The Hard Problem Of Consciousness

JUST THINK...   What happens when you begin to talk? Your nervous system has picked an emotion. It has articulated an idea around it, chosen apt words from a vocabulary of thousands of words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice. Before you speak you've no consciousness of the words you will use. Who's actually in charge?  You, or your nervous system? This question leads to the question "What is consciousness itself? This is the hard problem of consciousness. Is consciousness a spirit living in a human body? Is it a mystical life form that emerges from the nervous system? This website suggests that consciousness is the attention mechanism of the nervous system.

The hard problem of consciousness has remained unfathomable up till now. How could a blob of jelly experience a colorful three dimensional world? How can humans feel at their deepest level to be ghosts, who live and feel within the machine? Is consciousness the agent of some mystic cosmic intelligence? Is there a reasonable explanation for the link between a physical nervous system and the nonphysical and subjective experiences of individuals? Why is there a subjective component to experience? How can a soft mass of tissue have awareness of sensory perceptions? How can it have qualia - "know something" like a ghost, or "experience" life? Why are people not philosophical zombies - machines without feelings or thoughts?

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Panpsychism, Separate Mind And Body
History offered many answers for the hard problem of consciousness. William James and the philosopher Bertrand Russell defended panpsychism - the view that all physical entities have minds. They suggested that consciousness was a fundamental feature of reality. All entities were composed of a substance with mental and physical aspects. René Descartes suggested that the mental and the physical were two fundamentally separate entities. A non physical mind controlled a physical body. John Locke argued that matter could never have sense, perception, and knowledge. For Leibniz, even if a machine was constructed to have perception, its interior would only contain parts which could never explain a perception.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Impossible To Explain, Two Realities
Chalmers argued that all explanations of consciousness were either too weak or actually improbable. Strong reductionists held that there was no hard problem of consciousness. There could never be an explanation. Weak reductionists believe consciousness and neurobiology are one and the same in reality. That the gap between two ways of knowing (introspection and neuroscience) will not be resolved, but are part of the same reality. A full scientific understanding could never close the gap. Others argued that such gaps of knowledge are also present in many other cases in nature, such as the distinction between water and H2O.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Qualia
How can a physical thing have qualia - "know something?" Qualia are intrinsic, consciously accessible, non-representational features of sense-data. How could a physical entity differentiate between two events, when those differences could not be described by symbolic, or representational language? Phenomenal properties were too weird to yield to physical explanations. They resisted functional analysis and floated free of whatever physical mechanisms are posited to explain them.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Inconceivable, Perception Error, Coincidence
Michael Graziano suggests that just as there are many errors in our comprehension of situations, our perception of being conscious was merely an error in perception. Dennett argued that perception and subjective experience are inextricably entwined. This led his detractors to refer to Dennett's book Consciousness Explained as Consciousness Ignored or Consciousness Explained Away. Chalmers held that a fully satisfactory theory of consciousness should not require an enigmatic coincidence. Such a theory should provide coincidental links between, say, a sense of despair and physical brain activities. Even such an explanation would not still solve the hard problem of consciousness.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Coincidental Events
We know many simultaneous events, which are not coincidences. A light that turns on when a switch is clicked is not a puzzling coincidence. We can sense that idea. The somesthetic association region of the brain is believed to enable a person to recognize objects through touch. For science, this is not an inexplicable link. They discovered that, if this region is damaged, a patient cannot recognize a pair of scissors when touching it with her eyes closed. She can still feel the scissors. But she cannot recognize it. Recognizing an object by touch is qualia.  It is not a sense perception, which can be explained through a semantic, or symbolic language. There are other regions of the cortex, which recognize events through taste, sound, light and much more. The recognition events fall into the qualia category. Sense perceptions are coincidently linked to physical activities in the brain.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Combinatorial Coding
But, the perceptions achieved by the brain are not simple coincidences. In 2004, a Nobel Prize acknowledged the discovery of the mechanism of odor perception. When exposed to a range of odors, a single receptor in the nose could identify several odors. At the same time, each odor was identified by several receptors. Different combinations of receptors fired to identify different odors. Even slight changes in chemical structure activated different combinations of receptors. Thus, octanol smelled like oranges, while the similar compound octanoic acid smelled like sweat. Leslie Vosshall reports that, in her lab, ordinary volunteers, (not wine tasters or perfumers), could clearly distinguish between different combinations of 128 odor molecules, indicating an average human ability to differentiate between 1 trillion smells. Remembering a million smells to be able to identify a single one requires a massive memory.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Memory And Intuition
