The list of short discussions below are sorted into three categories as follows:
Primary – Discussion directly involved with helping to understand the primary argument; a variant of the dual-aspect theory.
Supporting – Areas of discussion that either act directly as a foundation for the primary argument or shape our world view in a way that helps us with the ethos of the primary argument.
Related – Subjects with limited association to the primary argument that nevertheless add value to the overall discussion.
Primary – In a nutshell, what are we attempting to do in this discussion?
Primary – How are we going to explain consciousness?
Primary - Do things exist absolutely?
Primary - Can existence be seen purely in terms of relationships?
Primary - (British) Empiricism.
Primary - The notion of absolute existence is a barrier to understanding consciousness.
Primary - What kind of world do we have if existence is purely a measure of interaction?
Primary - The notion of absolute existence is invalid.
Primary - A relationship between interactivity and information.
Primary - Defining existence as interaction makes subjectivity possible.
Supporting - Understanding consciousness leads to an atheistic viewpoint.
Supporting - Atheism will never be the common mode of human thought.
Supporting - The hardest part of understanding consciousness are the consequences.
Primary - Can consciousness exist in a static world?
Related - The perpetuity of self.
Related - The future of humanity.
Primary - Can we know consciousness?
Primary - Thomas Huxley's Epiphenomena.
Related - Truths should be accepted even when they are uncomfortable.
Primary - The subjective experience is all around us.
Primary - Subjectivity arises from a decision process.
Supporting - We experience the death of consciousness every night.
Supporting - Why do we recognise so few examples of consciousness?
Primary - Two flavours of the conscious experience.
Primary - We are unaware of memory inaccessible to our normal waking processing.
Related - Even the scientific world must have a set of beliefs.
Primary - Why does consciousness depend on how we define existence?
Supporting - Consciousness is a phenomenon of the instant.
Related - Comments on Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.
Related - A 'WOW' for consciousness as an aspect of the Physical World.
Related - Consciousness is not only the domain of humans.
Supporting - Problems with boundaries of the consciousness (April 2017).
Related - Comments on Giulio Tononi's PHI... (April 2017).
Related - David J. Chalmers' The Conscious Mind... (May 2017).
Related - Physics ignors the subjective aspect of existence (June 2018).
Related - The advantage of seeing consciousness as an aspect of the physical world (April 2020).
Of all the difficulties we individuals have in understanding what consciousness is, I believe our day-to-day impression of the world around us is our biggest obstacle. I've come to think there is a notable gap between the notions we as the general public entertain regarding the world around us, in particular our notion of existence, and the physicist's view. Okay, I'm not a physicist, but I've learned enough to see there is a public misalignment with modern physics, enough to stymie any attempt to describe consciousness in a rational way. I certainly speak for myself when I say we like to understand things visually, or mentally in a form that makes sense in terms of our everyday experiences, but I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this. As I sit at the kitchen table writing this and looking around at all the things I take to be real substantial things, the work surfaces, the kettle, a bunch of bananas, I accept their reality as far as the meaning goes in an everyday sense. In terms of physics though, what we might take to be their true nature defies human imagination and is only to be understood in an abstract way through the use of mathematics.
What I am saying via this world-physics comparison is that to gain a rationale for the underlying nature of the conscious state we must be prepared to see the world from an entirely different perspective when compared to our everyday world view.
In the simplest terms possible we are attempting to explain the conscious experience in a way compatible with the physical world described by modern physics. Success depends on being able to establish a strong bond, or even duplicity, between consciousness and existence.
To this end, a satisfactory explanation for what I will call the subjective experience will suffice as a primitive of the conscious state as we experience it. Subjective experience is described here as the state of being something, which in most cases we might expect to be trivial. Thus, most cases of this subjective experience would fall far short of what we know as the conscious experience, nevertheless they would constitute an experience in some way, and that is a start.
A rational explanation for consciousness, or at least some primitive of consciousness, would first of all require us to describe just what it was we were setting out to explain. How would we describe consciousness in a general sense? It's a bit of a viscous circle because if we knew exactly what consciousness was we might be a little closer to a rational explanation for how it can be just so in this world. Anyway, we must start somewhere.
As conscious entities we feel that we (a conscious experience) really exist in some sense. That much is given and that is our starting point, though the self-existence we experience may or may not turn out to be the same form as the worldly objects that exist around us. Counter to our feeling of existing, however, is the sense that our conscious existence takes place in vacua, there being no apparent physical attachment to a thought process. Could it be, though, that if the thought process were indeed a form of existence, then there would be no relative sense of physical attachment? The thought, the conscious experience, could conceivably be entirely of itself. From the preceding statements, and with the additional evidence that consciousness invariably goes hand in hand with complex physical brains, we might legitimately conclude somehow that thought is existence, or at least that would be an avenue worth exploring.
Is this the conclusion we should draw from the above paragraph; can a thought process be concurrent with existence? Historically this is not the conclusion that has been drawn. Instead we have a long history of associating the conscious experience with something separate, something supernatural, the soul. Such a conclusion though, in my opinion, is something of a cop-out; the easy answer to a question that is notoriously difficult. That easy answer has been the assumption for thousands of years and, other than providing a form of personal satisfaction, has not taken us any nearer a proper understanding of the conscious experience. The alternative, that thought is existence, however, seems to have gained scant attention.
