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Conscious Reflections

Written by Jeff Drake
9 · 14 · 22

It occurred to me that for those who may have gotten lost, stymied, confused, etc., by my series of posts about philosopher Alva Noe’s concepts about consciousness, it may be worthwhile to recount some of the conclusions I have reached about consciousness after having studied the subject for a while now. And this time I will do so by just putting my conclusions out there for you to chew on. I’ve not attempted this list before, so it will be a good exercise for me, too.

What, exactly, do I believe about consciousness?

Let me begin with my attempt at producing as clear a statement as I can come up with about what I think consciousness is. Please bear with me and don’t let the definition cause your eyes to glaze over. This definition needs clarification and explanation, which I provide below.

This remains subject to future change based on discoveries both in science and philosophy, but for now the following definition is what I am running with:

Consciousness is a complex physical system that is emergent, self-organizing, embodied, recursive, and self-aware. It regulates the flow of both energy and information within an individual and between an individual and the world, as a result of their entanglement.

“Complex,” means that the system is comprised of numerous biological and psychological processes that manage the flow of energy and information within the body, including the brain, as well as with other individuals and the environment in which the individual lives.

This topic has been written about a lot in the past few years, including by two of my heroes, neuroscientists Giuilio Tononi and Christof Koch. You can read more here.

“Physical” may seem redundant given the description of “complex” above, but I think calling this out is important, as it is meant to emphasize that this is a tangible, material system that can be studied and measured scientifically. No mumbo-jumbo here.

While I remain open to the idea that some non-material aspect of consciousness might one day be discovered, I believe that any such discovery will be found through science and therefore is still not mumbo-jumbo. It’s science. To date, there is not even a hint scientifically that such a non-physical aspect of consciousness exists.

“System” is a term borrowed from thermodynamics, which defines three types of systems: open, closed, and isolated. An open system is one that exchanges both energy and matter with its environment. A closed system only exchanges energy with its surroundings. A human being is an open system.

“Emergent” means that this system is capable of giving rise to new and unpredictable properties as a result of the interaction of the many individual, independent elements in the system i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this sense, consciousness itself is an emergent property of our embodied selves. 

Emergence is, to me, a critical concept and requires a deeper analysis of what it means. Thus, I will follow this post up with a dumpster dive into emergence. It really deserves its own post. It’s a fascinating subject on its own! [Update 9/14/2022 Read this post for more information about emergence: “Mind.Blown.Emergence!”]

“Self-organizing” refers to the ability of this system to create some semblance of order or coordination out of the results of local interactions between smaller elements of a disorganized system. Note that self-organization is an example of an emergent property.

“Recursive” refers to the ability of this system to give rise to a new, emergent property which then is capable of regulating, changing, or somehow affecting that from which it originally arose. One could theoretically think of this as the system looking back at itself and changing something intentionally.

“Embodied” means that consciousness is not only connected to the body, influencing the body in many ways; but that consciousness is in turn, influenced by the body. This is not just saying that in order to have a mind that can reason we also need a body. What it is really saying is actually more daring. It is saying that “…the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.”[i]

I believe in “embodied cognition.” That is, a conscious agent’s cognition and perception is influenced not only by the agent’s brain and body (the biological substrate), but also by aspects beyond the brain itself (e.g., the world around us).

Perception is what puts us in contact with the world around us. Cognition is what enables us to form beliefs and make decisions.

“By using the term embodied we mean to highlight two points: first that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context.”[ii]

“Self-aware” implies the state of being awake and aware of one’s self and something that the individual is experiencing; call them feelings, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, etc. We are always conscious “of something.”[iii]

The idea that one can reach a meditative state where there is nothing but “pure consciousness,” is a romantic myth and goes against biology, basic science, and logic.

“Entanglement” is a term you may have heard about before, especially if you have a habit, like I do, of watching cool science videos about quantum physics. Adding it to my definition is perhaps the riskiest part of my definition. I’m out on a limb here, but I want to include it because, although I can’t prove it, I can’t escape the feeling that there is truth in this. Call it a gut feeling.

