Friday, May 25, 2007

SCIENCE Questions: What Is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?

 
"What Is the Biological Basis of Consciousness?" is one of the top 25 questions from the 125th anniversary issue of Science magazine [Science, July 1, 2005]. The complete reference is ...
Miller, Greg (2005) What Is the Biological Basis of Consciousness? Science 309: 79.
[Text] [PDF]
Greg Miller is a news writer for Science. He begins by describing the classic mind/body problem in philosophy. Rene Descartes claimed that mind and body were two separate things.
Recent scientifically oriented accounts of consciousness generally reject Descartes's solution; most prefer to treat body and mind as different aspects of the same thing. In this view, consciousness emerges from the properties and organization of neurons in the brain. But how? And how can scientists, with their devotion to objective observation and measurement, gain access to the inherently private and subjective realm of consciousness?
This is a slippery slope. The real question is "Does Consciousness Exist?" There's no point in asking about the biological basis of something until you establish that the "something" actually exists. As Miller hints in his introduction, consciousness could be just an epiphenomenon—a kind of illusion that's produced when a brain operates.

If that's true then the right question would be something like "How Are Memories Stored and Retrieved?" As it turns out, that is one of the top 25 questions, but it's not this one.

The article ends by pointing to promising lines of research that might arise from asking the "right" question.
Ultimately, scientists would like to understand not just the biological basis of consciousness but also why it exists. What selection pressure led to its development, and how many of our fellow creatures share it? Some researchers suspect that consciousness is not unique to humans, but of course much depends on how the term is defined. Biological markers for consciousness might help settle the matter and shed light on how consciousness develops early in life. Such markers could also inform medical decisions about loved ones who are in an unresponsive state.
This is begging the question (in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase). The question we should be answering is not "why does consciousness exist?" but "does consciousness exist?" I don't think it does exist, so naturally this ranks as a very silly question as far as I'm concerned.

The statement that "some researchers suspect that consciousness is not unique to humans" is very disturbing. It implies that most workers think otherwise, as does Greg Miller. Personally, I'm not aware of any serious research scientist who thinks that "consciousness" (if it exists) is something that only a human possesses and not a chimpanzee or even (gasp!) an octopus. (Readers are invited to post the names of anyone who thinks otherwise.)

And the idea that there might be "biological markers for consciousness" seems to portray sloppy thinking at best and profound misunderstanding at worst.

Questions about how the brain works rank right at the top of my list of important questions. This question is not one of those. It is badly formulated and the explanation in the article makes it even worse.

45 comments :

  1. I'm not aware of any serious research scientist who thinks that "consciousness" (if it exists) is something that only a human possesses and not a chimpanzee or even (gasp!) an octopus. (Readers are invited to post the names of anyone who thinks otherwise.)

    Do not bother posting the names of people who think that an octopus is smarter than a human. I already know who they are. :-)

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  2. "why does consciousness exist?" but "does consciousness exist?" I don't think it does exist, so naturally this ranks as a very silly question as far as I'm concerned.

    Somehow.. that doesn't suprise me (although I am curious how you can use the pronoun 'I' in a meaningful way).

    Just as some minds are better adapted to music, or math, or literature, or fixing cars, it may be that some minds are more richly endowed with the perception of consciousness.

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  3. Just as some minds are better adapted to music, or math, or literature, or fixing cars, it may be that some minds are more richly endowed with the perception of consciousness.

    And some minds are more richly endowed with the perception of the spirit world, or with the propensity for addiction to ethanol. Human brain variation exists. What's your point?

    I'm inclined to agree with Larry on this one: absent convincing evidence to the contrary, I'm going to assume that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain function in certain animals rather than a distinct phenomenon in its own right.

    So now the weekend philosophers out there can crap on me as well as on Larry for attempting to use the word "I" and fool the Turing test.

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  4. "I am curious how you can use the pronoun 'I' in a meaningful way"

    That would be self-awareness, which is part of some animals behavior.

    Many of these concepts are folk psychology, and it would be surprising if all of them would be helpful in describing the processes of the mind.

