|05-21-2009, 07:42 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: May 2009
Nature of consciousness
I will like to pose the question as to wether any of the big questions of life can be truly answered until we really understand the nature of consciousness. That this question of consciousness is the one that at this stage of our development we should really be spending some of the billions we spend on the physical sciences as all questions of religion, morally and belief can only really come from a true understanding of the true reality of our core natures and all else is fluff. Until the nature of consciousness is understood in the way we understand the other forces of nature we can never really answer the big questions. Unfortunately, there seems to be a conspiracy to avoid this question by the hard sciences. Perhaps because it crosses the scientific/religion barrier and neither side wants to really investigate it.
There certianly are real dangers in pursuing this topic to its end. If it is proved that consciousness is purely physical, if it is just an emergent property of ordinary matter when organized into complex states that involve memory and process capabilities of which we as biological beings are just one example with no additional meaning or significance , then it is likely to lead to a very different view of the meaning and purpose of life. If one thinks of the millions of people killed and tortured over the years because of their unwillingness to accept a particular religious belief, then think what the end of religion might mean and how hard some would fight to protect it. On the other hand, if consciousness is proved to be in some way beyond current physical understandings and is a new force of nature, imaging what technologists might do it with and what new understandings and capabilities we might gain. Lastly, if indeed consciousness and life is bestowed in some way with some purpose by some outside agency and that in this bestowing we become special as it the basis of most religious understandings then imagine what this would mean for the world.
From a purely non religious moral viewpoint, there is no doubt that if consciousness is proved to be a purely physical phenomena that ends with the death of the brain then many moral issues would end up having logical answers that would not please many people. On the other hand, if consciousness is indeed something more and it is either discovered to be something more than the currently known physical processes or is found to be truly spiritual in an accepted religious sense then many others may have to rethink their approach to life.
I know of no scientific theory of consciousness that meets the normal tests we apply to scientific theory, ie that there is a comprehensive hypothesis as to what consciousness really is and that this hypothesis makes testable predictions about its nature. There are certianly a lot of people who have accepted a fiath based view of consciousness and there are people who think the whole question is ridiculous as the self I am talking about does not actually exist and that all of live is in fact illusion. Both ideas are less than satisfactory view to me. As i think about this question, the only real facts I have are that I am sure are true are
1) I am conscious (I think therefore I am) and to me at least I am real.
2) My consciousness is associated with the wet wear of my brain as evidenced by the many studies on brain function etc done over recent years by neurologists and through my own experience of life and death.
3) On less sure grounds, I accept because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that I am the product of Darwinian evolution and that my body is a fully physical thing made of nothing more than atoms that shares most, if not all, of its functions with every other animal.
This leads me to believe that consciousness is an emergent property of normal matter when organized in a suitability complex way that contains a system for recording memories and systems for processing those memories. The development of both of these processes can be seen as an outcome of Darwinian evolution as firstly simple, then complex chemicals, then bundles of chemicals within a membrane, then the first unicellular life, then more complex life forms competed for scarce resources and so over time populated our world with what we call life.
One explanation for the development of consciousness would be to say that the mind evolved in a similar way to the body in that the that control systems for the body ie the reward and pain systems that developed in early life to regulated the conditions in which the organism found itself. (If hungry move to find food, if hot move into the shade etc) developed in complexity over time as the senses improved and the processing power of the control system (the central nervous system) gradually become greater.
Thus I think that consciousness has paralleled this simple mechanistic control system and that in some sense it has always been there in a reduced way throughout this developmental process. I think it is very egocentric of us human to thing that we are the only ones who experience this thing called consciousness. It seems most likely to me that the only thing we have above all other life is a greater sense of self awareness. We seem to have reached some kind of minimum state of brain complexity that allows this sense of self awareness to crystallize out of the sea of sensation and experience that I believe we share in lesser or greater amounts with all life. One has only to watch the development of a baby into a child into an adult back into a childlike state as a degenerate neurological disease affects us in later life to see how tenuous our hold on conscious self awareness is and how close we are to the minimum required for truly self aware life. Rather than being the peak of development, I belief we have only just managed to crawl out of the sea of sensations onto the very bottom level of conscious understanding and even a slight decease in the size or complexity of our brains would push us off this self again.
Further when one examines what goes on in the brain of any creature, we find the same chemicals and chemical reactions that happily occur in any test tube. The chemical flows and the associated electrical and magnetic flows that seem to control our senses and the functioning of our brain's chemistry when analysed are totally understandable by current scientific theories. There is no gap in the chemistry. Where there is a gap and where we should be spending our money is to understand how those complex chemical and electrical flows result in the generation of a conscious aware mind that in some inexplicable way can in some sense work above the level of the chemistry (consciousness and consciously made decisions based on analysis of memorized data) and then form a decision that somehow reconnects with this chemistry and caused physical change either in the brain itself (the laying down of a new memory or change in the physical world by the movement of a muscle).
How can we not want to know what is going on here? Without understanding this, how can we talk sensibly of gods and morals?
Of all life forms on this planet, we seem to be the only one capable of asking these questions and having the resources to put serious effort into answering them. Out of these answers could come wonder to beggar the any technology we have created over the last ten thousand years or it could prove that we are nothing more than earth and present us with other challenges in living our lives. I for one would like to know the answer.
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