Coming To Grips With Consciousness

BrainScanWall-Smith

“Brightly colored brain scans are a media favorite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand, but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of activity, but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function. This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of, but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.”

Quoted from “Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think,” by Vaughan Bell, “a neuropsychologist who researches the brain and treats people with neurological difficulties.” The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/

“It’s worth noting that philosophers…(generally) do not conclude that there is no sense in which an experience is physical. Seeing red, for example, involves photons striking the retina, followed by a whole string of physical events that process the retinal information before we actually have a subjective sense of color. There’s a purely physical sense in which this is “seeing.” This is why we can say that a surveillance camera “sees” someone entering a room. But the “seeing” camera has no subjective experience; it has no phenomenal awareness of what it’s like to see something. That happens only when we look at what the camera recorded. The claim that experience is not physical applies only to this sense of experience. But, of course, it is experience in this sense that makes up the rich inner experience that matters so much to us.”

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David Chalmers,(*) remain(s) one of many “philosophical naturalists,” who maintain(s) that there is no world beyond the natural one in which we live. The “philosophical naturalist’s” claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation. Chalmers, in particular, supports a “naturalistic dualism” that proposes to supplement physical science by postulating entities with irreducibly subjective (phenomenal) properties that would allow us to give a natural explanation of consciousness. Not surprisingly, however, some philosophers (view) Chalmers’s arguments as supporting a traditional dualism of a natural body and a supernatural soul. — Quoted from the New York Times “Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web” – The Stone March 12, 2013 by Gary Gutting (who) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

 

For years now, I have been researching the human subjective experience of consciousness, studying the many resources surrounding the nature of the mind, investigating as much as I can about the developments in neuroscience, and reading as widely as possible in the many related subjects like psychology, philosophy, and in a variety of spiritual traditions, all in the service of a greater understanding of my own subjective experience of life. I know there are elements coalescing within me, at times bursting to come out, but I am impeded often by both temporal distractions and my own mental exhaustion from a variety of urgent matters. Every once in a while, I like to review my own writing about particular subjects and resources in hopes of stimulating my thought processes, and recently in my current workbook, I came across a review I wrote of Chalmers’ book, “The Conscious Mind,” and it prompted me to give it another look.

One of the main reasons I have admired David’s work over the years is due to the many instances where he has shown a willingness to periodically engage in unconventional thinking as a means of expanding on conventional ideas. Even though there aren’t many others who even go as far as he goes, I can’t help but feel that it still isn’t quite far enough. Even as broad in scope as his book seems to be, it still stays carefully away from anything too potentially controversial. After all, he has a professional reputation to consider, and a vested interest in maintaining academic integrity, but even so, his courage in pursuing his ideas is admirable. The environment in which academics generally must function, often requires that they pay attention to such considerations, and by doing so, hopefully lead them to conduct research that is productive and publishable.

MotionIllusion2

Much has been made of our perception of the natural world through our senses and how little of its true nature is evident through our cognitive functionality. Indeed, as the image above demonstrates, our common sense notions of how an image printed with ink on a piece of paper could not be in motion are immediately called into question. We can explain how it is that our brain translates this image into one that appears to be moving on the page, but the EXPERIENCE of its motion takes place within us subjectively, and that requires more explaining.

Experience is a subjective mental state, according to Chalmers, one that we can know only as we have it. Consciousness can best be characterized, he says, as “the subjective quality of experience.” He enumerates the various types of “conscious experiences,” from the most subtle to the most pronounced, all of which “have a distinct experienced quality.” He goes on to say that “if it were not for our direct evidence in the first-person…the hypothesis (of the existence of conscious experience) would seem unwarranted.” “Consciousness is part of the natural world,” he insists, and suggests two major areas that cry out for explanation: 1) The very existence of consciousness, and 2) the specific character of conscious experiences. Chalmers would like for the theory of consciousness to “enable us to see (it) as in integral part of the natural world,” and frames the problem of consciousness as something that “arises from physical systems.”

