There was a recent experiment which revealed a region in the brain (left claustrum/anterior insula) which appears to arrest human consciousness. Undoubtedly there are similar sites in all animals with brains. This, however, only tells us about consciousness in the sense of the difference between being awake and being unconscious, not the really interesting part about what consciousness is.
It is one thing to find the light switch and to figure out how to turn the lights off, but it is another to understand physical optics and subjective visual sense. In my view, there is only so much that can be understood about consciousness from the ‘outside’, as the difference between what is inside and what is outside is not a physiological matter, but one which necessarily extends to the foundations of physics, nature, and existence.
To ask about the mechanism of consciousness is really a loaded question, as it presumes that it is consciousness which is produced by an unconscious machine rather than machines being intrinsically impossible except in the context of sensory affect and motor effect (awareness). If there can be machines without awareness, then it is not clear that awareness is plausible conceptually.
Church-Turing thesis proves that all computation and mechanism can be reduced to binary, logical operations. While many Strong AI enthusiasts understand this to be an invitation to synthetic consciousness via brain emulation (since the brain is a physical mechanism then its function can be emulated computationally), it can also be seen as proof against emergence. If everything that the brain does can be reduced to unconscious processes, then we can’t justify inflating those processes to the kinds of subjective experiences that we actually have: flavors, colors, feelings, etc, all have no business in a digital machine…not even a very, very complex machine.
At this point it is very tempting, because of our deep desire to realize the accumulated scientific understanding that we have inherited, to try to escape the simplicity and clarity of this problem. It’s circular reasoning (or more particularly post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy) to affirm in our minds the utility of consciousness for evolutionary survival while maintaining the opposite position that consciousness is not necessary for computation. This logical fallacy can be hidden by concepts of emergence or ‘complexity’, but those too depend on logical fallacies to affirm their own mechanism. Why is there emergence? What determines whether a given phenomenon is considered to be a simple part of a complex system, or whether the ‘complexity’ is an emergent epiphenomenon. A bunch of grapes, for example, looks like a ‘bunch’ to us, but that does not mean that each grape is aware that it is part of a bunch. Each grape may contain lots of complex biochemical events, as does each neuron in the brain, but there is no more possibility of an interior world of experience developing ‘within’ a group of neurons than there is within a group of molecules, unless that interiority was implicitly possible from the start.
Other current scientific models include Tononi and Koch’s Integrated information theory, Penrose and Hammeroff’s Quantum Consciousness, and Donald D. Hoffman's Interface Theory of Perception, all of which posit consciousness as a primitive cosmological property rather than an effect produced by brain mechanisms, and all of which have their critics*. Precisely how primitive a property consciousness is may be a question that is not possible to address scientifically. Even the question of whether it is possible to address it scientifically or whether science itself must be extended leads to an infinite regress. Some prefer to say that systems become conscious because they are integrated, while other say that integration and systems are an expression of consciousness is. Some say that the difference is not meaningful, while others insist it is the most crucial question that there can be. In my view, all of the existing answers to these questions are already begging the question of philosophy of mind. Whatever prejudices we have before asking the question will dictate what the answers mean to us.
The nature of these questions is so unusual, because of their ontological boundary-less-ness but also because of their psychological boundedness. Simply put, those whose psychology is rooted in indirect reasoning (logic, mathematics) seem bound to think of consciousness one way, and those who understand the world in terms of perception and feeling think of consciousness seem bound to think of consciousness in the opposite way. For the former group, to whom mechanical systems *are* nature, the latter’s group perspective appears blatantly naive and unscientific. To the latter group, the mechanistic view is clearly missing the point and actually amputates scientific curiosity for the truth in the rush to validate rigid and over-reaching expectations. This is an ideological battle for scientific truth about the origins of both science and ideology, where even the notion of whether the two can be separated is part of the battle.
Since the OP question ask about personal theories, I offer my own Multisense Realism as a semi-coherent attempt to reconcile science and ideology, physics and psyche, and reduction with holism. My conjecture is an attempt for a radical re-working of the foundations of cosmology, to make the physical more perceptual and perceptual more physical. The approach uses ideas from relativity and information science against functionalism, so that both brains and minds diverge from the same common resource which is aesthetic and participatory rather than information-theoretic, spatio-temporal, or mass-energetic. Subjectivity is derived from a larger experiential context, a multisense ‘everythingness’ rather than a mechanical, proto-conscious ‘nothingness’.
