Home » Intelligent Design, Science » The Mystery of Consciousness

The Mystery of Consciousness

The 1/29/07 issue of Time Magazine is captioned “Mind & Body Special Issue”, and starts out with a discussion of the brain’s geography, an endeavor well studied and categorized by now, but which is far overshadowed by the mystery of ‘consciousness’, often tagged as the ‘ghost within the neural machine’. Steven Pinker writes the centerpiece article, “The mystery of consciousness”, and indeed, consciousness is the centerpiece of the mystery regarding life itself.


In a cited case of a woman involved in an accident who had severe brain damage, and using a new and improved MRI technique, she nonetheless showed unexpected neural activity when certain words were spoken, and in the areas where that activity would normally occur. She displayed no outward cognizance, however, raising new questions concerning the Terry Schiavo case.

Within the emerging field of ‘cognitive neuroscience’ the study of brain functions have been characterized by Pinker as easy areas, like defining areas that do this or that, to the intrinsically hard problem of trying to figure out what consciousness is. The article cites a major precept that prevails today as well as in years past, the materialist view that:

“Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.” (emphasis mine)

The article cites Swiss neuroscientists reporting that they were able to turn out-of-body experiences on and off through stimulation. A Google search using ‘out-of-body’, ‘neuroscience’ and ‘swiss’ produces conflicting reports, the scientists claiming that the effects were illusionary, but others feeling that the OBE experiences were genuine. Time will tell.

The article goes on to posit that much of what we perceive cognitively is illusional, and gives examples. One they cite, but that I take exception to, is that visual perception is faulted by seeing cognitively only a small central part of the visual field, and how by flitting from place to place, the brain thinks it’s seeing the whole field of vision, while it’s really only seeing parts of it. Although stated as a dilemma, the article later actually answers its own question by stating:

” … decision circuits inside the brain would be swamped if every curlicue and muscle twitch that was registered somewhere in the brain were constantly being delivered to them …”

Exactly, and in my view, this kind of data handling points to a kind of ‘specified’ or ‘engineered’ data handling, although scientists will state that it was merely due to beneficial mutations that improved survival.

Pinker also gets into philosophical areas like “How you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do”, and “What if I’m the only entity, and everyone else is only an illusion”. But the real question as to whether consciousness is external to the body, the brain being more of an interface device to body functions, and perhaps a shaper of earthly personality and a filter to earthly perceptions remains unanswered for now. Most researchers believe that consciousness is merely a function of neural activity. Sorry, but I have to disagree.

Link to article:

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

48 Responses to The Mystery of Consciousness

  1. Sorry, but I have to disagree.

    Yeah, me too. If consciousness *is* the activity of the brain, then why only a subset of it’s activity? Obviously not of all the brain is conscious or partains directly to consciousness. Where is the location of this special “unity of experience” and why is IT conscious and not the rest of the brain? There are no answers from the materialists. They only have bald assertions based on their materialist faith. Yawn.

  2. I use the analogy of an automobile and its computer. The computer controls functions such as spark timing, air/fuel ratios, and shift points. I think of the car’s computer as the brain. However, the computer is not the operator of the car – I am. All I see from materialists is hand waiving while screaming, “There is no soul!” Maybe I’m just ignorant, but how does the ability to monitor electrical signals in the brain prove there is no soul? Are those signals cause or effect?

  3. In an stunning and heroic display of hand-waving, Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at UCLA, explains conciousness in a sidebar to the Time article:

    “All the natural history required to understand consciousness is now readily available in evolutionary biology and psychology. Gene networks organize themselves to produce complex organisms whose brains permit behavior; further evolution enriches the complexity of those brains so that they can create sensory and motor maps that represent the environments they interact with; additional evolutionary complexity allows parts of the brain to talk to each other (figurateively speaking) and generate maps of the organism interacting with its environment…”

    Next problem!

  4. I shall now retire to make tea while my computer self-organizes my day’s computer programming task.

  5. I disagree, too.
    I don’t want to get too much philosophical, but everybody seems to forget a fundamental empirical fact: consciousness is the first thing we know, all the other things deriving from modifications in our consciousness. In that sense, of epistemological priority, we can say that consciousness is the only thing we are sure of.
    Another inportant point is that the consciousness perceived by each of us is our own consciousness. It is perceived in a different way than all other data (consciousness modifications). It is perceived as the fact that we are a subject, someone who perceives all the modifications and refers them to oneself. That’s the intuitive perception of the subject as a simple and constant being, something that no theory of AI can ever explain.
    All the tentatives to explain consciousness as a byproduct of complexity of software are completely delusive. There is no reason at all that a computing hardware is not conscious if it computes, let’s say, 2+2, and can become conscious at any more complex state of computing. Computing it is, anyway. The rules, the phenomena, are the same. In no way can consciousness suddenly come in, just because some further algorithm has been executed.
    The concept that parallel computing may generate consciousness is, at best, ridicule. Anyone who has any knowledge of computing knows well that, either you use a serial algorithm, or split the problem in parts and use a parallel strategy, nothing changes, in principle and in fact. The rules, the phenomena, are the same. In no way can consciousness suddenly come in, just because an algorithm has been split in parts.
    Consciousness uses the brain, but is not generated by it. That is the simple truth.

  6. Great post gpuccio.

  7. I am inclined to want to believe in the soul, mainly because I find the nihilistic alternative almost unbearable to consider (though I realize that doesn’t mean it isn’t so). There are many things that point to a non-corporeal soul, such as the fact that we can comprehend truth and maintain beliefs–if our consciousness is merely the result of some evolutionary biological process, how do we know that ANYTHING we know is truth? Perhaps our brains are so addled that none of us (atheist, theist, Darwinian, creationist, ID’er, Republican, Democrat, Marxist, what-have-you) are right about anything at all?

