This chapter contains descriptions of the abilities of artificial intelligence (AI) as they were at the time of writing. Since then there have been continual advances in AI. But I see no point in trying to keep updating the text to describe new developments as they occur.
In Chapter 3 Monism and Dualism: A Case for the Existence of the Supernatural and in Chapter 4 The Nature of the Supernatural I discussed three things that might possibly point to the existence of a supernatural entity. One of the three was subjectivity, or consciousness. This chapter looks into the general matter of consciousness in more detail, and in particular the materialistic and dualistic views about how consciousness is produced. As a reminder, I regard the supernatural to be a hypothetically possible entity that is separate from the material world, and which might be able to interact with the material world without necessarily violating the laws of science.
What is Consciousness?
Various descriptions of consciousness have been proposed, and also of mind. The two are sometimes thought to be the same thing, but the term unconscious mind suggests that consciousness and mind are not identical and that mind may have wider connotations, involving both consciousness and unconscious intelligence. And this means that intelligence is not the same as consciousness. In fact, I think they are different kinds of thing.
Many people reject this distinction, regarding consciousness to be just a kind of intelligence. I will give arguments and examples throughout this chapter to justify my opinion that they are different.
Making a distinction between consciousness and intelligence raises four questions:
- must everything that is intelligent also be conscious?
- must everything that is conscious also be intelligent?
- how can we tell if something has consciousness?
- how could consciousness occur?
To attempt to answer these questions it will be necessary to look at some of the characteristics of both intelligence and consciousness, and what processes might produce them.
Intelligence is the act or capability of handling or processing data. The word data is the plural of the word datum, i.e., a datum is one item of data. Each datum is a representation of something. The word data can mean either information or a number of miscellaneous items. Information is a group of data that have some relationship to each other.
One kind of information relates to the representations of human sensory inputs and thoughts and ideas. The representations in this kind of information are in the form of sounds (speech, music), actions (hand gestures, etc.), arrangements of visible material (writing, pictures, etc.), and arrangements of other physical things employed in brains and in information technology (electromagnetic waves, electric charge, magnetic fields, electromechanical devices and electrochemical arrangements). The processing of information in these ways uses physical codes that bear only an arbitrarily decided relationship to the things represented. Unless the person (or piece of equipment) that is processing this coded information is able to recognise and be familiar with the particular rules by which this information is coded, the information will be meaningless. For example, we must recognise the letters of an alphabet and understand what particular arrangements of these letters mean in the particular language they represent. A computer must recognise the different codes from a keyboard, a mouse, a video device and a printer. In this sense, to recognise, or to be familiar with, requires the computer or brain to have its own store of relevant compatible information.
Data and information are measured, in bits and kilobits, etc.
Intelligence relates to one or more of the processes of detecting data, recording, recalling, analysing, reasoning, calculating, imagining and deciding. Although we usually think of intelligence as a property of living organisms, it can also be a property of inanimate objects such as computers, burglar alarms and mousetraps, which most people presume are not conscious. Intelligence can be “built in” (i.e., recorded in the physical structure) and it can be learnt using built-in intelligence, both in organisms and in appropriately designed devices.
A mousetrap “detects” the mouse when the mouse’s nibbling or its weight moves a particular part of the trap in some way. The trap then “processes” this single piece of information by allowing the closing of a gate, or by releasing a spring that sends a thick wire crashing down onto the mouse. A trap like this has a minimal amount of intelligence. In his book I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter says that the flushing system of a toilet is conscious. I don’t see any reason to think it is conscious. It is intelligent, but like the mousetrap, not very. All intelligent devices and all organisms operate using systems built out of units of mechanical, electrical, magnetic or chemical intelligence.
(Intelligence could be thought of not only as the handling of data and information, but also as the operation of the laws of physics. By the laws of physics I mean our descriptions of the forces of nature that we observe, that is, the gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces. In physics theory, the “information content” of an object is a measure of the condition of all the particles of matter that the object is made of. So a change in the conditions of some of the particles means that there is a corresponding change in the information. With a mousetrap, among all the information about the conditions of the particles it is composed of, there are two pieces of information that are relevant to its function; the unstable equilibrium of the trigger, and the condition of tension in the spring, which is held back by the trigger. A third piece of information is added when the gentle force of the mouse’s nibble upsets the trigger’s equilibrium. The spring is released and the laws of physics determine its action of slamming down. In more sophisticated arrangements such as computers and brains, much of the data and the forces acting on them are electronic, electromechanical or electrochemical.
Plants provide easily recognisable demonstrations of how intelligence is the operation of the laws of science. A few examples are flowers that turn to keep facing the sun from dawn to dusk, roots that grow in the direction of water and nutrients, and vines that sway in the air and when they detect that they are touching a solid branch start coiling around it as they grow. It is not hard to visualise how every organism, from its beginning to its death, is the product of the processing of the information of its DNA, in conjunction with the information of the rest of its body and of the relevant parts of its environment. This processing occurs at the subatomic level, and at every level of complexity up to and beyond the entire body. All this processing comprises the intelligence of the organism. It is a manifestation of the laws of science. And this applies to all matter, both organic and inorganic, throughout the universe.)
The processing of data is described by one branch of information theory. This theory is vital in designing the successful operation of systems that store, transmit and/or receive information, e.g, in computing and telecommunications . Information theory is also a vital part of fundamental physics, including the theory of relativity. And this is why it is fair to say that intelligence, that is, the processing of information, is an aspect of the laws of physics – or that material is inherently intelligent. Further reference to information theory is made in Chapter 12 Randomness.)
Consciousness is what we call awareness, or feeling, or experiencing or subjectivity.
As far as I know, there is no way of measuring consciousness but there are qualitative gradations.
- merely being aware;
- being aware of something;
- being aware of existing as an entity;
- being aware of processes;
- or being aware of abstract ideas.
This means that consciousness is the awareness of information.
The unconscious mind and inanimate devices can perform tasks involving intelligence without being aware, that is, without feeling or experiencing them.
We experience our own consciousness directly, but we can only infer that other people are conscious. This inference is made by recognising peoples’ actions and facial expressions, etc. Our ability to make this inference is at least partly innate: it is seen in young babies that respond by crying when they see or hear other babies crying. Some dogs act as if they recognise that people are sad, so we infer that they, and other species are conscious. But what criteria would allow us to infer that other species, for example, crocodiles, are conscious? And what about intelligent devices like computers, and mousetraps, and missiles that can follow targets that are trying to dodge them?
The fact that we each have an intelligent unconscious mind is evidence that intelligence does not necessarily imply consciousness. So I conclude that there is no reason to assume that intelligent inanimate devices are conscious. Perhaps, then, it is inconsistent of me that I accept that crocodiles, and even bacteria, may be conscious. But if they are not, what are the criteria for distinguishing which species are and which are not?
There seem to be different kinds of consciousness, not just the everyday kind when we are awake. Conditions of “semi-consciousness” occur when someone is “not quite asleep” but not dreaming. Dreaming is a kind of consciousness at a time when we are asleep and not aware of our surroundings. Some people can have “controlled dreaming” when they are sufficiently awake to direct what they are dreaming. People in deep meditation claim to reach “higher levels” of consciousness. None of us is immediately aware of everything in our memory, but we recall (i.e., become aware of) specific parts of memory, either intentionally or “spontaneously”. Certain experiences that are usually regarded to be abnormal (such as hearing voices that other, “normally functioning”, people cannot hear), and states caused by “mind-altering” drugs are other aspects of consciousness.
What I have just given is descriptions and illustrations of consciousness. But how can the existence of such a thing be explained? Two opposing ideas receive the most credibility, the materialistic and the dualistic.
The materialistic concept is that consciousness is purely an emergent property of matter. The concept of emergence is discussed in Chapter 10 Reductionism and Emergence, but might be briefly explained as follows. When material components of any kind combine to become systems, new properties can “emerge” from their interactions. For example, the union of hydrogen and oxygen produces water, which has properties quite unlike those of hydrogen or oxygen. Making a mousetrap produces a function that the bits of wood and metal cannot do in isolation.
So it is proposed that the extremely complex system that is the brain has the emergent capability of consciousness as a consequence of the interactions of its parts. This is sometimes expressed as consciousness being a process of the brain, just as digestion is a process of another organ, the alimentary system. This might seem to imply that to be intelligent is to be conscious.
