Monday, August 3, 2009

How can consciousness be explained?

Before reading “Out of Our Heads”, a recently published book by the philosopher Alva Noё’, I would not have questioned Francis Crick’s claim that “you, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules” (quoted by Noё on p 5).

If someone had asked me how I felt about that statement before I read this book I would probably have shrugged my shoulders and said that it was just one of those things we have to accept whether we like it or not. I might have added, however, that I thought that Friedrich Hayek made a good point over 50 years ago (in “The Sensory Order”) when he said that the type of explanation that the physical sciences aim for is not applicable to “mental events”. Hayek argued that human decisions are the result of the whole of the human mind (or personality) and we cannot reduce them to something else.

Alva Noё goes further than Hayek in casting doubt on the capacity of neuroscience to explain consciousness. He claims: It is misguided to search for neural correlates of consciousness – at least if these are understood, as they sometimes are, to be neural structures or processes that are alone sufficient for consciousness. There are no such neural structures. How could there be? (p 185).

Noё suggests: “To understand the sources of experience we need to see those neural processes in the context of the conscious being’s active relation to the world around it. ... Consciousness of the world around us is something that we do: we enact it, with the world’s help, in our dynamic living activities. It is not something that happens in us” (p 64).

He further explains: “The brain does not generate consciousness the way a stove generates heat. A better comparison would be with a musical instrument. Instruments don’t make music or generate sounds on their own. They enable people to make music or produce sounds” (p 64).

This is obviously a very different explanation of consciousness than that provided by Francis Crick. Noё doesn’t discuss the views of other neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio, that seem to me to be more similar to his own view. For example, Damasio writes: “The secret of making consciousness may well be this: that the plotting of a relationship between any object and the organism becomes the feeling of a feeling” (“The Feeling of What Happens”, p 313).

It will be interesting to see whether Noё’s view becomes widely accepted. Daniel Dennett’s comment (on the dust jacket) suggests that those with different views may consider this book to be a worthy challenge: “Those of us who disagree with its main conclusions have our work cut out for us”. In “Freedom Evolves” Dennett takes as his starting point that we are “each made of mindless robots and nothing else” (roughly a hundred trillion cells) and sets himself the task of explaining the evolution of human consciousness. Dennett’s explanation is that human consciousness evolved for sharing ideas i.e. it is associated with the development of language and the enhanced survival capacity of groups in which reflective agents accepted responsibility for their actions.

Noё has a very different view of when consciousness began. He views life as the lower bound of consciousness: “once you see the organism as a unity, as more than just a process, you are, in effect, recognizing its primitive agency, its possession of interests, needs, and a point of view. That is, you are recognizing its at least incipient mindfulness” (p 41).

That is the part of Noё’s view of consciousness that I have most difficulty accepting. Attempting to explain the capacity of humans to reflect upon their own actions is a different project than attempting to explain the incipient mindfulness shown by a bacterium – even accepting that both forms of behaviour are enacted with the world’s help by organisms engaged in dynamic living activities.

Finally, how would I respond now if asked how I feel about the quote from Francis Crick at the beginning of this post? I would say that Alva Noё has persuaded me that Francis Crick’s claim is as misguided as attributing music solely to the components of musical instruments.


Troy Camplin said...

Genes and environment create neurons and neural pathways. The interactions of our neurons with each other and the body and the environment create behaviors, including the minding function of the brain. The mind is an emergent entity of the embodied brain in the same way the cell is an emergent entity of the biochemical cycles within it.

Winton Bates said...

The first part seems right, but it is worth noting that it is the whole of the organism interacting with the environment that creates the neural pathways.

One thing we can say is that the potential for whatever happened was always there, right from the beginning. So, I think that whatever emerged could be described as an emergent entity of what came before.

One of the things that might particularly interest you about Noe's book is his attempt to show by example that science and humanistic styles of thinking must engage with each other. The aim of both science and philosophy is understanding.