Towards a Materialistic Resolution of the "Hard Problem" of Consciousness
An interview with Haim D. Heilprin, Ph.D.
Let us begin with what is arguably the toughest question of all, the question of subjective experience. Please pardon my skepticism, but it is my understanding that you purport to offer an explanation to the "hard problem" of consciousness…
Yes. The nature of consciousness is one of the most fundamental enigmas of science, on par with the ultimate nature of matter. Yet unlike the study of any other scientific subject, in the case of consciousness we seem to be clueless even as to where to begin our investigation. It's as if consciousnesses lies beyond the scope of science, or indeed, as some argue, even beyond the scope of our intellectual grasp.
I believe that we can understand consciousness, and that the answer to this enigma lies with the consistent application of Occam's razor to the plain facts at hand. I start out with a few necessary postulates which, following a short and rather straightforward mental expedition, nonetheless lead to one the most profound conceptual revolutions in the history of science.
I'm all ears…
I propose that objective and subjective experiences literally present two perspectives of the same reality – that everything exists both as an object (as sensed from without) and as a subject (as sensed from within). This proposition is strictly materialistic and has nothing to do with Cartesian dualism or the supernatural. I further postulate that every physical interaction is subjectively experienced by the interacting parties. This means that the observed reality is as conscious as it is material, that where there's matter, there's subjective experience.
Interesting. You propose some kind of materialistic dualism, a double-aspect theory…
Yes. One is tempted to compare this with Einstein's seminal insights into relativity. Einstein realized that physics depends on perspective, and elegantly turned the problem of gravity into a matter of geometry. The two perspectives of materialistic dualism are even more fundamental than that: the subjective sensation of a particle is conceptually more fundamental than its physical attributes, such as mass, spin or velocity.
This simple proposition has eluded broader recognition thus far for two obvious reasons: first, because subjective experience is inherently private; and second, because anthropic hubris would not let us part with one of the last vestiges of preeminence above the beast, let alone inanimate matter. Although consciousness is all around us, its subjective, private nature has made it (so far) immune to collective scrutiny and could easily lead people to believe that they alone experience it. (In fact, we all must accept on faith that others do.) Subjective experience therefore has been mistakenly equated with human intelligence, language or the capacity for self reference, and non-human animals were largely denied consciousness. I maintain more parsimoniously that consciousness, like other properties of matter, precedes life, and that the biotic evolution gave rise to uniquely complex subjective experiences by creating uniquely complex physical structures: brains.
Indeed, in an age in which people readily embrace patently counter-intuitive or unobservable theses such as relativity, quantum mechanics, extra dimensions, dark matter and energy, and multiple universes, it is astonishing how difficult it is for us to accept the only fact of which we can be certain – that physical bodies experience consciousness – as one of nature's fundamental givens…
One of nature's even more wondrous givens is its emergent complexity. Matter interacts and aggregates beyond elementary particles and principles to form increasingly complex structures – atoms, molecules, animals, galaxies – which commonly exhibit unified, coherent presence and manifest novel qualities. With its characteristic mirroring of the objective world, consciousness manifests similar epistemically irreducible emergence. One can speak of the absorption of a photon by an electron as a single sense datum experienced by the particles – perhaps down to a quantum of consciousness. A collection of interacting particles creates a collective sense of subjective experience. More complex structures experience a proportionally richer experience. The aggregation of discrete experiences into larger coherent structures is no more miraculous than the emergence of larger coherent structures in the objective world. We are simply accustomed to taking the latter for granted (one of many "just so" plinths which underlie the scientific edifice). And just as physical aggregations maintain their hierarchical nature yet manifest a distinct, coherent whole – a living cell is made of protons, atoms, molecules, etc., yet is distinct as a gestalt – global experience contains a corresponding hierarchy of subjective sensations yet presents a distinct emergent whole. At each level, the aggregate's experience is a single, unified sensation, irrespective of the number of discrete sensations experienced by the underlying constituents. Physical interaction between remote aggregates – as in neural and electronic communication – integrates remote sensations into a single coherent experience. No consciousness "field" or "force" (akin to the electromagnetic force) is necessary to account for global consciousness – subjective experience does not exchange gauge boson-like particles in assembling larger structures; global consciousness merely mirrors the coherence of physical structures and their interacting constituents as the sum total of all the sensations experienced at all levels within the aggregation.
