Saturday, September 02, 2006

Why the mind is life's greatest mystery

Why the mind is life's greatest mystery, The Independent, 7 June 2006 ... Another older item from my backlog. I am posting more of it because it is no longer webbed.

[Graphic: Logo of Toward a Science of Consciousness 2007 Conference, Budapest, Hungary, July 23-26, 2007]

Why do we dream? Do we all see a blue sky, or is your blue someone else's orange? Despite extensive research, we can't understand consciousness. Here expert Susan Blackmore explains why what goes on in our heads is a continuing puzzle ... Consciousness is said to be "one of the last great mysteries for science". It is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most difficult to explain. Oddly enough the great successes of modern neuroscience only seem to make consciousness harder to understand. ... This "what it's like for me", is what philosophers call "qualia"; the intrinsic properties of the experiences themselves. So the mystery is this - how can a few pounds of living neurons inside a skull create qualia? No one knows. ... Perhaps the key thinker in this debate is the young Australian philosopher David Chalmers. ... He said that scientists researching vision, memory, thinking or emotions were just tackling "easy problems". Even if they solved all those there would still be something else left to explain - consciousness itself - and this he called the "hard problem". ... Scientists and philosophers are falling over themselves to become the one who solves the hard problem. The trouble is, no one knows how to set about solving it. At one extreme are those who think a revolution in physics is the answer. The Tucson anaesthetist Stuart Hameroff is one such theorist. "Every day," he told me, "I put patients to sleep and wake them up and it's still incredible. You wonder - where do they go?" He has teamed up with the British mathematician, Sir Roger Penrose, to argue that the brain is a quantum computer and the conscious self depends on quantum effects in the microtubules - tiny tubular structures inside every cell of the body. ... Far more common are the neuroscientists who think that if we just get on with the "easy problems" we will eventually solve the hard one. Pre-eminent among these is the late Francis Crick, who won the 1962 Nobel prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Aged 60 and after nearly half a century of work in biology, he changed tack totally - turning his attention from the mystery of heredity to that of consciousness. ... Crick had no time for the speculations of psychologists or philosophers ... He was convinced that what we need to do is put the hard problem aside and get on with studying the neural correlates of consciousness; that is, measure what is going on inside the brain when a person has a conscious experience.... He likens the hard problem to an ancient conundrum - the nature of life itself. Back in the 19th century, biologists were convinced that they would find a special "life force" that breathed life into plants and animals and departed at their death. Of course, no such force was ever found, Crick himself contributing to its demise. The answer turned out to be that when you understand how living things work, you realise they don't need any special force at all. Could the same be true for consciousness? Pat and Paul Churchland certainly think so, and the pair, who are both professors of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, take a strong line on Chalmers and his hard problem. "I don't see how you can tell, by looking at a problem, how difficult it is," says Pat. "There are many examples where people thought a problem was unsolvable, and turned out to be wrong." For the Churchlands, there is no "mystery of consciousness". For them, when we grasp how the brain's visual system processes colour information, the problem of qualia will be solved. The most extreme view, however, is posited by Tufts University professor, Daniel Dennett.In his book Consciousness Explained, he denies the existence of qualia and says that there is no such thing as "consciousness itself". Dennett believes that if we start from our intuitions about consciousness then we are doomed to failure. For example, he argues, some people may feel as though they have a little conscious self somewhere inside their head, which is the subject of the stream of experiences. He believes that the brain possesses no central controller; no inner screen where the images could appear; and no one inside to experience them. There is no magic process that somehow turns ordinary nerve activity into conscious experiences. We must, he told me, throw out all of these perfectly natural, but misguided ways of thinking about consciousness. But how? Turning your intuitions inside out is terribly hard, but if Dennett is right then most of the others I spoke to are completely wrong. Quantum physics will not help one jot, and no one will ever find Crick's "consciousness neurons". I would love to pop into the Tardis, jump forward a few years, and see who turns out to be right. For now at least, consciousness looks set to remain one of our greatest mysteries. Materialists like Crick (and indeed as they all are) have not noticed that a "vital force" would be perfectly compatible with materialism (i.e. matter is all there is). But what Crick himself found in DNA, but never seems to have realised it, is information which: 1) is not reducible to matter (and therefore that alone renders materialism false); and 2) ultimately requires an intelligent source to generate it.

Then there is this "hard problem" of consciousness which materialism has not yet (and I predict never will) explain, despite the misleading title of Dennett's book, which should have been, "Consciousness Explained Away"!

Here are some quotes on the "hard problem" of consciousness that I have never posted before:

"The Hard Problem Researchers use the word `consciousness' in many different ways. To clarify the issues, we first have to separate the problems that are often clustered together under the name. For this purpose, I find it useful to distinguish between the `easy problems' and the `hard problem' of consciousness. The easy problems are by no means trivial-they are actually as challenging as most in psychology and biology-but it is with the hard problem that the central mystery lies. The easy problems of consciousness include the following: How can a human subject discriminate sensory stimuli and react to them appropriately? How does the brain integrate information from many different sources and use this information to control behavior? How is it that subjects can verbalize their internal states? Although all these questions are associated with consciousness, they all concern the objective mechanisms of the cognitive system. Consequently, we have every reason to expect that continued work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience will answer them. The hard problem, in contrast, is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. This puzzle involves the inner aspect of thought and perception: the way things feel for the subject. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations, such as that of vivid blue. Or think of the ineffable sound of a distant oboe, the agony of an intense pain, the sparkle of happiness or the meditative quality of a moment lost in thought. All are part of what I am calling consciousness. It is these phenomena that pose the real mystery of the mind. ... Given the flurry of recent work on consciousness in neuroscience and psychology, one might think this mystery is starting to be cleared up. On closer examination, however, it turns out that almost all the current work addresses only the easy problems of consciousness. The confidence of the reductionist view comes from the progress on the easy problems, but none of this makes any difference where the hard problem is concerned. ... The hard problem of consciousness, in contrast, goes beyond problems about how functions are performed. Even if every behavioral and cognitive function related to consciousness were explained, there would still remain a further mystery: Why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience? It is this additional conundrum that makes the hard problem hard." (Chalmers, D.J., "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience," Scientific American, Vol. 273, No. 6, December 1995, pp.62-64)