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  5. I'm amazed at this discussion. Surely I'm not the only one who has no clue how to define "consciousness" in the first place? How can one even ask a question about the biological basis or existence of consciousness without knowing what we mean by the word? (And certainly it wouldn't be hard to come up with a definition that would make its existence tautological.)

    Perhaps the question should be "Can we come up with a scientifically useful definition of consciousness?" This is similar to the existence question (presumably it would only be a useful definition if it refers to something that exists), but better defined.

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  6. We are conscious beings and whether we say that consciousness is something which arises from the brain's operation, it doesn't mean that it is less real. Illusions exist, they just aren't what we believe them to be.

    When you say consciousness doesn't exist, do you really mean that "free will" doesn't exist? I just don't know what you mean when you say that consciousness doesn't exist.

    It almost sounds like debates with evolution defenders who so zealously attack "Intelligent Design" that they will say that organisms don't appear designed. On many levels, organisms do appear designed and evolution accounts for this nicely; why not admit that humans appear to be conscious and seek an explanation for that instead of denying the phenomenon outright?

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  7. I'm inclined to agree with Larry on this one: absent convincing evidence to the contrary, I'm going to assume that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain function in certain animals rather than a distinct phenomenon in its own right.

    The problem is deeper than that - much deeper. There is no reality other than that experienced through your consciousness.
    To deny consciousness is to deny reality, since the two cannot be separated (that would make you a nihlist).

    A collection of information that you perceive through your consciousness, about your consciousness, is not equivalent to the actual experience of your consciousness. This "experience" is fundamentally subjective (in both waking and dream states), and science cannot go there. If it is an illusion, then all of reality is an illusion.

    Saying that it is an illusion also does not answer why the illusion is experienced as "you" and not someone else (the childhood "why am I me" question). You can't just say, "well if you were someone or something else, you'd say the same thing." You are *not* experiencing reality as someone else - that is the point.

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  8. From the example of multiple personality disorder, it would seem that what ever a "consciousness" is, a brain can support multiple versions without major structural neurological changes between different versions.

    If there is such a thing as a "consciousness", is the "consciousness" that exists on one day, identical to the "consciousness" that exists at another time?

    Usually what we mean by "identical" is that there is a one to one matching correspondence. I don't see any way that such a definition would apply to consciousness, were it an entity.

    Then the question of temporal continuity comes in. When someone is unconscious, does their consciousness still exist? If consciousness can only be supported by a brain capable of supporting it, then no, it doesn't exist during unconsciousness. If it does exist, where is it when the brain is incapable of supporting it? Is there a difference in whether the lack of capacity to support consciousness is temporary or permanent? There shouldn't be.

    If consciousness is destroyed when ever the brain is incapable of supporting it, then there is no "continuity" between periods separated by unconsciousness. If there is no "continuity", then we can't invoke "continuity" as a mechanism for a consciousness being "the same" from one time to another.

    It is not at all clear to me that consciousness has the properties necessary for it to be considered an entity.

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  9. "do you really mean that "free will" doesn't exist?"

    "Free will" is a folk psychology concept, a philosophical concept, and, perhaps, something neuroscientists can research.

    But in the later case it would probably not look like anything of the two former. AFAIK our minds synthesize a model for what we did a few moments after we do it. So would it mean philosophical "free will", and would it connect with your concept of consciousness in any meaningful ("willful" ? :-) way.

    Actually, if I were a philosopher, an observation that we model after the fact would make me say that the philosophical concepts of free will and consciousness are meaningless. We aren't 'conscious at the time' our minds make decisions, and so 'we' (our 'consciousness') doesn't exercise 'free will'.

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  10. If there is such a thing as a "consciousness", is the "consciousness" that exists on one day, identical to the "consciousness" that exists at another time?

    This is another aspect of the "why am I me" question - i.e. why am I not my earlier or future self? The temporal concept of "now" is intimately linked with consciousness. In fact, "now" can't be defined without consciousness, since physics has nothing to say about it.

