Sunday, September 18, 2016

That it Exists: How Consciousness is Fundamental to the Cosmos

Recently I came across an article that was written as a response to a broader discussion regarding the nature of consciousness and the mind. The scientist writing the article took the position that all mental activity, and therefore all subjective experience, is just neurochemistry. That is, all thought can be reduced down to the motions of molecules in the brain.

His point was that we can trace neural pathways in the brain, and because we can do this we have discovered the source of consciousness. In making this assertion he was arguing against the possibility of consciousness being a separate entity apart from the measurable neurochemistry in the brain. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that human consciousness operated independent of the neuron activity in the brain. From a scientific stand point he has a very strong argument. There is no evidence that has ever been measured of human consciousness operating independent of a human brain. As he put it, "default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness." There is nothing to prove otherwise.

In making his argument that there is no evidence for consciousness independent of a functioning brain, he gave the following challenge in the form of a question.

"Where is the evidence for consciousness being fundamental to the cosmos?"

We must acknowledge that we have not yet observed free floating consciousnesses in the universe. We cannot look through a telescope, or in a particle accelerator, or in a microscope and observe a consciousness apart from the neural activity in our brains. So what evidence is there for consciousness in the universe?

That it exists.

Right now as you are reading this you are aware of your own existence. That fact alone is evidence that there is at least one consciousness, and that it is fundamental to the universe. You may also realize that you cannot observe, experience or measure my consciousness. You can observe the effects of my consciousness in how I act and talk, but you cannot directly observe my consciousness. (As a side note, if you were to insist that yours was the only consciousness in the cosmos and that everyone else were just clever machines then you would be slipping into the philosophy of solipsism.) So when the author of the article asked what evidence there was for consciousness being fundamental, the evidence is that it exists.

While his arguments may seem modern with their emphasis on neurochemistry, this argument is actually quite old and has been debated as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. I can tell someone is a conscious being because of the way they act. I can observe their actions and how they react to language and conclude that they are an independent thinking being. All we have done with modern neuroscience is to do the exact same thing, but now with fancy equipment. It's a bit like inventing a car or an airplane and then concluding, "Now we have solved the puzzle of human motion! We now know how humans move!"

No, all we have done is take the same fundamental problem and wrapped it in a new shinier, more complex skin.

We have not solved the problem of consciousness. We still have not observed consciousness. We can observe the motions that result from consciousness, but we have not observed someone's self awareness. We may be closer to solving the riddle of human consciousness but we have not yet done it. Until then the idea that "brains cause consciousness" is not the "default hypothesis". To insist that "brains cause consciousness" is to assume a conclusion for which there is no evidence, while our own self-awareness is evidence that our consciousness is independent of our own neurochemistry,

Until we know what consciousness, or self-awareness, is, and not just its effects, we cannot say that we have no evidence of consciousness outside the measurable motions of neurochemistry. But we do have evidence that consciousness exists. Just think about it.


Ryan Jones said...

This is why people need rounded educations- I suspect your author has not read much philosophy, or Descartes.

Annie Rasmussen said...

I may have heard this guy speak on NPR. His argument as I heard it didn't ignore that we feel things (are conscious of them), but rather that what we are feeling is the function of our brains, which feels like something independent of our bodies but IS the function of our physical brains. This leads me to several questions:

1. Are we even talking about the same guy? I dunno, but he is pretty famous for his views.
2. Did I miss-hear the interview? I wouldn't think so - he was very clear in the interview.
3. Does it matter? If what we are "feeling" or "thinking" or "conscious of" is just a complicated series of chemical reactions, does that matter? Does it take away from philosophy, art, or religion? That's a blog post I would love to see you write.

Quantumleap42 said...

He's probably the same guy since he writes a regular column for Scientific American and is plugged into the media and journalism world.

No you didn't miss hear the interview. He is saying that what we are feeling is the function of our brains, which feels like something independent of our bodies but actually is the function of our physical brains. What he is driving at is that all of our feelings, and sense of beauty and art, arise from neurochemistry in our brains. He does have a point, and it is a very strong point. Given what we know of how our brains work this way of viewing things does offer a lot of explanatory power.


There is that pesky little fact that no matter how good our understanding of neurochemistry is, it does not explain self awareness. You can explain so much with neural science; human emotions, memory, thought patterns, addictions, etc. But where does self awareness come from? It is that one piece of evidence that does not and cannot be explained away.

I listened to a series of lectures that were given jointly by a philosopher and a physicist and they argued, quite convincingly that there were two options.

1) Self awareness arises from higher brain functions (something Michael Shermer would agree with), therefore all fundamental particles (quarks, electrons, etc.) have self awareness (something Michael Shermer might be hesitant to accept). The basic argument is that youcannot have a macro level effects that do not have micro level causes. Thus, if there is self awareness on the level of a human being, and all aspects of mental activity come from neural activity then self awareness must come from the self awaredness of the fundamental particles. It's a very interesting, and compelling argument.

2) There is something else that provides self awareness and is somehow coupled to the brain in a way that is unknown. This is the argument that Michael Shermer explicitly rejects.

Michael Shermer makes the case that human emotions arise from neural activity, but when he gets to the case of self awareness, and awareness of those emotions, he says that because there is no measurable evidence otherwise "the default hypothesis must be that brains cause [self awareness]".

The problem is that when we are confronted with a lack of evidence there is no "default hypothesis". Essentially he is saying, "We don't have evidence one way or the other so the default we should all accept is the one that confirms my presuppositions." But that is bad logic.

My point is that there is ample evidence that self awareness exists. All you have to do is think about it and you have proof of its existence. Also we can know that this self awareness does not behave like other things in the universe (such as electrons, protons, atoms, photons, rocks and weather), therefore it must be something separate (option 2 above), or all matter actually has these properties of self awareness (option 1) and we just have not observed it.

His response to this would probably be to accept the first half of option 1 but reject the self awareness of electrons and atoms. This means that the feeling of self awareness is just that, nothing more than a feeling like all other feelings, and is created by neurochemistry in the brain. The problem is all he has accomplished is to construct a rather interesting version of Descartes demon. Because even if the feeling of self awareness arises from the brain, there has to be something there to imprint the feeling on, and then we have turtles all the way down. It is the fundamental failing of monism that it cannot explain consciousness.

You cannot get around the existence of self awareness. It is something for which there is ample evidence.

Quantumleap42 said...

I forgot to explain that in philosophy option 1 above is called monism. Option 2 is called dualism.

If you are wondering where LDS doctrine falls, we are firmly monists...sort's complicated. We're dual-monists, if that makes any sense.

Kerry A Shirts said...

Interesting article. Good comments as well. I would like to see what you think of Menas Kafatos, a quantum physicist who indicates there is at some level a consciousness to the universe. What are your thoughts on that line? He wrote a few books with Robert Naudeau, one called "The Conscious Universe." His other one is "The Nonlocal Universe." Are you familiar with these? They seem to jive pretty well (using more depth) with your interesting thoughts.

Quantumleap42 said...


While I have not read their books I am aware of them, but I do not know their specific arguments. Right now my general approach to consciousness is that if you ask someone to define consciousness you will learn a lot about that person's metaphysics and almost nothing about consciousness. When someone explains consciousness they will demonstrate how they view the universe and not how consciousness actually works or what it is. But I'm not sure that is something we can ever be free of. It may actually indicate what consciousness is and how it works.