An easy metaphor for what I’m talking about might be the spectrum of visible light and its diffraction from a beam of white light. The prism does not add color to white light, so much as block frequencies selectively to reveal others. There are parallels to this in our perception as well, as defects in our vision or understanding are compensated for - filled in seamlessly in our ‘interface’ experience. The metaphor goes down the rabbit hole further when we consider that white light itself is a concentrated form of ordinary ‘clear light’, which is simply luminance…the medium through which all optical phenomena is presented. With this trichotomy relation of sight-bright-light or subject-perception-object we can understand that consciousness is not a mechanism within physics, but the entire spectrum across idealism, mechanism, and materialism, as well as the projection/definition of the spectrum itself. Consciousness is sensitivity, like luminance, a ratio between the relative and the absolute, and between the rational and the trans-rational.
*Scott Aronson’s critque of IIT
Electra & Gomberg on Koch and Tononi panpsychism vs IIT
A critique of the quantum consciousness hypothesis
I generally agree with what this article has to say about the AWARE study. It was underwhelming, especially in the publication, as far as trying to bury the negative result. I don’t agree that it makes the researchers part of a fearful group of lunatics who should not be allowed near legitimate medicine. It seems likely to me that the vast majority of people who would risk their careers to study such a taboo subject in science as NDEs are going to be biased toward the positive outcome, as well as feel responsible to keep the door open for others to continue studying the phenomenon. The modern scientific environment presents, IMO, a toxic environment for researchers whose work threatens the consensus, so that the marginalization of those within the system who seek to defy it is tautological. The reductionist approach to consciousness is intrinsically intolerant of consciousness and of those who support the study of non-reductionist possibilities.
1. Yes, they wanted the study to show something new and it didn’t.
2. Yes, they downplayed 1, injuring their credibility IMO.
3. Yes, they tried to spin the result as having a moderately strong outlook for future study when it appears to have a neutral outlook, with some new negative and some not-so-new positive content.
4. No, this has nothing to do with the validity of the NDE phenomenon.
5. No, this does not support mind-brain identity theory.
6. No, this does not make the notion that oxygen deprivation causes NDE’s plausible.
What it does say, in my own view, (and I recognize that this seems crazy to many people) is that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot necessarily be studied in the way that we are used to studying objective phenomena, but instead should be considered in completely new and in many respects *opposite* terms. Where our current consensus sees the placebo effect and coincidences as the background noise to be controlled against, when looking as subjectivity, we should also take the opposite approach and embrace subtle themes, symbolism, synchronicity, etc. If we begin by confining consciousness to the body, then our results will be limited to that confinement. I think that it is no different ultimately from quantum effects like superposition and spacetime, but on the other end of the cosmological-psychological continuum. We are in mytho-poetic superposition as well as information-theoretic and mass-energetic superposition.
Without questioning the foundations of realism and what it means for awareness to be separated from existence, we are really going to be chasing out tail. Sure, we humans might think that human consciousness is orders of magnitude more special than other species of animals, and that may be true, but it may also be the case that consciousness has the effect of dilating realism and significance within any given frame of reference. As long as we frame the debate only in terms of human brains and human awareness we will miss the metaphysical question of sensation entirely. Just as photons elude our efforts to be nailed down to a particular position-momentum, so too does our end-of-life experience resist being defined in the modern, over-enlightened medical theater. I call this the ‘Law of Conservation of Mystery’, and it makes perfect sense in the context of a universe of consciousness, by consciousness, for consciousness.
In previous posts I have been looking at the idea of the autistic-psychotic spectrum and matching it to the far ‘west’ and far ‘east’ poles within philosophy of mind. The far-east extreme would correspond to a myopic sense of exterior realism which is compensated for by profound and far-sighted appreciation for interior transcendence.
The far-west extreme is the exact opposite, and corresponds to a profoundly short-sighted appreciation of interior powers to transcend exterior realism but a far-sighted sense of that which is externally real. There is a sort of ironic-seeming twist there in that those who are using their consciousness in a most external-facing way are most denied the ability to see their own consciousness as an objectively real part of nature. You can’t look through the telescope and at the telescope at the same time.
