Monism

The more popular perspective amongst neuroscientists today is a physical monism which assumes that the entirety of conscious experience arises from the complexity of neuronal structure and connections.  This provides a very simple solution to the challenge of dualism, but at a rather high price.  The issue Chalmers raised regarding qualia became a central weakness of physical monist views.  In addition, it is only an assumption that the complexity of the neural net creates some new emergent property called consciousness, an entirely untestable assumption.

Various versions of physical monism have been posited including analytic behaviorism, interactionism, and purely neurological models.  Each of them basically requires the emergence of consciousness from a mass of non-conscious building blocks in a manner almost as mysterious as the elusive connection between mind and brain that is the weakness of dualistic theory.  This curious leap of organization is typically referred to epiphenomenalism [consciousness arising as an incidental output of a complex neural net], which will be the topic of multiple future posts.

Bishop Berkeley, in a reaction to his disdain for a materialistic version of monism described a mental form of monism which suggested that only thought was real, and the physical was an illusion.  This philosophy, called idealism, was never considered seriously by the scientific community, but it does raise significant questions.  In a truly monistic perspective, as physical and mental must at some level be identical, it would be actually quite difficult to fully discount the idealistic version of monism over the physical version.

 

Softer Dualism

David Chalmers provides an alternative to the more radical dualism of Descartes. He is known for the clear explication of the “hard problem” of consciousness, that being examining the question of why physical substrates [such as a brain] would give rise to subjective conscious experience [mind]. He suggests that the physical is necessary for conscious experience, but that the presence of consciousness is an emergent property that is of a higher level than the physical and, additionally, at least to some degree independent of it.

The famous thought experiment he devised to argue this perspective was that of a particular type of Zombie. These special Zombie creatures are exactly like you or I, and their behavior would be indistinguishable from ours. However, these Zombies lack one quality which we each possess: they lack all ability to actually experience anything, [which is termed qualia, the qualitative aspect of interacting with the world]. The Zombie acts just as a person would, but has no internal experience of pain, joy, love, beauty, or anything else.

Could such a Zombie exist, even in theory? Why or why not? If you think so, then you find some dualist perspectives persuasive. If not, you are clearly in the physicalist monist camp. If you’re in this latter category, then an additional question to ponder is:  if a Zombie has no experience of qualia what leads it to act?

An interesting consequence of Chalmer’s theory is that any system which reaches adequate levels of complexity would cause an emergent quality of consciousness: including thermostats, computer programs, nations, etc. His theory is also consistent with a pan-psychic philosophy, although that is not the direction he argues to consider questions of consciousness. Pan-psychism will, interestingly, be quite compatible with several other theories to be discussed.

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Psychiatry and Consciousness

One of the most amazing questions I’ve found is the mystery of consciousness. The quest to explore it drove me towards the study of psychology as an undergraduate, and towards psychiatry after medical training. Psychiatry, at least historically, had a depth and breadth that seemed to allow real exploration of questions of consciousness. After nearly two decades in the field, and experience in academic and clinical psychiatry, it is truly peculiar to observe the minimal interest of my field in even asking the relatively hard questions. Many colleagues comfortably assume that all the questions of relevance have already been answered in the form of biology.

Until quite recently, consciousness was considered a taboo subject for research or consideration in mainstream academia. Not only ignored or defined into non-existence, the topic was considered quite dead until several authors began raising the timeless questions with new and serious discussion: authors such as David Chalmers, Roger Penrose, and Daniel Denett. The first two of whom used Godel’s Theorem as the starting point of their discussion on mind, brain, and consciousness. The discussion of the forbidden “C” word re-entered both public and academic life for the first time in decades.

David Chalmers has been credited with formulating the “hard question,” which is essentially the question of why is there mental experience at all. Or, how does the physical presence of a brain actually lead to subjective awareness, which he terms “qualia.”

Much more on Godel, Chalmers, Penrose and others later, but this essential question that Chalmers so perfectly framed remains the focus. Why indeed would a complicated physical system, such as a brain, necessarily result in subjective experience for you or for me? Answers to this question range from monistic versions of reality to dualism of various sorts. We’ll start this exploration looking at those two general models and later consider the limitations implied by Godel.

How to: Threefold Breath Meditation

The threefold breath meditation adds a phase in that the peak of inhalation is held for a bit. Typically the pattern is to hold your breath four times longer than the inhalation, and to exhale for a time period double that of the inhalation. As an example, breath in to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 16, and exhale to the count of 8. If this is too difficult, then reduce the count of the inhalation, and then keep the ratios the same. Other examples could be 3:12:6, or later in the practice 5:20:10. Take it easy during practice: try to get full inhalation and full exhalation, but don’t strain, and don’t exhaust your muscles. It may take time to build this practice comfortably, and will certainly take weeks of practice to see results. You will likely feel warmer while doing this practice. Observe your experience during each phase, and monitor your impressions. Using a metronome may help the cycle be more regular.

How to: Fourfold Breath Meditation

This is a form of simple breath meditation. You will choose a count which you will use for each of the four phases of a breath. So, for example, during a full inhalation, count to four. Then hold the breath for a count of four. Next exhale gently but fully to a count of 4. Hold the lungs empty for a count of four. Then repeat the cycle for between ten and fifteen minutes.

