Biocentrism – mystery of consciousness


To be conscious that we are perceiving . . . is to be
conscious of our own existence.
—Aristotle (384–322 bc)
Consciousness poses the deepest problem for science, even as it resides as one of the key tenets of biocentrism. There is nothing more intimate than conscious experience, but there
is nothing that is harder to explain. “All sorts of mental phenomena,” says consciousness researcher David Chalmers at the Australian National University, “have yielded to scientific investigation in
recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have
tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of
the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.”


Many books and articles about consciousness appear continually, some with bold titles such as the popular 1991 Consciousness
Explained, by Tufts researcher Daniel Dennett. Using what he calls the
“heterophenomenological” method, which treats reports of introspection not as evidence to be used in explaining consciousness, but as
data to be explained, he argues that “the mind is a bubbling congeries
of unsupervised parallel processing.” Unfortunately, while the brain
does indeed appear to work by processing even straightforward jobs
such as vision by employing simultaneous multiple pathways, Dennett seems to come to no useful conclusions about the nature of consciousness itself, despite the book’s ambitious title. Near the end of
his interminable volume, Dennett concedes almost as an afterthought
that conscious experience is a complete mystery. No wonder other
researchers have referred to the work as “Consciousness Ignored.”
Dennett joins a long parade of researchers who ignored all the
central mysteries of subjective experience and merely addressed the
most superficial or easiest-to-tackle aspects of consciousness, those
susceptible to the standard methods of cognitive science, which are
explainable or potentially explainable with neural mechanisms and
brain architecture.


Chalmers, one of the Dennett detractors, himself characterizes
the so-called easy problems of consciousness to include “those of
explaining the following phenomena:
• the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli
• the integration of information by a cognitive system
• the reportability of mental states
• the ability of a system to access its own internal states
• the focus of attention
• the deliberate control of behavior
• the difference between wakefulness and sleep”
In popular literature, some might superficially consider the
aforementioned items to represent the totality of the issue. But while all the above will perhaps eventually be solvable through neurobiology, none represent what biocentrism and many philosophers and neuro-researchers mean by consciousness.

Recognizing this, Chalmers notes the obvious: “The really hard
problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we
think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but
there is also a subjective aspect. This subjective aspect is experience.
When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations . . . .
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. It is undeniable
that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of
how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing . . . . It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical
basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.
Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It
seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.”
What makes a consciousness problem easy or hard is that the
former concern themselves solely with functionality, or the performance aspects, so that scientists need only discover which part of
the brain controls which, and they can go away rightfully saying
they have solved an area of cognitive function. In other words, the
issue is the relatively simple one of finding mechanisms. Conversely,
the deeper and infinitely more frustrating aspect of consciousness
or experience is hard, as Chalmers points out, “precisely because
it is not a problem about the performance of functions. The problem persists even when the performance of all the relevant functions
are explained.”

How neural information is discriminated, integrated,
and reported still doesn’t explain how it is experienced.
For any object—a machine or a computer—there is commonly
no other explanatory or operating principle but physics and the
chemistry of the atoms that compose it. We have already started
down the long road of building machines with advanced technology and computer memory systems, with electrical microcircuits
and solid-state devices that allow the performance of tasks with
increasing precision and flexibility. Perhaps one day we’ll even
develop machines that can eat, reproduce, and evolve. But until we
can understand the exact circuitry in the brain that establishes the
logic of spatial–temporal relationships, we can’t create a conscious
machine such as Data in Star Trek or David, the boy in A.I.
My interest in the importance of animal cognition—and how
we see the world—led me to Harvard University in the early 1980s
to work with psychologist B.F. (Fred) Skinner. The semester glided
away pleasantly enough, partly in exchanging opinions with Skinner and partly in experiments in the laboratory.

Skinner hadn’t
done any research in the laboratory in nearly two decades, when he
taught pigeons to dance with each other and even to play Ping-Pong.
Our experiments eventually succeeded, and a couple of our papers
appeared in Science. The newspapers and magazines made a happy
use of them with headlines such as “Pigeon Talk: A Triumph for Bird
Brains” (Time), “Ape-Talk: Two Ways to Skinner Bird” (Science News),
“Birds Talk to B.F. Skinner” (Smithsonian), and “Behavior Scientists
‘Talk’ With Pigeons” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune). They were fun experiments, Fred explained on the Today show. It was the best semester I
had in medical school.
It was also a very auspicious beginning. These experiments
correlated well with Skinner’s belief that the self is “a repertoire of
behavior appropriate to a given set of contingencies.” However, in
the years that have passed, I have come to believe that the questions
cannot all be solved by a science of behavior. What is consciousness?
Why does it exist? Leaving these unanswered is almost like building
and launching a rocket to nowhere—full of noise and real accomplishment, but exposing a vacuum right smack in its raison d’être.

There is a kind of blasphemy asking these questions, a kind of personal betrayal to the memory of that gentle yet proud old man who
took me into his confidence so many years ago. Yet the issues hang in
the air, as tangible, if nonverbal, as the dragonfly, or the glowworm,
there along the causeway, emitting its greenish light. Or maybe it
was the futile attempts of neuroscience to explain consciousness
using phenomena such as explicit neuronal representation.