The dualistic concept is that the supernatural is a necessary partner of the functioning material body in the production of consciousness. Sometimes it is said that the supernatural produces consciousness by interpreting the workings of the brain. This has been referred to as “the ghost in the machine”. Sometimes it is derided by saying that there supposedly is a little person in the brain, but that person then needs to have a smaller one in its brain, and so on. But that misses the point: the proposed entity that provides the consciousness is quite different from the material body or brain. So the dualistic concept would accept that being intelligent does not necessarily imply being conscious, and that being consciousness does not necessarily imply being intelligent. Believers in the dualistic concept do not agree about whether all species of organisms are conscious, and if not all, what determines which species are conscious.
There are other views about the nature of consciousness but they are not widely held. One is that consciousness is an inherent property of all matter, additional to those properties, such as mass and electric charge that are described and quantified by science. This implies that even electrons and protons have some rudimentary or potential consciousness, and that as material structures become more complex they can become more complexly conscious. So a very complex structure like the brain could be intrinsically very conscious. This does not imply that mere size would necessarily result in greater consciousness. Would it be the whole mountain that was conscious or the individual rocks separately? Or would consciousness be an emergent property in the same way as intelligence?
There is no scientific evidence for any of this. I don’t know of any way of proving or disproving it. It does not help in explaining the characteristics of the consciousness that we experience or what inanimate objects would be conscious of. Our computers may sometimes infuriate us, but there is no reason to think that that makes them conscious, despite their intelligence or their complexity. Material produces intelligence, in that the forces of nature act consistently and so produce consistent interactions, which leads to the development of intelligent machines and intelligent organisms. Intelligence being a property of systems of interacting bits of matter does not mean that intelligence is a property of matter per se. To be a property of matter, consciousness would need to have some material characteristic that could be measured, just as, for example, mass can be measured. Consciousness does not feel measurable – but that is not to say it could not be.
It has been suggested by the philosopher David Chalmers in his book The Conscious Mind, whose subtitle describes it as being In search of a fundamental theory, that there are “psychophysical laws” that would explain how natural processes produce consciousness in living organisms. (Psychophysics is the study of the correlation between kinds of physical stimulus and kinds of subjective reaction.) Chalmers also says that these laws are not part of the laws of physics as we know them, and that consciousness cannot be explained in terms of the laws of physics. But he says they are natural laws, which means they are part of the material world. The only statement of such a law that he has made is that every conscious experience is associated with a corresponding action in the brain. This, and additional psychophysical laws leading to an explanation of the various aspects of consciousness, would be needed for this idea to be credible. If such an explanation could be provided, in the absence of evidence of conscious behaviour in material generally, then the laws would have to be thought of as being dualistic, despite Chambers’ concept that they are material. (Chambers’ idea has something in common which that of James Le Fanu, who is mentioned in Chapters 3, 8 and 10. But see also the suppositions about unknown theories in the last few paragraphs of Chapter 4.)
According to quantum theory, sub-atomic particles are in a condition known as superposition, by which they are simultaneously in more than one condition, for example, their spin can be simultaneously both plus and minus. When a particle interacts with something, it acts as if it had been in only one of these conditions. One interpretation of quantum theory is that this “decoherence” can be known only upon measurement by a conscious observer. This is sometimes taken to mean that (human) consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the material world . I think this is fanciful and that it has no bearing on the hard problem of consciousness.
A second minority view is that consciousness is completely and independently supernatural, i.e., independent of any material process. This is implied in the concepts of the eternal soul that continues to exist after the death and disintegration of the material body, and of reincarnation, in which a particular conscious entity inhabits a succession of bodies, entering each after the death of the previous body. The claims of people being able to engage in dialogue with (the supernatural elements of) dead people and with people who “remember” incidents from their “previous lives” – popular claims are that they were such personages as Julius Caesar or Cleopatra in a previous life – have been very unconvincing. There are reported accounts of the recognition of things and places associated with a deceased Dali Lama by a young child who is his purported reincarnation. This might be the closest thing that could be regarded as credible evidence of reincarnation. But on occasion more than one claimant has displayed apparently correct memories or recognition of relevant places and artefacts of his purported previous life, so this seems to be a case of tuition rather than remembering a previous life.
Many claims of memories from a previous life are clearly fanciful. As will be discussed shortly, there is firm evidence that the content of consciousness is entirely dependent on the conditions of the brain, and that memories are lost when the relevant part of the brain deteriorates. So this refutes claims to memories of previous lives.
A third minority view is that consciousness is the only reality that exists. This view may be sufficient for an individual person, but in effect it denies the existence of other people’s consciousness and physicality. Alternatively, it may mean that each organism consists of “pieces” of consciousness instead of pieces of matter. But that would be a monistic view of existence, and not logically different from the materialistic view.
And there is the claim that consciousness does not exist. But our consciousness is the very essence of our being and we all claim to be conscious – unless those who deny it claim to be not conscious of denying it. Another way of putting this idea of non-existence is that consciousness is an illusion. The obvious reply to this is to ask who or what is having the illusion, and whether having an illusion is itself evidence of consciousness. Perhaps it is the brain that has the illusion, but this puts consciousness as just another operation of the brain, which is the materialistic concept. Alternatively, non-existence might merely imply that consciousness is not a material entity, which could leave open the dualistic possibility.
Also, it may be that when people say that consciousness does not exist they mean there is no difference between consciousness and intelligence. Many people would not accept the arguments that I have made earlier in this chapter that consciousness and intelligence are different.
According to the philosophy of eliminative materialism, no conscious sensation can exist unless it can be explained completely in biological terms. So the experiences we currently have but cannot yet explain, and are accordingly non-existent, would begin to exist whenever an explanation was found. This concept of non-existence is based on an assumption of the truth of both materialistic monism and eliminative materialism. I think eliminative materialism is an unjustifiable sophism.
A modern fantasy, depicted in such films as Existenz and the Matrix series, is that we may all be simulations living out our simulated lives in a virtual world. While very few people would take this seriously (except as a philosophical exercise) it is hard to know how it could be proven to be true or false. But if the simulation is produced in a material device – which would need to be something like a computer of cosmic proportions – then our simulated consciousness would presumably be a virtual emergent property of that device. For people who would want to include the supernatural as part of consciousness, would it be the device itself that was supernatural, or the entity that produced it? If there were no such entity – the computer existed independently of anything else – would the computer be the equivalent of the material world or of the supernatural?
While this line of thought might put another perspective on the nature of the supernatural, I don’t think it adds anything to the consideration of how consciousness might be produced in the world as we know it. Indeed, there is no reason to think that virtual entities produced by a computer, including avatars, are conscious, even though people may pretend they are.
The idea that consciousness is purely an emergent material process is based on philosophical considerations, on scientific observations of human and animal behaviour, and on the relationship of this behaviour to the operation of brains and other parts of the body. Consciousness can be thought of as the product of a functioning system.
Scientists have now developed a detailed neurological description of how brains detect and process all the inputs they receive about the material world from the sensory organs. The description agrees with all confirmed findings, although there is still very much more to discover. The electrochemical processes in the brain that are associated with subjective perceptions and feelings have been fairly well identified. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, a process of “looking” at specific parts of the body, including the brain, while these parts are performing their functions) it has been repeatedly shown that specific locations in the brain become active for each type of mental activity. It has also been found that the area that is activated during a task is activated also when the person merely thinks about performing that task or watches it being performed.
However, fMRI identifies little more than the particular area of the brain that is active, and much more detailed imaging is needed to see what is happening at the connections of individual nerves. Work is beginning on such a method, looking at a tiny section of mouse brain. Since it is estimated that there are about 1014 synapses (i.e., about one hundred trillion nerve connections) in a human brain, it will be a long time before any human brain will be fully mapped in this degree of detail. This mapping produces details of structure not of functioning, but it will show the patterns of individual neurons and their connections. At this stage there is no reason to expect that the mapping will eventually undermine the materialistic explanation of consciousness, in fact advocates of this explanation think it will only strengthen it. But as with most new types of scientific discovery, it is likely to produce some surprises.
