Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Clash of 'grand theories' of consciousness??

In what strikes me in the most unlikely venue, The Huffington Post, new age guru (also savvy businessman and marketer) Deepak Chopra offers what seems to an equivalent to the "teach the controversy" arguments of the creationists. The title "'Collision Course' in the Science of Consciousness: Grand Theories to Clash at Tucson Conference" suggests that there are two grand theories when in fact there are not. Massive evidence supports the idea that consciousness is accounted for by complex interactions between nerve cells, and Chopra does a nice summary of two central researchers taking this approach:
Christof Koch now teams with psychiatrist and neuroscientist Giulio Tononi in applying principles of integrated information, computation and complexity to the brain's neuronal and network-level electrochemical activities. In their view, consciousness depends on a system's ability to integrate complex information, to compute particular states from among possible states according to algorithms. Deriving a measure of complex integration from EEG signals termed 'phi', they correlate consciousness with critically complex levels of 'phi'.
Regarding the 'hard problem', Koch, Tononi and their physicist colleague Max Tegmark have embraced a form of panpsychism in which consciousness is a property of matter. Simple particles are conscious in a simple way, whereas such particles, when integrated in complex computation, become fully conscious (the 'combination problem' in panpsychism philosophy). Tegmark has termed conscious matter 'perceptronium', and his alliance with Koch and Tononi is Crick's legacy and a major force in the present-day science of consciousness. Their view of neurons as fundamental units whose complex synaptic interactions account for consciousness, also supports widely-publicized, and well-funded 'connectome' and 'brain mapping' projects hoping to capture brain function in neuronal network architecture.
I can see absolutely nothing but gibberish in the vague array alternatives to this sort of approach mentioned by Chopra, Penrose, Hameroff and others: non-computational, quantum superpositional, connected to spacetime geometry, involving coherent cellular microtubule states. Elegant hand waving perhaps, but where is the model? How is it to be tested?


  1. Anonymous1:31 PM


  2. Anonymous3:33 PM

    I am a physicalist to my very core, and yet I laugh at each "grand clashing theory" no less. In a conceptual sense, how does one propose to theorize the development of anything at all, without a reasonable understanding of this thing? Shall we commission a bridge builder, when this person has nothing more than a vague understanding of "bridge"?

    Here some may say that consciousness is simply too complex for us to effectively model. I find this strange however, since I seem to have developed such a model myself. Each group should indeed require an effective model of consciousness so that they might logically theorize its construction — assuming that they do then find this quest "viable."

  3. This is a case of something Neils Bohr cautioned: talking more clearly than you can think.

    Two, or three, things I've come to understand lately:

    1. Verbal Intelligence didn't evolve for determining truth, it evolved primarily for the much more adaptive task controlling other humans.

    1a. Science is a retrofit. It's unnatural.

    2. People with high verbal intelligence aren't less likely to believe dumb things; they are better at making up believable stories.


  4. Exactly so. Chopra et al. engage in a hodgepodge of untestable philosophy with rarely any real, scientific substance. An enormous amount of evidence from clinical medical practice, EEG's, MRI's, and a great deal of other data support that brain processes are in the cortex which account for all the major kinds of thinking/information processing: the visual cortex takes care of visual data; the speech centers subsume language/math; the spatial parietal area takes care of spatial orientation and tasks; the front lobes attend to social interactions; the motor and sensory strips take care of movement and sensation and even the right inferior temporal lobe does active facial recognition (Prosognosia). Damage to these brain areas selectively and proveably damages the higher level functions which these area have long been shown to function in specific structure/functional ways.
    The scientific, MRI, neurological data are in and Chopra and his philosophical colleagues are out of the game. Speaking as a retired neuroscience/clinical practioner, we know what is very likely to be the case in mind/brain matters.

    Herb Wiggins

  5. Neurological explanation does indeed take us quite far in this matter, but it does not answer why neurological activity is accompanied by any experience, which is also a part of consciousness.

    Let's take the taste of strawberry for example. We know that the taste is not in the strawberry. The taste is subjective experience of someone tasting the strawberry. We know that the molecules in strawberry do not contain the taste. They don't carry it to the taster to experience. The taste "happens" somehow in taster's brain. It does not "travel" into the brain from strawberry via nerves. It happens in the brain, and the molecules in strawberry just activate the process.

    Then, what is the taste of strawberry? What kind of molecules or interactions are known to generate subjective experiences of taste? I know none. What actually is the process that makes us taste the strawberries?