    If consciousness is destroyed when ever the brain is incapable of supporting it, then there is no "continuity" between periods separated by unconsciousness. If there is no "continuity", then we can't invoke "continuity" as a mechanism for a consciousness being "the same" from one time to another.

    Yes, this is another deep question that some physicists have speculated about. If the universe somehow magically came into the same or similar state 600 trillion years from now, would you be conscious again? If matter and energy are all there is to consciousness, then this would have to be true.

    I remember being sedated once with IV valium for 2 hours, but to me it passed in about one second. I felt like a robot being turned off and turned on again.

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  11. "Free will" is a folk psychology concept, a philosophical concept, and, perhaps, something neuroscientists can research.

    I agree. It's a classic illusion. We believe that we are free to make choices, but it all still arises from our brain. It may be chaotic, it may be complex, it is certainly a massive feedback loop making it near impossible to predict, but "free will" as the ability to make choices independent of our brains is just an illusion.

    AFAIK our minds synthesize a model for what we did a few moments after we do it. So would it mean philosophical "free will", and would it connect with your concept of consciousness in any meaningful ("willful" ? :-) way.

    I'm interested in why there is an illusion of free will, which is essentially the question of how our mind arises from our brains. Call it consciousness, call it self-awareness, call it what you will. Denying that it exists, as Larry appears to be doing, isn't helpful, and appears dishonest. I'm sure that Larry is a scrupulously honest person and this is probably a semantic issue, but unless he clarifies, it looks like he's trying to deny a phenomenon that is familiar to everyone.

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  12. tyro says,

    I'm interested in why there is an illusion of free will, which is essentially the question of how our mind arises from our brains. Call it consciousness, call it self-awareness, call it what you will. Denying that it exists, as Larry appears to be doing, isn't helpful, and appears dishonest. I'm sure that Larry is a scrupulously honest person and this is probably a semantic issue, but unless he clarifies, it looks like he's trying to deny a phenomenon that is familiar to everyone.

    I share your interest in how the brain works but, perhaps unlike you, I don't think the human brain is fundamentally different than the brain of a fruit fly.

    It is not helpful to coin a term such as "consciousness" to describe what we feel when our brain is working properly. The term has no biological meaning.

    I've always found it helpful to think of the "Data" analogy when discussing these problems. Data, you might recall, was the android on Star Trek: The Next Generation (the best of the Star Trek series). Was Data conscious? Did he have free will?

    "Free will" is also a concept without biological significance. If you contrast free will with determinism then free will is certainly an illusion. The world is deterministic whether we like it or not. (Unless you're a religious person then "free will" can exist outside of the deterministic world.)

    If my computer could talk, it would probably say it had free will since it makes all kinds of decisions on its own. For example, right now it's cleaning up the hard drive. Is it really helpful in understanding how computers and androids work to talk about free will and consciousness?

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  13. The above comments serve only to convince me that this whole discussion is moot until somebody offers a firm, solid, agreed-on definition for consciousness. How can you argue the existence of something when you don't agree on what you're arguing about?

    I'd also ask how one can tell if an effect or perception is "real" or "illusory" when one has nothing to compare it to. "Illusion" generally means "a false perception of reality." If consciousness is illusory, then what is the "reality" that we aren't perceiving? If we can't perceive it, then how do we know it is the reality, and consciousness is the illusion?

    Larry, you wrote: "Free will" is also a concept without biological significance. If you contrast free will with determinism then free will is certainly an illusion. The world is deterministic whether we like it or not.

    Not true. The world is demonstrably not entirely deterministic. Certain quantum phenomena such as radioactive decay are truly random.

    Personally, I find the ability to argue intelligently that free will doesn't exist to be one of the strongest pieces of evidence that free will does exist. A deterministic automaton would be incapable of such complex and esoteric thought.

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  14. I'll refrain from the philosophical discussion points. But I think I'm justified in responding to this:

    "I share your interest in how the brain works but, perhaps unlike you, I don't think the human brain is fundamentally different than the brain of a fruit fly.

    What do we define as the 'fundamental' aspects? surface area/volume ratio? types/complexity of synapses?

