Why Is Consciousness So Baffling?

From Robert Lawrence Kuhn, host and creator of Closer To Truth:

There are many things that we humans cannot explain, but the greatest of these is our own consciousness. I sense, feel, think—perception, emotion, intelligence. All these can be described—today, partially; tomorrow, fully.
But even if these mental functions can be explained, the great mystery will likely remain: what it “feels like” inside, the inner experience of personal awareness—what hearing music sounds like, what seeing color looks like, what being in love feels like. All the obvious things of human sentience, which, when one thinks hard about them, are astonishing.
There are so many theories of consciousness. Why is consciousness so baffling?
Charles Tart, a pioneer in altered states of consciousness and in parapsychology, claims that the mystery of consciousness arises when “you try to force it into a framework of explanation that fits into contemporary science … especially if you take a mainstream materialistic position where you basically put a lot of meat together to get a brain and then consciousness occurs.” But, “how in the world does that happen?” Tart asks. “It makes no sense,” he exclaims. “And it’s especially dangerous to our ultimate understanding of consciousness if we assume that the brain physiology is the whole story and not bother to look at other things in the mind that don’t conveniently fit into that [materialist position].”
Although many support Tart’s view that mind is more than brain, most brain scientists are confident that as research progresses, mysteries of the mind will be solved. Yet there are some who resist this materialist trend.
Dr. Roger Walsh is a psychiatrist trained in neuroscience who once thought that brains “explained it all.” But when he began to explore meditative practice, his view changed. “What really turned my world around,” Walsh says, was when he “turned attention inward and began to explore consciousness subjectively, directly.” He says, “I came to feel that there was much more to this extraordinary phenomenon than I’d seen in any neurology textbook, and I began to appreciate the wisdom that we’re all heirs to from the great contemplative traditions.”
Neuroscience is real. Contemplative practices no doubt produce inner sensations. But I’m skeptical whether anything real can follow from “feelings.”
Inner sensations cannot prove that consciousness has independent existence.
I shift paradigms, from inner subjectivity to computation theory, and ask Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, what it means to “think” by considering “non-biological intelligences” (artificial intelligences).
Kurzweil talks about looking inside the brain of a non-biological entity: “We may see that it’s building models of its own experience, making decisions just the way a human does. Non-biological systems will pass the so-called Turing Test because they will be really convincing in expressing the human range of emotions.” But then Kurzweil asks whether those behaviors and emotions are “just a simulation of a human being? Does [the non-biological intelligence] really have a conscious experience, or is it just some automatic process? Some assume ‘No,’ an entity must be biological to be conscious. Others say ‘Yes,’” arguing that there is no fundamental difference between biological and non-biological entities. Kurzweil rightly concludes that “fundamentally, there is this gap between objective observation, which is science, and subjective experience. Philosophically, there’s no way to prove that any entity is conscious.”
In essence, Kurzweil is describing two kinds of consciousness: an “apparent consciousness,” which a non-biological intelligence could manifest by passing every external test of consciousness (Kurzweil says within about 25 years), and the internal experience of consciousness, which seems to be beyond science.
Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, a critic of artificial intelligence, calls the argument that greater computing power will create human-like consciousness “a gigantic fallacy.” Whatever the brain is doing to produce consciousness, he says, “can’t possibly be what these supercomputers are doing” with their processing speeds of billions of operations per second. Faster computers, Dreyfus asserts, is “just more and more of the same stuff going on. Why at some point that stuff should become conscious and have a point of view on the world? There’s no reason whatsoever.”
As for critical-mass or emergent arguments—that at some point, a difference in kind, not just a difference in amount, is generated (like the critical mass needed for an atomic bomb)—Dreyfus says, “It’s sheer bluff. I mean there’s no reason from anything that we know about brains or computers or critical masses or tipping points or anything else which supports the argument that at some crucial point we go from third person to first person.” Dreyfus advocates more neuroscience, to “see if we can figure out how the brain generates consciousness operating at a snail’s pace.”
Dreyfus believes that in whatever way the brain generates first-person, internal consciousness, computers will never do it. Never? Why not? Here’s what I don’t get. If consciousness is just the product of brain, what’s stopping computers—ultimately—with unimaginable speed, radically novel structures, and never-ending improvements—from exceeding the brain? What’s missing?
Philosopher Alva Noë rejects a purely brain-based theory of consciousness, but he’s no dualist either. “People take for granted that consciousness resides entirely inside our brains,” Noë says. “But the job that the brain is being picked out to do is the job that an older spiritualistic dualism has established for it. And when brain cells can’t accomplish this very difficult task, we seem to face this big mystery. But the mystery is the result of the assumption that consciousness is something that the brain is doing rather than something that you and I are doing. Why should we assume that an event in the brain is alone sufficient for consciousness? We do not spend our lives as free-floating brains; we’re embodied, we’re environmentally embedded, we’re socially nurtured from the very beginnings of our lives. If there’s going to be a science of consciousness, it’s going to be a science that enables us to understand the role the brain is playing in a dynamic active involvement in the whole organism’s life. It’s not just that consciousness happens in the brain; it’s not like that. The brain is part of a dynamic network, thanks to which we can achieve consciousness.”
Noë argues, “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world.”
OK, but even if so, anything outside the brain, whether body or world, must be represented inside the brain. How else could it matter? Which leaves consciousness still the major mystery.
And what about the extreme opposite of body and world? Could there be a vastly different kind of solution to the mystery of consciousness—in the bizarre behaviors of ultra-micro quantum mechanics, which sit at the physical foundations of the world?
Physicist Henry Stapp claims that because “quantum mechanics does not have a complete deterministic system,” and because “an important element is that a human being has to ask a particular question,” and because “there are no rules in the quantum mechanical system for what that question will be,” then “an essential element of indeterminacy comes into quantum mechanics, which is completely unlike anything in classical mechanics.”
Stapp says that “in the Newtonian world, consciousness does nothing at all. But in quantum mechanics, there is a role for consciousness. It has to pose a particular question which quantum mechanics then supplies an answer.” Consciousness, Stapp argues, is “injected into the causal structure” and can “affect your physical actions.”
To Stapp, the only way consciousness can have any effect on the world is through the “causal gap” in quantum mechanics. But virtually every brain scientist rejects the idea that quantum mechanics, operating on micro-particles everywhere, plays any special role in the hot, wet, macroscopic brain.
I am wearying with explanations …
How does consciousness weave its magical web of inner awareness? Theories are wildly diverse. Consider the competing claims of the following: embodied mind, extrasensory perception, meditative experiences; apparent consciousness by non-biological intelligences and the criticism that artificial intelligence will never be conscious; the idea that consciousness must involve interaction with the world, that it cannot be solely a brain process; and the idea that for consciousness to “do anything,” it must work through the “causal gap” of quantum mechanics.
Some believe consciousness is entirely physical, others that there is some nonphysical component, some kind of soul.
All seem sure. Not me. Trained in brain research, I lean toward the physical.
Living as a sentient being, I lean away. Consciousness is a deep probe of the mystery of existence. That’s why it’s closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Charles Tart, Roger Walsh, Ray Kurzweil, Hubert Dreyfus, Alva Noe, Henry Stapp, and George Lakoff in “Why Is Consciousness So Baffling?”—the first episode of the new season of the Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Each day this week leading up to Thursday, and then every Thursday going forward, participants will discuss an upcoming episode.

