Why think about thought?

Why should we be interested in Consciousness? It’s a fair question. Humanity was interested in Physics for example, because Physics helped us predict the dynamic behavior of material things in our environment, which in turn gave birth to the whole of human engineering ranging from Atomic Power to the Zend framework. In similar fashion, is there any benefit in understanding Consciousness, outside of the intuitive use we make of it at every given wakeful moment? This essay is an attempt to answer this question.

Let me begin with five questions that squarely frame our present dilemma in Science about the origins and nature of Consciousness. The answers to the narrow “technical questions” below will provide us the key to answering the greater philosophical question of the benefit of mind science to humankind.

  1. Can we proceed forward with a scientific investigation of consciousness, in spite of the fact that the phenomenon (or a collection of phenomena tagged under this label) seems “tightly coupled” to the physical systems that report its existence? There is after all no stringent definition for consciousness, nor is there a 100% reliable empirical test that one can perform to detect it’s existence in a physical system. [A word in edgewise: there have been suggested several “tests” for consciousness or at least for artificial intelligence such as the Turing Test, but this particular test of “massively parallel interconnection of acquired knowledge” published in the June 2011 edition of the Scientific American authored by Christof Koch is rather novel].
  2. Is consciousness generated by a physical process, through physical interactions and (possibly) functional states of a complex material system, akin to the hardware and software of a digital computer? In other words, could we generate consciousness in a complex material system that we engineer, after understanding how it arises?
  3. If the answer to the above question is a “yes”, then is consciousness an adaptation?
  4. If the answer to the above question is a “yes”, then what is the (or was the) survival advantage of consciousness? What were the possible intermediate steps that were advantageous to the organisms concerned? In other words, what is our Darwinian explanation?
  5. If an answer to the above question were provided, will this Darwinian explanation hold water, in the light of the apparent absence of “Free Will”? [For those who are not aware, “thought” suffers from an apparent disadvantage; neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. A caricature of this hypothesis is, that the act of smiling when we see a friend is usually sequenced as – I see the a person, I consciously recognize her, I smile – whereas the reality is – my motor-nervous system sees a person, that person is identified as a friend, the smile reflex (an emotion reflex) is initiated, the thought “I see my friend and therefore now I’m smiling” is raised to consciousness. We seem to lack free will. There is of course some debate about whether the experiment that suggests this sequence of events – Libet’s experiment – is flawless.]

Before we speculate what the likely answers to each of these questions might be, let me share this rather startling thought. If we answer “no” (or “none” in the case of the forth question) to any of the above five questions, we run into an immediate philosophical conundrum. We would then need to “inject” consciousness, our primary preoccupation during our hours of wakefulness (and indeed during REM sleep, whence we dream), into the nature of the world sans any kind of component explanation. Consciousness could then be anything ranging from a universal “spirit” in nature that inhabits humans, to a “hypothetical construct of language”, as some behaviorists suggest.

One particular caricature of the “consciousness is a hypothetical construct” hypothesis that I love to put forward to taunt behaviorists and language mystics, is that one fine day several thousand years ago, a roving Homo sapiens who until then was a complete philosophical zombie, suddenly began to “hear voices” whilst “unconsciously speaking” to others in his social group. And this human being, who might have been Homer, thus became privy to “thought and inner reflection”, and perhaps began writing the Iliad. This amazingly vacuous hypothesis is only a step away from saying something like “God spoke to us some several thousand years ago, and put a soul in us all that worked in harmony with our bodies and our language, but this soul really cannot be reduced to any material explanation like we are used to in Science”. Whilst this “explanation” cannot be ruled out, I’d rather investigate the other explanations that we can bring to the table.

Before we proceed further, let me briefly “define” Consciousness. John Searle’s makeshift definition “…it [consciousness] is those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one awakes in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one would say, `unconscious’” is a great one. It would encompass feelings like color, moods, pain anger, rapture etc as well as the viewpoint through which we constantly see the world (the self). It is an explanation for this umbrella of phenomenology that we aught to seek.

As many would agree, FMRI2 has been the greatest recent addition to the toolkit of the philosopher of mind, and it is the widespread research done via FMRI that gives us courage to hazard a guess for question 1. The one scientific truth we can rely on is that there is definite physical activity going on in different parts of our brain and nervous system whenever we report “activity” in the domain of thought. Moreover, the physical activity observed through FMRI for a given mental activity is statistically congruent across a range of test subjects, allowing us to indentify structures in the brain that are responsible for a given cognitive process. FMRI has helped us come a long way to confirm an age-old hunch that different structures in our brain “work” to produce different conscious experiences.