To show the alternative conclusion is valid we first have to show that existence, being that of the physical world, is synonymous with interaction and relationship. Physics shows that matter and energy are interchangeable and the definition of energy, being the ability to do work, clearly implies the presence of relationships, so one could say that the basis of the argument is already there. The final step is to show that a series of interactive events, forming a closed loop, has a degree of existence that can be considered entirely in abstract; that is without reference to any incidental relationships with the rest of the world. That would satisfy our requirement for the self-defining implications we associate with thought, showing finally that thought and existence amount to being the same thing.
Such a conclusion, it is important to realise, would still not make us privy to that existence from the inside, so to speak. As an example, perceiving the colour blue would define a thought process from the inside. The blueness of the blue perception defines it (the perception), however, as observers of such a process, we are, by definition, external to it and therefore can never experience its blueness directly.
I'm not saying this line of investigation is exactly right, but I do believe it takes us along the right track in the pursuit of a proper understanding of consciousness. Somehow we have to get the idea that if an interactive sequence of events feeds back into itself, then rationality decrees that such a sequence has to be something to itself.
What do we really mean when we say something exists absolutely? I take it to mean that a thing should continue to exist when all else that can interact with it has vanished. On the face of it that sounds reasonable, and many would not argue with such an assumption. However, if we examine the statement we will see that it is really quite absurd. Just assuming everything else did vanish, what, do we suppose, is left to report the object as still existing or not? And, if other things eventually came back from their vanished state to discover the object of scrutiny still there, that proves nothing about the conditions being tested when everything else had vanished. Furthermore, there is nothing to indicate that the object of scrutiny and the things returning from the vanished state are the same as those which existed in the first place, or have any kind of connection with them. We simply can't prove absolute existence one way or the other, practically because we just can't achieve the required test conditions, but more importantly because the notion of absolute existence fails logic.
Physics shows that matter and energy are interchangeable properties, though we more often tend to think of matter in an everyday sense. We can touch it, see it, work with it and so on, and it possesses energy giving it the capability to do work. To our everyday senses matter is a tangible entity. But all those things that we, as one object to another, partake in are various forms of interaction, and interactive behaviour alone will not give us the absolute nature of a thing. In fact there is no way round this inability to give absolute grounds for existence. Energy, we know, can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be exchanged in some form of interaction with other energy according to the laws of nature, so far as we understand them. We don't really know the true nature of the physical world, if, indeed, it has one.
Empiricism is a position taken by one who takes for truth only that which can be experienced; measured in some way related to the practical world. Arguments centred around the problem of existence and its meaning. It was considered that an object could only be known by the relationships it had with other objects. An object's true nature could never be experienced directly. At the culmination of the empiricist movement the idea of an absolute substrate for material existence had become merely a notional concept. This philosophical school of thought is probably the closest to the discussions we will be having here in relation to the nature of consciousness.
When we try to understand how we can be conscious, our questioning seems to base itself on a common paradigm, “How can a real physical object exist according to itself”? This applies whenever we include the notion of things having a real physical presence. It simply is not possible, with our everyday notion of existence, for an atomic (indivisible) physical object to to have an existence from its own point of view. That is because we have presupposed its existence anyway, as a real physical object. Our thinking goes along the lines of, "It exists anyway, so were it to have a process by which it might look in on itself, that would only be adding behaviour to its pre-supposed existence". In this way of viewing things, behaviour is only ever an add-on; it can never affect the supposed real existence of the object. This is the underlying view I think most people take for granted, and it's wrong!
Certainly if the world were one of pure interaction between notional objects, we would know no difference, after all it's the same world, just viewed from a different perspective. There would be no hard reality, just relationships. Most relationships would be persistent, ongoing, representing the stuff of the world; any idea of that stuff having real substance being purely notional now. Existence from this point of view is about relationships. A thing, in this world view is known just by the relationships it has with other relationship networks, the whole world being built up in this way.
For something to exist absolutely the implication is that it should still exist were it in total isolation. However, a theoretical atomic (indivisible) object outside context, that is having no observer and nothing to interact with, cannot be said to exist, other than conceptually. If we conceive of an object outside what physics calls "space-time" there can be no relationship describing the object as being over there. Any such interaction is, by definition, impossible, and consequently the object has no measure of existence in our space-time domain, and never can have. In consequence, all we can say about existence is that everything we experience as being real is a measure of our interactions with the world in a relative way, and any notion of absoluteness is invalid.
Information, according to a definition, is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. Any observing component must interpret this sequence. Whatever the information is, it must conform to physical laws. It may, for example, be information describing an object's mass, in which case the information conveyed will be the gravitational disturbance in space-time. In this case any observing body will be constrained by the physical laws as well as (possibly) making higher level decisions based on this information.
By removing the notion of something existing absolutely, and redefining its existence as the measure of its interaction with the rest of the world, we have blurred the everyday distinction between existence and information, though, in the world of physics, such a distinction has long been questionable. With existence as purely a measure of interaction, then, by successive associations, any interactive activity can eventually feed back into itself, or at least, within a network of interactive events, there will be pathways to be found that form closed loops. In these cases it would seem rational to assert that such pathways are aspects of the ongoing existential activity that have a self-defining quality. Information that finds itself at the same time its own creator satisfies our notion of a subjective experience, which is to be considered a primitive of the conscious experience.
