Our intuitive understanding of how we perceive the world has changed significantly over time. For example, let us consider sight. In Ancient Greece, people believed that rays emitted by our eyes somehow allowed us to see. It took until the 10th century for someone (the astronomer and physicist Ibn al-Haitham) to demonstrate how the the pupils and retinas of our eyes actually work. His pinhole camera (see Figure 6.1) projected an inverted image through a hole (the pupil) on a screen (the retina). In the ensuing centuries, particularly with the scientific method, we have found better ways than relying on our intuition to discover how the world works.
Intuition Your initial evaluation of a situation is called intuition. It is the first thing that comes to your mind without going through conscious deliberation or reasoning.
Yet, despite advances in philosophy and with more than a century of neurobiological research under our belt, no one has been able to locate (in the brain) what we call “consciousness.” Given the (superficial) similarities between human and computer intelligence (both process information and make decisions) and the amount of accumulated research in computer science, one might believe that at least a basic concept of the conscious experience has been discovered by scientists. While there have been many descriptions of human consciousness, until recently there has been no definitive philosophic or scientific answer to the question of what precisely consciousness is. In that regard, the challenge of defining or explaining consciousness seems to be that it is not something anyone can observe objectively. I am the only one able to report on my consciousness. While someone else could scan my brain and say that I am seeing the color red, that scan does not explain why there is an “I” that is experiencing the sensation of “seeing red.” Even more troublesome, the only way I can report on my experience is using the very thing I want to report on (my consciousness).
Now, how should we approach this problem? The best way is to just work with what we have, see how far we can get with it, then take our learnings and re-evaluate our original premises. It is the same problem we were facing in Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge: ontology (“What is?”) and epistemology (“How do we know?”) are intertwined. Learning more about the world helps us to refine our knowledge about how we learn about the world, which in turn helps us to learn about the world more accurately, and so on (see Figure 6.2).
In previous articles, we have begun this iterative process by looking at optical illusions, cognitive defects, our evolutionary history, a comparison with our distant cousins, the apes, and the architecture of our brain. The more we investigate the brain, the more it seems that the brain could function on its own, without the need for a conscious experience. This raises numerous questions:
- Why do we have a conscious experience at all?
- Why does this conscious experience feel as if it is separate from the world?
- If our conscious experience is separate from the physical world, how could it influence our physical actions, and how can interactions with the physical world create conscious experiences?
- When we have a subjective experience, who or what is experiencing it?
Next, we will explore these questions from several angles.
Theories of Consciousness: To build a solid definition of consciousness, we first need to consider possible interpretations of consciousness from philosophers and scientists in the past, as well as to explain consciousness in the context of evolution. Until we have defined consciousness, we will use the word as an umbrella term for anything relating to the equally vague terms of our subjective experience, will, decision-making, awareness, and the “self.”
The Location of Consciousness: We know where, for example, our toes are located, but our subjective experience of consciousness only gives us a vague idea that consciousness is somewhere within us. We examine whether it arises from the brain as a whole, whether there is an observer within our brain, and whether there is a difference between the left and right hemispheres. Looking at a number of cognitive defects, we refine our idea of what it means to be conscious.
The Search for Consciousness: Revisiting the question about how consciousness could be the result of an infinite series of observers, we come up with a basic theory correlating with brain architecture. Using a loop of consciousness and central places to store memory, we can better explain the role of the prefrontal cortex, how we can imagine things, and how something like a “mind’s eye” or “inner voice” is created.
Model-Building: Besides processing sense perception, the second major function of our brain is to think abstractly and predict the future. For this, we come back to the concept-building from Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge, and discover how the brain learns to build models of other people and the environment.
The Attention and Awareness Schema Theory: Beyond attention and awareness, the brain also builds models of attention and awareness, which enable us to think about our past, present, and future selves. We conclude the book by putting together all that we have discussed to arrive at a definition of consciousness.
Building a Conscious Mind: At the end of the book, we will summarize what we have learned about the brain and consciousness into an evolutionary timeline. Our goal will be to explain how human consciousness could have developed gradually.
Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way. —Alan Watts