However, these “thoughts” that are generated by our brains can be “distorted”, sometimes beyond resemblance to the original stimulus from the external world – such as the illusion of movement reported by observers in the case of the Phi Phenomenon where a sequence of flickers in a row of dots is seen as movement. My personal hunch is that these sorts of “distortions of external reality” represent advantageous illusions from a Darwinian standpoint. For example, the phi phenomenon might be an adaptation to escape predation, where a sequence of disturbances in the brush could signify the approach of a predator. Or else this type of illusion is simply an “edge case” for which the brain has not evolved and therefore produces erroneous representations of external reality.

These illusions don’t undermine the scientific truth that the brain works to produce thought, based on input from both the external world and our internal memory. For example, the reported changes in the interpretation of perspective of a Necker Cube, a purely “internal report” from a conscious creature, can be correlated to increases in oxygenation of specific regions in the brain. Our brains “work” to produce “pure thought” representations, burning Oxygen and releasing CO2. Thus we have a strong case for investigating how subjective thoughts are produced, and not dismiss the existence or evolutionary value of these “reported subjective experiences”, simply because they are tightly bound to the thinker’s body.

So my answer to question #1 is a resounding yes – we can study reports of conscious experiences and further our understanding of the consciousness phenomenon, and not worry about the lack of an “absolutely foolproof test” for a conscious experience. Why? Because the subjective reports always correlate to physical processes (as displayed in FMRI scans), strongly suggesting that there are a vast number of component physical processes that go into producing these subjective reports that we call “thoughts”. The refined successor to FMRI technology in the distant future will surely reveal the exact physical processes required to generate conscious experience. There is nothing preventing us from making a device that can map the entire informational exchange in the brain in principle, covering the full gamut of energy expenditure, electrical exchanges, chemical modulations or even currently unknown quantum effects. We may be able to gradually piece together the hardware and functional processes required to generate the “self perspective” and its experiences for a physical system.

Questions 2, 3 and 4 are closely connected, in the sense that one could hypothesize an answer for question 4 and “work one’s way backwards” to answer questions 2 and 3. The benefit of a “self model” in a survival machine is the first inkling of an answer to the question “why is consciousness useful?” in a Darwinian sense. Thomas Metzinger, who has built upon the research and ideas of many others (such as Damasio and Ramachandran), is the most elegant exponent of the evolutionary benefits of what philosophers call a “phenomenal self model”. Our nervous system has evolved a “self model program” running on a machine (the brain) that “tunnels through” a larger external reality by making representations of it. These “programmatic” representations are our reality, but compared with the external unknown, are really a “virtual reality” built up by the evolved brain. The larger external reality remains unknown to us, except for that which is represented, which Metzinger calls the Ego Tunnel. He hints that the governing force behind what portions of the external world is represented and how, to be natural selection.

Our own thinking is along similar lines. The feeling body is a “virtual machine”, which functions on top of a more fundamental structure called a body image (has noting whatsoever to do with the regular English meaning of the word that was coined by psychologists). This body image is an empirically testable and proven construct in our minds, as is exemplified through experiments such as the “rubber hand illusion” experiment or the “whole body illusion” experiment. We have in our brains a “map” of our entire body (i.e. our body image), be it a physical construct (akin to hardware in a computer) or a functional process (akin to a software program). We are not entirely sure which at this stage, but it’s likely to be a combination of both and created in collection of neural networks. All of our bodily sensations are produced on top of this body image, and we don’t actually need to physically stimulate a body part to gain a sensation in it. We can “fool” the body image into recognizing stimulation to a given body part by an alternate sensory channel such as sight or even mere imagination. In fact, sight itself could be fooled by our own memories, and this may be what happens when we “imagine visuals” such as an attractive member of the opposite gender, or when we dream. Dreaming could be cause by random memories spuriously interacting with our body image.

Now we come to the crux of the problem of consciousness, at least from a conceptual viewpoint. Clearly, just because a survival machine has a map of its inherited body doesn’t mean it can “feel” with this body image. This is where two other conceptual components come into play. One is the Self. This “self-program” (it is most unlikely to be mere hardware, and very likely to be the outcome of a dynamic process) operates on top of the body map. To summarize its functionality, it creates a unified viewpoint for all representations on the body map, and all reflex actions that happen as a result of these representations. Some philosophers believe that this self-program, once it evolves to a level of sophistication where both the mapping mechanism and the viewpoint generation process becomes “transparent” to the created viewpoint itself, then the “feeling” of direct contact with the representations on the map just occurs. The viewpoint, the self, becomes conscious and we start experiencing the world as represented on the body map.

I personally believe that while transparency narrows down the “hard problem” of consciousness, it is insufficient to merely have a unified and “transparent” functional viewpoint from which representations and reflexes occur, in order to explain away the hard problem of perception itself. One just can’t assume that the “functionality” for transparently responding to representations on a body image from a singular viewpoint (which is in other words a sort of sophisticated intentional stance), to be the same as experiencing those representations. So I introduce a second concept, what I’d call the “Feeler”.

