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A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination

Paul Kiritsis - Monday, May 13, 2013

Title:               A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination

Author:          Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi

Copyright:     2000

Genre:            Science

Price:              $18.00

ISBN:             0-465-01377-5

Rating:           4 out of 5

This book is a contemporary product of the mind-brain debate, a neuroscientific investigation yearning to untangle the enigma of human consciousness by linking its primary features with neural correlates. Because the word ‘consciousness’ has been used in a variety of contexts by different authors across variant disciplines, it’s important to give and clear and concise definition of the word before proceeding any further. Consciousness is, to all intents and purposes, an acute ability on the part of a biologically sophisticated organism to construct a ‘remembered present’; to establish cohesive mental scenes through a perceptual classification of incoming stimuli that interact purposively with a growing storehouse of nonrepresentational memories. As a sequence of conscious states pleated into a coherent, private stream of perception through explicit choice and action, consciousness is also an integrated process. These phenomenological features are intrinsic to animals with a cerebral neurophysiology and neuroanatomy resembling our own. In humans rudimentary consciousness underpins a substratum of unique evolutionary characteristics including symbolic association and semantic competence, the sentient assemblage of scenes not indigenous to the present moment, language, and an acute awareness of self. The ontogenetic expression of these secondary albeit more refined characteristics forms a secondary consciousness known to philosophers, neuroscientists, and psychologists as higher-order consciousness. Unlike primary consciousness which lies athwart the phylogenetic nest and encompasses all primates, higher-order consciousness is (to our knowledge) unique to the human race.      

Despite the numerous ways in which it can be characterized, consciousness exhibits another primary quality–a fierce resistance to disintegration. This allows it to be categorized under an exclusive group comprising units of measurement that are fundamental in the natural world like quanta of energy, subatomic particles like electrons, and cells, the building blocks of life. Searle (1997) provides a most commanding expression of this quality in his description of consciousness:

“It is supposed to be frightfully difficult to define the term [consciousness]. But if we distinguished between analytic definitions, which aim to analyse the underlying essence of a phenomenon, and common-sense definitions, which just identify what we are talking about, it does not seem to me all difficult to give a common-sense definition of the term: ‘consciousness’ refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we awake from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again, or fall into a coma, or die, or otherwise become ‘unconscious’. Dreams are a form of consciousness, though of course quite different from full waking states (p. 5).”      

Having laid the contextual ground for such an obscure word we can now move onto the book itself.  To begin with A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination is an incredible read. In fact, if you have time and don’t mind expending some effort looking up neuroscientific jargon, I’d say that the book is worth your attention for the sheer scope of experimental data alone. By persevering you’ll be dutifully rewarded with a newfound understanding of distributed changes in the neural substrates of (chiefly) the thalamocortical system and their link to conscious experience. You’ll also come away knowing about highly differentiated re-entrant interactions in the brain, all of which transpire over a period of hundreds of milliseconds and make sustained conscious perception possible. According to Edelman and Tononi a functional cluster of neurons characterized by these unique features is called the ‘dynamic core’, so-called as to reflect its mercurial composition and enduring interactivity.

Adhering mainly to a philosophy of materialistic monism where compartmentalization of system parts and properties becomes the primary avenue through which the whole might be understood, Edelman and Tononi’s ‘dynamic core hypothesis’ invokes occurrent correlations between neuronal clusters of cerebral structures and the inherent qualities of consciousness in an attempt to bridge the yawning chasm between the functional brain and an embodied consciousness. Put in a different way, what they’re saying is that the light of consciousness is exclusively buttressed by sophisticated brain structures like the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus and the thalamocortical loops. When any one of these suffers damage via direct head trauma as to decrease its level of interactivity with correlated areas, the integral functioning of consciousness can be disrupted in manifold ways; the most commonly recognized of these is the dissociative state, ‘a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment’ so that the cohesive perceptive field suffers fragmentation like shattering glass and manifests as fugues, amnesia, depersonalization, and in the worst case scenario multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder). The most severe cases seem to result in an extirpation of consciousness altogether     (i.e. vegetative states incurred when the brain has been deprived of oxygen). Because the properties of conscious experience cannot be disconnected from the underlying neural activities that grants it phenomenal expression, it stands to reason that the former cannot survive physical death. No brain, no consciousness.

