Thinking About My Thoughts

Watching philosophers struggle to unravel the central mystery of consciousness is as amusing as watching a deliberate  attempt to divide a mercury droplet with a ruler’s edge.  Some, like Dr. David Chalmers, considers it the “…largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe”.  Yet, even for gullible minds, our best understanding on more pedestrian issues like the structure of matter, or the diversity of energy manifestation, the nature of life, the physical meaning of space-time -to just mention a few– are far from being “ books..” for us, as Dr. Paul Churchland, another optimist, would have us believe they are. There is no doubt that to the concentric bubble of sense reality we were trapped in before the acquisition of language, another one (virtual reality) has been added and continues to expand thanks to the combined efforts of modern technology and mathematical logic.  However, notwithstanding the giant strides taken by physics and biology in the 20th Century, reaching the ever-receding boundaries of the outer infinite reality bubble, the ontological characterization of consciousness remains elusive. However, the search for a fundamental theory of consciousness will, and should, continue because, if nothing else:

1. “All men, by nature, have a desire to know.” (Aristotle, in his Introduction to Metaphysics). Man has a biological need to explain to himself all happenings outside the reach of his sense perceptions, for the simple reason that it has an adaptive survival value to the species, especially when we consider that:

2.   Natural objects experience changes constantly, at different rates, at all levels of organization, whether directly observable or not.  Unfortunately, such unitary changes are too often imperceptible to our senses in our human life-time scale and occur in a geological time scale when their aggregate effects become perceptible. This makes the adaptive effort in the biological scale insufficient and always lagging behind (see author’s discussion in  Biopsychosociology, Limusa).  This becomes a serious consideration when allocating tax dollars for basic research in these frontier areas. But it would still have a high priority so long as investigators realize two other important truisms:

3.  Our senses are the only independently verifiable means of gathering information about objects (their appearance) in nature, and that:

4.  Notwithstanding the remoteness of abstract basic research from our basic human needs in our biosphere, “Man is (and remains) the measure of all things, known and unknown.”  This awareness should extend over the entire spectrum of investigations, ontologic, ecologic and cosmologic, including the psychologic research, because:

5.  Man needs to live in the company of other men, cannot subsist independently. 

         It would seem as if the proper reckoning with these preceding five ‘axioms’ is contingent upon our mind’s capacity for knowledge, both of self-directed introspective and nature-directed  perceptive types.  When a non-philosopher peruses over the alternative theories of mind and the sorts of evidence needed to sustain each one, one has to conclude, gloomily, that with the unaided senses, the pre-linguistic stage would take us from first sphere (self)  to the limits of second sphere (sensory life); our reason to the limits of a third virtual sphere (transfinite). Arguably only our faith can reach out to the ever-receding limits of the infinity sphere.  Let us now examine these assertions briefly.

       A superficial   bird’s eye view of the experimental scenario generated  in psychology evidences how modern neuro-psychology has given us a fairly reliable introspective knowledge of self which, when linked to both successful simulations of cognitive knowledge by computer logic programs and the unraveling of the interconnectivity of neuronal synapses in the brain (as revealed by the neurophysiologist), would tempt us to conclude that we may have escaped the third sphere of virtual reality and are on our way to asymptotically approximate infinity.

       With gloom, we have to conclude that this is all an intellectual adventure of sorts, trying to reason out an unfathomable domain. The metaphysical self and the soul of the world are both outside, not part of it. There should be a difference to be distinguished between what sounds like an a-priori skepticism and an a-posteriori realism.  While admitting the fact that man is far from realizing his full genetically endowed potential, it still remains another fact, that the escape from sense reality to virtual reality is made possible by reason, pure or practical, mathematical or metaphysical logic. Beyond that virtual bubble only theology can carry man forwards from there, what else is there? 

       How is our mind / conscience related to our perceptions of natural objects outside, how are these perceptions influenced by our own self perceptions (introspections) of body and mind? These seem to be the relevant question to ponder on, especially about the often forgotten inevitable mediator in these transactions, language.

