Meaning of consciousness – Part 2

In part 1 a particular meaning of consciousness was picked out of the group of meanings. So what can be said about this neural idea of consciousness as simply awareness of self and surrounding world, here and now? Is it as it appears? Well, no.

To start with it is questionable whether it is a continuous stream, the ‘stream of consciousness’, as it seems to be. Instead It is likely to be discrete displays. A number of experiments (replicated a number of times) have shown that consciousness is not continuous. But there are also experiments that shown that it is not a straight forward series of frames as in a movie film. There is a fairly convincing in-between theory proposed by Herzag (PLOS Biol 2016). “We experience the world as a seamless stream of percepts. However, intriguing illusions and recent experiments suggest that the world is not continuously translated into conscious perception. Instead, perception seems to operate in a discrete manner, just like movies appear continuous although they consist of discrete images. To explain how the temporal resolution of human vision can be fast compared to sluggish conscious perception, we propose a novel conceptual framework in which features of objects, such as their color, are quasi-continuously and unconsciously analyzed with high temporal resolution. Like other features, temporal features, such as duration, are coded as quantitative labels. When unconscious processing is “completed,” all features are simultaneously rendered conscious at discrete moments in time, sometimes even hundreds of milliseconds after stimuli were presented.” They have a two stage model: a first stage of unconscious processing of features and the binding of these features to entities that ends after at least 400 milliseconds with a best fit solution and the triggering of the second stage of integration into a consciously perceived output. This precept is static but is labeled with features like colour, pitch and also duration, movement, location and the like. Although the precept is unchanging, it is experienced as having duration – as a slice of time although it does not exist for that duration.

This view of consciousness implies that we have no direct knowledge of how this conscious experience is created. We can report our conscious experiences but not how they were created or how accurate they may be. Introspection as a method of observing processes of thought is not a reasonable concept – it is not possible to interrogate the ‘mind’ subjectively, from the inside. “The human mind operates largely out of view, and yet people are unaware of their unawareness, confabulating reasons for their actions and preferences.” (Wilson Science 2008). Subjectively, creating consciousness is a transparent process. It can only be understood through objective study.

If perception is not done consciously and neither is motor control, exactly why do we need the conscious experience? It is almost like consciousness has no function – an extra that the brain does not need.

Chalmers put forward the distinction of the hard question and the easy question. This appears to be a new type of dualism, separating objective knowledge of consciousness from the subjective experience of it. There is an thought experiment called philosophical zombies. Why could there not be people who have no consciousness but who act the same as someone who does? This would mean that the function of consciousness in the brain does not include the experience of consciousness. The function of the easy part, the objective part, the neural part is separate from the function-less, hard, subjective, and mystical part. The core idea here is that a physical brain cannot produce a subjective experience, or if it does then it is by way of some special process that is not known to current science. It has been put forward that consciousness is a universal primitive like mass and everything has consciousness, or it ’emerges’ through some information theory mathematics in objects that are complex enough, or it is some product of quantum mechanics that has not been studied, or it is simply not physical but spiritual. So some people who try to explain consciousness are told that they have not explained it but ‘explained it away’ because the mystery is gone. And other people who try to explain consciousness are told that they have not explained it but made it a mystery because the physical world is over-stepped. This divide is unlikely to disappear in the near future. I have to say that I personally find it impossible to be a dualist. I want a physical explanation of consciousness, preferably in biological terms .

From my biological point of view, consciousness must have a function in the brain because it is very biologically expensive. It cannot just be entertainment. What function does experiencing ourselves in the world have? Does its reason of existence help explain it? That is for part 3.

2 thoughts on “Meaning of consciousness – Part 2

  1. quentin

    It seems weird to say that consciousness would not be “as it appears” since it’s defined as awareness, i.e. as appearence of something, but an appearence can only be “as it appears”. Do you want to say that the appearance is not a faithful guide to the way it is produced? Then it seems that you switched focus from consciousness to how it is produced. I’m not saying it’s not informative, but it seems like a different question. I think that’s why Chalmers makes a distinction here between two problems.

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