The implication of those early experiments was, of course,
that the problem of consciousness might someday be solved once
we understand all the synaptic connections in the brain. Yet pessimism always lurked, unspoken. “The tools of neuroscience,” writes
Chalmers, “cannot provide a full account of conscious experience,
although they have much to offer. [Perhaps] consciousness might
be explained by a new kind of theory.” Indeed, in a 1983 National
Academy Report, the Research Briefing Panel on Cognitive Science
and Artificial Intelligence stated that the questions with which it
concerned itself “reflect a single underlying great scientific mystery,
on par with understanding the evolution of the universe, the origin
of life, or the nature of elementary particles . . .”
The mystery is plain. The neuroscientists have developed theories that might help to explain how separate pieces of information
are integrated in the brain, and thus apparently succeed in elucidating how different attributes of a single perceived object—such as
the shape, color and smell of a flower—are merged into a coherent whole. For example, some scientists, like Stuart Hameroff, argue
that this process occurs so bedrock-deeply that it involves a quantum physical mechanism. Other scientists, like Crick and Koch,
believe that the process occurs through the synchronization of cells
in the brain. That there is major disagreement about something
so basic is sufficient testament to the Niagara of the task that lies
ahead, if even we are destined to succeed at grasping the mechanics
of consciousness.

As theories, the work of the past quarter-century reflects some
of the important progress that is occurring in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. The bad news is that they are solely theories
of structure and function. They tell us nothing about how the performance of these functions is accompanied by a conscious experience. And yet the difficulty in understanding consciousness lies
precisely here, in this gap, in understanding how a subjective experience emerges from a physical process at all. Even the Nobel Laureate physicist Steven Weinberg concedes that there is a problem with
consciousness, and that although it may have a neural correlate, its existence does not seem to be derivable from physical laws. As
Emerson has said, it contradicts all experience:
Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily
and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world,
there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity
into Variety.
What Weinberg and others who have pondered the issue complain about is that, given all the chemistry and physics we know,
given the brain’s neurological structure and complex architecture,
and its constant trickle-current, it is nothing short of astonishing
that the result is—this! The world in all its manifold sights and
smells and emotions. A subjective feeling of being, of aliveness, that
we all carry so unrelentingly that few give it a moment’s thought.
There is no principle of science—in any discipline—that hints or
explains how on Earth we get this from that.
Many physicists claim that a “Theory of Everything” is hovering
right around the corner. Yet they’ll readily admit they have no idea
about how to elucidate what Paul Hoffman, the former publisher of
Encyclopaedia Britannica, called “the greatest mystery of all”—the
existence of consciousness. To whatever small incremental degree
its secrets get revealed, however, the discipline that has and will
continue to accomplish this is biology. Physics has tried in this area
and has decided it is in over its head. It can furnish no answers.
The problem for today’s science—as consciousness researchers are
continually discovering—is finding hooks or hints, leads to follow,
when all roads thus far lead only to neural architecture and what
sections of the brain are responsible for what. Knowing which parts
of the brain control smell, for example, is not helpful in uncovering
the subjective experience of smell—why a wood fire has its telltale
scent. It is, for current science, such an extremely frustrating predicament that few bother taking any first steps. It must feel like the
nature of the sun did to the ancient Greeks. Every day a ball of fire
crosses the sky. How would one begin to ascertain its composition
and nature? What possible steps could one take when the invention
and principles of the spectroscope lay two millennia in the future?
“Let man,” declared Emerson, “then learn the revelation of all
nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest
dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind.”
If only the physicists had respected the limits of their science
as Skinner did his. As the founder of modern behaviorism, Skinner
did not attempt to understand the processes occurring within the
individual; he had the reserve and prudence to consider the mind
a “black box.” Once, in one of our conversations about the nature
of the universe, about space and time, Skinner said, “I don’t know
how you can think like that. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to
think about the nature of space and time.“ His humility revealed his
epistemological wisdom. However, I also saw in the softness of his
glance the helplessness that the topic occasioned.


Clearly, it is not solely atoms and proteins that hold the answer to
the problem of consciousness. When we consider the nerve impulses
entering the brain, we realize that they are not woven together automatically, any more than the information is inside a computer.
Our thoughts and perceptions have an order, not of themselves,
but because the mind generates the spatio-temporal relationships
involved in every experience. Even taking cognition to the next step
by fabricating a sense of meaning to things necessitates the creation
of spatio-temporal relationships, the inner and outer forms of our
sensuous intuition. We can never have any experience that does not
conform to these relationships, for they are the modes of interpretation and understanding—the mental logic that molds sensations
into 3D objects. It would be erroneous, therefore, to conceive of the
mind as existing in space and time before this process, as existing
in the circuitry of the brain before the understanding posits in it a
spatio-temporal order. The situation, as we have seen, is like playing
a CD. The CD itself contains only information, yet when the player
is turned on, the information leaps into fully dimensional sound. In
that way, and in that way only, does the music exist.

tmz

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