If nothing else, we hope to eventually make a small contribution to the structuring of a conceptual framework suitable to address future developments in the area of self consciousness. Let’s try it:

       Consciousness has three singular aspects, the external perception of natural objects, their attributes and their relationships, the introspection of self as an individual observer, both physically and mentally and the fidelity of language (verbal or not) as a necessary vehicle to represent both types of perceptions. The real meaning of this assertion will not be immediately apparent and will need further elaboration in subsequent chapters. As a starting point we should always keep clear the distinction between the environmental sign of an object we perceive through the senses and and the symbol we use to code for whatever attributes reached our brains and now substitute for its physical presence when absent and which must be learned and interpreted along with equivalent meaningful symbols we inherited (genetic memory). Sub-human species may recall the symbol and react to it but can not interpret it, only humans can do it in novel situations. Similarly animals and man can react to emotional signs or symbols (inherited or acquired) but only man can develop the corresponding 'feelings' usually developed within an understanding of a more complex higher order context. Now we can appreciate the difference between having a sense-phenomenal 'thought' and thinking introspectively about that thought, the exclusively human act of being simultaneously an actor and a spectator of the same act! In the chapters that follow we will develop the idea that there is an inherited universal language of inherited 'meanings' of survival importance to the species which gets modified by the socially acquired meanings in the language of the parents and expressed as the speech; this we have called 'protosemantics'. The latter's presence in the newborn constitutes the referential that is given 'form' by the socially acquired linguistic syntax of the parents. This way emerges the individual with the indeleble signs and emotions of his biological past as modified in their expression by his acquired social experiences and evidenced by his speech and associated affect which made it possible to begin with as we will elaborate throughout this exposition. We are not denying the existence of an universal, recursive 'grammar', simply identifying an independent universal, recursive 'proto-semantics' preceding the 'form' generative grammar will provide to the acquired language. To fully appreciate the importance of this analysis in subsequent chapters the reader must distinguish between the lower level thought of the thinking 'subject' which now is able to transform same 'subject' into the 'object' of his thoughts by the uniquely human act of becoming self-conscious by an act of his will! We discuss in another chapter how 'inner speech' becomes causally efficient in generating the higher order thought of self-consciousness.

       “Man enters the sensible physical reality domain as a single cell, the zygote. Nine months later, it emerges as the most complex and organized structure imaginable. Behind that structural and functional complexity there is a master plan whose execution is revealed by systematically observing the sequence of activities that precede.” (See Human Biology, Vol. 1, by author).  The sequence starts with the embryonic phase and continues, after the third gestation month, with the fetal stage. In Chapter 1, above we elaborated briefly on the neuronal coding, classification, storage and retrieval of external sense data in cortical strata. Now we are only interested in calling readers attention to a couple of pertinent facts established by the unfolding of the embryonic genetic memory in a pre-linguistic, intrauterine environment.

       The most significant event during the pre-linguistic stage is the establishment of the neuronal interconnectivity between all visceral organ effectors and centers of neural control at different anatomical levels, all servo-control systems independent of any cortical levels for base-level functioning. Thus, an intramural neuronal plexus (of Meissner and Auerbach) enveloping the entire digestive tube and extending to practically all visceral organ formations that evaginate from the tube as development goes on, is most of what is needed. Its self-regulatory activity can be modified by a peripheral autonomic nervous system that connects the viscera with the developing central nervous system (CNS, neuraxis), mostly at sub cortical levels. The autonomic regulation remains unconscious and without an organized ‘homuncular’  anatomic representation at the cortical levels. That is not to say that there are no connections between the ‘central autonomic’ loci (hypothalamus, limbic system, etc.) and the cortical levels of consciousness, they have been established by central stimulations in awakened patients (Penfeld) among other studies. The paucity of these connections belies their tremendous contribution to the ‘emotional’ content of thought beyond the pre-linguistic stage, when thought is articulated language, vocalized or not. Thus, changes in the internal physiological milieu (pH, smooth muscle stretching, oxygenation / hypercapnea, etc.) is first monitored by interoceptors, codified as action potentials that activate effectors to bring about an adaptive modification of localized visceral responses. There are no important neural pathways bringing visceral information to conscious cortical levels, regardless of claims by Yoga practitioners. This arrangement provides for a constant online input of internal, body-proper homeostatic variations to bear on conscious or unconscious activities.