    As 'consciousness' may not be equal to everyone, so too may these fundamental properties be different. Clarifying them can put us all on the same level to move forward with this part of the discussion.

    I hope its worth answering.

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  15. Conciousness seems like a human construction taken too far - elaborated to metaphysical means. It seems like something without a good basis for definition used to justify the supernatural without proper understanding or contemplation.

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  16. I share your interest in how the brain works but, perhaps unlike you, I don't think the human brain is fundamentally different than the brain of a fruit fly.

    No, I don't think our brain is fundamentally different than a fruit fly. There are quantitative differences and perhaps qualitative differences, but I see no reason to think that we're not a part of a scale which slides smoothly. Even within our species, different individuals have different subjective mental experiences.

    I don't see how the consciousness of other animals is relevant to your argument, unless you are treating "consciousness" as the magical "free will" proposed by theists.

    It is not helpful to coin a term such as "consciousness" to describe what we feel when our brain is working properly. The term has no biological meaning.

    How is the question of biological meaning not a non sequitur? Consciousness is a real phenomenon and while we may not be able to pin down a biological cause to it yet, this doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    I'm reminded of Dr. V. S. Ramachandran's works. In one book, he describes patients who are blind but who are still able to point to objects. They have no conscious awareness of sight, yet images are still processed subconsciously. It sounds like a clear demonstration that there are real layers in our processing and access of information and "consciousness" is a meaningful term.

    The talk about requiring a biological basis before accepting that consciousness even exists reminds me of Dr. Novella's debate with a doctor who denied that mental illness existed because you couldn't point to ADHD on an MRI. Dr. Novella argued that this position is untenable, and I'm inclined to say the same thing about anyone who says that consciousness doesn't exist for the same reasons.

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  17. I have a problem with the idea that consciousness is simply an "illusion". I hate to sound Cartesian, but isn't subjective experience the only thing that cannot, in principle, be reduced to an illusion? Doesn't the whole concept of an "illusion" presume the ability to experience it in the first place?

    I would agree with those who say that consciousness hasn't been rigorously defined, but I would argue that it doesn't have to be. Consciousness is an ambient and holistic phenomenon and is thus probably not reducible in the same way, say, elementary particle physics or chemical periodicity is. It reminds me a bit of the question of how to define "organism", wherein one encounters similar hurdles in biology.

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  18. wolfwalker syas,

    Not true. The world is demonstrably not entirely deterministic. Certain quantum phenomena such as radioactive decay are truly random.

    This is irrelevant in the sense that we're talking about here. I'm using "determinism" in contrast to "free will." If you're content to define free will in terms of radioactive decay or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle then it becomes a meaningless term.

    The definition of determinism that I'm using is similar to the one on the Wikipedia site [Determinism].

    Causal (or nomological) determinism is the thesis that future events are necessitated by past and present events combined with the laws of nature. Such determinism is sometimes illustrated by the thought experiment of Laplace's demon. Imagine an entity that knows all facts about the past and the present, and knows all natural laws that govern the universe. Such an entity might, under certain circumstances, be able to use this knowledge to foresee the future, down to the smallest detail.[5] Causal determinism has a subtle relationship with predictability. (Perfect) predictability implies strict determinism, but lack of predictability does not necessarily imply lack of determinism.

    This sort of determinism does not rule out probabilistic laws of nature such as radioactive decay.

    Personally, I find the ability to argue intelligently that free will doesn't exist to be one of the strongest pieces of evidence that free will does exist. A deterministic automaton would be incapable of such complex and esoteric thought.

    That sounds more like a religious statement than a scientific statement. What you're arguing is that humans, but not androids, can rise above the laws of nature and make decisions that are not predicated on their prior experience and their internal brain chemistry.

    What kind of magical force allows this to happen and which species possess it?

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  19. tyro says,

    Consciousness is a real phenomenon and while we may not be able to pin down a biological cause to it yet, this doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    The onus is on you to prove that "consciousness" means anything more than the simple fact that our brain is functioning.

    You can't just dismiss the question about which other species are "conscious" because it goes right to the heart of the debate. If you think that consciousness is a real biological phenomenon then you better be prepared to define it in a way that's testable. Heck, I'd be happy if you would just define it in a way that's debatable.

