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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Research Update: Learning About the Nature of Physics and Consciousness

There's the physics that only a few experts and their posse can understand, and then there's physics for the rest of us.  Never mind that I took three physics courses as an undergrad (yes, with labs) and had to work harder than I ever did to get a decent grade in the last course.  I was way over my head on that last one (acoustics and space).  At any rate, I have been reading and understanding anew massive questions about the nature of the physical world and our perception of the same.

First, I had to try and discover a basic definition of consciousness because that's where the research is aiming.  But having a habit of starting backwards, I read "The God Particle" by Leon Lederman, and it did help me to grasp some of the premises of "Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore.  Blackmore presents a beautiful and clear premise about consciousness studies.  It's wonderful, she states, that we live in an age of so much scientific advancement that the question of consciousness is now embraced by scientists who for years (if not centuries) had denied even the existence of such a question.  We cannot, she continues, extricate ourselves from consciousness to study consciousness.  This becomes the first Hard Question of consciousness studies.  We are all subject to the same physical laws that govern the universe.  As a result, the study of consciousness might find track in looking at the seat of consciousness; that is to say, where the soul sits.

The balance between experience and how our physical self responds to it is perhaps the best starting point.  Philosophers declare these experiences under the umbrella of the term "qualia."  Simply put, qualia refers to perceptions of the world that are divided between unique and universal.  For example, Blackburn refers to "[t]he redness of that shiny red mug is a quale; the soft feel of my cat's fur is a quale; and so it is the smell of coffee."  The qualia in how it relates to consciousness is, again, the division of perceptions that are agreed upon, and factual references that are universal and remain unchanged no matter the perception.  Blackburn refers to "Dualism" (as in Rene Descartes) in an attempt to draw a parting premise.  Throughout the ages, humanity has been molded (for the lack of a better term) in the belief that there are two realms of the world.  The first realm is the "us" inside.  The second realm is the "the" out there.  The question, however, can be argued to be related to the development of culture and civilization rather than a conscious effort by humans to question their existence and their sense of self.  For example, it can be argued that this dualistic idea comes from the clash between the developing human (hominid, etc.) with the environment and developing cognitive experiences which where translated into the recognition of self and others.  Nature, for example, must have been a perplexing discovery (to draw an understatement) and this discovery might have given rise to the explanation of phenomena as a creation of the "other."  The sun, as another example of outside of individual consciousness, becomes the controller of phenomena and thus religion developed.  Of course it isn't that easy a theory.  Matter and energy has existed in the universe since whatever it was happened at the beginning (Big Bang, God, etc.), and whether that matter was controlled under some confine of physical law was not define as such until rational beings began to discover it as such.  But I digress (to draw another understatement).  If I have taken an over-simplistic view of these premises, I am deeply sorry.

Blackmore relates Descartes theory clearly, "the mind is nonphysical and nonextended, while the body and the rest of the physical world are made of physical, or extended substance." Blackburn positions this explanation very well, and follows it up with the quintessential inquiry familiar with anyone who studied Descartes, "How do the two interact?"  Other philosophers or/and scientists completely reject the dual idea and resort to a unified theory, monism of sorts.  This guides the path to a narrower place which offers just as many questions as dualism itself.  Even if a person describes herself as a materialist, a monist in belief, the position still ignores the question of consciousness.  The world really can't just be that "solid" a material.  With new developments in science and neurobiology, materialists come armed with good research and data as to how the objective brain gives rise to 1) phenomena, 2) experience, 3) qualia.  It is clear enough to state that the brain is a matter, objective in the sense that it is tangible, real to the touch.  However, some problematic questions still persist.  How does the interaction of brain cells give humans the power to experience reality, to be conscious of what is around them (whether physical or not)?  Susan Blackmore cites Thomas Nagel as an example of consciousness as objective reality.  In 1974, Nagel used the premise of a cave bat.  "If there's something it is like to be the bat--something for the bat itself, then the bat is conscious.  If there is nothing it is like to be the bat, then it is not."  Interpreting this can take an examiner in different directions.  For one, the argument of whether or not animals are self-conscious is one that--despite the attempts in recent years by animal activists--still has no answer.  The bat would have to know the concept of his self; that is to say, because I am part of a number of bats in this cave I can recognize we are all bats.  Furthermore, the ability of a rational human being to recognize the bat makes the bat conscious.  Nagel goes on to make another comparison, "if you think that there is something it is like to be the worm then you believe the worm is conscious." If this seems like one of those "why ask why?" questions, then I am not doing a fair job of explaining it.  There's a good possibility that we can all account for an experience with an animal (a dog, cat, bird, etc.) in which we've come to believe the animal knows, or has self-awareness.  Perhaps it is the inability to remember that is the biggest determent to whether or not animals are self-conscious.  My cat walks by the full body mirror I use to practice the cello--she does so every day and I believe she's come to realize that the image of the cat outside of her "self" is not another cat but simply a reflection.  Yet, she forgets from time to time and fusses at the mirror as if for the first time.  However, Blackmore explains clearly that "it is no good talking about perception, memory, intelligence, or problem solving as purely physical processes and then claiming to have explained consciousness."  The argument remains irreconcilable due to the separation of physical matter and metaphysics.  There is an explanation--a very interesting one--in the book related to a "Zombie-like" entity, as to whether or not the dualistic is present in the zombie.  If the zombie is physical, walking around the world without perception/phenomenological ground, then the internal "self" doesn't exist.  The zombie doesn't exist not because it is a figment of our imagination, but because there's no recognition on the "inside" of the zombie.  And just like the bat argument, this one is another pocket of vacuum in this big inquiry.

From here the argument takes on the human brain.  How can we examine consciousness and assume that all consciousness are alike, or, rather, that since human brains are average-wise about the same size, what happens when we encounter a damaged brain?  Does consciousness operate differently there?  What about critical mental illness?  Are psychotic patients in lack or in possession of a different consciousness?  That is all for now.  The semester is coming to an end and there's much to do before the summer.  Shalom.

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