To understand how a process of interactivity can in itself be subjective one has to see the world in terms of interactive behaviour with no absolute foundation. That is, it exists only according to itself and referring to a higher authority for validation of its existence is unnecessary.
I do not expect the atheistic viewpoint to become the common mode of thought because it does not satisfy the human need for a purpose. As intelligent animals we have to have a sense of wonder at the world and without it there is no longer a purpose to our being. Atheism is, by its nature, associated with the scientific understanding of our world and if our science reaches the point at which a critical level of understanding is achieved, then the sense of wonder will have gone. In this sense the human condition is self-defeating since once an insight into the nature of existence is achieved, then all further sense of purpose will vanish. I have a concern that, despite sentiments to the contrary, we may be close to that undesirable goal. Perhaps this is the reason why so far we have failed to find evidence of alien species; because this level of understanding is always achieved well before long distance space-faring begins. I hope I'm wrong!
Understanding consciousness implies seeing the world as self-asserting, or a logical inevitability, there being no need to call upon higher authority for its existence. It exists according to itself! Because of this all the previously accepted ideas for life to have a meaning and higher purpose are gone, and with them one of humanities most needed emotions. How do we find a suitable alternative purpose in this new world that gives meaning to our existence?
One idea would perhaps be to have a kind of knowledge police wherein an individual should only be exposed to the rather unpalatable truth when special conditions were met. Otherwise an alternative more historic belief state should be encouraged which retained the human need for reassurance and purpose. However this is not a very practical solution for fairly obvious reasons.
We absolutely must retain a sense of wonder at the place we find ourselves and perhaps, after all, there is a place for a kind of deity. Not, however, one that is the creator, but one that represents all there is to know about the world, something we must believe we will never achieve in all our history, something that is in effect the universe itself and of which life, particularly intelligent life, is a small part. In this way we can see ourselves as an integral part of the continuum, still perhaps as individuals, but with the emphasis now much more focused on the living experience.
When previously thinking about how consciousness were able to exist I often got to thinking about the implications of change. The question "Could the conscious experience only exist as long as relationships within the brain continued to change or could a frozen state of consciousness exist while the structure of the brain remained unchanging" is one who's answer has implications with respect to the nature of existence. In other words, is consciousness a phenomenon of a dynamic process or does it depend simply on a suitable static condition?
If a conscious experience can remain in a static state the implication is that the supporting structure of the brain is also static. However, that implies absolute existence, something we have been at lengths to disprove. On the other hand, if the conscious experience is only present as the result of things changing, then this fits with the idea of existence being a measure of interaction and therefore change. In the latter case the question becomes a non-argument since there can be no such thing as a static existence.
I remain unclear as to a correct answer to this question, though it seems it is a fundamental question to be answered. At the moment I think what I have said negates the question, but that is far from certain.
I am a survival machine. So are you and so are all other living things; that is a premise of these articles. As such my thoughts and actions are directed at my survival, both in the immediate and longer term. As a consequence of our survival instincts we human beings, perhaps uniquely among all survival machines on this planet, face the further difficulty of how we might survive into the far future. That is one of the downsides of being able to perceive the distant future. Of course there is no practical way in which we can survive into the far future so it seems natural that we would embrace any alternative idea by which we might continue our existence, however fanciful the idea may be.
Do we need to think this way though? Perhaps we have not thought things through properly, for just what is it we want to survive? It could be our individuality, but it could also be the sheer experience of existing. I suppose the tendency is to roll the two aspects into one, but that is probably our mistake. Individuality is what defines us as a person but it's not really special in the sense that there are many others in the world who will have had similar experiences to us and think in similar ways to us. On the other hand the experience of existing, pure and simple, is an experience common to any intelligent living thing, and probably to any non-intelligent life-form, though that is beside the point of this section.
If we put the emphasis on the experience of existing instead of the individuality then we have nothing to be concerned about regarding the far future, at least in a logical sense. As long as there is life (intelligent life for the sake of this section) then the experience of existing is always present.
We might ask when the experience of existing itself would end. Since the experience of existing is self-asserting then whenever it didn't exist could only be noticed if we introduce an external observer. However, as soon as we assume an external observer we introduce in that observer another sense of existence. Any observer is therefore part of the scenario and cannot be admitted. Effectively then, any notional period where there is no experience of existence is invalid. There can only ever be a sense of existence.
This is a strange concept because it applies not only across the lifespans of living things but across the lifespan of the entire universe, in fact for all time, though I use time loosely in this context. As individuals our real problem becomes one of shedding our attachment to our own life experiences rather than trying to remain the same individual into the far future.
What is the problem with our descendants being machines? In various discussions there is a fear that machines may take over the world and destroy us, their architects. On the face of it that seems barbaric, but is it any different from what has been happening throughout the evolution of life on earth. My view, if machines did take over, is that it would be a slow realisation on the part of ourselves that it was better to be a machine. What is wrong with our being replaced if the machines feel about themselves just as you and I do about ourselves? If that were the case then the machines would be just as valid an offspring as our biological descendants, only they would be better, one hopes.
How can we go searching for an explanation for consciousness based in the real world when we don't even have a proper understanding for existence? We can say things about existence though, such as it is only meaningful through its relationships with the rest of the world. As we have seen earlier we can say nothing about its absolute nature, which appears to be an invalid notion. If we can find a way of showing that something simply must exist, in a way additional to the supporting and incidental existence, as an unavoidable consequence of logic, then perhaps we will be close to an answer to explaining the fundamentals of conscious experience. It may be possible to arrive at such a conclusion by an intuitive argument, but a rigorous argument in (mathematical) logic would need to wait for the specialists; we need another Kurt Gödel.
