No con­sen­sus on con­scious­ness

De­spite fan­ci­ful the­o­ries by psy­chol­o­gists, physi­cists, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and com­puter sci­en­tists, con­scious­ness re­mains an abid­ing mys­tery


IF YOU are de­pressed, you could ei­ther take a pill that tweaks the gray mat­ter to in­duce a sense of eu­pho­ria, or you could opt for the “talk­ing cure” in which a ther­a­pist blows away the blues by fi­ness­ing your mind. How­ever, even as we use the mind-brain yo-yo to fight de­pres­sion, our sense of how the brain gives rise to the mind, or how the mind works on the brain, re­mains at best a mud­dle, and a frus­trat­ing mys­tery, at worst.

This elu­sive play be­tween mind and mat­ter—im­mor­talised by the French philoso­pher Rene Descartes’ apho­rism “I think, there­fore I am”—lies at the heart of the co­nun­drum of con­scious­ness. It’s a lit­tle weird to imag­ine an “I” try­ing to un­ravel it­self. But the al­ter­na­tive—of alien­at­ing your­self from the very thing you want to grasp—is no less freaky. Descartes tried to jump over this treach­er­ous mind­brain abyss, claim­ing both are au­ton­o­mous spheres, al­beit linked in the pineal gland. But he had no ex­pla­na­tion for why this tiny or­gan should be the priv­i­leged go-be­tween.

De­spite this in­her­ent glitch, most re­li­gions subscribe to some va­ri­ety of du­al­ism. How­ever, most con­tem­po­rary philoso­phers and sci­en­tists re­ject it in favour of a sin­gle fun­da­men­tal ma­te­rial re­al­ity, even though there is no con­sen­sus as yet on how the brain gen­er­ates the mind. The Aus­tralian philoso­pher David Chalmers dubbed it the “hard prob­lem” of con­scious­ness. He con­sid­ers ex­plain­ing cog­ni­tive at­tributes, such as mem­ory, per­cep­tion, and learn­ing as the “easy prob­lem”. He be­lieves sci­ence will even­tu­ally crack all the “easy prob­lems”, but the “hard prob­lem”—why and how all these pro­cesses trans­late into ex­pe­ri­ence—will never be solved by the hu­man mind.

Last month, Ed­ward Wit­ten, a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist at Prince­ton Univer­sity, added his voice to the cho­rus of naysay­ers, dep­re­cat­ingly called “mys­te­ri­ans”, that in­cludes lu­mi­nar­ies like Noam Chom­sky, Roger Pen­rose, and Steven Pinker. And yet, iron­i­cally, the field of con­scious­ness stud­ies has never been more vi­brant and hap­pen­ing. Panoply of in­sights from dis­ci­plines as dis­parate as psy­chol­ogy, bi­ol­ogy, neu­ro­science, and com­puter sci­ence are com­ing to­gether to con­jure up the magic wand that pulls the rab­bit of con­scious­ness out of the hat of brain.

In the early 1990s, Fran­cis Crick, who along with James Wat­son and Ros­alind Franklin un­rav­eled the struc­ture of the dou­ble he­lix, pro­posed that con­scious­ness is noth­ing but an emer­gent prop­erty of the col­lec­tive fever­ish­ness of mil­lions of neu­rons. Tak­ing cue from Crick’s hy­poth­e­sis, bi­ol­o­gist and No­bel lau­re­ate, Ger­ald Edel­man, pro­posed that con­scious­ness could be ex­plained as the re­sult of the Dar­winian strug­gle amongst tribes of neu­rons. Around the same time, math­e­ma­ti­cian Roger Pen­rose equated con­scious­ness to the cold cal­cu­lus of sub­atomic par­ti­cles in brain cells. Like­wise, some com­puter sci­en­tists have likened the brain to a com­puter and posited the ex­is­tence of a neu­ral code that, like the ge­netic code, trans­lates neu­ronal noise into the rhythms of per­cep­tion, mem­ory, emo­tions, and even­tu­ally into con­scious­ness. As if these flights of imag­i­na­tion were not fan­ci­ful enough, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Gi­ulio Tononi pro­posed the In­te­grated In­for­ma­tion The­ory, which claims that any phys­i­cal sys­tem, in­clud­ing the hu­man brain, could be said to be con­scious if it crosses a cer­tain thresh­old of com­plex­ity. Many sci­en­tists re­ject this idea for its oc­cultist over­tones as it res­onates with the panpsy­chism of re­li­gious philoso­phies such as Vedanta and Ma­hayana Bud­dhism.

Nev­er­the­less, frus­trated by the lack of a co­gent ex­pla­na­tion of how the brain brews con­scious­ness, some philoso­phers and sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing Chalmers, are veer­ing to­wards panpsy­chism. Clearly, there is a car­ni­val of con­scious­ness the­o­ries go­ing on. As Chalmers said at a re­cent con­fer­ence, “There is noth­ing like a con­sen­sus the­ory or even a con­sen­sus guess.” If mys­te­ri­ans like Wit­ten are right, sci­en­tists might be well ad­vised to de­vote their in­tel­lect to more re­al­is­tic pur­suits. But if not, we can ex­pect more dar­ing adventures along the mind-brain Mo­bius strip. Who knows some day in the fu­ture, com­put­ers might be­come smart enough to hold in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions with hu­man minds, or we might be able to down­load con­scious­ness into our com­put­ers.


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