The Mystery of Consciousness II
Posted: 20 October 2011 05:33 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Sam seems to think that there is a special indefinable something about consciousness that will elude science.


I disagree, and expect that consciousness arises from the workings of our physical brains, and that it will be no mystery at all in time. I do not agree that the fact that we do see different levels of consciousness in different creatures gives us no insight into the matter. More complex brains lead to “higher” functions including a more sophisticated mental picture of yourself and your surroundings. This fact that I am more “conscious”  than a cat is a relevant fact.


Currently only living things are complex enough to be conscious. Will it be possible to build a machine that is conscious? How will we decide it is conscious? Will we have to take the machines word for it? I agree these are thorny problems, but not insurmountable ones.


Sam states that nothing we have studied about the brain hints it harbours consciousness. I am not familiar with this lack of evidence. I do know that various levels of physical damage to the brain, the use of various chemicals, and even meditation, can affect consciousness which all is evidence that conciousness is a function of our physical brains.

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Posted: 20 October 2011 08:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Given a species of social animal that is highly intellegent, ie able to model its environment (including itself and its fellows) in a highly complex central nervous system, in order to feed, self protect, and reproduce; why wouldn’t it “be like something” to experience the subjective experience of that creature?  In fact, from a modeling perspective, wouldn’t this be the most efficient way for such a creature to model itself and its environment in one coherent frame rather than say including itself in the model from an external (3rd person) perspective?  Indeed, the creature has as many “internal” data feeds (my toe itches) as external ones (Sam is looking at me funny).  I don’t get the problem here.

Thanks Sam for a stimulating discussion.  I’ll read part one again, I must be missing something.

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Posted: 20 October 2011 09:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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OK, I re-read part one. 

It seems we are simply parsing the difference between the subjective and objective points of view.  The subjective state, (consciousness), is ineluctably subjective and can not be “demonstrated” with a scalpel or an electron microscope.  That it arises from, or is caused by unconscious neuro-biological processes appears objectively inescapable. 

And so, welcome to the mind-body problem and the illusion of free will.  Tom Clark (http://www.amazon.com/Encountering-Naturalism-Worldview-Its-Uses/dp/0979111102) has covered the topic as well as can be done.  I guess this (free will) must be why all the bother about “emergence” and “what it is like”.  Am I getting close?  Neuro-biological systems modelling, using internal and external data feeds, causing the ineluctable “subjective” in a complex central nervous system seems like an answer that a rational empiricist can live with and experiment on.

[ Edited: 20 October 2011 09:16 PM by Bill H]
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Posted: 20 October 2011 09:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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I think it bold to say that the understanding of natural phenomenon is beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. I also do not know how you would reconcile the supposition that we may never understand consciousness with the strength of your arguments against free will. If we are so confident that all “choices” are spontaneous that we claim there can be no intention, then we must have some understanding of the mechanism and it’s effect on our consciousness. I understand that intention itself is supposedly spontaneous but again how can we be sure if the understanding of consciousness is beyond our grasp? Maybe what I’m saying is perhaps consciousness is the mechanism of choice or novelty. Now you may run me out of this forum for being an ineffectual intellectual.

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Posted: 20 October 2011 10:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I agree with all the above postings.

My question is at what point do we define the subjective experience of ‘consciousness’ as existing?

Sam, you say that there is a hard edge. I doubt that very much.

Is an earthworm conscious? I cannot, of course, say but what I can do is point to a simple system that I do understand and view the foundations of consciousness from that perspective: my PC.

My PC is conscious i.e. self-aware, albeit very limitedly. It runs anti-virus software that ‘knows’ when it ‘ate’ something bad and it ‘consciously’ eliminates it. If I try to install new software, it ‘knows’ that’s what I’m doing and asks my permission. Within, the memory systems monitor the status of their bits. If one bit of a set of bits is off (parity error), it ‘knows’ it has an error and can either correct that error or stop using that memory segment (an algorithm makes this decision - determinism, to its core).

By simply entering a query in my PC, it ‘knows’ to send it to the library (Google), and shows me what the other ‘consciousness’ found in its memory.

Of course, computers are simplistic. All the computers in the world don’t add up to the complexity of a human brain in organizational structure. At least not yet. But I’d bet, judging from the chat bots that have been designed so far, that they can out-think that earthworm hands down.

What we’re talking about here is the degree of consciousness, not the existence of consciousness.

Determining the ‘cause’ of consciousness in the human mind will take time and tinkering. It’s something we can’t do very well on living humans. Therein lies a major limitation.

