Ego is the immediate dictate of human consciousness.
The year is 2005 and we are in the Persian republic of Iran. Doctors stand before a 32 year old gentlemen they fear might be barking mad. More doctors gather, as questionably one of the most unusual mental heath cases in Iranian (and perhaps global) medical history unravels before them. The gentleman declares he is dead; and that he has been for some time now. Unfortunately what happened is that the man has died; and through a regenerative process been transformed into a canine. To make matters worse the same fate was bestowed on the poor man’s wife. This is a curious case of Cortard’s Delusion; a delusion in which the sufferer possesses the nihilistic belief that they do not exist in one form or another. This may manifest as a total belief of non-existence, or in a lesser extent the non-existence of a part of oneself; for example a firm conviction you have no brain and life isn’t worth living without one. There is a fundamental flaw in the sentence I do not exist, which falls at the first word – I for with no existence there is no I. However flawed the logic of this terrible mental illness, the uncomfortable truth which we all must grapple with is a possible undercurrent of truth lurking in shadows.
Today is a “big post” which ties together some of my recent posting activity; we tackle consciousness, how that impacts our window on the universe and the fuzzy reality before us. These are by no means discrete topics; as I hope you will appreciate as the thoughts develop. Disclaimer: “fact” and opinion will be interwoven with no prior warning, for which I make no apology – this is an area where there is still much to be understood written on a personal website.
Conciseness – the dawn of perception?
Early ideas of what it may mean to be conscious fell firmly within the realms of Philosophy. In fact if you were to try to define the word today you would see that not a huge amount has actually changed according to the dictionary; but in the background much cogs are set in motion. If you were to look up a definition of consciousness you would find something like this:
the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.“she failed to regain consciousness and died two days later”
a person’s awareness or perception of something.“her acute consciousness of Luke’s presence”.
Whilst this may be more than adequate for the majority of situations it isn’t all that precise. Let us consider point 1. An automatic door in a building is aware of its surroundings and responds to them, otherwise it would not be fit for purpose – so are we saying that the door is conscious? Even considering a responsive biologically living object, is a jellyfish with no brain is conscious? Intuitively we know the answer is no; but what a dreadful lack of precision. The notions in item 2 are a little crisper due to the introduction of the person; but that is to say only people can be conscious? Again; intuitively we know this is not correct studies into the animal kingdom have shown a surprising range of memory, emotional spectrum and complexity of thought. So if we are to take item 2 and extend person to be a list of living organisms; against what criteria are we sorting our candidates?
Early ideas of consciousness can be traced very far back in history; it is a very human question to ponder. It is one that has troubled the minds of great thinkers for a very long time. Descartes was convinced that the human body and human consciousness were two separable items; the first a material body the second an immaterial item (if an item can indeed ever be immaterial). Ideas have since moved on; but not in a linear fashion with a clear direction of progress. The nature of consciousness has been tackled by some of the greatest philosophers in the history of the human race. Aristotle was a firm believer in the physical world around us; and interestingly provided us with our first example of consciousness being the relay of signals rather than some immaterial experience. The following is taken directly from Book 2. The wording is a little dense; but it is worth picking through:
“If what has colour is placed in immediate contact with the eye, it cannot be seen. Colour sets in movement not the sense organ but what is transparent, e.g. the air, and that, extending continuously from the object to the organ, sets the latter in movement. Democritus misrepresents the facts when he expresses the opinion that if the interspace were empty one could distinctly see an ant on the vault of the sky; that is an impossibility. Seeing is due to an affection or change of what has the perceptive faculty, and it cannot be affected by the seen colour itself; it remains that it must be affected by what comes between. Hence it is indispensable that there be something in between-if there were nothing, so far from seeing with greater distinctness, we should see nothing at all.”
Here the idea is developed that if you were to put an object directly on your eye you cannot actually distinguish the colour. Colour is initiating some kind of motion the transparent space in-between and it is this which is the root of seeing and experiencing things; if you were to remove this “space” you would see and experience nothing. Actually quite profound when you consider this is 350 years before the birth of Christ and what is being discussed is a crude description of electromagnetic radiation being detected by the eye; a far more accurate view than many of his contemporaries. These ideas are developed to information being the relaying of signals; and the detection of these signals are what being conscious is all about. Sounding a little more familiar to the intuitive views of today.
