quinta-feira, novembro 17, 1994

Life Is but a Dream: "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain" by António R. Damásio

(Original Review, 1994-11-17)

Dave Chalmers did a great job of making consciousness popular but his own view was 400 years out of date. Descartes is the real rigorous physicist here - he was after all one of the people who devised physics. What he meant by the soul and God being 'spirit' is that they caused matter to move. Matter for Descartes was just the inert occupancy of a space (extension). So physics consisted of the interaction of spirit and matter. We now call spirit 'force' or 'energy' and Descartes was quite right because thinking is all about electromagnetic fluxes - which in themselves do not occupy space or have mass. His mistake was to think that there had to be one special spirit unit. Leibniz sorted that out in 1714.

The problem with neuroscientific theories at present is that they are no longer rigorously mechanistic in the way Descartes was. They ignore the fact that consciousness is the property of having an input, or being influenced, or receiving information. All the current theories try to explain consciousness in terms of cellular activity or output, which makes no sense. Consciousness must be something to do with cellular input - in dendrites.

There is an intriguing reflection of this in the literature. Kripke suggestd that one form of consciousness, pain, might be C fibre stimulation (an input to C fibres) which is reasonable but he and everyone else expected the stimulation to be higher up. Then Papineau changed it to C fibre FIRING (an output) which no longer makes any sense. Pain is not me saying ouch! Percepts are not firings, they are stimulations of something.

If the neuroscientists took a bit more notice of 17th century philosophy and a bit less of 20th century then they might get on the right track.

I know that I am, but I do not remember how I started being. Was it like a switch being pulled, or a gradual transition? But even a gradual transition starts at some point... Similarly, how did the universe start existing? Even the big bang cannot fully explain it. What created the big bang? What created that first particle whose explosion caused the universe? Some theories say that new universes are being created all the time, but even that is just a way of describing a later stage, not the beginning. And if God created this universe, then who created God? It all comes down to the fact that something must have come out of nothing. It could be that we cannot explain that under our current scientific paradigm. It could also be that our brains will never be able to understand that.

Those are the fundamental questions. There is something to panpsychism, because if my consciousness and the universe were both created out of nothing, the elegant solution would be to declare them as being part of one thing. And I've been thinking, that if something must come out of nothing, then the most scientific explanation for such a phenomenon would be that nature abhors a vacuum, so that as soon as there is the tiniest space without magnetic fields/gravity/matter/energy then something is being created. This something would then have to be something very 'light', because as soon as it comes into being, the vacuum disappears and the process of creation stops. I could imagine that this 'lowest layer' of existence that constitutes our universe is a level of consciousness. Some would call this consciousness God.

I am sure that somewhere in the midsts of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Physics theory, Laws of Thermodynamics, Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and String Theory and M-Theory, there has got to be at the very least one of the following...

Consciousness resides in molecules and billions of years from now those molecules could reassemble and the person could 'live' again as the Laws of Thermodynamics say energy cannot be destroyed just change form. Or at best consciousness goes to the extra dimensional worlds in M and String Theory and live there, a scientific 'afterlife', or the 90 odd % of matter known as Dark Matter and Dark Energy could also be a scientific 'afterlife', or Quantum Mechanics 'double slit experiment' observation mysteries could.

On the other hand, consciousness is an emergent property of, and therefore, reliant upon the human brain. Once the physical body and brain dies, the consciousness of the person ceases to exist.

All the research and evidence to date confirms consciousness is an entirely physical process residing only in the brain, therefore your research into "Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Physics theory, Laws of Thermodynamics, Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and String Theory and M-Theory" to find this 'afterlife' is an exercise in futility.

Most neuro-scientists still use a very materialistic framework for trying to understand consciousness. I think Penrose had the right idea in trying to bring the idea of consciousness up to date with the latest view of the Universe in terms of Modern physics. I think that the problem is that most neuro-scientists do not really understand the implications of Quantum Theory and General Relativity and therefore still stick to what they have learned in High School. And of course they should also take account of the fact that consciousness is a non-computable process and is therefore quite distinct from a computer. I think the last people who should be talking about what consciousness actually is are neuro-scientists. They are far too limited in their intellectual framework (Penrose (or anyone else as far as I know) has failed to show that consciousness is non-algorithmic. [2018 EDIT: Whatever you think of him otherwise, Dennett covers these flaws very well in some of his books.]

I look at brain activity like a spherical sheet of graph paper. To get from one point on the periphery to another diagonally opposite there are myriads of pathways which we can use but there is one, usually the result of an epiphany, which is the most direct or shortest or most ergonomic. Once we have found that answer to the "hard problems" we inevitably wonder why it was so simple and we were so stupid as not to see it ages ago.

