Phenomenologicalawareness – Is consciousnesssomething over and above the sum ofphysical processes? “What is it like to be a bat?” (Nagel, 1974, p.1). Thisfamous question introduced in Thomas Nagel’s eponymous1974 articlehits the nail on itshead. What is conscious experience? Wemight know exactly what a bat is, and how a bat in all its parts works, but canwe ever tell what it is like to be a bat? This subjective experience is hard todescribe and the questionwhere it comes from allures humans for more than 2000 years (Blackmore, 2017).
Four hundred years ago, Rene Descartes proposed his dualist view ofconsciousness, that is still engraved in the minds of many people nowadays.According to Descartes, there is a mortal body, which is home to an immortalsoul (Blackmore, 2017). Consciousness would therefore be a metaphysical objectthat is placed within a corporal shell to act in a physical world. This view,also called Cartesian Dualism, is the direct opposite of the more recentlyformed view of materialism. Materialism is based on the idea that only mattergives rise to everything we experience (Blackmore, 2017). But how canconscious experience be reduced to interaction of different forms of matter? Thisessentially is the hard problem of consciousness as presented by David Chalmers(Chalmers, 1995).
And, equally important; is consciousness just something that goeshand in hand with our experiences and automatically comes with our cognitive,sensory and affective input; or do subjective experiences arise from somethingthat is more than the sum of the stimuli within and around us? Inmy opinion, conscious experience is entirely based on the interaction of matter.It is not an added extra ingredient given to us, or a specific function in thebrain that depends on the activity of a single neural correlate either. Ibelieve it arises from the interaction of the many processes in our bodies andenvironments.
I think thatconsciousness is the epiphenomenon of the information integration in ourbrains. The main problem with the dualist theories is that they rarely explainthe interaction between the mind and the physical world which it acts upon.Descartes proposed that body senses its physical environment and interacts withthe mind through the pineal gland, which has proven to be wrong. Popper andEccles’ theory of dualist interactionism completely misses a link between mind and mind and environment(Blackmore, 2017).
Humanity has made enormous scientificprogress in the last hundred years and we now know that the brain controls mostprocesses in our body (Blackmore, 2017). We can identify, isolate and evenreproduce most of the processes that lead to perception, behavior and action.Chalmers describes the research on formation of perception, action etc. as the solutionto the easy problems, that you can measure and describe (Chalmers, 1995). Yetthe more we know about the working structures in our bodies, the more it comesapparent that we have a hard time finding the residence of consciousness. Withlesion studies and research on patients with diminished consciousness we havefound that there is no single spot in which consciousness resides (Alkire,Hudetz, & Tononi, 2008).
Alkire et al. hypothesize, with the evidence ofstudies on anesthetized patients, that consciousness depends of the integrationof different cortical activities. This evokes the question, whetherconsciousness is something that merely goes along with thinking, feeling andperceiving or something that is added on top of these processes. Ensuing fromthe view that consciousness is inseparable from other brain processes, it willnever be possible to find a central area that houses consciousness. This agrees with Dehaene Neuronal Workspace Hypothesis, which assumesthat consciousness is a connection of various processes in the brain thattogether form a coherent experience. This relates to the findings of Alkire etal. (2008), that unconsciousness is a “breakdown of cortical connectivity” (Alkire et al as inGleitman).
I find Dehaene’sapproach very convincing, as his model sees no need for a single central seatof consciousness and explicitly rejects the notion of a Cartesian Theater(Dehaene & Naccace 2001). This hypothesis supports my opinion, thatcerebral information integration the creates conscious experience. So,like Dennett argued in a thought experiment, if you completely reproduce ahuman body, there would be no disturbance in conscious experience, as theindividual structures would stay the same and the connection would be nodifferent (Dennett, 1978).Daniel Dennett concludes that we need to moveon from the idea of a Cartesian theater in which a little homunculus is thecentral operative in our brains (Dennett, 2007). Fromresearch on neural correlates of consciousness we learned that certainconscious experiences have a distinct activation pattern to them. Somephenomena, such as binocular rivalry, in which two pictures superimposed on oneanother, are shown to the participant, show that the higher cortical regionsrespond accordingly to the picture the participant is conscious of (Gleitman,2011).
Yet, it is important to note that Neural correlates does not necessarilyimply causation. Ibelieve the main problem with the dualist theories arguing for some instance inaddition to physical processes, is that firstly they rarely explain theinteraction between the mind and the physical world which it acts upon.Descartes proposed that body senses its physical environment and interacts withthe mind through the pineal gland, which has proven to be wrong. Popper andEccles’ s theory of dualist interactionismcompletely misses a link between mind and mind and environment (Blackmore,2017). Moreover, they fail to bring forth evidence for a central seat ofconsciousness. As mentioned before, research into the neural correlates ofconsciousness showed that some areas seem to be more involved than others, e.g.the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate (Dehaene & Naccache,2001), yet they always act in combination with other areas, e.
g. the perceptualareas in the cortex. References Alkire,Hudetz, & Tononi, 2009 Blackmore ChalmersDahaene & NaccacheDennett Dennett, D. silverstream314. (2007, November 2). Cartesian Theatre – Daniel Dennett Video file. Retrieved from:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3a2FFoRpzQGleitmanNagel