If we were to adopt a bird’s eye view, we would see that the authors begun disentangling what Arthur Schopenhauer called the ‘world knot’ by linking specific brain structures and functions with aspects of conscious experience but they fall way short in fulfilling a gargantuan intellectual promise loudly echoed in the title of the book; a satisfying explanation of ‘how matter becomes imagination’. How do specific neural substrates create a unified, personal stream of consciousness; how does an electrochemical signal translate into a human thought? How might a conscious thought causally influence the membranes of neurons belonging to the ‘functional cluster’ and the patterns of their synaptic transmission? How does one solve this bidirectional problem without recourse to dualism, something that fellow peers would equate with experiential blasphemy and intellectual suicide?

Neuroscientists currently working to establish a coherent theory establishing a neural basis for conscious mechanisms frequently forget one important fact: the properties of conscious experience are not causally explicated by the theorized correlations themselves. They also tend to forget the problem of causal duplication that epiphenomenalism introduces into the consciousness mystery; as products of evolutionary selection, compound goal-orientated behaviours can stand quite well without alignment with an inferential construct, the shadow of conscious experience. From an evolutionary standpoint there is absolutely no reason why putative qualities associated with higher-order consciousness should have emerged at all. Language, the ability to construct past and future scenes, and a sense of self had nothing beneficial to add to the ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ arsenal of prehistoric humans. So why would that slice of providence in natural selection have ‘selected’ them for genomic expression knowing very well that consequence of such would be an unnecessary causal duplication?     

On the other hand thought offers a cogitative wellspring for semantic and linguistic potentialities inherent in higher-order consciousness, and any ‘theory of consciousness’ seeking scientific credibility and empirical ground on which to stand must be prepared to offer an educated stab or guess as to how neural activity spawns the primary qualities of the consciousness process. Furthermore, it must be able to offer plausible hypotheses subjectable to repeated observation and experimental trials and satisfy a larger number of associated criteria than those belonging to rival theories. One supposes that the authors might grow brazen and tackle some of these issues in the latter part of the book, perhaps under ‘Observer Time’, a section dealing with phenomenological reflections on higher-order consciousness. No such luck though. Instead, the reader finds him or herself easing into a boundless swamp of flat-footed discourse and colliding with what can only be described as a meek, apologetic admittance to do with the neural correlates of human thought: ‘There is no hiding the fact that we still do not know the answer in sufficient detail.’ The ‘Thinking’ chapter in which this statement appears is topped off by similarly equivocal and unsatisfying conclusion bound to annoy those with a reasonable grasp of neuroscience: ‘What goes on in the head when each self has a thought is an awful lot.’ That’s something we don’t already know, isn’t it?  

Strangely, the ‘dynamic core hypothesis’ offered by Edelman and Tononi as the cerebral mechanism behind consciousness remains curiously silent on multiple matters–how consciousness arises from a confluence of brain activity, somatic identification, and social interaction; how subjective states called qualia might be understood in neural terms; and how the objective scientific perspective on consciousness might be reconciled with the wider province of human knowledge and experience. The authors make an explicit statement about answering these questions at the very beginning of the treatise, but for some strange reason became entangled in the same ‘world knot’ they are trying to unravel and thus forget the original purpose for which the book was actually written. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination promises to blast us up along the slope of a towering mountain, all the way to the peak, and then leaves us stranded at the bottom with a lousy view of the foothills; it promises to shuttle us all the way to the dazzling stars in an intergalactic spaceship but doesn’t even reach the moon.

Looking at scientific research into the neural correlates of human consciousness as a whole, it appears that the riddle of how matter becomes imagination is cognitively closed, at least for the time being. We just can’t understand how neurochemical signals translate into thoughts with the same level of comprehension that we understand how the platelets, clotting proteins, white blood cells, and fibroblasts of the immune system heal an open wound. It’s an intellectual cul-de-sac bound to keep the ‘world knot’ entangled for some time yet. A viable way out would be to take the light of consciousness as a fundamental unit of nature, akin to the quanta and subatomic particles of physical law, with theorists able to establish an ontological spectrum or hierarchy and work to it. This would solve the mystery posed by the bidirectional flow of causal interactions by perceiving subjective states (or qualia) as internal reflections of external changes occurring in neural circuitry. Such a shift in the trajectory of reasoning renders tangible ‘matter’ and intangible ‘imagination’ alternate sides of the same coin or different perspectives of the same causal flow, instead of a phenomenon involving the casual interaction of two different objects, bodies, or systems. The only foreseeable problem with a dual-aspect proposition in nature it is that it’s fundamentally animistic and flirts openly with the magical world of spirits and demons that our ancient ancestors believed in and swore by, an animistic realm where everything–stones, plants, trees, and even the Earth itself–was imbued with some form of consciousness. While the esoterically inclined amongst us would have no difficulty accepting such a theoretical proposition the scientific hard-liners would really struggle with it, if not reject it altogether.