We often seem able to pass on this trick of a pathway to others and form a "collective consciousness" or "race memory". It may be the interconnectedness or integration that is suggested but it is organic and forever changing as circuits fail and generate.

It seems to me a more than hard question because if consciousness is a pathway that develops, decays and changes and because the only way to measure it is with that constantly changing measuring apparatus we will always get different answers for every person at every time.

Maybe someone will have an epiphany and we can all stop thinking and die out?

It would help if there were an accepted definition of the concept of "consciousness" - but, alas, there seems to be no agreement on the central tenets of what constitutes consciousness, and those promulgated are as numerous and varied as the people espousing them.

All the while people conflate the minds (emotional) response to, say, the landscape of Greenland with the mystery of "the soul" or invoke "spirituality" (that other favourite of people who have no understanding of science) then the rationalist world of biology/chemistry/physics will never get a look in.

It seems to me that a lot of those in favour of consciousness being seen as something "special" are in the same camp as the flat Earth brigade, those who favour the ideas behind "intelligent design", and those who regard Darwin as a heretic worthy of immolation.

The essence of the those who object to seeing the mind as a machine, that functions according to some unseen (if sometimes erratic) programme, seems to centre on the idea that it denies the idea of the uniqueness of the individual and the concept of free will. Yet the entire discipline of psychology is predicated on the notion that the human mind has any number of fundamental modes of action which are definable, repeatable, observable, and capable of being modified through a set of pre-defined external factors and stimuli.

The reality of current computer technology is that it cannot hold a candle to the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of the brains neural pathways. Until out technology starts to approach the level found in the brains of mammals, and we can begin to formulate theories that can be tested, there will those who will feel to need to resort to "mysticism" to explain the unknown. As the article makes plain, the human race has form for this, and the search for consciousness is just the latest example in a long line of allegedly insoluble problems that are the "meat and drink" of those intent on selling us "snake oil".

The human observes there is a river in a whirlpool. The universe knows no boundary between the river and the whirlpool - there is only the river. It gets worse - The universe knows no boundary between the human observer of the river and the river - there is only the universe. It gets a lot worse - the river, the whirlpool and the human observer are merely "data" "Zeroes and ones" (use whatever words you like - the universe can't actually be broken down into words. Human language is a fun tool inside reality but is not actually reality. The number 47 doesn't exist inside any universe - it is a man-made thing, a symbol.) They don't actually exist.

You're not a ping pong ball inside a box with 6 billion other ping pong balls bouncing around. You're the box itself - the infinite box which creates the ping pong balls. The human simply got confused by the body, possibly in very early childhood when it learns that it is <>> and mummy is <>. Mistaking each body for something that had to exist inside the universe but yet somehow separate from everything else. Observe your feet inside the universe - wherever you go they exist and yet if you chop them off, you will carry on - 100% actual hard proof there is no you contained within your feet.

This is your dream.


Run the experiments on yourself to prove or disprove it for yourself.

And another thing:

Complexity does strange things. A random assortment of entities can seem to give rise to an entity. Something that is "one" - such as the random forces of tide and wind producing waves. Not the best example. Or the random collection of atoms that make up the sun. This is a thing which rises every day, lights the world, and goes back to bed again. And many civilisations have thought the sun had an identity, and a conscience. We have no extra esoteric spark of brilliant. We do have a magical identity which is the result of mind-boggling complexity. And how the sense of self appears when the brain gets into gear in the morning may one day be understood a bit better. My guess is there will be distributed activity through memory, senses and sensory input, and maybe motion that starts up and has the subject saying crap.

I think there are some quite muddled thoughts regarding "free will". I see it primarily as a question concerning the boundaries of the cognitive system that ends up making the choice. If it is primarily the stuff inside the limits of your body that processes the information and arrives at a choice, it seems reasonable to say that you made the choice "of your own free will": there was no coercing outside agent, for example.

But things can still get a little fuzzy. No man is a cognitive island; there will always be an information processing dance between the states in your brain and the state in the outside world coming in as sensory data. If I see an obstacle ahead and steer to the left to avoid it, one can make a strong case that it's the combination of me and the obstacle together that generated the action. But if we go down that particular path we may end up deciding that the universe as a whole is responsible for every action that takes place. From a certain point of view this is entirely true, but I'm not sure how helpful it is.

There are other curiosities such as the fact that if you were castrated you would start to make slightly different decisions, suggesting that your gonads were to some extent some "other", some outside agent influencing your decisions, rather than being a part of you. But, again, clear boundaries are hard to define. If a small chunk of your brain were removed, the exact same thing might be true. It is very hard to define the self as some single thing, some single point that is you.

They summed this all up years ago:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

‘Hey, I'm awake now! Is there a cup of tea, somewhere?’

NB: Damásio is a fellow Portuguese.