Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 275
This has been a subject that's puzzled me for a long time. We touched on it at the last meet-up, when we discussed Thomas Nagel and John Searle, two philosophers among others who have written about it.

What is consciousness? Can it be defined in a non-circular way? Although it's caused by physical processes in the brain/nervous system, consciousness per se seems not to be physical, and as non-physical, how can it affect the physical world? Maybe it's 'epiphenomenal', meaning it can't cause anything to happen, in which case it would seem to be superfluous at least causally, but if superfluous, why does it exist? What is its selectional advantage?
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 90
Hi, Jim, I just noticed that you started this discussion and have had no response (go figure??).
I've been in the hospital getting tons of tests to see if they can determine what has caused my progressive muscle weakness ... and, hopefully reverse it. I just got internet access but am too tired tonight to attempt even a half-coherent response. May not be able to present one tomorrow, but will give it wink the old college try (whatever the heck that means).
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 309
Thanks Rinda. I look forward to your response whenever you feel up to it, which I hope is soon! Please let us know as soon as you find anything out.
Rinda G.
user 7444310
Dallas, TX
Post #: 93
Damn, double damn!!!
Twice I've tried to respond to this only to have what I'd written lost due to "the web page expiring". I choose to look at it this way. Either what I wrote was so stupid that some consciousness other than my own (probably circular, but so what?) decided not to allow me to be embarrassed ... OR ... what I wrote was so brilliant that there is no consciousness on this website able to comprehend my brilliance (with the possible exception of you, Jim) so this universal consciousness didn't want any of YOU to be embarrassed. In either case, what I wrote wasn't needed in the world at this time.
Ha, I'd rather look at it this than an uglier, less enjoyable, way to look at it. .... didn't need that 2-3 hours anyway.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 140
Rinda, I too have long responses and run into that problem on occasion. It helps to type up a response in a word processor first (like MS word or open office) and then copy/paste it into the reply page before submitting.

Jim, since my response to this particular question has since been buried within a discussion about free will, I'll reiterate it here.

First an analogy, writing is a symbolic representation of certain concepts but it is literally ink on paper. Thoughts are symbolic representations of concepts but they are literally electrochemical action potentials in our nervous system. So, the thought "I want to pick up that glass of water" is represented in the brain by certain patterns of the firing of certain neurons. I experience that thought, that desire within the symbolic realm of my mind, I am completely unaware of the literal nerve impulses which "write" this state with my brain. However, while the symbolic level of my thoughts might not be able to cause anything, the literal reality of my nerve impulses can totally propagate down my arm resulting in the picking up of the glass.

So essentially, the "work" of thinking is done on the symbolic level. We think with interacting symbolism, allegory and metaphor. But we can't forget that these mental states are literally written in nerve impulses. The symbols might not be able to do any "acting" on the external world on the symbolic level, but they can make changes on the literal level. In fact, they must. In order for any mental state to be, it must be represented by some sort of neural activity.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 311
Nathaniel, I definitely agree with you that a conscious state has to be represented or realized by neural activity in order for that thought to result in a physical action. So the only way that my thought "I want to pick up that glass of water" can result in me actually picking up the glass of water is for that thought to be 'written' into nerve impulses, and so forth. But how does this happen?

Does the conscious 'thought' "I want to pick up the glass of water" actually cause neural activity or does the neural activity happen first, initiating the physical processes of actually reaching, grabbing, lifting, and then the conscious thought of "I want...." happen only as an after effect?

We're between the horns of a dilemma: On the one horn, consciousness doesn't do anything, which would be pretty deflationary, because it would mean that conscious states, including desires and beliefs, instead of being the engine driving the boat, would be nothing more than the froth floating on the boat's wake. On the other horn, conscious states are capable of making physical events happen, but how they could do that would be left a complete mystery. If the first alternative is true, it would suggest that our conscious thoughts aren't nearly as important as we would like to think. In fact they would be of no importance at all ( but notice that it's only our thoughts that are elevating their own importance!), but on the other hand, it would be only through our thoughts that the irrelevance of our thoughts would be discovered!