This neuronal arrangement is very different for the ‘exteroceptors’ that inform consciousness of changing external environmental conditions, as briefly discussed in a previous chapter. There are primary cortical areas for sensory storage as well as association areas interconnecting them with diffuse cortical autonomic nuclei. All areas of the body surface are anatomically represented in a fairly well defined somatotopic cortex homunculus. How then do external perceptions about objects in nature and their precise cortical representations interact with autonomic control centers coding information arising from the viscera?

It has been demonstrated that autonomic visceral reflexes mediated centrally at sub cortical levels utilize the same neuronal pathways to consciousness that external, environmental somatic information travels. For example, the cutaneous somatic distribution of nerve T1 from the left shoulder and small finger normally bring information to consciousness about nociceptive stimulation via a spinothalamo-cortical pathway; visceral reflexes from the heart   also use the same somatic pathway to consciousness, a useful fact to the cardiologist / neurologist to diagnose (by a ‘referred pain’ to the shoulder) an 'angina pectoris' attack. A study of ‘dermatome maps’ expands on this subject (See Human Biology, Vol. 2 by author). We can now see one instance of how visceral states can be biologically linked to external perceptions (voices, sounds, sights, cutaneous sensations, etc), which reach consciousness. It is important to keep this in mind when shaping a conceptual framework appropriate to include these parameters when addressing future developments in the area of consciousness, as we have warned.     

       The primeval observation of nature kept us well inside the sensory domain with infrequent incursions into the metaphysical domain of pre-language era. Then man’s sense world did not make too many demands on his introspective life, all the details being handled by subconscious biological servo control mechanisms genetically programmed to maintain homeostatic physiological equilibrium internally.

       Neurobiology strongly suggests that man’s neuronal  ‘wiring’, genetically determined to cope with this primeval scenario, follows the same general anatomical / physiological game plan, exteroreceptors to view nature, interorecptors to assess the internal milieu, a conducting pathway to an integrative neuronal pool,  somatic or autonomic, and   a neuromotor pool to execute adaptive responses with appropriate somatic or autonomic effectors (muscles, glands).  But, as we may have surmised, the similarities ended there, whereas the exteroceptors managed to create a gallery of cortical icons representing the external world visually, acoustically, olfactory, gustatorially, stereognostically, etc., the interoceptors were doomed to stereotypic servo controlled responses that never reached consciousness other than utilizing somatic sensory pathways to consciousness (eg., referred pain where a circulatory insufficiency to the heart would be ‘sensed’ as a pre-cordial pain). Eventually men coded the dermatomic somatic response as a representation of heart dysfunction. This leads to an empirically useful, albeit imprecise dermatomic / miotomic somatic representation of his viscera, still an useful aid to neurologists in their diagnosis of visceral disease.  How does this anatomic neuronal wiring affect the purity of our perceptions? The purity of our introspections?

       The important fact to keep in mind here is the relative impurity of the cortical somatic data-base with information originating mainly from external receptors (visual, auditive, etc.) and commingled with data originating elsewhere in the visceral interoceptors.  It is not uncommon to recall to memory pleasurable or aversive  visceral concomitants when viewing a work of art, listening to music or sampling a perfume. Their inseparableness is a definite factor to reckon with when attempting reductions to logical sentences of perceptions from objects in nature, pondering on the reality of the physical world or just gaining an insight into our autonomic body functions, as for example when empirically used in biofeedback training.