Huxley, in an approach to consciousness that is known as epiphenomena, famously says that “mental states never do any causing. Physical states cause mental states but the causation never goes the other way”. Here I take 'mental states' to mean the conscious experience and 'physical states' to mean the dynamic neural interactivity of the brain. On reading this statement I immediately feel there is a problem and I give the following reasoning.
Huxley says that mental states never do any causing, but, here I am, supposedly from my physical state of being by this argument, discussing my mental state. What caused me to do that if not my mental state? The implication here is that the physical state does know about the mental state it is supposedly generating as a by-product of its activities, but how? If, as Huxley appears to claim, the mental state has no means of feeding back into the physical state then how can the physical state have an awareness of it?
Even this last sentence fails to make sense because it assumes something (awareness is a subjective quality) about the physical state, however, assuming this is indeed the state of affairs then either (1) the physical and the mental states are the same thing, or (2) the mental state can apply causation the other way. Option (2) implies that the generation of the mental state has no explanation other than for us to say it is a metaphysical entity. However, this seems unreasonable, to me at least, given that the physical state is not only required as a precondition, but must also link to the metaphysical.
My view is that they are really the same thing and my reason for saying so is simply this. The physical state is an observed entity, the objective aspect of something existing, whereas the mental state, although we may talk about it objectively, is purely an experience, the subjective aspect of something existing. Remember, I am pushing that existence is defined by relationships and a relationship requires partners to act as both subject and object.
When we think about aspects of the world we inhabit, it seems normal human practice to disregard conclusions that are distasteful or appear to run counter to our natural likes and desires, even when those conclusions are arrived at by a sensible route. Once we have an idea planted in our minds that we accept as the truth it is very hard to realise its failing in the light of better information. That's just a human thing and was probably a useful trait in our history. I have no doubt it still is a useful trait, but it does not help us when it comes to understanding better ideas and letting go some previous ideas in relation to the nature of existence in our world.
We are very used to our subjective experience of the world, including knowing our own state of mind, but we never think of it just as existence from its own point of view. That is to mean the subjective side of existence when it is considered to be of dual aspect, both subjective and objective. Why do we insist that the origin of our mind-state lies outside the physical world? It seems a bizarre thing to do once a subjective aspect to the world is admitted with a validity equal to the objective aspect. I think we do this mostly because of history. Because of what we are it is intuitively difficult to accept a subjective aspect to normal physical existence and therefore the temptation has always been to explain away the difficult conceptualisation of the conscious experience, effectively putting off the argument, by making it out to be supernatural. However, once a subjective viewpoint is allowed, one can see that every interactive relationship that occurs in the world has a subjective aspect to it. It means, in particular, that we, as engineers and scientists, by creating things like computers, are already inadvertently creating a subjective state of some complexity. We don't realise it because, of course, these constructions don't communicate the fact; they can't. Like the majority of the things that go on in this world they're neither complex enough nor designed in a way to explicitly announce their subjective side to others.
If an object receives data and is able to use that data to perform a definite task then it must have extracted information from the data and have used that information to act. To act in a particular way and not another means there must be a decision process taking place within the object on a regular, if not continuous, basis. That process requires a set of output conditions and a criteria template, that, when measured against the input information, allows the selection of one of those output conditions. Such a decision process is likely to form state patterns in which conditional loops exist temporarily, giving rise to the (orthogonal) existence of a subjective state while that processing condition prevails.
Whether or not you accept that the conscious experience is a phenomenon of existence, it would remain fair to say that in periods of deep sleep ones conscious experience is not asserted. I use the phrase 'not asserted' to satisfy those who might hold on to the idea that consciousness is something other than a temporary aspect of existence. By speaking of being asserted I am implying that the conscious object, whatever that might be, remains in a dormant state during deep sleep. However, that is merely an appeasement and from the point of view of the sleeping individual, not being asserted and not existing amount to the same thing, and since it is only the point of view of that individual we are discussing, that's all that counts.
I take the viewpoint that consciousness, as we experience it during normal waking periods, ceases to exist during periods of deep sleep, leaving only functions that perform body maintenance to continue operation. These functions may result in subjective experiences in their own right, but, other than the dream function, they do not lay down retrievable memory and so are not accessible to the ongoing conscious state the next day.
On waking, all the neural pathways that played a part in generating yesterdays conscious experience once again become active and in doing so the conscious experience re-emerges. Meanwhile, nothing has adversely affected the individuals accessible memory and so they remain essentially who they were yesterday. Note though that this last aspect is only important so far as other individuals are concerned, as it is they who match a persons physical image to a name and other personable items of information. As far as the target individual is concerned, they would have no clue as to who they should be; after all, it is their own memory that tells them who they are!
As this title suggests, we only see a limited number of examples of entities displaying indicators of a conscious presence. Human beings, of course, constitute the core of the examples, but in recent times, at least in some circles, we have broadened our understanding to include others of our own evolutionary branch as well as members of other branches such as cetacea.