It's literally impossible for me to think while at the same time holding the idea that my thoughts are a meaningless after effect. Conscious thoughts require the presupposition that they can actually make things happen, can discover and communicate truth, etc. It's the necessary assumption that makes what we're doing on this message board possible. It's what makes all of thought and language possible. This assumption doesn't guarantee that what it assumes is true, but if it isn't true, that would be far more strange to me than if it were true, because it would mean that consciousness, including conscious thoughts, including what we're doing here, would be a meaningless charade, and that I am trapped in the prison house of thought and language with no windows or doors or possibility of real knowledge.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 141
So let me get this straight. The question is now as follows:
Does neural activity cause thoughts, or do thoughts cause neural activity?

Could this not be a false dichotomy? I'm not convinced that it must be one or the other. Also, one of the horn's you propose may even be a false horn.

For instance, if I experience my thoughts in a symbolic manner, that doesn't necessarily mean that my thoughts are symbolic, just that I experience them in a symbolic manner. The experience of thought may be an aftereffect whereas the real work of thought is done computationally and behind the scenes as it were.

Now, we agree that thoughts are represented by neural activity. So even thoughts are written in neural activity, in order to actively think, we must also be able to write this neural activity. I am very aware of my own internal processes. As such, I've explored parts of my own consciousness which precede both language and visualization. I understand that I have an idea before I visualize or verbalize it. I can even, with a ton of effort, keep myself from ever thinking in linguistic and visual terms. But sometimes, that's impossible. Sometimes, an idea must be visualized or verbalized in order to make sense. Not necessarily made into something like a physical object or an actual sound, but that it form pictures and words in my mind. That, I would have to say, would be an interaction of symbols, not neurons. In order for my thoughts to do any work, they must not just be read from my neural activity, but also to write new neural activity.

An alternative might be that consciousness can indeed reduce to physical events.

I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks we have with this topic is that evolution has engineered into us an instinctual theory of mind. This is one of the things that makes us so great. We can look at others and imagine what they are thinking. However, this instinct may prevent us from seeing the problem any other way. At the very least, all knowledge seems to start in instinct (the blank slate makes no sense), and we are already set as biased from the start.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 312
So let me get this straight. The question is now as follows:
Does neural activity cause thoughts, or do thoughts cause neural activity?

It's almost certainly the case that neural activity causes some thoughts. The question is whether at least some conscious thoughts as conscious thoughts cause neural activity. Please note that I'm specifying conscious thoughts.

If the advantage that consciousness gives is the ability for the organism to make choices and not simply to discharge choices ala dominoes or billiard balls, then the situation is more complex than the determinist would have us believe.

Could this not be a false dichotomy? I'm not convinced that it must be one or the other. Also, one of the horn's you propose may even be a false horn.

For instance, if I experience my thoughts in a symbolic manner, that doesn't necessarily mean that my thoughts are symbolic, just that I experience them in a symbolic manner. The experience of thought may be an aftereffect whereas the real work of thought is done computationally and behind the scenes as it were.

You say that it doesn't have to be one or the other, but then you choose one over the other, so evidently the dichotomy is a real one for you.

I'm referring to conscious experiences, thoughts being one of many kinds of conscious experience. How can experiences, which I would tend to say are non-physical, being mere appearances, actually cause anything to happen, either in the discharging or initiating sense of the word 'cause'? If they cannot cause anything, then what is the apparently great advantage of consciousness? The story one tells about recursive loops and so on seem to miss this central point. Whether you're an epiphenomenalist ( as you seem to be) or an identity theorist ( who says that conscious states are really nothing but brain states), you're left with this odd belief that consciousness, which is what we are, has no strict reason to be from a selectional standpoint. From either perspective, whether consciousness can effect choice or whether it cannot, reality is a much more bizarre place than most people would tend to think. Perhaps some kind of dual aspect theory is right, in which case the dichotomy is resolved within a larger picture.

In order for my thoughts to do any work, they must not just be read from my neural activity, but also to write new neural activity.

So in order for your thoughts to write new neural activity, they must operate at the symbolic and not the neural level? And the symbolic level is being determined by the neural level? But computation, which is symbol manipulation, can be happening at the conscious as well as the subconscious level, so I'm not sure how this point relates to consciousness (?) I'm probably not following you.

An alternative might be that consciousness can indeed reduce to physical events.

Causally maybe but not ontologically. That's the problem with trying to understand consciousness; it just won't fit into a strictly physical picture. But why does a physical picture have to be all there is? Assuming that it does follows from a confusion between a set of methodological assumptions (science) on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other.