But how is this related to consciousness as we know it?
The answer is brains. Brains are distinct from other complex structures (inanimate or living) in one single respect - connectivity. Neurons communicate over macroscopic distances through long somatic extensions – not unlike the transmission of information by wires – while their bodies serve as vast parallel processors which integrate and modulate input from upward thousands of nearby and far-off neurons. This connectivity, which allows the integration of remote experiences, and massive parallelism, which greatly increases multidimensional interconnectivity, are the key to animal consciousness. Whereas the subjective experience of inanimate objects, irrespective of size, remains a localized, particle physics affair – and thus quite rudimentary – interconnectivity allows for incomparable experiential complexity. The coherent picture we experience, full of colors and motion and sound, is the product of the simultaneous involvement of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses. (This level of parallel processing is many orders of magnitude greater than that of today's most advanced parallel computers; even "hypercube" supercomputers are decades away from the massive parallelism of the simplest nervous system.) It is this immense interconnectivity which effectively turns a brain tissue into a physical aggregate capable of experiencing concurrent activities as coherent global consciousness. Although subjective experience is omnipresent in the cosmos, this kind of consciousness is indeed extremely rare – as rare as nervous systems are.
Living organisms are more than just complex physical structures. Life is a metaphysical organization and process superimposed on the physical and chemical substrata. With the first self-replicating molecules, matter ceased to exist in-and-of-itself and became symbolic, representational, giving rise to a novel, metaphysical realm – the biosphere – with its distinctive laws, structures, behaviors, and self-ascribed meaning. Everything which held significance to living creatures ever since – from the genetic code to the book you read these days – has carried this inherent duality of the physical (in the given instances, certain nucleic acids and ink marks, respectively) and the metaphysical (namely, their biotic value, consequential only within the biosphere). It is this metaphysical aspect – variously misconstrued as Divine Spark, élan vital, daemons, ghost-in-the-machine, spirit, mind or soul – which has mystified generations of philosophers and theologians in the great animistic tradition, from Plato to Descartes. It is beyond the scope of our conversation to further digress into this proverbial issue; suffice is to say that this distinction offers an elegant solution to the seeming quandary presented by Cartesian dualism. There are no ethereal minds or souls somehow interacting with physical bodies – only entirely physical bodies with an entirely metaphysical agenda. Likewise, although brains are strictly physical organs, the subjective experience of living creatures has always been that of metaphysical representations. It is the symbolic nature of animals' mirroring of their external and internal world which allows for the creation of endless higher-order mental constructs, as is evident in the infinite potential of lingual abstraction.
I believe you're using the word metaphysics in a slightly different sense than the customary usage is…
Yes. Philosophical discourse traditionally distinguished between the physicality of bodies (and machines) and the metaphysicality of minds and souls (and their artifacts such as texts and paintings). I maintain that the very existence of animals and machines is metaphysical, that everything which the biotic evolution gave rise to exists on the same ontological plane. Our mind-body duality has no further substance than the duality inherent in texts, paintings and machines. Death, for instance, is not about physical transformation (living bodies change constantly); at death, the critical transition occurs only in the metaphysical sense.
You also suggest that we are actually conscious of a world which doesn't exist outside our consciousness…
That's right. Brains do not deal directly with physical reality, whatever that may be – all that brains know is the constant firing of neurons. Although most people intuitively equate experience with reality , physically speaking, there is no beauty in the world, no magnificence; there are no colors, no music, no love, no joy or pain… all these are no more than the contrived representations of organisms' nervous systems. Some experience, particularly of the sensorium (such as the sensation of red or the scent of freshly baked bread), is correlated with certain aspects of physical reality (photons of a certain wave-length or aromatic molecules in the air); others, such as the intense pleasure of sexual orgasm or the thoughts in your head, hold meaning only within the biosphere. In this sense, animals are indeed conscious of a world which doesn't exist outside their consciousness.
So, what is it that we experience?
