Post No.: 0484
Philosophers differentiate between sentience (being receptive to one’s surroundings and acting in an intelligent way), wakefulness (not being asleep or incapacitated), access consciousness (thoughts that guide our actions) and phenomenal consciousness (subjective feelings).
The ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is that we have no firm idea how brain activity produces phenomenal consciousness i.e. how anyone’s physical brain produces conscious feelings. The ‘easy problems’ relate to explaining things like how the brain integrates information, focuses attention, categorises and discriminates environmental stimuli and reports mental states – phenomena that are functionally definable, unlike subjective ‘qualia’ or phenomenal experiences.
How do we access a person’s first-person feelings through a third-person perspective such as via neuroscience? Whenever we recall/reconstruct a memory, feel pain, hunger, an emotion, etc., it’s all the result of electrochemical messages or ‘action potentials’ in the central nervous system – but a big question in neuroscience is how these same action potentials result in all the variety of perceived emotions, feelings and thoughts just by occurring in different parts in the brain?
Scientists have been staring at, measuring, scanning and dissecting the physical brain for hundreds of years but have yet accessed what a person is feeling from a third-person perspective. At least we know it’s something to do with the physical brain. But will we ever get to the stage to say with confidence ‘I see these exact neurons firing and therefore I can work out that this person must be feeling x’?
As I ponder some fledgling suppositions, I believe it should be possible in principle, although everyone’s wiring and firing will be slightly different – for instance, my neural wiring and firing for the memory of and feelings related to a particular event will be different, even if just slightly, in my brain compared to yours even if you stood right next to me and experienced that exact same event with me at the same time; and this difference may exhibit as a difference in subjectivity concerning that experience. It’s perhaps kind of like your fingerprints are slightly different to another person’s even though both sets ultimately serve the same function. Notwithstanding, all the information we need to decode what a person is feeling or thinking should be contained in those physical structures, connections and action potentials – if only we could decipher it all by just observing a person’s brain.
I reckon we should be able to, in principle, map out a person’s neural connections (connectome) and what each set of connections functionally relates to when fired, even though this wiring and firing map may only be idiosyncratic to that individual person – like the roads of one city will be different to those of another city even though both cities provide identical functions for their respective citizens. It might be constantly in flux though due to that person experiencing new experiences, forming new associations, reinforcements or losses of connections, for the brain being an organic and adaptive, neuroplastic organ (e.g. due to ageing, diet, disease, drugs, trauma), thus such a brain map won’t remain perfectly fixed – like a map of a city needs continual updating to remain accurate because roads are being continuously built and destroyed.
So maybe we can reductively explain phenomenal consciousness by just looking at an organism’s physical brain activity? All the information about feelings and consciousness are there in the physical matter of the brain.
In practice though, because of the subjectivity of experiences and feelings for each individual (the individual and subjective qualia of each feeling or experience, and the language we personally use to describe our feelings or experiences), this mightn’t be realistically achievable. Working everything out to the very finest details (pinpointing the precise neural correlates of consciousness) might be impractical due to everybody’s idiosyncratic wiring, firing and therefore subjectivity. (Although never say never!)
Even for the beholder of a particular mind, it’s hard enough to put into words the subtle nuances of our own personal subjective feelings, and there’ll likely never be an objective chart that everyone can pin their own subjective feelings on – for instance, to say that ‘my experience of x is more y than yours’, because I don’t really know, and most likely will never ever truly know, how y you are feeling compared to me? Cold water or electrocution pain tests, for example, won’t give us objective answers because some people quit when feeling a low pain whilst others won’t quit even when feeling immense pain, and some people may truly feel enormous pain at 5 seconds and others feel little at all until 30 seconds. Maybe the question is can it be approximate enough even if it could never be completely objective or universal?
Will we ever be able to directly peer into someone’s brain and from what we find be able to truly feel exactly what they feel? Maybe we won’t likely be able to just plug another person’s firing pattern into our own brain and feel the exact same feelings because of our totally idiosyncratic and never 100% identical connectomes (even between identical twins)?
Also, let’s say we hypothetically completely copy another person’s brain mapping, down to the last subatomic particle, onto our own brain so that we can finally get to feel exactly what another person feels when a particular firing pattern in this brain activates – would this mean that we’ll be the same person as before? Will we be them instead? I don’t believe that, in such a scenario, copying a brain exactly will mean the two copies will be the same physical person/identity and consciousness. They’ll be the ‘same person’ for having the exact same personalities and memories, etc. but they won’t be the same person physically or consciously as they’ll be two individuals and identities who’ll be forking off onto ever-separating paths as they experience new and separate experiences from that moment on. But it does highlight the question of why is our own particular consciousness located in this particular body of ours and no one else’s? Even if your brain could be moulded to be exactly like mine today with technology that can scan and replicate parts to the finest individual subatomic-particle level, my consciousness won’t suddenly jump into your brain and body.
