Finding a scientific explanation for consciousness

What is consciousness?

It is a seemingly tough thing to get your mind around. We all experience consciousness, or at least I have faith that other people experience consciousness and aren’t just unaware zombies.

Consciousness is different than mind, that is for sure. There can be processes of the mind that you are not conscious of. Computations and cognitive events that occur in the mind but you are not aware of, not conscious of all the same. Rather, you are conscious of your mind (or contents/objects of your mind). Consciousness is awareness. The consciousness is aware of things, it is aware of objects. To be conscious is to be conscious of something. Of what you are reading, of tastes, visual field, smells, tactile sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. Your mind is capable of constructing/presenting to the consciousness all sorts of sensations, all sorts of thoughts, all sorts of memories and emotions. We each have a vast range of memories at our disposal, but we are only conscious of the ones that we are conscious of, the ones we are made aware of.

So consciousness is an awareness.

This awareness is of whatever it is you perceive through the senses as it is constructed and presented by the mind. Meaning, consciousness is an awareness of the objects of the mind. It is like a light being shone onto something, and that something is an activity of the mind.

Consciousness is unified. I don’t experience a consciousness of my visual field of my laptop right now that is separate from my tactile sensations as I press on the keyboard. Rather, the two occur in one single unified experience. They occur together. It isn’t one consciousness experience one set of perceptions and a different consciousness that is aware of another set. Everything – my thoughts, emotions, sense perceptions, memories, all occur together in a single unified field. One consciousness.

Consciousness is non-reducible. In science we like to reduce things. A human body is reduced to systems (skeletal system, central nervous system, reproductive system, etc). These systems are reduced to organs, tissues, etc. These are reduced to cells. Cells are reduced to macromolecules. Macromolecules are reduced to atoms. Atoms are reduced to subatomic particles. Subatomic particles are reduced to probabilistic quantum events that have no real physical existence. But consciousness, consciousness isn’t reducible beyond itself. It simply is. It is awareness. It is awareness of objects, and you can’t reduce the awareness beyond what it is.

Consciousness is one of, if not, THE big ticket areas of study today. It is found to play a role in our modern day physics (quantum mechanics), it is one of the hottest topics of study in philosophy (philosophy of mind), it is at the core of the yoga, meditative, new age and mindfulness movement, and it is the final frontier of psychology, computer science (artificial intelligence), neuroscience and cognitive science.

Each domain has its own approach and tool kit to use in attempting to tackle the problem of explaining consciousness, but how will science attempt such a feat?

Science claims to be objective. Science is also a methodology that has limited scope and range.

The current leading model in science is that the mind and consciousness are caused by biological processes in the brain. This is to say, that the mind and consciousness arise from molecules and atoms interacting with each other according to the laws of physics. To not believe this to be the case is to pretty much commit academic suicide.

I won’t discuss the problems associated with this view, or why I might have a problem with it (though I will ask what it means for molecules to have knowledge of molecules, and how can molecules be aware of molecules, if awareness and mind are just properties of molecules). Rather, I will ask what science would need to do to look for consciousness via experiment.

A proper experiment controls all the variables except one. If that one variable is altered and it has no effect on the thing being measured, it is inferred that the variable has no causal relationship with the effect being studied. If, on the other hand, the variable is altered and it is found to have an effect on the thing being measured, it can be stated that there is a correlation between the two, and from there further investigations can be made to see if this is just a correlation, or if the relation is a causal one.

An example can help.

You enter into a new home and you want to determine which light switches on the walls control which light bulbs on the ceilings. Let’s say there are 10 switches and 10 light bulbs in this house. It would be unscientific and not helpful to turn on 5 switches then walk and around and see which light bulbs went on. You controlled 5 variables, but changed the other 5, and now you can’t really tell which light bulbs correlate with which switches. The best way to go about determining these relations is to leave 9 of the switches in the off position, turn one switch on, and then see which light bulb changes. Hopefully you see a 1-to-1 correlation. You can switch it on, and off, on and off. See that they always correlate, and if you are so confident in this relation, you can infer that the light switch has a causal relationship with the light bulb, in that the switch being turned on causes the light bulb to go on. And you can continue this process for the other 9 switches.

Now, what if the exact same scenario was repeated, except in this scenario you enter a new home and there is a dog there. What you don’t know is that this dog is scared of illuminated light bulbs. You repeat the experiment above, and what you find is everytime you turn on a light switch two things occur: a light bulb illuminates, and the dog barks. Now, if you have never turned on a light switch before, you have never seen a light bulb before, and you have no previous concepts of electricity, it is just as likely in the above scenario that you would correlate the dog barking with the light switch, and the light switch to the light bulb illumination, and the light bulb illumination to the dog barking. You might even infer that this is more of a correlation, but that the light switch being turned on causes the dog to bark and the dog barking causes the light bulb to illuminate. It sounds silly, but it would be perfectly plausible for someone who had no previous concepts of light switches, light bulbs, dogs, and electricity.

