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Great Minds Reflect On Consciousness

June 30, 2011

If we were visited by an advanced alien race whose knowledge was practically unlimited, and you were able to ask them one, and only one question, what would it be?  I would want them to explain to me the underlying mechanisms behind consciousness, how it works, and what it is.

But why that above all else?  The study of consciousness seems to me to be the most fundamental question of life itself.  Before I was born, I was not conscious.  I didn’t have any experiences of time, space, or anything.  I did not exist.  But at some point my brain became sufficiently complex and my personal subjective consciousness emerged.  If you’re going to self-reflect and ask yourself what you are, I would say you are that property which we call sentience – consciousness.  It’s that property which makes you different from a kitchen table, a basketball, or a rock lying still on a creek bed.  All that stuff is dead — not conscious.  But you, you’re alive, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling.

Many believe what separates us from dead things is the fact that we can think, but machines can display various degrees of intelligence, and even react appropriately to a given situation. Consciousness is different from thought and intelligence.  We often tend to associate ourselves with our thoughts, our desires, our ethical principles, and so on, but I find it hard to associate ourselves with these sorts of processes. You may read a book, or even my blog, and your thoughts and beliefs on various subjects may change, but you’re still you.  That personal subjective consciousness is still there.  I may one day be able to knab you off the street, reprogram your brain by rewiring the circuits, and make you into an entirely different person, with new desires, new knowledge, and so on.  That’s just physical stuff conducting electrical current and pumping chemicals around.  Also, we’re moving into an era of intelligent machines.  They are beginning to think and may or may not eventually be conscious.  We’re getting closer every day to general artificial intelligence (AI), and if and when this is accomplished, human thought processes will reside within machines, but I don’t know whether or not they will be conscious.

So I’m not talking about thought, or reason.  Thinking is something that just happens. It’s based on neurons firing in our brains, which themselves are wired to process environmental information.  Their main purpose has been to help us secure things such as food, shelter, and mates in an ever changing environment.  The more closely I look at our thinking processes, I see how closely they’re tied to life here on Earth.  They’re very human, to speak generally.  They’re bound to our terrestrial existence.  Our intuitive conceptions of physics, our mental models of the world, and our sensory systems are all geared to understand and interact with the types of physical matter and situations you encounter with life on Earth’s surface.  Even the way we perceive space and time is pre-wired for this sort of existence.  What we are is deeply connected with the environment around us. That’s not surprising as our minds are products of evolution.

When you try to contemplate a world removed from terrestrial life on Earth, such as advanced physics for example, you quickly find out that our brains are not wired to intuitively understand it.  I see our physical bodies as shells which have evolved from the dust, wiring themselves up in such a way to maintain their existence, make copies of themselves, and hold onto their form for as long as they can.  But as for consciousness, I wonder if it’s a product of evolution or not.  No doubt our brains have somehow managed to utilize consciousness, but I deeply wonder if consciousness is more fundamental than the physical matter of our universe.  I would not be the all that surprised if other physical mediums and substrates other than the brain turn out to be capable of creating (or maybe the better word is communicating with?) consciousness as well.

I really enjoyed this next interview with Dr. Marvin Minsky who is a professor at MIT.  His research focuses around cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence.  You’ll like what he has to share.

A strange thought to consider is whether or not others are consciously perceiving events like you are.  If you take any time at all to think about this matter, you should easily realize that people are not perceiving things the same way.  I was invited to eat Chinese food with a friend not too long ago and I didn’t like it at all.  He’s chowing down, eating egg drop soup, egg rolls, and some strange form of rice.  It was edible I guess, but I didn’t find it a pleasant experience.  Why is this?  Our brains are wired up differently.  It’s a different experience.

Even more interesting is the fact that our minds are not near as aware of our surroundings as we think they are.  In general, people are not aware of what’s going on in their heads.  To understand yourself takes a lot of work.  In this next lecture, the philosopher Dan Dennett argues that we do not understand our own personal consciousness, and that half the time our brains are actively fooling us.  You’ll find the presentation on change blindness particularly instructive.

Your brain is giving you an illusion that you’re aware of what’s in front of you right now.  The change blindness experiments Dr. Dennett just performed show conclusively that this is not the case.  If you study the visual system, for example, your eyes are in constant movement, scanning what’s in front of you with selective attention and focus.  The visual area you’re actively aware of at any given time is about the size of your thumb nail at an arm’s length away.  That’s where your central fovea is focused, and most of your neurons are dedicated to processing this tiny segment of your visual field.  That’s why when he flips between different slides, back and forth, you don’t see the change.  Your fovea wasn’t focused on that area, so you didn’t see the change.  One of the slides has a giant Boeing airplane and the huge engines on the plane wings were changing back and forth, but I didn’t notice it.  I was consciously aware of an image of the airplane, unchanging.  Most of what’s in my conscious image was interpolated and based on old information.  It was also based on what my brain EXPECTED to see.

I’d like to share another video by Dan Dennett on the same theme.  We’re not nearly as aware of the world as we think we are.

Though I don’t want to get too far off track, let’s briefly talk about free will, which is often associated with who we are, just as consciousness is.  The decisions that we make, and the actions that we do, are often believed to be controlled by this spiritual cloud which hovers over the brain, controlling our actions.  There’s really no evidence for this, and in fact, if you really think that out, it doesn’t even make sense.  Let’s begin with examining whether or not there’s any evidence for free will of this sort.  Begin by watching this Youtube video.