    I like Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against materialism, which uses the idea of true beliefs (a function of consciousness and rationality) as evidence against materialism. Even if you don’t believe in evolution, it is still a useful argument because it maintains that evolution and materialism are mutually exclusive, and since evolution is an almost completely necessary component of materialism, it shows that materialism is self-contradictory. (IF, that is, I understand his argument–I have to read more of his material to wrap my mind around it).

    There are many more compelling arguments in favor of the soul.

    That said, however, there are some questions that trouble me, which seem to point in the other direction. Such as:

    - What does your “soul” do when you sleep or are in a coma? (ok, maybe you dream, but the dreaming doesn’t take place the whole time)

    - How sentient is a newborn infant or fetus? (we have a six-week old baby in our house and I frequently think about this as I watch her just staring at the inside of her bassinette) At what point in a child’s development does consciousness fully form?

    - I’ve heard of experiments done with sufferers of epilepsy who have had their corpus collossum severed which demonstrate some funny things about consciousness and free will. Like one in which the patient was given printed instructions in one eye to get up and walk to the door; when asked why he got up from the other side of his/her brain (not sure how they did that: maybe asked in the left ear?), the patient stated he/she got up because he/she wanted to go get a drink. The inferrence of the researcher being that one side of the brain willed to get up and walk, but the conscious part of them had no idea why and made up a plausible story to explain the behaviour.

    - Memory seems to be tightly tied to brain biology. A person can loose memories due to physical injury to the brain. Brain surgery patients can be made to relive certain memories by electrically stimulating certain areas of the brain. But memory seems to be a large part of “who I am.” So what is a soul without memory?

    And what is a soul without memory and consciousness? And I ask, is the idea even coherent? But it seems that the idea of the soul’s non-existence is equally incoherent.

    It is a mystery indeed. Fascinating and troubling at the same time.

    (BTW, I can’t wait for the O’Leary/Beauregard book to come out).

  8. Consciousness is not a ghost, it’s a particular state of awareness that allows an agent to have subjective experience. The main problem of religious dualism, IMHO, it’s the fact it is too greedy. A ghost or spirit, in folk psychology, is not reducible to merely the ability to have subjective experience. The popular mental image of a ghost or spirit requires it to have memories, personality, personal identity, emotions, sense of moral judgement and several other heterogeneous attributes that share physical, neural correlates to the brain of man and other life forms.

    If eliminative or emergent materialism ultimately fails to account for subjective experience, there are other kinds of dualism much simpler and economic than the religious version, such as the physicalist dualism of David Chalmers which considers subjective experience to be something as essential and fundamental as space-time or electric charge. However, the structure of the vastly complex neural architecture of 100 billion neurons is not a free lunch, it’s a requirement for the existence of conscious agents.

  9. I admit this is WAAY too early, mea culpa. And as an aside, I am aware that not everybody is ready for the artistry of truly dubious limericks.

    As the fusion of jazz rolled over the night
    Was it my ‘maginations, or mystical flight?
    No, Lawdy, Lawdy,
    I’m still in my body!
    (Fleck’s banjo is still outta sight!)

    Flecktones poured out creation as my mind a-wandered.
    Was I, me, or me it, or was it I that had pondered
    That ev/psych had the answers –
    No mere necromancers,
    And I hoped that “my” time wouldn’t be squandered.

    So, I studied brain function from here to Ontario
    As Bela and mates jammed on my old stereo.
    That last study session
    Left a cool jazz impression
    Of yet another useless hand-waving-scenario!

  10. I don’t see why the brain, or more specifically the “soul” has to remain non-materialistic in order for it to be deemed “special”. Just because something can be explained naturally, doesn’t mean the magic is lost. I find it fascinating and wondrous that the universe has natural laws that allow for stardust to eventually become self aware organisms that can question the universe. (i believe Carl Sagan had that same sentiment)

  11. Is there any chance that the soul and the seat of consciousness are not the same? Now I realize that I need to tread lightly here but…there is clearly something that provides the impetus in all things living to simply not be dead, the will to live and keep making more living things in their image. Grass has it, amoebas have it, tigers, have it, and so on. And yet, I don’t think that any of those things exhibit consciousness. I suspect that no one else does either.

    The soul (and, again, I know that many people hold the belief that the soul is a gift from god) might be that which causes things be organic while being composed of so many inorganic things while consciousness might be solely the by-product of a beings that are sufficiently intelligent or, dare I say, evolved.

    I’m just talking off the top of my head here but it’s as well-developed or evidence-based as anything that’s been said so far here.

  12. Not so long ago, I held reservations about accepting a nonphysicalist view of mind (even as a Christian theist). This is no longer the case. There are phenomena which are fundamentally irreducible to physical entities (e.g. qualia and intentionality), and the reliability of our cognitive faculties appears to necessitate that either naturalism, physicalism, or both are false.

    Pinker arrogantly presents the “hard problem” as a great mystery but one which he KNOWS has an underlying physical ontology. He offhandedly dismisses dualism as “soul-of-the-gaps” reasoning, claiming that it explains nothing while this very assertion presupposes that all explanations must be physical in character–an assumption he makes a priori without any justification. He then has the audacity to use his knowledge that mind=brain to assert not only that life after death does not exist but that morality is not dependent upon the belief in an afterlife and that such a belief “necessarily devalues life on earth”, citing the 9/11 terrorist hijackers. Here, he most obviously oversteps his bounds because either he is unaware of or simply ignores the fact that there are theists who believe both that an afterlife exists and that the human mind has a physical ontology. His article is little more than religious indoctrination, and I am extremely disappointed that Time allowed it to be published in their magazine. I think this severs the tie between me and Time; I’m cancelling my subscription.