The example might seem silly, but it isn’t. It isn’t silly because the pursuit of science is a pursuit from a state of ignorance (no knowledge of the universe) to a state of facts and truths. Meaning, at some point along the way during the pursuit of science electricity was not known, light switches were not known, light bulbs were not known, nor the reason for dogs barking nor their effects. At some point, none of these concepts were known. And in all truth, any field of scientific study is a field of unknown. No correlation or causal relation is obvious. When you don’t know anything about dogs, light switches, light bulbs or electricity, the model that light switches cause dogs to bark which cause light bulbs to go on is perfectly plausible.

Back to consciousness.

How are we to study consciousness through science under the model that consciousness and mind exist through a causal relationship from atoms and molecules that comprise the brain?

Let’s go back to the house with the light bulbs. If you had a light switch and turned it on and off and not a single light changed, what conclusion could you arrive at? Well, let’s say you changed all the light bulbs making sure they were all working. Light switch on, and nothing. No light bulbs illuminated. Well, you could have to conclude that the light switch has no causal relation to any of the light bulbs. The light switch’s on/off position has no bearing on any of the other light switches functionality. The light switch would have no effect on the lights. It has no relation to them. Maybe to something else, maybe an outlet, maybe it isn’t even connected to any wires/electricity. Who knows! But, you would conclude that it has no causal relation to the light bulbs.

Ok. Now, in the house with light switches and light bulbs we had a model to test: there are light switches and light bulbs and the light bulbs are causally controlled by the light switches. In the study of consciousness/mind we have a model to test: there are atoms/molecules/cells and mind/consciousness and the mind/consciousness is causally controlled by the atoms/molecules/cells.

Now, atoms/molecules/cells are in constant motion, and they are constantly in flux. Being in flux means they are coming and going, never being, always becoming. An atom spends some time comprising this molecule, then is transferred in a chemical reaction and comprises that molecule, then finds its way into the blood stream or spinal fluid, and eventually makes its way out of the body. Likewise, an atom that was once a part of a seed on the earths surface is now in your belly, and then finds its way into the brain and is part of a neuron and part of a dopamine molecule, etc, etc. All these atoms are moving, all of these molecules are moving, all of these cells are moving. Nothing is static, nothing is fixed, all is flux.

And yet, we experience a single unified non-reducible consciousness. All this change, and yet only one single consciousness. Yes, it is true that the objects of consciousness (objects of our mind) are constantly changing, but consciousness itself never changes. It always is. 

So, if we keep changing the light switches and the light bulbs don’t change and we conclude that the light switches have no causal role in producing or affecting the light bulbs, then if the atoms are constantly moving, constantly differing, constantly changing their relations, their states, their levels, their activities and consciousness is still this single unified non-reducible thing from moment to moment remaining unchanged, then we must also conclude that these atoms, these molecules, these cells have no causal influence/affect/role in determining consciousness.

If there does exist a causal relationship between something physical (atoms/molecules/cells/etc) and the existence of consciousness, then there must exist a light switch. There must exist something, whether it is an atom, a molecule, a cell, a set of atoms, a set of molecules, a set of cells, a relation between members of these sets…etc…something that when present or absent consciousness exists, and oppositely when absent or present consciousness does not exist.

I am not saying such a thing exists, in fact I believe the exact opposite, but that is just a hypothesis/conjecture.

But if there did exist a physical causal relationship for consciousness, first it must be shown that there exists a certain distinct and discrete physical state (atoms/molecules/cells/relations between these, etc) that correlates with consciousness, and the perturbation of this physical state would have to correlate with the absence of consciousness.

We don’t know of one, and finding one would require quite complex relations/modelling to be done as it is known that all physical systems, the brain included, are constantly in flux. How can a state of flux produce a constant stream of consciousness, a singular, unified non-reducible consciousness? The analogy with our house of light bulbs would be a house where light switches are constantly in flux, turning themselves on and off continuously, and yet we think that one light bulb stays on constantly, and we want to figure out what the causal relationship between these dancing in-flux light switches have on that single continuously lit light bulb. Seems illogical and impossible, doesn’t it? I am not saying it is impossible, but it seems unlikely.

Of course, there is a difference between the two analogies that leaves it hard to even talk scientifically about producing consciousness. The light bulbs are either on or off, that is not really open for debate. Consciousness, though, is. Consciousness is always of something. Conscious of my hunger, conscious of my dog wanting to go for a walk, conscious of how tired I am. Conscious of how long this blog post is getting. Consciousness is always of an object. Now, the question remains: What happens when you are conscious of no-thing? Commonly this is referred to as unconscious or not conscious, like deep sleep without a dream. But how can we distinguish that state from being conscious, but conscious of no-thing, no object? What criteria do we have to make that judgement?

So even if we found that light switch, that physical state in the brain, we still couldn’t distinguish between the two interpretations of the physical state causally affecting:

  1. No consciousness (off light switch position); or
  2. Consciousness of no object (off light switch position)

And so the pursuit of science to find such a causal explanation for consciousness seems deeply troubled. It is interesting though, that is for sure.

With that, I walk my dog and then sleep.