With a computer you can probe, measure, and attempt to view the constituent parts to your hearts content. Perhaps we’d find it easy to reverse engineer the internet and PCs if we came at the problem blind. Somehow, I think we’d find it hard. There would seem to be this qualia about the thing that we don’t really understand where it came from. How do all those circuits turn into knowledge? I know, it’s hard to see how this would play out but considering the comparative simplicity of computers to humans, I’m not surprised we’re not finding the answers yet.

Right now, with humans, we’re at the level of studying transistors (neurons) and how they might connect to other neurons. We’re at the point of studying simple chip design (neuronal interconnection). And we’re seeing traffic patterns in the network (fMRI brain scans). That’s the bottom up approach and so far it doesn’t tell us much about how it all works but we’re just beginning.

We’re also taking the top down approach by studying what happens when a piece of software is removed (brain damage) and where it was loaded into memory (brain function mapping). We’re also examining some of the interfaces with the external world (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell). And we’re identifying specialized circuits and controllers (amygdala handles fear, limbic system controls internal processes).

We are like an alien race stumbling upon the miracle that is the internet and trying to figure out the parts. We’re getting closer but we are not there yet. And just as the internet is not made of mystical, magical components, neither are we. We just don’t understand how they work yet.

Isn’t that the fun part, finding out?

Sam, in response to your previous article, I posted a comment to which reader “eucaryote” replied with this smart idea:

We have intimately evolved into the only environment that we know. We literally cannot conceive of anything outside of, or other than the physical environment that we have evolved into. If you look at it from the perspective of deep ecology, we are in a matrix of sorts. One of the budding consciousness’s on the tree of life. The real mistake is to think of our “consciousness” as separate from or other than, or somehow not a part of, the physical environment.

Now, why does the universe exist? That might be beyond our ability to know. Like you say,“That doesn’t leave much scope for conventional religious doctrines,” but it’s something, isn’t it?

The truth is out there, or rather right here inside.

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Posted: 21 October 2011 01:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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I also agree with all the above postings.
I think it is worthwhile defining a strong emergence as opposed to a weak emergence, just so we can get a better handle on our topic.  For instance the sense of sight or embryonic development might be considered examples of weak emergence and abiogenesis an example of strong emergence, along with consciousness.  I suspect the comment “life is defined according to external criteria” gives insufficient credence to the “miracle” of life.  And simple differences between two kinds of strong emergence as a proof of only one being worthy of the “strong” title also underwhelms.  Other candidates for strong emergence came with the arrival of the 4 interactions of the Standard Model in our early universe.  Perhaps the initial moment of the Big Bang can be seen as the only case of a “super emergence”.
It seems to me that one’s view of these 4 earlier “miracles” before life and consciousness will depend on your point of view.  If you believe that electromagnetism and gravity were always there, just waiting to unfold as soon as they got the opportunity or that the “laws of our universe” are somehow separate from the matter of our universe, like Plato’s “ideals”, then you will perhaps see the effects of each interaction as just the unfolding of an unavoidable, rather deterministic process.  But if you see each interaction itself as upheld by matter every bit as much as each interaction indirectly impacts matter, then you will see the emerging of each of the 4 interactions as stochastic, probabilistic and truly game-changing.  That is, run exactly the same Big Bang experiment again, and due to the probabilistic qualities of QM, we would end up with a universe operating under a different set of interactions or self-restraints.  This is the essence of the “miracle” – you can’t easily reverse-engineer the “laws of our universe”, which in reality are not the universe’s laws or blueprints or intelligent design at all, but just our scientific short-cuts to explain our perceptions to some extent. Similarly it is difficult to un-bake a cake.
But if we were to try to do so – which is what is being asked for here, how could we go about trying to do it?  Well first of all, according to Gödel limitations, if we just try to break the problem up into small chunks, we will always end up with an incomplete picture (or an axiom or “brute fact”) that won’t solve our problem of “traversing the distance between the (pre-strong emergent) and (post-strong emergent)”.  Even if we had a perfect model of the early universe, we would have to run the model perhaps 1000…’s of times before we would get any idea of where our particular universe sits in the vastness of possibilities from the early quantum fluctuations to the emergence of a strong nuclear force.
Next, we would have to appreciate the direct-indirect interplay between matter and each emerging interaction in space and time.  Theoretical physicists don’t just call it an illusion when they come up against the complexity of a stochastic, QM world impacted by the intangibles of space and time.  They build models that include things like strings – that embody the direct and indirect (or “real and virtual” or “objective and subjective”) within the one, unified, gooey coagulation of matter-space-time.  That is, they make allowance for the “illusory” within their models.  They build the “miracle” into their models.
Will it be a theoretical physicist, trying to model the ability of the universe to bootstrap itself using neural networks, that also comes up with a model of how consciousness could emerge or bootstrap itself from mere biology?  Was Stephen Hawking correct when he said he thinks science has overtaken philosophy and that philosophy is dead?
Maybe the answer to the riddle of consciousness will involve all those nasty, unclear, mysterious concepts of a self-referencing, self-initiating, self-organising, self-restraining, self-contained, self-absorbed and selfish universe! And what does this mean?  It just means that the universe always works locally and builds or unfolds from the bottom-up in the present, with a blind purpose that by “the law of large numbers” only emerges as perhaps intelligent in the fullness of time.  Consciousness, as the next interaction after gravity and life, is perhaps at the end of a very long and universal bootstrapping process.  Was it there right in the beginning?  I don’t think so, just as I don’t think any of the other interactions were either.  But hopefully, without intending to be transcendental in any way, our higher consciousness (that is able to “rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” as Richard Dawkins put it) is the next step in this “inexorable coagulation of life (or matter-space-time)” as Matt Ridley once put it…