The problem of recognising consciousness in other animals is that they don't know they need to tell us, and even if they did, they don't have the ability to communicate it to us directly. It is left to us to find ways of detecting the presence of consciousness in other life-forms, and if we choose to believe it doesn't exist in anything but ourselves, then we are unlikely to find any evidence for it. That once was the attitude, though as I say, that has slowly been changing over the last couple of centuries or so. But is it enough to look for the conscious experience in just the higher animals? Would it not be better to assume that there is no cut-off point for the conscious experience as we delve down into simpler life-forms, and even things we don't consider to be alive; machines for example?
If one describes the simplification of the conscious experience as a subjective experience, then would it not be fair to say that virtually any decision making process, animal or otherwise constitutes a subjective experience of some sort? If so, the entities to which these processes belong certainly do not have the capability to relay that subjective state to us, for they are in general not even aware of our existence!
My suggestion, in light of this, is that perhaps we are living in a world that is as subjective in its nature as it is real. We don't see it, of course, because subjectivity, by its very nature, is a totally private experience and we have only ever needed to understand the world around us objectively.
In the book, and in this set of articles, my principal aim has been to describe the conscious experience as the subjective viewpoint that is inevitable whenever closed loops of interaction take place as part of something existing, the implication being that the conscious experience is somehow localised to structures suitable for its generation. However, in the book's chapter titled 'Natural Subjectivity' and in other articles on this page, I have simply implied that the conscious experience builds naturally from the subjective aspect of any interactive group. I'm uncertain as to which is the more accurate description. The second is certainly more general, implying that the whole of existence has a subjective side as well as the normally accepted objective side. That said, even my original hypothesis leads to the world, when considered as a whole, possessing a subjective side, since the universe is considered to be a closed entity. Which is right and which is wrong is probably not the issue; both indicate a subjective aspect to the interactive nature of existence.
During normal waking periods we are continuously laying down new memory and accessing old memory, constantly updating the world model that defines our individuality. In periods of dream sleep the brain is also active and also lays down new memory as part of its activities. This memory is also, at least in part, accessible to our normal waking processing, which is how we can be aware of our own dreams.
There is nothing to say that there are not parts of our brain, even during dreamless sleep, that are actively laying down memory. However, that memory is not accessible to our normal processing, which, if this is the case, we remain unaware of it. If inaccessible memory does exist in our own brains, perhaps as part of a subsystem serving the central process of our normal waking activity, then there is nothing to say the associated subsystem does not have a level of subjective experience of its own. It is simply that, like knowing the mind of another person, we can never know it directly.
Conflict between theistic and atheistic viewpoints often introduces the idea that the theistic view relies on a set of beliefs, whereas the atheistic view tends to rely on scientific method, which is essentially the repeatability of experiment to give a set of standards.
But, even the empirical approach of scientific method must base itself on some foundation which turns out to be unprovable. For example, consider gravity. The effects of gravity have remained the same through all of history; the world is the way it is because of this. Experiments on measuring gravity show a consistency; given the same starting conditions, the results are always the same. Because of this consistency we make an assumption that gravity will not change in the future. But, we can never know that for sure; we can only ever believe that gravity will remain the same based on past experience.
Given the the above, one might see similarities with the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Gödel (in mathematical logic). My own view is that this comes as no surprise.
It is essential, for the working of the dual-aspect theory, that matter (of the physical world) allows for a subjective quality to be present. The dual-aspect theory asserts that subjective and objective viewpoints, in relation to a thing's existence, are equally valid. The implication is that a thing's existence is seen purely as a measure of its interactivity with other elements of the world.
If, additionally, a thing were posessed of a quality we might call existence-absolute, whatever we might mean by that, that would absolve the thing of any interactive association with the rest of the world; no such interactive relationship would be needed for existence-absolute, and thus the subjective and objective viewpoints would be rendered unnecessary.
In itself, absolute existence is not a problem, but consciousness can only derive from a subjective viewpoint, and for the world to be as it is, matter must interact, implying the presence of subjective-objective aspects. The notion of absolute existence, therefore, adds nothing to the argument and only serves to get in the way of our understanding of consciousness.
We live in the instant. A pattern of neural activity forming a closed loop or loops (of brain function), which is taken to define a thread of subjective experience (a primitive of consciousness), exists only as long as that pattern continues to be the focus of the brain's processing. As soon as the focus of attention changes, then that loop is broken and replaced by another.
One can notice this effect by being aware of ones own thoughts as they occur; it is never possible to be thinking of two things at exactly the same time. For example, if you try thinking about your mother and taking driving lessons, although you can swap quickly, and the two almost seem to merge, this is probably due to both being stored in a region of current memory intended for just this purpose. One can also be aware that recent thoughts, not currently in focus, do not form part of one's instantaneous conscious experience.
I’ve been reading (March 2017) Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, first published in 1991, so quite dated by now. Some of the writeups seem quite damming - ...consciousness explained away... - for one, though Dennett himself used that description as a section header in chapter 14.
I find myself in agreement with Dennett on the whole. Certainly dualism must be ditched as a non-starter. Likewise the notion of the Cartesian Theater, effectively dualism by other means. Dennett's Multiple Drafts theory describes consciousness as a stream of (neural) presentations smeared across the brain’s processing structure, having no particular time or location. In general I agree; nothing there contradicts the content of On the Nature of Being..., though I can see reasons for having some form of top level scheduling of these presentations, and I'm not clear about Dennett's position on this. Regarding the fragmented nature of consciousness (Consciousness Explained, chapter 11) Dennett refers to an extract from Marvin Minsky: “Nothing can seem jerky except what is represented as jerky...”. Absolutely, we can't experience things we have no facility for experiencing.
