Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Part 2 - My Studies OR: It's More Than I Thought!

So now that I’ve sufficiently documented my trials of existential doom and gloom in the first entry to this over-sharing trilogy, you may be wondering where I landed on everything.

Well, you’ll have to wait for our next issue to reach that exciting conclusion, true believer.

For now?

 More questions!

The original inquiry that spawned my trip down the proverbial rabbit hole was,

“Why do I feel like this?”

And I tilted at that particular windmill for years as it led me down a path of accusations, biological speculation, historical circumstance, and personal perspective. After years of frustration and eventual stagnancy, I realized I was asking the wrong question.

You see, during that time of interrogative obsession, I kept coming across a word.
This word eventually refocused my pursuits, and demanded that I acknowledge it.
This word changed my cardinal question.
This word was:


A word, a concept, I became obsessed with, yet still don’t understand.
It’s a fundamental focus of philosophy and religion, of learning and of life.
It managed to simultaneously truncate and deepen my inquiry.

Now I was asking,

“Why do I feel?”

So just what the hell is consciousness?
Honestly, I’m not going to be able to answer that for you.
However, I’m going to get my feet wet offering some thoughts and hope that the tentacles of the leviathan don’t wrap around my ankles as I do.


If you seek a definition to the word consciousness itself, you’ll typically receive multiple answers.
My MacBook’s dictionary offers up the following:

  •       The state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings.

  •       The awareness or perception of something by a person.

  •       The fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.

So although we having differing definitions that can be used based upon intent of meaning and situational context, we still have a through-line:


So is consciousness simply awareness of the raw data in the world around us?

Well that’s certainly a factor in and facet of consciousness. The internal systems of the brain that receive and categorize sensory input, allow us to control motor output, and selectively focus attention are all important to a central and cohesive definition.  But this all leaves out one important aspect:


Do our emotional, intellectual, and preferential reactions to input define who we are?

Maybe I’m putting the yoke before the ox.
Maybe we should first ask:

Who are you?

I’m not just talking about a list of work experience,  hobbies, features, or even personal history.
I’m talking about your essence.


Your very BEING.

What the hell is that?

A quintessential component of being human stems from our individual (subjective) experience of the external (objective) world.  No two people have ever experienced the same life, no matter how similar their circumstances.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel said,

…The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means… that there is something it is like to be that organism…Fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.”

We all know that there is something it is like to be a human, and dilated even further, something that it’s like to be each individual human.
Our BEING is what defines us, and our experience of the world implicates that BEING.    

Although we all possess, or are seemingly derived from our shared experience of consciousness, we still vary wildly within our interpretations and reactions for which consciousness allows.

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris said,

 “Consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential internal qualitative dimension to any physical system, then that is consciousness."

So is that subjective experience (or soul, spirit, etc.) simply a result of our brain’s physical systems?

Well some people would argue that it’s not based in our biological make-up at all, but is metaphysical and even divine in its origin.  Actually, that’s been a foundational idea to most of the world’s major religions.

Throughout antiquity, before the advent of the scientific revolution, the mystery of life still captivated human inquiry. People still questioned existence.  And over geographical/temporal locations we can review how our ancestors answered those fundamentally human questions.

The bible gives us the lines:

“And the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” [1]

While the Quran states:

"And they ask you about the soul. Say, "The soul is of the affair of my Lord." [2]

These texts (provided you’re taking a literal interpretation) seem to adhere to the idea that the essence of a human is the instilled quality of a deity.

“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?”  [3]

The idea is that our bodies are simply temporary hosts for the divine, and our ability to experience comes from the supernatural. However, the idea that our bodies and “souls” are two separate entities is not unique to the Abrahamic canon.

Hindu scripture reads:

“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” [4]

Here we see the idea of the soul transcending the body within the context of reincarnation. So although we have differing religious ideologies surrounding the concept of spirit or the soul, we see a correlation with the idea of a distinct separation of the mind and body.

We also see this idea arise in philosophy. 17th century French philosopher René Descartes held this belief in no uncertain terms.

He wrote:

“Thus this self, that is to say the soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and is even more easily known; and even if the body were not there at all the soul would be just what it is.”