[ Edited: 23 October 2011 06:08 AM by Michael Kean]
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Posted: 24 October 2011 08:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Kahako1 - 21 October 2011 01:30 AM

I think it bold to say that the understanding of natural phenomenon is beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. I also do not know how you would reconcile the supposition that we may never understand consciousness with the strength of your arguments against free will. If we are so confident that all “choices” are spontaneous that we claim there can be no intention, then we must have some understanding of the mechanism and it’s effect on our consciousness. I understand that intention itself is supposedly spontaneous but again how can we be sure if the understanding of consciousness is beyond our grasp? Maybe what I’m saying is perhaps consciousness is the mechanism of choice or novelty. Now you may run me out of this forum for being an ineffectual intellectual.

You’re as effectual as they come, Kahako1. The idea of spontaneous “free will” and consciousness can be reconciled. Consciousness of behavior follows behavior by milliseconds to seconds. This has been shown experimentally with fmri. The best you can do is use consciousness to arrest behavior starting to happen.

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Posted: 24 October 2011 10:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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eucaryote - 25 October 2011 12:13 AM

The idea of spontaneous “free will” and consciousness can be reconciled. Consciousness of behavior follows behavior by milliseconds to seconds. This has been shown experimentally with fmri. The best you can do is use consciousness to arrest behavior starting to happen.

If you can consciously choose to arrest an unconscious impulse then is that free will? It certainly seems so to me. If so, then what is the effect of the conscious choice on the subconscious mind?

In other words, does subconscious reasoning inform the conscious mind and the conscious mind inform the subconscious mind?

That, at least to me, seems reasonable.

An alternative is that the conscious mind decides nothing and therefore “arrest[ing] behavior” is in itself a subconscious choice. In this case the subconscious both determines to act and to not act. What, other than free will (assuming the term retains a useful if imprecise meaning) could guide such a start-stop thought process?

Oh, and Kahako1, most effectual. Please keep posting.

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Posted: 25 October 2011 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com - 25 October 2011 02:37 AM

[
In other words, does subconscious reasoning inform the conscious mind and the conscious mind inform the subconscious mind?

Ok, but you mean the unconscious organism. There is no “mind”.

I was glad to find that out btw, I was afraid I had lost mine, until I discovered that I never had it to begin with. wink

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Posted: 25 October 2011 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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eucaryote - 25 October 2011 01:24 PM
Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com - 25 October 2011 02:37 AM

[
In other words, does subconscious reasoning inform the conscious mind and the conscious mind inform the subconscious mind?

Ok, but you mean the unconscious organism. There is no “mind”.

I was glad to find that out btw, I was afraid I had lost mine, until I discovered that I never had it to begin with. wink

That explains a lot - and not just about you. :-D

Lends a whole new meaning to “I don’t mind.”

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Posted: 29 October 2011 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Though joining this discussion rather late and reading some good discussions about consciousness, I would like to submit the following for consideration.

At the end of “The Mystery of Consciousness” Sam said:

“Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing.”

Expanding on that as a starting point, consciousness could be defined as:

“Consciousness is our wakeful awareness resulting from the lawful product of subconscious processes linking incoming sensory information and memory of collect facts and data producing coherence and relativity regarding our position in this three dimensional reality.”

There is a difference, though intimately related, between what consciousness IS and
A) what is its method of operation?
B) where did it come from?
C) how does it relate to the physical brain?
D) why does it exist?
E) any discussion of ego, personal relationships, religion, etc., etc.