Where I feel we differ mostly is the standpoint from where we argue. My own background is in software engineering (practical rather than philosophical), and hence I am probably less prejudiced from the start with regard to the idea of a machine possessing a subjective experience of its own, than Dennett generally assumes. For my part, I accept from the outset that consciousness is a phenomenon of the brain's processing in the manner of Dennett: “...having no particular time or location...”, and attempt to settle the Hard problem of Consciousness, that is, looking for the manner in which any thread of subjective experience can be accounted for in the physical world.
All said, I do not believe Dennett's account does answer the Hard problem of Consciousness. Consciousness may not exist in any additional sense to objects in the physical world, but there still needs to be an explanation for how it is that we individuals have (are is probably more accurate) this conscious experience. One can’t just argue that it’s irrelevant, a delusion, even if that is correct as far as it goes. An explanation has to be offered to replace the confused notion of a distinct entity whose essence lies outside the physical world.
That the so called Hard problem of Consciousness could in fact really be an easy problem (in some respects) is a point Dennett could have made. The hard bit is adjusting the way we see the world and, to be fair, he does have things to say in that respect. I would add something to the effect that we are a subjective viewpoint within the world, in which everything we experience is, by definition, an object, and it’s really all a matter of viewpoint!
The growing trend among modern thinkers is to argue that consciousness is none other than the processing of the physical brain and, of course, I agree. However, the resulting change in the way we may think about consciousness in the world doesn’t change our conscious experience one jot. Now, accepting this thinking for a moment, we can see the physical world as a place in which the subjective experience (consciousness) arises quite naturally as a consequence of suitable objective structure (brains). I'd say that’s quite an astounding thing to realise and something we should celebrate! It means, instead of concerning ourselves that understanding consciousness will somehow diminish our perceived level of self-worth in the world, we can rest easy knowing that subjectivity forms an inherrent aspect of our world; an aspect of equal validity to the objective view we know so well.
Engineers have been designing brain-like structures since artificial intelligence became a subject. Being certain that the subjective experience was a natural consequence of various constructs would mark a significant step forward in their efforts. When we compare our considered expectation of consciousness in other animals with our own (self-consciousness in addition to plain vanilla consciousness, for example) we get a sense of how much more extensive is our own experience. Now just think about how much more extensive the physical world would allow a conscious experience to be in the future. The novelist, the late Iain M. Banks had an idea how far consciousness might develop when he described the ship's minds in his sci-fi Culture series.
I watched a dog playing on the beach the other day. It was in dog heaven, doing just what dogs do, rolling in the sand and wallowing in tidal pools. Whatever the processing going on in its brain, I thought, there has to be some level of conscious experience going on there. I can't prove it, of course, any more than I can prove you, the reader, are conscious rather than an automaton, but I recognised in that dog something that, in me, would transpire as a conscious experience.
Explanations describing the human brain's recent evolution, by researchers in the appropriate fields, include the development of mechanisms that account for the rise of human consciousness [needs citations]. The inclusion of these mechanisms, however, should not (and do not in general) carry the implication that our (animal) ancestors, prior to our recent evolution, were managing their lives as mere automatons. The life of a dog, much like our own, is complex and social and would require the animal's brain to maintain a world model to cope with these aspects. Feeling such strong empathy with that dog on the beach reinforces, for me, the consciousness one naturally associates with a brain of this sort, even if it doesen't include much of the self-consciousness we humans experience.
It is proposed that consciousness, the singular subjective experience we all have, is in reality, an apparent fusion of the many separate processes going on, more or less simultaneously, in the brain. The argument is that the fusion of sparse processes, into what seems like a central self, is the result of the gaps in processing simply not being noticed. That's fair enough if you think that there can be no subjective experience of processing that does not exist. For example, processes that directly associate sound and vision, or provide vision from the area directly behind us, do not exist, and consequently we don't miss them.
But, there is a problem, because simply not noticing the gaps is not enough. If that were the case then why is my conscious experience limited to just what goes on in my brain and not yours as well? The connectivity between processes must also be important.
Connectivity means that processes must have a voice, so to speak, to make themselves known to others, and indeed, why would there be processes that did not have a voice of some sort? Our brains are compartmentalised and it's arguable the various compartments each demonstrate a level of conscious in their own right, but if they only communicate with other parts in a limited way, perhaps by updating some common memory and just signalling to say the job’s done, then other parts will never get to know of their full internal experiences.
The conscious thought, the processing immediately going on at the forefront of our minds, seems to be easily retrieved if we temporarily go off in another direction. Just as I am typing this paragraph, if I think for a moment about the last visit to my parents, then I am, temporarily, no longer conscious of typing this paragraph. It may seem like I am conscious of both trains of thought because it’s so easy to switch between thoughts, but in fact only one thing at a time is in conscious focus. I can't think of my parents and at the same time type sensible stuff at the keyboard. On the other hand, I could probably walk and type sensible stuff at the same time, but that’s making use of other more automatic systems!