  13. Consciousness uses the brain, but is not generated by it. That is the simple truth.

    And its fact is primary evidence that Reality is beyond any kind of rational model. I often have a sardonic chuckle at materialsts because their whole take on these things exalt human reason while destroying its crediblility. It’s a subtle and bizarre form of insanity.

  14. Fross,

    Not that it would not be “special”, but rather “special” would then have no meaning. It would only be “special” because the brain’s material processes dictated its “specialness”. So in the end our brains’ are being manipulated into pondering itself and drawing conclusions about itself using its own processing. And all this as a result of capabilities supposedly gained through the filter of finding food, eluding predators, and precreating. Highly suspect, don’t you “think”???

    gpuccio,

    Excellent point. Consciousness is not required and does not add anything in regards to a system or program that must prioritize various swirling stimuli and potential thoughts. A non-conscious program can do it just as effectively, thank you very much. Besides, some of my best thinking is done unconsciously, and some of my most useless thoughts are done consciously. I will let you decide which category these expressed thoughts belong in!!

  15. jb:

    very good questions. Unfortunately, answers are not easy, and may be different according to one’s model of things. Anyway, I’ll try to say something from my personal point of view:

    1) “What does your “soul” do when you sleep or are in a coma? (ok, maybe you dream, but the dreaming doesn’t take place the whole time)”

    I wondered about that when I was a boy. Now I think that consciousness never stops, only expresses itself in various different “states”. Our waking state is only one of the expressions of our consciousness. Dreaming state is another one. Deep sleep is still another. There is never total unconsciousness. Only, it is difficult to bring the memories of one state into another (like when you forget the dreams you have just made as soon as you awake). Each state of mind has its laws, its principles.
    You can see that for me consciousness and soul are similar concepts. The presence of a subjective “I”, a “center” who perceives and unifies, is the basis of conscious phenomena. It is, in essence, transcendental.
    Another important point: with the word “consciousness” I do not mean, necessarily, self-consciousness, or rational consciousness, or thought as we conceive it. I just mean the presenc of a center of perceprion which refers to itself a set of modifications in the “body”.
    2) In my opinion, a newborn or a fetus is conscious (in the above sense), as are animals, or even plants. In my opinion, consciousness is a characteristic of life. Obviously, consciousness expresses itself in very different ways at the various stages of life. Obviously, many will not agree with that.
    3) Nobody wants to deny that the expression of consciousness, in material life, is tightly bound to the body, and specially to the nervous system. I am always surprised by the excitement of “scientists” each time they discover some new connection between mind and body, consciousness and brain. I don’t understand. Where is the new concept? If you want to know if body and consciousness are related, I humbly suggest an experiment which does not require any sophisticated imaging of the brain: just hit your thumb with a hammer, and see if it hurts. Obviously, consciousness perceives in itself the modifications in the body (it is called sensation, percepyion and so on). Obviously, consciousness can modify the body (it is called will, movement, and so on). That’s no problem for nobody. The problem is: what is consciousness, what is the link between consciousness and the body, and the brain? I just state again that, if the brain were only a machine, although very complex, it would not be conscious. The most complex algorithms and calculations could go on in it forever, and still “nobody” would ever be aware of them. Searle has said some interesting things on this subject, but I still think that Penrose is a fundamental reading about that. And Eccles, obviously.
    4)That said, it is perfectly obvious that any alteration in the working of the body and the brain can deeply affect consciousness, but never destroy it. As long as consciousness id tied to the body, it perceives mainly the modifications in the body.
    5) Memory is a deeper subject. We usually think of memory as the “waking state” memory, the ability to recall the experiences of the waking ego. But if consciousness is more than waking consciousness, then memory is more than waking memory. More important than memory, in my opinion, is the “continuity” of the I: If I suffer during a dream, it is “me” who suffers, and not someone else, even if, once awake, I don’t remember the dream. The consequences of my suffering in the dream are still in me, even if I don’t remember. That’s the difference between “continuity”, which can be seen as a deep form of memory, and explicit waking memory.
    6) “And what is a soul without memory and consciousness?” A soul always has some degree of memory and consciousness. No problem there.

  16. I’m cancelling my subscription.

    You had a subscription to Time??? Are you a dentist?

  17. You all might be interested in this article about the study of consciousness and near death experiences. The findings were published in The Lancet Journal.

  18. Personally I feel the notion of a soul is not needed to explain consciousness, as it only raises more questions than it answers – and provides no new information or insights.

    How does the soul interact with the brain? If it interacts with the brain, why not other phycial objects?

    Science has been actively looking for the soul for a long time now, and every time, we find neural activity…

    The reliability of our minds in their knowledge is not a reason for believing in a soul, otherwise how do you explain people failing tests, making wrong turns, etc. Our knowledge is falible, and our minds are easily mislead or deceived by illusions and comfortable ideas; or is it suggested our souls are unreliable, easily mislead and deceived as well?

    I see above gpuccio indicates that the soul has memory, so this would mean people suffering from Amnesia or other issues with their memory have an imperfect soul? Or perhaps even lack a soul in some cases?

    In the discussion above, I also note people point to materialistic explanations being insufficient and biased… How do we build our knowledge of the world unless it is founded on principles grounded in our reality though?
    Hand-waving that a soul is “out-there” with no way of testing it (other than a humorous suggestion of hitting your thumb with a hammer), or carrying the idea of a soul through to a conclusion we could test in the real world just suggests an apriori commitment rather than an honest investigation.

  19. How does the soul interact with the brain? If it interacts with the brain, why not other phycial objects?

    When I want to access the internet, I use the DSL modem, not the sound card. ;)

  20. MarkC:
    Science has been actively looking for the soul for a long time now, and every time, we find neural activity…

    Wrong. Here’s the Lancet Journal article I mentioned earlier.

  21. I think the evidence leans strongly towards a ‘brain centred’ consciousness (or self), reasoning that chemical, trauma, birth defects etc have measurable impact on the brain and the self (all in varying degrees of course).

