Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Problem of Consciousness

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim

For preacher and monk the honored name!

For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.

Such folk see only one side of a thing

Buddha

Neuroscience is still in its infancy. It is still doing the meticulous, thorough and painstaking work that is required to explain the small stuff before any integrated explanation of consciousness is possible.

It was so in the natural world. And so it shall be in the science and study of the mind.

But science may never explain consciousness, nor (neuro) philosophy, nor religion, nor any other method. At least not on their own. Views outside of neuroscience may lack ‘neuro cred’ but they hold part of the answer to the deep puzzle of consciousness. While knowledge is growing about the details of the workings of cells, and networks and systems the concept of consciousness keeps shifting. It keeps changing. Therefore the conversations around this topic need to be wide open.

There are people on all sides who are committed to nourishing a collaborative and constructive view of the brain and mind.

I like Dennet’s view of consciousness as something that wins and takes control. His view explains how pain can ‘disappear’ when we are distracted by something else.

Or how things that are relevant to us have a big say in what we notice in our world.

And how awareness gives us some control over these things.

Patricia Churchland is also studying the interface between neuroscience and philosophy and writes informative articles that integrate disparate views like this one .

It was her writing on this issue that inspired this post.

I am also a big fan of the work being done in the field of the neuropsychology of emotion and cognitive neuroscience which links research findings back to the people who need help now.

The problem of consciousness is one of the deep puzzles that many humans are motivated to solve.

Many a problem is solved by sharing it, so it makes sense to work together on this one.

7 comments:

Eurovision said...

I'd be really interested in getting your take on the following attempted explanation of consciousness:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/22188289/A-Brief-Explanation-of-Consciousness

It seems less counter-intuitive than Dennett, but where's the flaw?

sanjeet said...

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Becky said...

You say science may never explain consciousness, but seem to conclude that it can. I'm not quite clear on what you call the "problem of consciousness" that needs to be "solved". What would it mean to you to solve it?

Heather Conroy said...

Thanks for all your questions and comments. It is an area that is full of question and there are not many answers. So @Eurovision and @Becky I'll attempt to answer your questions, but I am no philosopher or expert :) We all know what consciousness is but it is really hard to explain it. Science does not have a definition for consciousness and considers the hard problem of consciousness to be the difficulty in explaining phenomenal experience in terms of brain processes. Science can easily reduce awareness down to a set of processes (and does) but it is argued that this approach doesn't aid the understanding of consciousness- because it is much more than this. Consciousness is really what it is like for you and it is difficult to define another's experience when you don't have it yourself and cannot directly observe it.
To be able to solve the problem for me would mean that we would better understand ( but probably not totally!)the relations between brain, mind and behaviour. At the moment in psychology we rely on very subjective reports about these things- and it seems that only a fraction of what we see hear or feel is available to our conscious minds.

marci-me said...

Heather! so nice to talk with you again. My subjective report on consciousness i this: the consciousness is a separate entity from the brain - we are not our brains, we are beyond that curtain, just as we are not our emotions, nor can we be reduced to the chemical reactions within our bodies and brains...it is hard to separate them, but when you discover the separation, a whole new world opens up, though it unfolds slowly because we are so used to percieving them as
ONE....:)

Heather Conroy said...

Marci! I like it although there are those that would say if you took away brain processes (i.e. separate mind from body) you would take away the self because it is firmly rooted in unconscious brain assemblies that provide the stability (unconsciously!) that is required for survival. So our sense of personhood, or self would disappear. So fascinating to ponder. So frustrating to pin down as well. The arguments continue and I hope the conversation remains open!

marci-me said...

hmm, yes, I would agree, in that the brain is a tool, to channel the person, a physical bridge, that when separated, you can no longer access the person...