This website suggests that history was blind to the importance of neural pattern recognition of combinatorial memories. Just remember that your nervous system has collected more information this year than you would have read up in a lifetime. Mathematically, 100 billion nerve cells can store an infinite combinatorial memory. Traditionally, it is impossible to search for subtle overlapping patterns in such large spaces. This website suggests that the mind may use an elimination algorithm. Inhibition eliminates alternatives for every decision of the nervous system. Animals cannot afford to freeze into immobility, unable to decide between chewing grass and drinking water. Intelligent action, pivotal for survival, mandates a swift logic, which ceaselessly narrows possibilities down to a single answer. If the choice is to chew grass, the drive to quench thirst is instantly inhibited. Intuition enables nerve cells to swiftly recognize, interpret and act, by extracting logical answers from massive neural memories.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Structured Information
Neural transmission through combinatorial arrays structures the logic of the mind. During their initial growth, the output axons of nerve cells grow from one region to another and “map” on to specific target regions. The cells always connect from array to array in geographically correct locations, where neighborhood relationships are strictly maintained. A nearby neuron in another array may carry a completely unrelated message. Functionally separated neural junctions enable myriad independent intelligences to speak to each other, using the combinatorial internal language. The output axons of nerve cells grow from one region to another and “map” on to specific target regions. Connections are made from array to array in geographically correct locations, where neighborhood relationships are precisely maintained. An olfactory neuron carries a message about odors. A nearby neuron in another array may carry a completely unrelated message. Nature has created a powerful, structured and focused neural processor.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Data Precision
As data cascades through sequences of geographically arranged neural junctions, arrays of impulses enable myriad independent intelligences to speak to each other, using a coded internal language. In the olfactory system, the glomeruli array recognizes the activated receptors among the 50 million elements to fire patterns in its 1000 element array. That combinatorial message narrows down the molecular disposition of the odor. The mitral cell array interprets that message to output its own message indicating that the breathed in molecules in the nose originate from a specific event. The memories of other arrays in the nervous system recognize that the event originates from the smell of an orange, or from the odor of sweat. The power of neural memories can be seen in the ability of dogs to identify the relative odor strength difference between footprints barely a few feet apart to sense the direction in which a fugitive is running.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Circuits That Generate Sense Perceptions
The subjective feelings of people comes from the progressive integration of information by the brain. Increasing meaning is derived from information as it flows from sensory perceptions to the final stages of evaluation. The primary areas of the cortex receive sensory information. This information proceeds to secondary areas, which coordinate binocular vision and stereophonic sound. That enables the brain to link three dimensional spaces to light, sound, smell and touch. This integrated information travels to the association regions, which enable the brain to recognize objects and events. The consolidated information from all functional regions travels to the prefrontal brain.  The nervous system is an  extraordinary mechanical device, which generates sense perceptions - qualia.  It makes mental perceptions into a physical and material phenomenon.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness The Claustrum
Francis Crick suggested that consciousness needed an orchestra conductor to bind all external perceptions together. Hadjikhani revealed that, while various regions of the brain manage emotional and speech patterns, a single region called the claustrum focuses the current global image. Objects or events in the real world have many attributes, including color, shape, distance, velocity, smell, sound and feel. The organ brings a top down focus on the immediate task and inhibits the distracting stimuli of isolated sensory perceptions. The claustrum carries out cross-model matching simultaneously evaluating stimuli from several sensory domains and integrates them into a single unifying experience. Without the claustrum, the subject cannot respond to complex stimuli, but can still handle simple, or highly familiar ones.  The claustrum also has the right links (particularly the eye muscles) to control the attention mechanism.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Benjamin Libet
According to Bargh, the broad scientific consensus is that consciousness represents “intentional, controllable, serial in nature processes, which are accessible to awareness.”  He regards consciousness to be the ghost, who manages the machine. But Benjamin Libet clearly demonstrated that consciousness does not control the mind and is only a belated observer of the activities of the mind. He reported his experiments on subjects who voluntarily pressed a button, while noting the position of a dot on a computer screen, which shifted its position every 43 milliseconds.  He had made a startling discovery.  The decision of the mind had been delivered before the subject pressed the button! The noted moment of depressing the button was the exact moment of this “conscious decision.” But, each time, Libet had also timed the beginning of motor neuron activity in the brains of his subjects.

