, and we would all have to stay clear of you.  When we learn, age, and change our minds, we become a new person.   I think in a very real sense, to understand the universe around us is the same as understanding ourselves.  Considering that’s the case, I feel I understand myself very little.

It seems impossible to say, “I understand myself.”  What is your full potential?  What could you have accomplished had your actions been different?  What is the full scope of everything you could have experienced had you acted differently?  Do you understand all of that?  Do you understand why you desire the things you desire?  Do you know why you like the taste of chocolate ice-cream but hate strawberries?  I bet you have no clue.  I certainly don’t know.  I don’t even understand the nature of a decision, or even if I can make decisions.  A lot of research these days is in the subconscious and how there’s mental processes influencing our decisions which we’re not even aware of.  You may go to grab a warm cup of coffee off your desk, which then “opens up” the “warmth” files in your brain, which are then being accessed as you meet a new-coworker.  You then feel a sort of connection with them, and think positively of them, simply because you were holding a warm cup of coffee as you were forming your first impressions of them.  The same kind of thing can happen when you irrationally hate someone.

The more closely you think about anything, the more quickly you realize how little you know.  Even so, I think there’s more to understanding about consciousness.  This problem will take a lot more research into our brain, and until we better understand the correlation between the waveforms the brain is generating (or however else the brain generates consciousness), and individual subjective experiences, speculating about it won’t get us very far.  Because of problems like this, I don’t feel that we have a “certain” understanding of our personal subjective experiences.  I think the atheist is wrong (not that I agreed with much of anything the Christian was saying either).  To say you understand what you’re experiencing, don’t you have to know what you’re looking at?  Or I suppose you could think of experiences as some sort of raw “stuff” fed to consciousness, which then leads to a sort of mind-body dualism which is also problematic — and even so, as I pointed out, the paradox of modern neuroscience is that though we subjectively feel so certain of this sort of thing, there hasn’t been a satisfactory explanation offered to explain what “raw experience” is.

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