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Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

Between Science And Philosophy

The problems of consciousness straddle the border between science and philosophy.

  • Some argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don't really exist, others, that plants and trees must also be conscious.
  • A handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that the problem is about to be solved if we are willing to accept the conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious too.

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Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/21/-sp-why-cant-worlds-greatest-minds-solve-mystery-consciousness

theguardian.com

9

Key Ideas

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness could be described as the feeling of being inside your head, looking out, or of having a soul.

How we learn, store memories, or perceive things, are easy problems to solve. The problematic part is why all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside.

Between Science And Philosophy

The problems of consciousness straddle the border between science and philosophy.

  • Some argue that conscious sensations, such as pain, don't really exist, others, that plants and trees must also be conscious.
  • A handful of neuroscientists have come to believe that the problem is about to be solved if we are willing to accept the conclusion that computers or the internet might soon become conscious too.

Ignoring The Problem

Science has been trying to ignore the problem of consciousness for a long time.

  • In the 1600s, René Descartes declared that nothing is more obvious and undeniable than the fact that we are conscious. Your consciousness can't be a fantasy. At the same time, your consciousness does not obey any of the usual rules of science. It doesn't seem to be physical. It can't be observed or really described. Descartes concluded that it had been bequeathed to us by God.
  • This Cartesian dualism remained the assumption into the 18th century. But it was unacceptable to the secular scientist that took the position that only physical things exist.
  • As late as 1989, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland declared that it is impossible to specify what consciousness is, what it does, or why it evolved.
  • In 1990 Francis Crick and Christof Kock mentioned in a paper that most of the work in both cognitive and neurosciences makes no reference to consciousness because most don't know of a useful way of approaching the problem.

Consciousness Is Not Mechanical

We could tell simple mechanical stories about the machinery of the eye, but it doesn't begin to explain the breathtaking experience of depth and clarity.

Consciousness can't just be made of ordinary physical atoms. Philosopher David Chalmers argues that it must be an additional ingredient in nature.

Above The Physical Being

Most may think of consciousness as something above our physical being - as if your mind were driving your body. But to accept this as a scientific principle would discount the laws of physics.

Everything we know about the universe tells us that reality consists of physical atoms and their component particles. If non-physical mental stuff did exist, how can it cause physical things to happen?

Consciousness As A Fantasy

Professor Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist, argues that consciousness is an illusion, that the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on.

His opponents think he simply denies the existence of something everyone knows: that of their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions, and rest.

Unresolved Questions

Patricia Churchland, a self-described neurophilosopher, thinks neuroscience will eventually show that consciousness is just brain states.

Several ideas are surfacing: "global workspace theory," "ego tunnels," "microtubules," even speculation that quantum theory may provide an answer. But some thinkers raise the possibility that they should not assume that they can solve every big philosophical puzzle that arises.

Panpsychism

In the last few years, several scientists and philosophers are looking at panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe might be conscious, or potentially conscious, or conscious when putting into particular configurations.

A narrower view is that anything could be conscious, providing that the information it contains is sufficiently interconnected and organized. The human brain fits the description, so do the brains of animals, though their consciousness may be different. But that principle may also apply to the internet or a smartphone.

The Integrated Information Theory

The "integrated information theory" has been tested. A device has been designed to measure how integrated the brain's neural circuits are. When people fall into a deep sleep, the device demonstrates that their brain integration declines too.

In theory, you can take any device, measure the complexity of the information contained in it, and then work out whether or not it was conscious.

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Artificial Intelligence: Singularity and Virtual Immortality
Artificial Intelligence: Singularity and Virtual Immortality

The growth of technology and Artificial Intelligence(AI) is on track to provide us with:

  • Singularity: A merging of human intelligence and AI, resulting in Superstro...
Inner Awareness and AI

... or self-awareness is something many scientists and philosophers are discussing. The fact that there is consciousness inside us, is a big problem for those developing AI, as no matter what they do, and how technologically superior the product is, nobody can explain or even fathom the juggernaut of consciousness.