As cybernetic devices, brains are often thought of as biochemical computers, wherein neurons operate as logic gates which process chemical signals as bits of information. Biologically meaningful mental constructs – the stuff of conscious experience – however, are phenomenally distinct and form at a higher level, for which the neuronal discharges merely serve as carrier signals. What we experience are modulation patterns in the coordinated firing of numerous neurons. It is these metaphysical patterns – not the underlying chemical interactions or the neural communication at the synapses – which constitute the elements of mental experience. Animal consciousness entails the experience of biologically meaningful patterns in the form of frequency modulations overlaying the otherwise generic neuronal chatter. A familiar analogy is the way FM radio and television sets utilize ordinary physical components to modulate electromagnetic current and radiation with higher order, biologically meaningful patterns. Clearly the music is nowhere to be found in the resistors and capacitors of the radio, not even in the electric currents which run through the device. Looking for consciousness at the level of the physical brain is like trying to make sense of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony by examining the orchestra's instruments. The symphony is a metaphysical pattern, in space and in time, which quite literally reverberates through our auditory cortex. The music is globally experienced because the pattern is the sum product of the highest interactive level in the emergent hierarchies of the brain. All conscious contents, from sensations to emotions to memories and thoughts, involve similar spatiotemporal patterns associated with the synchronized, rhythmic firing of numerous interrelated neurons.
Let's take vision as another example. Vision begins with photons which bounce off an illuminated surface and enter our eyes in formation to produce an image, a metaphysical pattern -
The word information nicely encapsulates the fact that all we ever perceive is no more than metaphysical patterns which reach us in formation…
Yes. Although some physicists would like to think of the entire cosmos as a huge information-processing computer, the fact is that the inanimate world of matter-in-and-of-itself is devoid of information (or meaning, or purpose, etc). Only living beings make certain aspects of matter-in-and-of-itself informative.
At any rate, as with sound waves, the visual pattern may be modulated along the way over wire or print, and is ultimately transformed into neural discharges which literally project it onto the neural canvas of the visual cortex. The pattern is not experienced by inanimate objects (such as a wall) because the molecules which absorb the photons are not interrelated; animals see the image due to the interconnectedness of their neural network, whose concurrent activity mirrors the image as a whole. In a similar fashion, all sensory modalities generate their own unique spatiotemporal patterns of neural activity.
If I understand you correctly, what I see right now has little to do with this physical object in front of me; I literally experience the flurry of coordinated neural activity modulated with a metaphysical pattern that bears semblance of that object. I understand that the experience of memories, so ubiquitous and yet so elusive, involves the selective reactivation of the same metaphysical patterns.
That's correct. Numerous memories can be evoked by the same neural network, the way an orchestra represents an almost infinite potential for music. Memories are transcribed into the dynamic matrices of the neural network like that many music scores which, when recalled, are played again by the orchestra. Note that only one piece can be played at a time – the orchestra can't simultaneously play others; we too can't experience more than one recollection at a time. Try and you'll end up with nothing but garbled memories.
Painful traumas may be actively repressed and evade recollection – the orchestra may avoid playing certain music altogether…
… The way the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra refrained for years from playing Nazi-favorite Wagner. Yes.
Going back to the examples you mentioned earlier, do you really think that radio and television sets experience the metaphysical patterns relayed through their interrelated circuitry?
I believe that they do, however rudimentarily, and that the difference between the subjective experience of an electronic circuitry and the human brain is only a matter of degree (and the fact that we report our experience). Generally, the extent to which an electronic device experiences animal-like qualia depends on the extent to which it forms coherent analog patterns through the concurrent interaction of its components. The television's experience is probably akin to that of the isolated retina. Simpler cybernetic devices, such as washing machines, have no global experience at all. To fully experience Beethoven's Fifth Symphony,
Unbeknownst to us, we probably have been constructing rudimentarily conscious devices from the onset of the electronic age. Ironically, I suspect that the highly sophisticated digital instruments of today, on the other hand, experience very little global consciousness. Consciousness is fundamentally an integrative analog phenomenon and digitizing it effectively nullifies, or decoheres, the experience. That, and not merely the serial architecture of contemporary computers, is what makes for a very rudimentary subjective experience at the heart of CPUs.
You say that the subjective experience is richer the more neurons are involved. In this way too consciousness is at odds with ordinary mechanics. Most physical attributes – say, loudness – are not correlated with the number of components at work.