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  20. Daniel Dennett is interviewed on "free will" and consciousness at Slate.

    http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=dennett&topic=freewill

    Unfortunately the interviewer, Robert Wright, seems not to understand science and be quite lost.

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  21. Larry says...
    The onus is on you to prove that "consciousness" means anything more than the simple fact that our brain is functioning.

    So is this just a question of definitions and semantics?

    I suppose the observation of sleep, comas and the brain damage I mentioned earlier (where people have no "conscious" awareness of sight but still process visual stimuli) all show that the brain can function without consciousness, that many of the brains functions are divided between a conscious and subconscious level.

    If you think that consciousness is a real biological phenomenon then you better be prepared to define it in a way that's testable. Heck, I'd be happy if you would just define it in a way that's debatable.

    I'm sorry, I'm not a biologist or a neurologist so I don't think I can give you the level of precision that they can. I can't think of any quantitative means for measuring consciousness or studying it except through interviews, which would make cross-species studies extremely difficult, so while I see no reason to think that other animals aren't conscious, I can not see any means of demonstrating that they are, either.

    Within humans, conscious thoughts are those which they are aware of, the sensations that they are aware of experiencing. As I pointed out, we can demonstrate that some neural processing is conscious such as when people "see" the world, but the images which we are aware of are the result of much processing which we are not aware of (unconscious or subconscious). For example, how our brains fill in the gaps in our blind spots, or how patients with brain damage show that they can have no conscious awareness of sight and yet are still able to point at the location of objects.

    In the last couple examples, we can test them through interviews. We can test ourselves by studying our our brains process visual illusions where we are aware of the final result but not of any of the processing which creates this. We can examine patients with brain damage and show that they don't have awareness of sight (or other sensations) and yet their brains are processing the stimuli.


    You have brought up the issue of definitions several times and I'm not sure I've made it precise enough for you. As with the definition of "life", it's probably going to be imprecise or artificially precise since it's likely to be a continuum. For example, people who have no conscious awareness of seeing anything on their left side or cannot consciously recognize their own face (yet will react to mirrors). I hope it is at least falsifiable in the extremes, and is sufficient to show that it is a real phenomenon worth acknowledging.

    It strikes me that, since everyone has the experience of having a mind, of unconsciousness, of perceptual illusions, that instead at best you could try to argue that "consciousness" isn't precise enough for you. I don't see how you can justify the argument that it doesn't exist, and I haven't seen you offer any argument to that extent, beyond saying you can't see consciousness under a microscope.

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  22. The onus is on you to prove that "consciousness" means anything more than the simple fact that our brain is functioning.

    You can easily turn that around and say "the onus is on you to prove than science means anything at all without consciousness". Can one exist without the other? Yes, and guess which one it is.

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  23. Larry Moran said

    Free will" is also a concept without biological significance. If you contrast free will with determinism then free will is certainly an illusion. The world is deterministic whether we like it or not. (Unless you're a religious person then "free will" can exist outside of the deterministic world.)


    Merci Larry! Where were you on the 'Methodological Naturalism' thread where I also brought this up...I needed your back up :-)

    It is soooo an epiphenomenon. Some people just don't have the nads to admit it...ahem, coughing...Wolfwalker. We are all not as important or special as we think we are.

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  24. zeroD says,

    Merci Larry! Where were you on the 'Methodological Naturalism' thread where I also brought this up...I needed your back up :-)

    You were doing fine all by yourself. :-)

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  25. This is bad. I haven't been able to bring myself to comment for days. But after all, I thought, it is positive that larry is at least talking about this. I guess that's what makes this blog better than boryngula.

    First, there is this notion that "Consciousness" and "free will" are completely useless to science as in some knee-jerk reacticon whose source is quite clear: reductionist scientism and paranoid miraclephobia. (This "just an epiphneomenon" thing is for true begginers, guys. You ARE silly reductionists!!)