It certainly begs the question that if all of these big thinkers have been working on this problem for so long, why don’t we have a good answer? Why is the definition so loose? The answer is that consciousness has a hard problem:
Consciousness is subjective.
You know you are conscious but that is all you know; you do no know that I am concussions you are merely assuming. So we should not judge Philosophers too harshly for not being able to arrive at a fully satisfying description; because just like you and me they are armed with nothing but a subjective view on their own consciousness and a fistful of assumptions. The field of philosophical thought in this area is rich and fascinating and worth exploring further if you are interested, but as you may have imagined our journey is unable to resist the seductive lure of science.
What about the brain people?
The consensus is that consciousness comes from the brain; we know that this controls everything we do and everything we think so naturally, it is useful to have neuroscientists digging around in there to find out where the magic happens. So far, the greatest progress is perhaps working out where consciousness does not come from; which may still be an indirect route to the holy grail.
Sleep is a truly terrible thing. You think you have 80 years of life, give or take, but the terrible practice of sleeping results in a person having almost no recollection of being conscious for around a third of that time; except for when they have a vivid and memorable dream. Take a look at this map of brain activity and it is quite clear that the individuals brain is still active whilst asleep; and often more active.
So do we still count as conscious when we are asleep? Neurologists do not believe that we are unconscious for most of the time we are asleep; but curiously the mechanisms behind anesthesia and sleep are quite similar and yet when sleeping we are far more aware of our surroundings, otherwise an alarm clock would be of no use. Even a vegetative state is more complex; as shown in the following experiment. Here we take a vegetative patient and ask the patient yes or no questions, comparing the results to a control patient. The results, I think are quite startling.
An almost identical reaction between the two brains. It might be tempting to say anything with a living brain is conscious; but that would be too hasty. There are two important cases we must consider. Firstly, we know for a fact that not all of the brain generates the consciousness. How? Because some people don’t have a whole brain. There was a Chinese woman who was born without a cerebellum and was fully conscious able to describe all of her life experiences. So rule that chunk out for starters. Secondly, it would seem fair to say that some brains seem to be too simple to properly have a consciousness.
Here is a gorilla in a mirror.
Now a gorilla is unable to recognize itself in a mirror and will respond aggressively. So the gorilla is certainly not aware of himself at least in a visual sense, where as a human (and certain other animals) can. So clearly the brain is less complex in that sense; the brain has no real sense of oneself which does not seem terrible conscious. At what point in the sliding scale of neurological complexity do we drop the marker and define as conscious?
A current leading contender for the motherboard of consciousness is the claustrum in the brain; this neuron center provides vital connections it seems between the two hemispheres of the brain. This area of the brain is not yet fully understood – but it is believed this could very well be our on/off switch as well as providing the harmony between the different areas of the brain which provide the illusion of consciousness.
Yet despite the thousands of years of medical history, and the huge number of dead bodies to explore on the mystery remains. For all the poking around inside the brain, we have no way of making the ideas understandable. I cannot actually appreciate a light year naturally for example, it would be ludicrous to say otherwise – but the idea is able to be rationalised through mathematics into a format I can start to get a feel for. Similarly, I can appreciate the wonders time dilation has to offer without actually experiencing the effects with a pen, some paper and elegant mathematics. I cannot do this here. If I can only questionably work out my own mind, how do I probe into the minds of others to come up with an all encompassing theory of what it means to be conscious which everyone relate? (Spoiler: I never answer that question. Everything is coated in caveats and candy floss).
A quantum mind?
All of this talk of things we cannot perceive or get satisfactory information out of despite them being before us may remind you of the quantum realm. In fact the true functioning of the brain is likely to be deeply tangled in quantum processes. If you ask the question of why, consider – why wouldn’t it be? The smallest constituents of the brain are obviously quantum in scale. Rodger Penrose is one of the finest scientists alive in the world today; and he himself has grappled with this subject. Rodger Penrose took this further, suggesting that perhaps what is responsible for our consciousness is processes which take place within neurons themselves rather than the interactions between neurons which is the conventional view.
