Sunday, December 13, 2009

How Neurological Explanations for Consciousness End Up Arguing For the Existence of God

Via Andrew Sullivan I found an interesting posting by Julian Sanchez on consciousness and free will, "Two Thoughts on Searle at Google", which references an essay by John Searle. The heart of Sanchez' argument is found in this passage:
[Searle] proposes the argument that it is unlike evolution to confer upon us complex and extremely resource-expensive capacities that serve no function. Which is true, but has little enough to do with free will, which he appears to conflate with two other distinct properties: Consciousness and rational calculation. It is clearly resource expensive to have a brain capable of planning, making inferences, abstracting, formulating general principles, and so on. But it is not very mysterious what the evolutionary value of such capacities might be—especially in an arms race against your fellow primates once everyone has passed a certain cognitive threshold.
Now, there is an interesting evolutionary point to be made here about consciousness. You can say: Look, if the functional benefit all comes from the “plumbing,” as Searle has it—the neurons firing away to plot the best spear trajectory toward that mammoth, in strict accordance with physical laws—then you might well ask why that has to be conscious. Couldn’t the brain do all that calculating without there being something it’s like, subjectively to perceive, experience, and think about the world? And so you might think that if evolution has given us minds that are conscious on top of all this, then consciousness can’t merely be an epiphenomenon of the plumbing—it has to make a causal difference that yields some selective advantage. And here I’ll just say… we don’t know. Consciousness could well be a spandrel.  That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.” (Aside: Maybe “causal properties” is the wrong way to describe it. The usual picture is that event A has properties in virtue of which it causes event B—but as Hume noted, the “causes” relationship between them here is kind of a black box; all we actually see is the succession. There would be a neat sort of symmetry if consciousness were in the black box.) Whatever the case may be there, we just have no reason to think it “cost” evolution anything to add sentience as some kind of bonus feature on top of the capacities for planning, strategy, and so on. If a brainlike system with these capacities—able to merge input from many sense modalities and abstracting from them for various purposes— is necessarily conscious, for reasons we don’t fully understand, then the cost of consciousness is just the cost of the capacities. Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombies—like vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home— but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement. And that just doesn’t sound quite right, does it?
Sanchez and Searle, whatever their disagreements, are both trying to argue from a scientific/materialist point of view that our minds and brains and consciousness can only be rationally explained as the result of some biological evolutionary process. From that perspective, Sanchez is quite right to suggest that self-consciousness must be conceived of as arising from a purely natural process, or as he describes it, "That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character." That, in essence, is the argument most neurological researchers are looking for evidence to support - that somehow, by some unknown material process, consciousness manages to arise in the brains of living creatures, and from there it evolves in accordance with the usual processes of natural selection and genetics and ends up creating culture and philosophy and even science itself.

I have to point out how un-scientific this "hypothesis" is, first of all. I say that it is unscientific because there is no specific mechanism proposed for the production of self-conscious existence within a living organism, merely some vague notion that it "just happens" when enough "information" is processed through biological tissues. It makes me wonder if any of these people have even thought through the basic scientific idea here. On the most basic level, this isn't even a scientific idea at all, it's indistinguishable from a religious idea. Step one: process information through a biological medium. Step two: magic. Step three: self-conscious experience appears.

Because the logic of this magical thinking is reputedly "scientific" does not make it any less magical. Part of the problem with the scientific approach here is that science can't objectively measure "self-consciousness". It's not something any experiment can prove, without resorting to some form of "self-reporting". A scientist can approach a test subject, and ask, "are you self-conscious?" and the test subject will presumably answer "yes". But the scientist can't independently determine if this is true. If the test subject were trying to fuck with the scientists, and answered "no", the scientist wouldn't be able to prove him wrong. Any test of brain function and cognition, communication, etc., can be explained perfectly well without the presence of self-consciousness, so none of that could be used to "prove" that the test subject is actually self-conscious. So scientists do a little "cheat". They just presume that all human beings are self-conscious, because they say so. It's not entirely irrational, but it lacks any scientific foundation. But it enables them to get along with their research, and to pretend that it's actually hard biological science rather than some kind of self-reporting survey from Cosmopolitan Magazine.

That issue aside, the central thesis here is still interesting, but again, not well-thought out. The notion that "information processing" somehow produces self-consciousness lies at the heart of nearly every scientific theory of consciousness, both neurological and philosophical. It's what allows some scientists to suggest that human beings are selfconscious, whereas some much smaller life forms, such as insects or bacteria, are not. They process much less "information" through their nervous systems, and hence, they somehow fail to achieve the magical "threshold" which produces consciousness.

