Monday, August 9, 2010

Consciousness as a process that is entailed by molecular interactions

I'm now convinced more than ever that we are able to think unconsciously, for I actually came up with the following idea in my dream. I woke up in my dream (or half-woke up in my half-dream), saying to myself that I needed to write this down: Consciousness is a process just like a storm is a process; physical constituents of consciousness are molecules that constitute neurons and other elements in the brain, just like physical constituents of a storm are molecules that constitute air and other things that fly in the storm; consciousness is what appears to us when the molecules move in a particular way, just like a storm is what appears to us when the molecules move in a certain way.

Let me elaborate more. This idea arose from a question I had when I encountered the next passage about 15 hours before I had that (half-) dream. The passage was in Second nature by Gerald Edelman.

It is commonplace to talk of mental events or phenomenal experience as if they were causal. But in asmuch as consciousness is a process entailed by integration of neural activity in the reentrant dynamic core, it cannot itself be causal. At the macroscopic level the physical world is causally closed: only transactions at the level of matter or energy can be causal. So it is the activity of the thalmocortical core that is causal, not the phenomenal experience it entails. (pp. 91-92)

This passage is Edelman's answer to the classical question: "Are consciousness and 'mental events' causal?", but, to me, this was one of the only few parts that I felt not exactly convinced of in this otherwise brilliantly lucid book. I just wondered what a process is exactly. Edelman argues that consciousness is not causal because it is only a process. Although I was obviously able to understand the literal meaning of this argument, the argument didn't exactly feel right to me. What does Edelman mean when he says that consciousness is only a process? I needed some analogy or something to feel convinced.

That's how I woke up some 15 hours later in my (half-)dream. In it I said to myself the above statement (" Consciousness is a process just like a storm is a process") and that I need to write this down in order not forget this (I actually woke up and wrote it on my computer at 4:30).

In ordinary language, we often say a sentence like "the storm destroyed the house completely" as if the storm had the causal power. It makes perfect sense in conversation. Yet, the 'storm' is just a convenient expression in our ordinary talk, and in physical terms the 'storm' is nothing but the collection of multitude of molecules that constitute air and other things that fly in the storm.

The causal power lies in these physical elements (the physical world is causally closed). 'Storm' is a name we give to a particular type of process of the movements of these molecules. So in physical terms, it is molecules (or any other physical terms if you like), rather than the 'storm', that cause the destruction of the house (which is also constituted by the molecules. 'House' is another convenient word in our ordinary life). After all, "the storm destroyed the house completely" is all about causal interactions of molecules. In this sense, the storm is only a process that we give the name "storm", and not causal.

Likewise, consciousness is also a process, not an entity on its own. It is only entailed, Edelman argues, by neurons in interaction. When he talks about 'qualia' -- let's temporarily define 'qualia' as a particular state of consciousness that is 'felt' by the first person; I therefore equate qualia with consciousness here --, he says as follows:

Qualia are entailed by states of core neurons acting to yield complex integrative states that can shift to yield new states and conscious scenes. Qualia are thus no more caused by neural states than is the spectrum of hemoglobin caused by that protein's structure -- its so-called Soret spectrum is entailed by its molecular structure. (p. 145)

(Because of the lack of scientific knowledge, I have to assume that 'Soret spectrum' is (or similar to, or related to) 'Soret peak'.)

Given a particular molecular structure, a certain spectrum appears to us. However, the molecular structure does not exactly cause the appearance in the strict sense of physics because the structure doesn't appear that way in non-human beings with different mechanism of vision (or other perception). The appearance is rather a matter of the system that observes the structure. The appearance is, we should say, more entailed for us than generally caused by the structure in the sense of a physical law whose effect is not human-specific.

In sum, consciousness is entailed by certain interactions of molecules, not caused by them. Consciousness is not within the boundary of physics in the strict sense, but within human subjectivity. Consciousness is a process that humans become aware of given our biological structure. Assigning causal power to consciousness is like assigning a storm causal power; it makes sense in our ordinary language, but not in physics, as an ultimate form of science.

Go to Questia Online Library

No comments: