A nice article reviewing why the consciousness debate is as yet unresolved, and likely to remain so.
There is a rather delightful aphorism from the yogic traditions, which will paraphrase, and perhaps mangle a bit:
I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
This pearl of exceptional wisdom should probably be on a plaque on the wall of every therapist and psychiatrist in the world. For this is, in essence, the purpose of many forms of psychotherapy. In cognitive models one learns to identify negative thoughts as not intrinsic to the person. In psychodynamic models, one learns that we are distinct from the patterns we unconsciously repeat in life. In family therapy on learns that one is affected by and affects the family system but is not identical to it. This is the essence of developing an observing ego.
Although epiphenomenalism may be assumed true by both doctors and patients alike, since it seems to match data related to impaired neurological function, some of the research in neuroplasticity refutes the entire concept of epiphenomenalism. Early research demonstrated that when people learn new skills, such as typing or piano, that areas of the motor cortex of the brain actually increase in size to match. Later research demonstrated new brain connections, after some forms of brain injury, sometimes form to areas of the brain which would otherwise have processed information from different areas of function. This process actually restores the lost functioning, even with different areas of the brain processing the information.
Although these studies were fascinating as they showed the neuronal connections and biological functioning of the brain changed as a result of essentially newly learned tasks, some researchers minimized the results with arguments that this was largely a unique ability for repair following injury. One of the more recent studies was a true paradigm changer. In this research, Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in functional brain imaging studies while practicing a compassion based meditation technique. The finding was astounding: monks showed a novel Gamma brainwave pattern in the frontal lobe, which correlated with the subjective sense of blissfulness. This brainwave pattern had never been seen in any non-pathological state before, and its presence and strength was only related to the number of hours of meditative practice. No other demographic factors correlated with the finding, which suggested a clear circumstance in which willed meditative practice altered brain function over extended practice.
Since epiphenomenalism requires that mental process is only an accidental byproduct of neuronal firing, there is no conceivable way that mental process could actually effect the biological structure. This latest research proves just the opposite: that mental process changes the biology of the brain. Clearly then, any form of biological monism cannot account for this research finding. A different model is needed which accounts for the research data.
Interviews with William Tiller Ph.D. describing the role of intention and consciousness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An interesting blog entry on the work of theoretical physicist Max Tegmark at M.I.T.