This approach fails to offer any explanation for why consciousness should be limited to information processed through biological entities, and why there should be any limit whatsoever on the amount of information necessary to produce consciousness. If consciousness is indeed produced by material means, it is the product of the basic physics of living organisms, and not some magical property that only living organisms possess. I think neurological researchers need to be reminded that the same laws of physics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and information processing apply to all forms of material existence, and that there are no special laws of physics for biological organisms. Carbon atoms have some very interesting properties that allow them to form complex molecules, but there is no distinction between information that is processed through such molecules and information that is processed through silicone, or any other medium. In fact, "information" is ubiquitous to the entire universe, and "information processing" goes on large and small in every material process in nature.

In fact, one of the more interesting ways of looking at the universe is as a vast "information processing" system, in which every electron and photon is seen as "information", such that even the basic properties of matter and the laws of the physical universe are instances of "information processing". This isn't some wild theory, it's widely accepted and a basic fact of science. So when neuroscientists propose that consciousness is created by "information processing" in the brain, they don't realize that by the laws of physics there's no distinction to be made by that form of information processing, and the information processing that goes on in a star, in the weather, or in an exploding quasar. If information processing produces self-consciousness, then each of these, and even the entire universe, and every element within it, should be self-conscious.

Nor should there be any limit to the amount of information processed for it to produce consciousness. at least until we get down to Plank limits (10^-34). There's no reason why the information processed by a single electron should not produce some similarly minute "self-consciousness", in that it can also produce light, magnetism, gravity, and all the other elemental forces and fields of nature. One could certainly argue that the consciousness produced by such non-biological mechanisms would have a different quality fo experience. It would certain not be "human". But there's no good argument I can think of that it wouldn't have the basic character of "self-consciousness" that biological mechanisms have.

And so, this basic idea of neurologically-based consciousness has a problem, if it is to be used to somehow explain away or contain the experience of human consciousness, because  there's no good reason to confine materially-produced consciousness to biological mechanisms of information processing. If a computer processes information, why should it not also produce an internal, subjective, conscious experience to go along with it? Why would such an effect only come into being if carbon molecules, rather than silicone ones, were the medium for information being processed? One cannot simple create magical rules to go along with the magical "step" that creates consciousness from material information processing. If that occurs, it has to occur universally, or it's just magical thinking.

Which means that by the scientific logic of consciousness being produced by material processes of "information processing", the entire universe is actually conscious in a way that we can hardly imagine. Our own information processing system - the brain and nervous system - is pretty powerful and complex, but it's nothing compared to the power and complexity of the earth's weather system, or the sun, or the galaxy, much less the universe itself. If each of these organized entities produces "consciousness", then the self-conscious sense of being they possess must be so immense that it would be as incomprehensible to us as our own consciousness would be to a flea.

In fact, we end up with the problem of overlapping conscious identity. Not only could electrons be said to have some level of "consciousness", but so could atoms, molecules, bacteria, cells within our own body, organs made of cells, and of course, the body as a whole. Each of these structures could have a kind of individual consciousness that is composed of many smaller consciousnesses acting as a collective. Thus, each of the cells in our own bodies can enjoy a consciousness of their own, and yet we as the whole body can enjoy a larger consciousness that is not merely the sum of the parts, but is the result of all the information processing that is shared between them - such as our nervous system. And the wider the "net" of shared information, the greater the consciousness that is created. Human society could be seen as a living organism with its own consciousness, based on the massive amount of information exchanged between individuals. Each individual would be only vaguely aware of the greater consciousness they were a part of, and yet that "being" would actually have its own self-conscious sense of identity.

What kind of conscious identity would we ascribe to the entire universe, then? What kind of self-conscious experience would such a "being" have? Well, it would seem to me indistinguishable from our concept of "God". It would be a consciousness that is the product of all the information that is processed throughout the entire universe. That consciousness would feel itself to be connected to and composed of everything that exists. It would fulfill all the basic descriptive requirements of a God-like being. It could even have plan, have intentions, have a will. It could act according to those intentions and that will, just as we do, but in a far more comprehensive manner, since nothing would be outside of itself, and everything would be a part of itself.

So in taking this kind of scientific explanation for consciousness to its natural conclusion, we end up with God after all. It may not be entirely the same God as all religions have proposed, but it's not much different in its basic characteristics. In fact, the "sense" that many people have that God exists could actually be explained as materially real, as a product of our own consciousness being aware of the greater consciousness of which it is a part. There could well be serious misjudgments in religion about the nature of this God, and his "intentions", but the sheer existence of Him would seem not only logical, but inevitable.

