Examining human consciousness
Cogito, ergo sum.
I think, therefore I am.
- René Descartes (1596-1650), French philosopher
“We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.”
- Brian Cox (1968-), Physicist
Image source: Disney
I’m sure I’m not alone when I admit that when I was a small child, the story of Pinocchio, the marionette carved from a talking piece of wood, intrigued me. It wasn’t just Pinocchio’s wonderful adventures and his lie-sensitive nose that fascinated, but the ideas behind his sometimes desperate journey to become a real boy.
It made me wonder, even then, what does it mean to be a person? If Pinocchio looks and talks and walks and dresses and behaves like a real boy, why isn’t he therefore real? Ultimately, for Pinocchio to become real, he must, as the Blue Fairy says, prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish.”
In Pinocchio, it’s the development of a personal conscience, replacing the nagging Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, that makes Pinocchio fully human. That conscience proved that Pinocchio had consciousness—emanating from what we more simply call a mind, and what the religious among us still call a soul.
The rest of us, who start out as ‘real’ boys and girls, don’t have to earn or prove our consciousness. But do we really know how sentience manifests? Are we, in stark contrast to the lesson that a tale like Pinocchio offers, merely the sum of our parts? Or is the shape and substance of each individual mind, our conscious subjective being, something less tangible, and something that’s entirely separate from the nuts and bolts mechanics of our physical being?
The question of how our psychological experience, our thoughts, or consciousness, relates to our physical brain, is better known as the mind-body problem. If you aren’t sure what the solution to this deep-seated philosophical problem is (that is, how the brain produces thoughts), don’t worry. It’s a question that has plagued philosophers and theologians from antiquity. While this ancient and so far unanswerable question has had more than its share of theories, positions on this complex relationship are often viewed from two opposing camps: the materialist and the dualist.
Materialists contend that our mental states are just the manifestation of tangible physical processes. In this argument, everything that goes on in your mind is ultimately physically explicable, and thus, at least theoretically, replicable. Our consciousness is merely a by-product or a function of physical processes—a result of nothing more than electronic impulses and hormonal secretions. Neurons fire in your brain, and your thoughts correspond to the firing neurons.
Those who believe in mind-body dualism, however, see the mind as being somehow separate to the body—an entity in itself. Your mind is somehow beyond, and not limited by, your physical self.
A quick answer from you, now—and no fence-sitting. Which option do you think is most compelling?
The best known version of mind-body dualism was first conceived by French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy, in 1641. Descartes viewed the human mind as existing entirely separately from the body, and he thus saw human existence as occurring in two realities. Descartes suggested that the causal link between mind and matter existed through some lever in the body, which he thought might be the pineal gland, located at the center of the brain.
While Descartes’ idea of mind-body dualism heralded the beginning of the Enlightenment, it in no way disrupted the long held theological belief in the soul as separate to the body. In this conception no anatomical location is necessary, the lever is metaphysical, worked by God.
Leave religion out of this for a bit. In a Cartesian conception, mind and matter are regarded as distinct entities. To make an analogy that’s very rough and ready, but it’ll make do: a car is made up of many individual components, nuts and bolts, plastic, glass and metal, but it is also a car, which is more than the sum of the parts, and different from them.
Similarly, the mind is not simply the properties of lots of thoughts, but is also the complex substance which has those thoughts, and to which those thoughts belong—the thing itself. And like the car, it’s separate to the physical substances from which it emanates—and, taken as a whole, greater than the parts. Cartesian dualism therefore sees the world as having two realities.
There are two other closely connected forms of dualism. There’s property dualism, which regards mind and matter as fundamentally distinct. And predicate dualism, which argues that while only the physical world exists, language is unable to adequately describe psychological phenomena.
These variations are interesting, but we don’t really need to go there and I don’t want to thicken the plot—it’s complex enough already. Quickly now: do you resonate with Descartes, or are you locked into materialism? Put another way, would you prefer to think that brain waves and thoughts are merely the same thing in a different guise? If so, you are a materialist.
These days, when it comes to the mind-body problem, materialist ideas have more or less won the argument. The site of our consciousness has been physically located and it’s no longer possible to argue against the point that the physical entity of the human brain is inextricably connected to the workings of our mind and our consciousness. That damage to the brain, for instance, can drastically alter our mind—including aspects of personality—is not just a theory.
Our neurons fire, our brains whirr away in the background; maybe you can’t see these happening yourself, but neuroscientists can, with MRI technology. And as you think your thoughts, the relevant parts of your brain light up.
So it’s clear that thoughts reside in our brains—not our pineal glands, our hearts, or anywhere else. Some take the physical limits of consciousness even further. Extreme materialists, or reductionists, regard the human mind as being little more than a sophisticated computer program, and our perception of consciousness illusory. But maybe we don’t need to go this far…
But why not, you might ask? Well, perhaps you’ll find somewhat surprisingly, there remain some staunch defenders of mind-body dualism. The contemporary philosophical argument for mind-body dualism revolves around the idea of qualia. In philosophy qualia refers to individual bodily, sensory and perceptual experiences that cannot necessarily be shared or replicated, or even really explained materially, such as our perception of color, pain, taste—and of course, our thoughts. As qualia are by nature entirely subjective, and personal to you, and therefore impossible to convey or demonstrate in an argument, the philosophical proof of the existence of qualia has had to be made inferentially.