That's because consciousness is not the product of the combinatorial mechanism – it is the experience of the mechanism. Seen that way, there is an obvious correlation between the number of neurons involved and the richness of the experience. Consider some empirical facts: We are hardly aware of the mutually isolated serial, or "channel", activities of the afferent pathways and the primary sensory centers. We become progressively more conscious of the interrelated activity of the secondary and tertiary regions (which integrate contours, colors and motion, for example), culminating in the incorporation of all sensory modalities by the associative areas into a vivid picture of reality. Similar vividness is experienced when visceral sensations relayed by a few brainstem cells are projected onto countless cortical neurons. Emotions and moods, another group of "state" processes, also owe their remarkable vividness to the brain-wide reach of the emotive limbic nuclei. Events that involve the largest number of neurons, such as mortal panic, drug-induced rush or sexual orgasm – which engulfs the brain in an epileptic-seizure-like storm – are subjectively experienced most vividly.
Psychomotor epileptics often find their experiences to be super-normal: colors are brighter, reality is more acute...
On the other hand, the efferent nerves which engage the muscles are again "channel" pathways of whose activities we are unconscious; awareness of muscular activity comes only from sensory pathways. (This has to do with the poverty of efferent expression as well, compared with the relative richness of the sensorium – mind you that all that animals, from worms to humans, ever do come down to muscle contraction and glandular secretion.) Similarly, we do not experience lingual constructs (say, fish, length or fifty) nearly as vividly as we sense music or feel pain because the neural circuits which process language are inherently linear, channel-like – not unlike serial computing – and usually lack emotive import. Emotionally laden lingual constructs, such as Fatherland, however, may send a shiver down our spine because further involvement of limbic centers adds a real "feel" to these words.
According to your thesis, then, the peripheral nervous system too should be part and parcel of our global experience…
That's right. Global consciousness is the experience of the entire neural network and encompasses not only the brain but also the peripheral nervous system and, indeed, the interacting environment. This has interesting implications. From time immemorial people believed that the seat of emotion is in the heart and viscera. After all, that's where we feel them. Enlightened as we are, we now know that emotions are experienced only by the brain. Well, think again. The heart and viscera are heavily innervated; that makes them an integral part of the nervous system and its global experience. That is why more and more surgeons opt to use local analgesia along with general anesthesia to speed up recovery and minimize postoperative pain – the tissue operated on feels and remembers even when the central nervous system is disengaged. Early discoveries that electrical stimulation of the brain can evoke specific sensations and memories led researchers to believe that the latter is experienced locally; but that's not the case. We think of certain limbic nuclei as the seat of emotion, where in fact it is the entire system that experiences emotions – it is impossible to meaningfully isolate the two. We are told that "Aniston cells" can recognize specific faces, where, again, it is the brain, not individual cells, which experiences familiar faces.
Global consciousness, like all emergent phenomena, also takes time to materialize…
Yes. The apparent minimum timescale of consciousness, on the order of tens of milliseconds, sets a lower limit on the nature of the physical processes involved. That is clearly not the timescale of the underlying chemical reactions, some of which clock in picoseconds, or of neural transmission itself, which takes milliseconds at most. The timescale of consciousness is the span it takes neural transmission to form complex modulated patterns. Cutting that flow, freezing it into still frames, is as destructive as breaking a sound wave down to bits smaller than its wavelength: the sound ceases to exist. Because of the fundamentally temporal nature of consciousness, the larger vistas we experience – from books, music and motion pictures to the very story of our life and our sense of continuous self – all accrue their complexity over time in a narrative form.
Equally rich bodies of information which are not coded in that format and are emotionally neutral (e.g., encyclopedic knowledge) may be known in great detail but are not experienced as a coherent whole.
What gives these metaphysical patterns their specific qualia? What makes a certain pattern red, another sweet, and yet another painful?
I think of the neuronal discharges as the brain's "machine language" and of the metaphysical modulations of neural activity as a higher-order code whose "words" consistently carry distinct meaning and subjective experience. While we are yet to decipher the Rosetta Stone of neural activity, the specific patterns and associated qualia may well prove as arbitrary as any language. Red is simply the sensation of a pattern which happens to functionally designate a certain configuration of cones activated by a given electromagnetic wavelength, as arbitrary as the word red is in English. Pain happens to be the experience of a pattern which functionally indicates tissue damage. And yet a third pattern, which reflects enzymatic imbalance, is experienced as longing or craving. A different kind of qualia, the experience of the words "red", "pain" and "craving" – as in the way you're thinking of them as I speak – is the sensation of patterns which denote lingual abstractions. All qualia involve similarly arbitrary yet unique and consistent patterns of neural activity. The differences in function and subjective experience among the various types of qualia – sensations, emotions, drives, memories, thoughts – derive from the particular architecture and operation of the neural machinery at the various loci. Qualia generally present more complex states: red and pain, for example, are also localized; nearly all qualia are colored by a motivational vector experienced on a continuum between good (pleasurable, attractive) and bad (harmful, repulsive) – imagine multi-dimensional interferences between sensory patterns and internal state patterns...
