April 2003

What is Consciousness?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Through millennia philosophers have wrestled unsuccessfully with the question, what is consciousness? And in recent times neuroscientists have achieved some success but have loaded the deck by defining consciousness strictly in terms of the brain. In “Consciousness and Cognition,” in the book Mysteries of the Mind, published by National Geographic in the year 2000 and written for the general public, Richard Restak summarizes and thoughtfully elucidates what has been discovered about the subject.

Before I get into describing the book, let me point out that much has been discovered about brain functioning through scientific research in the last 50 years; but because the brain is such a highly complex organ, probably the most complex creation of nature on earth, very much remains to be found out about it. Humanists might be interested in knowing that the findings about brain science give no support to the idea of the existence of what religionists and some philosophers refer to as the “spirit,” or “soul,” an animating or vital principle, possibly supernatural, that is held to give life to physical organisms. The evidence points to the conception that “It’s all in the brain.”

Restak describes the problem in conceptualizing consciousness: “No amount of conscious introspection on your part will teach you a thing about your brain as a physical object, even though consciousness is a property of your physical brain. Should you fall asleep or receive an anesthetic, your resultant loss of consciousness can be monitored by others through chemical and electrical alternations in your brain. Yet you are not aware of any of these chemical or electrical changes.”

Now imagine that, in the next room, some neuroscientists are using a highly sophisticated imaging device to monitor the moment-to-moment operations of your brain. Those scientists have no access to your consciousness, no idea of what you may be thinking. While the mind and the brain form a unity, our knowledge about them rests upon an irreducible duality. As philosopher Colin McGinn put it in The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World, “You can introspect till you burst and you will not discover neurons and synapses and all the rest; and you can stare at someone’s brain from dawn to dusk and you will not perceive the consciousness that is so apparent to the person whose brain you are rudely eyeballing. Even high-tech instruments only give the physical basis for consciousness, not consciousness as it exists for the persons whose consciousness it is.”

Restak observes, “Today we are no closer to an understanding of the mind-brain conundrum than our forbears, and can only agree with Thomas Huxley’s 1886 observation. ‘How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the djiin, when Alladin rubbed his lamp…'” Restak proposes not to try to present answers but to suggest some approaches to help you make up your own mind-brain about this dilemma. In the short space of this article it is possible only to synopsize his ideas very briefly and inadequately to give you a rough idea of his thinking.

Under ordinary conditions, an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which is located toward the front of the brain, is activated whenever we have to focus and concentrate our attention. Patients with damage to the anterior cingulate do not initiate any action or even speak on their own. They sit for long periods of time without speech or movement, in a state called akinetic mutism. One patient who recovered from such an injury explained her previous passivity by saying, “Well, nothing ever came to mind.” Only after her recovery did she become fully conscious once again and experience herself as the initiator of her own thoughts and behavior.

Even so, the anterior cingulate is not the “seat of consciousness.” There is no single area responsible for consciousness; consciousness is not an entity but an active process that requires the participation of many components. Among these are awakeness and alertness, access to our memories of preceding events, the ability to form some kind of mental picture of the likely consequences of our actions and being able to “get in touch” with ourselves via internal monitoring–that sense of self and identity that separates each of us from everyone else in the world. When Descartes declared, “I think, therefore I am,” he gave short shrift to some very vital processes. Without neurotransmitters in his brain stem, without areas in the brain called the hippocampus and the frontal and prefrontal areas, as well as the anterior cingulate, he wouldn’t have been able to formulate the concept of “I.”

But isn’t it overly simplistic to imply that one of the world’s great thinkers can be explained by simply referring to neurons and networks? Philosopher John Searle considers consciousness to be “a biological feature of the human and certain animal brains. It is caused by neurobiological processes and is as much a part of the natural biological order as any other biological feature.” As a neurologist Restak is comfortable with this view because in his experience he has observed the effects of various kinds of brain damage on consciousness. These can vary from a slight decrease in alertness and wakefulness to deep and irreversible coma. In between there are people who deny their paralysis and seem unaware they have suffered brain damage; others who have developed profound amnesia for important events in their past; still others who can’t recognize their spouses or children by sight alone but only after hearing their voices. In such instances brain, mind and consciousness seem inseparably interwoven.