I do not believe necessarily that “physical processes give rise to consciousness,” nor that “…the emergence of consciousness needs to be explained in terms that seem intelligible,” if by “intelligible” he means “empirical.” Our experience of our individual existence is clearly dependent upon our temporal capacity for cognition, and is made manifest in the physical world through our central nervous system and our natural cognitive endowment as human beings, but it is my personal view that consciousness itself, this foundational and ineffable vehicle of experience may not originate in our physical systems at all, although there may be, as Chalmers describes it, “a lawful relationship between physical processes and conscious experience.” For some, there isn’t much difference between those two phrases, but being related and simply being are quite different.

What we perceive as experience owes a great deal to the physical nervous system and cognitive functions of the brain, but it seems more likely to me, particularly as one who HAS these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and occasionally so profoundly beyond the machinations of the natural world for them to be solely dependent on them for their existence. Just because we rely on our intact and functional physical cognitive system in order that experience may “register,” or for us to be aware of them, does not, in my view, indicate that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.

We may eventually come to understand why we have these experiences, and David’s reasoning regarding the character and nature of consciousness being possible to explain in terms of his “naturalistic dualism” is perfectly alright with me. The inner workings of every phenomenal process we examine do not easily reveal themselves always through current scientific methodology, but it is certain that our understanding is increasing and expanding due to the efforts of people like David Chalmers, and I am grateful that such individuals exist who ponder these issues. Those who insist on a more tangible, empirical explanation for consciousness may not find much satisfaction in my own ideas and inclinations, but my respect and admiration for David far exceeds any amount of disparity in our views generally. We have corresponded occasionally over the years, and his gracious encouragement and probing questions in response to mine have had the effect of pressing me to dig deeper. In the last chapter of David’s book, he even allows himself to speculate a bit, and warns the reader that such speculation “…falls well into the realm of speculative metaphysics, but speculative metaphysics is probably unavoidable in coming to terms with the ontology of consciousness.”

I couldn’t agree more.

(*)”David Chalmers is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University and also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” and numerous other books and articles in philosophy and cognitive science. His 2010 John Locke Lectures at Oxford will shortly be published as “Constructing the World.” – from the website psychoontology.org

Consciousness in the World: Being a Dad

fathers day 2

Ever since I first started to understand what it meant to BE a father, I have wanted to be one. My own father was a particularly good role model in most aspects of parenting, and while he ruled over our ultimate accumulation of eight children in our family with a fairly strict hand by today’s standards, in spite of all our trials and tribulations of growing up under his absolute, black and white rules, I never lost my desire to one day BE the father of a similarly large brood. Most of my memories from childhood experiences with my father have a thread of discipline and punishment within them somewhere, but thankfully, there were also a number of them that involved happy times and loving attention, even when it wasn’t directed toward me. In the early days, I remember wanting to grow up quickly, in order to be the one with the power to direct my own life, and during my teen years, my memories consist mostly of just wanting to get away from all the conflicts which inevitably occur as children pass through adolescence. Once I set out on my own independent life, I knew that I was going to be a father, and I had convinced myself that I was definitely going to do it better than my Dad.

The photo at the top of this posting shows all six of my children when they were all small. We had recently moved in to a townhouse that finally had enough room for all of us, and it was joyful beyond anything I ever could have imagined. The oldest was ten years old in the photo and the youngest was approaching one year old. The routines were all brand new, and the dynamics within the family group were only just starting to take hold, but it had finally happened for me to share responsibility for raising a clan of kids. Reflecting as I do when Father’s Day comes around, it seems to me that I cannot remember another time in my life when I was happier than I was when the picture was taken. We had our own trials, and providing for such a large group was never particularly easy, but through the years, as I watched each of my beloved children coming into consciousness in the world, I was learning what it meant to POSSESS consciousness, as I was learning how to be a Dad. There may not be a better environment for learning about consciousness, than to witness its development over and over again as the loving father to a number of children.