But isn't there something more absolute to the experience of red or pain?
No. Diverse studies suggest that there is nothing absolute about given qualia. Comparative research indicates that cultural and lingual factors, as well as personal learning histories, critically shape the substance of subjective experience. Those who experience synaesthesia report the "bleeding" of ordinarily distinct sensations, not unlike the hallucinogenic drug-induced experience of hearing colors and seeing sounds. Even the seemingly entrenched absolutes of pleasure and pain (and their associated behavioral imperatives) are challenged by studies in fields ranging from sensory deprivation to sadomasochism. Remember that as vivid as they are, the scent of morning coffee and the lovely singing of birds have little to do with objective reality (that of aromatic molecules and harmonious disturbances in the air) and everything to do with the metaphysics of the biosphere – ultimately with the adaptive value of the various patterns, as determined by eons of natural selection.
Isn't consciousness as you depict it a mere epiphenomenon?
The qualia associated with the metaphysical patterns of neural activity do appear to be epiphenomenal, analogous to the different sounds produced by, say, a truck: the engine roars as it starts out, the breaks screech when it stops, the seats squeak when sat on, etc.; none of these sounds is purposeful or functional – all are the unintended yet inevitable byproduct of the truck's mechanical make up and operation. Indeed, the various sounds, consistent and unique in their coding, can tell the entire tale of the truck and be even misconstrued as functional or causal – the way we intuitively attribute our eating a candy or quickly recoiling from fire to the sensation of sweetness and pain. Consciousness is not analogues to the truck's noise, however, nor – to use other epiphenomenal analogies – to its shadow, exhaust fumes, or the heat it emits. In fact, consciousness is neither epiphenomenal to, nor identical with, neural activity. Consciousness is the subjective reality of the living brain: the qualia are one and the same with the physical interactions yet not identical – there is a categorical difference between sensing from within and sensing from without.
The brain's cybernetics and sentience are one. To use the above example, think of a truck whose pistons actually feel the heat of combustion and whose brakes actually suffer the strain as they screech. Of course, mechanical parts do not experience animal consciousness – the heat and strain are sensed directly too but only rudimentarily, on the molecular level. Animals experience a qualitatively different experience – global sensations of complex interactions among numerous interrelated neurons which are the metaphysical representations of heat and strain. Because of the dual nature of reality, it is thus not a factual mistake to attribute our eating and recoiling to hunger and pain. Both perspectives stand ontologically and phenomenally on equal footing.
But doesn't consciousness carry any functional import?
No. Consciousness does not carry any functional import; the qualia are merely the subjective experience of the neural activity. A conscious machine of any kind would still appear just as ordinary to its users; having consciousness does not add any useful property to it. By the same token, consciousness is not an evolutionary end in itself – as some would like to fancy it – and it has never been a factor in natural selection. Animals are no philosophical zombies not because consciousness proved evolutionarily superior but because philosophical zombies cannot exist (other than as a whimsical fantasy) – any similarly constructed structure would necessarily experience consciousness.
Some go so far as to claim that consciousness is an illusion… that there's no "hard problem" to resolve, really – we just need to let go of the illusion…
These guys confound the phenomenal experience with the reality of mental constructs. I myself pointed out earlier that mental constructs – from percepts and thoughts to souls and selves – are not primary realities in the universe; they are illusions in the sense that they exist only in the symbolic, non-physical, non-Cartesian landscape of our minds. However, the experience of these illusions is certainly not an illusion – in fact, it is the only reality of which we can be certain! Moreover, mental constructs cannot exist in-and-off-themselves, irrespective of brains, any more than paintings can exist without canvases; nor can metaphysical patterns in and off themselves be sentient – only brains experience sentience.
So, does Mary, the color blind know-it-all scientist, gather more information once she sees red?