Various material processes affect consciousness. Anaesthetics are used to artificially deprive us of consciousness. Other drugs are used to reduce the degree to which pain is experienced when we are conscious. Emotions and other subjective feelings are known to be associated with the action of neurotransmitters in the brain, and are also affected by drugs such as hallucinogens, narcotics, stimulants and depressives. These substances have a role in promoting or hindering certain interactions at the synapses between the nerve endings in the brain. Electric and magnetic fields applied to specific structures of the brain have been shown to affect the senses, emotions and thinking, by temporarily interrupting or promoting the electrochemical processes of neurons. They have been shown to produce, among other things, feelings of reverence. Damage, deterioration and congenital abnormalities of the brain have well-documented subjective (and motor) affects. Sometimes a damaged brain can be trained to develop new neural connections that partly or fully restore the lost functions. There are parts of the brain that are associated with emotions, and specific conditions of these parts, such as damage or the concentrations of various neurotransmitters, have been shown to be associated with specific emotional effects. Other parts are associated with the senses.
Pain and its related feeling of itchiness are associated with sensory nerves that are responding to something wrong or unusual with a part of the body. These types of sensation have the function of alarm signals, prompting action that may prevent or reduce further damage. But the sensations can often be shut off by anaesthetics, or ignored when the mind (or brain) is completely preoccupied by something else – as can also happen with other types of alarm systems.
The brain represents its inputs from the sensory organs – the details of colours, shapes, sounds, etc. – as networks of widely interconnected neurons. Such networks are continually being connected with previously established networks to build larger networks, which are then added to even larger, interconnected, networks that constitute stores of memories. Other networks of neurons analyse and compare these networks, interpreting the inputs as such things as words or pictures, etc., and thinking about them. And there are other networks that are “pre-wired” to affect the production of neurotransmitters to produce sensations of fear, pleasure, anger, etc., in response to the presence of certain types of connections in other networks. And other pre-wired networks control the functioning of the body. Some of the built-up networks may last for only brief moments but others may remain connected as memory.
The longer-lasting networks have the effect of physically building up specific parts of the brain according to what the person’s consciousness habitually concentrates on. This might be compared with physical exercise causing the development of particular muscles. Specialised areas of the brain become unusually developed in people in certain professions who have had to accumulate vast amounts of specialised knowledge or skills, and also in people who have practised intense meditation over a number of years. Plasticity, i.e., the brain building up new connections and letting unused connections deteriorate, has been expressed as “neurons that fire together wire together”.
In the networks that directly register inputs from outside the body, such as seeing and hearing, the neurons are connected in patterns that have a relationship to the pattern of the physical inputs that caused them. But in networks at higher levels, the patterns of connection relate more to the networks they unite than to the content they are representing. There appear to be specialised networks for each of the various kinds of brain activity, and, presumably, for each kind of consciousness, with no overall network representing a unified “self”. But since most of the brain’s cognitive functions work in coordination with other functions, either the relevant networks must overlap or else there must be at least one network that provides the coordination.
The material concept envisages consciousness as a high level process in which lower level processes are continually combined so as to provide a generalised overview. Examples of such lower level processes are memory, interpretation of inputs from outside the body, and association of certain memories with other memories or warning signals.
Tests showing the direct connection between physical processes in the brain and the subject person’s consciousness are seen as demonstrations of the content of consciousness being entirely dependent on the brain. Materialists then assume that consciousness itself is purely a function of the brain. This assumption and the tests leading to it have been challenged by people who claim to have seen cases where a person who has been thought to be brain-dead has responded with some movement or change of facial expression when greeted or touched. But such cases are much more likely to have been unconscious or reflex responses in a brain that still had some residual functions. The general issue of how to tell whether a person is brain-dead has been raised over recent years, after an EEG (i.e., electroencephalograph, a test of the brain’s activity that uses electrodes that connect locations around the person’s head to a computer to measure electric currents in the brain) showed that a person who was completely unable to move and was thought to be brain-dead responded in appropriate areas of the brain to questions. Determining the moment or conditions of death can sometimes be a very uncertain matter, despite advances in technology. So this, and the fact that there is a strong correlation between consciousness and damage to the brain (or deterioration or alteration by the use of drugs), seems to confirm that the content of consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain. Atheists would invoke Occam’s razor to support their assumption that this means that consciousness is a purely material process.
The US philosopher Douglas Hofstadter (among many other writers) has developed a case that self-awareness is the brain’s representation to itself of its own processes, i.e., by high-level networks repeatedly connecting back to each other. (His best-known books on this topic are Gödel Escher Bach and I Am A Strange Loop.) It is not clear whether he envisages that other aspects of consciousness are then just similar presentations to this self-awareness, or that each of the networks that perform the sensory, memory, reasoning and other functions of the brain loop back on themselves separately. But since there seems to be no overall network representing a unified “self”, and since consciousness is not a unified entity, it is likely that Hofstadter intends the latter, with self-awareness being just one of the many aspects.
Although we have a feeling of having a unified identity with a unified consciousness, neuroscientists say that we are unable to think of more than one thing at a time. This applies also to people who are multi-tasking. Apparently they have developed the ability to switch from one task to another and then back in quick succession while their short term memory is retaining details from each task. The idea could be likened to switching video channels. The video channels are equivalent to the various tasks and the viewer is equivalent to the short-term memory. So perhaps the short term memory is the closest we can come to having a unified consciousness. The long term memory would perhaps represent our various connected selves that could be brought into consciousness using the associated specialised areas of the brain.
This is in sharp contrast to the unconscious coordinating functions of the brain that enable many species of organism to simultaneously take in a moving series of visual, auditory and/or tactile information, and then make a decision and direct the action of relevant muscles to perform some precise action.)
If you accept the materialist position you might think that people will some day be able to be teleported, that is, their entire body being recorded and the details then being sent to some distant location and used to reassemble the (conscious) person. But if this seems like a good way to travel to another planet or beyond, the scanning process would take more than a human lifetime under current technology if enough detail is to be transmitted to provide an exact reproduction (or should that be “replica”?). The reassembly would take much longer. (On the positive side, any skin blemishes and other features, mental as well as physical, that the traveller might want repaired or improved could be attended to during the process.)
This may seem unduly pessimistic, or an insult to modern technology. But the scanning process would need to record every atom or molecule of the person’s body, including its precise location, its state of excitation and its relationship ship with its immediate neighbours, without harming or changing the person during the process. The reassembly apparatus would need to have a store of all of the relevant elements or molecules. It would need to place the right bit precisely so that it connected properly. In the meantime it would have to stop any interaction between the reassembled parts that might interfere with the process.
Would the assembled body be alive? If so, might it become alive before it was completed, without the feet, for example? Would the heart start pumping prematurely, or would the blood be put in last? And, in addition to all the human cells, the multidudinous internal microorganisms on which the body depends for its operation would also need to be scanned and reassembled.
The transmission of the huge amount of information involved in the process would be a big problem. Depending on the distance between the scanner and the reassemble, there would be a small or a large amount of distortion, which would produce errors. Any error-correcting procedures would increase the amount of information, and the complexity of the process. And they would not be foolproof.
So perhaps my early comment on teleportation was optimistic rather than pessimistic.
The materialistic portrayal of consciousness feels very mechanical. Many people object to this – and also to the implied deterministic consequence that there is no such thing as free will.
In Chapter 4 Free Will, Determinism and Morality I concluded that the deterministic, materialistic, argument against free will was logically sound, but I still had a sneaking feeling that free will did exist and that I exercised it. And I noted that virtually every society operates on the assumption that free will is real. Could this issue be resolved if exercising free will was an aspect of a supernatural consciousness that was not restrained by the logic of the material world?
As mentioned earlier, tests using fMRI or EEG seem to show that all consciousness is dependent on the operation of the brain. And since the act of decision-making is observable in the brain, it would seem that consciousness does not provide an argument for the existence of free will. This, arguably, might dispose of free will, but it does not dispose of the possibility that there is a supernatural element to consciousness.
Some philosophers and neuroscientists claim that there is no satisfactory explanation of how physiological processes could produce consciousness. David Chalmers, in his book that was mentioned earlier in this chapter, described trying to produce a credible physical explanation as “the hard problem of consciousness”, hence the title of this chapter.
