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Neurons: Necessary But Not Sufficient For Consciousness

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For the advance of human knowledge, science is based on paradigms, as observed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolution. By paradigm, he meant a conceptual lens, a worldview, that helps us explain what we observe.  Kuhn pointed out that while paradigms allow advancement of knowledge they also exclude other ways of looking at the world--ways that can also yield understanding.

A vantage point thousands of years old is currently discounted by scientists, except for perhaps those quantum physicists who have sought elsewhere to explain phenomena such as the wave function collapse. Erwin Schrödinger comes to mind as one of them. He could make no sense of the collapse unless consciousness somehow participated in observation. "Some of you, I am sure, will call this mysticism," he said, but for him, so be it.

Some neuroscientists are coming to understand what the East has taught for centuries. Neuroscientist Francisco Varela, a practicing meditator, argued that a different kind of "expertise" is needed, what I call "experiential expertise."

A simple example. Who is reading this? You? Find yourself, then. No, not that, for it is only a thought or image of your self. Find your real self. In fact, you cannot. Yet something there is that perceives. What? To philosophize about this as some kind of monistic idealism is to render it meaningless, only so many more objects of thought. An understanding of perceiving is unavailable under the standard scientific model but is accessible to those who develop "experiential expertise." As has been said in one way or another by Eastern teachers, you are what you are looking for.

Below are snippets from a book review, which provides an interesting discussion of some current thinking on consciousness and although it is distant from Eastern teachings it does regard materialism as inadequate to explain consciousness, something the East would agree upon.

--"The word is out that human consciousness - from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self - is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience."

--The prevailing view is that "the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind."

--But "these beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it."

--"And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves."

--". . . the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law."

--"These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press . . . . Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that 'brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy'."

--"V S Ramachandran . . . is prepared to claim that we enjoy Picasso's paintings for the same reason that gull chicks prefer fake maternal beaks with an excess of markings to the real thing: they are 'superstimuli'."

--Nicholas Hum­phrey in Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness "claims to have solved 'the hard problem" of consciousness'."

--"[In Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain] I found Antonio Damasio's long and painstaking exposition of his ideas about mind, self and consciousness extremely hard going. . . . If there were explanations of how the 'self comes to mind' or 'constructing the conscious brain' in his book, I missed them."

--"Damasio makes life difficult for himself by beginning from some rather surprising assumptions. Mind, he says, is largely unconscious. Even insects have minds, apparently, which makes one question his criteria for mindfulness. . . . Surely consciousness is the precondition of the self, rather than the other way round."

--"Damasio's uncertainty about the neural basis of consciousness betrays him in many ways. He vacillates between ascribing to certain parts of the brain main roles in consciousness and then arguing that it arises out of the brain as a whole."

--"At times, the illusion of explanation becomes quite strong. When, like Humphrey, Damasio ascribes a crucial role in the generation of selfhood to 'feedback loops' in the brain, this does convey the sense of consciousness being turned back on itself until it becomes self-conscious or self-like. Yet there is no reason why feedback loops should do this. They are evident throughout the biosphere, even at the level of single cells - and they are present in the meanest pocket calculator."

--"Neither Humphrey nor Damasio deals with the hard problem of consciousness - explaining how certain material entities such as ourselves feel what is happening within, to and around us. Even so, they are confident that consciousness must be biological and, therefore, must have arisen because it conferred selective advantage.

From New Statesman, 24 Feb. 2011, review by Raymond Tallis of Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness, by Nicholas Humphrey and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, by Antonio Damasio
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