Having said that, there are a number of benefits to entertaining a dual aspect thesis and an actualized hierarchy of consciousness. The most obvious is that higher ‘fulcrums’ spawned from the total sum of potential interactions of the lower ‘fulcrums’ can be envisaged as beholding novel emergent properties, exempting the respective system or object from a large number of physical laws and broadening its degree of interactive freedom. Hypothetically speaking, systems or objects belonging to the lowest ‘fulcrum’ of consciousness might be subject to 96 laws, those on the next rung up to 48, and those on the one above that to 24. This compartmentalization would ascend all the way up to a transcendental realm delimited by a single law, a realm where interactive potentialities between co-habiting entities are infinite and cannot be restricted in any way whatsoever. Looking at the actualized hierarchy as a whole, theorization of a higher ‘fulcrum’ might be deemed obligatory when any system manages to transcend a specific set of operative laws. It also goes without saying that the establishment of such a shift from a lower to a higher order of functionality would be paradoxical in essence, encompassing an outright negation and ossification of the causal stream from whence it emerged. A higher ‘fulcrum’ that has acquired an existence independent of its parent is impossible to define solely in terms of rudimentary composition, a valuation rather hostile to what advocates of reductionism like Edelman and Tononi want us to believe. Thus, the psychological ontology cannot be understood exclusively through its underlying biological structures, the biological ontology cannot be rendered comprehensible solely by studying chemical reactions, and the chemical ontology cannot be grasped principally through the mechanistic sphere of electromagnetic interactions. The dual aspect and actualized hierarchy also allows for a downward spiral of causation where higher levels can influence their ontologically inferior precedents.

Let’s illustrate this valuation with specific examples. We know that elementary particles like photons constitute the electromagnetic force in nature although they are not the force itself. By the same token water, an amalgamation of three molecules–two hydrogen and one oxygen –exhibits electrical properties as well as reflective and solvent qualities that spontaneously vanish when the element decomposes into its constituent chemicals. Moving to the biological level karat parenchymal and non-parenchymal cells comprise the human liver, an organ responsible for protein synthesis and detoxification along with biochemical production which aids digestion. These functions are made possible through the perpetual interaction of a localized family of cells and cannot be replicated by any single one alone. On the other hand subjective conscious experience or what we call the self-reflective mind appears as an emergent property of a very complex biological structure, the brain; even though the two are causally linked, the unique phenomenal expression of the former and its capacity to violate spatiotemporal parameters (by moving backwards and forwards in time) cannot be reduced to integrated neural processes in the thalamocortical system or to the neural ecosphere of three dimensions for that matter. If mind were merely a computer made of meat as some epiphenomenalists flatly declare, then how might teleological effects like miraculous healings; psi phenomena like telepathy and extrasensory perception through time and space; and psychoneuroimmunological effects where psychic states influence somatic conditions actually be possible? Clearly, a material decomposition into the interactive material elements from whence mind creatively emerged doesn’t make these higher phenomena any more explicable than what they would have been had one of our primordial human predecessors taken up the gargantuan task of disinterring their true origin.

Naturally I might be completely wrong in my implication that reductionism will not solve the consciousness riddle. For all we know the ‘world knot’, the enigma of how matter translates into thought, may indeed be unknotted by a brilliant team of cognitive neuroscientists in the future. Whatever the case one thing’s for sure; when an impasse of this sort is reached by scientists, it either means that our cognitive capacities are still limited and in need of further advancement or that the theoretical pillars of philosophical reflection on which their empirical observations rest are wrong altogether. For our sake, let’s hope that it’s the former!   

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