Earlier blog posts focused on the so-called easy problem of consciousness—finding the brain patterns (or “signatures” or “fields”) of electrical, chemical, or other kinds of brain activity measured with various imaging methods. In contrast, this new series addresses the hard problem—the deep mystery of consciousness itself. Of necessity, these new discussions employ far more speculation than the first series. Speculating about consciousness is a risky business for scientists. Many critics (of disparate scientific and religious persuasions) believe that scientists should avoid the hard problem of consciousness altogether, asserting that the issue lies well beyond scientific purview. Controversies relating mind to religious issues have been around for many centuries. In addition, over the past century, connections of consciousness to quantum mechanics (the physics of very small scales) have been promoted by some and strongly refuted by others—this controversy continues, more on this topic later. History also reminds us that humans may be attracted to world views contaminated by misconceptions, prejudices, and outright delusions. While science is not immune to these flaws, it still supplies us with a handy, if imperfect, “BS detector” as we tiptoe cautiously into speculative domains.
With such cautions in mind, these new blog post speculations will be based and constrained by the following intellectual framework: (1) Consciousness provides a genuine mystery; one that is not satisfactorily “explained” by known brain patterns. In standard philosophical terms, there exists a genuine explanatory gap, defined as the difficulty that materialistic theories have in explaining how physical properties can give rise to mind. (2) Brains are genuine complex systems, at least as complex as non-conscious living systems. (3) Brains and minds are correlated as revealed by many studies of brain imaging, disease, and injury. (4) Our speculations involve no clear violation of established physical laws. Some may find the last point to be too restrictive; perhaps today’s understanding of physical laws is wrong. However, we shall see that this modest restriction leaves us quite free to explore a wide range of strange and even weird intellectual territory that need not violate physics principles. Our discussions will also take place within an agnostic framework independent of religious beliefs, whether they be atheist, religious fundamentalism, or anything in between. We will be unconcerned with the danger, possibly perceived by some, that our speculations may open a philosophical “back door,” that allows religion to sneak in. The back door may be open or closed; in either case our blog mantra is “follow the evidence” regardless of where it leads us.
Earlier posts emphasized that experimental signatures of consciousness are observed at multiple levels of organization (spatial scales), including single neurons, averages over millions of neurons, and the intermediate scales of cortical columns. One convenient analog of this multi-scale process is the human social system, which involves interactions and patterns occurring at individual, neighborhood, city, nation, and other scales. Two competing interpretations of brain patterns measured at different scales are evident. First, perhaps consciousness is encoded in dynamic patterns at some special consciousness scale (the C-scale). In this view, the conscious signatures observed at other scales are mere byproducts of the “mind-creating” C-scale dynamic behavior. For example, maybe consciousness is encoded in patterns at the single neuron level, a view seemingly embraced by some neuroscientists and artificial intelligence scientists. Neuroscience, in this view, takes on a strong reductionist flavor—the single neuron C-scale is then the level where consciousness “resides” or is “encoded.” This view implies that an artificial brain consisting of some hundred billion or so artificial neurons, if appropriately interconnected, might achieve genuine consciousness.
An alternate interpretation is that no special C-scale actually exists; that is, consciousness is fundamentally a multi-scale phenomenon. We call this the multi-scale conjecture. In this view, consciousness is encoded by the dynamic patterns occurring at multiple scales. Consciousness is intimately associated with cross scale interactions, both bottom-up and top-down (circular causality). By analogy, the human system involves top-down and bottom-up interactions between social networks and cultures occurring at multiple scales. The brain multi-scale conjecture argues forcefully against philosophical positions that trivialize the complexity of consciousness. In essence, consciousness seems to require systems that are at least as complex as ordinary life, which consists of interacting multi-scale structures. Thus, two distinct intellectual domains are proposed in which the multi-scale conjecture may operate. First, the multi-scale conjecture is to be taken seriously as a stand-alone idea, independent of questions about materialism, dualism, and the hard problem. Second, the multi-scale conjecture may provide a tentative bridge connecting brain information patterns to minimally materialistic or perhaps non-materialistic conceptual frameworks underlying the hard problem. Later posts will follow implications of the multi-scale conjecture in relation to the hard problem. For example, if the multi-scale conjecture provides a genuine picture of consciousness encoding, where does the scale-crossing process of consciousness stop? Does the process stop at the single neuron, molecular, quantum, or other small scale? And, what can we say about the large scale end? Does it stop at the scale of single brains? More to come.
Steven Laureys and Giulio Tononi (Eds.), The Neurology of Consciousness (Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2009)
Paul L Nunez, Ramesh Srinivasan, and Lester Ingber, Theoretical and Experimental Electrophysiology in Human Neocortex: Multiscale Dynamic Correlates of Conscious Experience. In Misha Z Pesenson (Ed.), Multiscale Analysis and Nonlinear Dynamics: From Genes to the Brain (New York: Wiley, pp. 147-175, 2013)
Alwyn Scott, Stairway to the Mind (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1995)