I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks we have with this topic is that evolution has engineered into us an instinctual theory of mind. This is one of the things that makes us so great. We can look at others and imagine what they are thinking. However, this instinct may prevent us from seeing the problem any other way. At the very least, all knowledge seems to start in instinct (the blank slate makes no sense), and we are already set as biased from the start.

Of course. We're biased in all sorts of ways, such as toward decomposition and recombination and away from things that don't yield to such understanding, such as consciousness, free will, the self, etc.
Nathaniel
user 10963465
Group Organizer
Mesquite, TX
Post #: 144
First things first, I've been speaking mostly about thoughts in general; conscious, subconscious or otherwise. I can understand what it means for me to be conscious but I have a hard time understanding what it might mean for a slug to be conscious. What exactly are we even referring to when we speak of consciousness? It is certainly related to the mind, but is distinct from mere thought. What are we even talking about? We may be speaking from two different definitions.

If the advantage that consciousness gives is the ability for the organism to make choices and not simply to discharge choices ala dominoes or billiard balls, then the situation is more complex than the determinist would have us believe.

What would that even mean? How could we make a choice which is not influenced at all by previous events? What would it mean for a choice to be more or less caused by previous events?

So in order for your thoughts to write new neural activity, they must operate at the symbolic and not the neural level? And the symbolic level is being determined by the neural level? But computation, which is symbol manipulation, can be happening at the conscious as well as the subconscious level, so I'm not sure how this point relates to consciousness (?) I'm probably not following you.

When I'm thinking, I'm manipulating certain concepts in my mind. These are represented symbolically, as I do not have literal stuff in my head, I have symbolic stuff. The interaction/computation is done on the symbolic level, not the literal level. If I were to write down "1 + 1 = x, solve for x." We don't find x through a literal interpretation of those symbols. "1" is a symbol for the quantity it represents, "+" is a symbol for the mathematical operation of addition, etc... we determine x symbolically, not literally. The literal space our thoughts inhabit is our brain, the symbolic space our thoughts inhabit is our minds. We do the thinking part in the symbolic space, while simultaneously representing those symbols as literal neural activity.

It seems to me like we've got four options:
1) Neural activity causes thoughts.
2) thoughts cause neural activity.
3) neural activity and thoughts are concurrent.
4) all of the above.

Out of all of those, only #4 makes any sense to me. Not only can it work both ways, but because a thought is written in neural impulses, you can't say that one happens before the other, they are concurrent. That would be like asking if words cause writing or writing causes words. Words are represented by writing. Ask a programmer if computation causes bits or if bits cause computation and you'll get a great big WTF? as a response.

So that I'm clear, I'll try to explain the process as I believe it to work.
First there's stimulus. This can be either an external stimulus or an internal stimulus. Ultimately, there must be an external stimulus somewhere. The stimulus is represented in neural activity. Pain, for instance travels from the source of sensation to the brain as a nerve impulse before being dumped into the brain. This literal data is processed to create the symbolic experience of pain in a specific body region. The pain I feel does not exist in the toe I stubbed, it exists within my mind which is caused by an interpretation of the data from my senses. I may think to myself "man, I hate it when that happens" because I have experienced it in the past and my mind, in trying to deal with the current situation, pulled up data collected from past experiences on the matter which contain somatic markers indicating a negative value on pain in general and stubbing my toe specifically. Because I have actualized a state of affairs which I wish to avoid in the future, I set to solve the problem of how I can prevent it from happening again. I conclude that the hallway is probably not the best place to leave the vacuum cleaner and resolve to place it in the closet. That all took place on the symbolic level. My thoughts may have been written as neural activity, but the interaction between the concepts of pain, walking, my toe, the vacuum, etc... occurred in the symbolic space of my mind. At each step, these symbols are represented by neural activity. Thoughts cause neural activity in that they can cause other thoughts which are written in neural activity. There's no chicken/egg problem here because in this instance, the chicken and egg are one, one is symbolic and the other is literal.

Then again, it's possible that our thoughts are not strung together and only represent moments. Our subconscious giving us possible solutions to a particular problem and our executive functions picking from those, the implications of which cause us to recognize another question and the process repeats. In which case, it could be that the subconscious solutions are produced through purely determined physical processes and our executive functions follow similar rules. It might also be that our executive functions operate on the symbolic level of or minds, but follow similar deterministic cause/effect rules.