Qualia: Experiencing Sensations

Qualia relates to the raw sensations of experience, like colours, smells, sounds.

It is through our actual experience that we know what something tastes, looks or smells like, and it is not some information already drilled inside our brains on birth. We have to experience sensations to understand them.

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About Consciousness
About Consciousness

Consciousness is everything you experience - taste, pain, love, feeling. Where these experiences come from is a mystery.

Many modern analytic philosophers of mind either d...

Searching For Physical Footprints

What is it about brain matter that gives rise to consciousness? In particular, the neuronal correlates of consciousness (NCC) - the minimal neuronal mechanisms jointly sufficient for any conscious experience.

Consider this question: What must happen in your brain for you to experience a toothache?

Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness (NCC)

The whole brain can be considered an NCC because it generates experience continually.

  • When parts of the cerebellum, the "little brain" underneath the back of the brain, are lost to a stroke or otherwise, patients may lose the ability to play the piano, for example.  But they never lose any aspect of their consciousness. This is because the cerebellum is almost wholly a feed-forward circuit. There are no complex feedback loops.
  • The spinal cord and the cerebellum are not enough to create consciousness. Available evidence suggests neocortical tissue in generating feelings.
  • The next stages of processing are the broad set of cortical regions, collectively known as the posterior hot zone, that gives rise to conscious perception. In clinical sources of causal evidence, stimulating the posterior hot zone can trigger a diversity of distinct sensations and feelings.
  • It appears that almost all conscious experiences have their origin in the posterior cortex. But it does not explain the crucial difference between the posterior regions and much of the prefrontal cortex, which does not directly contribute to subjective content.

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"Zombie"

The word comes from the Hatian folklore and refers to a corpse animated by witchcraft.

In philosophy, this idea of a regular human but with no conscious experiences is...

P-zombie as a Foundation to Dualism

If a p-zombie is logically conceivable, a physical body minus the mental, then this possibility could support dualism - an alternative view that sees the world consisting of not just the physical but also the mental. In other words, since a world of zombies is imaginable, all behaving purely at the physical level, why did evolution produce consciousness in humans?

The Physicalism Analogy: A Proof to Dualism
  1. Physicalism says that everything in our world is physical.
  2. If physicalism is true, everything in out world is physical including consciousness.
  3. But we can conceive of a “zombie world", a physical world without consciousness then,
  4. Physicalism is proven false, because our world consists of both physical and mental attributes.

The existence of consciousness is a further, nonphysical fact about our world.

The Mystery Of Consciousness
The Mystery Of Consciousness

For a long time, the question of consciousness itself has been kept off the table, and cannot be ignored any longer, as any breakthrough in science points to reality being subjective.

If we...

Life Is Unexplainable

The very things that are taken for granted or are overlooked hold the key to the understanding of life and consciousness. The things we find in nature cannot be imagined by us by any stretch of the imagination.

Example: A delicate, complex living organism, which can reproduce itself indefinitely.

Being Alive

Conceiving life while not being alive seems inconceivable, but as an analogy, how can vision be created from processes that are themselves blind?

The complicated chain of processes does point out that there is some higher intelligence/consciousness that operates on a different level, which may be out of our reach.

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Consciousness as sentience
Consciousness as sentience

Though the subject of consciousness is hard to define and varies from individual to individual, at the base level it can be termed as ‘sentience’.

To say that a person or c...

Beyond The Physical

Quantum mechanics and modern physics (like string theory) has made the concept of physical reality and the tangible, solid universe a fluid and slippery concept.

Those who are trying to find consciousness in the physical world are stuck in the past, as consciousness may have nothing to do with the brain or the subjective reality.

The Paradox Of the Big Bang

The idea that about 13 billion years ago, everything including time, matter, space, laws, gravity, cause and effect, simply sprang out of nothing in a loud bang, seems to be a foolish thing to believe.

Nothing cannot suddenly give rise to everything. The very act of the big bang requires time and space as a prerequisite to even occur.

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The need to understand psychology

The beginnings of psychology differ significantly from contemporary conceptions of the field. Modern psychology covers a range of topics, looking at human behavior en mental processes from the neur...

