Monday, October 31, 2011

Looking for definitions.

Looking for definition of consciousness lands us in a myriad of conflicting ideas. From the simple 'awareness' to arguably very complex ‘a creature is conscious if there is something it is like to be' definitions galore. Some persons have equated consciousness with god, others with the soul and yet others with the self, at times using the terms interchangeably.

When I read that one word - sentience, used by Sam Harris, it immediately struck my senses that this definition had substance. After all consciousness was a sensory experience. We can't have consciousness if it was not for our senses to perceive something. Every sensory input is processed by the brain and channelised into further use and the same holds good for consciousness as well. No matter how much exalted your consciousness is, it can’t foretell anything about the behavior of a conscious creature. It is highly subjective or phenomenal and we come to know of it only after some involuntary action had already happened.

There are a number of processes going on in various organs inside our body. Are we conscious of them? Human brain is processing lots of data at any given time and trillions of neurons are in action which we are not conscious of. A wound is healing but the individual is not conscious of the healing process. And when a malignant mutation is taking place somewhere inside the body, a medical scanner is required to detect it, not consciousness. What does consciousness do then? The closest analogy we can make is with ‘free will’ since consciousness is said by some to be directing functions of the brain. However, scientific studies on ‘free will’ have revealed that consciousness has always lagged behind involunteer acts of brain. In a sense consciousness is a thing of past as far as conscious observations / experiences are concerned.

Is consciousness some extra ability in addition to the ones we have like perceiving and feeling (sensory)? If yes, it means we evolved without it and it somehow got embedded into functioning of the brain. Where did it come from and with what functionality?

If on the other hand this is something intrinsic to our brains then do we have a need to make the issue complex by pursuing it? Why not then apply Ockham’s razor to consciousness and leave it aside for all practical purposes?

In my earlier blog post I raised this question; what would have happened if consciousness, as it is known, was removed from the human brain?  Here is another similar dilemma which I'd like to portray in a hypothetical scenario like this:

Assume a human being without knowing any language or manners of expression (linguistic or sign). How would that individual then convey to others his conscious feelings? And in a society of such individuals (it is not an animal state) it would be impossible to consciously communicate unless human brain adapted to the new reality and devised some ways of doing so. Releasing of hormones or scents and / or developing special organs like compound eyes or heat and vibration seeking forked tongues, helps animals get over the problem. That was all possible through evolution. Since I have portrayed this problem for a human state, it appears consciousness would be helpless unless the brain worked a way out.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Understanding a phenomenon from its ‘opposite’

Understanding a phenomenon from its ‘opposite’ is a perfectly valid method. Science is working on models that take the course of tracking events backwards. The Big Bang model is being tested the similar way.

In reply to a comment on my original post “Of consciousness and confusion” I asked, what will happen if we hypothetically removed consciousness from human beings. Will they cease to exist as human beings in absence of consciousness? Of course, all my doubts and reservations on the subject remain while this ‘removal of consciousness’ cropped up as a vague idea.

My friend Herbert Peters seems to have independently given this idea a serious thought and come up with a caption as above. However, I’d stick to word ‘opposites’ leaving out ‘antonyms’ that sounds too literal.

Herbert has cited ‘Fainting’ and ‘Death’ as two examples of the processes involving temporary and permanent loss of consciousness. I’d like to take on the permanent part as it somehow appears to be approximately in consonance with my vague idea of removal of consciousness.

Death is more than a mere permanent loss of consciousness, I think. To understand death we take the help of its ‘opposite’ – life. Life starts with Germ-plasm (that abiogenetic jelly like globule of protoplasm called cell of life) but as we go up the evolutionary ladder from simple to complex, life starts developing somatic cells which carry the element of death in them. Somatic cells die but the germ (plasma) cells don’t. Death, therefore, is a failure of one or more of the organs having somatic genesis. Then a brain dead person is technically alive and so is the one in terminally deep coma. However, consciousness in both the cases is absent implying that permanent loss of consciousness is possible even without being dead.

Attention is another grey area in this matter. Herbert’s statement – it looks like that during unconsciousness, attention is disabled – appears to be true but its opposite is also true. Consider children quarrelling in your back room while you are busy with something else. Unless you are told about their fighting you may not even notice them shouting and crying. This implies that attention could be disabled even you are fully conscious. The ticking of the table clock by my bed side is noticed only during night when no other sound draws my attention. I’ll struggle to explain what I had for breakfast and that too only when you asked me about that, else that thing doesn’t appear to be in my consciousness.

Does this mean; a) something is not happening if I am not aware of that (children quarrelling). Where is my consciousness then in the first place which pops up suddenly when I am made aware of an event happening within my audible range? And, b) Am I doing many things automatically without being conscious of them (ref: Libet’s free will experimentation) like going through routines like having breakfast?

My idea is not semantics. What I am interested to know is how consciousness came into being and whether it directs human brain to do things in a particular way or this is purely a function of brain like cognition, perception, attention etc are.
To continue…..