Friday, July 23, 2010

"wider than the sky" by Gerald Edelman

Quotation from

Yale University Press, 2004

A great book written by a great researcher in great clarity.
Here are some points that I found most interesting.

Definition of primary consciousness

Edelman divides consciousness into primary consciousness and higher-order consciousness. The former is defined as follows:

Primary consciousness is the state of being mentally aware of things in the world, of having mental images in the present. (p. 9)

Definition of higher-order consciousness

Humans and other animals with semantic or linguistic capabilities also have higher-order consciousness.

[H]igher-order consciousness involves the ability to be conscious of being conscious, and it allows the recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts and affections. (p. 9)

Theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS)

Edelman uses the theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS), a.k.a. Neural Darwinism, in order to explain consciousness, both primary and higher-order. (Thereafter when the term "consciousness" appears, it means both.) TNGS has three tenets: (1) Developmental selection; (2) Experiential selection; (3) Reentry. Of particular importance is the notion of reentry.

Reentry is the ongoing recursive interchange of parallel signals among brain areas, which serves to coordinate the activities of different brain areas in space and time. Unlike feedback, reentry is not a sequential transmission of an error signal in a simple loop. Instead, it is simultaneously involves many parallel reciprocal paths and has no prescribed error function attached to it. (p. 41)

Explanation of primary consciousness

With this idea of reentry, Edelman explains primary consciousness; primary consciousness is the dynamic interactions between perception and memory to make "the remembered present."

These dynamic reentrant interactions in the thalamocortical system must be thought of as successive in time -- new perceptual categorizations are reentrantly connected to memory systems before they themselves become part of an altered memory system. This bootstrapping between memory and perception is assumed to be stabilized within time periods ranging from hundreds of milliseconds to seconds -- the so-called specious present of William James. I have called this period "the remembered present" to point up the dynamic interaction between memory and ongoing perception that gives rise to consciousness. (p. 55)

Explanation of higher-order consciousness

Higher-order consciousness is indeed higher-order, or more extensive than primary consciousness because of the use of symbols. Symbols, typically language, created higher-order consciousness. Reentry in primary consciousness in the form of language made it possible to deal explicitly with the future, the past and the self. Use of symbols altered primary consciousness into higher-order consciousness.

[T]he subsequent evolution of additional reentrant circuits permitting the acquisition of semantic capability, and finally language, gave rise to higher-order consciousness in certain higher primates, including our hominine ancestors (and arguably a number of other ape species). Higher-order consciousness confers the ability to imagine the future, explicitly recall the past, and to be conscious of being conscious. (pp. 58-59)

Mechanism of primary consciousness

Then, how consciousness works in our physical body? If we are to regard consciousness as the mental, in strict opposition to the physical, we're trapped in the dualism and have to break out of the physical of physical causalities; claiming that the non-physical causes the physical phenomena is untenable in science. On the other hand, if we are to strip consciousness of any causal features associated with it, it betrays our common sense too much.

Edelman's solution is to regard consciousness as a phenomenal transform, a process, (C) that is entailed by the neural activity (C').

We have pointed out that C is a process, not a thing, that it reflects higher-order discriminations, and that it does not occur in the absence of C'. but, given the laws of physics, C itself cannot be causal; it reflects a relationship and cannot exert a physical force either directly or through field properties. It is entailed by C', however, and the detailed discriminatory activity of C' is causal.
that is, although C accompanies C', it is C' that is causal of other neural events and certain bodily actions. The world is causally closed -- no spooks or spirits are present -- and occurrences in the world can only respond to the neural events constituting C'. (pp. 78-79)

After all, the capacity of our consciousness (C) is quite limited to cover all the neural activities (C'). C is only a partial and biased reflection of C's and such a reflection, just like a glimpse in an unclear and broken mirror, cannot directly affect the true thing. A reflection can only monitor the thing to a reasonable degree.

Mechanism of higher-order consciousness

However, when this self-reflective process (C) is harnessed by language, it is not only a reasonable monitor of C' but also a good means in communication to understand of mutual C's between language users. (p. 80)

On top of that, with many linguistic means, the possibilities of the worlds that can be dealt with increase.

Clearly, one of the largest steps toward the acquisition of true language is the realization that an arbitrary token -- a gesture or a word -- stands for a thing or an event. When a sufficiently large lexicon of such tokens is subsequently accumulated, higher-order consciousness can greatly expand in range. Associations can be made by metaphors, and with ongoing activity, early metaphor can be transformed into more precise categories of intrapersonal and interpersonal experience. The gift of narrative and an expanded sense of temporal succession then follow. While the remembered present is, in fact, a reflection of true physical time, higher-order consciousness makes it possible to relate a socially constructed self t past recollections and future imaginations. (p. 103)

(Read a very interesting report of how a "language-less person" experienced such a difficulty in acquiring language, particularly words of metaphorical concepts: Life without language

Consciousness and truth

We must abandon the idea, perhaps a modern idea, that our consciousness is the true master of our actions. Consciousness is only a partial and biased reflection of our neural activities; the phenomenal process of our self-reflection can only have a limited and indirect control over our actions, which are, after all, physical events.

Why did God make us so incomplete? Well, it is because, if you don't mind, it's evolution, not God, that made us.

The take-home lesson is that our body, our brain, and our consciousness did not evolve to yield a scientific picture of the world. Instead, sufficient adaptation to an econiche is what saves the day, even in the presence of emotions and imaginings that would be irrelevant or unavailable to a precise third-person description. (pp. 136-137)

Consciousness and unconsciousness

Likewise, Levit's contention that consciousness emerges up to half a second later than its corresponding neural activity is no paradox.

Primary consciousness is, however, tied only to successive intervals of present time -- the remembered present. The lag of up to five hundred milliseconds that is found between intended action, neural response, and conscious awareness is not a paradox if one understands the relationship between nonconscious automaticity and conscious planning. Consciousness is not involved in automatic motor processes (except during the learning leading to automaticity), but instead is related to planning and to the creation of new combination of already automatic routines. (p. 144)

We have to be clear here that nonconsciousness, the term coined to avoid the ambiguity of unconsciousness, is different from Freudian unconsciousness. A larger part of our actions is determined by nonconsciousness rather than Freudian unconsciousness.

Nonconscious. Refers to brain activities unable to become conscious, in contradistinction to the Freudian uncouscious. (p. 169)
Freudian unconscious. A domain of which a subject is not conscious but that is capable of being made conscious by psychoanalytic techniques. (p. 159)

Consciousness is "wider than the sky," but its capacity is not as wide as we wanted to believe.


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Sunday, July 4, 2010


Quotation on wisdom from "The loss of wisdom" by John A. Meacham  found in "The Wise Men (and Women!)" By Jessa Crispin

To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known.

See also Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall.


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