One has to wonder if "atheistic" scientists who think neurological explanations for consciousness renders the concept of God obsolete realize that it accomplishes exactly the opposite - it makes the reality of God-consciousness inevitable an unavoidable. At least, I'm not sure how they could rationally argue otherwise. Scientific atheism may well end "proving" the existence of God by their own efforts to disprove Him. One has to enjoy the sheer irony of that.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that any of this is actually how consciousness comes into being. I'm not personally of the school that thinks consciousness is the result of some material process in the physics of matter. But it's interesting to note that even if it is, we can still presume that God-consciousness exists, and even argue that all consciousness is "connected" within a greater consciousness, of which we are merely a very small part. In which case, what exactly has been "disproven" by science, even if it succeeds in its wildest dreams of demonstrating that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of material nature processing "information"? At worst, it merely suggest that God is the creation of nature, rather than the creator of nature, rather than that no God exists. And yet, according to modern physic's Big Bang theory, even this might not be the case, in that "information" could have preceded the Big Bang in a metauniverse from which the Big Bang arose. If so, then whatever information existed in this metauniverse, or even the infinite multi-universes proposed by some theorists, would produce an even greater "God-Consciousness" that could act, even creatively, to produce universes within itself. Our own universe could have been one of those "creations" of such a God, or even one of the lesser Gods within it. If the absolute God is defined as the "set of all sets" of information, and the consciousness such information produces is God's personal self-conscious sense of identity, then this allows for not only lesser Gods of various parts of that whole , which might appear within the absolute God, but for a conscious relationship between all those conscious parts and the conscious whole.

I would be willing to bet that rather than going down this road, atheistic/materialist neuroscientists and the philosophers of consciousness who based their ideas on science would probably want to abandon the notion that "information processed by brains produces the epiphenomenon of consciousness". Many of them are so repelled by the idea of "God" that they'd rather abandon such ideas than give even the slightest support for them. But what alternative hypothesis would they replace it with? I can't think of one. Maybe someone else out there has thought this through already and has some ideas.


Anonymous said...

I believe that the mainstream view of consciousness among philosophers is that the brain and consciousness is one and the same, not even that consciousness is an epi-phenomenon of the brain. This idea (that consciousness is a physical object which is the brain) is absurd and easily disproven. Can you touch, see, smell, taste or hear a thought? No. Can you see and touch the brain? Yes. Those philosophers simply have an allegiance to materialism and simply cannot accept such a mundane fact.

As you point out Broken Yogi there is no known mechanism by which the brain could produce consciousness and it is difficult to even concieve of such a mechanim, let alone trying to discover it. However, it is bizarre a fact then, that changes in brain chemistry produce changes in consciousness and/or consciousness can produce changes in the brain. So, your theory discussed in the previous post, in short that causation is an illusion, seems to me to be a very good one.

Glenn said...

BY, You may be interested in this article by Marco Biagini Ph.D.

A brief quote from the article..."Another argument used by materialists is the hypothesis that psychical life could be generated by the fact that in the brain there are many exchanges of information. Also this is a case of logical contradiction, because the concept itself of information presupposes the existence of consciousness, and so this concept cannot be used to explain the existence of consciousness."

Andy Smith said...

I didn't realize I would be responding as anonymous, as I added my name at the end. Just in case it didn't come through, the previous post is mine.

Andy Smith

Andy Smith said...

Hi, Conrad:

I liked your recent post on consciousness, particularly the passage suggesting that components of the body could have a rudimentary consciousness, less than our own, while we in turn could be components of a still higher consciousness. I have discussed this view in great detail in my book The Dimensions of Experience.

A couple of minor criticisms. The notion of the entire universe's being an information processing system is not, to my knowledge, widely accepted as a fact. It has been proposed by some physicists, particularly Seth Lloyd in his book Programming the Universe (I discuss his work a little in Chapter 11 of DE). But your point that if information processing underlies consciousness, consciousness should be very widespread is an important one to make. Probably the most popular scientific view currently is that consciousness emerges at some level of complexity, but since information processing and complexity in general do not emerge suddenly, but are built up very gradually, there is a reasonable question to ask why consciousness should be different. The only major human feature I know of that does seem to emerge fairly suddenly in evolution is language, and even there we can at least see some beginnings of it in other organisms.