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Now that my children are all grown up, it is finally possible to look back over a generation between my own childhood, and that of my children. Several of them have produced grandchildren already, and being a grandfather, while profoundly different in important ways, in my case, has provided some of the same types of experiences again, and it has been quite a journey so far. Father’s Day is always an interesting day each year, and this past year provided some wonderful experiences with both generations. When you have this many children, getting them all together in the same place at the same time is an enormous challenge, and each attempt inevitably results in several of the siblings being either unavailable or just otherwise occupied. Over the years, I have come to understand a little better and to accept this aspect of our family dynamic, and this year, even though it was not all at the same time, I managed to spend time with each of my children as a Dad and continue to enjoy whatever opportunity presents itself, regardless if it takes place on a particular day. Being a Dad provides some of the most difficult challenges imaginable, but now that I can look back on so many years of working through it all with my children, when one of them shares an important insight, it can be window into more than just the emotional sentimentality of a particular day.

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My second youngest daughter, now a responsible and hard working adult, stopped over to visit with me on Monday night after work, and we talked long into the night. As is sometimes the case with the younger children in a large family, you end up wondering what all the fuss is about with the older kids, and in spite of my best efforts to balance all of my attention between each of the children equitably, you end up being only marginally successful in THEIR eyes as young people. Our conversation drifted into some of the stories and memories of those early days, which contained some recollections of my parenting skills that were not especially flattering to me from those days. With the benefit of the passing years, however, as a grown woman, my daughter now could express how she felt then, balanced by her realization today, and our experiences were filled in by our now much greater understanding of the challenges we both faced. Her photo above is one of my absolute favorites, and our conversation brought us closer together in ways unimaginable when the photo was taken. It prompted me, as we clinked our glasses together to say, “Best Father’s Day, ever!”

Each year, as my daughter grew from that wide-eyed, trusting, and loving child, Father’s Day wasn’t always a mutual celebration in the truest sense of the word, but as her consciousness evolved from those early days into her current adult version, she came to appreciate our relationship and gain in perspective as the years passed. In much the same way, as my original memories of turning the corner of the street where I grew up had been replaced by my familiarity with the street where I live now, I couldn’t say exactly when the change took place, it took quite a while to become lodged in my mind and part of my daily waking consciousness.

Our capacity to feel empathy with all living creatures, and with others of our species, particularly those with whom we have some sort of emotional relationship, in my mind, infers a profound connection between us that is mostly FELT. This may make the connection difficult to quantify, but no less substantial than any other human characteristic with more obvious substance like family resemblance, friendship, or partnership. Pursuing the nature of our connection to each other as living beings compels me with the same fervor with which I am compelled to breathe. It is as natural to me to write about it as it is to love my children, and to survive. As with most qualities of the examined life, they are sometimes at odds with each other, while being simultaneously and unavoidably essential to life.

Philosophy of Consciousness

Sunrise-Meditation

“If we turn our contemplation away from our outer world and to the inner one, as the sages advise, a different reality becomes evident. Like light, consciousness has no place, and no shape. It is invisible, yet illuminates everything. It is unimpeded by time and space…While the physiological basis of consciousness is not yet understood, recent evidence indicates that it may depend on electromagnetic vibrations–light, though not in the visible range–involving significant portions of the nervous system.” – Christian Wertenbaker

At the very heart of human life, beyond the rhetoric of all our religions, our sciences, and our philosophies, there exists an elusive and ineffable element, which I prefer to describe as “the human spirit.” Admittedly difficult to quantify, and frequently described by a variety of other names, it consistently alters the equations of life in ways not anticipated by evolution, genetics, or physics. The existence of the human spirit is, for most of us, primarily subjective in nature, through our experience of it within us. The capacity to traverse the gap between what we all have in common and what we can only know subjectively with any certainty, requires a leap that is generally referred to as transcendence.