    The alternative explanation of a ‘soul’ or ‘life force’, seem to be limited to personal experiences like ‘out of body experience’ or ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (which themselves have rational naturalistic explanations).

    My question is then, is there any evidence for a non brain centred seat of the conscious self outside these personal experiences?

  22. Lurker: Hmm, from the Lancet journal article;
    Good short-term memory seems to be essential for remembering NDE. Patients with memory defects after prolonged resuscitation reported fewer experiences than other patients in our study. – That sounds suspisciously to me like neural activity is required. If the Brain is not involved in the NDE as the study alludes why should it’s memory matter? The soul would have the details.

    Also, it does seem strange the rate of reported NDE’s is so few… assuming the existenceof the soul how do you explain the low rate of NDE’s? Only the people that have NDE’s have a soul?
    or only the people whose soul’s will go to heaven have NDE’s?

    One part that sticks out for me, is the disussion around fear. Namely there was none. Now why would that be?
    Interestingly fear was also noted as a key difference between “real” NDE’s and induced ones. Is it possible fear played a key factor? ie the brain masking that fear?
    I notice they stated not many people indicated fear of death beforehand, but saying so upfront is very different from being confronted by death – and it may not be death itself being feared, but the experience itself the brain goes through while dieing. ie not a straight switch off, but a gradual ceasation of function.

    I also wonder how much brain activity would be required to generate an NDE in these cases… As a lot of brain is used for processing language and concepts, if something is generated in simplistic terms (bright light, tunnel, familiar people from our memory, etc), perhaps there is very minimal neural activity…
    Just speculation on my part though.

    IDist:
    So our brains are purely a complex device to interface to our soul then?
    Would it then be possible to “tune” another body into the same soul? Or is there something intangible about our body that allows our soul to interface with it uniquely preventing that?

  23. So our brains are purely a complex device to interface to our soul then?
    Would it then be possible to “tune” another body into the same soul? Or is there something intangible about our body that allows our soul to interface with it uniquely preventing that?

    I promise to tell you when I know ;).
    (But given the fact that every individual is unique even in his finger-print, may be there is really something about our body that prevent that, who knows? :) )

  24. MarkC:

    That sounds suspisciously to me like neural activity is required.

    The study commented on that. No brain activity was measured. Even if there was some undetectable brain activity it went on to say that it went completely against our common understanding of the brain that clear, vivid, memorable details would remain.

    This study shows that the brain can work quite well on undetectable, or maybe even truly non-existant neural activity. I’d say the mystery of consciousness continues to deepen.

  25. I promise to tell you when I know
    In the one article I linked to the doctor speculated that our DNA is tied to this. It’s unique so that it prevents us from “tuning” into other peoples consciousness. Sounds kooky to me but maybe it’s kooky enough to be true. I’m certain that we’ll never know the answer but that shouldn’t prevent us from digging for it. Interesting stuff.

  26. Lurker:
    I think we agree it’s a fascinating area ;-)
    For me though, I just see too many cases of clear damage to the physical brain affecting peoples personality/memories, etc to ascribe those functions to something transcendent.

    But definately more research into these areas will help us.

  27. MarkC,
    “Also, it does seem strange the rate of reported NDE’s is so few”

    So few? I don’t have actual stats, but I do know that growing up in a family with several medical professionals, I heard about them all the time. I personally know someone who had one after cracking his head open and, well, dying. It had a profound affect on him. Let’s just say he doesn’t consider atheism to be a very good bet.

    “assuming the existence of the soul how do you explain the low rate of NDE’s?”

    I know this goes against what I’m saying, but wouldn’t a high rate of NDE’s lend more support to the “no soul” hypothesis? If it’s just a material process, it should be repeatable.

    “One part that sticks out for me, is the disussion around fear. Namely there was none. Now why would that be?”

    From what I’ve read of NDE’s, some have great fear and are actually “tormented” in what they call “hell” or something like it. I believe in every case I’ve read, they called upon God to save them and then received a “life review” and finally were sent back to their bodies with some type of new knowledge. Anyway, all NDE’s are not fearless. Even if it’s just a material process happening in the brain, why? It just seems so incredible regardless if it’s real or only an illusion produced by a dying, then living, brain.

  28. For me though, I just see too many cases of clear damage to the physical brain affecting peoples personality/memories, etc to ascribe those functions to something transcendent.

    But definately more research into these areas will help us.

    Well, I’m not a doctor so I hope if a medical doctor can help us in this discussion, but as far as I know, in lots of cases people lose memory without any problem in the brain, if memory is indeed stored in the brain then the corresponding part of the brain has to be damaged or corrupt.
    And even in cases when the brain in damaged, the loss of memory has to have a parallel damage in the brain, but what we never see that, What we see is a pattern, for example, the first words that are forgotten is the names of things, followed by the words that are the verbs. What we see is an “organized” loss in memory which has no parallel in the brain damage.

    (I wish that my English is clear, sorry if you had difficulty in understanding my English :$)

  29. with regard to the effect of the memory capacities of NDE experiencers I had this thought: if the NDE is an experience which occurs in an out-of-body ( and therefore necessarily out-of-brain) state, then it is not at all inconsistent that once back in body, those whose brains were somehow faulty in terms of accessing and communicating memories would have lower rates of recall of this experience. Once the soul reenters the body, it reenters the limits of that one specific body.