Is it though, that our conscious experience, the singular line of thought, is an illusion of sorts? If multiple trains of thought do not interact, at whatever levels of processing allow them to execute, then who is to say that only one of them is actually involved with consciousness at any time? Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that thoughts not being processed in immediate consciousness do not seem to progress during that time, though that’s not always true and I can think of examples where unconscious processing must be going on outside the conscious arena.
Largely because of the connectivity issue, I would hazard the process that seems active, the one I call the conscious me is the one currently involved in associations with all the other facilities required (sensory, motor, memory, world model, some kind of process selector, …) for managing a body. That is not to deny other trains of thought remaining conscious to an extent, but they don't have (what I am calling) the voice; the voice being current interaction with the brain’s representation of the world and influence over physical output, thus providing some measure of continuity, a measure of moment to moment change.
I made an argument in On the Nature of Being... chapter 3 about whether two identical versions of an individual would, from their own point of view, have any idea they were in fact two instances of the same thing. I decided it would be entirely down to one’s point of view and from their points of view no such distinction would be noticeable. However, concepts of this kind cannot be enough to explain the apparent unity of the conscious experience. If it were so, there would be no limitation on the conscious experience, and as we know from experience, this is clearly not the case.
I have now read Giulio Tononi’s ‘PHI...’. The narrative is quite different in this book, though very readable. Even so I would have preferred a more conventional text that I think would have leant itself to a more technical explanation. I have only read the book once, so I may well have missed some important points, but I feel a lot has been missed out and I have questions. For me, the book’s first section was most informative, describing the functions of different parts of the brain and showing why consciousness would only reside in the cerebral cortex, perhaps minimally elsewhere.
Tononi’s idea that the qualities of an experience (for example: blueness of blue) are the way they are perceived as a result of their comparison to all other experiences, is an interesting one. It seems logical that a lone experience must be devoid of any ‘qualities’, as we might describe them, since what should the experience be measured against? Only when two or more kinds of experience are measured in a process can one be measured as different from the others and therefore begin to take on some relative quality.
I have yet to make full sense of the idea of integrated information (PHI). I can see that experiences need to be fused in some way, or at least have a relationship, but the nature of such is still unclear and in this respect I am disappointed with the book. The ideas of integrated information I presently have go as follows:
A complex organism makes its existence partly by being able to create new behaviour. This requires the organism to make associations between events and hold them in memory for future use. For example, if I think of a volcano I associate various visual images, the sound of thunderous eruption, red hot lava, smell of burning, hot ash, Popocatépetl, Pompei, a visit to Naples and all sorts of lesser associations. All these memories are brought together in this process that began with my thinking about volcanos. That’s one kind of integration of information, but it doesn’t say anything about why each memory is different from the others, except to state the obvious, that if they weren’t different they wouldn’t be different memories!
The impression that the experience of colour is different from sound is different from tactile is different from... and that each experience is just so, is something we never question. We live, for example, with sound being sound right from the word go, and an experience is what it is! However, the qualities of any experience are probably immaterial so long as the experience can be differentiated from the others. In addition, the mind’s experience need have no resemblance to what it represents in the real world, except for the fact that it must be sufficient to make the representation in all the ways important to the subject. In this way, our world of consciousness may have no similarity with the real world other than satisfying the requirements of isomorphism. That’s a weird idea!
I have just completed a first read of Chalmers’ book The Conscious Mind. It was first published in 1996 so it has been around for a while. I found the first few chapters hard going, in fact I skipped large sections and ony read solidly from chapter 6 onward. On reflection I would have benefited had I persevered with the first section of the book which dealt with some important groundwork, but I felt as though I needed a degree course in philosophy to follow the arguments easily.
Discussion and explanation of the Coherence principle (coherence between physical process and conscious experience) and the Invariance principle (different substrates will produce the same results if the function is identical) are good to see. Coherence, I believe, is key to Tononi's IIT and Invariance gives the green light to AI development.
I think Chalmers’ conclusions are more or less the same as those expressed in On the Nature of Being... judging by the discussions from chapter 9 onward (which is pleasing), but I'm not entirely sure, because he uses terminology such as natural dualism and mind-body dualism that have a different interpretation from the dual-aspect monism I advocate. Though I am left with a level of uncertainty with regard to Chalmers’ final views, he does cover the issues that I believe are important to understanding consciousness in depth.
Physicists use the discipline of physics to describe the world in which we exist. But, physics restricts itself to explaining the world only in objective terms. Is this a valid thing to do?
My belief is that, because a stand-alone explanation of the world is (or seems) possible in the physical (objective) sense, the subjective aspect is easily overlooked. But, if a complete explanation of the world is the purpose of physics, then it should extend to all aspects, including the subjective. I would suggest physics extend its scope to include the subjective aspect of existence as well as its objective aspect to achieve this aim.
An immediate problem, though, is that the subjective aspect is not scientific. That is, it's generally accepted that you can't run experiments on it. Even so, it seems the subjective aspect demands stronger analysis than from philosophy alone.
Although modern physics is concerned only with describing the world, which today removes the need for a creation, nonetheless, by ignoring an explanation for the conscious (subjective) experience, the issue of dualism versus monism is left wide open.