Or will it? This philosophical question relates to cloning machines, or teleportation machines that involve destroying one instance of you and recreating it elsewhere exactly, if these will ever exist.
Still, even if we could understand brains to their very finest physical details, will it mean that we can learn what a feeling we’ve never ever personally felt before will feel like? Will it also mean we’ll ultimately find out how consciousness arises from physical matter?
We can currently very broadly work out what each brain region does and understand some universals between all ‘normal’ people (e.g. regions for speech or motor function), and we can create comprehensive connectome maps of all neural connections in a particular brain (a complete one for a human will be generated one day) – but getting to the very finest details of what each neural firing pattern means and in turn getting to understand that level of consciousness might be beyond our reach; or even if we reach it, will it tell us how to make objective something that seems subjective, such as people’s feelings? A piece of chocolate or the sound of a siren, for instance, can be operationally made objective, but what it means or feels like to a person experiencing it will be subjective.
It may be possible, but we might need to take absolutely everything about the physical form of a person’s brain (and overall body) into account in order to determine their subjective feelings – after all, one’s subjective experiences and feelings are the total sum of all of one’s memories and neural predispositions, current hormone and neurotransmitter levels, etc.. We possibly cannot look at subjective feelings without looking at the brain (and body) in its entirety at all times – especially if consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ i.e. it’s not about the individual pieces but how it all comes together at the relatively macro level. Some people think this is the best way to work out how consciousness arises.
Maybe it’s like asking how quantum field theory fits with the theory of general relativity, and we’d still be looking for a universal ‘theory of everything’ – in this case, how individual neurons aggregate to create consciousness (rather than how quantum mechanics creates gravity)?
Going back a little – my consciousness is centred on this body I’m currently in. When I look out onto the world, it’s from this body I’m inhabiting. But why was I born into this body and not another (and possibly at another time and place too)? Why can’t my consciousness transfer to another body or object? (Spiritual possessions or reincarnations have never been convincingly empirically proven.) My consciousness appears to be locked into this body. When you were born into this world – why did your particular consciousness get that body and life you got and not some other person’s, or even animal’s? With identical twins, how come one body got one particular consciousness and the other got another particular consciousness?
Moreover, even if I alter my brain, such as via learning, trauma or simply through ageing (e.g. via synaptic pruning and size growth), I’m still ‘me’. My brain is essentially physically changing all of the time yet I’d still be ‘me’ and my consciousness will still be based around ‘this’ particular body. No matter how much your brain changes, if you can remain alive, you’ll still have the same identity as before. You’re still consciously the same ‘you’… or are these carried-forward memories from younger merely giving you the illusion you’re still the same conscious being as before?
Why the combination of this consciousness with this body, no matter how much one’s brain grows and changes? Does this suggest that consciousness is located in very specific areas of the brain that don’t ever change? Or how does ‘mental continuity’ work on a neuronal level? It’s even more extreme than the ‘Ship of Theseus’ because the brain isn’t being replaced with like-for-like parts – it’s more like a ferry turning into a cruise ship over time because the brain is changing dramatically, yet we’ll still feel like the same consciousness identity from childhood to seniorhood. (Has sleeping got anything to do with it? When we lose consciousness for a moment each day and then wake up assuming we’re the same conscious being as the day before?)
So why is my consciousness locked into this particular brain, even though this brain isn’t exactly the same as it was when I was even younger than the pup I am today. I’m sure you also definitely feel like you were and are the same individual as yesteryear (same consciousness but different brain between you today and you when younger – at least from ~2 years old onwards or when you can remember your first genuine memory. Perhaps there’s a clue here?)
No wonder it’s intuitive to believe that consciousness is tied to souls that transcend the material. Yet one cannot physically transfer it into someone else’s body. I cannot just ‘possess’ your body as if my consciousness was a non-physical spirit, even though this should be possible if a consciousness identity isn’t tied to a particular physical brain (different consciousness and different brain between your brain and mine today).
Summing up these ruff ramblings, my consciousness appears to not be tied to this particular brain for this brain has continually changed yet my consciousness has remained seated here – yet it’s paradoxically tied to this brain for I cannot seem to transplant my consciousness into another brain or object, which would be essentially just changing my brain.
Woof. My brain hurts! Maybe I’m totally wrong. But that’s okay because I’m not afraid of making mistakes, I’m still learning, and I just want to stimulate thought in others too…