  30. Lurker,

    thanks for linking that article, which is really fundamental, and for seriously mentioning he subject of NDEs. Just a few comments on that.
    NDEs are a very, very interesting evidence suggesting the non phisical nature of consciousness, although they are not the only one. One of the most arrogant statements of the Time article is the one easily dismissing NDEs as an illusion due to hypoxia, just on the basis of a single, biased and ideological article about OBEs.
    Whoever has seriously studied NDEs knows that that is at least as gratuitous an explanation of NDEs as darwinian evolution is of life.
    To MarkC, I want to answer that the rate of NDEs is not at all low, rather it is surprisingly high. NDEs are a very common and reproducible experience in people who survive prolonged reanimation. That’s why they have been discovered only recently: surviving prolonged reanimation indeed was not a common event in the past.
    NDEs are deep, rich, formally detailed, have common characteristics, have similar and lasting effects on those who experience them (mainly, but not only, positive ones): indeed, they have all the characteristics of fundamental life experiences. They should be studied with intelligence and respect, and not with the superficial arrogance of those whose only interest is to deny evidence and to reassure and indoctrinate their materialistic audience.
    About memory. I see that many people here find that memory is a stumbling block in believing in the non material nature of consciousness. I can understand that, but I really think that some reflections could help. As I have already suggested, I think we often give too much importance to memory, in the sense that it is usually intended, that is as the ability to access data stored somewhere about our past experiences. First of all, I would like to get back to the fact that there is no real knowledge about the mechanisms and the seat of memory in the brain. That is a subject that I am really interested in, and I can say that I am constantly disillusioned by all that is said about memory, and by the utter lack of neurological understanding of it. The only certain thing is that we don’t understand memory, and that the brain does not in any way work as a computer, in the sense that there is no evident mass memory (hard disk like) in the brain. Also, the biological and biochemical basis of memory is a complete mystery.
    That said, I would like to repeat here that memory of specific data and experiences is not at all necessary to affirm continuity of consciousness. Continuity of consciousness is obviously present even if memory, or at least conscious memory, is nor evident. Would you say that you are not the person who experienced, let’s say, some specific experience when you were a boy, only because you have forgotten most, if not all, the details? Would you say that you are not the same person who experienced your dream last night, even if you can’t remember it now, if not as a vague sense of having slept well or badly?
    We should remember that memory is not always “conscious”, in the limited sense of pertaining to the “conscious”, waking mind. We are not only our waking mind. Even if I don’t like Freud in general, one of his merits is certainly to have brought to the attention of our culture the existence of the subconscious mind. Note that I use the word “subconscious”, and not “unconscious”. For me, indeed, cosciousness is always a characteristic of any type of mind, only it manifests in different forms and different degrees.
    The difference between conscious and subconcious mind may be likened to the difference between macular and non macular vision in the eye. Macular vision is sharp and distinct, like waking consciousness, but you cannot say that the rest of your visual field is not a conscious event. It takes place in your consciousness, only in a different way.
    Another objection made here is that the evidence that brain damage affects consciousness is in some way evidence of the physical nature of consciousness. I see that I have been misunderstood in my example of the thumb and hammer. What I meant is not that the pain in the thumb is evidence of the soul, but rather that it is evidence of the strict link between consciousness and brain. I meant that any new dicovery about chemical mediators, or functional imaging of the brain, really adds nothing to what we have always known. People and philosopers have believed in the soul for centuries, perfectly knowing (from their thumbs and hammers) of its link with the body, which modern neurology seems to “discover” daily as though it were amazing news.
    The soul, or consciousness, whatever it is, is strictly linked to the body and brain, at least during ordinary material life. We know that. We have always known. That has never been considered evidence that consciousness, or the soul, is “generated” by the body or brain, except in our materialistic and dogmatic culture.
    Obviously, one can believe one way or the other, but it is ablolutely false to state that there is any proof that consciousness is caused by the brain only because it is linked to the brain. Obviously, if you consider the body and brain as the interface through which consciousness experiences the outer world during material life, all the so called “proofs” that consciousness is caused by the brain become non significant and easily explained. It is more or less like in a videogame: if you are really concentrated on your game, that becomes your only reality for the time being, and your interface with the game becomes your “body”. But that does not change, in the substance, what you are.
    That’s really the point. Identity, and not wakeful memory, is the basis of consciousness, of the self, or of the soul if you like the word.
    Finally, I have said that NDEs are not the only evidence of the non material nature of consciousness. Indeed there are a lot, philosphical, empirical, and so on. I want to cite just one, an empirical one which is, in my opinion, extremely convincing: the experiences of the mystics of all religions and of all times. Those experiences, although in a sense rarer than NDEs, are highly structured, consinstent and convincing. Don’t take my word for that, but rather the opinion of a great atheist, Bertrand Russell (in other, more serious times, those where the atheists, today we have Dawkins, and that is a very sad sign of our degenerated culture!). In “Religion and Science”, if I remember well, he dedicates a whole chapter to mysticism, speaking of it with great interest, cognitive respect and honesty, and just dismissing it as a proof of religion only on the basis of a single philosophical, and in my opinion not convincing, argument.

  31. Shaner74; please refer to the article Lurker linked, as all my comments on the rate of NDE’s and fear are in relation to that.

    As for my personal views, seperate from the article, dying and returning regardless of NDE I would expect to have a profound effect on most people. For myself that doesn’t prove the existence of God or an afterlife, it indicates people change their outlook on the world when faced with their own mortality.

    What people do with their 2nd lease of life is up to them, but most would see it as a positive experience and try to make the most of their remaining life.

    A high or low rate of NDE’s I don’t think says anything about materialistic explanations, as it could be based on any number of factors we just don’t know yet.
    But most religions will say everyone has a soul (or atleast their believers), so you would expect if people had a soul that everyone would experience NDE’s. especially if as Lurker and the study have implied that the soul is what experiences the NDE and not the brain. Maybe I am alone in that line of thought though…

    And in regards to fear, the article specifically mentions no reported fear in their cases. Iwould actually expect some fear (we are talking about one of peoples greatest fears afterall), but they categorically state there is none.
    To me that stands out and is why I mentioned it.