In skeletal muscles, bundles of parallel fibers contract and relax in opposition to enable you to perform any action. In these muscles, slow twitch fibers begin each movement and fast twitch fibers join in later to enable a subject to press a button. Libet discovered that the brain had triggered motor activity 350 milliseconds BEFORE the “conscious decision.” You are only consciously aware of your speech, not of the words you will use. The nervous system makes the decisions and passes them on to the claustrum. Consciousness has only a delayed knowledge of the intentions and the subsequent actions.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Attention Is The "Subjective" Mechanism
The claustrum appears to enable the attention mechanism by directing attention and in regulating the overall vigilance state. Paying attention can make you feel your toes. When pressure is applied on the skin, touch sensory receptors in the skin fire impulses, reporting touch to the cortex. The reporting neuron will normally be inhibited, to prevent an overload of sensory data to the cortex. But, the neuron can recognize signals from the claustrum and fire, making you aware of the pressure of your shoe on your toe. Maunsell studied neural signals in the visual area of the cortex of monkeys, when viewing a swarm of dots on a screen. In this cortical region, specific neurons fired for specific dots. When the animal focused on just one of the dots, the directed attention caused the neurons that signaled its motion to respond more strongly. At the same time, neural signals related to other dots were attenuated or filtered out. Attention grants you a sense of control.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness Recognizing Yourself
100 billion nerve cells fire constantly. How does the firing of a few cells alone be co-related to the conscious experience? The firing of neurons in the somesthetic association regions makes you aware that you have touched a pair of scissors. But, if you work all the time with scissors, that sense of touch will not be consciously present. When you pay attention you will become aware. This website suggests that during the course of habitual routines, you have little conscious awareness of your surroundings. The sense of flow, which enable people to work effectively is the ideal situation, where the whole nervous system experiences life and works effectively. Normally, the "subjective you" is your whole body and mind. Great sportsmen claim their peak performances, when the whole system cooperates in the current task.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness The Subjective You
When you direct attention inwards, you activate the attention mechanism, which makes you focus on any aspect of your environment, including the workings of your mind. Your mind grants you awareness of the extent of your body and the limits of your memory.  Can I feel my toes? Do I know the back of my head? What did I have for breakfast?  The claustrum grants you a global view of the focus of your attention. Suppose you ask "Who is looking?"   The wisdom of your mind recognizes a new mechanism. It senses it to be different from the whole mind, which plays golf, or writes a letter. Or from the primitive intelligence that experiences anger.  

Your mind senses a totally different intelligence, which can direct attention, move muscles, recall memories. The "subjective view" is your mind's perception of the activated attention mechanism.  It senses a ghost, which can do whatever it wants. Your mind informs you that it has a hard problem - it senses a mysteriously  different intelligence.  But, suppose that your wise intuitive mind has absorbed the knowledge and understands the functions of the claustrum.  Neither Descartes nor Bertrand Russel had this knowledge.   But, you have.  So, you will respond to the query "Who is looking?" with the answer "It is the attention mechanism of my very material brain, which awaits an answer to this question." .....   You will then  "know" the solution of the hard problem of consciousness.

This page was last updated on 30-July-2019.

JUST THINK.  What happens when you begin to talk?  Your nervous system has picked an emotion.  It has articulated an idea around it, chosen apt words, arranged them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusted the pitch of your voice.  You've no idea what words you wii use.  Who's actually in charge?  You, or your nervous system?