If a count of four is too rapid to allow for full inhalation and exhalation with full diaphragmatic breathing, then extend the count to six or to eight. Keep the count for each of the breath phases the same.

This is not a marathon, so keep the counts low enough to be comfortable and peaceful throughout the cycle. No need to strain. You may find that you can extend the count comfortably after a few weeks of practice if you wish.

After daily practice for a few weeks, how does this compare to the the Simple Breath Meditation described earlier? Any interesting experiences arise? If so, what phase of the cycle were they most commonly found?

Epiphenomenalism

The version of mind brain interaction most popular in neuroscience these days is a version of physical monism called epiphenomenalism. Some form of epiphenomenalism is essentially required from a physical monist perspective to account for anything resembling mind or qualia. This perspective describes an emergence of consciousness or mind from the biological complexity of the brain. Hoffstadter and others assume this perspective, and argue that new phenomenon arise from complexity in many physical systems. Examples often given include the complexity of fluid motion not being clearly predictable from the observation of a single water molecule. Other philosophers find the concept so revolting that they don’t even dignify it as a legitimate perspective at all.

Arguments from complexity do create interesting an interesting delima, however. If the number of molecules in the Empire State Building meet a critical number, could they interact in a manner analogous to consciousness? If the number of Chinese in China reach a critical mass, does the country itself gain the quality of consciousness? David Chalmers and others argue that, in fact, China would become a conscious being at the level of a nation due only to complexity itself. Each person would have at least the interactivity of a neuron, and if enough interacted that would mirror neural nets, and if the total reached a critical mass then “consciousness” would arise. Although the experts who defend the complexity argument are forced to this position in order to maintain a coherent perspective, it is an increasingly difficult position to reasonably defend, in my opinion. What might be defined as the consciousness of a country or other large aggregate of interacting materials seems woefully different than what each of us experience as consciousness on a day to day basis, largely based upon the difficulty of defining who or what might actually experience that form of consciousness.

A key foundation of the principle of epiphenomenalism is the assumption that consciousness is an unintended byproduct of neuronal complexity. The corollary of this assumption is that consciousness, or perhaps mind, flows from the biology of the system, and could not even in theory control or alter the biological system itself, given that it is an unintended byproduct. Recent studies employing brain scanning technology bring this a priori assumption into serious question.

Mind Stuff, Brain Stuff, or What?

Western thought has wrestled with the concept of whether such things as brains and minds are one in the same, some version of monism, or whether they are distinct and separate, some version of dualism.

Rene Descartes, a prominent French philosopher, was an intellectual giant in his day. He created the “cartesian plane” which bears his name, which you may recall from high school algebra. He started a philosophical enquiry into the nature of reality by starting from a position of extreme skepticism, eliminating all dogma and based upon belief with only that which was self evident. He arrived at the famous phrase, often quoted, of “I think, therefore I am.” A brief series of other “self-evident” statements led to his suggesting a strong form of dualism, suggesting that physical reality and mental [spiritual] reality were entirely separate realities. The social ramifications of this conclusion freed science from the chains of church mediated versions of pseudo-science. Freeing scientific inquiry from religious dogma led to the technological and scientific revolutions, the fruits of which we enjoy today. From a practical standpoint, this dualistic philosophy of Descartes allowed science control over the study of the measurable and physical, but left religious authorities in control of matters related to the spirit.

Intuitively, dualism, at least in the West, feels so natural and experientially real: we experience sensations, emotions, and ideas, we don’t experience brain waves or brain chemicals in a direct way. It is so intuitively appealing, that although this strict form of dualism has substantial problems, it is often the manner in which we live.

Yet, the dualism of Descartes left one giant question: how does an immaterial mind affect the physical brain [and the reverse]? That difficult, if not impossible question, led many more recent theorists to propose some version of monism: mind and brain as identical. Various models of biological monism remain in vogue with neuroscientists. The most radical version of this espoused by Daniel Dennett even suggests that subjective experience does not even exist, and likens it to an illusion of subjective experience. That seems a rather high price to pay for an answer to dualism’s problems.

Mental monism was suggested by Bishop Berkeley, and known as Idealism. Mental monism declares the entire physical world a complete illusion with the only truly real being the thought or idea. Berkeley suggested this theory in response to what he perceived as the inappropriate emphasis on physical reductionism.

There is [rather amazingly] no experiment which could be performed, even in theory, that can actually refute the claims of any of these three perspectives: neuroscience tends to make the assumption of biological reductionism, but that a priori assumption does not prove truth. An open mind, therefore, is a prerequisite to exploring the more insightful questions.

Eastern philosophy largely escapes the questions of dualism versus monism, in that it assumes that the level of physical reality is distorted by the Veil of Maya. In that model, everything is the result of a monism of consciousness being interpreted as a dualistic universe by instruments as primitive as the five senses, the brain and general awareness. Such a solution is inherent in interpretations of the Qabalah as well, with monism implied the highest levels, but dualism required in lower physical realms.

 

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