Much of our uncertainty about consciousness can be traced to difficulties in understanding the unconscious. Philosopher Stuart Hampshire sums it up: “A great deal of our thinking proceeds without conscious awareness. In the exercise of the use of language itself and in many of our skills we are thinking preconsciously, working things out without knowing how we worked them out, or by what steps we arrived at the conclusion.” Bertrand Russell offered: “Suppose you are walking on a wet day and you see a puddle and avoid it. You are not likely to say to yourself: ‘There is a puddle; it would not be advisable to step in it.’ But if somebody said, ‘Why did you step aside?’ you would answer, ‘Because I didn’t wish to step into that puddle.’ You know, retrospectively, that you had a visual perception, and you expressed the knowledge in words. But what would you have known, and in what sense, if your attention had not been called to the matter by the questioner?”

We respond to most of the events and people around us without thinking consciously about them. Imagine the torture of driving a car if each and every action had to be consciously attended to. Instead we learn to ‘automate’ frequently practiced routines so that our conscious awareness can work on other more interesting things. Hidden mental processes regularly exert an influence on our behavior.

As children our capacity for consciously exerted emotional self-control depends on the healthy maturation and functioning of the anterior cingulate. Many criminals and psychopaths suffer from disturbances in the pre-frontal-cingulate axis, which helps explain why they have trouble restraining their emotions and making wise decisions about the consequences of their behavior. I ask, is it possible that criminal behavior can result from a brain defect? If so, what would be the implications of this possibility for law enforcement?

All attempts to locate a single area, a “seat of consciousness” in the brain have failed. Research reveals that consciousness is based on the operations of many discrete brain areas, referred to as modules. How and where are all these modules integrated into the unified whole we call consciousness? Philosophers refer to this as the homunculus problem, because some early microscopists thought they could detect a tiny person–what they called a homunculus–in human sperm or the fertilized egg of a human. Where in the brain, they ask, is hidden the tiny man or woman who makes sense out of all the brain’s widely distributed activity? Even the most modern imaging techniques have failed to reveal a homunculus.

Restak says that to speak of a “consciousness” of chemical and electrical events is nonsense. Does it make sense to ask, “What is happening in my brain’s potassium channels or serotonin receptors when I decide to contact an online travel service to book a flight tomorrow to Geneva?” To ask such a question is to make what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called the category mistake: to lump different things together instead of distinguishing them, like apples and oranges, which are both fruits but shouldn’t be mixed when making a point. Only compare things that are in the same category.

He considers an analogy to compare without mixing apples and oranges. He compares brain and consciousness to a clock and time. The position of the clock hands (the brain) bears a constant relationship to the time (consciousness) indicated by the clock. The clock hands, like the brain, are physical and configured in special spatial positions. But time is not spatial; it lacks position or physical extension. So it is with consciousness. The clock or brain tells the time and can be read by any number of observers. Yet consciousness is a personal affair; only you are privy to it. This is a fundamental and probably unbridgeable distinction. McGinn writes,” Consciousness indubitably exists, and it is connected to the brain in some intelligible way; but the nature of this connection necessarily eludes us.”

Restak suggests we stop looking for connections and locations and, instead, search for dynamic systems that move through the brain like waves through the ocean. Rodolfo Llinas has measured such a wave moving though parts of the brain at 40 cycles per second. He believes it provides an answer to the “binding problem”: how the information provided by all our senses gets tied into a single, coherent whole. Nerve nets with billions of neurons couldn’t function if every neuron “spoke” at the same time. Neurons that have the same rhythm at the same time connect with each other more easily than when they have different rhythms (as when people dance).

In The Missing Moment: How the Unconscious Shapes Modern Science, Robert Pollack states, “The conductor in charge of bringing the symphony of consciousness out of the brain’s separate centers is a synchronizing wave of electrical activity that sweeps regularly through the brain from behind the forehead to behind the nape…This wave links the centers responsible for unconscious and conscious activities of the mind…where…emotional states are generated, long-term memories stored and the intentions to speak and act generated.” Other brain waves with different frequencies have been found.

Certainly forces and energy fields have become central to our understanding of the physical world. In contemporary physics “solid” matter isn’t so solid, but is composed of atoms separated by large empty spaces. Why not think of consciousness in similar terms? Philosopher Galen Strawson says, “It can seem natural to think of consciousness as a form or manifestation of energy as a kind of force, and even perhaps a kind of field.”

AHA Applauds Court Decision to Stand by Pledge of Allegiance Ruling

(Washington, D.C.- February 28, 2002) Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed its Pledge of Allegiance ruling from last June. This ruling overturns the 1954 act of Congress that modified our Pledge of Allegiance to include the words “under God.” “The court simply recognized the fact that adding a testimony of religious belief to our statement of national loyalty was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion back in the 1950s, and it still is today,” responded Tony Hileman, executive director of the American Humanist Association (AHA).