Regardless of our cultural heritage, our experience or lack of religious training, our economic status, or our individual life experiences, we all share a connection to the essential human subjective experience of existing as a person, which unites us with every other human consciousness, past, present, and to come. It is within the realm of human consciousness where the clearest connection to the human spirit can be found. Even though all our attempts to describe it must inevitably fall short, I believe outward indications of the existence of the spirit are available to us if we both seek them out and look in the right places.

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We tend to think of ourselves primarily as physical beings–“bodies moving through space,”–and as any modern physicist will affirm, our bodies are made up of quantum particles or strings, which when brought together in a sufficiently dense conglomeration (and according to the proper architecture) result in the tangible human person who winks back at us as we gaze into the mirror. The spirit which animates our bodies–bodies composed of particles moving through space–does not occupy physical space as we know it, and may be, therefore, not perceptible by ordinary sense perception. Its existence currently can only be “inferred” or detected subjectively through some sense or process, which may not be discernible to us through conventional scientific methodology.

If the nature of life, sentient or otherwise, is reliant upon or supported by some sort of non-physical underpinning in order to exist, however it might be constituted or described, we would have no other means of detecting it, other than through some sort of internal or subjective awareness, since the existence of such underpinnings and their nature would have no relevant reference in the temporal domain. While these two aspects of life, the temporal and the spiritual, could both be absolutely real and substantial in their own way, each according to their nature, they could not be said to be “within us,” in the sense of being in any specific locus, but would have to exist both independently and interdependently, without regard for our ability to comprehend them through conventional means.

brain-blood-vessels

Credit: Alfonso Rodríguez-Baeza and Marisa Ortega-Sánchez, 2009

See the whole series of brain images here:
http://www.livescience.com/14413-brain-images-portraits-mind.html

Our ability as human beings to not only pursue the nature of consciousness, but also to produce an image like the one above is nothing short of miraculous in my view. The larger structures at the top of the image are, according to the caption, “…the large blood vessels surround the surface of the brain (top of image), sending thin, dense projections down into the depths of the cortex (bottom of image).” Examining this image gives me a sense of what might be described as a “philosophical view” of how structure manifests in very particular ways, based on the essential nature of life and its necessities.

The connections between our experience of life, our emotions, and changes within the brain are well established, and the chemistry of brain physiology has clear consequences for both the thought process and the physiological responses triggered throughout the body. There is a direct link between thought, emotion, brain activity, and the physiological responses generated by hormones, glands, and specific neurotransmitters which pass through these intricate pathways right down to the tiniest cell within the cortex.

collaborate

One could say, much in the same way that “male and female” are both distinct, yet simultaneously both human, or two bowls, one containing hot water and one containing ice, yet both containing water, that the physical universe, filled as it is with specific temporal structures and individuals, may be a manifestation of both the physical and the non-physical, which are different aspects of the same existence. Living creatures, planets, solar systems, and galaxies, are all made of exactly the same universal elementary particles, which, so far as we can determine, ultimately become indistinguishable from one another once you descend far enough into their most essential nature. While we are able to identify and categorize distinct structures, elements, and individuals, distinct in one light, they are all simultaneously joined into the oneness of all life. It is an expression of the true nature of all things.

We can only affirm and make reference to objects and forces through our experience of them. Our experience of them is reliant on our physical, sensory, and cognitive functionality. Our collective functionality is founded upon our physical existence. Our physical existence is fundamentally a series of quantum events characterized by a fleeting fluctuation between being and non-being. What I am suggesting is that human consciousness may be the bridge between our temporal nature and spiritual forces which support life.

If the history of humanity is any indication of what is required to progress as living creatures, the gradual blending of ideas seems at least worth a try. The interdependence of individuals within a group, of diverse species within ecosystems, of the various minute particles that produce elements, of the many processes which produced life within our own galaxy, all suggest that life is not simply the result of either the empirical or the mystical. At this stage of our development, blending ideas seems like a sensible alternative.