The reciprocal interaction between perceptive and introspective parameters is, in our opinion, much more significant in establishing real limits in our introspective effort to outline self consciousness, especially of our mental states. It is easier to talk about thought processes than to attempt even primitive utterances on such a subject as self consciousness; for one thing the literature seems to confuse ‘awareness’ with ‘consciousness’. The former has an implied expectation for the execution of an adaptive act by the subject, whereas the latter is simply the experience of the conscious state, sans any commitment to an action induced by the experience. In previous communications we have referred to thoughts about natural objects no longer physically present but represented as a codified neuronal network in the primary cortex. In the primitive, pre-language stage, during development, associations with concomitant sounds, visceral states and / or body movements seemed an inevitable part and parcel that made early communications by signs or sounds possible. It is important to notice that the event itself eventually gives way to a representative symbol that reasonably codifies for the event. Then time-honored language eventually took over the codification process, from then on language predominantly makes the codified inferences about events; the correctness of neuronal links in a sequence of codified inferences makes it even unnecessary to double check with associated memories (visceral or perceptual) during the production of speech. How is this all related to the ascent of man from the limitations of sense reality into the promises of virtual reality?

The hope of transcending virtual reality into an eventual certainty of infinite reality is not new. Leibniz, premised on his assumed rational structure of reality, considered  that events when expressed in a language of logic statements, represented  an “…alphabet of human thought..” Consider for a moment the following thoughts: All knowledge requires an ability to identify, catalogue and compare with previous experiences in memory, when present. This is true not only in perceptions during the cognition / recognition of natural objects but also during introspections as encountered in coherent, articulated thoughts (e.g., a present acute stomach recalls a similar family situation last Xmas!) or recalls of previous perceptions or distortions thereof, as found in fantasies or even logical impossibilities. The common denominator in both perceptive / introspective cognitions is words, the vehicular conduit to conscience. Sensations, whether blurred by inarticulate viscerogenic images or sharpened by the acuity of exteroceptive recalls are poor substitutes and makes knowledge indeterminate, a mere awareness of a presence we are not able to communicate or even remember with a high degree of fidelity.

Perceptions and introspections have been coded or linked by structured word meanings or less structured non-verbal equivalents. We may be able to identify an event by adequately combining their sensible qualities perceived  and / or introspected, but to elaborate an idea about it will require word-coding. The most significant and comprehensive cognition of an object or event is obtained when both cognitive elements of perception and introspection are coded into an abstract word like sadness, anger, happiness, etc. which recapitulates a broad spectrum of the real life experience. Yet, one may be certain about a perception but totally mistaken about the word-coded inference that substitutes for it. Neologisms are born every time there is a poor fit between the event and the gallery of available linguistic symbols.  The undeniable, self evident existence of intuition makes the process of deduction a reality in that orderly single propositions are sequenced as cause> effect. However, there’s another important caveat, the indiscriminate use of abstract language to represent a connectivity of ideas pre-supposes a logical cause --> effect sequence not necessarily present. Ideas, or the word structural sequence therein contained ONLY represent their independent mark or sign. Being oblivious of this fact makes it possible for brilliant language juggler sophists to impose a particular ‘logical’ understanding.

       Since perceptions get coded into words so they are accessible as contents of the thought process, sometimes an unaided perception makes room for an instrumental, independently corroborated ‘perception’ of the same object or event. Thus, the ‘flat’ earth gave way to the rounded sphere corroborated by satellite imaging. Men , as a biological species, may not differ in their raw perceptions of complex objects in nature, except when they have to express linguistically what their senses revealed; semantic and syntactic constraints will guide the word coding of the same physical reality. Leibniz once warned us about “..the appearances of our reason being as deceptive as those of the senses…” There’s more to the phenomenology of perceptions than meets the eye.” Yet, sometimes we have to use reason to re-enact a scenario beyond the resolution capacity of our senses, as in concluding that a Sequoia tree is alive, the earth rotates or as we tried in formulating that inert matter may have ‘life’ properties.  The sad truth is that science and even logical reasoning IS subjective. How can we be sure that even the famous “cogito, ergo sum” is a logical inference or a syllogism and not a self-serving thought or intuition?

