The extraordinary complexity of the human brain, which developed over millions of years of evolution, has finally produced creatures who can acknowledge their existence in a way that complex artificial physical systems may never do. The correlation between the processing of information in the brain, and that which takes place in our most sophisticated computers, in my view, will be insufficient to produce the same conscious “experience” that humans enjoy.
As complex biological creatures, what WE have that computers cannot independently produce is LIFE–the animating force of everything that lives. Our rich inner life–our experience of existence–while facilitated by complex cognitive functioning, resists empirical scrutiny in my view, precisely because it does not “arise” simply from those physical systems, but rather, through them–utilizing them as a “conduit for consciousness.” They make awareness possible, but they cannot explain what it is like to BE aware.
As someone having these experiences, as deeply personal and profound as they are, my experience of awareness intimates the existence of a non-physical realm or dimension which is entangled with the physical world. Just because I rely on an intact physical system to be aware, doesn’t convince me that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.
As the foundation for our awareness of possessing consciousness, neurological functioning may facilitate its unfolding, allowing it to become manifest in the physical universe of human endeavor, and provide a common platform for meaningful interaction amongst our fellow cognitive creatures, but it cannot constitute the whole of it.
As modern physics has demonstrated, we are all ultimately linked to the universal energies present in the early universe, and made from “the stuff of stars,” subatomic particles floating in the Higgs field. It seems to me that whatever forces govern the quarks, and hadrons, and leptons, and most recently, the theoretical “Higgs boson,” must be, in some manner, active within the wider universe of humans, planets, galaxies and super-clusters. All of existence, both temporal and metaphysical, must be a manifestation of and possess some degree of consciousness, only on a much grander scale.
If awareness of consciousness is an inevitable consequence of any evolutionary life process which produces creatures of sufficient cognitive ability and architectural complexity in the cognitive apparatus, then consciousness may well be what we can expect to find at the heart of the universe, manifested in an infinite variety of displays throughout. We will never know unless we expand our range of explanations to include every conceivable and inconceivable possibility.
Alva Noe wrote in his book, “Are We Out of Our Heads?:”
“The brain is not, on its own, a source of experience or cognition…The conscious mind is not inside us; it is, it would be better to say, a kind of active attunement to the world, an achieved integration. It is the world itself, all around, that fixes the nature of conscious experience.”
If Noë’s contention is correct that consciousness consists of “Mind-Body-World,” i.e. the interaction of all three of those elements being required to connect us to our richly textured experience of conscious awareness, then many of the other widely-held ideas about cognition and neuroscience may also need to be reconsidered. Many of Noë’s arguments are relentlessly compelling for me as they affirm what I have long posited myself—to quote Noë:
“Consciousness does not happen in our brains; it is not a product of the brain. Certainly, there is no sound empirical evidence to support the idea that the brain alone is enough for consciousness.”
It always intrigues me when anyone attempts to simplify “human consciousness” as being some sort of evolutionary adaptation easily explained by brain physiology or cognitive functioning. It’s a “no-brainer” that our development of a complex and integrative cerebral cortex gave us access to a level of cognitive function (as yet unmatched by any other species to our knowledge) that permits an exceptionally keen awareness of BEING conscious, but consciousness itself is a much larger and expansive subject than brain physiology or cognitive science and any attempt to explain consciousness in a comprehensive sense, in my view, clearly requires a much broader understanding.
Part of the problem with judging as to whether or not a machine can be “conscious” lies in the difficulty we currently encounter when we attempt to confirm this same condition in other sentient beings. We experience conscious states vividly in our own day-to-day existence, but can only “infer” conscious states in others through observations and interactions with them. We cannot know with absolute certainty what others are experiencing, precisely because of the nature of conscious awareness. Even when conscious awareness was finally possible for the early humans, they did not immediately spring into functional consciousness. Even with the advantage of being able to “load” information into a machine, which is still a fairly lengthy process for humans needing years of learning, there are very few shortcuts available for accumulating experience, which is the real game changer.
Our distinct version of human consciousness permits the subjective awareness of “what it’s like” to experience our existence, and to be able to contemplate it, ponder it, and express our experience of it. It is, perhaps, most evident in our attempts to describe consciousness, to articulate the process, to measure it and theorize about it, that we realize it cannot be reduced to physiology alone.
It doesn’t help much that our ability to acknowledge and contemplate the nature of consciousness REQUIRES our physiology to be precisely what it is–a cognitive apparatus attached to a central nervous system and an array of sensory inputs supported by heart, lungs, and nutritional systems to sustain it. This essential apparatus, which merely FACILITATES the expression of what Kant called “transcendental consciousness,” is inseparable from our ability to possess our subjective awareness, but it does NOT define the foundational and transcendent principle which makes our cognitive apparatus most useful–as a conduit for consciousness. There is a huge gap between “being conscious” and “having access to a transcendental consciousness.”
Without consciousness there could be no awareness of existence, and without a temporal existence, we could not gain access to a subjective awareness of consciousness. If our existence is a manifestation of a transcendent consciousness (Kant) then the two are inseparable and intimately intertwined.