It may also be a combination of those and perhaps other processes. But I still think thoughts and neural activity are concurrent and cause further neural activity (which may represent operations, data or actions).

That's the problem with trying to understand consciousness; it just won't fit into a strictly physical picture. But why does a physical picture have to be all there is? Assuming that it does follows from a confusion between a set of methodological assumptions (science) on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other.

It may simply be more to do with different semantics being necessary for the emergent properties of more complex systems. I can understand everything there is to know about how to make a book. Know how to make the paper, how to print the text onto said paper, how to construct the cover, how to do the binding, etc... but I need a bit more knowledge to be able to understand what is written within the book. Understanding what the book is made of does not tell me what information the book contains. In fact, there are examples of books which we understand exactly how they were made and even have a good idea of where and by whom, but no idea about what the text actually means. Even if all our minds are doing is discharging the effects of neural events, we still need greater levels of explanation to know what is really going on.
Jim B.
user 4260314
Arlington, TX
Post #: 314
First things first, I've been speaking mostly about thoughts in general; conscious, subconscious or otherwise. I can understand what it means for me to be conscious but I have a hard time understanding what it might mean for a slug to be conscious. What exactly are we even referring to when we speak of consciousness? It is certainly related to the mind, but is distinct from mere thought. What are we even talking about? We may be speaking from two different definitions.

I realize you've been speaking mostly about thoughts in general, but since many, if not most, thoughts occur at subconscious levels, they may not be the most promising direction to go in as far as discussing either consciousness or 'free will'. I started this thread called "Consciousness" because of a number of puzzles related to consciousness, causation or 'free will' being only one of those puzzles. If you want to discuss consciousness, you've come to the right place. If you don't, then this probably isn't the right place.

I have a hard time understanding what it means for me or anything else to be conscious. I know that I am conscious and I have this knowledge more immediately and primitively than I have knowledge of anything else, but understanding what it means is a different matter. So why would it matter that you don't understand either what it means or what it's like to be conscious as a slug? You know that you're conscious and are, I hope, pretty sure that nearly all humans as well as a great many other species are conscious. That's the only point that matters as far as the question I was trying to ask.

It seems to me like we've got four options:
1) Neural activity causes thoughts.
2) thoughts cause neural activity.
3) neural activity and thoughts are concurrent.
4) all of the above.

Or two other possibilities:

5) thoughts may just BE neural activity but in a different mode of presentation, in which case there would be no causation or concurrence going on at all between them. 6) thoughts and neural activity may not be identical to each other but aspects of some third, more basic thing we don't presently know about. Like David Bohm's illustration involving the two tv screens, each with a nearly identical looking fish on it but facing and moving in different directions. It's very hard to understand their relation to each other until we find in another room an aquarium containing one fish with two video cameras pointed at it. The images are being caused by the real fish but are not identical to it or to each other and there's no causation between the two images.

What would that even mean? How could we make a choice which is not influenced at all by previous events?

I don't recall ever writing that a choice is uninfluenced by other factors, only that it may not be necessitated by previous events. Influence and necessity are not necessarily the same.

Out of all of those, only #4 makes any sense to me. Not only can it work both ways, but because a thought is written in neural impulses, you can't say that one happens before the other, they are concurrent. That would be like asking if words cause writing or writing causes words. Words are represented by writing. Ask a programmer if computation causes bits or if bits cause computation and you'll get a great big WTF? as a response.

It's never been a question of one "happening before the other." Of course thoughts and conscious experiences are necessarily realized in neural activity as they occur, but that simultaneity would be agreed upon by nearly everyone regardless of their position on consciousness or free will. It's a non-controversial point and doesn't necessarily help in understanding or clarifying either problem. This is one other example of why I think empirical data is often not crucial in deciding philosophical questions (although often of invaluable help), and also why the vocabularies of the mind/body and the 'free will' problems seem so inadequate. It's like 18th century scientists trying to understand electromagnetic phenomena under a mechanistic vocabulary. It may not be a question of gaining more precise neuroscientific or computational knowledge, just as it wasn't a matter of gaining more precise mechanistic knowledge, since that knowledge will necessarily perpetuate the same categories along with the same confusions. It may be a question of conceiving new categories and vocabularies.

What you write is interesting but what does it have to do with consciousness? Why would any system like the one you describe have to be conscious? Conscious experiences are not reducible to either symbolic manipulation or to neural activity. Maybe we're talking about two completely different things.



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