The Natural Life of Thoughts
It is always very impressive to watch Nobel laureates like Edelman, Crick, Kandel and others stretch out the limits of logical gymnastics when trying to accommodate the ‘experience of consciousness’ within the reach of experimental natural science. As an experience, it is a self-evident reality we all have to live with but, is it a natural or a metaphysical entity? Do we need to worry about the mind? If so, is it physically reachable with our epistemological tools? It is perhaps the best-known familiar subject whose reality and meaning is intimately tied-up with our own biological and psychological existence yet we find it very difficult to explain even to ourselves. The skeptical denial of its ontological being and / or existence is just as unwarranted as reducing it to some physical structure it may not be by any measure. What is then the ‘experience of consciousness’?
Whatever it is, its eluding ontological characterization does not negate its existence and relation to elements of our natural world, the ‘why and how’ being at present barred from our rational processing, much like the feeling of living a multi-modal, animated experience with no discerned cause or effect. These phenomenal qualities have sometimes been described as ‘qualia’, a case always described in first person. Having failed thus far to identify the physical processes giving rise to self consciousness we are faced with no choice but to delimit the experience it is always associated with, leaving out any hope of intuiting its emergence and, much less so, its justification.
Now, any attempt at coding these experiences and integrating them (by combinatorial logic) for their transmittal or conveyance is tied up with the language conveyor and pre-supposes the existence of similar experiences in the recipient parties, i.e., we can talk about consciousness in third person. At one end of the spectrum we find the 1)‘phenomenal’ (internal / external sense) preceding the combinatorial events that result in the 2)‘psychological’ state that may trigger an 3)adaptive ‘behavioral’ act at the other end. Both extremes do not necessarily map conceptually into a ‘cause > effect’ or need be conflated because consciousness is neither one and may indeed manifest itself in their absence. We are assuming that a psychological state is committed and related to a behavioral change as its proximate cause, whether realized or inhibited. Consciousness, unlike awareness, is independent of a result, adaptive or not. All this hair-splitting means is that ‘the experience of consciousness’ may be considered, for experimental purposes, as a ‘mental state’, sandwiched, like a psychological state, between the phenomenological (cause) and the behavioral (effect) while essentially independent of either one for its manifestation as an experience.
However, as we suggested in a previous chapter (“Thinking About my Thoughts”), the content of the ‘mental state’ is multi-factorial and based on the recruitment of relevant multi-modal elements selected on the basis of a best-fit relation to a language algorithm integrator as discussed in the previous chapter “Visceral Brain, Language and Thought”. Phenomenology (primary causal agent) or its codified primary mental representation (e.g., Area V-1, occipital cortex for visual intuits) usually initiates the elaboration, or binding of the ‘mental state’. An important exception would be when there is a behavioral response whether triggered by non-phenomenal or pre-emptive, internal, body proper reflex activity with crucial biological survival value; this we call a psychological state. The emotional content, manifested or not, distinguishes the ‘psychological’ from the pure ‘mental state’ we associate with the experience of consciousness. In his book “The Conscious Mind”, Oxford Univ. Press 1996, mathematician Chalmers argues about a “causal role (for environment) without there being an associated (psychological) experience..”, (emphasis added). A novel environmental object or event, physically measurable or not, without a present adaptive value is neutral in its measurable effects and consequently does not evoke a psychological state or a behavioral adaptive response. However the sense (or extrasensorial?) intuition gets codified and stored temporarily unless reinforced and stored by subsequent similar physical (or non-physical?) encounters of increasing adaptive values. It will then guide the behavioral response in a future physical (non-physical?) encounters with the same physical (non-physical?) species or its thought representation thereof. The experience of consciousness, as self-evident truth, as described, formally requires a consideration of ‘non-physicality’ if we also accept causality as self-evident truth, however impossible it may be at present to explain a physical / non-physical interactive state.
As the brain-elaborated ‘perception’ (post-sensation stage) is consolidated into a memory, it becomes available as the relevant thought preceding particular adaptive behaviors (retrieved memory adopts phenomenal qualities itself!, a secondary causal agent) or an idle consciousness experience, independent of any measured physical cause or measurable effect (behavioral response). Chalmers view that “..non-phenomenal mental states “..can be characterized and play a “..role in our cognitive economy” is either an admission of the role played by internal body input and / or non-physical interactions, as we have argued for both above and elsewhere. When measurable, coetaneous internal body variations can be measured, we call it a psychological state. Consequently, unless Chalmers argument is just a conceptually coherent possibility, it leaves open ‘extra-sensorial intuition’ as a distinct, albeit arguable, causal agent for a ‘mental state’ we call the ‘experience of consciousness’.
Repeating, psychological states always precede adaptive behavior, immediate or delayed, but usually depend on a preceding sense-phenomenal state as a causal agent where emotional memory (visceral brain) is recruited into participation. We have mentioned above when, in principle, non-phenomenal stimulus may evoke an adaptive behavioral response. When the adaptive survival threshold is not reached, the ‘psychological state’ survives and becomes almost identical with the ‘mental state’ or experience of consciousness. A phenomenal state is usually arrived at through body internal or external sensory input or their memory representations thereof. However, reliable empirical evidence demonstrates that all of these inputs may be absent and dispensed with and still have a “feeling of consciousness”, totally disconnected from behavioral responses, adaptive or not. At this point, a theory of non-physical causation is just as marketable as the other alternative of a spontaneous occurrence of consciousness about nature related events, either faithful to physical sense reality or a distortion thereof.