Descartes’ presumptions have been categorized under the umbrella philosophy known as Dualism. This philosophical branch, succinctly summed up, promotes the idea that “the mental and the physical—or mind and body or mind and brain—are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing.”  [5]

The beginnings of this philosophy span back into ancient Greece, where Plato made similar assertions to Descartes’ that the soul and body where two completely separate entities. He thought that the soul was pure intelligence and belonged in the metaphysical world of ideas, but the spirit became confused when set inside the temporal form of the human body. His protégé, Aristotle, believed that the two entities (physicality and soul) were separate, but were inextricably linked to form the essence of a human.

These are a few examples of antiquity’s attempt at explaining something that exists in the vacuum of abstraction. It’s a thing trying to define itself from within, and failing to see other possible conclusions, lands in the realm of the supernatural.
Our ancestors conclusions are understandable considering that modern science still hasn’t landed anywhere closer to a consensus as to the origin of consciousness.

So what has modern science given us in terms of possibilities?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Each theory with its faults and detractors, and each with its own unique ideas. The process of science is that of competing input meant to point out flaws in its predecessors and challengers and with all participants working to break down the erroneous and collectively build up the credible.

Is…um…is this boring? I mean, should I be making it funny or something?
Wait…are my other ones even funny?

Gold Five: Stay on target.

What?  Gold Five?  What are you doing in my blog?

Gold Five: Stay on target.

Listen, I’m just wondering if my narcissistic machinations are…

Gold Five: Stay on target. 

…Thanks, Gold Five. I needed that.

Ahem…So before we dive into a theory or two, we should address exactly why the problem is so hard in the first place.

Actually, there is a theory postulated towards exactly that. It’s titled (accurately enough) The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Philosopher/scientist David Chalmers asks,  

“Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience…? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises.
Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?”  [6]

It’s the fundamental question that science can’t seem to answer.
We have more or less identified the parts of the brain in conjunction to how they receive information, and even how they work together for complex information processing, but that still doesn’t explain the experiential element. It would seem that we are more than the sum of our parts.

“The hard problem is hard…” Chalmers continues, “because it’s not a problem about the performance of functions.”

What is our soul, in scientific terms?  Or where is it, in anatomical terms?
That’s the crux. That’s the hard part.

What makes the hard problem hard…is that it goes beyond problems about the performance of functions…why is the performance of these functions accompanied by experience?

There are a few theories floating around that attend to this question in physiological terms.  An interesting one is Graziano and Kastner’s Attention Schema Theory, or AST. They attempted to tackle the problem from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Their general thesis is that consciousness is a direct result from evolved processes of attention. 

Graziano said, 

The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals at the expense of others, and in the AST, consciousness is the ultimate result of that evolutionary sequence.”  [7]

So how exactly does an evolved process of attention give rise to subjectivity?

At any given moment, we are bombarded with sensory input and that input flow is constantly changing. You can’t possibility account for every single piece of information coming in, so your brain has to prioritize content based on an internal hierarchical system of importance.

This process is called selective signal enhancement” Says Garziano,  “without it, a nervous system can do almost nothing.

In our midbrains we have a piece of hardware called the tectum. It functions as a unifying coordinator for all the various parts of the brain that take in different sensory input. When you need to focus all of your faculties of attention on something, this is the guy that lines the troops up. And when they are all inline, they are able to build an internal model of what you're experiencing in the "external" world.

“An internal model is a simulation that…allows for predictions and planning. The tectum’s internal model is a set of information encoded in the complex pattern of activity of the neurons.”

All animals have a tectum; but what separates us from most of the wild kingdom is that we have developed a sizeable cerebral cortex as well.

What’s the difference?

While the tectum allows us to focus all our attention on something, it limits in that it has to keep direct attention on it. The cortex allows for attention on anything irrespective of proximity. You can think about something without experiencing it directly, and make predictions about it based on the memories of previous experiences. You can use your advanced faculties to process the events happening and plan ahead by imagining different events occurring and how you’ll respond to each imaginary scenario.

The tectum deals with the actual, while the cortex can process the abstract.
This abstraction that exists in our minds is what we identify as our “self”.
 We have no physical sense of this complex processes occurring, because it’s happening on the neural level.

To put a pin on it:

It has a physical basis, but that physical basis lies in the microscopic details of neurons, synapses, and signals…It depicts…attention in a physically incoherent way, as a non-physical essence. And this, according to the theory, is the origin of consciousness.”

So here we have a biological explanation (theoretically) for what’s traditionally been attributed to the metaphysical.

Another theory, one that doesn’t so much offer a biological explanation for the advent of consciousness, as much as it promulgates an inextricable connection between it and the existence of the universe itself, is called Biocentrism.