The very basis of Penrose’s arguments are that some quantum processes are non-computable. For example the collapse of the wave function (see some discussion here) is essentially a random process. He is bold enough to state that humans are actually through their own arithmetic able to essentially “prove” Gödel’s disprovable theorems (see here) and this could, by its very nature be a direct line of evidence that the human brain function is the result of non-programmable quantum mechanics. The full theory is actually called Orch-OR and is developed with Hameroff. Central to the theory is processing happening with the brain on structures known as microtubules. The theorem suggests that the collapse of the wave function maps non-computable decision making with the experiences we see around us, which we go on to log as experiences. This theory has received heavy criticism; but I do believe it takes us in an interesting direction.
The holonomic brain theory points to different quantum processes essentially arguing that the brain is a holographic storage network. Memory in this theory is the result of wave interference patterns which are naturally logged by our brain. Whist both of these theories are very much in the ideas phase; personally I think that the correct approach is to connect up neuroscience and quantum physics. Clearly the processes in the brain cannot be fully described on the cellular level – we are too talented at probing that level to still be in the dark. The answer must be in the layers beneath the cellular layer – in the subatomic. If you were able to fully describe and predict these complex systems (see Mekhi’s post here) then it seems implausible you would not understand the nature of consciousness. It seems comforting then, that the way forward may well be to do battle on the field of quantum mechanics, returning latter to solve the problem with the spoils of war.
Construction and deconstruction
If a brain produces consciousness and a brain is a physical thing – will we ever be able to produce a consciousness? There are many arguments that say no – due to the complexity and random nature of the processes involved. Personally, I feel that is must be possible to construct a consciousness; just not necessarily a specific one. When I look at the huge questions we don’t know the answer to, I like to keep Clarke’s quote in the forefront of my mind:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
This is true – and the technology we would require in order to perform the crazy task I have just discussed seems like total magic compared to what we are capable of today but that’s not to say it cannot be done. Imagine giving an iPad to a Tudor and asking them to build another one. Regardless of how much deconstruction, examination or interrogation is performed no successful outcome would be achieved – it would seem like total wizardry. Yet today there are many humans who can make them; simply due to the accumulation of human thought. This has taken us further than our ancestors would have ever believed possible. Of course my sunny optimism may be the nativity of youth, which if it is long may it continue. There is nothing worse than allowing the years to erode your thoughts into smaller and smaller nuggets.
To me the greatest evidence for consciousness being the quantum mechanical process in the brain powered by the biological processes in the body is death. For example, we know that the brain will continue to run for a little while after death like a wind up toy coming to a gradual stop. We know that eventually the activity will cease and the person will think no more; so what actually happens to it? If we are to take the approach that these things are stored via quantum mechanical processes then we must look to the idea that the information within the brain dissipates and is involved in irreversible reactions where it is lost from and the stored information is unwound into an unusable format. For this very reason I intend to have my body preserved and be woken by the good people of the future who have invented magic!
Was I manufactured?
Most of us are quite disturbed enough to muse over the way we were biologically conceived, but the final point in this big question is are we real at all? If humans can ever build a conscious being they will be creator of a species. They will be God. If this is indeed a possibility, then what is there to say that we were not indeed the simulation or creation of a higher form of computerized being? The answer really is that we could be and we would never know; but here we are at the end of the post and our poor friends with Cortard’s Delusion seem a little more sane.
The advances in gaming show the startling progression from arcade games of the 90s to the virtual reality that we experience today; which is improving every year. If progress continues then it will trend to a point where it is the same as reality itself given enough time – or perhaps it is more accurate to use the term indistinguishable. This must be the truth; progress will continue at some rate and when you start to multiply the thirty odd years we spoke of across evolutionary timescales, there is a huge amount of room for slowing or wrong turns. The big issue which could stop this would be an extinction event; but musing on that right now is fruitless. When you consider this; it seems less and less likely that we are currently sitting in a reality which can be considered a “base”. Our window on the universe we have today, on the planet Earth on the 26th of October 2016 makes the reality before us look very fuzzy indeed. This leads you to ask, where the hell am I?
I hope you sleep well tonight.