Some people claim to be able to obtain information that is not accessible to the brain through its sensory organs. They may claim to have had psychic experiences, that is, seeing or knowing things that they could not have seen or known through the senses (and therefore, presumably, not involving the unconscious mind). They regard these experiences as cases of supernatural consciousness. Examples are prescience, which means seeing or knowing future events, and out-of-body experiences, which are being able to look at one’s own body from a position outside it and/or see things not visible from the body’s actual position. Prescience may be just good luck in forecasting, and we all quickly forget our forecasts that don’t come true. (Weather forecasts and other calculated predictions are not “seeing the future” but estimates of probable outcomes based on known conditions.) Virtually all cases of psychic experiences can be attributed either to physiological effects, which can often be artificially induced, or to prior knowledge. The Skeptics organisations in the USA and in Australia have offered large monetary prizes for many years to anyone who can give a demonstration of a paranormal phenomenon. At the time of writing, no candidate in either country has been successful.
Another argument against the materialistic explanation is that any information or intelligence that is stored in a brain or a material device consists purely of symbols, and that symbols are not meanings. And without meaning, it is claimed, there can be no understanding. Or, to use the terms used in linguistics, syntax (i.e. the rules for putting words and other symbols together in a particular language) is not sufficient to produce semantics (i.e., to convey the subtleties and connotations of meaning). If syntax cannot produce semantics, then conscious semantics must be produced by some non-material source.
This argument is illustrated in the well-known hypothetical example called The Chinese Room. There is a closed room in which a person receives, through a slot in the door, pieces of paper with questions written in Mandarin. The person has no knowledge of the language or the script. There is a book of instructions in the room that directs the person to use the characters on the papers to find particular pieces of paper in drawers that line the walls of the room. The papers from the drawers also contain words written in Mandarin, and are the answers to the questions posed on the relevant incoming papers. These answers are then passed through another slot in the wall of the room. It is argued that the person in the room has no knowledge, or understanding or consciousness of the information that is passed through the room, and in the same way the brain has no knowledge or understanding or consciousness of the information that it processes.
Materialists would disagree, saying that meaning, indeed all of our ideas and all that we know and understand, are expressed in terms of language of some kind, or in pictorial or other representations, all of which are arrangements of symbols. Computers perform processes of accepting written questions and providing written answers, and this is essentially equivalent to what is described in the Chinese Room. Computers perform other functions such as storing photographs of people and objects, and of presenting these things as viewed from different angles. In theory, computers could associate pictures and all other details with all of the words, phrases and sentences that are stored in their memories, which is tantamount to understanding.
In fact, say the materialists, our ideas of the material world can never be anything more than representations of interactions between atoms and energy, which are only symbols. If it is accepted that the entire content of consciousness is dependent on the conditions of the brain and body, then syntax must be able to produce meaning.
But this means that such understanding is still only intelligence and not consciousness. Many electronic and mechanical devices are able to detect aspects of the environment, store the details in a memory, process the contents of the memory according to rules that would be partly in-built and partly learnt, and respond in accordance with other prescribed rules. Some motor vehicles do all of this. For the past few years some of them have been taking part in regular competitive trials, travelling autonomously over distances exceeding 100 kilometres on rough terrain in remote areas of the USA. Their successors are becoming increasingly smarter and have already appeared on urban streets and inter-city roads, carrying people and freight. Some people think that they could soon be commonplace and have a lower accident incidence than vehicles driven by people.
I don’t think anyone considers that these undeniably intelligent vehicles are conscious. But some people expect that undeniably conscious machines will eventually be produced as a product of more sophisticated artificial intelligence. That is, they think that consciousness is an emergent characteristic of material.
Recently some robots have been developed with the ability to identify parts of themselves as “belonging to them” when viewed by their video cameras. They can then distinguish themselves from other objects within their range of view. This ability has led to speculation that robots will soon be able to have a sense of self, and that this would mean that they are conscious. I think there is a distinction between recognising one’s own body parts (or recognising one’s reflection), and being conscious of recognising them. Being able to recognise oneself in a mirror is said to require having a “theory of self.” I do not think a theory of self necessarily requires consciousness and I think the recognition of oneself in a mirror is produced by unconscious intelligence.
It is interesting to consider this in the context of the many demonstrations of inducing people to think that something inanimate was actually part of their own body. Examples are the use of stuffed rubber gloves, which are believed to be their actual hands, and of devices containing mirrors, in which the image is believed to be their arm or leg. Some of these techniques are valuable in psychological treatments.
If think a mousetrap is minimally intelligent but not at all conscious. At what stage might an inanimate device, however complex and intelligent, become conscious? Even though we normally associate our consciousness with our intelligence, and although consciousness has been shown to be intimately connected with the working of the brain, I cannot see any reason why intelligence, no matter how great, must necessarily imply consciousness. A video camera doesn’t actually “see red”, in either the literal or figurative senses of that term. It just records specific wavelengths of light that produce what, because of the nature of our eyes and brains, we regard as primary colours. It then presents these for apparent full-colour reproduction.The intelligence of mousetraps and camcorders and computers can be explained in material terms; in fact it is the result of purposeful design and manufacture. There has been no attempt or desire to make camcorders or computers conscious. There is as yet no known way that consciousness could be produced by any material design, either mechanical or electronic.
Is consciousness necessary for creativity? Or can the novel, imaginative and sometimes apparently illogical ideas that lead to new creations in the arts, science and technology arise from purely material processes? Dualists would claim that they could not, and that there has to be an element of conscious human spirit. Materialists might accept the need for consciousness, but would contend that consciousness itself is a purely material process. Recently there have been musical compositions and pictorial works that have been publicly acclaimed but have subsequently been revealed to have been produced by computer programs. The earlier of these types of “creation” involved inputs of musical styles of particular composers, combined with metrical constraints, and of abstractions of shapes from images. Later ones have been more free-ranging, including computers producing their creations by “autonomously” searching the internet and then processing whatever they “selected” from the results of their search. In both cases there have been claims that these works are merely copies or forgeries or of no intrinsic worth. Given that these works are not derived from specific works of human artists, they are neither copies nor forgeries. And almost all art is derived from aspects of human culture. They cannot, of course, be considered to be inspired. But is this necessary for creativity? Reference to the worth of such creations (some of the “paintings” have sold for high prices) raises the fraught question of what determines the intrinsic worth of any work or art.
Human brains have vastly more neuronal connections than the equivalent connections in any computerised device yet produced. This means that the unconscious mind should be more powerful than any existing computer. But computers have beaten (conscious) human experts at chess and quiz competitions.
It has been suggested by Jonathon Haidt, a professor in social psychology in the USA, that consciousness leads to planning future actions. This means not just reacting to events according to memories and built-in preferences, but imagining what might happen or how something might be made to happen, and preparing appropriate action. It has also been suggested that conscious emotions, as distinct from mere intelligence, provide the incentives that drive all conscious organisms to do all the things that are necessary for survival and reproduction. Without emotion, there would be no incentive for an unconscious group of molecules comprising a primitive organism, or for a highly sophisticated robot, to seek or avoid or invent things. We might not be so anxious to remove a hand from a fire without conscious pain, nor take revenge (which might not always be a good idea) without conscious anger or resentment. But is this necessarily true?
We might, on the other hand, just be programmed to do these things automatically. And even the incentives to act that we ascribe to emotions might have been programmed. This concept of organisms that have the intelligence of human beings but no consciousness is equivalent to the concept of “philosophical zombies”, which is sometimes brought up in discussions about consciousness. In some popular literature, zombies are often depicted as scary and dangerous. But if they harmfully and relentlessly pursued their victims, philosophical zombies would be unconsciously harmful, feeling no satisfaction when they were successful and no disappointment when they were unsuccessful. If they had the same neural connections and the same neurotransmitters and hormones as human beings, and if, as described earlier, consciousness depends entirely on the condition of the brain, zombies would respond to their conditions in precisely the same way they would if they were also conscious.
These examples of the range of unconscious inanimate intelligence and the idea of living zombies suggest that consciousness would provide nothing of evolutionary advantage that was not already provided by material processes. So there would have been no reason for consciousness to evolve. So perhaps it did not, which could mean that consciousness is not a material process. This may be a persuasive argument against the materialistic explanation but it is not proof.
A different kind of reason for disputing the claim that consciousness is a material process is that many conscious sensations are very different in kind from the physiological processes associated with them.
