The Nature of Consciousness

shaper of dreams.by ~Sea-of-Ice http://sea-of-ice.deviantart.com/gallery/

In response to one of my recent posts, my good friend and fellow blogger from The Heartbreak of Invention, (http://patricemj.wordpress.com/) posed several important questions regarding some of the issues surrounding the nature of human consciousness. While these issues are the subject of intense study over a number of neuroscientific disciplines, and cross over into topics like cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy, they are important questions that also address our very human nature, and how we function as sentient beings. As someone engaged in the study of these subjects for some time, it is my hope that in the process of attempting to respond, I might illuminate some of the path forward for those interested in these very questions.

In spite of all the attention being given to the subject of consciousness these days, there are still many different approaches to the subject, and no clearly defined limits as to what the term encompasses. Since the neuroscientific community prefers to emphasize the functioning of the brain and the neural substrates supporting our subjective awareness, which are clearly a vital component in our understanding generally, they are reluctant to stray too far from what is discernible through scientific methodology in explaining or addressing consciousness. Conversely, those who take a more holistic approach, while acknowledging the importance of neuroscientific studies and the modern methods of investigating our cognitive functions, tend to be more inclusive when it comes to a comprehensive understanding of how consciousness becomes manifest through the interaction with the physical constructs of the brain, and human cultures, environments, and other external and internal phenomena.

The fMRI process – http://bic.berkeley.edu/

A great deal has been written about the subject of consciousness over the last fifty years or so, with the advancement of technologies like PET imaging and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) which has expanded exponentially, generating more attention in the scientific community, but philosophers, poets, and every variety of thinker throughout human history, have pondered the nature of our subjective experience of life. It seems to me, the time has come to bring together the many disparate approaches in order to progress in our journey of discovery.

What would consciousness be like if it could jump these humble tracks, these human contraptions? Can it jump?

What we sometimes fail to recognize when we engage in our sometimes narrow approaches to understanding the world, is that we have formidable limitations, as well as enormous potentials as cognitive creatures. We cannot eliminate the need to investigate consciousness through rigorous application of scientific principles, any more than we can eliminate the need to include the speculative and less well-defined sociocultural influences and forces that have forged our current capacities through the millennia. What we examine using our “human contraptions” is the product of millions of years of evolutionary trial and error, leading to the eventual awakening of self-awareness, formed over tens of thousands of years of numerous leaps and bounds, starts and stops, and periods of prodigious progress and fantastic failures. Consciousness may have existed all along in the fundamental nature of life, and our “humble tracks” which led us to devise these contraptions were merely steps along the way, but I believe there is no need to “jump,” if the tracks are simply part of the human process of discernment. In my view, we need to let go of the tracks in order to see our true nature.

Does it exist off the grid or does it only come to life for us in the channels we devise? Does it only pour into what we have designed for the purpose of holding it, capturing it?

It is tremendously difficult to imagine how we might define anything in ways other than those we have thus far been able to devise, and as sentient temporal beings, we are largely confined to the limits of our temporal senses and cognitive constructs in channeling our awareness into some sort of demonstrative entity. Where we excel as humans is in imagining, pondering, speculating, conjuring, dreaming, and contemplating, which generally provides us with the raw materials, which then become temporal objects and other channels of expression, including the digital revolution, artificial intelligence, and every variety of scientific endeavor. Since it is clear that consciousness is not easily defined in temporal terms, and that it exists as both a phenomenal manifestation evidenced in our cognitive talents, as well as a wonderfully mysterious, elusive, and highly subjective entity within us, it seems likely to me that it DOES exist off the grid simultaneously as it comes to life through the channels we devise. It is in our experience of consciousness temporally, where we recognize that it must exist in another realm or state that is off the grid, even though our apprehension of it requires that we devise some sort of channel for it. I do not believe we can actually “hold” it or “capture” it, at least not in the sense that you mean by those terms. I believe it exists both as an expression of our limited physical existence, as well as enjoying some form of limitless existence beyond the channels we devise.

http://phenomenologyftw.files.wordpress.com/

Can we only perceive consciousness, meaning can we only recognize it as it is born through our own valued and legitimate paradigms of understanding, our own theories of knowledge? Do our own molds and models alter and shape what comes through them?