The feeler is another neural process that has evolved, that gives rise to what Damasio calls “primordial feelings”. This Feeler process also functions on top of our body image.  To give an example of how these three processes work together, let us consider the thought that occurs when one has bitten into a sweetmeat. “There is a sugary taste on my tongue, that I am feeling, and I like it so I’ll eat it”. This caricature of a thought embodies our basic mentality:

  1. Location in relation to one’s body (provided by the body image) – “on my tongue”
  2. The intentional stance (provided by the self process) – “I’ll eat it”
  3. The feeling (provided by the feeler process) – “sugar, like it, good for me etc”

Thus the actual “feeling” is really a sort of somatic marker; a flag from our evolutionary past that this particular stuff (sugar) is good for our survival. The marker also helps us associate this event (sugar in mouth) with many other memories from our present lifetime. The feeler circuitry for producing a “sugar taste” might be an evolved, ancient bit of circuitry, and lies at the heart of all subjectivity. My personal view is that this is again a physical subsystem that has co-evolved with the basic motor-neural reflex and memory. However I would place its origins in evolution at a much earlier time than that of the emergence of self-models. We have no proof of this notion that an event of survival significance is expressed as a feeling, and that the necessary mechanisms for generating such feelings are evolved. Our path is made difficult by the fact that, if this hypothesis were true, atomic “feeler circuits” would be present in organisms that most certainly don’t have a Self and wouldn’t communicate even at a rudimentary level. We’d always be inclined to believe that only great apes can “feel” because they are the only creatures that can display some level of sophistication in communicating their feelings. The only exception to this is the feeling of pain, which many lower organisms communicate in the exact same fashion as apes do.

Enough dwelling upon questions 2, 3 and 4 – I am leaning toward positive answers to them all. There still remains question 5 – the business of the absence of free will. Again this question is sort of answered if we are to accept that feelings are the medium through which inherited memory is represented – for example the taste of sugar or the color blue (wavelength differentiation) or the feeling of length or space or the intensity of light are all the basic language of inherited information. If such a “feeling producer” exists in our nervous systems, it’s almost certainly a physical mechanism (or process facilitated by a physical system), is likely to be ancient and evolved from rudimentary form.

Let us go back to the title and primary message of this essay, “why think about thought?” Based on the above discussion, we can clearly see that emulating the conceptual architecture of an evolved, thinking organism has vast potential in robotics and artificial intelligence. Machines with even a rudimentary implementation of a Self, a Body Image and the ability to adjust to physical damage caused by the environment would have immense utility. If one were averse to making Cyborgs (I don’t see why), one could still engineer something like an “artificial farmer” – a machine that picks up seeds, plants them, tends to them regularly by grabbing water, fertilizer and pesticides from its “environment” (let us assume the device would have access to these basic necessities), “looks after itself” by avoiding physical damage, adjusts to minor physical damage and repairs itself from a supply of raw materials. If one were to dismiss this example as outlandish, perhaps one could conceive of a much more sanguine use of the self-model architecture of our minds. One could revolutionize the way software programs are devised. Software could benefit from both the concepts of evolution and the architecture of a self. Software could have a purpose and act like minds. For example, one could devise an intelligent antivirus app that has a purpose on the Internet to seek and destroy all harmful computer viruses that resides on machines.

There are other advantages of knowing how our minds work, like for example the obvious repercussions to our legal system. We already know from mind science that the concept of “punishment” is vacuous. Perhaps in the future we would know how to reprogram “errant minds” or “depressed minds” to function “better”, as judged by both the owners of these minds themselves and society at large. Our current drugs that impact our thinking are largely empirical in derivation and lack input from a deep study of mind concepts. This situation could change as we devise a clear conceptual model of our minds. Out of Body Experiences could be made mainstay through a bridging of our body image in the brain with external informational input. We would benefit from the ultimate virtual reality TV that would “transport us” to other locations, where our bodily sensations would be communicated directly to our body image.

I will conclude by posing a question; is enough money spent on mind science research, and the public awareness of its engineering potential? Most recently, CERN announced the discovery of a particle that might be the Higgs Boson, an essential missing piece of our “standard model” in particle physics. This discovery was plainly a result of the immense pressure CERN was under, after the multi-billion dollar expenditure on the Large Hadron Collider. Whilst the discovery of the Higgs Boson might resonate wonderfully in the ego tunnels of a few hundred particle physicists, I wonder what the funding it took to achieve this result would have done, if it were spent on researching our minds.

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2 Responses to Why think about thought?

  1. pauladkin says:

    You should read Julian Jaynes’ “the Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”

  2. Pingback: MOVEMENT IS MEMORY / Classic / Dr. Pinna

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