The classic example of this difference is colour. The human eye is able to detect and distinguish a narrow band of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Many other species can detect and distinguish other wavelengths beyond our range. Our brains are able to interpret our various detected wavelengths into what we see as a gradually changing sequence of colours from red to violet. This rainbow sequence of sensations seems quite natural and complete. But can we imagine what additional colours would look like in the infrared and the ultra-violet that the other species can see? The colour receptors of our eyes (the cones) detect red, green and blue light, and the brightness receptors (the rods) detect all visible light without differentiating colours. But we perceive all colours of the visible spectrum, and all other different shades of colour, from the combined inputs of this limited range of receptors.
There is no apparent reason why what we perceive as red should be derived from a longer wavelength than what we perceive as blue. Blue is widely regarded as a “cool” colour and red as a “hot” colour. But a photon of blue light has more energy, i.e., it is “hotter”, than a photon of red, because blue light has a shorter wavelength.
Subjectively, white is the absence of colour, but objectively it is a balanced combination of wavelengths. Subjectively, black is a colour, but objectively it is the absence of light. Unless we are trained otherwise, colours such as brown or pink, which are also produced by mixtures of wavelengths, seem no different in kind from the “pure” colours of the rainbow. Again, our sensations do not match the associated physical processes.
People have various emotional reactions to different colours, and various aesthetic appreciations of particular arrangements of different colours. There seems to be no physiological reason why such subjective affects should be related to the relevant wavelengths or combinations of wavelengths.
Of course it will be pointed out that human eyes have only three colour sensors that are designated blue, green and red. The brain combines the inputs from these, in addition to the inputs from sensors that detect the total range of received spectrum, to produce the great variety of shades of colour that we can distinguish. So trying to correlate colour sensation with wavelengths of light is less straightforward than we might think.
Other senses – hearing, smell, taste, etc. – each deliver subjective experiences that, apart from their intensity, do not generally correlate with the physical conditions that caused them. (Although we can usually pick higher and lower frequencies in sound, the ancient Greeks referred to the higher frequency sounds as low and the lower frequencies as high, in contrast to present day terminology, which correlates pitch to frequency.)
Other conscious feelings that have no apparent similarity to their associated patterns of connections in the brain are:
- bodily feelings – tiredness, vigour, touch, pain, tickling, itching, awareness of the need to urinate;
- emotions – anger, elation, depression, excitement, awe, reverence, boredom, sadness, mirth, happiness, love, friendliness, hate, disgust, resentment, anxiety, fear, panic, obsession, delusion;
- enjoyment and dislike – of tastes, smells, comfort, relief from discomfort, music, beauty, surprises;
- intellectual attitudes – certainty, doubt, disbelief, suspicion, confidence, diffidence, interest, boredom.
All of these subjective experiences seem to be very different in kind from arrangements of connections in the brain. Imagine yourself in (or subject yourself to), for example, extreme terror, and then try to visualise this as just the squishy equivalent of the operation of your computer.
Or think of the difference between your brain having a store of details about something, and you being aware that you know something about it. A computer has many details in its memory, but it does not have a feeling of doubt about the truth or the likelihood of truth of those details, even if some of what is in the memory includes data about how true or untrue a specific piece of data may be. A computer does not feel enjoyment or sadness when a piece of news is entered into its memory. There is a saying “there are no boring subjects, only bored people”. Some people may dispute the first part of this but there are plenty of bored people. However, there are no bored computers. Computers might break down from fatigue of their components, but until then they will chug along, neither interested nor bored nor aggrieved, irrespective of the content of their task. And there is no reason to think that the neural systems that provide the processing and control functions of the bodies of organisms, including bored and enthusiastic people, become bored or aggrieved either. So here we have operating neural systems in living organisms that have no associated consciousness.
Every kind of intelligence can be represented in devices such as computers and in the brains of organisms. This includes both intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence (which is the ability to recognise emotions from the appearance and behaviour of other people, and to know what emotions other people will have as a result of different kinds of events).
But there is a difference between a representation and the thing it represents. A representation of an object or of, say, an animal, whether it is the name or a description or a series of pictures, is not the thing itself. And, similarly, a representation of an itch, or a sound, or a feeling of happiness, disgust or confidence, is not the same thing as the sensation it represents.
A further reason for thinking that consciousness is not material is that, while we feel we can directly “know about” material things through our senses, we can only infer other peoples’ subjectivities. For example, we generally agree about the names of the colours of particular things, but we have no way of knowing whether our own subjective perception of any particular named colour would be similar or different from any other person’s. For example, the sensation that I have when I am seeing the colour red may be similar to the sensation that someone else has when seeing the colour yellow. Or it might be a different kind of sensation. And while we can recognise and empathise about other peoples’ feelings and can conjure up our own emotional feelings, we have no way of experiencing whether they feel the emotion in the same way as we do (mirror neurons and fMRI notwithstanding) or are perhaps faking the emotion. Other peoples’ subjectivity does not seem to be directly accessible to us, and, I think, neither does the supernatural. Perhaps this is more than coincidence.
But some Supernaturalists will claim that they do personally access the supernatural. Some such feelings can be artificially induced. And materialists would claim that this shows that these feelings are purely processes of the brain. This may not trouble a believer in dualism who accepts that all consciousness is dependent on the condition of the brain. But to be able to claim having direct recognition of the supernatural, one would need to deny that all consciousness is dependent on the condition of the brain.
A Few Ambivalent Phenomena
The discussions so far have provided cases for and against both the materialist and the dualistic views of consciousness, quoting various kinds of evidence. There is also other evidence that both sides of the argument might claim to support their case. The following paragraphs will present some of this ambiguous evidence, after which I will discuss how consciousness could be dualistic, and how the material brain (and body) could produce consciousness without any other agency.
Examples of the ambiguous phenomena are:
- We generally prefer discretion to candour, but at certain times we embarrassingly find ourselves saying or doing something we thought we would never say or do, at least in the particular situation.
- We find ourselves giving opinions that we did not previously realise we had.
- We have decided not to take another potato chip or piece of chocolate even though we would like another one, but then realise we have actually taken it.
- We are walking or driving and suddenly realise that we have taken the route to a different destination from the one we intended to go to.
These four examples might be attributed to the observed tendency for the unconscious operation of two hemispheres of the brain to “oversight” each other and on these occasions the oversight fails. Or alternatively, it may be that the supernatural consciousness is preoccupied with other thoughts and has not been checking what to the brain is telling the body to do.
Further examples are:
In many tests using EEG to identify which parts of the brain are active during the time a person is deciding to perform some action and actually doing the performing, it has been noticed that the conscious decision to take an action has apparently occurred a measurable time after the body has taken the action. This case might be interpreted as the brain networks associated with taking action being given priority over those that provide the oversighting function. Or alternatively, it may be a time delay in the transmission of information between the material brain and the supernatural consciousness. But either way, it would seem that the decision to act was made in the brain. (The interpretation of the EEG results has recently been questioned on the grounds that the actions of neurons are more complex than had been assumed, and the decision-making action has a build-up period. To me, the action still seems to have occurred before the decision has been made.)
The effectiveness of taking a drug or a placebo is usually increased when the person taking it believes that such action will be beneficial, and decreased when they believe that such action will be ineffective. This is the placebo effect. In the nocebo effect, a belief that taking a drug or doing some other action will be harmful will usually decrease any beneficial effectiveness, or cause the action to be more harmful. This case might be an example of the neurons in the brain that are associated with hope or stress interacting with neurons that produce secretions within the body that aid or inhibit the effectiveness of the drug or action. Or alternatively, it may be an example of the supernatural mind being able to control the body.
Tests using fMRI and EEG show that specific areas of the brain are active when the person is performing specific actions without thinking about what is being done. When the same actions are done consciously, these same brain areas are active but additional brain areas also become active. This case might be the processing by which the brain produces consciousness, or it might be the part of the brain that transmits data to a supernatural consciousness.
In the fields of science, technology and creative writing, many cases have been reported of people dreaming of solutions to problems, or waking and realising that they suddenly know the solution. This is attributed either to the unconscious mind or the supernatural consciousness, freed from everyday activities, going through the contents of the memory to find a solution. Materialists would say that the process of evolution of species, which is very innovatively creative, is purely material. (See Chapter 7 Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory), and that “evolutionary” computer programs are used to produce better solutions to problems and better operating systems for mechanical and electronic processes.