    Even with “no soul” NDE’s, I would expect some people to experience fear as their brain would potentially feel it had lost control, weird sensations, etc and would translate into a feeling of fear. But, as you can read the study reported none.

    IDist:
    Not exactly… there are several forms of damage to the regions of the brain responsible for memory.
    Please read: http://www.brainconnection.com...../hm-memory
    This person cannot form any new memories… does his soul also suffer this fate? This clearly prevents him from growing as a person.
    The condition you refer to is a form of Aphrasia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphasia), please have a read as there are many forms and not all progress as you have indicated – and which form people have is strongly implied by the regions of the brain effected, which would be odd if the soul was responsible for those functions.

  32. MarkC:

    “As for my personal views, seperate from the article, dying and returning regardless of NDE I would expect to have a profound effect on most people. For myself that doesn’t prove the existence of God or an afterlife, it indicates people change their outlook on the world when faced with their own mortality.”

    The facts are different. It is not so much “facing one’s mortality” which affects the change: that would be common also to anyone who is dying but is saved, without experiencing any NDE. Besides, facing one’s mortality has usually some depressing effect, or the effect of tying the person more to life, and increasing fear of death. On the contrary, for those who experience the NDE, it is rather “facing one’s immortality” which effects the change, which is usually positive, in the sense of giving a new, higher perspective of life, and of reducing fear of death, but it can also be troublesome, in the sense of making more difficult the relationship with one’s usual life, after having experienced such a different and more fulfilling dimension of experience. In any case, it is not the “death” experience which affects the individual, but rather the specific and very strong “after death” experiences.
    That’s also the explanation for the absence of fera. Fear is certainly experienced by most in the process of approaching death, when consciousness is still tied to the body and brain, but during the process of detachment of consciousness, which is what the NDE is about, a great peace and reassurance is felt by almost everybody: the state of consciousness dramatically changes, and the usual ego-consciousness is tranformes, even if it is not lost. The NDE experiences (OBE, review of one’s lifetime, tunnel of light, meeting known dead people or a being of light, and even deeper experiences) are lived in a state of deep peace, which is always described as “higher” than usual waking consciousness, and completely different from dream or sleep consciousness. It’s a very vivid, deeply gratifying experience, with universal connotations which are astonishingly consistent, even in different cultures or personal attitudes. One of the most beautiful characteristics of the NDE, in my opinion, is that its occurence does not seem to depend in any way on the individual’s beliefs or expectations about after-life. It is, indeed, “no regarder of persons”, at least as we conceive them, but it seems to follow different, deeper rules which we don’t fully understand.

    About brain problems, again it is obvious that the brain is the vehicle of the ordinary waking consciousness, and that brain deficiencies can cause any kind of disturbances to the ego consciousness. But they can never destroy consciousness. We are much, much more than our egos and waking consciousness. The waking consciousness, which expresses itself as our usual ego and faculties, is only the tip of the iceberg. But the iceberg is very big, deep and precious.

  33. “How you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do”

    You mix a color using paints and I match it best as possible. We agree they are identical, problem solved.

    This doesn’t work for color-blind people within parts of the spectrum, you can verify they see color differently by watching them reproduce problem-area colors.

  34. I believe there is a link between soul, consciousness and emotions.

    For the first we are not sure IF IT EXISTS, for the second, we are not sure about WHAT IS IT, but for the emotions we are sure they exist and we know pretty well how do they “work”.

    But, IMHO, the emergence of the emotions has no evolutionary value, and probably no valid explanation. All organisms can function very well without emotions. But we see emotions at some animals…

    So, WHY emotions ? Why consciousness ? Why souls ? From the darwinian point of view…

  35. “A high or low rate of NDE’s I don’t think says anything about materialistic explanations,”

    If it’s just a materialistic phenomenon, it should be easily repeatable and predictable. Interestingly enough, it seems Pim van Lommel reached the same conclusion:

    “Several theories have been proposed to explain NDE. However, in our prospective study we did not show that psychological, physiological or pharmacological factors caused these experiences after cardiac arrest. With a purely physiological explanation such as cerebral anoxia, most patients who had been clinically dead should report an NDE. All 344 patients had been unconscious because of anoxia of the brain resulting from their cardiac arrest. Why should only 18% of the survivors of cardiac arrest report an NDE?”

    “And in regards to fear, the article specifically mentions no reported fear in their cases.”

    As I’m sure you are aware, NDE’s have been investigated for some time now. Many of them do report fear *after* dying. Van Lommel speaks about fear before death here:

    “The psychological explanation: NDE is caused by fear of death. But in our study only a very small percentage of patients said they had been afraid the seconds preceding the cardiac arrest, it happened too suddenly to realize what occurred to them. However, 18 % of the patients reported NDE. And also the given medication made no difference.”

    In any event, I think it’s an odd evolutionary adaptation to cause a dying(dead) person to believe without doubt there is a supernatural realm…

    My only qualm with accepting that consciousness is not a physical process is the affect brain damage has on people. I recently read an article where researchers were alleviating depression by placing something like a pacemaker in a particular area of patient’s brains. If depression can be cured by manipulating the brain, that says to me that consciousness does exist in, and is generated by, the brain.

  36. By the way, physicalism need not be inconsistent with Christian theism (or any other sort of theism). There is a school of thinking that sees property dualism and orthodox/conservative Christian doctrine as compatible. The idea is that the “soul” is what we today refer to as “consciousness” and is in fact a property emergent from the brain. Where the Christian ideas of the afterlife are concerned, this is specifically in reference to the Resurrection in which we would be given new bodies which, presumably, would include something like our original brain, complete with its emergent consciousness (or “soul”).

