“The working hypothesis of this book is that consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. Understanding the material basis of consciousness is unlikely to require any exotic new physics, but rather a much deeper appreciation of how highly interconnected networks of a large number of heterogeneous neurons work. The abilities of coalitions of neurons to learn from interactions with the environment and from their own internal activities are routinely underestimated. Individual neurons themselves are complex entities with unique morphologies (form and structure) and thousands of inputs and outputs. Their interconnections, the synapses, are molecular machines that come equipped with learning algorithms that modify the strength and dynamics of synapses across many timescales. Humans have no real experience with such a vast organization. Hence, even biologists struggle to appreciate the properties and power of the nervous system.”
– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”
“Given the centrality of subjective feelings to everyday life, it would require extraordinary factual evidence before concluding that qualia and feelings are illusory. Philosophical arguments, based on logical analysis coupled to introspection, are not powerful enough to deal with the real world with all of its subtleties in a decisive manner. The philosophical method is at its best when formulating questions, but does not have much of a track record at answering them. The provisional approach I take in this book is to consider first-person accounts as brute facts of life and seek to explain them.”
– Christof Koch from his book, “The Quest for Consciousness; A Neurobiological Approach”
In spite of my great admiration for Christof Koch, and for many of those like him, who approach the subject of human consciousness from a more materialistic view, for me personally, these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying in a big way. In pondering these materialist viewpoints in my own “quest for consciousness,” I keep coming back to the “brute facts of life,” in the unambiguous appearance of the very first indications of sentience in Homo sapiens – omnivorous (eating both animal and plant foods) mammalian primates – Anthropoids – who finally demonstrated evidence of the beginnings of modern consciousness.
Even with all of the “neuronal features of the brain” present in our earliest ancestors who had them; we still really weren’t fully “conscious” right away in the same sense that we are now. With all of our accumulated experience as a hominid species, and hundreds of thousands of years in possession of the basic components of our “modern” brains, it took both an expansion of the cerebral cortex generally and the frontal lobes in particular, as well as the most advantageous structure and proportion in the brains of modern humans, to finally be ABLE to demonstrate conscious awareness of the sort we are reading about in the quotes above. And even AFTER we acquired this capacity in the Upper Paleolithic period in the Aurignacian culture, we didn’t start right off developing mathematics and science. We painted cave walls with astonishing artwork, formulated primitive ideas, and began to teach our young what we learned, but it took almost another 30,000 years of human progress to come up with cuneiform, developed by the Sumerian culture during the third millennium BC, and establish the foundations for various other systems for communication and formal languages. In nearly every one of the various ancient cultural and regional human societies and various groupings in human history, once it was finally possible to record and express their subjective awareness of existing in the world, an acknowledgement of a non-physical component to the experience of being alive eventually appeared.
However, just HAVING the “neuronal features of the brain” didn’t automatically produce philosophy or physics. Like all forms of life throughout the history of the planet, we were evolving physically, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. The degree of what we may wish to describe as consciousness in many of our fellow primate and mammalian species, while clearly SIMILAR in certain cases to our own, points to an astonishing degree of variance in RESULTS ACHIEVED with only a relatively small degree of difference in physiology.
I keep getting this nagging “feeling” that brain physiology, as ESSENTIAL as it is, cannot be the cause of consciousness “EMERGING” from the brain. Evolution may have “SELECTED” a species-specific brain structure and subsequent functional prowess, but the results of that selection may not have simply and only produced an advantageous survival strategy, but rather, it may have been that by achieving a sufficient number of “neuronal features,” humans may finally have achieved a level of sophistication that provided a fuller degree and quality of ACCESS to an ever-present and ubiquitous “field or force” of consciousness–a fundamental feature of the nature of life in the universe. With all due respect to Christof Koch, in my view, it does not necessarily follow that consciousness EMERGED only as a result of our specific brain structures and functions.
An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.
The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.
Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.
In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.