A syllogism is the sort of discourse where, once certain assertions are accepted as stated, something else different from what is being stated, follows of necessity from their being so. By the inductive process we aggregate particulars to arrive to an always uncertain generalization while during deduction we arrive at particulars from universals. The philosophical or logico-mathematical structures we adopt will never capture the realities they hope to represent. All thought processes, whether catalogued as a judgement, a reasoning, perception, introspection or awareness, all knowledge is clothed in language and inseparable from it. It is language that imposes, by best fitting, a structure in the way it categorizes. Visceral sensations are essentially pre-conceptual, as are vegetative desires, anger, pain, pleasure, etc.  Ultimately, the material structure of the constituents of infinity, whether progressive or regressive, if any, would have to be the cause of a perception / introspection. When  it reaches a critical aggregation mass it becomes alive to a perception / introspection and thus support thoughts (language-coded). So thoughts, while independent of the individualized  atomic constituents that cause them, are dependant on their aggregate structure. The sense-captured intuition is related by induction to the external  atomic constituents (or their external causes) in themselves, which are unintelligible to us. Thus, perceptive / introspective ‘thoughts’ or awareness are not able to be expressed in words or their sound anlagen, except when the intuition is linked to codeable information simultaneously generated by the event and subsequently reinforced, reminiscent of Pavlovian conditioning. Subsequent intuitions will be re-cognized in association with the stimulus modality linked previously and given a corresponding language symbol or its corresponding non-verbal equivalent. A thought is then an adequate description of this process now being able to be expressed in verbal / non-verbal language. The thought is nothing more than a reasoned inference of that perceptual event that caused it, vague, general and inexact, as it must be, since words don’t have independent realities. A metaphysical best fitness of words to the material objects / processes they designate is only possible in abstract. We will have much more to say on how inherited multimodal codeletes, meaningful for the biological survival of the human species may constitute the proto-linguistic database on which language evolves as the individual matures biologically in the social environment. His psyche matches and balances the genetic inheritance with the socially acquired generating a 'biopsychosocial' ('bps') survival machinery for the human species.

On closing, on a more optimistic note, one observes that something can not evolve from nothingness. Descartes said it better: “..A finite substance can not think an infinite one.”  There is as much reality in a cause as there is in its effect.  Can a psychological introspective finite effort ever understand and describe the self, the infinite human soul? Ruling out sense perception, how can reason help? Reason can only teach us something about finite objects identified or causally linked to an experience. If the self or the human soul were a substance or a subject, we could only capture its reality by its accidents or predicates. If we undress reality from its accidents or predicates, what remains out there of the entity we like to describe? In the best of situations when the object becomes part of an experience we can now intuit as knowledge and becomes represented with a symbolic or sentential language tag. Even the language tag gives two versions of self: when Wittgenstein said “..I hurt my arm..”, ‘I’ is a subject (with arms) but when he said “I have a pain..”, ‘I’ is the elusive spirit we can’t apprehend ontologically. The object itself remains outside our intellectual scientific reach, is not part of our physical world, is outside of it, and we have to make do with the epistemological representations.

Leibniz also made a lot of human sense when he said, ”…nothing happens without a reason..” Because as human beings we can not make an infinite regress into the real object of our thoughts and perceptions. All things considered, it makes much more sense logically to invoke an efficient cause, a theological God or its equivalent, and evolve a corresponding theology. Better than to float in the ever expanding limbo of self serving abstractions, divorced from the realities in themselves that caused them, as explained above. It is by appropriate metaphysical inferences that we may represent the multimodal sensations of the physical world into manageable transfinite representations (virtual reality) that may bridge the gap between the empirical existence immersed in a world of raw sensations and and the intellectually inferred life of metaphysical infinities. 

“The experience of thinking may be just the experience of saying.”, (L. Wittgenstein, Blue Book)

End Chapter 3