Feb 14, 2007

Mysteries of Consciousness

There's a very interesting article posted on the Time web-site, Mystery of Consciousness by Steven Pinker. (Author of the very good book; The Language Instinct. )

This article presents a light over-view of current thinking in neurology and consciousness research. Pinker states early on the nature of the so-called "hard problem," explaining consciousness in terms of brain function;

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, "That's green" (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, "When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know."
In abhidhamma terminology, that would be cetasika and citta. This statement of the issue is important because not so long ago western concepts of consciousness were mixed up with cognitive thought. I once read a very good history of chess written in 1948. The last chapter, The Future of Chess, contained a speculation that some people were claiming that one day a machine would be able to play a decent game of chess. The author thoroughly debunked this ridiculous notion by pointing out that the permutations in a game were literally astronomical so it necessarily takes a "conscious entity" to make " the intuitive decisions" between possible moves.

So conciousness is now being correctly defined. It only took western science twenty-five centuries to catch up with the abhidhamma.

But Pinker immediately follows this with the following;

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain.
I think it is fair to ask why this has to be assumed. Pinker admits that science hasn't got a clue how it could work, and yet remains convinced that somehow it does. Crick's statement may have been an hypothesis to begin with, but it's now become an article of faith, i.e. a statement held to be true without any evidence.

Pinker does offer a couple of facts as evidence; that neuro-scientists can tell a lot about what a person is thinking by looking at an MRI of their brain, and that mental processes can be affected by physical manipulation (electrical or chemical) of the brain. But the reasoning is faulty; these things demonstrate only a strong correlation between mind and brain, they do not indicate causation. It's more than a little bit like claiming that the rooster crowing every morning makes the sun come up.

When speaking about brain-waves, Pinker says "a bit like radio transmitters and receivers tuned to the same frequency." Without intending to, he has hit on an alternative metaphor that may be closer to the truth. Physicalists like Pinker rely on what has been called "the computational model" of mind. In this theory, brain is like a computer and mind is like the software running on it. An alternate view could be called the "radio model" where brain doesn't generate mind, but acts as the physical interface for it.

The glaring problem with the computational model for the "hard problem" is that consciousness cannot be reduced to an algorithm. This argument is inherently simple, but difficult to explain briefly. (Roger Penrose's book, "The Emperor's New Mind" takes hundreds of pages and then he waffles a bit on his own conclusion.) But the idea is that everything done by a physical machine must be, in theory at least, be able to be explained in terms of a step by step analysis of action. (an algorithm) Think of a Rube Goldberg cartoon. A computer program can always be printed out in machine code instructions which tell the chips in a systematic way what to do.

The problem is not that consciousness is so complex, it is that is too simple to be reduced to an algorithm. Everything else, possibly, could be. When we look at an apple, there is a very complex series of events beginning with light of specific wavelengths stimulating the sensitive cells in the eye, and impulses travelling through the optic nerve to the brain. However, at the end of the sequence, there is just pristine simple knowing.

A machine these days could easily be imagined that could sort apples and pears. A camera could send visual data to a processor that could sort the objects by colour and shape. (The Easy Problem.) However, the machine would have no experience of seeing an apple. (The hard problem) I would contend that this is because having an experience is not a mechanical process.

Western philosophy of mind debates have been stuck in a controversy between the physicalists and the dualists. A dualist believes in "the ghost in the machine." The problem is, this is really just another kind of materialism, it is sometimes even called "substance dualism." In Buddhist theory, Mind is a separate category from Matter, neither of which is reducible to the other, so we agree with the dualists on some points. However, Mind is also seen as utterly void of substance. There is no "ghost" in the machine. There is a process happening that the machine can tune in to. Brain, I would argue, serves as the physical interface allowing mind to manifest in matter.

Far from mind being a product of brain, the reverse is closer to the truth. Mind in the womb serves as a guiding principle for the unfolding of matter into a new organism. If you think this is far-fetched, read maverick biologist Rupert Sheldrake. He points out the problems involved in explaining morpho-genesis (the unfolding of cells and organs in an embryo) in strictly physical terms.

It is a curious feature of the history of science that while physics in the twentieth century began to approach the idea that Mind is an independent actor in the world, (the observer being necessary to definitively kill Schrodinger's cat) biology remains committed to a nineteenth century naive materialism. Perhaps in the future physicalism will be remembered fondly as an intellectual folly like the universal ether or the phlogiston theory of combustion.


Cranky addendum - why do big media sites like Time break up articles like this into separate pages, making searching for quotes and off-line reading problematic? Could it be to make us look at more ads? Nah....


Ben 8) said...

You typed...
"There is no "ghost" in the machine. There is a process happening that the machine can tune in to. Brain, I would argue, serves as the physical interface allowing mind to manifest in matter."

What if we thought of the machine as color blind using a B&W camera.
Are the Top race car drivers maybe machine whispers?

Canadafitz said...

Punnadhammo, let me first congratulate you on your discussion of consciousness and the mind.

I think you’ve done a stupendous job.

And your arguments are fine arguments as far as they go. You wisely question the assumption that consciousness can be reduced to the neural computation of the brain. But I see that you continue to hammer away at the same anti-reductionist arguments meant to refute that assumption.

Your anti-reductionism represents an admirable struggle, Punnadhammo, but maybe an ultimately futile one. That is because the core assumption of that anti-reductionism is so debatable---the core assumption that the reductionism of consciousness to physiology represents a static condition. Both reductionists and anti-reductionists seem to have not considered the possibility that the “effect” of a cause might grow and develop to become defined independently of its cause.

The bad assumption is that once “A” can be reduced to “B” that’s it and forever shall that reduction hold true.

