daily preciousness

Friday, July 12, 2002


What is consciousness?

From a fascinating article in the science section of the Washington Post. I've put most of it into my own words, but can't take credit for any of the thoughts. It's a lot to ponder on....

Descartes said that consciousness was like an 'observer' in the head, a higher function, separate from the workings of the physical brain.

Some neuroscientists disagree. They say there is no 'observer.' Instead, there is consciousness -- it's just very organized brain chemistry, just like life itself is made of proteins and cells in complex systems.

This is called the reductionist view. Daniel Wegner wrote "The Illusion of Conscious Will." It says that the brain's just a really complex machine. But it also convinces itself that it isn't a machine at all. It produces consciousness merely to give itself the feeling that it has completed a job. This process allows the brain to better cope with similar situations in the future.

"We think the intentions cause the actions, and we get the feeling we have willed what we do. It could be the intentions and actions are being caused by the machinery of the brain," Wegner says.

Intentions and actions are produced by different mechanisms in the brain. They are timed to occur simultaneously, but don't always do it that way. Intention doesn't always precede action.

People aren't actually aware of most brain activity. But why does the brain discriminately assign intention to only some actions?

Terrance Deacon, an anthropologist at U of C at Berkeley, says that the brain has two distinct parts. One handles things it has mastered. It's all about computation. The other part reacts to the world in a process that mimics evolution.

Darwin postulated that species evolve from one to the next without a guiding hand; competition and selection lead to adaptation and improvement.

"Evolution is information coming out of nothing, information out of chaos," Deacon says.

The same thing happens with the brain, he says. "Emergent information" is created in the brain in much the same way.

Consciousness helps us deal with unexpected events. Consciousness helps us pay attention to what is important.

David Chalmers, a philosopher at U of Arizona says that the perceptual aspect of sonsciousness -- pain, tastes, sight -- they're all very subjective experiences.

He says that scientists will find eventually that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe -- like time or space. It isn't reducable.


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