    I think "Consciuousness" refers to some degree of awareness, as in capable of conceiving of ourselves (and others) somehow like an outside observer. This kind of cognitive recursivity is of course much greater with language, which allows us to make descriptions of descriptions

    Now can you plaese tell me WHAT THE FUCK is supernatural about that??? Why on earth do you deny the phenomenon flat out? I can't belive you make such a silly mistake: to think that determinisim somehow undermines the utility of any notion of cosciousness is useless.

    It's the mere result of stupid, brainless miraclephobia: That is, you're seeing enemy where they don't exist. You are boxing with your own shadow.

    I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist but I also know they to consciousness, subconsciousness and uncosciousness in definite, useful ways.

    Same about free will. Only if you buy into the religious crap argument, that free will cannot have a natural explanation, will you be stupid enough to deny free will in itself.
    Obviously we experience life as individuals who want things and make our own decisions accordingly.

    Zerod, I know you like to think your balls are enormous, and that you say the truth no one wants to hear, blbablba. You'd better know, You're no hero. If yout think you message is bleak that does not make it automatically true. Unless you're a pessimistic idiot.
    Those are not reasons for you to be right, not even arguments you're just making your silliest motivations evident for everyone to see.

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  26. Alipio said: ...well, he said a buncha stuff. Dude, relax, I only said nads, and you're throwin' out the F-bomb and everything :-). I'm actually not an overly pessimistic or bleak person - for me, I just accept my undelying opinion that my "consciousness" and "free will" are illusions, but then I go on living the illusion. I'm reductionist yes, but I find the complexity in nature astounding and amazing and completely worth studying including the epiphenomenon of consciousness. Oh, by the way, I'm a white guy with pretty average equipment :-) Hey, I can even allow myself to believe in love. I like this quote from Carl Sagan - "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love."

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  27. I think there are some questions that are so important they need to be part of the education of every university student.

    One of them is "Is there a God?" Another is "Is there such a thing as free will?"

    I remember how shaken I was when I realized that free will was an illusion. It was like a veil had been lifted. I hope everyone gets to tackle that problem and I'm delighted that some of you are coming face-to-face with the challenge for the very first time.

    It makes blogging worthwhile.

    Consciousness is more difficult but discussions about consciousness are excellent ways to hone your skills in logic. If by "conscious" you simply mean the state of not being unconscious then you can make a good case. But I think most people mean it to be more than that. Unfortunately, most of them won't commit to a definition that we can come to grips with.

    Why hasn't anyone answered my question about Data? Is he conscious? Does he have free will? (This is a thought experiment.)

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  28. Well I'm glad you had such a wonderful personal experience, Larry. Hehe. But you know what you feel when religious people say things like that to us.

    What I'm saying is that it is idiotically square and paranoid to act as if these notions did not relate to any actual phenomenon at all... you just wave it away as an illusion, an epiphenomenon you don't want to ever think about scientifially again. You have what these words, that describe normal experiences, right alongside the tooth fairy and the spaghetti monster. WTF?? You're running away, and it shows.

    Probably becuase you have no idea what to say. Most scientistic people ARE, after all, kind of handicapped for handling these higher-level topics. And then, of course, there is fear that if you acknowledge them any further than the "illlusion" you will be on the side of..."magic" (By the way, epiphenomenon is not = to illusion). As I explained, this plays into those who argue our natural experience of consciousness and free will is magical. You prefer to deny the phenomenon iself, a natural experience, before even trying any truly scientific approach. That is not only unsicentific, it is intellectual cowardice becuase you have bought into the enemy's argument. As plain as that.

    If ever the creationists wanted a scientist saying that wat is obvious is an "illusion", they will hit jackpot right here. But that is not science. It is the ideology of reductionist scientism, and it's wrong.

    Again: acknowledging that we experience free will, that we experiece life as individuals who want things and can make our own choices (and be responsible for them), does not require pleading that any magic exists. You just have some explaining to do. With the aid of philosophy, with the aid of behavioural sciences, psychology... is this too difficult to grasp?
    Can you hold your horses a bit longer before declaring a topic to be woo and then pressing your "no free will spirituality" on the rest?