That depends on the definition of "perfect knowledge". Either way, there's no paradox or repudiation of materialism here. Both seeing red and having absolute encyclopedic knowledge exist on the same metaphysical plane: Mary is experiencing a novel neural activity (the metaphysical pattern which stands for red) that adds to the various patterns associated with her encyclopedic knowledge of color. If the definition of "perfect knowledge" somehow encompasses that piece of sensory experience, Mary didn't need to see red to learn what red feels like. If "perfect knowledge" does not encompass that quale, well, Mary just learned something new after all.
Given the ubiquity of subjective experience, how is it that we experience only select qualia at any given moment?
The answer has to do more with the anatomy of the brain than with the nature of consciousness. The brain is home to numerous conscious processes at various stages of integration, of which we are mostly unaware. Vision and speech, to take well known examples, are largely performed outside the conscious self, despite being among the most "computation heavy" processes in the brain. (This led early AI researchers to erroneously assume that seeing and speech recognition are fairly simple tasks which could be readily emulated by robots – comparing to, say, the difficult chore of performing arithmetic calculations. If a simple calculator can quickly perform calculations that challenge our full attention – so the reasoning went – surely computers can emulate seeing and speech recognition which even young children do seemingly without any effort. Little did they know.) Anyway, the brain is topologically structured as a hyper-pyramid, where each nucleus at the bottom processes and experiences its own conscious contents; higher levels of integration are experienced more globally, up to the top of the pyramid, which is experienced as a coherent, panoptic whole, and which – like memory – appears to physically be at once everywhere and nowhere. The conscious self is the experience of these integrated cybernetic hierarchies, culled by the mechanism of attention to select contents which natural selection proved worthy of executive involvement – not unlike a manager who is largely unaware of the finer details of his subordinates' work but receives summary reports and knows the important stuff. That manager has the final say in making critical decisions, acts a spokesperson and liaison to the media, and personifies the organization to the outside world. She naturally sleeps at night, effectively disengaged from all the external commotion, while her workers carry on with their shifts. During waking hours, this conscious, reporting self involves the widest ranging neural network in the brain.
There is copious evidence for the experience of consciousness by lesser structures in the brain. Studies of people with surgically severed corpus callosum found that each disconnected cortical hemisphere appears to experience independent (and sometimes hilariously conflicting) contents. People diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) present several reporting selves co-inhabiting the same cranium, often unaware of each other and having access to different memories and skills – even to different voices, languages and accents. Patients who suffer from blind-sight and unilateral neglect may properly respond to visual stimulation of which they are expressly unaware. Somnambulists appear to perceive sensory information usually associated with conscious experience without any awareness of it. Even vegetative patients who lack any clinical manifestation of awareness were shown on brain scans to have ordinarily conscious activities at key loci. More generally, access to many of the otherwise fully conscious centers in the brain is routinely switched off during sleep (and trauma-induced loss of consciousness) by the extended reticular and thalamic activating system (ERTAS).
Some researchers claim that the extended reticular and thalamic activating system is the seat of consciousness…
To me, this view is a leap back to the little homunculus… I believe that the ERTAS nuclei merely serve as the main switchboard for conscious traffic in the brain. Clearly, it is not that the higher centers are no longer conscious when one is unconscious – it is that their conscious contents are no longer commonly accessible and that therefore the reporting self has effectively been unraveled. Indeed, dreams – which are closely related to memory reactivation – may touch upon every aspect of reality, yet feel distinctly unreal absent the much wider reach of the fully awake mind. Different activation levels at the brainstem-thalamic switchboard are probably responsible for the various "altered states of consciousness", such as during hypnosis, and for the switching between personalities in Dissociative Identity Disorder. In the latter case a single brain evidently hosts several semi-independent master networks which switch about in the same way the ERTAS controls conscious states in normal individuals.
Control over the speech centers does seem central to the designation of the identified self...
Yes. Contents outside the reach of the reporting self appear to remain largely unconscious, much like a
Your thesis differs radically from Freud's view of the unconscious. He referred mainly to repressed mental contents...
