Monday, December 06, 2004


What is consciousness? I won’t be so presumptuous to think I know the full answer, nor have enough space here to communicate it if I did. But here are some recent thoughts, still in the developing stage of course. (Obviously, it really depends on how you define consciousness. Is it self-reflective ability? Is it a first person perspective/narrative? Is it the ability to report such a narrative? I’ll let you think about it)

In the psychological/scientific world, there seems to be a pseudo-definition going around: Consciousness is the patterns of activation that occur in the neural networks of the brain. Others have described consciousness as an emergent property of a complex system. Please think about both of these and any other alternatives for a couple minutes.

If consciousness is an emergent property of complex system, it would seem that it is an output of sorts. The system is processing information that yields results (i.e., actions), as well as the emergent phenomenon of consciousness (almost as an extra). As such, brain processes are over-determined if consciousness in turn impacts the system. There would be two inputs to determine an output. That seems superfluous. Alternatively, could consciousness be an emerging and impacting thing? This will require some more cogitation.

I’m starting to think of consciousness as an integral part of… well… consciousness. Humans get a lot of their processing power by not just reacting to situations in the environment, but by forming internal representations of the real world within ourselves. Instead of just reacting to a piece of food, we can ‘picture’ it and perform many more tasks upon the ‘item.’ You could think ( = ‘form a representation’) about what it would be like to hold the food, to eat it, to put it with other food… etc. You can even retrieve older representations; we could call these memories. The internal deliberative process allows people to perform actions internally without an external cost.
Example: Picture a situation about whether a hole can be jumped? Other organisms have to guess and check, but we can plan things out, a least a little bit. “Hmmm… well the hole is 4 feet wide, I can’t jump high, but maybe if I run, I mean my stride is probably at least 2 feet…. So I probably could.” Is this sense, the reflective nature of our brain is part of the processing that allows for greater understanding about the world. Consciousness would be both an input and an output.

One could ask if these terms should be used at all. Output to what? To yourself? “I made output to myself” seems incoherent as a statement (of course that doesn’t mean it is). That is because I’m been somewhat dichotomous with my definitions without really mentioning it. I’ve sort of been saying that consciousness is you, the one observing things, the I in the Mind’s Eye, and your sub-consciousness is all the stuff that is happening without your notice (i.e., digesting food, breathing, how your smooth muscle feels, heart beats, processing of information to make you not feel the chair your sitting in until now because I just mentioned it). To make a conscious and a sub-conscious distinction seems fallacious to me. (I think) I would prefer to think of a continuum of consciousness. Some things may never pop in (things without sensory receptors) and some things almost always will (one cannot stop a loud noise from being processed). All the other stuff falls somewhere in-between, and there will different levels of access for different individuals. We are all limited information processing systems, but some systems (i.e., people) will have more access relative to others. If accurate, this would allow for greater understanding of the effects of actions before they happen, as well as more precision about the nature of motivation for pleasurable and painful stimuli.

I will admit that I do think our consciousness (consciousnesses?) is distributed in space and time. There is no moment of consciousness, no place where everything comes together. If you open up the brain, there’s nobody home. Additionally, whilst there is great internal deliberation, this type of processing does not remove the dependence upon the external environment. It is still a stimulus-response, but the complexity has skyrocketed. I think one of the faults of Psychology during the Cognitive revolution was not to retain the accuracy of the Behaviorist’s keystone: Stimulus-response. Of course the Behaviorists were wrong because there are internal processes that do affect externally visible behaviour, but I want to ask the Cognitivists, “What else is there?” Thoughts are still going to explainable with a stimulus-response paradigm, just at a hyperfine level (and not likely for many years).

People who are happy to admit that the ‘problem’ of consciousness will never be solved are those that:
a) Have never learned any history
b) Are clouded by intellectual/emotional/spiritual walls of what might happen if consciousness was explained, and are not noticing the evidence accumulate.
c) Just dumb. It is illogical to use a word like ‘never.’ (‘may not’ is something one cannot argue against. It is not about softness, but linguistic accuracy of statements)

There may be other animal contenders, but no other organism is able to do what we can do. Tens of millions of species and only one can tell you about it. Pretty cool.

We know how it feels to think.


Blogger mush said...

You are well aware of my fondness for continuum models of...well, everything. Your discussion also reminds me of ideas from particle physics. I guess the most obvious parallel would be that, like an electron (for example), consciousness only "exists" when we are actively observing it ("there is no moment of consciousness, no place where everything comes together"). I guess the job becomes to find the equation (or probability wave) that predicts consciousness (sounds semi-ridiculous). I could go on, but you also know of my fondness for not going on and on.

8:51 AM  

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