Q&A on the nature of consciousness & substance

To: Berk Turkcan
From: Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.
Subject: Re: requesting your answers for those questions on nature of conscious & substance

Hi Berk,

Thank you for writing. I will mix my answers in with your questions. Be advised in advance that my answers reflect my current world view including the theories and beliefs I currently hold as they have developed. They may differ from the views of others.

At 01/09/08 12:30, you wrote:

Dear Sir,

I am an undergraduate student from Turkey. I would like to have your ideas on a very crucial point of science, which I describe briefly below. I am working on this subject as a project and will be privileged to hear your interpretations on the following questions:

I would be pleased to see the final report or presentation of your project. Unfortunately, my only fluent language is English.

1. The light coming from an object is transformed into electrical signals by the cells in the eye and then transmitted to the center of vision in the brain. And the electrical signals there are turned into an image. For example you actually see this message in your brain. Then who is the one that sees and perceives the image of this message in the brain? How do you define the consciousness that can see this image in the brain without the need of an eye?

This question presumes the fallacy of the Cartesian homunculus. It also makes the common but unwarranted assumption that the process of seeing is like the functioning of a camera. The "signal" in the nervous system is not electric, although electric discharge is part of nerve function. Neurological processing does not form an "image" in the brain, although at some low levels of processing, a correlation can be found between nerve firing and sensory stimulus. (Recall the sensory homunculus mapping to the cortex.) At higher levels of processing, no such "image" correlation can be found, although the so-called "grandmother cell hypothesis" has shown that some people have speculated on this as a possibility.

Once such false assumptions have been made, then, and only then, can the question you frame be asked. For a better view of how the processing happens, see my paper The Philosophy of Mobile Life. Pay particular attention to the discussion that mentions ramp architectures. The question you ask is not valid because, inside the brain, the "I" does not exist; it is a gestalt formed from our neurological processing and acculturation process. For a more detailed view read "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes. See also Karl Pribram's Holonomic theory of Brain function. An article on the web is at http://www.acsa2000.net/bcngroup/jponkp/

2. Brain is a piece of flesh composed of lipids, proteins and other various molecules. Could the consciousness that sees this image be this piece of flesh? Or could the brain cells make up a consciousness that sees these electrical signals as a sea view or an e-mail message?

Reification of the word "consciousness" tends to draw our attention away from its simple definition - "self awareness" - which is a process, not a "thing". It is not a "consciousness" that sees. Seeing is a process of brain function. Recall the view of "infinity" one sees when a television camera is pointed at the monitor. We see an image of a monitor inside a monitor inside a monitor, and so on, ad infinitum. This visual physical analogy shows what can happen when a feedback process is directed on itself and amplified. A microphone too close to its speaker output provides another example - this time auditory. The very loud squeal is not something that is found in the hardware. It is an emergent property of the system functioning. The human brain includes wiring, thought by some to be in the limbic system, that feeds back upon itself in such a loop. Two of these loops, one in each hemisphere, are connected through the corpus callosum, each monitoring the activity of the other. "Consciousness" emerges from awareness and self-awareness as a result of the brain's neurological circuits that includes looping and self monitoring.

3. No light penetrates the skull, which means the brain is entirely in darkness. Then how does such an illuminated, clear image is formed in this pitch-dark place? For instance how are the rays of the sun seen over the unlit brain cortex?

You have been lead, as we say, down a garden path, away from a more reasonable explanation by having made invalid assumptions and by using inappropriate analogies. There is no "image" - like in photography - "in the brain". No direct physical analog exists anywhere in the nervous system beyond the retina itself.

4. Also no sound enters the brain. This means there is deep muteness where the brain exists. However, people listen to all different sounds inside the brain. The sound waves are turned into electrical signals inside of the ear and then transmitted to the center of hearing. And the consciousness inside the brain listens to these for instance as a melody. Then who is it that listens to the loud music aired from powerful loudspeakers and how?

The same type of misinterpretation is going on here. You are reasoning based upon the Cartesian Homunculus view - a view common to all dualist religions. The "little man" inside the brain. How would he see or hear? This leads to infinite regress.

5. The image is formed inside a miniature spot in the brain. Then how is the three-dimensional image with depth is formed on this diminutive screen? For instance when I look at the horizon or the sky, how is such an image with vast depth is formed at this tiny spot of center of vision just as identical to its original with the same depth and sense of distance? What is it that gives me the feeling of distance and space?

Descartes located the seat of the homunculus in the pineal gland. His theory is discredited. There is no such "screen" or neurological equivalent. There are many ways depth information can be extracted. Parallax from binocular vision is just one. Size is another clue. Layering in motion is another. The brain uses these clues.

6. When a person sees a glass of water, in fact he does not see its real form but only a copy of it in his brain. The coldness that he feels when touching the glass surface is not the real coldness of the glass but only a copy of it. This means nobody is ever able to feel that he touches the real glass. Since it is not his fingers that feel the sense of touch, but merely the sense of touch in the brain. Should we not in this case conclude that people are never able to reach the reality of objects and can never touch the reality of a glass? But not every person knows this fact. Everyone thinks they touch and see real objects. Is it not strange that people are not aware of this and they never think about this?