One might also ask whether the process of growth in nature contradicts that bad assumption on an only too basic level. A fetus begins as the effect of a cause, that is the joining of sperm and egg, and then surpasses its cause to become independent of it. As an example, perhaps the development of a fetus represents an over-simplification of the contradiction; nevertheless, growth in nature seems to be all about how the effect comes to surpass its cause.

The paradox here, of course, is that there is still an effect which can be reduced to the cause. It’s just that the reductionism isn’t a static condition. The result of the fetus can be immediately reduced to a cause, the joining of the sperm and egg. But that reduction of result to cause becomes much less apparent as the fetus develops, and eventually a point comes at which for all practical purposes one can no longer speak of a reductionism at all.

The old adage which rings true here is the one which says, “ the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In the framework of how cause and effect unfolds with time, the physiological mechanism of the brain grows to increasingly constitute (cause) a whole which surpasses the sum of its parts.

As time goes by, and a person grows, consciousness emerges from the blind instincts driven by whatever componet of the brain happens to be dominant at the time. The “R” complex of the brain, which governs primordial rage and aggression, slowly ceases to take over the functionality of human behavior at any given time and surrenders its particular role to other modes of functionality in the brain such as the cerebral complex. The whole of the brain emerges to govern functionality on a level that surpasses the functionality of a mere physiological mechanism comprised of its parts.

The machine of physiology comes to resemble something, which in its whole working, no longer resembles a machine (although seen as the collection of its parts it still does).

In the adult human, one might fail to see how the physiological components of the brain add up to a “whole” which surpasses those components. The doubt that ", our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches,” could possibly result from something that looks like the various anatomical components of brain tissue would therefore be easy to understand.

But another picture seems possible when we look at how all those anatomical components of tissue have come to function entirely together as a whole in one complex web of associative and ongoing inter-relationships. In that picture, we might begin to appreciate how consciousness might begin to reside in that unfathomably complex neural “web” to eventually act on its own apart from the machine comprised of all its parts.

The physiological brain causes the effect of a consciouness which then comes to surpass its cause.

Glenn Fitzgerald.

e.m. said...

There's an obvious and striking omission in this "account" of the procedures of the intellect --and it is a telling omission in your own brief allusions to Abhidhamma theories of consciousness.

The omission is desire.

"The Sri Lankan school" of 20th century interpretations of Theravada theories of consciousness seem to deliberately omit the crucial role of desire --and, I think, without any similar intention, mainstram western scientism omits it simply because it does not fit into the passive model of consciousness as a sieve, mirror, etc.

However, the Theravada Buddhist model of the mind is not passive, but active; the crucial allegory is not a sieve, mirror, etc., but a burning pyre. And with what does it burn? Desire.

The deletion of desire (not to mention ignorance) from the model of consciousness found in either the abhidhamma or the suttas themselves reflects a none-too-sophisticated attempt to pander to current, scientistic fads --and, I daresay, to excuse audiences of laypeople (at the YMCA, etc.) from being provoked with any uncomfortable thoughts as to what the role of desire in shaping their beliefs and values might entail.

What people think they know, and think they ARE, viz., consciousness, is merely a shadow cast by desire. The central meditative praxis taught by the Buddha was "tearing up desire by its roots", which results in a profound shift in that selfsame cognition; however, this entire line of reasoning (and practice) is never heard of in the dumbed-down version of the dhamma handed out to white folks at the YMCA, etc.

No, you're all taught convenient half-truths, and meaningless breathing exercises, that don't challenge the assumptions of the unexamined life --whereof the passive model of consciousness is the very fulcrum.

Carthago est delenda, etc.

Priyanka's Blog said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo, your insight on understanding consciousness in the backdrop of modern, scientific research is indeed a valuable one.The reference you made to Louis Armstrong's comment 'When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know' leaves nothing more to be said.
In my humble view, I think even western terminology can be quite misleading at times specially the use of the word 'mind' instead of 'citta' for reasons you already covered in your blog.....the meaning being misconstrued.

Rod said...

The neural computation comes to 29.

This academic pursuit of consciousness is simply a struggle of relative reality, our human form only has meaning within the human realm. Other types of beings without such bodies or neural complexes manage quite well.

We do live in a material world, and focusing upon a material component as being the seat of consciousness goes way back. Even Buddhagosa bikkhu considered that it was the heart (a view not shared by The Buddha himself, who would not entertain any such notions because they are simply meaningless in the wide scope of existence). Buddhagosa, by the way, also succeeded in passing on the idea of dependent origination as life to life instead of moment to moment, and along with others promoted several Brahman practices, e.g. the divine abodes, which were not part of the Buddha's original teachings emphasizing mindfulness. We must recognize, however, that in Buddhagosa's time Buddhism was almost extinct in India, apart from a few scholars who came from Brahman backgrounds.

The existence of desire is only half the problem, the real problem is ignorance, which in Buddhist terms means the lack of awareness.
Beings have desire because they lack awareness. There is no way that anyone can struggle with desire and win, you have to turn on more lights to see what it is you are dealing with. Then, the result is not the defeat of desire, but that desire is something no longer possible. Thus, these 'breathing exercises' are very useful light switches if they are based upon mindfulness.
Anyway, the answer is 29 if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

Ajahn, I enjoy reading your website.

But in this update, I was confused when you said "mind in the womb".

Are you speaking of an unconscious mind? I am young and have alot to learn but I have felt for a while that what consciousness is made of must exist outside of conscious experience.

Could you elaborate more on what you meant by "mind in the womb"?


rod said...

One could also question the idea that every conscious experience happens in one’s own head. Feeling cold is a good example, is this conscious experience limited to what happens inside your head? There are also other examples, a broken heart, a gut feeling. Rather than the brain being the physical interface of the mind, isn’t it the whole body that is really the interface of the mind?