The Hard Problem Of Consciousness

JUST THINK... You call your service provider about your phone.  What happens in your brain?  Without your awareness, it whirs into action. It translates your feelings into apt sentences. It selects words from a vocabulary of thousands, arranges them in lexical and grammatical order and adjusts the pitch of your voice. You are not conscious of what words you will use. All the complex activity is hidden. You perceive only 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 wondered "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 "emerges" 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 have qualia - "know something" like a ghost, or "experience" life? Why are people not philosophical zombies - machines without feelings or thoughts? All these are questions, which relate 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.

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I am not a physician, but an engineer.  Way back in 1989, I noticed the unique speed of an AI algorithm for disease recognition and pieced together the implications of that phenomenon.  The same algorithm could  be applied by the nervous system for the management of its stored knowledge!  The axon hillocks of neurons could store and retrieve memories of trillions of links between symptoms and known diseases.  Neurons respond to received impulses in 5 milliseconds.  The axon hillocks of neurons could use an elimination algorithm to eliminate (inhibit) unrelated relationships.  Since its symptoms were not linked in memory to any other known disease, a doctor could locate one disease in milliseconds.  

Functional regions could use precise combinatorial codes in feedback and feed forward links with incalculable eloquence.   The axon hillocks of the neurons could store and retrieve memories of ancient jungle encounters and herd struggles. They could carry memories of the indications of danger, of strategies for survival and of motor control responses.   One region could link sensory signals to potential trouble from people and things. That could cause other neural organs to trigger anger, or fear. In turn, these emotion signals could make a person flee, or fight.  An insult could trigger stress in a split second.  On the other hand, the self awareness tool could inhibit stress and still the mind.

Not metaphysical theories, but millisecond pattern recognition could explain human brilliance and folly. It could also offer the means for its control. Several years after my fortunate insight, a Nobel Prize acknowledged the astonishing power of combinatorial pattern recognition.  Over 30 years, I have assembled much evidence supporting neural pattern recognition and published three books about artificial intelligence and the nervous system. 

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

Many answers were 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 controlled a physical body. For John Locke, matter could never have sense, perception, and knowledge.

For Leibniz, even if a machine was built to have perception, its parts could never explain 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 gap in knowledge, like the distinction between water and H2O. For Chalmers, a theory of consciousness should not require an enigmatic coincidence.

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

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

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

Assume the existence of 4 things to clarify the experienced aspects of "consciousness" and "I." Assume that: The brain is able to make fine differentiations between objects and events through a coded language. The structure of the brain enables global messaging in just 20 milliseconds. The coded language enables an astronomically large neural memory. An intuition algorithm enables the mind to instantly extract logical answers from massive neural memories. Assume that 100 billion neurons speak a common language to each other within 20 milliseconds, store astronomical memories and can find logical solutions to problems.

In 2004, a Nobel Prize acknowledged the discovery of the mechanism of odor perception. Different combinations of receptors fired to identify different odors. Even slight changes in chemical structure activated different combinations of receptors. Assume that the brain is able to make fine differentiations between objects and events through a coded language. Combinations can store data on relationships.

Mathematically, 100 billion nerve cells can store more combinations that the stars in the sky. Assume that your brain is a massive store of relationships. Assume that neurons recognize patterns of impulse inputs. Neurons fire, or become inhibited in just 5 milliseconds. It recognizes or does not recognize a received pattern. Imagine that, with 1000 links each, a mere 4 steps separate 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 instantly inhibits wrong answers (non contextual relationships) to reach an appropriate answer for every decision of the brain. If an animal chooses to chew grass, the drive to quench thirst is instantly inhibited. Assume the existence of  an intuition algorithm, which instantly extracts 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 picks components from a conveyor. It identifies each component and deposits it in its proper bin. The machine makes its choices and acts. 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 triggers 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 recognize situations, identify strategies, and act 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 controlled basic animal activity and approximated to the reptilian brain. The second stage mammalian brain added feeling/emotion controls, which triggered automatic behavioral responses to cope with the vagaries of the jungle. In the third human stage, nature improved the prefrontal regions, which lead to behaviors that build power stations and high speed trains. Assume a switching process, which routinely triggers behavior represented by the most powerful current emotion. At each of a trillion stages, the system makes decisions and acts.

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

Try this thought experiment.  The brain often overrules the decisions of individual intelligences. You can raise your arm, using your will. As soon as you will it, your arm goes 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 happen. The brain overrules 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 triggers the behavioral option demanded by the dominant emotion. An automatic mechanism triggers the activity of an awake system. When the temperature crosses a specified point the thermostat switches on, or off. Flight follows 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 acts. Consciousness is just a myopic observer of the actions of the brain. With minimal awareness of the causes of the decision, you believe that you ("I") made 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 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 claustrum carries out cross-model matching simultaneously evaluating stimuli from several sensory domains and integrates them into a single unifying experience. The organ brings a top down focus on the immediate task and inhibits 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 delivers an abbreviated feedback of internal performance to the brain. The visual cortex produces the three dimensional world of color, texture and depth. Similar regions provide sound, touch and smell data. Other regions interpret the data and trigger behaviors. One of many such regions, the claustrum provides the current real time view of the system to all relevant regions of your brain. The organ makes the brain self aware and enables it to contemplate and learn 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 helps the human mind to transcend its animal past.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Is Attention The Decision Maker?

Current research seeks 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 responded 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 trigger signals, which cause 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 focuses the mind on the current contingency. It is not the "I" that makes 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 provides the current real time view of the system to all relevant regions of your brain. We call 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 recognizes an "I" behind our eyes and in front of the back of our heads. The "I" has a three dimensional view of the world, makes decisions and experiences 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), that provide this information. The brain concludes that "I" is a physical entity with a mysterious perception of the world. That creates 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" also contribute 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 obey precise laws and axioms. They hardly wander at random through the universe. The laws and axioms they follow are abstract ideas with no material content.

Through the self awareness provided by the streaming inputs of emotions and understandings by the claustrum, consciousness enables the mind to reach the highest levels of the human potential. It has produced tangible effects, which cannot even be explained by science. But, abstractions have degrees. Consciousness operates 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 18 October 2019.