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The Hard Problem Of Consciousness

JUST THINK... You are calling your service provider about your phone.  What is happening in your brain?  Without your awareness, it is whirring into action. It is translating your feelings into apt sentences.  It is selecting just the right words from a vocabulary of thousands, arranging them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusting the pitch of your voice. You are not conscious of what words you will use.  All the complex activity is hidden. You are only seeing your emotional and vocal experience. That experience is nonphysical and subjective.  You never relate it to the firing of 100 billion nerve cells in a blob of flesh imprisoned in your skull.

For thousands of years, people have been wondering "Who is actually speaking?" Is it the mind, or the body? Is there a "subjective I," with its ghostly worries and fears?  Is this "I" your consciousness?   Is this consciousness a spirit living in your mind?  Or, is it a mystical life form that is "emerging" from the nervous system?  Is there any link between the blob of tissue and "I"?  Can a piece of flesh be angry?    How can it be having qualia - "knowing something" like a ghost, or "experiencing" life?  Why are people not philosophical zombies - machines without feelings or thoughts?  All these are questions, which are continually linking to the "hard problem of consciousness."

  • Historic interpretations of consciousness.
  • The brain has qualia.
  • Assume the existence of 4 things to understand "I" and "consciousness."
  • The brain acts on its choices.
  • The brain has many intelligences.
  • "Conscious will" does not decide.
  • Consciousness is the dashboard.
  • Consciousness enables self awareness.
  • Consciousness is not "I."
  • Attention is not "I."
  • There is no "I" in a thermostat.
  • Panpsychism does not cover levels of consciousness.

Can An Algorithm Be Controlling The Mind?
I am not a physician, but an engineer. Way back in 1989, I catalogued how the ELIMINATION approach of an AI Expert System could reveal a new data storage/processing view of the nervous system. That insight is central to the ideas presented in this website. 

This catalogue of 6 unique new premises could explain an enigma.  A physician is aware of thousands of diseases and their related symptoms.  How does he note a symptom and focus on a single disease in less than half a second?  How could he identify Disease X out of 8000 diseases with just a glance?  

First, the total born and learned knowledge available to the doctor could only be existing as the stored/retrieved data within the 100 billion neurons in his brain.  The perceptions, sensations, feelings and physical activities of the doctor could only be enabled by the electrical impulses flowing through the axons of those neurons.  The data enabling that process could be stored as digital combinations.

Second, an axon hillock decides the axonal output of each neuron.  The hillock receives hundreds of inputs from other neurons.  Each hillock makes the pivotal neuronal decision about received inputs within 5 milliseconds.  A
xon hillocks could be storing digital combinations.  It could be adding each new incoming digital combination to its memory store.  The hillock could fire impulses, if it matched a stored combination. If not, it could inhibit further impulses.  Using stored digital data to make decisions about incoming messages could make the axon hillocks intelligent.

Third, combinations could enable a powerful coding mode for axon hillocks.  Olfactory combinatorial data is known (Nobel Prize 2004) to store memories for millions of smells.  Each one of 100 billion axon hillocks can mathematically store more combinations than there are stars in the sky. Each new digital combination could be adding a new relationship link.  In this infinite store, specific axon hillocks could be storing all the disease to symptom links (D/S) links known to the doctor as digital combinations.

Fourth, instant global communication is a familiar part of the digital age.  The doctor observes a symptom.  Within the instant of his observation, 
feedback and feed forward links could inform every D/S link of the presence of the symptom. Only the D/S link of Disease X could be recalling the combination and recognizing the symptom.

Fifth, on not recognizing the symptom, all other D/S hillocks could be instantly inhibiting their impulses. The D/S links of Disease X could be continuing to fire. Those firing D/S link would be recalling past complaints, treatments and signs of Disease X, confirming the diagnosis.  This could be enabling axon hillocks to identify Disease X out of 8000 in milliseconds.

Worldwide interest in this website is acknowledging its rationale. Not metaphysical theories, but processing of digital memories in axon hillocks could be explaining innumerable mysteries of the mind.  Over three decades, this website has been assembling more and more evidence of the manipulation of emotional and physical behaviors by narrowly focused digital pattern recognition.  It has also been receiving over 2 million page views from over 150 countries.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
What Are The Traditional Views Of Consciousness?

Many answers were being offered for the hard problem of consciousness. William James and the philosopher Bertrand Russell defended panpsychism - the view that consciousness was fundamental and all physical entities have minds. For René Descartes, a non physical mind was controlling a physical body. For John Locke, matter could never be having sense, perception, and knowledge.