The classic view of the unconscious is understandably simplistic, considering it was formulated over a hundred years ago… The brain does not contain conscious and unconscious faculties; rather, the conscious self is unconscious of the bulk of the otherwise conscious activities of the brain. And while psychogenic repression does occur, it is only one minor reason why the reporting self is incognizant of most of the conscious contents in the brain. Remember that the metaphysical pattern experienced at the top of the cybernetic hyper-pyramid comprises a global synthesis which is unaware of its constituents…
Consider, for example, the experience of "sleeping on" an intractable problem and waking up in the morning with a full-fledged solution in mind, like the cryptomnesic revelation of the atomic structure of benzene that August Kekulé experienced after he saw an oroborus in a reverie. Such solutions are the product of conscious centers which are largely dissociated from the diminished self during sleep but which otherwise remain preoccupied with the problem, often with the same diligence and ingenuity that characterize the entire waking brain. Critical centers in the brain obviously carry on with their tasks at all times but without being fully networked, the top manager isn't quite aware of them.
And all it takes is an alarm clock to bring them all back to perfect orchestration…
Yes. Sleep disengages the working brain; it doesn't turn it off – only severe trauma does that. You can actually feel the shift of gears by something as simple as closing your eyes… When we're awake, the constant stream of discriminative stimulation guides much of our mental activity – the way our conversation compels me now to reflect on the nature of dreams; when we're asleep, the removal of external stimulation allows the largely disconnected centers to wander off and regurgitate past events, unsettled dilemmas, emotional burden (fears, desires), etc. The fact that we recall dreams mostly when, and because, we were just awakened (as by an alarm clock) strongly suggests that at that moment of awakening we merely become fully connected to the otherwise ongoing conscious activity.
What is the role of our unique mental capacities, such as language and self-awareness, in the phenomenon of consciousness?
One shouldn't confuse consciousness with cognitive skills. We are obviously aware of our thoughts but language as such has nothing to do with consciousness. Language certainly adds another higher-order layer of abstraction and representational complexity, but that does not make a qualitative difference with respect to the phenomenal experience.
Self awareness too is essentially a cognitive skill, far removed from the core mystery of consciousness. It involves the capacity – found in all brainy animals to varying extents – to reflect upon one's own inner workings, or as it is customarily put, to process information about one's own information processing. These are the "easy problems" of consciousness…
Where does your resolution of the "hard problem" fit in with the prevailing theories of the day?
As strange as it sounds, most theories of consciousness propose highly elaborate mechanisms but do not address the principal question of why a clump of matter or a complex abstraction should experience anything at all. My thesis provides a tangible anchor for a wide variety of explanations. Remember that to me, the dual aspect of reality is first and foremost a cornerstone of physics.
Many of the claims you make here – the subjective mirroring of physical interactions; the aggregation of sense data into one global experience; the correlation between the number of interacting components and the richness of the experience; and the arbitrary yet unique and consistent nature of qualia – readily lend themselves to mathematical notation. Have you tried to formulate a mathematical model of consciousness?
I am not a mathematician; words are my symbols of choice… I prefer the rich nuances of natural language and its capacity to concisely describe the unique intricacies of the biosphere – with its endless individual and historical particulates – over the rigorous generalizations of mathematics. You're right, however. Once we cross the conceptual divide and accept consciousness as a property of matter – like gravity – working out the mathematics should be a straightforward process. We may never be able to ultimately understand why physical phenomena are what they are, but that hasn't stopped us from describing them with increased precision, delineating the laws that govern them, and devising highly successful theories that explain and predict. Consciousness too is a consistent, reproducible phenomenon, and there's no reason why it cannot be modeled mathematically. Since subjective experience mirrors physical processes, I believe that such a model will be closer to theories in physics than to those we find in psychology. Here I'm not talking about current research of the neurological code and correlates of consciousness but about the direct study of consciousness, something that will doubtless come of age when neuroscience finally marshals inter-cranial linking…
The direct study of consciousness? Doesn't the inherently private nature of qualia forever exclude them from collective scrutiny?
Well, ordinarily one is more likely to experience higher spatial dimensions than to sense others' subjective experience. But that doesn't mean that subjective experience must always remain outside objective scrutiny. I believe that within a few decades the engineering of inter-cranial neural linking will mature to the point that conscious contents in one brain will be accessible by another. Even without fully understanding the code, researchers will be able to directly experience subjects' sensations, emotions and thoughts, and perhaps even share them via a neural router with a group of people. It should be particularly interesting to hook up with other animals' brains to experience other Umwelts…
Won't this allow us to experience sensations the kind of which we cannot even imagine – new colors, ultraviolet vision, and much more?