As one who recognizes the significance of our psychological and various mental constructs in determining our reality, I cannot completely disassociate myself from my own understanding, and while we can all at least entertain opposing viewpoints to our own in some manner, our theories of what is knowable and what it is that we think we know well are clearly subject to the interpretation of our cognitive apparatus. Our perceptions of the world depend on our sensory and central nervous systems to function properly, and some degree of commonality is generally reassuring as a measure of what we perceive as real and accurate to the degree that such common perception is even possible. We cannot manipulate our molds and models through any other cognitive and sensory apparatus currently, but as we progress in our evolution, both temporally and psychologically, (not to mention spiritually) we will no doubt be able to expand on our current models to include a greater comprehension as it is revealed to us in the future. We have seen many previous efforts to mold and shape our understanding fall apart with the advent of new methods of discovery and discernment, and I do not believe that our molds and models shape what comes through them, so much as we shape our molds and models based on what comes through US. However, the search for a greater understanding can only progress if we remain open to what may be possible.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to respond to such important questions…….John H.

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4 comments

  1. universalid

    Great post John!
    I think neuroscience can reveal a lot about the working brain and how we get to think about it all. I think it will all come down to interpretation.
    Some writing I’m involved with right now focuses on bridging some gaps left by science. A physicist’s interpretation of matter will tell us something about the nature of atoms, but physicists can’t say how the leap to sentience goes. They might say that:- particles follow a path of least action/distance/work.
    By the same measures, it is true that a helium or nitrogen particle follows a path of longest existence, until it interacts with other particles. Atoms that follow a path of longest existence can do that better once they begin fueling their movements from external resources. It’s a different way of looking at the same data, but a translation that makes the jump to a life-form from nothing more than motion.

    • jjhiii24

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting! It is an exciting time for both neuroscience and physics with so much being talked about and studied concerning the nature of our existence.

      It seems to me that the efforts of sincere individuals to adhere to the definitive paths of science, as well as those who consider the somewhat more speculative and less well-defined paths which include philosophical reasoning and spiritual exploration, both have an important contribution to make in working through our understanding of our existence and our very human nature.

      Where the challenge seems to be most compelling is in convincing everyone, no matter what their point-of-view might be, to allow that a comprehensive explanation of the nature of consciousness might include areas and aspects that do not necessarily fit well into their particular point-of-view.

      We are all guilty of some degree of bias, but championing our particular ideas can be accomplished even in consideration of another point-of-view, OTHER THAN our own.

      I very much appreciate your thoughtful response……John H.

  2. jjhiii24

    Hey Rick,

    By coincidence, I have been working on a post about David Chalmer’s work recently, and have been reviewing his original paper on the Extended Mind since you mentioned it a while back.

    I am happy to report that I have corresponded with David over the years, the first time in February of 1999, when I first read his book, “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” which he first published in 1996, (re-issued in 1998), and most recently in June of 2009, when I was reviewing Steven Pinker’s book, “The Stuff of Thought,” which related back to some of the material on his website.”

    I’m not sure I would agree that David is relatively new to the study of human consciousness, since he has been working in the field since the early nineties, but it can be said that David’s work has recently been given much more attention in the mainstream media, and we are hearing much more about it now.

    I found this link to a video of a very young David Chalmers on the TV show, “Thinking Allowed,” with Jeffrey Mishlove, which makes him look like he has been at this work for a long time.

    http://www.rtbot.net/play.php?id=r4SLOr2icnY

    Thanks for the interesting link, and I will be posting about the “Extended Mind” soon….John H.

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