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  29. DATA most definitley had much more free will than the chair he was sitting on, but you guys seems to notice no difference. Data was highly autonomous, and most of the things he did depended as a result of what was going on inside his body. he obviously has levels of rfree will that for all practical purposes are identical to those of a human.

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  30. In response to Alipio, I'm not saying there is no phenomenon there - there is, that being the transmission of information via neurons in our heads that leads to our impression of consciousness. Way back I used the word supernatural to try to get across that if you think there is more to consciousness or free will than neurons firing in response to other neurons, then you're appealing to something beyond the natural realm. You know...I'm getting the feeling you're not going to be convinced...don't know why, just a hunch :-)

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  31. As for Data, he has as much consciousness and free will as the rest of us...we're just all cogs in the big machine man. As for posing questions about tv robots - I much prefer talking about the Cylons on Battlestar Gallactica -they're much hotter :-)

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  32. and what about data's chair?

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  33. f you think there is more to consciousness or free will than neurons firing in response to other neurons,

    The autonomy even of a single neuron is greater than what you think: it does not necessarily fire in response to other neurons. It can fire itself off periodically, for instance, or whetehr it will or will not fire off depends onthe different conditions in which that neuron may be found. This is the whole idea of the interneuron: it can interfere with what would otherwise would be an automatic reflex. And guess what. Most of the brain is interneurons, where most neuronal activity cycles itself. Only a fraction of this activity is involved in sensory inputs.

    How's that for autonomy? When your main reference point for your own dynamics is YOURSELF, and not something directing you form ouside. That is what autnomy is about,and anyone can see that properties thta we associate with free will are much more manifest in this kind of system than say...data's chair.

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  34. To have a will, first you have to WANT something. You decide and do exactly, precisely, what you WANT. The closer we get to what we want, the closer we get to a truly free will. There is no sense in talking about free WILL without the WILL in it; no matter how powerful and immaterial you were.

    Now why do we want the things we want? Because of the way we are: our mammalian emotions, our material -historical circumstance, etc. We act according to our identity, in other words, because of the particular kind of structure that we present. This why it certainly does make sense to talk of "I", or of "Larry". We are not identical. We have individual identities, product of different histories of structural transformations of our true selves: our material bodies.

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  35. It seems that none of the critics have listened to the interview with Daniel Dennett that I linked.

    I don't try to summarize it because I probably couldn't do justice to Dennett.

    It seems to me that Dennett has answered the objections still being given.

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  36. ned,

    As I'm sure you're aware, the discussions about consciousness and free will are very confusing to people who have never thought about them. The first step is simply to make them aware of the fact that their gut feelings have been challenged by some pretty serious thinkers (like Dennett). It will take some time for them to come to grips with the idea that what they see as self-evident may not be evident to everyone else.

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  37. iI my case, I understand perfectly well the argument, and was enthusiastic about it as an adolescent science warrior. But in retrospective, after all that I have gone through, it's silly reductionism is now so patently false, as well as pratcically defied by opposition to bad notions of "supernatural" free will. Now it seems juts stpid to me.You guys live on the enthusiams of my prehistory.

    Now we praise Dennet, Larry? How sophisticated does his ultradarwinian adaptationism seems to you?

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  38. [Sorry for comment delay - I am currently backtracking.]

    "I'm interested in why there is an illusion of free will, which is essentially the question of how our mind arises from our brains."

    That is definitely a question for neuroscience. But it is complex and many faceted. I doubt they use "free will" much. We need observable properties. (See Moran's comments.)

    "This sort of determinism does not rule out probabilistic laws of nature such as radioactive decay."

    Exactly - as QM combines continuity and discreteness, it also combines determinism with genuine stochasticity. It follows from maximizing observability from the wave function (no hidden variables).

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  39. alipio asks,

    Now we praise Dennet, Larry? How sophisticated does his ultradarwinian adaptationism seems to you?

    I think you know the answer. I am totally opposed to Dennett's stupid views on evolution. But just because someone is wrong on some things does not mean they're wrong on all things. It's a huge mistake to assume that.