(Some years ago, in a series of tests using EEG to identify which parts of the brain are active during the time a person is deciding to perform some action and actually doing the performing, it seemed to be that the conscious decision to take an action has apparently occurred a measurable time after the body has taken the action. This was interpreted as the brain networks associated with taking action being given priority over those that provide the oversighting function. Or alternatively, it was a time delay in the transmission of information between the material brain and the supernatural consciousness. But either way, it would seem that the decision to act was made in the brain. The interpretation of the EEG results has now been discredited on the grounds that the actions of neurons are more complex than had been assumed, and the decision-making action has a build-up period.)
We are not conscious of all of the things that our sensory organs detect. There are everyday sounds, sights, odours and tactile feelings that the brain seems to be constantly filtering out. This is commonly expressed as “not paying attention”. There is the famous attention test using a short video of a small group of people playing with a basketball. Some players are dressed in white and the others in black. Before the video is played the viewer is instructed to count how many times the ball is passed by a player dressed in white. During the video a person wearing a gorilla suit appears among the players and then moves off-screen. Many viewers fail to notice this person. Those who fail to notice claim to have been obeying instructions and therefore concentrating on the ball and the players in white. But they cannot claim that their eyes did not receive the visual information of the gorilla suit or pass that information to their brain. They might claim that they were conscious of it at the time but it did not get into their short-term memory. I think that those who did not notice the gorilla suit were never conscious of it. But was it that the brain discarded the “irrelevant” information or that the supernatural consciousness did not pick it up?
Related to this is the question of how a decision is made to bring individual items of intelligence out of memory and into consciousness. It is a common occurrence for something to “spring to mind out of the blue”, that is, to realise or remember something when there has been nothing in the surroundings, or nothing being thought about, that could have prompted it. This could be just a matter of pure chance, resulting from some irregular functioning, or some obscure neural connection being reawakened. But might it be prompted by some supernatural agency?
When we experience emotions there is often a physiological consequence. When we receive a fright or are under emotional stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol, a steroid hormone that affects the immune system, digestion and other body processes. This can also cause bodily discomfort. Continual emotional stress results in continual release of cortisol, and this can cause lasting damage. Sometimes a severe emotional shock can cause “broken heart syndrome” (or stress-induced cardiomyopathy), which is often mistaken for a heart attack. Do these examples show that the supernatural consciousness is causing the brain to order the release of the stress hormones? Or does the brain interpret the significance of the stressful incident and automatically order the release of the “fight-or-flight” hormone cortisol?
And finally, there is synaesthesia. This is consciousness of more than one kind of sense when the stimulus should arouse only one. The most common type is seeing a colour when a particular sound is heard, with different colours for different sounds. Usually it applies to the pitch of different musical notes. For some people the letters of the alphabet, or days of the week or numbers each have their associated colour. There is no agreement between synaesthetes as to which colour is associated with a particular sound, letter or day of the week. Synaesthesia seems to be caused by some kind of connection between closely located neurons associated with different sensory networks in the brain. While this illustrates that conscious experiences depend on what is happening in the brain, it could also be used as an argument for both materialism and dualism. The materialistic argument is that whatever happens in the brain is directly produced as consciousness. The dualistic argument is that it shows the inconsistency of the relationship between stimulus and experience.
How Might Consciousness be Dualistic?
The supernatural, by its name and its definition (or at least by my definition of it), would be inaccessible to investigation by material science. So, even if it were the agency that produces consciousness, we would not be able to find a scientific description of how it does it. But we would still want to know what was happening in the material world during the process.
We might conjecture what the brain would need to do during the different types of conscious activities, because the content of consciousness is completely dependent on the brain’s activities. And although we would not be able to know how the supernatural actually produced consciousness, we should be able to conjecture what sort of interactions it would need to have with the brain. Perhaps the brain transmits information to the supernatural.
The simplest act of consciousness would be just idle awareness. This might seem like a purely passive condition. But it requires that the body be alive and functioning and that the supernatural consciousness be detecting and interpreting something from it. In all kinds of consciousness the supernatural would need to sense the brain. It would not sense the other aspects of the world directly because its impression of the world depends entirely on the condition of the brain and sensory organs. Might it also transmit to the brain, as the seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes said it did? Perhaps it might for such mental functions as recalling, imagining, reasoning, deciding, and commanding bodily movement.
Recalling is the act of recovering something from memory. The memory resides in the brain, as is demonstrated by its deterioration when the brain is damaged, and by fMRI testing. Similarly, the processing of information as required in the various tasks occurs in the brain. So, although we are aware of ourselves imagining, and trying to recall, etc., there would be no need for the supernatural to do anything in these tasks except to be aware of them. The sensation of trying to remember could be passive awareness that the brain is trying to remember, in which case there would be no apparent need for the supernatural to transmit to the brain. So its only apparent task here might be to translate certain parts of brain activity into conscious sensations.
But what about something like the reaction to accidentally touching something very hot? Do we jump before actually feeling the pain, in some purely reflex neuronal reaction? Or is the supernatural consciousness made aware of the condition of the relevant pain receptors and it then transmits a signal back to the brain to move the affected part of the body? The reaction seems to be purely reflex. If so, the sensation of pain would not need any transmission from the supernatural to the brain. So its only apparent task here might be to receive certain parts of brain activity as conscious sensations.
But not all the reactions to pain are reflex. The consciousness of pain urges people and other organisms to take deliberate action to soothe or remove the pain.
Pain is regarded to be a warning signal that some part of the body has been damaged. So by urging the person or organism to take action to alleviate the discomfort, pain provides a possible means of avoiding further damage. Because it would appear to confer some advantage for survival, the structures that provide the pain signal could probably have arisen through evolutionary processes in those species that possess it. However, much of the pain suffered by people, and presumably by many other species, is the result of damage that cannot be readily relieved by simple kinds of action. And there are many kinds of damage that do not cause pain, particularly in their early stages. This is why various kinds of scans are necessary to detect cancers, etc. There are also occasions where pain signals are passed to the brain but do not result in conscious pain, when distractions, particularly situations of urgency, completely occupy the consciousness. During such occasions no action is taken to avoid the pain or to avoid further damage. This suggests that the unconscious mind would not, by itself, cause any action to avoid harm, with the possible exception of reflex responses. So consciousness must be able to cause some action in the brain to take action to relieve pain.
Emotions, like embarrassment, anger, etc., create the urge that leads to specific kinds of decision-making and action. Does this urge come from consciousness of the particular emotion, in which case the supernatural consciousness must communicate with the brain? Or do different chemicals in the brain directly affect the way someone becomes embarrassed, or confident, or aggressive, or cooperative, or disgusted, or proud, or smug and then the body acts in corresponding ways, e.g., grows red in the face and changes facial expression? The propensity for some of these emotions to be aroused is affected by an innate disposition in each person. The occasions on which they are aroused depends on memories of the experiences of each person. Enculturation, for example would explain why members of some communities relish certain types of food that disgust others. If the urge to act actually comes from a supernatural consciousness, then it would appear that the brain refers the situation to the consciousness for a decision, which is then relayed back to the brain. But if action to alleviate pain must involve consciousness, why would embarrassment and anger not involve it? One answer is that in such cases, the brain appears to have been shown to have acted at an appreciable time before the person became conscious of them. This finding has been contested, so there may not always be a need for consciousness to transmit to the brain.
All of these cases raise two questions: how would the supernatural consciousness make its decisions; and what is the nature of the transmission of signals between the supernatural consciousness and the material brain. I think there is no way of knowing how a supernatural entity might make decisions. On the matter of transmission, if it were assumed that the supernatural could actually be in a particular place, then little pieces of it might be situated at each synapse in the brain, and would be either reading the brain directly or duplicating some of the brain’s activities as consciousness in parallel with the brain’s intelligence. This could provide two-way communication. And little pieces of supernatural would have to be either added or removed as each neuron or neuronal connection was established or removed. Whatever it might do, if the action were performed by the supernatural, I think there would be no way of knowing how it did it.
Alternatively, there might be some transmitter, and possibly receiver, in the brain, which we should be able to recognise. If there is, we might expect other consciousnesses to listen in. (Psychics claim but are unable to demonstrate that some brains, or minds, can read others, even when out of sight.) Perhaps each has its own unique channel, like a point-to-point radio system.. And if consciousness remotely reads the brain why does it not also sense other aspects of the material world?