In physics, entanglement refers to the ability of two independent particles to interact in such a way that the state of one particle cannot be described independently of the state of the other. Stay with me! I can give you an example of entanglement right in your own bedroom. No, not sex! I’m referring to your suitcase. Say you go on a business trip and pack your favorite pair of argyle socks. But when you arrive and pull the socks out of your bag you realize you only have half the pair! Doh! What this means is that as soon as you opened the bag and looked at your socks, you knew immediately that if you were to look in your sock drawer at home, you’d see the other argyle sock. In other words, the two states of your socks are entangled! Looking at one, you immediately know all about the otherAnd this can happen even if your sock drawer was somehow put in a distant galaxy. You would still know the state of the other sock as soon as you looked in your bag.

This is what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance.” Actually, as you can see there is nothing spooky going on here. Some claim that this shows that information can travel faster than the speed of light, since if your socks were light years away, as soon as you saw the argyle sock in your bag, you would know what the state of the other sock was, thus the information about the state of your socks traveled light years instantaneously! Uh, not exactly. Granted, the states of your socks is known, but that’s because you know about entanglement. However, if you wanted actual proof that the other sock in that distant galaxy was indeed argyle, the data would have to traverse those light years all the way back to you. Thus, no lightspeed laws are broken.

Technically, quantum entanglement is described as the phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects have to be described with reference to each other, even though the individual objects may be spatially separated. This leads to correlations between observable physical properties of the systems, regardless of distance. Remember that in order for two particles to be entangled, they must have initially been within the spatial locality of each other at some point.

Someone could read this and think that what I am talking about is “quantum consciousness” here. Not really. I don’t make any claim as to what may be happening in our brains at the quantum level, because I have no idea. No one does… yet. Till that happens though, we do now know that entanglement can also happen to macro systems, that is, systems larger than a single particle.

What I like about the use of entanglement here is that it supports the idea that consciousness does not occur in isolation. Consciousness occurs instead as the result of the interaction of a biological system with the world it finds itself in. Thus, as I intend the meaning here, when an embodied brain comes in contact with – that is, becomes entangled with –  the world, consciousness happens. Granted, this is the weakest part of my definition, but I still like it, so for now, it stays. If it is true that for two entangled particles or even systems, that once entanglement occurs the state of one can no longer be described independent of the state of the other, then I don’t think it’s a complete stretch to say that consciousness and the world are the same in the sense that you cannot describe one without also describing the other.

There it is folks! I like this definition of consciousness so far. Future scientific research will no doubt, force me to modify it over time. One reason I like it is that this definition is multi-disciplinary; that is, it touches on the fields of medicine, neuroscience, physics, and philosophy, all of which are, in my opinion, going to be necessary in order to understand consciousness.

The following are some further beliefs I have about consciousness:

On the origin of consciousness:

I believe that consciousness is the product of evolution and that consciousness requires life. That is, I believe that consciousness requires a biological, living, substrate. By substrate, I mean a material form.

Note that I don’t claim that consciousness requires a human being, just a biological substrate. Any biological system can, I think, be conscious.

Thus, although there is an emotional appeal to the idea of panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe is somehow conscious is not something I believe. There is no evidence for this.

This also means that although computers will one day become extremely smart, I don’t believe they will ever be conscious.

On the reality of consciousness:

I believe that there is nothing the least bit mystical about consciousness. I believe that consciousness is real. I believe that the world is real.  I do not believe that we create the world somehow with our mind.

While there are many things we do not understand about consciousness, I believe that given enough time and effort, such knowledge can be discovered and the findings will be explainable by science.

This is kind of a slippery slope, but like reality itself, which has different levels, I believe there are different levels of consciousness that can be measured and that some things can be considered “more conscious” than others. For example, a dog is more conscious than a mosquito, an adult is more conscious than a dog, a child is more conscious than a baby, a baby is more conscious than a fetus, etc.

Such beliefs are in line with Integrated Information Theory (IIT).

On how consciousness relates to the world:

I believe that our brain and our perceptual capabilities, perhaps their very purpose, is to make the world of which we are a part, accessible to us. This is a complete repudiation of the “grand illusion” theory.

The physiological nuts and bolts of our perceptual capabilities rely on our brain making some sense of the world we experience around us. I do not deny this nor the incredible importance of scientific and medical research in this area. What I disagree with is any conclusion that says we therefore never “see” the world directly, instead what we see are just mental perceptions that our brains build for us.

 

[i] A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain by Samuel McNerney on November 4, 2011.

[ii] Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch : The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, pages 172–173.

[iii] The idea that one can reach a meditative state where there is nothing but “pure consciousness,” is a romantic myth and goes against biology, basic science, and logic.

Let us know what you think…

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Author

Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.