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  40. I apologize for that, I was a bit angry haha.
    You are right. I actually saw that long interview of dennet,and he said some things I agree with. But first let me tell you about where he was just horribly wrong.
    His idea that consciuosness is the result of some part of the brian attaining "king of the mountain" status in the competition with other parts of the brain.... don't ask me what the bleeep that has to do with consciousness. That's why he did so poorly at explaining why that wouldn't have already been attained in computer programs. A sad spectacle. Conscious computers live among us, Dennet!! hahaa

    I think consciousness has to do with some kind of cognitive recursivity, such as when you "know you know". Consciousness is also very much expanded in our species by language and interactions with others. Maybe Dennet should consider these ideas before he just solves it all by invoking some kind of natural selection among brain parts. Ideological darwinism: pseudoscientific crap. Is there anything evolutionary that is not explained by a darwinian competition of some kind in Dennets mind?

    That being said, I can say that both he and I are compatibilists, in that we can see how free will is is not about determinism or indeterminism, and that determinism is in no way contrary to free will, which is more than I can say for you and zerod, who seem to conclude that determinism implies no free will or consciousness.
    I agree that we must have a focus about what he calls "agent" and that I would simply call organism and the way the organism encounters the environmental circumstances. But thinking it is all about avoidance is goofy.

    It is also evident that both Dennet and I discard the "just an epiphenomenon" argument against consciousness. This is specially so in organisms, who are all about cyclical phenomenons; the epiphenomenon actually bears on the conditions that give rise to it. That is what autocatalysis, autopoiesis, self-production and self-organization are all about.

    THAT is the biology of it. NOT natural selection. Dennet!! You hear me???

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  41. "Illusion"? Consciousness is a *sensation*. Though most of the brain works autonomically, there are apparently aspects of the mind which include *realization*. There is little doubt that this is an evolved biological process, and is a result of internal modeling of the world, a model that can be manipulated in order to learn and exercise forethought.

    Science has historically had great difficulties understanding brain function. But these sensations can be expressed, so the study of consciousness has largely been within philosophy.

    Data from Star Trek is not only conscious, but has self-consciousness, that is, he has an internal model of himself and can see himself as others see him. This is an important trait in human social interactions and bonding.

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  42. I am a biologist by profession. "Why does consciousness exist?" and "What is consciousness" are one of the most interesting questions about nature and biology to me, and I believe it to be the most important question that human beings will ever ask and will ever answer.

    But how do you study consciousness? How do you study the inner workings of it? You can't disect it like a fetal pig, can you? Oh, yes - you can.

    Anyone who answers "no" to the above question has never had an intense psychedelic drug trip, has never felt what it is like to have the lobes of your brain miscommunicate and malfunction first hand. Consciousness arises from organized brain function - brain function arises from an unbelievably complicated network of neurons, communicating through chemical neurotransmitters.

    So, how do you study consciousness? How do you "disect" it? You do it through analyzing the activity of chemical agonists or antagonists of neurotransmitters and their subsequent effects on brain activity, along with the much less scientific and objective (but still useful) first hand accounts of those undergoing the consciousness alteration.

    But maybe that's way too "out there" for some people. Guess we'll never know what consciousness truly is then because honestly, that's the only way I can see to get to the bottom of it.

    Until then, I'll just experiment on myself.

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  43. Consciousness is a *sensation*.


    Ah, but *which* sensation? How do you define it, so you know it is unique and sufficient, as opposed to say a mental model of "self"?

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  44. The funniest things happen when a conscious being tries to explain it has no consciousness. There will come a time when these forms of scientism will be regarded in the same light as how we know today religious dogmas also captured peoples minds in the past. Or how the financial bubbles explode from to much inflation. There is no smallest particle, 2000 years of scientific fail about these matters should guide as a big hint, unfortunately, it doesn't. Does the fish know it swims in the water..? nope.

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  45. I notice you didn't answer Tyro's question on how you're saying consciousness doesn't exist because you can't see it under a microscope author.

    This is just treating conciousness as a particle. There is verifiable a difference in conciousness depending on various forms of brain damage.

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