    I suppose one could make a case for something even more fundamental to the Self than just the soul which does not necessarily include self-conciousness or memory; this more fundamental component you could call “Spirit.” Admittedly, this idea of “Spirit” is not a very well defined concept. Perhaps something like a life-force with a sense of Self. One could say that the “Spirit” lives on after physical death, while the Soul (i.e., the “Consciousness”) dies with the body. Then the body is resurrected (i.e., reconstructed in a perfected form) some day and reunited with the spirit. This new body would then include a brain, from which the soul would again emerge as an “Emergent Property.”

    To the atheists in the audience, this will, of course sound like a bunch of “religious nonsense.” Understood. To the Christians (and perhaps those of other religions, in particular Judaism) there might be some coherence to this, and I think it could be supported by scripture. Though not all would agree. Admittedly, though it is something like idle speculation (but no more speculative than multiple universes). So be it. For myself, I have suspended judgement on the question for the time being. The bottom line is that I have somewhat resolved my uneasiness about the apparent physicality of consciousness or the “soul” by reasoning that things MIGHT be SOMETHING LIKE what I have described. Thus neuroscience need not conflict with my beliefs.

  37. Oh, and gpuccio, thank you for your response to my comments above. Those are very interesting insights.

  38. How is it logically possible to abolish “I” in the equations which result in “Me”?

  39. Hey Shaner74

    “If depression can be cured by manipulating the brain, that says to me that consciousness does exist in, and is generated by, the brain.”

    If my girlfreind breaks up with me, it generates depression. You can cure the depression by manipulating our relationship to make her give me a second chance. If depression can be cured by manipulating the relationship, that says to me that consciousness does exist in, and is generated by, the relationship.

    Perhaps it isn’t that the brain causes the conciousness but rather that the brain (as an interface device) causes the depression.

  40. “Perhaps it isn’t that the brain causes the consciousness but rather that the brain (as an interface device) causes the depression.”

    Atom, that’s an excellent point. In re-reviewing the piece (in my mind) I recall the patients describing their depression differently than what I’ve come to understand depression as. For me, depression is just being really bummed out, not wanting to do anything, and in extreme instances (such as when a family member has died) just having no hope at all. That is, depression is the effect; the cause is the subjective experience of loss/pain. To the patients in this program, they described depression as a “fog” in front of them or around them. That certainly does sound more like a “hardware” or interface problem. I think NDE’s are compelling evidence for an independent-of-brain consciousness. All material explanations for NDE’s are absurd, IMHO. Also, some interpretations of quantum physics seem to require an immaterial consciousness to explain certain material phenomenon. But I guess I remain on the fence with this.

  41. Yeah, I don’t blame you. At this point to be dogmatic either way is a little pre-mature, since there is so much about the brain that we don’t know. (I lean strongly towards conciousness independent of hardware, but I could be wrong.)

  42. I’m hoping Denyse OLeary’s new book will help me make a decision either way.

  43. “The article goes on to posit that much of what we perceive cognitively is illusional, and gives examples. One they cite, but that I take exception to, is that visual perception is faulted by seeing cognitively only a small central part of the visual field, and how by flitting from place to place, the brain thinks it’s seeing the whole field of vision, while it’s really only seeing parts of it.

    This piece of data is enough to convinvince me that the human visual system is beautifully designed. What we have is the perception of unifomity in our visual field and the detection of changes in the peripheral visual field. We also have the ability to instantly move our high resolution (fovea) reception field to any area of interest to our conscious (and even unconscious) mind. Is it not also strange that our mind is able to keep the “real world” still while our video camera moves around in a myriad of directions flitting here and there. Any amateur video maker knows how important a steady hand is to making a “watchable” end product.

    Why this very efficient visual system is consitered “illusional” and “faulted” rather than inexplicably optimally tuned for maximal function at minimum cost is beyond me.

    The human visual system is one of the greatest pieces of hardware and software engineering in the universe. It is one of the seven wondere of the universe. Ask someone with macular degeneration if you don’t believe me.

  44. Hello, this is my first post and I find the topic intriguing. Thank you Lee for making me aware of the Time magazine article.

    In my opinion, Dr. Pinker is engaging more in “rhetoric” than what I would describe as employing the empirical method to evaluate tech validity of a hypothesis.

    The link to the NDE article provided me with an intriguing quotation:

    He points out that American computer science expert Simon Berkovich and Dutch brain researcher Herms Romijn, working independently of one another, came to the same conclusion: that it is impossible for the brain to store everything you think and experience in your life. This would require a processing speed of 1024 bits per second. Simply watching an hour of television would already be too much for our brains. “If you want to store that amount of information—along with the associative thoughts produced—your brain would be pretty much full,” Van Lommel says. “Anatomically and functionally, it is simply impossible for the brain to have this level of speed.”

    That to me appears an empirical argument on its face.

    Therefore, I recommend that the readers of this thread view the work of Dr. Berkovitz here:

    http://www.seas.gwu.edu/~berkov/Theory.htm

    In attaining high productivity of information processing there is no substitute for fast switching elements. As a matter of fact, the history of computer technology clearly indicates that most of the progress in the productivity of information processing is due to increase in elements speed rather than to anything else. Sacrificing some productivity, other qualities of information processing systems can be developed through sophistication in their structural organization.

    Three basic issues in the conceptual design of an information processing system should be addressed: architecture, software, and hardware. There is no possible way how the brain can achieve high computational power without an extremely fast “hardware”. Therefore, employing a new, may be yet unknown, rapid phenomemon is necessary for the very subsistence of the information processing in the brain.

    The organization of the brain can be adequately described by attracting the holographic mechanism (see [7]). Thus, the holographic mechanism naturally explains such a fundamental property of the brain as associative retrieval in the presence of noisy distortions. A thorough exposition of this subject and a considerate argumentation. In support of different aspects of a holographic organization of the brain are given, in particular, in [8]. The necessary condition for the development of the physical world is that it must support the existence of intelligent life, the so-called anthropic principle (see, e.g., [10]). In view of further indications on a close interrelation of the brain with the constitution of the physical world it is interesting to note that the holographic mechanism leads to the requirement that the space of perception has to be three-dimensional [9]. By virtue of the anthropic principle this implies the three-dimensionality of the physical space.