Specifically regarding colors, I believe that the human eye cannot see beyond the visible range (380 to 750nm) because of adaptive considerations which confine the useful range to within less than a full "octave" of light so as to avoid "harmonies" of colors. Harmonies are essential to hearing but I suspect that seeing more than an octave of light will only degrade the image – imagine seeing light at 250, 500 and 1000nm as greenish… You get a glimpse of what a full octave of light may feel like by looking at a "circle of colors", which brings together the red and violet from the opposite ends of the visual spectrum. The two ends of the spectrum appear to be of nearly the same color to the eye, the way two c tones on the diatonic scale sound similar to the ear… Ever witnessed how the pastel colors of sunset turn directly from iridescent red to dark violet, as if consisting of adjacent frequencies?
More to the point, although we can't imagine what it's like to see the world by means of sonar echoes any more than a pre-pubescent child can imagine sexual orgasm, the presumption that exotic sensory organs must give rise to out-of-this-world experience may well be farfetched. I suspect that because of functional convergence, disparate Umwelts – the olfactory world of the dog, the tactile vision of the star-nosed mole, the infrared vision of snakes, the ultraviolet vision of bees, the shark's electric sense and the bat's sonar vision – probably have more affinities than we care to admit, irrespective of the sensory modalities involved. Seeing the world in the infrared, ultraviolet or in sonar echoes may not be that alien to us…
Do you mean that we can know what it is like to be a bat?
You probably already know what it is like to be a bat – in essence, it's not unlike being a person. Sensations, emotions, drives and all.
Mm… What about the honeybee?
The continuum of subjective experience in the animal kingdom runs the gamut from the virtually inanimate sensations of viral particles to the compound abstractions of the human mind. Even in prokaryotic microorganisms we find orchestrated chemical interactions in response to light, salinity, temperature, or the presence of foodstuff, which represent the earliest instances of subjectively experienced metaphysical patterns. The evolution of multicellular organisms ushered in a qualitative leap with the development of specialized neural networks that allowed the transfer and processing of sense data. The simplest qualia we experience, like those associated with sensory input, occur on the same metaphorical plane of neural activity across all animals in possession of a nervous system. The honeybee certainly lacks the experience associated with the additional brain nuclei found in craniates – from the emotional and motivational complex of the vertebrate brain to the cognitive processes of the cerebral cortex.
But why stop at living organisms? Take any ordinary physical components and construct an interactive system of similar complexity – and you've created a machine that not only responds to a pin prick by withdrawing, but actually feels the pain; not only seeks an electric outlet to recharge on low batteries, but actually feels hungry.
How can we tell that the machine is conscious? The analogy by which we reckon that others are conscious ("we are all made the same, so everybody must experience things the way I do") won't work for machines…
We are back at the quintessential problem of the study of consciousness, the fact – a fundamental law, if you will – that just as two physical (fermionic) objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, no object can ever experience another's sentience first hand. Call it consciousness' "exclusion principle"… Even if my brain were neurally connected to yours, I would still experience only me – I can never experience your consciousness. I may feel a pinprick to your arm, but the pain will still be experienced as mine; I may see things as you do, but I can never see them as you. Although subjective observations via inter-cranial linkage will advance the study of consciousness immeasurably, the fundamental determination of consciousness will always remain a matter of inference. Machines will be deemed conscious not when they actually reach that juncture – I suggested earlier that we've been constructing rudimentarily conscious machines since the dawn of the electronic age – but when we could apply similar analogies with respect to machines whose "brains" closely resemble ours…
We arrive at my final question... You are aware of the fact that the brightest minds have struggled for centuries to explain consciousness, with spectacularly little effect. What makes you think that your thesis succeeds where all others have failed?
People have advanced numerous theories of consciousness from almost every conceivable intellectual domain, from theology to quantum mechanics. And against such an unfathomable mystery, it seems that the more arcane the better. My thesis' strongest suit is its simplicity. I start out with almost embarrassingly plain yet powerful premises and simply follow the implications to their natural conclusion, using Occam's razor to shave off some common misconceptions along the way. After all, most of the pivotal revolutions in science had to do with accepting the obvious and looking at the common pool of knowledge from a fresh perspective. Many of my arguments are not even original. I mean, my synthesis is unique but it incorporates many ideas that have been around for some time. In the end, it owes its power to logical coherence alone.