“As I said in June, even though the Supreme Court ruled in the past that it couldn’t be a requirement for public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, students without sectarian faith continue to be placed in an intimidating position. They are forced to either refuse in front of their peers to recite the Pledge or pledge to something they do not believe in,” continued Hileman.

“The combined media firestorm and political circus that ensued last summer after this court’s original ruling on the Pledge made it clear beyond a doubt that these are meaningful words, and that they are undeniably religious in meaning,” said Hileman.

The Ninth Circuit Court’s decision clarifies that government sponsorship of sectarian religion is unconstitutional and will not be supported further. The government cannot endorse one religion over another religion, nor can it endorse religion in general over non-religion. Hileman states, “The Pledge in its current form violates the American principle standard of religious freedom. As this case will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, the AHA will remain strongly supportive of the effort to return the Pledge to its previously inclusive form,” said Hileman.

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The American Humanist Association is the oldest and largest humanist organization in the nation. The AHA is dedicated to ensuring a voice for those with a positive outlook, based on reason and experience, which embraces all of humanity.

War Junkies

So begins the new Pax Americana: the liberation of Iraq.

The entertainment value alone is enormous. Such spectacle: earnest young men and women in high tech gear, traveling thousands of miles, through sandstorm and media storm, to save the oppressed people of a distant land. What could be nobler? More photogenic, more evocative of patriotic rhetoric and flags and eagles and bravery and sacrifice?

Each generation apparently gets to have its war, its particular myth of apocalyptic conflict. Such is also the stuff of much of great literature, from the Bible to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. It is rousing, blood pumping stuff: the horror and glory of battle, of dying for a purpose. It is so very seductive.

And so very deceptive.

America is not only the greatest military power in human history, but also the greatest exporter of entertainment. We are the dreamers, but also the mythmakers. From Madison Avenue to Hollywood, we have perfected the technology of illusion. We can make prehistoric creatures come alive, portray long dead heroes and extraterrestrial beings with a stunning realism. As we sell products and political candidates, we also sell the desirability of war.

War is like a surge of adrenaline to a people: the body politic is jolted, ready for extreme situations, brain and muscle pumped up and dedicated to swift and powerful action. It also means redlining the metabolism and the emotions and it cannot be sustained without damage to the organism. Yet, if this is the only way the creature can survive, it can be called upon.

The Iraq war, a preemptive attack without provocation, is artificial, like a methamphetamine.

If the American people become addicted to this jolt, to the high of bellicose patriotism, to shooting up on the drama of war, where will it lead?

The morning after is inevitable; the crash will come. There will be an awakening, terrible and real, to the waste and devastation that cannot be undone. America the Beautiful will become America the Terrible. What is worse, is one shot will lead to another. And another. And another.

We will–or have–become a nation of war junkies.

–Richard Garrard
Utah Humanist Editor

Federal Aid For Church Construction, Repair
Would Violate Constitution
Warns Americans United for Church and State

Proposed ‘Faith-Based’ Aid From HUD Draws Protest From Watchdog Group

The Bush administration’s plan to use federal housing funds to help churches and other houses of worship construct or repair their facilities is constitutionally flawed and should not be implemented, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a seven-page memorandum delivered today to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Americans United’s legal department said the plan, which was first made public in early January, fails “to comply with constitutional requirements.”

The public had until today to issue comments to the department before it is expected to approve the plan, which would allow religious groups to acquire federal aid to rehabilitate or build facilities used for both religious and social service activities. Richard A. Hauser, HUD’s general counsel, told The New York Times that the department’s traditional rule prohibiting religious entities from using tax dollars to build or refurbish houses of worship would be dumped for the administration’s new plan.

“The First Amendment clearly forbids government to build or repair houses of worship,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “I hope the Bush administration will scrap this egregiously unconstitutional proposal.”

Lynn noted that the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that tax funds could not be used for the maintenance of religious buildings. In its Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty v. Nyquist decision, the justices stated that “[i]f the State may not erect buildings in which religious activities are to take place, it may not maintain such buildings or renovate them when they fall into disrepair.”

AU’s memo to HUD noted that the Bush plan contains no explanation of how federal workers would ensure that public funds are not spent to advance religion or how they would ensure that the needy would not being subjected to religious indoctrination in publicly funded programs that provide shelter or housing.

“The new HUD policy is a reckless extension of Bush’s initiative to provide broad-based financial support to religious groups,” Lynn said. “It will also undermine our country’s efforts to help our neediest.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

© Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 2002. All rights reserved.