On Consciousness: A Human Conceptual Construction. Part 1 “The Self.”


A recent article from Science Alert asked the very pertinent question What Exactly is Consciousness: And Can We Replicate It?.
OK, lets try and answer that question with what we know about consciousness, and that the one thing we know for sure and can all agree on at this time is what definitely produces it is the human brain. Some propose additionally, that rocks and trees, Rhododendrons and Rottweilers, thermostats and snakes, maybe matter itself or the entire universe is somehow conscious. Leaving those speculations aside, we can look at the consciousness of humans which we know exists. In fact any discussion of consciousness wouldn’t, couldn’t, exist…without consciousness itself. (I personally don’t think your dog or thermostat could entertain a discussion of consciousness, just sayin’).

How do we define consciousness? How do we assess if someone is conscious?
From the WIKI:
“…subjectivity, awareness, sentience, wakefulness, sense of selfhood, executive control”

Medical definition of temporary loss of consciousness:
“A partial or complete loss of consciousness with interruption of awareness of oneself and ones surroundings.”(emphasis mine).

Being awake, aware, and alert is not enough in humans. We require the self to be there. Someone in a vegetative state, or experiencing a temporary absence seizure, blankly staring off into the distance, unresponsive to sound of their own name, and showing no initiation of behavior beyond basic motor routines…is not considered conscious.

When the EMT’s are reviving someone, they ask “How many fingers am I holding up?” but responding correctly to that question alone, i.e., displaying responsiveness, comprehension, and perception is not enough.
“What is your name?, What day is it, Where are you now?” need be answered correctly. We require the self to be there, oriented in space, time, and past and present personal experience. We require this to claim a human being is conscious. Witnessing the automaton behavior of a person experiencing that absence seizure leaves us with the recognition that the self is not operating at that moment, nor is the extensive modeling of our self’s existence in a “world”, at a given “location in space”, at a moment in the passage of “time”, and with our selves in the continuing saga as the protagonist in our own personal narrative. “We” aren’t there. Not conscious.
These concepts mediate our consciousness. Simple wakefulness and responsiveness is not sufficient. I suspect those concepts that provide our sense of self and conscious experience itself are not instantiated in any way in any other animal, (or plant) and certainly not in matter itself.

We relax those requirements entirely, when ascribing consciousness to our dog; despite that it displays no concept of self, can’t even recognize itself in a mirror, and certainly displays no evidence of a self oriented in space, time, or within its own personal narrative of past and expected experiences:

“I’m Rex, son of Rusty, I’m 7 (56 in dog years), I live in McHenry which is way north of Florida and the Gulf where my owner takes us on vacation, and I went to the vet last Tuesday.”

Sorry, but there is not shred of evidence your dog has any inkling of, nor the capacity for any of the ideas contained in the self-referential statement above, with which we define human consciousness. Your dog probably doesn’t even know he is such a thing as a dog or what a dog is. He sees, smells, feels pain, eats and sleeps, chases cats and his own tail (there’s a clue), wraps his chain around the tree and can’t free himself, has incredible hearing and sense of smell, follows a scent miles back home, not knowing where he is headed, nor in what direction and finds himself back in familiar sights, sounds and smells that register in his memory, yet doesn’t have any idea what a “home” is, and doesn’t need to. We not being able to imagine this purely mindless and mechanistic scenario for our dogs, which is all we do have evidence for, is itself not evidence for consciousness in any animal.

We reach the height of absurdity in discarding the human requirements and lose any relevant meaning to the word consciousness when we further ascribe it rocks, trees, rhododendrons, diodes, thermostats or worse yet, as an inherent property of matter or creation itself, in a paroxysm of panpsychic yearning.

During our consciousness, we run a model of our experiences in a “world” continuing each time we wake from sleep, recognizing our self and what day, time, spatial location, and episode of our life we are in, what we have done and experienced in the past and what we will do next.

Franz de Waal, the noted primatologist and author whom I greatly admire for his research and science writing, observed in a recent interview with Science of Us:
“People say, ‘This species has no self-awareness because we tested it in the mirror,’” “But I would argue that self-awareness is a broader concept than that. And I cannot imagine that a cat or a dog — even though they don’t recognize themselves in the mirror — I find it hard to imagine that they have no awareness of themselves.”

Finding it hard to imagine isn’t evidence for anything but our own biases, drawn from and promulgated by the cultural inertia of the idea of a mind or soul that has been assumed for millennia must exist inside a behaving creature. We humans have such a subjective mind, largely powered by our concepts, and not just the idea of a self, our self, but mediated by all the uniquely human conceptual developments that allow us to think. There may not be any awareness of self in other animals, nor is such awareness and internal modeling of a self as an actor in a world of objects and events in time necessary for the complex behaviors exhibited by cats and dogs, or chimps for that matter. We humans have a strong tendency to anthropomorphize. Many otherwise careful researchers, demanding clear evidence for scientific claims, readily fall sway to ascribing mental states “just like ours” to other creatures, when there may be no evidence of same.