I also disagree with you that the universe as a whole—not including human beings—is more complex than the human brain. The configurations of matter in the universe are immense, but not particularly complex. Atoms and molecules in stars interact with each other in fairly simple ways. So if, hypothetically, one wanted to subscribe to an information processing theory of consciousness, these configurations of matter would not by themselves support a higher form of consciousness. I like much better your idea that such consciousness could emerge from the interactions of human beings, and as I discuss in DE, we know now that the same small world type of organization that is found in many types of human social interactions is also found in many parts of the human brain. In other words, the ways neurons interact in the brain share some important features with the ways humans interact in societies.

I have debated some of these ideas with you before, and I understand that you don't actually sympathize with these ideas, but are just using them as a sort of reductio argument. IF one wants to pursue the information processing idea, along with a holarchical view of life, then one is inevitably led to the existence of a higher form of consciousness. But I could only wish that more scientists understood this logic.

Andy Smith

fckw said...

This discussion is really absurd. Of course, brain changes do in fact NOT influence consciousness in any way. Whatever is influenced by changes in the brain certainly is NOT consciousness but something else (e.g. thought patterns).

And of course, consciousness does not "produce" anything (neither matter nor energy nor thoughts nor brain patterns).

The same accounts for the whole hype on neurobiology. Whatever is measured there certainly is NOT consciousness.

This discussion can only arise if there is no clarity about what consciousness really is. And of course, practically the whole world mistakenly assumes consciousness to be the same thing as their apperception of the world.

The crucial question is: If there is no apperception whatsoever - no thought, no sensual input - what remains?

If we would just really stay with Ramana Maharshi's words, things would be so clear indeed.

What/who/where are you during deep sleep or when fainted (or dead or when you're a stone)? Certainly there is no apperception of anything whatsoever. At the same time the world does not "end" itself during this phase. (Otherwise, as RM pointed out repeatedly, there would be a gap in existence between the point in time when one fainted and when one woke up again.)

Thus there is a substratum which is at the absolute base or core of everything. Call it however you want - self, consciousness, awareness, existence, God or The One and First and Only Seventh Stage Realizer Adept Guru KingKong - this thing has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of brainwave patterns or free will.

So, how then comes that this substratum evidently produces changes in the world? It simply doesn't because it is identical to the world. It does not produce changes, it IS the changes itself. This substratum is no different from them. There cannot be a tousandth of an inch between this substratum and the world.

As long as this is not understood, all discussions will be void of real meaning. It's all like talking about the favourite food of blue elephants. Fact is, blue elephants don't exist. Which means: Fact is, there is no consciousness separate from matter/energy/brain/whatever that could be influence. It IS all of these.

(Always already. You know the tune.)

Broken Yogi said...

Thanks for the comments. I remember you wrote an interesting paper over at Integral World in response to some of my ideas on this blog. I meant to write a response, but life came along and complicated things, and I never got around to it. Good to see you again.
I didn't mean to imply that most scientists see the universe as an information-processing system, only that they accept the fact that it does process information, and that every event in the universe contains information, not just the minds of sentient beings. Of course, there are some scientists who really do think the information-theory model is the best way to understand the universe, and that the rest of the scientific community will come around to this view over time. As far as scientific theories go, I like the ones based on information processing, because I think they come closest to a “realistic” breakdown of what is actually going on in the material world. All perceptions and all observations boil down to “information” or data, and these require a conscious observer to make sense of. It's the relationship between the information perceived and the observer of that information that I think is central to understanding the entire system.
As for complexity, I'm not arguing that complexity even matters – the sheer amount of information being processed should produce consciousness, if information processing produces consciousness at all. Complexity is in some ways a misnomer. We may think of a star as a “simple” structure, and yet the amount of sheer information it possesses and processes in the course of its day is immensely greater than the amount of information human beings, or even the entire human race, processes. If information produces consciousness, then the consciousness of a star would be immensely greater than that of a human being. Greater, and also different.


Broken Yogi said...