Another issue is that, if the brain transmitted or received information to and from the supernatural consciousness, it would consume energy in the process, because transmission and reception of information is a physical process requiring the transmission of energy. My definition of the supernatural as some hypothetical entity that is separate from the material world, and which might be able to interact with the material world without necessarily violating the laws of science, might still account for this. It would just be that the supernatural has a different set of laws from those of the material world. To me, it would seem irrelevant whether the laws were called psychophysical (to use David Chalmers’ term) or supernatural as long as they were outside the domain of science. But if transmission of information to or from the brain requires energy, as would be expected by the laws of physics, the physical source of that energy would need to be identified.
It may well be intrinsically impossible for us to know what process a supernatural entity might use to interact with a brain. No system in the brain that might transmit to or receive from a supernatural consciousness has yet been reported. There are the electrical fields resulting from the process of neurons “firing”. But neurons also fire when the unconscious mind is operating, so why are we not conscious of these operations? There are also electrical fields generated by other organs of the body, and by inanimate processes of the environment, many of which are much greater in strength than those emanating from the brain.
However, fMRI and EEG have together enabled neurologists to identify the area of the brain that becomes active, and the associated electrical currents that flow, when the brain is performing various functions. These functions include:
- recognising particular symbols and pictures on a computer screen;
- performing a physical action and also thinking about performing the same action;
- visualising particular objects or sounds;
- agreeing and disagreeing with particular statements.
Some neurologists expect that it will soon be possible to “read someone’s mind” with an enhanced kind of EEG – but only after having already done a very detailed examination of the unique workings of that persons brain. So perhaps there could be a supernatural equivalent of an EEG machine.
We could postulate that if intelligence has evolved in the material world, then consciousness might evolve alongside it in a supernatural world, with the two developments being closely associated in some sort of lock step. To me, this seems to weaken the case for the dualistic explanation of consciousness – it seems to tie the supernatural too closely to the material for it to be “super”. But some people might think this closeness strengthens the case for the supernatural.
Because there is no apparent direct relationship between the connections in the brain and the kind of sensations that they cause, such as what we experience when the eye detects the wavelength we call red, how is it that we always get the same sensation? That is, is the sensation of red stored in the brain or somewhere in the supernatural? Also we can close our eyes and visualise colours. This can be extended to other sensations, not just visual. If it could be shown that the sensations are stored only in the brain (perhaps in mirror neurons), then this would weaken, and perhaps destroy, the dualistic case. If it is stored in the supernatural consciousness there is no point in asking how this is done. If this memory is not stored in the brain, but in the supernatural, does it persist after the death of the brain? As far as I know, there is no evidence of whether a person can visualise something after the failure of the part of the brain that stored the memory of it. But we know that other functions, including memory, disappear when the relevant part of the brain is damaged.
All these possibilities and suppositions are inscrutable. Some may seem to give tentative support for the dualistic explanation of consciousness but there is always the tentative possibility of a materialistic explanation. Further ambivalent phenomena are given in the next section.
There is another problem in invoking the supernatural as a necessary component of consciousness. By definition, there can be no direct scientific evidence for the existence and characteristics of anything supernatural. In earlier chapters I have already tentatively suggested a possible role for the supernatural in an explanation of consciousness. But to then quote consciousness as evidence for the existence of the supernatural would beg the question.
None of this disproves the existence of an undescribed supernatural consciousness, although it casts doubt upon it. Some kind of clear evidence would be needed to confirm it. What would effectively dismiss it would be to show how the processes of the brain could provide all the types of consciousness that have been discussed.
How Could the Brain Produce Consciousness?
Earlier, I mentioned the analogy between the brain producing consciousness and the alimentary system producing digestion. Digestion can be explained in terms of the structure of the stomach and other organs in conjunction with the reagents, enzymes and microorganisms they contain. So if the analogy holds good, then it should be possible to explain in similar terms how the brain how the brain produces consciousness. As has been discussed, there is a satisfactory explanation of how the brain produces intelligence. But that is as far as the digestion analogy can go: consciousness is not a mere sub-set of intelligence: it is closely related but distinctly different.
When someone is consciously performing a particular action, some of the neurons that become activated do not become activated when the person is performing the same action unconsciously. This reinforces the claim that consciousness is dependent on the brain. But this is not the same as saying that the brain produces consciousness, or how it does it.
Perhaps a clue to the process of the production of consciousness might be found in the functions that it provides any organism that possesses it. In earlier sections of this chapter I came to the conclusion that there seemed to be no advantage in consciousness being evolutionarily selected, but also mentioned that Jonathon Haidt says that consciousness provides the incentive to plan and undertake future actions. So if it actually has been evolutionarily useful and it evolved as a product of the systems within the brain, then there should be a logical explanation of how the brain’s operations produce sensations – sensations of being alive, of pain, itch, sadness, awe, disgust, etc.
We know how appearances of consciousness can be produced. Developments in artificial intelligence show that any human trait, including restlessness, caprice, obsessiveness, inquisitiveness and thinking along lines that do not follow classical logic can be reproduced in a computer. And if sticking a pin into someone makes them exclaim and jump, this could also be programmed into a robot that has sensors built into its outer surface. This would make it impossible to determine whether a machine was conscious if it had all of our capabilities of sensing the world and remembering and being intelligent. A machine can be programmed to engage in and begin a conversation, to tell stories, react to situations involving pain, frustration or insult, etc., in the same way as a person. A machine can be programmed to recognise patterns, and to identify a person seen in profile or full face or from other angles. So it is a debatable whether consciousness is an advantage for survival. Would it help a driverless car if it were conscious? Consciousness makes for richness of life, for which we may rejoice at or bemoan depending on our personal situation and disposition.
But if we assume that consciousness really does provide an advantage for survival, one way of looking for an explanation could be to explore how it might have evolved from minimal beginnings in primitive organisms, developing as intelligence also developed. Might we expect to find something in the evolutionary record?
The fossil record would hardly tell us anything, nor would the progression in the development of nervous systems and brains, nor DNA. This is because we would not know what to look for. We would need to postulate a process by which the primitive consciousness was produced by the primitive organs of sensing, remembering and deciding. It would not be possible to know what the content of a primitive, or indeed any non-human, consciousness might be, even when the physical processes were known. And until we could postulate a feasible process for human consciousness we would not be able to work backwards to look for an evolutionary sequence. So this approach does not seem useful.
Another approach is to start with the characteristics of a complex brain with a complex intelligence and a rich memory, where very many details of both brain and aspects of consciousness can be correlated. The difficulty with this is that the material processes in the brain are all of the same kind, i.e., interactions between networks of neurons in the presence of neurotransmitters, whereas conscious sensations seem to be various and very different in kind. What is there in common between an itchy ear, a feeling of elation and the colour yellow, except that we can be conscious of each, either separately or at the same time? What is there about any of these that could arise from connections within neuronal networks? Or what could such connections do to produce them? Or what is the difference between one set of connections and another to create the different kinds of consciousness?
It might be argued that streams of digital data are used to encode text, music and pictures, and to perform logical and mathematical reasoning, so pulses of data through neurons would do the same. But this is still in the realm of information and intelligence, not of conscious experience. The video screen and the audio system produce the information but do not experience it.
Manufactured devices can produce all sorts of output. Some can produce intelligence – detecting the environment, memory, recognition, and reasoning etc. These capabilities are produced by the characteristics of the interconnections of mechanical and/or electrical processes. But there is no known explanation of how these processes could produce conscious sensations. In organisms, the processes of intelligence can be explained in terms of neuronal processes. Again, there is no explanation of how neuronal processes, which produce intelligence, could produce consciousness.
In addition to producing intelligence and the unconscious mind, neurons have a vast array of non-mental functions such as stimulating and coordinating muscular action, causing the release of hormones and neurotransmitters, regulating the heart-rate and other body processes, and interacting with the immune system. So the neurons perform a lot more work than what is associated with the conscious mind. The unconscious mind and other functions of the brain can be demonstrably explained in terms of the operations of the various parts of the brain and body, including the connections of networks of neurons. We have no consciousness of what the housekeeping and other neurons are actually doing while they produce these particular functions, but we can explain and demonstrate how they do it. So the inability to explain how neurons and other parts of the body might also produce consciousness is a real problem for the materialistic explanation.
The unconscious intelligence of the body is not only that of neurons. It is also the intelligence of the immune system. And it is the intelligence of the cooperation between individual cells, from just after conception as they organise into an embryo, a foetus, a baby and an adult; and as they manage their functions as parts of organs. And it is in the operation of hormones. All these systems cooperate with each other, and with the brain and its system of nerves. And they all act in accordance with the laws of science, and do it unconsciously. We can become conscious of some of their actions, but only through the brain. Anaesthetics can block such consciousness.