For Leibniz, even if a machine was built to have perception, its parts could never be explaining a perception. Chalmers argued that all explanations of consciousness were likely to be improbable. Strong reductionists held that there could never be an explanation. Weak reductionists believe that consciousness and neurobiology are the same.  Dennett's explanations were criticized as ignoring consciousness altogether.   For some others, it was a continuing gap in knowledge, like the distinction between water and H2O. For Chalmers, a theory of consciousness should not be requiring an enigmatic coincidence.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Is Qualia A Normal Brain Function?

How can a physical thing be having qualia - "be knowing something?" Qualia are intrinsic, consciously accessible, non-representational features of sense-data.  Can a bundle of nerve cells be differentiating between a stroke and a touch, when such differences cannot be described mathematically, or verbally?  The somesthetic region of the brain is enablng a person to feel an object in the dark. If this region is intact and his somesthetic association region is damaged, a patient will not be recognizing the object as a pair of scissors. There are other regions of the cortex, which use numerous sensory perceptions for recognizing objects and events. Recognizing an object by touch is qualia.  It is not a sense perception, which we can be explaining semantically or mathematically. The experiential aspects of qualia are being  seen to be reported brain functions.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Can You Assume The Existence Of 4 Things?

Assuming the existence of 4 things can be clarifying the experienced aspects of "consciousness" and "I." Assume that: The brain is making fine differentiations between objects and events through a coded language. The structure of the brain is enabling global messaging in just 20 milliseconds. The coded language is enabling an astronomically large neural memory. An intuition algorithm is enabling the mind to instantly extract logical answers from massive neural memories. Assume that 100 billion neurons are speaking a common language to each other within 20 milliseconds, storing astronomical memories and finding logical solutions to problems.

In 2004, a Nobel Prize acknowledged the discovery of the mechanism of odor perception. Different combinations of receptors were firing to identify different odors. Even slight changes in chemical structure were activating different combinations of receptors. Assume that the brain is making fine differentiations between objects and events through a coded language. Combinations are storing data on relationships.

Mathematically, 100 billion nerve cells can be storing more combinations that the stars in the sky. Assume that your brain is a massive store of relationships. Assume that neurons are recognizing patterns of impulse inputs. Neurons are firing, or becoming inhibited in just 5 milliseconds. It is recognizing or not recognizing a received pattern.  Imagine that, with 1000 links each, a mere 4 steps are separating one neuron from 100 billion others in the system.  In just 20 milliseconds, all regions of the nervous system can transmit/feedback real time coded messages to every neuron in the network.

Assume the existence of an elimination algorithm that is instantly inhibiting wrong answers (non contextual relationships) to reach an appropriate answer for every decision of the brain. If an animal is choosing to chew grass, the drive to quench thirst is instantly being inhibited. Assume the existence of an intuition algorithm, which is instantly extracting logical answers from massive neural memories.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
What Is The True Function Of The Brain?

Engineers who program a production line are familiar with automated decision making. A machine is picking components from a conveyor. It is identifying each component and depositing it in its proper bin. The machine is making its choices and acting. It is designed to make choices and act as long as it is switched on. Assume that free will is just an automatic mechanism which is triggering the next highest priority activity of the system, while the system is awake. The brain recognizes a tiger in the bush, identifies the fear strategy and triggers flight. The brain is designed to be recognizing situations, identifying strategies, and to be acting decisively. Decision making is the very nature of the system.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness 
How Many Functional Intelligences Does The Brain Have?

The control systems of the brain developed to cope with the contingencies of life. Paul D. MacLean proposed three distinct evolutionary stages of development. The first stage is controlling basic animal activity and approximates to the reptilian brain. The second stage mammalian brain added feeling/emotion controls, which is triggering automatic behavioral responses to cope with the vagaries of the jungle. In the third human stage, nature improved the prefrontal regions, which is leading to behaviors that are building power stations and high speed trains. Assume a switching process, which is routinely triggering the behavior represented by the most powerful current emotion. At each of a trillion stages, the system is making decisions and acting.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Does The Conscious Will Make Decisions?

Try this thought experiment.  The brain often is overruling the decisions of individual intelligences. You can raise your arm, using your will.  As soon as you are willing it, your arm is going up. But, suppose you are in an elevator with other passengers. Then, it is inappropriate to raise your arms. If you will this action in that situation, it will not be happening. The brain is overruling actions by any of its intelligences, if it is not worthwhile, appropriate, safe, or practical. Conscious will is only one actor among a multitude of intelligences.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
What Is The True Role Of Consciousness?

