One of the most compelling forces behind much of my writing also happens to be one of the most important reasons why we should question the current wisdom of the modern study of human consciousness. Aside from acknowledging the central role that consciousness plays in our existence and the nearly complete lack of comprehension of its nature generally, the repeated encounter with individuals who feel confident that the subjective experience of consciousness is a product of brain function only, virtually screams for a dissenting voice in the world.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the completely reasonable disparity in the thinking which surrounds the controversial nature of the subject matter. Throughout human history, many of the most important issues of the day usually find a variety of human beings landing on opposite ends (and in every variation in between) of the whole spectrum of human thought regarding everything from what constitutes reality to morality and ethics. Diversity of thought in the realm of public discourse on most any subject will eventually result in some sort of consensus in the long run, and while I would not discourage discussion on any genuine attempt to describe the nature of our very human existence, to describe neurobiologists as “interested in how brains give rise to subjective experience,” as an article in the June issue of Scientific American did, immediately raised every hair on the back of my neck.
According to the article, “A Test for Consciousness,” by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, in the June 2011 issue, “The unified nature of consciousness stems from a multitude of interactions among relevant parts of your brain.” The writers go to elaborate lengths to justify this premise, none of which, in my view, even come close to convincing the reader that consciousness can be so easily explained away.
Part of the problem with judging as to whether or not a machine can be “conscious” lies in the difficulty we currently encounter when we attempt to confirm this same condition in other sentient beings. We experience conscious states vividly in our own day-to-day existence, but can only “infer” conscious states in others through observations and interactions with them. We cannot know with absolute certainty what others are experiencing, precisely because of the nature of conscious awareness. Even when conscious awareness was finally possible for the early humans, they did not immediately spring into functional consciousness. Even with the advantage of being able to “load” information into a machine, which is still a fairly lengthy process for humans needing years of learning, there are very few shortcuts available for accumulating experience, which is the real game changer.
In the postings to come, I will attempt to elaborate on this theme from a variety of viewpoints, and encourage anyone reading who is genuinely interested in the subject, (is anyone reading?) to ask questions or comment as I cover this ground.