September 11, 2014 by David
The definition of the human consciousness and how it operates has been the centre of both religious and scientific discussion for centuries. Although we instinctively feel that we understand what consciousness is, when we try to analyse or discuss ‘consciousness’ we soon find it can mean different things to different people. For those with a strong Christian belief, ‘consciousness’ is often called the ‘soul’ and is believed to be God-given and is immortal (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Whilst followers of eastern religions see ‘consciousness’ as “the same as life” and it consists of three components; a personal component, a collective component and a universal component. (Chopra 2009). Philosophers over the centuries have wrestled with the question; is ‘consciousness’ just self-awareness; Descartes, “I am, I exist”? (Joseph, 2009). The scientific community is also not too clear on what is ‘consciousness’. For part philosopher, part neuro-scientist, Alva Noe, “consciousness is the fact that we think and feel and that a world, the world shows up for us” (Chopra 2009). He regards ‘consciousness’ as the interactions of brain, body and the world. For Noe the brain is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ‘consciousness’ (Chopra 2009). Whilst for other scientists such as molecular biologist, Francis Click, “’You’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (Click 1994). With such a diverse ‘understanding’ of what is ‘consciousness’, it is no wonder the debate of whether there is a ghost in the machine has gone on for many centuries. So if we are to try to understand this debate we first need to know what definitions of ‘consciousness’ the debaters are using.
Instinctively we feel we can tell when we’re awake, when we’re thinking; however the question that has puzzled scientists has been “can anyone really explain the nature of this perception? Or even what separates conscious thought from subconscious thought?” (TheBrainBank, 2013). For those who hold religious beliefs, “This self is not a thing that can be located in space time. That the self is actually transcendent in space time and that even though that I’m having the experience of the world out there it is actually being orchestrated in that dimension which is beyond space time and causality” (Chopra 2009). With such an ‘understanding’ of consciousness it is hard to critique, you either believe or you do not. Richard Dawkins, not one for missing an opportunity to attack religious beliefs, is reported by Rebecca Savastio to have commented in an interview; “Dawkins brought up a point about our ancestors ‘going somewhere’ after they died. He posited-since we evolved from animals, at what point would we have started ‘going somewhere’ after we die?” (Savastio 2013). At first this seems just clever ‘point scoring’, however, it does raise the question; during human evolution did ‘consciousness’ appear when the human brain became sufficiently complex? Was there a point in evolution when our instinctive response to our environment was enhanced by a ‘consciousness’ that could think beyond the instinctive? Will current developments in creating a self-aware computer find this tipping point?
Michael Graziano discusses the point that “in the computer age, it is not hard to imagine how a computing machine might construct, store and spit out the information that “I am alive, I am a person, I have memories, the wind is cold, the grass is green,” however, he questions how in fact the brain becomes aware of these propositions. Graziano also mentions in his article that “the most basic, measurable, quantifiable truth about consciousness is simply this: we humans can say that we have it” (Graziano, 2013). In this article he goes on to suggest and explain through several different theories how consciousness developed and evolved into several definable sections ‘consciousness’, ‘subconsciousness’, ‘attention’ and ‘awareness’.
Essentially this article, along with several others written by Krishna Andavolu (Andavolu, 2013), Tanya Lewis (Lewis, 2014) and the like, show that scientists are no closer to understanding the brain and how consciousness works. McGinn agrees with this proposition, where he states on a panel documented by Tanya Lewis that “no matter how much scientists study the brain, the mind is fundamentally incapable of comprehending itself” “We’re rather like Neanderthals trying to understand astronomy or Shakespeare” suggesting that human brains suffer from a ‘cognitive gap’ in understanding their own consciousness. (Lewis, 2013)
Thus for many, ‘self’ investigating ‘self’ is a fundamental stumbling block, whilst for others, such as philosopher Professor Daniel Dennett, they are not so pessimistic. In his book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett holds the view “that consciousness consists only in computational systems that can be copied in man-made machines” (Caisley 2013). Similarly, McGinn’s ‘cognitive gap’ has not stopped even more radical views of ‘consciousness’ being proposed. Professor Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose have “suggested that quantum phenomenon, rather than classical mechanics, can explain conscious awareness.” For them ‘consciousness’ is more than a computational process (Dvorsky 2013). Even the more radical view of ‘consciousness’ perceived by Alfred Sheidrake, morphic resonance, has not prevented Sheldrake from pursuing validations of his concept, “I am proposing testable hypotheses that could take us forward and open up new frontiers of scientific enquiry.” (Hogan 2014). Perhaps philosopher, Patricia Churchland, best presents the optimistic view of the “conceptual revolution” that is ongoing in the study of consciousness; “More generally, as the explanatory exoskeleton emerges – that is, as the basic principles are discovered and put into the theoretical framework – quite radical changes can occur. For this is the period when folk ideas are gradually replaced by scientific ideas, and in turn, early scientific ideas are replaced by more mature hypotheses. This is the period when the ostensibly obvious gets wrecked on the shoals of scientific discovery.” (Churchland 2005)
Therefore my next question is to ask, how far away are we from developing a system which can seem to think and act for itself? Similar to the point that Graziano made about the computer spitting out the information “I am alive, I am a person”. This concept, as suggested by Churchland, seems to be a bit more achievable amongst the science and technology environments than that of philosophers trying to understanding our own brain from a “conceptual analysis, a priori insight, or religious faith” (Churchland 1995). With the extreme advances that technology has taken over the past 10 years and the huge resources poured into developing better and better technology it will not surprising that by 2050 we may see an artificial intelligence which will seem to think and act for itself. However, the question still remains, will the complexity of that artificial brain be sufficient to feel emotions? Will its conscious thoughts be nothing more than mathematical calculations and analysis. The beginnings of such research has already commenced in companies like Apple and Google; these companies are developing systems which can listen and understand a human’s voice and interpret it in order to deliver search results customized to the user.