The Beginnings of Psychology

Psychology was not separate from philosophy until the late 1800s.

  • During the 17th century, philosopher Rene Descartes introduced the idea of dualism - that the mind and body were two entities that interact to complete the human experience.
  • While early philosophers relied on methods such as observation and logic, today's psychologists use scientific methodologies to draw conclusions about human thought and behavior.
  • Physiological research on the brain and behavior also contributes to psychology.
Psychology as a Separate Discipline
  • During the mid-1800s, a German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt outlined many of the major connections between the science of physiology and the study of human thought and behavior.
  • He viewed psychology as the study of human consciousness and tried to apply experimental methods to study internal mental processes.
  • His processes are known as introspection and seen as unreliable and unscientific today, but it helped to set the stage for future experimental methods.
  • The opening of his psychology lab In 1879 is considered to be the official start of psychology as a separate scientific discipline.

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Consciousness And Quantum Physics
Consciousness And Quantum Physics

Understanding consciousness and how it fits in the universe is a perennial puzzle for decades. Some call it the holy grail of science.

Quantum physics is able to describe the atomic and...

The Observer Effect

Modern science is hesitant to talk about consciousness due to it opening a pandora’s box, putting their previously ‘bulletproof’ theories under suspicion.

Quantum Theory had a similar ‘uh oh’ moment when it was found that the behaviour of atomic level particles changes when we (a conscious observer) are looking at it, or not. This is known as the Observer Effect.

Objectivity Vs Consciousness

Physicists argue that objectivity might as well be an illusion, and consciousness has to be put in the picture of its worldview.

The two puzzles of Science, Consciousness and Quantum Mechanics, might as well be closely related, with one arising because of the other.

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Having No Routine

Having no routine or structure is so much more draining mentally, physically, and emotionally than any routine could ever be.

Why You Need a Routine
  • It gives you structure, builds forward-moving habits, and creates momentum that will carry you on the days when you feel like you don't have the strength to carry yourself.
  • Following a daily routine can help you establish priorities, limit procrastination, keep track of goals, and even make you healthier. 
  • It lowers your reliance on willpower and motivation.
Start the day with a mantra

... to get you into a positive mood for the day ahead. Put your mind in a good state right away, because left unchecked it will try to tell you the things that are wrong.

Pick a phrase or question that resonates with you. It could be as simple as smiling and saying "thank you" out loud, acknowledging that you have been gifted with another day.

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Near-death experiences (NDEs)
Near-death experiences (NDEs)

NDEs are triggered during a life-threatening situation when the body is injured by blunt trauma, e.g., a heart attack or shock.

Many survivors tell of leaving their damaged...

Negative NDEs experiences

Not all NDEs are positive - some can be frightening, with intense terror, anguish, loneliness, and despair. Distressing NDEs are underreported because of shame, social stigma, and pressure to conform to the positive NDEs.

A close encounter with death reminds us of the fragility of life and can reveal the layers of psychological suppression that prevents us from these uncomfortable thoughts.

The NDE phenomenon

A 2017 study found that NDEs were recalled with greater clarity and detail than either real or imagined situations were. In other words, NDEs were remembered as being more real than life itself.

NDEs are no more likely to occur in devout believers than in secular or nonpracticing subjects.

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Describing wonder

Wonder is said to be a childish emotion. However, as adults, we experience it when gaping at something unexpectedly spectacular.

Adam Smith, an 18th-century moral philosopher, describes wond...

Bodily symptoms

The bodily symptoms of this strange appearance point to three dimensions:

  • Sensory: The marvelous things take hold of our senses - we stare and widen our eyes.
  • Cognitive: We are perplexed because we don't have a past experience to understand them. It leads to a suspension of breath, similar to when we are startled.
  • Spiritual: We look upwards in veneration, which makes our heart swell.
The scale of wonder

At the mild end of this emotion, we talk about things being marvelous. More intense emotions might be described as astonishing. The extreme of this experiences is met with expressions of awe.

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