Given the interconnection between the neural and non-neural intelligent systems, it would seem reasonable to regard them all as partners of the unconscious mind. Why, with such vast and varied intelligence in our bodies, would we think that consciousness would be produced from just a part of the brain, a part that seems to be no different in its components and manner of operation from the brain’s other parts?
It could be argued that, since people can be trained to affect some of these housekeeping functions, such as lowering their blood pressure by consciously concentrating on it, we do have conscious access to these processes. However, these people have no consciousness of what they are actually doing when they produce the particular effects. It is just trial and error. Electronic circuits also can be “taught” to learn how to do specific tasks in a process of trial and error and using feedback and analysis. We do not know what muscles we are directing as we smile, or move an arm to perform a specific task.
If consciousness was ever developed in machines, we might then discover how it is produced in organisms. However, it may be impossible to tell if a very intelligent machine is really conscious or just acting in a way that simulates it. There is a test called the Turing test, in which people have text conversations with both other people and machines, and have to identify which they are conversing with. Repeated tests show that machines are thought to be people and people thought to be machines in a significant proportion of guesses. It may be thought that there are recognisable human idiosyncrasies that would distinguish the person from the strictly logical machine. But software is already used to simulate these. For example, some “talking books” do such things as pausing and making a sound like someone taking a breath, or drawing out the length of particular words, to mimic all sorts of human traits. Since the 1980s popular fiction has had humanoid robots that are often indistinguishable from people. The appearance of all the signs of human intelligence in inanimate machines brings an additional slant to the old question: how do I know anyone is conscious except me?
Another way of answering the “hard problem” might be found using reverse engineering, i.e., looking at the characteristics of consciousness to work out what type of process might have produced each of them. But, taking any one of the various kinds of consciousness, say, itchiness or redness, I find it impossible to imagine a process that might possibly produce it using neuronal connections, or anything else. As mentioned earlier, Douglas Hofstadter thinks it could be done by neural networks feeding back on themselves. He does not say how this actually produces any of the different sensations. But other people might some day find some explanation.
But we might find a useful analogy here with the origin of life. Many biologists are sure that living organisms must have evolved from inert matter, even though no one has yet proposed a plausible complete sequence of how this could have happened. It is obvious that intelligence has evolved to become more complex as more complex organisms evolved. Structures gradually developed in brains as a sort of ”wired-in” intelligence, to allow greater learning and mental processing. It is now known that the brain’s capacity to “wire together” specific neurons, which is known as the plasticity of the brain, results in a sort of personal software that allows each of us to do things unconsciously. But it is only after they have been learnt through a conscious process that we can do these things unconsciously. So consciousness might have had the role of being the programmer of this personal software.
This idea might be seen as explaining why conscious evolved. It might equally be seen as providing a role for a supernatural consciousness. But we still cannot see how it happens.
The basic problem in trying to find a materialistic explanation is that consciousness seems, or “feels”, like the primary element of our existence. All our intelligence and all our concepts of the material world emerge from it. None of my descriptions of consciousness are couched in material terms, and this was not deliberate. No material description seemed possible. It may be that, just as material processes can be described only in terms of other material processes, sensations can be described only in terms of other sensations. This neither refutes the materialistic explanation nor confirms the supernatural one. Until a valid materialist description of consciousness (as distinct from intelligence) is produced, any materialist explanation must be, at best, tentative. And this applies whether such an explanation were to regard consciousness to be an intrinsic or an emergent property of matter.
Consciousness cannot be measured in the same way that material things are measured. There is not even an equivalent to the IQ tests that give an indication of intelligence. A doctor may ask a patient to rate the intensity of a pain on a scale of zero to ten, but that is very subjective. Patients who had never felt excruciating pain might not realise how much worse a pain could be than the one they have been asked to rate. And there is no way of comparing the severity of one person’s rating of five with another person’s rating of five. And how do you measure degrees of boredom, jealousy, depression, etc.?
While it is possible to identify how the changes in the configurations of the networks of neurons in the brain produce intelligence, there seems to be no way the relevant configurations could produce consciousness. Neurons stimulate muscles to perform all their required functions in walking, talking, seeing, etc., but there no apparent equivalent organs to be stimulated to produce the feelings of pain, jealousy, pleasure, itchiness, etc. And, if such organs were discovered, I am unable to imagine how they could produce these sensations.
Is it worth revisiting the possibility that material is inherently conscious? To explain two mysteries of the cosmos, cosmologists have invoked two material entities, dark matter and dark energy, which they have so far been unable to detect or describe but have been able to measure. The suggestion that material is inherently conscious might be thought of as invoking “dark consciousness”. With this concept, a structure that was complex and/or intelligent would be intelligently conscious. If an intelligent brain were innately conscious (as distinct from its consciousness being emergent) how is there such a thing as an unconscious mind, which constitutes most of the brain’s functioning?
Whatever dark matter and dark energy may be, they are, if they exist, material entities exerting material forces. Calculations have been made of how much mass and energy they would need to have in order to explain the effects attributed to them. But whether consciousness is material or supernatural, it does not in itself involve forces or have any apparent material characteristics, and it does not seem to be measurable. In any case, the workings of the unconscious mind can already be reasonably explained in terms of the systems of neural networks. While information theory is related to data and, by association, to intelligence, there is no corresponding theory related to consciousness. So, on these three counts, the idea that material is inherently conscious seems infeasible.
All evidence to date seems to show that the content of consciousness depends entirely on the content of the brain (and I acknowledge that other organs participate to the content of the brain). There also is evidence that certain parts of the brain that are not active when someone is doing something unconsciously, become active when the person is doing the same thing and consciously thinking about what is being done. This clearly shows the importance of the brain in consciousness. And consciousness may well be an emergent property of the brain. (This also shows that consciousness is different from intelligence.)
But the materialist explanations of consciousness do not actually explain consciousness: they explain intelligence, which is a feature of the unconscious mind and of computers. There is no theoretical reason why a computer could not have enough intelligence to perform some or all the tasks of an unconscious mind. And there would be no reason to think that such a computer was conscious.
The materialist explanations do not tell us what the parts of the brain associated with consciousness are doing to create consciousness. These parts of the brain seem to be making the same kinds of connections between neurons as the other parts of the brain. Until the actual process is satisfactorily described we cannot claim that the brain produces consciousness.
I think that the only way there could be a materialist explanation of consciousness is for there to be a new branch of physics, as suggested towards the end of Chapter 4 The Nature of the Supernatural. This would be as different from present-day physics as quantum theory is different from the physics of Newton.
Six explanations of how consciousness might occur have now been considered, noting the distinction between consciousness and intelligence. No explanation seems to be fully justified by evidence and reason. The ones that are most often proposed, and that seem to me to have the best chance of eventual success are the materialistic and the dualistic.
The arguments in support the materialistic explanation are the evidence for the intelligent operations of the body, particularly its brain and nervous system, and that the details of the contents of consciousness depend entirely on these operations. The arguments against the materialistic explanation are that the organism is not continually conscious of all the intelligence being produced and stored by its body, that consciousness seems intrinsically different from the intelligent material processes that it is associated with, and that consciousness is (currently) unable to be described in material terms. But these arguments do not completely rule out the possibility of a materialistic explanation.
Further, it might be argued that any entity that could provide answers to issues of science, that is, of the material world, must operate under laws that are compatible with the laws of science. And that would mean that it was part of the material world and not supernatural. This argument relies on assumptions about the nature of the supernatural, but that does not mean it is an argument for the supernatural.
I think there is an inherent problem in providing an explanation of consciousness in non-material, i.e., in supernatural, terms, because there seems to be little, if anything, that can be demonstrated to be true about anything supernatural. This is a problem for all explanations that invoke a supernatural entity, but it might not necessarily be insuperable.
I think the other explanations of consciousness can be rejected, for reasons given earlier in this chapter.
So, until one of the explanations can be demonstrated to be feasible, or until all but one can be completely refuted, or until some other explanation turns out to be satisfactory, I think that the hard problem of consciousness remains hard.
And the unsolved mystery of consciousness means that the existence of the supernatural cannot be ruled out – or, as some Atheists might say, not yet.