Part of the problem here is anthropocentrism. We tend to see consciousness as specific to our kind of creature, which is a small, concentrated, complex biological system rather than a large, relatively simple, non-biological system. But if consciousness arises as the result of some physical property, this should not matter. Each would be self-aware, if in very different functional ways.
As you say, the arguments in this post are merely theoretical criticisms of the logic of many neuroscientific researchers, and the atheistic/materialist views people espouse on their basis. I don't literally think consciousness is a property of information processing. However, it's very interesting to me that the logical results which follow from such views are eerily close to the ideas many religious and spiritual traditions espouse. It suggests that there is some basic similarity in their views, which I think is attributable to their both basing their ideas about the world on causation. If the world and consciousness are produced by causation, it doesn't actually matter which side of the equation one considers the cause and which the effect – the result is almost the same. The acausal view, on the other hand, looks at both consciousness and the world quite differently, both as something uncaused and uncreated, not an effect, but synchronous appearance across all dimensions. This, as another commentator points out, is the result of their prior unity, and not of some hierarchy of causes and effects which links them together in a chain bound by time.
It's certainly true, of course, that consciousness can arise simultaneously and in overlapping fashion in coincidence with every kind of structure, even structures within structures, such that we can view each of them as having their own individuated form of self-consciousness. But I would be critical of the notion that the structure created the consciousness, or that only sufficiently complex structures could be conscious. And I would be critical of the logic that limits consciousness to complex biological structures, if it is presumed that it arises as a result of information processing. Even that argument would need to admit that consciousness should arise in coincidence with even the smallest of structures that “process” information, which is universal, and not limited to biological life forms of great complexity.
I've never been a big fan of the integral view of holoarchy, in part because it seems embedded is a causal view of nature and consciousness, and fails to see how these arbitrary limits on structure do not produce consciousness or states or levels, it is only the limited viewpoint each adopts that seems to produce such things. The Wilberian-Integral viewpoint tends to reinforce these conceptual limitations, as if such things actually exist in reality, rather than point out their artificial nature as the result of identification with one level of structure rather than another. It's similar to the way we draw political boundaries on a map, as if such things were actually part of the map of the world rather than of human political conflicts. But that gets me started on a whole series of criticism of the integral movement I'd best keep away from.

fckw said...

> Even that argument would need to admit that consciousness should arise in coincidence with even the smallest of structures that “process” information, which is universal, and not limited to biological life forms of great complexity.

That's very subtle: Does consciousness in fact exist separate from everything else or does it not? Maybe Wilber would claim this to be the big jump from causal to non-dual or Da would perhaps say this is the difference between the 6th and the 7th stage. Ramana Maharshi would say that despite Brahman alone exists, Brahman and the world are one.

So the question can be simplified: Does consciousness arise in some mysterious way (synchronicity? causation?) together with "everything else" (e.g. the manifest world or "form" or "structure") or is it identical to it? Because if it is identical to it, it is utterly meaningless to make a difference between consciousness and "everything else" in the first place. It's like you have an object, let's say an apple. You do not have two objects here, but only one object, but for some weird reason you start talking and thinking as if the object was in fact two objects and then you think you must face and answer all the questions concerning the exact relationship between the two objects, which in reality are one and the same and have always been.

The whole affair of course sounds much more sophisticated if you talk of "subject/object-dualism" or "emptyness and form" or "consciousness and manifest world" instead of an apple.

Broken Yogi said...

"apple" is a concept, and as such, it is an object of the mind and the senses which seem to connect the mind to the world. But the world in which the apple is said to exist is also a concept, an object in the mind. This creates an endless solipsistic loop of concepts and sensory relations that simply cannot be resolved within its own structure or logic. The root of all that is what is called "mind". And the root of mind is the 'I'-thought, which turns our own conscious self into a subject which sees everything around it as objects.

If our conscious self is not a subject that is separate from the objects it relates to, however, then there is no mind. Then "apple" is no longer a concept or an object. Then our own conscious self is coincident with not only apple, but all arising patterns of light and energy, none of which are any longer objective to us.

Contemplating an apple isn't a bad idea, of course. But to do so in reality, we have to let go of the mind and live instead from our real non-separate, non-subjective self. The explanation is more complex than the reality, of course. The mind requires explanations, but the self does not.

Raj said...

Science starts off with no beliefs, but has its own set of assumptions. Since science can only investigate the phenomena observed by the senses, it cannot say anything conclusively about consciousness, and hence about the conceptions of God. Any theory forwarded by scientists regarding consciousness using objective (third person observation) analysis is philosophically incorrect since it carries an underlying assumption - operating through consciousness, but using material evidence to understand consciousness. Therefore, the philosophically correct and rational method of analysing consciousness is for consciousness to study itself, ie., a systematic study of first person observation of consciousness. Further, science cannot say anything conclusively about the reality/unreality of things unless it understands consciousness, through which it operates to understand things.

Hence, science can at best stick to what it does well, explain the 'how'. If it does want to get into larger issues, it has to seriously rethink the assumptions under which it operates.