  45. He points out that American computer science expert Simon Berkovich and Dutch brain researcher Herms Romijn, working independently of one another, came to the same conclusion: that it is impossible for the brain to store everything you think and experience in your life. This would require a processing speed of 1024 bits per second. Simply watching an hour of television would already be too much for our brains.

    In a rush so I don’t have time to read the whole thing…but I wonder what estimate for storage capacity they’re using? Processing estimates seem to be between 100 TeraFLOPS to 100 PetaFLOPS (the Japanese are supposedly building a 10 PetaFLOPS supercomputer now).

    In any case, I’ve heard of people capable of remembering every single little detail they’ve seen or heard. Even with compression I’m curious what a lifetime of data would amount to.

  46. Hello, Patrick.

    Dr. Berkovich writes the following:

    Processing Power

    The processing power of the system of neurons in the brain can be roughly evaluated by the number of events which may occur in this system per second. The number of neurons is about 1010 and their switching time is about 10-2 sec, so the number of events per second is about 1012 . This figure is comparable with the number of operations per second in massively parallel computer systems approaching the teraop barrier. Thus, the information processing power of the system of neurons does not drastically exceed that available through modern microelectronic technology. In the expanded construction suggested in [2] the number of binary events per second may reach 1023 to 1025.
    However, as in all massively parallel systems a problem arises whether a substantial portion of this estimated raw computational power can be effectually utilized.

    Memory Capacity

    The capacity of the long term human memory is virtually unlimited. According to von Neumann [5], estimated by the amount of information which can be transferred to a human brain during its lifetime, the lower bound of this capacity is about 2.8× 1020 bits. To be stored in the brain of about 103 cm3 this requires density of informational storage about at least 3× 1017 bits/cm-3. The time of content-addressable retrieval is rather short and essentially independent from the amount of stored information. Once recorded, information in the brain is supposed to be retained permanently. Thus, images don’t fade with time and can be easily recognized over decades.

    He has also said, and this I find intriguing:

    The problem, however, is not only how to create a new idea, but how to get rid of the old ones.

    This will not come from considerations of minute particular discrepancies.

    For example, it seems that the twin paradox is incurable:

    One twin must be older that another in one framework, and vice versa in another.

    The appeal to acceleration does not help: undoing acceleration provides a restricted impact, but, on the other hand, increasing the time of travel could make the impact arbitrarily big.

    Usually, it is not only that the science generates technology, but somehow the opposite – the available technology shapes the science.

    It is very strange that in the time of Internet people would resist the idea that human memory is located outside of the brain.

    The brain is not a standalone computer, but a terminal; from the engineering standpoint this approach is more sound.

    Unfortunately, at this time not many people have in depth understanding of the technical organization of operations of 3D holographic memory.

    If I learn any more, I shall let you know, but Dr. Berkovich effectively refutes the materialistic and dogmatic assumptions of Dr. Pinker, I think.

    If Bill Dembski is reading, I’d appreciate his input, since ‘computer science’ and ‘information theory’ appear to present a better framework to understand ‘consciousness’ than Dr. Pinker’s background as a psychologist! ;)

  47. Oh, I did additional research, and Dr. Berkovich discussed Karl Pribram.

    Here is an interview on the ‘holographic model’ of the brain/mind:

    http://twm.co.nz/pribram.htm

    http://www.acsa2000.net/bcngroup/jponkp/

    I think, from reading the footnotes, Pribram’s work has influenced Dr. Berkovich, whose biography is here:

    http://cs.seas.gwu.edu/people/.....personID=3

    Dr. Berkovich played a leading role in a number of research and development projects on the design of advanced hardware and software systems. Those projects include construction of superconductive associative memory, development of large information systems for economics, investigation of computer communications for multiprocessor systems, and enhancement of information retrieval procedures.

    Dr. Berkovich has several hundred professional publications and is an author of five books. He holds 30 patents. Among his inventions is a method for dynamic file construction that later become known as B-tree and extendible hashing. In 2002, he was elected a member of the European Academy of Sciences “for an outstanding contribution to computer science and the development of fundamental computational algorithms”.

  48. 48

    I think consciousness is a huge problem for materialism yet I’ve been thinking about exactly why it’s a huge problem. So far, this is what I came up with.

    Consciousness is something that exists, that we (everyone) know exists, yet we can’t observe it. We can’t measure it, we can’t quantify it, we can’t test it, we can’t run experiments in it, we can’t explain it, we don’t even know what it is or how to define it. Yet all of us know it exists because we are conscious. Consciousness is beyond the scope of science. Because we know consciousness exists and can’t be observed or measured we know that something exists that can’t be observed or measured. Something exists that’s beyond the scope of science. Since we know that something does exist that’s beyond the scope of science, it is reasonable to conclude that things (phenomena, entities, etc…) can exist that are beyond the scope of science. An existence beyond the scope of science (that is, observation, measurements, quantification, etc..) is possible. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s perfectly possible for something to exist beyond what we can observe. Since we know that things can exist that are beyond the scope of science, it stands to reason that there could be other existences (besides our own consciousness) that are beyond the scope of science. Therefore it’s reasonable to conclude that there could be some other existence (beyond the scope of science) that may have had an influence (or caused) on the origin of the universe, life, man, etc…

    So the problem with consciousness from a materialistic perspective is not the rhetoric, “we can’t explain it, therefore, God did it.” It’s that there does exist something that we can’t explain, therefore there could be other existences that we can’t explain, and God could be one of them.

Leave a Reply