It is too easy to get lost in discussion of these other aspects to the point where an acceptable definition or explanation of consciousness itself becomes lost.

I would like to ask anyone that responds to this post to first state your definition of consciousness and how it adds to, corrects, supersedes, or overturns the definition above.

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Posted: 29 October 2011 12:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Buddha-Bob - 29 October 2011 04:16 PM

Though joining this discussion rather late and reading some good discussions about consciousness, I would like to submit the following for consideration.

At the end of “The Mystery of Consciousness” Sam said:

“Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing.”

Expanding on that as a starting point, consciousness could be defined as:

“Consciousness is our wakeful awareness resulting from the lawful product of subconscious processes linking incoming sensory information and memory of collect facts and data producing coherence and relativity regarding our position in this three dimensional reality.”

There is a difference, though intimately related, between what consciousness IS and
A) what is its method of operation?
B) where did it come from?
C) how does it relate to the physical brain?
D) why does it exist?
E) any discussion of ego, personal relationships, religion, etc., etc.

It is too easy to get lost in discussion of these other aspects to the point where an acceptable definition or explanation of consciousness itself becomes lost.

I would like to ask anyone that responds to this post to first state your definition of consciousness and how it adds to, corrects, supersedes, or overturns the definition above.

Nice 1st post BB.  Welcome.

Sam said, ““Consciousness may very well be the lawful product of unconscious information processing.”

As opposed to unlawful, conscious information processing? Is that what Sam thinks consciousness is? If he thinks the phenomenon is “unlawful”, what does that mean? He seems to want to believe in magic. Real magic as opposed to magic that is real.

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Posted: 29 October 2011 02:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Kenneth Benjamin - WisdomWebsite.com - 21 October 2011 02:56 AM

My PC is conscious i.e. self-aware, albeit very limitedly. It runs anti-virus software that ‘knows’ when it ‘ate’ something bad and it ‘consciously’ eliminates it. If I try to install new software, it ‘knows’ that’s what I’m doing and asks my permission. Within, the memory systems monitor the status of their bits. If one bit of a set of bits is off (parity error), it ‘knows’ it has an error and can either correct that error or stop using that memory segment (an algorithm makes this decision - determinism, to its core).


By simply entering a query in my PC, it ‘knows’ to send it to the library (Google), and shows me what the other ‘consciousness’ found in its memory.

You talk about your PC “knowing” “good from bad” having “memory” (etc.), but it seems to me that these are just linguistic similarities. You can say that a thermostat “senses the temperature”, but that doesnt mean it actually has the experience of feeling hot and cold right? And saying that a rock feels the sunrays doesnt make it conscious either.


The computer, physically speaking, is just a collection of particles and forces. It knows no more than a rock does. But because computers are very useful to humans, we use particular language when talking about them and we have mental models about them. But thats all happening in the mind of the human.

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Posted: 30 October 2011 08:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6474

Consciousness (self aware modeling of the environment using memories and concurrent sensory data streams) appears to have evolved through different paths.  Octopi do not use language, (so this may not be necessary), but do communicate emotional states to each other visually via skin color changes.  Although I cannot imagine “what it is like” to be an octopus an octopus could.  Including the “self” in the neurobiological model of a creature’s “now” is not necessarily limited to primate’s or apparently even vertebrate’s central nervous systems.

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Posted: 02 November 2011 08:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Here is something, too succinct and on point not to post as a cross reference, from the great blog “Conscious Entities”:
http://www.consciousentities.com/pseudodoxia.htm#something

“There is something it is like”

Holy ineffability!
This innocent-looking little phrase, which I believe comes from Nagel’s famous paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (summary of the paper - ‘how would I know?’) has played a quite astonishing role in raising the morale of the lovers of qualia. Whenever they’re on the brink of throwing in the towel and admitting that it’s been confused nonsense all along, they repeat the mantra and everyone brightens up again. The idea is that when you see something red, it isn’t just a matter of acquiring some information about the light hitting your eye: there is something it is like to see the colour red.

To me, this is about as sensible as trying to include carnal knowledge in epistemology, or debating the ontology of the ‘it’ that does the raining. (Come to think of it, some idle philosopher has probably done that last one). When we talk about a thing being like something, that’s what we mean - it’s like something else. If I eat ostrich, and someone asks me what it’s like, I don’t screw up my face and say ‘Uh, well I can’t tell you, but there was an ineffable experience which it was like’. I say ‘A bit like beef, with a slightly less granular texture.’

So, if there is something it is like to see red, what is it? Seeing puce?”

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