The theory’s creator, Dr. Robert Lanza, says:

“The universe rises from life, not the other way around.”

Biocentrism draws heavily from quantum mechanics. In the quantum field, there is a very famous (and often replicated) demonstration on the behavior of particles.
 It’s called the Double-Slit Experiment.

Basically, you have a wall like barrier with two gaps (or slits) in in. You shoot particles randomly at the barrier, and measure those that happen to go through the slits by placing a wall beyond them. This backing wall has sensors that measure where the particles hit if they happen to make it through a slit. Some particles go through the right slit, some the left, and some hit the initial barrier and make no mark on the measuring wall behind it at all.

The odd thing is that when scientists would cease to observe the experiment, and come back to check where the particle impacted the measuring wall, they would see that there was a mark through both the left and the right side.

Lanza explains the findings:

It’s conclusively proven that if one “watches” a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through slits on a barrier, it behaves like a particle and creates solid-looking hits behind the individual slits on the final barrier that measures the impacts. Like a tiny bullet, it logically passes through one or the other hole. But if the scientists do not observe the trajectory of the particle, then it exhibits the behavior of waves that allow it to pass through both holes at the same time.” (8)

The gist of the experiment (which is much more in-depth and complicated than I’ve covered here) is that the very act of our observation, or even our presence, impacts the field of externality that we call “the world.” It supposes that everything exists in kind of a limbo state of “wave probability” until an observer comes along and forces the wave into a particle by simply being there.

Think of a video game. When you turn your character around to look east, does everything to the character’s west still exist?

No. That virtual world is rendered around you as you move within it.

Well, this theory presupposes a similar effect to the world we experience in real life. It only exists insofar as we force it into existence. There isn’t the separation of subjective observer and objective reality. It’s two sides of the same coin.
Everything hangs in the limbo of wave probability until our minds force those waves into particles. We experience the world as we create it with the systems of our minds. Nothing is really “out there”, as much as it’s being calculated and computed “in here”.

The first of the seven principles of Biocentrism is:

“What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.”

This theory is diametrically opposed to the religious and philosophical ideas that supposed a dualistic nature to the universe and the inhabitants of it, and although it does not directly offer us an explanation as to why or how consciousness arises, it quietly pushes those questions aside as it asserts that consciousness is not the bi-product of our existence, but the very means through which everything exists.

The theory that could render all these points moot is called Mysterianism, and it has the main thesis of WE CAN’T FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT. 

Mysterianist philosopher Colin McGinn pushes the idea that we haven’t come to understand consciousness and we never will, because the systemic operations of our minds are simply incapable of comprehending themselves. 

McGinn said, “The human mind conforms to certain principles in forming concepts and beliefs and theories…and these constrain the range of knowledge to which we have access. We cannot get beyond the specific kinds of data and modes of inference that characterize our knowledge-acquiring systems…”  [9]

Our understanding of minds and brains are different by their very nature.
Brains have objective qualities we can see, measure, and verify, while our minds are subjective and thereby limited by that subjectivity. We can see the measured changes in the blood flow of a person’s brain using FMRI technology, but we can’t record any empirical data on how a person feels when they hear their favorite music.

McGinn’s hypothesis is “the search for philosophical knowledge would be an attempt to do with our epistemic capacities what cannot be done with them. Our minds would be to philosophical truth what our bodies are to flying: wrongly designed and structured for the task in question.”

So where does all of this leave us?

Well, by the end of this, I feel just as confused as I did before I started. But I feel better about my inability to understand my own existential experience once I set it against the backdrop of human history. Women and men smarter and more educated than I could ever hope to be still struggle with and argue about what it all means. The field is so vast and encompassing; that what I’ve written here is just a raindrop in the infinite ocean of it all.

I’ve juxtaposed a few ideas set in the framework of the humanities, but these ideas transcend any attempt of a non-contextual framework. Seemingly, any point argued in one religion has a rebuttal in another. Every branch of philosophy has another branch built to why the first branch is wrong. Things overlap, exceed each other, and lose themselves.

No wonder I’m confused.

That confusion seems to be the human condition.
I realized that I’m far from alone in my confusion, and that realization is in itself a form of the freedom I was looking for.
And while I still have questions, I won’t continue down my path of inquiry with the assumption that I’ll some day figure it all out.

I’ll just stay curious.

 And keep learning as I live.


1: Ecclesiastes 12:7
2: Al-Isra 17: 85
3: 1 Corinthians 3:16
4: Bhagavad Gita 2:22

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