A question of questions

Stephen Jones offers a biased account of the Towards a Science of Consciousness III Conference, University of Arizona

What is subjectivity? That’s the issue. How does a physical, biological system like a human being come to have that personal, private but conscious experience of the world which is ultimately available only to oneself and expressible only through the most devious of means. Moreover, what is the self that is conscious of this experience?

These were the questions explored by the 800 or so people from many disciplines in philosophy, the social, biological and physical sciences, as well as computing applications and artificial intelligence, who came together for the Towards a Science of Consciousness III Conference. The range of contributions and possible answers run from complete denial of subjective experience through to the utterly mystical. Important new information about our neuro-biological processes and several new approaches to a quantum physical “mind field” explanation were presented but, ultimately, this edition of the biennial conference brought us no nearer to an explanation of conscious experience.

Great advances have been made in the biology of consciousness, or at least the biology of how we see and recognise objects, how we control our movements, how we interact with others and the emotional underlayer for everything we do. To mention just a few. A very good understanding of seeing, and how we interpret and recognise what we see, has been developed by Christof Koch (Germany/USA), built up from the work of many others. The neuronal processes employed for the detection of colour, edges and movement and the maintenance of object wholeness as we move (scan) our eyes across a scene are becoming well understood. The hierarchical relations of visual-feature-processing neural-assemblies in the cortex leads to concepts of how and where we recognise objects and people, how we separate out the information we need to physically grasp and manipulate an object, and most importantly, whence the visual information that we are conscious of derives.

Al Kazniak (USA) has elucidated much of the neural structures which mediate our emotional experience and the relations our desires and fears etc have to our behaviour. Our understanding of our social behaviour is also being shown to have neural basis. Vittorio Gallese (Italy) and colleagues have discovered in monkeys the visuo-motor “mirror” neurons by which they recognise and respond to the facial expressions of other monkeys. These neurons may serve as the basis for that recognition of the other, which forms the basis of communication and language.

Al Hobson (USA) has shown us a great deal about how dreaming enters our lives, what changes in the chemical modulation of our brains brings about sleep and dreaming and why dreams are so disjointed and bizarre. It’s proposed that dreams are what happens when, with the usual waking sensory input turned off, low-level bodily events and the day’s residuum within our emotional brain become input to the normal visual interpretation mechanisms without any of the regular awake control and discernment applied.

Bernard Baars and James Newman (USA) have mapped a highly suggestive description of the cognitive aspects of consciousness onto an architecture of control and processing assemblies operating between the cortical processing and lower brain attentional mechanisms. The cognitive description has become known as the global workspace. Its anatomical basis is in the inter-relational architecture of the cortex and the sensory relay station called the thalamus.

But all this biological knowledge does not resolve the issue of how it is that we have subjectivity. What is that intimate personal experience of the information flow through one’s brain that ‘I’, a ‘self’, experience? Is the biological process all that is going on, or is there some other thing occurring? This problem seems to arise from the fact that what I experience as first person process is so utterly different from the third person, physical description of the world. For example, what we report to each other about the ineffability of a glorious sunset simply hasn’t got the depth and intensity of the direct experience of that sunset. The green of the leaves may well match a Pantone colour chart but how can I tell you of its intensity when walking through a forest? (The nearest we seem to get is in the transmission of ideas through the range of the arts.)

And this is what is known as the “explanatory gap.” How can we explain the difference between my subjective experience of some phenomenon of the world and the physical explanation of that phenomenon, say in terms of wavelengths of light turning out to be some special colour. This was the major philosophical problem discussed at the conference. What is this explanatory gap? Is it real? And most importantly, if it is, how do we bridge it? This has become what David Chalmers (Australia/USA) describes as the “hard problem” for a science of consciousness. It is what produces some of the most outrageous proposals and makes the whole area so interesting. How do we get from one’s first person experience of something to the third person description of the experience? What gives the experience of a colour or a smell its intrinsic feel, its depth and intensity, its “qualia”? Given the neurobiological explanation of what is happening in my experience of a colour, why do I experience it at all?

Evidently, quantum physicists are having the most fun with these questions. As somebody noted during the conference, for every quantum physicist there is a different interpretation of the quantum physical world. Stuart Hameroff (USA) still holds to the idea that quantum collapse (the manifestation of a consciousness of something) occurs in the skeletal structure of the neural cell, and is still challenged to explain how this could occur in a system operating at biological temperatures. Fred Wolf asserts that there is a field of “mind” throughout the universe, that everything actually occurs within that field and that we simply tap into it for our dose of consciousness. This is the most theologically inclined suggestion and is perhaps the best hope for the mystical and transpersonal psychology types who speak of the ‘spirit’ being primary. But it still remains to ask how it is that any biological ‘I’ might have access to my personal part of this field?

The new quantum physics of information throws a fundamental spanner into the works for all sides of this argument because it introduces the notion of information itself, the differential relations between things, being even more fundamental than the particles discerned through the agency of those relations. This issue, and the detectability of the difference relations, is still being developed as a topic of consideration, though it has deep sources in the work of Kant and Bertrand Russell.

Transpersonal psychology and the mystical experience have the most to gain from the formulation of the explanatory gap and quantum physical explanation. Here the politics of the research start to become evident. Is the neurobiological work all that is necessary or is there something more that should be funded? For my part I think that the explanatory gap is actually a result of the struggle between theology and mechanistic explanation as clearly shown in the work of the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes. If he hadn’t needed to show himself to be a being possessed of a soul as well as a ‘mechanical’ body then this subsequent confusion need not have arisen. Experience could have been shown for what it surely is: being inside the body’s processing of the informational product of the world, rather than the dualistic interpretation; namely, there is the physical and there is something else, which we find inexplicable.

Disappointingly, the possibilities inherent in the organised-systems nature of neurobiology and the possibilities of artificial intelligence as available through neural networks were left almost completely uncanvassed. As a result I think that the opportunities for a useful understanding of how a physical body produces consciousness were missed.

The problem boils down to this question: Does consciousness require a field of some sort to exist within? Or is the functioning of the biology enough to produce the qualia and subjective experience that defines consciousness? The quantum physicists and the mysterians all assure us that a “field” of some sort is necessary and those neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists who choose to deal with the notion of the qualia of experience suppose that the functioning of the brain is all that one needs. The purpose of most of the philosophers in the debate is to point up this issue: How do you explain the subjective feel/quality of our first person experience of the world. (Ignoring, for the present, the issue of what exactly the world is anyway?)

Towards a Science of Consciousness III Conference, University of Arizona, Tucson, April 27 – May 2

RealTime issue #26 Aug-Sept 1998 pg. 33

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1998