As experiments like the one performed in that video indicate, the brain is an interconnected system, and the decisions which it makes are based on information flowing into it from all sensory systems, which is then built into a model of the world, goals are set, and then decisions are made related to those goals.  I personally don’t think we have near as much say in this process as most people think.  If you believe in free will, you don’t believe this is how the brain works.  You believe decisions instead arise from the spiritual cloud which hovers over the brain.  But let me ask you this.  We’ve all met old folks who suffer from dementia.  You may also have met people with selective brain damage, or someone on drugs, or someone who is drunk from alcohol.  Why do their actions change?  Why would the “spirit cloud” be affected by brain lesions, alcohol, or drugs?  If movement arose from this cloud, why would we see the brain lighting up in planning areas long before the action occurred, even before people claim to have a conscious experience of making the decision?  Everyone has met an old person who has “lost his mind”.  That’s because his brain circuits aren’t firing like they used to, and so his actions are far different.  Things he used to care about, he no longer cares about.  He can’t even remember his beloved grandchildren’s names.  That’s because the “spirit cloud” is not controlling his actions nor his vocal chords.  It was his brain firing in patterns, but as his brain deteriorated, so did everything else.  All the evidence points away from the common conception of free will.

But even if this spirit cloud did exist, on what basis would it use to make its decisions?  People aren’t random.  Their behavior is very distinctly human. My friend Greg used to say, “People COULD do anything, but they don’t.”  I will further clarify on that.  For a person to even desire to do something, and even think to do something, first requires their brain to initiate the firing patterns which give them the impulse to do it.  Think about your own thoughts.  You may be sitting in your chair right now and then your brain generates an impulse, “Ice cream would be good right now.”  The craving has begun. Your brain created that desire.  Next it’s evaluated by all your sensory and planning systems, which then report to you, “I don’t feel like getting up.”  A short moment later it’s further weighed by your current goals which tell you, “I don’t want to gain weight”, and so on and so forth.  Free will, if it exists at all, is an emergent property of the entire brain and is based on its entire organizational structure.  Considering it’s based on your brain structure and chemistry, it’s not near as “free” as you think it is.  Most people believe free will is totally uncaused — perfect freedom. I believe free will, just like our sense of self, is actually a very fractured system, based on and dependent upon many different interconnected brain modules.  The belief that our “self” and decisions that we make is a simple unity cannot be right at all.

What I like most in Dr. Blocks interview is when he discusses patients who are blind yet still are unconsciously aware of what’s in front of them. Patients with damage in area V1 will be asked to identify slides in front of them, whether they’re an X or an O, and 99% of the time they can “guess” accurately. They’ll tell you, “I’m blind. I can’t see what’s in front of me”, yet their brain does know what’s there, it’s just not being fed to other circuits which create consciousness. Various brain modules are disconnected.

I don’t agree with everything David Chalmers says in this next video. He holds the same position as Descartes who is noted to have said, “I think therefore I am.” But I feel the evidence suggest that our brains are behind conscious experience and thought. If the brain didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be conscious right now having the experiences that you’re having. Satre said that we exist, therefore we can think, and I think that’s the proper casual relation. I try to avoid solipsistic thinking whenever possible. Chalmers argues back that we don’t know whether the brain is what truly generates consciousness. I have to grant him that. However, I don’t like disconnecting myself from reality like that. No matter how far I probe into this world, I find that everything is connected. I believe my consciousness is connected with those physical processes, and that those physical processes are a part of the world.

I’d like to end this with Alan Watts reflections on consciousness. He begins by reflecting on the fact that our consciousness leaves out much more than it takes in. I find that theme recurring among neuroscientists, physicists, and philosophers all over the world. The more physics I study, the more I realize just how much is being left out!

Watts adds an ethical and spiritual domain to the discussion, which is really nice. I agree that if we better understood what this “consciousness” business was all about, we probably wouldn’t have near as many fears and worries. Besides our instincts, which are often terrified by the thought of our own death, religion has exacerbated these fears, filling our minds with hell and the potential horrors in the next life absent begging for forgiveness to invisible deities in the sky.

Also consider our current political debates these days. We struggle with ideas of personal responsibility, private property, pollution, and so forth. All of these ideas are based around strong ideas of the individual, often disconnected from the environment. We draw sharp divisions between one man and another, between man and his environment. I don’t think such sharp distinctions exist. Reflect on say the political ideology of libertarians. They feel that personal liberty is everything, but do men really have choice outside of their environment? The environment and society creates your choices. Man on his own would struggle all day just to get food for the day and wouldn’t live past 30. On our own the only thing we share is a common struggle to exist. Only by living and working together can we break those bonds and live varied and interesting lives. But man has a strong disposition to fall inward and become self-absorbed. It’s hard for people to see the bigger picture, especially when it’s not in their immediate self-interest. As Watts said, our sensory systems tend to miss out on what’s going on around us. In the modern world, this includes the true reasons behind our success, the very real suffering of others around us, and the consequences of our actions within this giant web we call society. Sadly, it’s all too vast for us to understand and keep track of. We just don’t have the brain power. Likely, both individual consciousness and society at large are instances of emergent self-organizing systems, which will be the topic of my next post.

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