The stereotypical autistic intellect is associated with low empathetic connections and high systematizing tendencies. There are theories which label autism an overly-masculine range of traits, while the psychotic spectrum of schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression are though of as overly-feminine. I say these are stereotypes not only because the use of gender and labeling in psychology is somewhat pejorative and backward, but also because a case can be made for the opposite association as well. The systemizing end of the spectrum can be thought of as being more empathetic to systemizing, mechanistic approaches while the empathizing end of the spectrum can be understood to be lacking in empathy toward mechanistic approaches such as logic and objective realism. It’s not that some people empathize and others do not, it’s that people’s empathy is focused in opposite directions.
Some people empathize with their own empathy and with that of others, while other people empathize more with the other-ness of others. For them, social interaction is best mediated by games with rules and teams with roles than through messy human emotions. Argue with someone who has a strong ‘west-minded’ orientation about the possibility of Strong AI though, and you will find that they are quite sentimental about machines and the future. Many times I have found myself debating with others who have no problem accepting that computers can and will someday be sentient to an extra-human degree, but when confronted directly with the phenomenon of human sentience and free will are adamantly negative. Some people find even the concept of free will so intolerable that they refuse to even treat it as a meaningful concept, saying that it is just a string of ASCII characters that refers to nothing that makes sense.
By the same token, I have had debates with east-minded people who revere the power of spiritual paths, but who are cynical toward science and have only knee-jerk responses against it. At the extremes, both ends of the spectrum become fanatical and each camp is united in their identical, all-consuming intolerance toward the other. Both are introverted in their identification to the interior reality of their perspective, but both are isolated and antagonistic toward other perspectives. Of course, everyone is like that to some extent, and it may not be possible to survive as a social entity without it, but if we can recognize our own near-sightedness and far-sightedness, we might find that we can learn to manipulate it and use our minds like lenses - different scopes of attention for different contexts. Instead of being obnoxious about what we can and can’t make sense of, we might find that the desire to be that way about it makes sense, but that there are other options available to us also. We can switch mental polarity and survive intact. We can develop a stereo vision which is both introspective and extroverted, and in both directions, to see that reality and unreality can be found both ‘in here’ and ‘out there’.
As anyone acquainted with basic photography knows, lighting is surprisingly effective at transforming the content of images. It’s not only a matter of controlling the intensity of what can be seen or not seen, but the entire emotional impact and story that the image tells is directly dependent on the direction and quality of the lighting. Direction and orientation is especially mysterious given that light itself is not where we think it is, if it can even be said to be anywhere at all.
Next time you’re bored on a video conference, take a moment to scan the camera image for bright spots. It’s interesting to note that sitting at a table with sunlight coming in at an angle, the camera can show a bright region of the table which just isn’t there from your point of view. It’s just an angle of incidence thing, but angle of incidence becomes a problem if we try to think in terms of objective physics. Just as a rainbow disappears when we move to a different angle, a reflection is only objective from a subjective perspective.
Sure, a camera can reliably pick up a reflection or a rainbow, but the camera does not interpret light as representing a distant condition of reality. To the camera looking at the sunlight filtering in from the window, the image of the bright spot and the image of the table are the same thing - like a Photoshop image, its all just data about the state of a photosensitive element, not about any ‘outside world’.
This tends to throw a wrench into the popular-as-ever Laplacian physical cosmology which insists upon particles in a void as the defining structure of reality. The problem with light is that it would indicate that a rainbow is nothing but unrelated local instances - the rainbow exists only as some kind of visual metaphor for a semantic relation between light sources and different collections of particles which are affected by them. There is no purely physical account of using light to see anything other than your own brain or retina.
In the camera example, or with the rainbow, how can we say where the light ‘is’ without a subjective expectation that it could be or should be anywhere else but within the particles of itself? For that reason, light should be understood to be intrinsically semantic. It is the visual-optical version of sense - storytelling on multiple levels and perspectives rather than only literal, local particles. Light is so revealing because it reveals revelation itself. We can see how light can appear to be a pure visible object, like a rainbow, or as a purely invisible conduit for reflections of objects. Light is a literal metaphor for the metaphor made literal.