While the reasoning that lead you to this point is false, you have come to a significant philosophical question. Berkley argued that nothing exists outside our brains. The ancient Greeks also discussed this very question - recall Plato's famous cave analogy? - He said we see but the shadows on the wall inside the cave cast from the light of the fire outside. In general semantics we view the brain as "an organ that locates its experiences elsewhere". Without going into any of the details, the brain basically builds a model of life based upon its responses, and it "projects" that model outside itself. Consider how we experience each of our senses. The oldest chemical sense, smell (and taste), is experienced as happening inside us. Touch is experienced largely at the surface. Sound is experienced as from here to out there. Vision is experienced as way out there. The brain's ability to provide sensory experiences that map onto "what is going on" has gotten more complex and sophisticated as we have evolved. Think of it as the brain forms hypotheses about what is going on and allows us to experience those hypotheses directly - as in an ongoing virtual reality simulation. The human brain is the best virtual reality projector in existence. But if you have any faith in the basic cause and effect premise of science, we may infer that most of our "experiences" derive from external causes, perhaps the "exact nature" of which we will never directly know.

7. Nothing changes when a person is hit by a bus or comes across a lion. Since, just like the image of the bus, the sense of collision or the fear while running away from a lion, all form in the brain. When I see a bus, I see it at the center of vision inside my brain. If I go and hold the door of the bus, I feel the coldness of the metal inside my brain. Then I cannot discriminate from this fact what happens when I feel pain if a bus hits or a lion bites. Then is it not very illogical when people say 'it shows I am in contact with the bus or the lion because I feel pain when the bus hits or the lion bites'?

Recall that all this discussion hinges on the fact that we are using our scientific models - as they are currently believed - as the tools for explaining what is happening. I like to recall the Zen saying: "Before I studied Zen, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. While I was studying Zen, mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Now that I have achieved enlightenment, mountains are once more mountains and rivers are again rivers." In general semantics, we would say that the view we see depends upon the level of observation. Who is your target audience? What is the level of sophistication of their understanding? Should the architect discuss various non-Euclidean geometries when he talks to the carpenter about building his bookshelves? The Sufi say that you cannot tell someone something they are not yet prepared to hear.

8. We live the entire period of our lives inside our brains. In a similar way, we also have dreams in our brain. For instance when we touch a piece of ice in our dream, we feel it is wet and cold. Or, when we smell a rose, we get the wonderful scent of it. We again sense the feelings of fear, pain, anxiety and panic in a similar fashion. Then are the dreams and the real life the same in this sense?

The brain's ability to project is undiminished by sleep. Hallucinations seem just as real as the "virtual reality" we experience when we are awake and sane. This is further explained in "The Origin of Consciousness . . .".

9. The person's own body is also included in the images a person see. So, a person only sees the copy of his own body. This means every person all through his life lives in the cave in his skull where he never knows what is outside, including his own body and other objects. Now think over this happening once more: Right now are you inside of the room you are present or is the room inside of you? Isn't the second alternative the right answer scientifically?

The second answer is incorrectly phrased. It is not the room that is inside us; it is our constructed representation that is inside us, and we experience that constructed representation as outside us due to the brains normal function of locating its experiences elsewhere.

10. Let us imagine 5 different people who look at a garden of roses. Since every one of these people see the rose garden in his own brain, then aren't there 5 different rose gardens in the brains of every one of the 5 people? Is the color red that each one sees the same with the other's perception of red? Would there be any possibility to compare these?

I know of no way to "directly" compare the brain experiences of different individuals. See my paper on the web Abstraction. Any such comparison is always limited to first being translated into some medium until a common medium is available, but all the translation process are unique to the different individuals. As a result, any comparison is only of the transformed, and not of the original. We are forever isolated in our own individual brains without the ability to "know" another; but through the vast computing power of our brains and the interaction of peoples in culture over millennia, we at least have the impression that some communication of some form is possible. For more discussion on this see my web page non-similarity of structure. I also recommend to you all my general semantics pages.

11. We say that the original objects we see the copies of in our brain exist outside, but what if nothing exists outside? Because we never have the ability to test this or observe this. Then is it not dubious that the original objects are outside? At least there is a 50-50 percent possibility. Then how can we be sure that the original objects are outside? If there is no original object outside, then what is the entity that makes the images and the senses in our brain?

See my paper Popper's Philosophy of Science.  We believe that our experiences are not uncaused, but that exactly what caused them can at best be only modeled through experience and testing that disconfirms some and "corroborates" (not confirms) others.

12. If we are living an illusion that has the possibility of not having any reality outside, then we may be existing in a very different place. For instance is it not possible for the entire humanity to exist right over a piece of crystal? Or is it not possible that the complete history of humanity has been experienced in a place not bigger than the head of a pin? Would there be anything to stop us thinking in such a broad extent?

Read the Brains in a Vat article in Hilary Putnam's Reason, Truth, and History.

13. Some people are incredibly afraid when these topics are discussed? What do you think the reason for this may be?

Yours sincerely,
Berk Turkcan

When you expose people to too much differences from their normal experiences, their typical reaction is anxiety. Read my article On the Foundations of Prejudice. The brain translates that into fear (or anger depending upon the person and the circumstances), and this must be justified by retrospective (and largely unconscious) negative judgements about the source.

The type of questions you are asking suggests that you are going beyond science and into philosophy, which, incidentally, could be called the mother of science. Taking the step from science to the philosophy is to be commended. Science cannot answer all questions. Science, at one level, only deals with that which can be repeatedly verified. That is both its strength and its weakness. The Philosophy of science asks what is the meaning behind the method and results of science, and that provides less secure answers.

Science is like a titanium and concrete tower built upon the solid ground in the middle of a floating island. The ground is an interlocking weave of small assumptions. Together they support tremendous weight. Individually each evaporates under close analysis, and is seen to depend upon many others.

My best wishes, and . . .
Never stop asking questions.

Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr., Ph.D.

This page was updated by Ralph Kenyon on 2009/11/16 at 21:22 and has been accessed 8258 times at 44 hits per month.