It is interesting that some theories of consciousness avoid the idea of self altogether, as in the theory of Information Integration offered by Giulio Tononi and discussed in the article linked at the top of this post. Lots of interconnections alone do not make consciousness. I claim its much more than mere volume of wiring, however complex. It is what our neurons and neuronal assemblies do that produce our unique conceptual system which gives us our sense, our knowledge of self, what a “world” is that we live in, situated in “space” and “time.” Lots wiring in a brain or computer doesn’t suddenly hit a critical mass and the suddenly system blinks “on” and knows who it is and where it is and when it is. An identity wouldn’t suddenly pop out of billions of transistors or billions of neurons. Nor would mere sentience suddenly emerge, (feeling pain or ones body position or hunger, what have you), which animals certainly experience. It takes a specific organization of sensors and a perceptual interpretation system to feel anything. Lots of wiring alone wont get you there.

And the key question for consciousness in us, or animals, is do they know, like we know, they are in pain? Do they have an introspective perspective, that includes a self-observing view and a concept of pain. Mere sentience is not enough. Just feeling pain is not enough. One must be able to know they are in pain. There is no mechanism described in the integration theories that explains how an idea of self and the internal modeling of that self moving thru a world of objects and events in space and time, would be produced.

Whatever organization of transistors or diodes you wish to instantiate consciousness on they must duplicate the functions of these specific concepts in the human brain. Unless the wiring and firing of the silicon switches produces the same internal modeling, and the computer can be self-referential and have memories of its own existence, and plan for its own future, can we really call it consciousness?

An excerpt from a previous blog on the soul captures what I mean:
“It is hard for us to accept the possibility (the reality as far as I am concerned) that we are just collections of neurons, wired uniquely as only human brains are, and uniquely configured through our very individual developmental trajectories, culminating in our very own personal experiences, memories, skills, personalities, intellect, and self-concept, which did not exist before we were born and cease to exist at our death, with the end of the functioning of our brains.”

You want a computer to be conscious? Then you will need to duplicate the above, plain and simple. Is it in principle impossible? No, I don’t think so, but you would need to have transistors or diodes or whatever one would use, to fire and wire and be organized like our neurons and be able to self-reflect, modeling one’s self in an overall model of the world, like the one running in our conscious heads. Thermostats or transistors are not conscious, no more than any given individual neuron is. Nor is any old brain; whether a mammal’s, like your dogs, nor a primates, even a chimp’s.

When someone is sleepwalking, preforming a rote, mindless behavioral routine, often inappropriate to the situation, unaware of what they are doing, or when the epileptic undergoing an absence seizure is also performing an automatic behavior, mindlessly smacking their lips, or walking aimlessly toward the door, unresponsive to repeated calling of their name, we say they are unconscious: Not conscious “they” aren’t there. So a computer running a mindless program simulating a human purposeful behavior is not enough, we require the person to “be there.” Self is the subject of consciousness.

Antonio Damasiso in his book “Self Comes to Mind”, relates that damage to the anterior portions of the frontal and temporal lobes leaves a patient’s perception and memory intact for objects and detailed scenes. What is missing is the knowledge of the uniqueness of such as scene as it relates to one’s self. When one patient observes a birthday scene they recognize all the elements and what they mean: a cake and why there are birthday cakes, family members, gifts and such, but will fail to recognize it is a photo of their own birthday or someone else’s particular birthday celebration. The concept of “my birthday”, the recognition of an episode from my personal narrative, the relation to one’s self, appears to be lost, or more properly, not operating in the frontal lobe patient any longer.

Clinical observations such as these, make one wonder: Can a dog recognize the elements of a scene, of your kitchen with his water and food bowls and the water and the food in them, but does he then view these elements together as a “scene”; a kitchen with the common individual elements that make up a kitchen, an area that has a particular purpose and further, and most importantly, that it is his kitchen, his food bowl, with a sense of self attached to those elements and scene? Or is he like the frontal lobe patient with memory and perception full of mundane concepts like food and bowl well intact, but with no overlying placement of self in that scene?

Humans may understand and entertain the thought readily upon seeing a cake decorated for a birthday, that an “event” with the cake and ice cream and presents is about to take place, and further if their frontal lobes are intact, that its “my birthday” that is about to occur. One wonders if with the dog that all the perception of objects may occur and in a familiar setting, but quite unconsciously with no thought at all of:
“I’m in the kitchen, there’s no food in my bowl and they’ve forgotten to feed me because they’re too busy decorating for the birthday this afternoon.”

Infants and toddlers take years to develop un-observable concepts such as a “scene” like kitchen (a relation of objects and behaviors in a specific location) or “events” like birthday celebrations (a series of related actions with a specific purpose, within a finite period of time). And with those concepts which I contend are unique to humans, we add the self in the personal narrative of such scenes and events which we build up in our episodic memories, and with which we think: reminisce, and plan, and reason, to problem solve and guide our future behaviors. Is there any evidence your dog has any of these capacities or even needs them to operate and thrive in his environment?

Self is inextricably wound into human consciousness.
Can there be any consciousness without it? Is there some sort of minimal consciousness without a self that other animals, or a newborn infant may experience, or a sufficiently connected computer could instantiate?
Questions such as these will be addressed in Part 2.

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