Assume that the brain is triggering the behavioral option demanded by the dominant emotion. An automatic mechanism is triggering the activity of an awake system. When the temperature crosses a specified point the thermostat is switching on, or off. Flight is following fear. There is no separate decision making process.  Benjamin Libet discovered that consciousness is just an observer of such actions. In his experiments, his subjects noted the "decision moment." when they voluntarily pressed a button. The observed position of a dot on a computer screen, that moved every 43 milliseconds, recorded the moment. Libet discovered that motor neurons had begun activity 350 milliseconds before the "decision moment." Your brain is acting. Consciousness is just a myopic observer of the actions of the brain. With minimal awareness of the causes of the decision, you are believing that you ("I") are making the decision.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Where Does Consciousness Link To The Nervous System?

Francis Crick suggested that an orchestra conductor was needed to be binding all external perceptions together. Hadjikhani revealed that, while various regions of the brain manage emotional and speech patterns, a single region called the claustrum was focusing the current global image. Objects or events in the real world have many attributes, including color, shape, distance, velocity, smell, sound and feel. The claustrum was carrying out cross-model matching simultaneously evaluating stimuli from several sensory domains and integrating them into a single unifying experience. The organ was bringing a top down focus on the immediate task and inhibiting the distracting stimuli of isolated sensory perceptions. Without the claustrum, the subject cannot respond to complex stimuli, but can still handle simple, or highly familiar ones.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
How Is Self Awareness Made Possible?

Postulate that the claustrum is an organ that is delivering an abbreviated feedback of internal performance to the brain. The visual cortex is producing the three dimensional world of color, texture and depth. Similar regions are providing sound, touch and smell data. Other regions are interpreting the data and triggering behaviors. One of many such regions, the claustrum is providing the current real time view of the system to all relevant regions of your brain. The organ is making the brain self aware and is enabling it to contemplate and to be learning from its own activities. It enables the brain to discover the weaknesses triggered by its animal instincts. The process grants wisdom to the brain to still emotional controls and empower its reasonable and compassionate views. Consciousness is helping the human mind to transcend its animal past.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Is Attention The Decision Maker?

Current research is seeking an "executive attention center" to discover the original "I."   But the attention mechanism can be triggered by any region. Maunsell studied neural signals in the visual area of the cortex of monkeys, when viewing a swarm of dots on a screen. The animals were rewarded, when they focused attention on specific dots. Attention caused the neurons that signaled the motion of those dots to be responding more strongly. Imagine how paying attention to your toes can make you feel them. Normally, pressure on the skin cause touch sensory receptors in the skin to fire, reporting touch to the cortex. Assume that an emotion can be triggering signals, which is causing the neuron to fire, making you aware of the pressure of the shoe on your toe.  Attention is like a global fire alarm circuit, which is focusing the mind on the current contingency.  It is not the "I" that is making the significant decisions of the mind.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Is There A Decision Making "I"?

Just like your visual experience of the sunset, the claustrum is providing the current real time view of the system to all relevant regions of your brain. We are calling that view "consciousness."   Benjamin Libet discovered that view to be mere delayed observations of human actions. "Consciousness' is a subset of human perception.

Just the way it recognizes a living intelligence in a barking dog, the brain is recognizing an "I" behind our eyes and in front of the back of our heads. The "I" is having a three dimensional view of the world, making decisions and experiencing life. Even with eyes closed, the brain knows the positions of our arms and legs relative to such an "I."  Muscles, tendons, joints, and the inner ear contain proprioceptors, (stretch receptors), are providing this information. The brain is concluding that "I" is a physical entity with a mysterious perception of the world. That is creating the hard problem of consciousness.  But, an independent "I" in the brain is no more real than an "I" in a thermostat. Such an "I" is a confused mental construct.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Where Does Panpsychism Stand?

The many meanings of the word "consciousness" are also contributing to the hard problem. The proposition of Panpsychism that all physical entities have minds may follow from the "voluntary" choices of quarks and protons to be obeying precise laws and axioms. They are hardly wandering at random through the universe. The laws and axioms they follow are abstract ideas with no material content.

Through the self awareness being provided by the streaming inputs of emotions and understandings by the claustrum, consciousness is enabling the mind to reach the highest levels of the human potential. It is producing tangible effects, which cannot even be explained by science.  But, abstractions have degrees.  Consciousness is operating at many levels. Your interpretation of an event like war is admittedly superior to the view of it by an earthworm. Living things experience higher levels of consciousness than rocks and stones. Does the abstract nature of both justify the application of the dignity of the word "consciousness" to the involuntary movements of atoms and molecules?

This page was last updated on 10 August 2020.