    Complex interactions between nerve cells are based on molecules and their interactions. If you took everything apart to their most fundamental level, you could find the same as in strawberry: you could not find anything that resembled taste (or any other subjective experience for that matter). There is nothing even remotely resembling subjective experience of taste. We don't even know if subjective experience is atomic or if it's built out of smaller components. The conclusion is that we have absolutely no knowledge on our subjective experience apart from one fact: our brains are involved.

    Saying that "complex interactions between nerve cells" explains it is like saying that existence of atoms explains existence of matter. It's correct, but insufficient. We know that complex interactions between nerve cells are involved, but I haven't found any explanation how it can make "taste happen".

    If the taste is not in the strawberry because the molecules itself don't contain taste, then why would some other molecules (built out of similar atoms) in brain make the "taste happen" just because of "complex interactions between nerve cells"?

  6. Anonymous12:58 PM

    Jani, you raise some interesting points.

    Let's compare vision to taste for example. Our lens collect photons of many frequencies to the retina, where the eye pigments create a sampling of the frequencies, which are then converted to nerve signals, which travel to the brain's visual cortex. A massive comparison processing of signals takes place there, (which occ. results in optical illusions) and we see colors & shapes which corresponds very closely to the spectrum of visible light, as well as amplitude (# of photons striking the retina) which means black/white shades.

    Does the color exist? No, but it DOES correspond to the frequencies of light and does it very well. Color discrimination can in many trained persons detect very fine distinctions among the measurable frequencies of visible light. The black and white shades also correspond/compare very well to the #'s of those photons striking the retina. So color/BW DO correspond very well to something which is real.

    & not only that but the frequencies of visible light from the sun which are maximal, are also those to which our rhodopsin receptors are most sensitive, the yellow/green frequencies. That our eyes have evolved sensitivity which corresponds to the brightest visible light of solar frequencies should not be surprising. Where visible light is brightest will give us the most information about our surroundings. If we moved to another solar system with a different colored sun, our retinas and rhodopsins would adapt eventually to the brightest part of that sun's spectrum in visible light. It's real.

    In the same way taste corresponds to something real, the bitterness of quinine, the sweetness of sugar (multiple -OH groups on a carbon skeleton), the sourness of citric acid and other acids, the meaty flavors(proteins in milk), and even the metallic taste, yet another taste, which tastes blood and can taste copper, too. It's this correspondence which does exist which gives the reality to these things.

    Many believe color and our senses to be illusions. They are not. They can correspond to existing events outside of our bodies. Our measuring instruments have shown this repeatedly. Our senses in a very real way sample real & existing events. But just because color is a construct of our visual cortex doesn't mean that what it corresponds to is not real.That would be illogical & contrary to a huge amount of data. The same is true of all of our senses. They are limitted for sure as visible light is only roughly 1 trillionth of the EM spectrum of all known frequencies. But they do correspond to real events outside of us. Hearing, sight, gravity sense, taste, all the modalities of touch including sharpness, hot/cold, dryness, wetness, position senses, do, too.

    Our senses measure events outside of us as well as those inside of us.
    What we call mind does, In Part, is simply a cortical process which compares all of those sensing inputs and organizes and names them, among others. It's not a jumble of nerve cells interacting, the cortical cell columns are doing a comparison process. We are still working on finding out how those highly organized cell columns work, too. The cortex is a huge information processing and data recording region of 100K's of cortical cell columns. It creates our minds and tells us a lot about what's going on around us. You can google my comparison process models to learn more.

    So, yes, the taste IS in the strawberry for what our tongues measure, and then converts into our sense of taste. it's the acids, the sugars, the other flavors which tongues sense chemically, convert to nerve impulses and then organize into what we call taste of the starwberry, which is recorded in long term memory, so we can recoznize it again.. Just because we don't know how it works, doesn't logically mean is doesn't work. We knew that Penicillin worked decades before we found out how.

    Herb Wiggins, M.D.

    1. Anonymous11:24 AM

      Dr. Wiggins I thank you for your last comment here, as I certainly agree: this philosophical "hard problem" need not mandate supernatural explanations, since our own engineering ignorance is quite amazing when compared against the engineering of what we are. I wonder if you would also comment on my own project? I'm attempting to sound the alarm that "mental/behavioral" sciences today must only be considered "primitive," and specifically given our failure to comprehend important philosophical uncertainties (like "consciousness," "free will," "good/bad," and so on). From here I plan to use my own such theory in order to lift the ancient field of philosophy into the modern realm of science — and so become the "Sir Isaac Newton" of mental behavioral fields. Please do consider the selectable link to my theory provided below.


      Philosopher Eric