Accepting the idea that consciousness is a natural aspect of the physical world, in much the same way as following the ideas of modern physics, implies an atheistic world view as the need for a supernatural environment to house the soul and a creator of the world is no longer necessary. For anyone unaccustomed to this way of thinking, though, there is an immediate problem, because these viewpoints do, at first sight, give off an air of desolation. By removing the need for gods, afterlives and an alternative ethereal world where the mind alone exists, one is forced into a situation where the basic human needs for salvation and ultimate purpose appear to be lost. Those needs are probably natural to any form of higher sentience and they certainly apply to human consciousness, so it’s no wonder that an atheistic viewpoint of this nature fails to gain widespread influence. The implications of atheism, at a simple glance, present far too harsh a position for most individuals to stomach.
Taking only a cursory look at the philosophy related to, say, the current world-model in physics, in many cases, is likely to give rise to the feeling described above. On investigating further, however, the metaphoric shoreline of this viewpoint turns out to be less desolate than it first appears. To see this there are two key issues identifiable that need to be satisfied. These are, firstly, a sense of deliverance; the need to see our own existence perpetuate in some form beyond our current life experience, and secondly, to see a reason for our existence; we need a purpose, perhaps seen as the ultimate purpose, to make our lives worthwhile.
Given the assumed atheistic viewpoint, the issues themselves have straightforward solutions, at least once they are clearly presented. The difficulty, though, is in first reaching a rationality for that viewpoint wherein it is necessary to understand something of physics, the definition of life and philosophy, not necessarily in depth, but to a point where the relevant arguments can be followed. Don’t let that put you off though. What will follow here is a brief presentation of the arguments relevant to the issues of deliverance and ultimate purpose satisfactory to an atheistic point of view, and if you find that even vaguely interesting, maybe it will provide you sufficient incentive to find out a bit more about consciousness and physics.Premises relevant to the issue of finding deliverance:
- The concept of being external to the world is invalid. There can be no separate or external observation of existence.
- Consciousness is a natural aspect of the physical world. Like the objective aspect (physical material) of existence the subjective (potential for sentience) is a natural aspect of any existence.
- In worlds where conditions are favourable to the evolution of sentient life, at some point conscious forms will exist.
- Sentience is a self-asserting phenomenon (“I think, therefore I exist”, René Descartes). Where it is not present, other than as the trivial form synonymous with the subjective aspect of existence, nothing can be any the wiser!
Considered rationally, the above statements force the conclusion that the general sense of being in existence, taken from its own point of view, is effectively perpetual. That is not saying an individual is perpetual, only that the sense of existing, taken purely and simply, is effectively perpetual. The term Effectively is used here because there will be gaps, but because of the self-asserting nature of the subjective and that sentient beings are the only observers of the world, those gaps aren’t noticed (the concept of a gap itself becomes invalid in this context). Reiterating, from a general point of view it is not individuality that persists, but just the sense of existing in general. However, due to the self-asserting nature of any sentient being (you are whatever your memory and the wiring of your brain dictates), individuality, from its own point of view, seems as though it is persistent.
As individuals, by nature we find it difficult to get anywhere near a visualisation the above rational. It is easier for us to create odd notions of being somebody else, even though deep down we know such ideas can’t be squared. It’s within our capability to imagine being an external observer of the world, thus putting ourselves in the position of a creator, but imagining something is not the same as the reality. That is our dilemma and it is one reason for humanity having confused ideas on life and death. However, even if the true situation can’t be imagined, it can at least be understood. Simply in terms of the rational “I think so I exist”, each of us can realise they must feel more or less the same about themselves, moment to moment, as any other individual and that individuals are popping into and out of existence all the time.
What can be taken from the above? Well, if your life ends, then that’s it for you as an individual, but the pure subjective sense of existing that you once had…, that continues in all those others who are, subjectively, just like you were. Basically it is impossible to escape the sense of being. Subjectively, there is always some sentient body saying to itself, “I think, therefore I exist.”
Sentience, in a general sense then, is perpetual. That would appear to satisfy the first issue regarding deliverance. There’s no need for concern over the idea of deliverance because subjectivity, that sense of being we all share, is an unavoidable part of existence. That leaves the second issue of finding a purpose in life. For a long while a truly satisfactory answer to this proved elusive. The idea that you make your own purpose in life is satisfying at a trivial level, but does not really fit with the notion of an ultimate purpose. The solution, finally, is found to lie partly in the truth of the first issue; that the sense of being is unavoidable.Premises relevant to the issue of finding ultimate purpose:
- The sense of being is unavoidable; “I think, therefore I exist” is a subjectively perpetual state.
- An ultimate purpose can never be satisfied, otherwise it’s not ultimate!
- Any sentient entity lives an existence which, from its point of view, may or may not be favourable.
- Unfavourable conditions are usually unpleasant and to be avoided.
Given the above statements, it would seem rational to ensure the most favourable conditions apply, as best as can be arranged, to all sentient entities. Since the subjective experience of sentience applies in perpetuity, then it becomes an ultimate purpose for any individual to do their best in ensuring that any others the individual has an effect on are left in the most favourable conditions. This last statement can leave something of a contradiction if the needs of the individual contradict those of whom the individual affects, but that is a rarity and just means doing the right thing is sometimes complicated.
Finally then, there is a complete and rational argument that satisfies the human need for deliverance and ultimate purpose while at the same time maintaining a world view consistent with modern physics and the idea that existence is, of necessity, both objective and subjective in nature. The moral message to be taken: do what you can in this life, especially in ways towards making it better for others, and don’t concern yourself with death, it’s a limited concept and from a general point of view it’s irrelevant!