Phenomena derive such appellation from the fact that they describe the impact of environmental changes (stimulus) on a suitable receptor. Only Rosenthal, in 1996, has described a non-phenomenal higher order faculty as generating a state of consciousness when concentrating on a mental state. It is not such an uncommon experience having a conscious state generated in the absence of phenomenal input, such as we may find in an introspective exercise, neither phenomenal nor psychological events are required as causal agents.
Environment -->Sensorium -->
CNS sense-phenomenal processing --> Intentional --> Thought --> R1 , R2
Where the resultant R1 is an adaptive behavioral act or R2, a state of consciousness if no adaptive survival (biological or social) issue is being resolved (absence of psychological state).
The ‘experience of consciousness’ represents the quasi-independent boundary linking the phenomenal and the psychological aspects of the ‘mental state’. As such, it has been described indiscriminately as that which connects the intuition to the act, the receptor to the effector or the sensation to the perception. If to a primitive body internal or external intuition (or thought equivalent) we now add the benefits of insight, discernment or comprehension (as embodied in codified memories) and elaborate a more or less complete perception of a thought or event representing the psychological state, it will guide (cause) a subsequent adaptive behavior.
How may a non-physical, extra-sensorial input enter the processing sequence remains a mystery to be solved, not their being / existence but the mystery of their supervenience on first order brain facts. The emotional component of a mental state may vary in complexity along the entire spectrum bridging the phenomenal to the psychological depending on the degree of departure of the meta-physiological body state from its homeostatic survival values.
There is one particular aspect of the ‘conscious experience’ that seems to be unrelated to either sensations (in the physiological sense) or behavior although it relates to some aspects of both. If we assume causality as a self-evident proposition then affective states unrelated to visceral brain parameters such as hopes, beliefs, desires, etc., leave an original input play into the conceptual, non-physical, extra-sensorial domain and are closely associated with intentionality, a “propositional attitude”, the 'meaning' component of the conscious state. Consider a case where a feeling of happiness can co-exist with demonstrable adversities in the physiological or psychological domain. Is that a convincing statement of having incorporated a proposition about the world as true, regardless of its possible negative consequences in shifting the vital homeostatic body equilibrium? The resulting change in behavior is more consistent with a belief in the transcendental truth of the proposition than in the immanent negative physiological consequences. The experiential aspects of this state of mind have been shown to even produce measurable corrections of the otherwise predictable meta-physiological deviations from normal, e.g., placebo effect? Previous experience appears to provide a scaffolding for the structuring of a belief in a propositional content, something we may call the ‘relational’ concomitant. This previous experience may exert control over a particular ‘psychological state’, easing the way for the proposition to be more readily incorporated or accessed thereafter.
Absent a need for communicating the content of a mental state, which of course pre-supposes a capacity for language production, a psychological state may resemble an experience of consciousness state in yet another way, in that they both require language production, whether articulated and expressed or not. Otherwise, a functional label to the ‘experience of consciousness’ is not warranted, as either necessary or sufficient. The same can be argued as to the label of ‘cognitive’. Cognition presupposes a state prior to the execution of a behavior now or later on and in this respect resembles more what we have designated as a state of ‘awareness’. In all cases, the participating neural elements need to be alerted and active, activity sometimes mistaken for ‘attention’. It is not clear yet whether the attentional component, needed to recruit the multi-modal participating components are related to the activity of the mesencephalic reticular activating system (RAS) or to the diencephalic 40 cycle coordinating reverberations that presumably integrate the retrieval and assembling of multimedia and animation components of the ‘experience of consciousness’, the so called ‘binding problem’ solution as described by Crick and Koch.
In closing I would like to comment briefly on a related matter regarding the reliability that intuitive external cognitions deserve as factual truths. We have heard from prominent HiQ colleagues assertions like "Factual truth is a moral duty" and we really ought to keep in mind that "things are not always what they seem to be." Way back in the 14th. century (see William of Ockam), it was already accepted the fundamental difference between the factual truths of 'intuitive' cognitions (as they occur in sensations) and 'abstract' cognitions (as made possible by mental reflections upon that sense experience). The former enables the observer to know with certainty a particular contingent 'fact' (substance, property) about the world, the latter abstract from existence, memories, etc., to provide the necessary connections (of necessity, contingency, etc.), especially the causality relationship so fundamental in the natural sciences. The conceptual terms elaborated on factual truths are the 'natural signs' BUT, to be intelligible they must be written or spoken in the 'conventional signs' of sentential or symbolic language, including mathematics. There is no other known way. The ‘moral duty’ is to make sure that the resulting abstraction (in the real world) remains subordinated to the external intuition, keeping assumptions about the observed reduced to a minimum (using Ockam's razor). In short the most sophisticated symbolic-logical representation of a substance or property isNOT a description of the "factual, natural" substance or property ‘in itself,‘ but a description of "what it seems" to be according to the adopted logical conventions of symbolic representations.
End Chapter 6