“The Hard Problem”

Could there be consciousness without our brain or matter?

By Dr Rajagopala Soondron

It’s “a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it”. That’s how the international Dictionary of Psychology in the 1980s had defined Consciousness.

If this is all the information that a dictionary can tell us about that phenomenon then we can appreciate why David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University, had in 1995 tagged it as a ‘hard problem’, to distinguish it from other mental phenomena like verbal report, categorization, internal access or perceptual discrimination that could be grasped and analyzed; but still some of us will still ask why are all such phenomena accompanied by experience?

For Chalmers “phenomenal consciousness” which is characterized by “what it’s like for the subject” cannot be explained by reductive functional procedures — so successful elsewhere in psychology in faculties like remembering, reasoning or learning. Such reasoning is possible elsewhere, but not for consciousness. And for Chalmers this constitutes the ‘hard problem’.

To most scientists, there is no doubt that consciousness is a by-product of the brain. Dope that brain with drugs – and the personality, the behaviour, the reasoning power and the very concept of external reality changes; so also trauma to the brain does the same. Consciousness, the very essence of us – “the redness of red, the feeling of being in love, the sensation of pain and all the rest of our subjective experiences” are ‘conjured by our brain’. Yet, it remains such an elusive phenomenon that scientists of yore decided that it’s not worth being investigated scientifically!

Francis Crick, having co-discovered the double helix of our DNA, was joined by Christof Koch – head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle — to research whether consciousness, like biological heredity, could be traced to a few intrinsic brain cells. They were not interested by what causes consciousness but by whether there is ‘a minimal physical signature in the brain sufficient for a specific subjective experience’; this would constitute a physico — biochemical “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC) where a few cells along with their neurotransmitters would be its hub.

Where Is Consciousness?

There are some old simplistic ideas: (1) that awareness was intimately linked to brain activity manifesting itself by the gamma waves seen on EEG tracing – the neurons would be firing at a frequency of 40 per minute; (2) Other neuroscientists mentioned that some pyramidal cells in some region of the brain cortex would be playing a central role in consciousness evolution; (3) or still Crick and Koch were favouring the idea that a sheet structure called claustrum found below the cerebral cortex, when stimulated would send the person into a form of catatonia — hence modifying level his of consciousness. That last concept was abandoned as someone who had his claustrum destroyed by inflammation could still be conscious.

So came the modern theories, where a network of cells, rather than a few specific cells, is being favored as the seat of consciousness. Two proposals were made. One is the Global Workspace Theory, GWT, which proposes that consciousness is nothing but a functional process of a wide range of cognitive systems: information that we do perceive from the external world does reach some network of neurons in the cortex and the thalamus of our brain, where it competes with still other stimuli coming into that network. And whichever information is stronger is finally filtered and broadcasted across the brain as consciousness. Attention, verbal report and memory, constituting “the contents of consciousness” are amenable to various cognitive processes. Yet the link between such processes and experience “might well remain opaque”.

The other theory, brainchild of Giulio Tonoti, a neuroscientist of Wisconsin University, is called the Integrated information Theory( IIT), where it is believed that consciousness is the sum total of information gathered and combined in the brain – the whole being more than the sum of each information. Further, Tonoti’s idea is that consciousness can be measured; such a quantity, phi, would depend necessarily on the number of connections between nerve cells in a given module. The more those connections and the higher the consciousness generated by special modules the more the phi, especially in the cortex. It is found that, though the human brain consists of some 90 billion nerve cells, 69 billion are in the part called cerebellum, yet the latter generates little consciousness, being given that the interconnections in its modules are few; further any tumour affecting the cerebellum does not affect consciousness.

Of course these two latest theories just try to explain our reasoning faculty, our bodily control or speech, but not so much our subjective experience.

The ITT theory “is controversial – not least because it posits that something inanimate like a grid of certain logic gates (the interconnections) may have an extremely high degree of consciousness”. Supported by Koch, it is identified as a hot zone in the back of the cerebral cortex, this being the Neural Correlates of Consciousness; while for the GWT supporters this zone is in the front of the brain cortex, which is more concerned with decision-making, reporting and monitoring. As the posterior zone has more connections – more phi — it is favoured as being concerned with subjective experience.

If the source of consciousness could be pinned down to some specific cells in the brain, some neuroscientists believe that then the door would be opened to search the whys of that consciousness, its purpose and raison d’être. There is talk that in the coming decade or so we would have a “consciousness-o-meter”!! Which will help us to quantify consciousness for medico-legal purposes and for evaluating how damaged the brain is after an accident.

Looking for a fundamental theory of consciousness

20 years ago Koch and Chalmers had a bet, according to the latest New Scientist; Koch claiming that by 2023 a NCC would be discovered, leading to a fundamental theory of consciousness, while the other is in doubt, saying that “the hard problem” might be solved only in decades or centuries.

Some scientists and researchers are supporters of reductionism — this being “the idea that complex phenomena can be explained in terms of the arrangement and functioning of simpler, better understood parts”. Even if we could use structural, functional and dynamical procedures to explain the conscious mind, some of us would still ask: “why is it conscious?” Hence the concept that “there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the physical world and consciousness”. When we wake up in the morning we automatically and naturally become conscious without hindrance – without having to exert any reasoning; nothing comes between us and our conscious states. The impression is that we cannot be wrong about “the content of our conscious states”.

Yet there are very serious thinkers who are asking whether Consciousness does exist after all! Others believe that it must exist, for if we create a Zombie totally like us, physically, mentally, and psychologically, we’ll still be asking whether it is conscious, that very question pointing to the fact that we do have a separate entity like consciousness. Some others believe that consciousness is intimately related to our subatomic particles, and so enters quantum physics in the debate. Could there be consciousness without our brain or matter? Or could there be two separate entities – the physical world and consciousness? That’s the realm of some philosophers and religious people.

Hence the concept of “hard problem” has elicited responses ranging from reductionism, to downright denial of existence of consciousness, eliminativism, to panpsychism which is presence of consciousness to some degree in everything, and to full-blown dualism.

And so the debate rages on, whether there is really a ‘hard problem’ or not, and what could consciousness really be. With more sophisticated modern investigations, will we be able to corner it to a few cells or network in our brain? Some of us doubt. But only time will tell.

Meanwhile… consciousness remains “the cream on the cake of mentality, a special and sophisticated development of mentality. It is not the cake itself…”– David Armstrong, 1980.


* Published in print edition on 1 November 2018

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