One of the best known is Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument.” In this thought experiment, Jackson posits the fictional example of Mary, a scientist, who knows everything there is to know, theoretically, about the facts of color. She understands about the properties, wavelengths and theories of color.
But Mary has been confined to a room that is only black and white, and therefore cannot be said to have actually experienced the phenomenon of color. On leaving the room, however, Mary is able to physically experience color, and though she already knows everything there is to know about the facts of color, her experience adds to her knowledge: for the first time she learns what it is like to see color—to apprehend it in her mind.
If we agree with Jackson that Mary does learn something new from this, something she could not have known before, we must agree that something ineffable and inexpressible but fully experiential, exists beyond the material facts of colour. “Ergo there is more to have than that, and physicalism is false,” Jackson concluded. That ‘more’ is qualia.
More recently, Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, argued his position on the mind-body problem. In a 2014 Ted Talk which you can go to [https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness?language=en]. Chalmers, who regards himself a materialist, points out that despite advances, neuroscience has failed to tackle the “hard problem” of consciousness—“the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe.”
For Chalmers, neuroscience has so far focused primarily on correlates— we can observe the effects of brain stimulation through MRIs, for instance—but has done nothing to explain the correlations. So we now know that seeing a familiar face correlates with a particular area of the brain, but we don’t know why. Chalmers argues that neuroscience is only answering some of our “easy problems,” such as which bit of the brain lights up, corresponding to specified thoughts.
Chalmers suggests that if we are unable to fully explain consciousness with the fundamental building blocks we have, we must consider whether it is itself a fundamental building block: “If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals—space, time, mass, charge—then as a matter of logic, you need to expand the list.” And if, as Chalmers suggests, consciousness is fundamental to the Universe, it’s no great leap to conclude that it may also be universal: that all matter—from animals through plant life to tardigrades to atoms—has some degree of consciousness, however rudimentary. It’s a strangely compelling argument, I have to say. Weirder and weirder, you might say, but this could be true.
And it gets more confronting than that, and more interesting. Chalmers points to a leading theory in the science of consciousness developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, who has developed a way of measuring, mathematically, levels of information integration in all living things, linked to levels of their consciousness—a measure Tononi refers to as phi. Those species with a higher level of information integration, like humans, have a high degree of phi, and a high level of consciousness; animals with a medium, but still substantial, degree of information integration, like mice, have a medium level of consciousness, and a medium level of phi. Microbes have a relatively low degree of information integration and a low degree of phi—and very little in the way of consciousness.
(I’d like to mention, here, my family dog, Oscar, who’s a delightful cavoodle; half King Charles cavalier, half poodle. He’s not the smartest dog on the block, and he doesn’t recognise himself in the mirror like some dogs seem to, but he sure knows who each of the others in the family are, and he acts like he’s a fully-fledged member. So he’s got a fair bit of phi consciousness without having a whole lot of dog-IQ.)
Significantly, however, according to this theory, even down to the least complex particle, phi never reaches zero. According to Chalmers, Tononi, with his theory of phi, may have provided one of the first universal laws of consciousness.
Tononi’s idea of phi opens up the question of consciousness in fascinating ways, perhaps encouraging scientists to consider consciousness as a part of the physical world in a way that isn’t too dissimilar to the way the metaphysical world is traditionally conceived in many cultures and religions. Or as Chalmers puts it, “On that view, consciousness doesn't dangle outside the physical world as some kind of extra. It's there right at its heart.”
Does this mean that consciousness is scattered throughout the Universe in the same way that matter is? I quite like this idea, but I don’t know if it’s true. And it still doesn’t provide any clear-cut answer to the mind-body question.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is a question we need to seriously address: the mind-body question is no longer one of those angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin type conundrums, but one we all have a stake in. As the development of super-smart Artificial Intelligence (AI) comes closer to becoming a technological reality, our need to understand the properties of consciousness is becoming urgent—and what we discover may have real world consequences. Is a machine with AI properly described as being conscious?
If consciousness is indeed the result of physical properties, when AI replicates all key aspects of human intelligence, will we have created sentience to match our own? Will robots of the future with their positronic brains, as postulated in science fiction, have consciousness indistinguishable from ours? And how exactly will we know for sure?
And, to return to the beginning, what is a human, with consciousness? In Carlo Collodi’s tale, Pinocchio was given the gift of consciousness as a reward for displaying the best human traits, but fiction and some AI theorists also remind us that consciousness isn’t necessarily benign. If our technological advances outstrip our understanding of consciousness, we may, like Dr Frankenstein, find ourselves confronted with a superior sentient being over whom we have no control.
Rampant AI, with consciousness, and smarter than us? It’s the stuff of much sci-fi of course, and led to the ideas in the rise of the machines in The Terminator. That would be a challenge for humanity like no other.
Chalmers, David (2014). How do you explain consciousness? TEDtalk. March 2014: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness?language=en
Collodi, Carlo (1883). The Adventures of Pinocchio (in Italian and English), Translated by Nicolas J Perella. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Descartes, René (1996 ). Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, Frank (1982). Epiphenomenal qualia. Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127–136.
Robinson, Howard (2012). Dualism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N Zalta (ed.). http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/dualism/
American Film Institute. (1984). The Terminator. Archived from the original. Retrieved May 21, 2021: https://web.archive.org/web/20201126132000/https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/57224
Tononi, Giulio (2012). Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. New York, NY: Random House.