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3 Responses

  1. gregorylent says:

    you really need to talk to yogis .. the western mind only cuts and divides, and can never know anything about the whole

  2. Doug Rosbury says:

    Consciousness is its content.It is an inner
    experience of an outer phenomenon.Actually,
    the outer phenomenon is illusion. The inner experience is the reality because it contains
    the mental analysis which is an active understanding. Without the alleged outer phenomenon, the inner life is an experience of
    limitless potential or the true reality of
    existense.——Doug Rosbury

  3. Joe says:

    As a writer with an interest in science fiction, I have come up against the stone wall of defining consciousness and artificial intelligence over and over. The closest I can come is to identify the brain as the vehicle and the mind as the driver, each dependent on the other in symbiotic fashion but each also as a separate entity. The parallel of the brain and the computer is tempting but incomplete. There is more required than mechanistic function. If one had a petaflop level brain with all of the neurons in place and working smoothly, it might be an extraordinarily impressive machine but it still would not have a sense of self and for all its computational excellence and capability for spitting out whatever has been programmed into it, the question of whether it is thinking and feeling is, to me, not adequately resolved. For me, Pascal had it right when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” That implies generating independent thought and ideas born from observation and experience, not merely reading from a template, however encyclopedic it might be. I think the arrival of Kurzweill’s singularity is not as imminent as he hopefully suggested.

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