Therefore, although we may not be close to understanding ourselves, the way we work and how we think, we maybe able to replicate these sort of actions through mathematical computations and analysis and ‘install’ these actions into computer systems. Then when we have achieved sufficient complexity in these non-human brains, artificial intelligence may have all the capacities of the human brain. For some, such an achievement would not mean science has solved the ‘consciousness’ problem, they would still look for a ghost in the machine.
(Andavolu, 2013) Andavolu, K. 2013, ‘Sorry Religions, Human Consciousness is Just A Consequence of Evolution’, VICE, viewed 11 September 2014, < http://www.vice.com/read/sorry-religions-human-consciousness-is-just-a-consequence-of-evolution>
(Carsley, 2013) Cairsley 2013, ‘Consciousness and Life’, Richard Dawkins Foundation, weblog, viewed 17 September 2014, <http://richarddawkins.net/2013/05/consciousness-and-life/>
(Chopra, 2009) Chopra, D. 2009, ‘You are Not Your Brain: Interview with Alva Noe, PhD’, viewed 17 September 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/interview-with-alva-noe-p_b_663075.html>
(Churchland 2005) Churchland, P. 2005, ‘A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research’, Chapter 12, Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 149, p286
(Churchland 1995) Churchland, P. 1995, ‘Can Neurobiology Teach us Anything about Consciousness?’ <http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/church.neuro.html>
(Dvorsky 2013) Dvorsky, G. ‘Does consciousness arise from quantum processes in the brain? | io9, Richard Dawkins Foundation, weblog, viewed 17 September 2014, <https://richarddawkins.net/2013/09/does-consciousness-arise-from-quantum-processes-in-the-brain-io9/>
(Ecclesiastes 12:7) The Book of Ecclesiastes 12:7, The Holy Bible.
(Graziano, 2013) Graziano, M. 2013, ‘How the Light Gets Out’, AEON, weblog, viewed 11 September 2014, < http://aeon.co/magazine/philosophy/how-consciousness-works/>
(Hogan 2014) Hogan, J. ‘Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries,’ Cross-Check, weblog, Scientific American, viewed 17 September 2014, < http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/07/14/scientific-heretic-rupert-sheldrake-on-morphic-fields-psychic-dogs-and-other-mysteries/>
(Joseph, 2009) ‘”I Think Therefore I am” Confused: What does this Phrase Mean?’(un) Enlightened Academy, viewed 17 September 2014 <http://unenlightenedenglish.com/2009/07/i-think-therefore-i-am-confused-what-does-this-phrase-mean>
(Lewis, 2014) Lewis, T. 2014, ‘Scientists Closing On Theory of Consciousness’, Live Science, viewed 11 September 2014, <http://news.yahoo.com/scientists-closing-theory-consciousness-171512875.html>
(Lewis, 2013) Lewis, T. 2013, ‘Will We Ever Understand Consciousness? Scientists & Philosophers Debate’, Live Science, viewed 11 September 2014, <http://www.livescience.com/37056-scientists-and-philosophers-debate-consciousness.html>
(Savastio 2013) Savastio, R. 2013, ‘Richard Dawkins ‘Wonders’ What Happens After We Die’, weblog, Liberty Voice, viewed 17 September 2014, <http://guardianlv.com/2013/09/richard-dawkins-wonders-what-happens-after-we-die/>
(TheBrainBank, 2013) The Brain Bank, 2013, ‘What is Consciousness? A scientist’s Perspective’, The Brain Bank Manc, weblog, viewed 11 September 2014, < http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2013/03/04/what-is-consciousness-a-scientists-perspective/>