"Is consciousness the hardest of hard problems? Is it all down to bits of wiring in the brain or quantum mechanics? ... Whoever is right, one thing is certain-consciousness remains the first and last of the great human mysteries. So what kind of problem is it? The philosophers of the hard school think that consciousness is in a league of its own. Consciousness, they argue, has absolutely unique properties: it is private, subjective, peculiar to the individual, and cannot be directly observed by a third person. As David Chalmers of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the hardest of the hard school of philosophers, summed it up after the last Tucson conference: "When we see, we experience visual sensations-the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities-the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs...Then there are bodily sensations from pains to orgasms-mental images that are conjured up internally, the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is to be to be in them. All of them are states of experience." The hard school believes that understanding how the brain works does not automatically mean we will understand consciousness. They accept that we will be able, for example, to trace the visual processes that help us to discriminate colour, starting with cells in the retina that respond to different wavelengths of light. But really explaining consciousness, explaining why these neural processes should be accompanied by a feeling of "what it is like to be me", is a completely different kind of problem, says Chalmers. Indeed, he has suggested that consciousness might turn out to be an irreducible property, in the same category as time and space, and understanding it may force us to rewrite everything we know abut the Universe." ("Zombies, dolphins and blindsight," New Scientist, Vol 150, 4 May 1996, p.20)

"WHAT science is good at is easy questions, says philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers. Consciousness, however, raises a hard question. Science explains how physical systems behave in certain ways, or carry out certain functions. What science is not (currently) good at, according to Chalmers, is explaining subjective feels and experiences: the redness of an apple, the stinging sensation of a pain, or (as Chalmers puts it) the `ineffable sound of the distant oboe'. So questions about consciousness fall into two categories, according to Chalmers. There are (relatively) easy, function-related questions such as `How can a physical device discriminate Marmite from marmalade?', or even `How can such a device access Marmite- related memories when it spots a jar?' And then there are hard questions, relating not to function but to feel: questions such as `Why does the experience of tasting Marmite feel like anything at all?' and `Why does it feel like this rather than like something else?' Of such stuff is the so-called `hard problem' of consciousness made. The answers to these questions, Chalmers believes, must lie beyond the reach of standard, function- oriented scientific explanation. Chalmers's distinction, and his bold assertion that a resolution of the hard problem may require a radical revision in our notions of the physical world, set the agenda for this fine volume of papers culled from the pages of the highly successful Journal of Consciousness Studies." (Clark, A., "So how does it feel?" Review of "Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem," J. Shear, ed., MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 1997. New Scientist, Vol. 155, 23 August 1997, p.40)

"Both quantum-consciousness theories and neural ones were rejected in Tucson by David Chalmers, a young Australian philosopher and mathematician. In his lecture, Chalmers declared that physical theories can account only for the various functions of the brain, such as perception, memory, and decision-making. But no physical theory can explain why these cognitive functions are accompanied by conscious sensations, which some philosophers call qualia. Chalmers called consciousness `the hard problem.'' (Horgan, J., "The Undiscovered Mind: How the Brain Defies Explanation," [1999], Phoenix: London, 2000, reprint, p.242)

"`Almost everyone agrees that there will be very strong correlations between what's in the brain and consciousness,' says David Chalmers, a philosophy professor and Director of the Center for Consciousness at the Australian National University. `The question is what kind of explanation that will give you. We want more than correlation, we want explanation -- how and why do brain process give rise to consciousness? That's the big mystery.' ... Chalmers is best known for distinguishing between the 'easy' problems of consciousness and the 'hard' problem. The easy problems are those that deal with functions and behaviors associated with consciousness and include questions such as these: How does perception occur? How does the brain bind different kinds of sensory information together to produce the illusion of a seamless experience? `Those are what I call the easy problems, not because they're trivial, but because they fall within the standard methods of the cognitive sciences,' Chalmers says. The hard problem for Chalmers is that of subjective experience. `You have a different kind of experience -- a different quality of experience -- when you see red, when you see green, when you hear middle C, when you taste chocolate ...Whenever you're conscious, whenever you have a subjective experience, it feels like something.' According to Chalmers, the subjective nature of consciousness prevents it from being explained in terms of simpler components, a method used to great success in other areas of science. He believes that unlike most of the physical world, which can be broken down into individual atoms, or organisms, which can be understood in terms of cells, consciousness is an irreducible aspect of the universe, like space and time and mass. `Those things in a way didn't need to evolve,' said Chalmers. `They were part of the fundamental furniture of the world all along.' Instead of trying to reduce consciousness to something else, Chalmers believes consciousness should simply be taken for granted, the way that space and time and mass are in physics. According to this view, a theory of consciousness would not explain what consciousness is or how it arose; instead, it would try to explain the relationship between consciousness and everything else in the world.'" (Than, K., "Why Great Minds Can't Grasp Consciousness," Livescience, 8 August 2005)

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
Genesis 1:4: God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness.