Edward F. Kurtz, Jr.
9 December 1980
What is reality? What am I aware of? These have been two of the questions most commonly asked by western philosophers since the days of the great philosophers of western Greece. My object in this paper is to consider again these questions, but from a contemporary point of view. I must confess that I proceed with some trepidation, for I am trained as an engineer, not as a philosopher. I shall try not to make unwarranted speculations, and I shall attempt to state clearly the foundations of all my conclusions so that a reader choosing to differ should have no difficulty pinpointing where my views originate.
I am going to pursue the line of thinking which holds that the ultimate nature of reality is forever to be unknown to us. We perceive images which are the result of transformations performed by our brains upon sense-data streams incident upon us from what is external to our brains. The consequences of such a philosophy are vast, but I am going to set very limited objectives for this paper. In Section B I shall discuss what I shall call The World of Reality, by which I shall mean all that can be a source of the sense-data streams which enter my nervous system. In Section C I shall discuss what I shall call The World of the Mind, by which I shall mean the images or other awarenesses which our brains present to us in our consciousness. Central to both of these sections will be what Neils Bohr, the physicist, had denoted as the epistemological problem, which seems to establish limits to what an intelligence can know. In fact, if I am wrong in my interpretation of the significance of the epistemological problem, then most of my significant conclusions are wrong. In Section D I shall conclude by discussing couplings which exist between The World of Reality and The World of the Mind. What it will come down to is a distinction between matter and information. It seems that matter can exist without information, whereas the latter can never exist without the former. What matter is we shall never know. What information is we understand well; what information means is a mystery.
I do not doubt for a moment that there is a reality, a something which persists and will continue to persist independent of my own existence. I also believe that this reality behaves, within limits, in a predictable fashion. The pencil I am writing with, the paper I am writing on, and even my own physical body all are there because and only because of this reality. Also, I do not doubt for a moment that there are other intelligent beings in the reality which surrounds me, but I shall defer discussion of that till the concluding section. My belief in the existence of this reality is based on the scientific method, which I shall discuss shortly.
What is the nature of this reality? I shall denote as a scientist a person who pursues this question in a certain fashion. A scientist is one who is concerned with the development and testing of principles which describe the way reality appears to behave. A scientist is, by this definition, one who makes models of reality, and I denote by reality that which a scientist is attempting to model.
The models which scientists formulate are called Laws of Nature. Now, that is a very imposing term, so imposing that it often intimidates a listener confronted by it into believing that such laws truly exist, independently of mankind. That would be an erroneous interpretation of the spirit of the scientific method, and I thus prefer to call such formulations models to convey their true character. The laws formulated by scientists are truly images, conceptual models which prove to be useful for explaining the behavior, past and future, of reality.
My own point of view as regards the process of modeling the world of reality has been greatly influenced by Heinrich Hertz in his marvelous philosophical introduction to his book PRINCIPLES OF MECHANICS. There he says “We form for ourselves images or symbols of external objects; and the form which we give them is such that the necessary consequents of the images in thought are always the images of the necessary consequents in nature of the things pictured.” Shortly thereafter he says “When from our accumulated previous experience we have once succeeded in deducing images of the desired nature, we can then in a short time develop by means of them, as by means of models, the consequences which in the external world only arise in a comparatively long time or as the result of our own interposition.” These images are what I denoted above as models and Laws of Nature.
Hertz held that it was not possible to formulate a unique valid model of reality. There were two competing models in his time concerning Mechanics. These were those of Newton and Hamilton. Both these models adopted as primitive the concepts of space, time, mass, and force. Hertz formulated a third model which involved as primitive notions only of space, time, and mass, with force being a derived concept. He showed that if any one of these three models, namely Newton, Hamilton, or Hertz, were assumed as primitive, then the remaining two could be derived from the primitive model. Thus these models are not distinguished in any way as regards correctness; they can be distinguished only as regards intellectual appeal and logical simplicity.
Scientists employ what is called the scientific method in their work. Occasionally, a great scientist, such as Newton or Einstein, will by an act of genius gain an insight into the way reality behaves, and will consequently formulate a “law” to describe this insight. Scientists recognize that such a law can never be proven correct. Rather, what they do is devise critical experiments to test the validity of a law. From these critical experiments they will conclude only that predictions made using the law either are or are not consistent with the experimental observations. After a suitable series of such experiments they may conclude that the law seems valid. They thus prove something only in a negative sense. The law is considered to be valid only because no one has yet succeeded in proving it to be invalid! Scientists recognize that the models of today will quite likely succumb to the assaults of scientists in the future who will formulate improved models. This process of model development, testing, and improvement, is what is called the scientific method. Inherent in the method is a continual effort to show existing models to be faulty, and thus to stimulate the development of improved models.
Part of the current model of reality formulated by scientists indicates that there are limits to the exactness in the modeling process. This limit has been denoted by Neils Bohr (1) as the “epistemological problem”. It has been denoted formally by W. Heisenberg as The Uncertainty Principle. According to this principle, the only way that information concerning an entity in reality can be obtained is by causing an interaction between that entity and some sort of measuring device. This device might be very slight, a photon, for example, but an interaction as indicated above is nonetheless required. It is necessary to disuss quantum mechanics to consider the problem in detail; however, the general nature of the problem can be understood without going into quantum mechanics. Essentially, what an observer observes after making a measurement is not the original state of the natural entity, but rather an indication of the way the measuring system and the natural entity interacted. The entity being measured must be disturbed in the process of being measured. Unfortunately, at the quantum level of entity state, there is not a unique relationship between the original state of the entity and what the measurement reveals. The measuring process spoils the measurement. It seems that there shall forever exist a gap which can never be closed between what there is and what can be known about what there is.
Not all scientists agree with Neil’s Boor’s assertion that the epistemological problem cannot be solved. No less a giant than Einstein was confident that the epistemological problem could be overcome if quantum mechanics were reformulated appropriately, but he never succeeded in showing how to do it. Philosophers, too, have disagreed with Boor’s interpretation. Bernard Russell (4) said that he did not think that the uncertainty principle has the kind of philosophical importance that is sometimes attributed to it. I nonetheless do believe that the epistemological problem is fundamental, and I shall proceed on the basis of that assumption.
Thus I assume that the world of reality exists. We can form images of that world, but our images will always be symbolic. The images we can form are useful to us in a practical sense. Philosophically, however, these images leave many questions unanswered. It seems to me that we shall never be able to get a firm grip on the ultimate nature of the world of reality. We must always of necessity live in the world of the mind, which can provide us only with symbolic images of the world of reality. I shall discuss the world of the mind in the next section.
I, like Descartes, am confident that I exist. That just means that I am conscious of my own thoughts and awarenesses. In Section B. I said that I also never doubted that there are other intelligent beings which are part of the world of reality which surrounds me. As I in my own self consciousness an aware of perceiving these fellow intelligent beings, so also am I confident that they are aware of me. I’ll discuss the basis for this faith in the existence of fellow intelligences in Section D.
In this section I am going to consider just my own perceptions, and I am going to call the totality of these perceptions the world of the mind. This is a personal world, the world of reality as perceived by me in my mind. I assume that the intelligent beings I perceive also experience their own mind worlds.
There is much evidence to suggest to me that my perceptions of the world of reality must differ significantly from the actual nature of this world. My mind exists in my skull. Information the reality surrounding me reached my mind only by means of my senses. My mind is aware of six distinct senses which I shall list below:
This sense responds to electromagnetic radiation. Actually, my sight is sensitive only to a narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. I am essentially blind as regards low frequencies (infra red) and high frequencies (x-rays, for example).
This sense responds to acoustic radiation via mechanical displacement of small hairs in the cochlea of my ears. Again, I am sensitive only to a small portion of the spectrum of this radiation, an increasingly small portion as I grow older.
This is a chemical sense, sensitive only to certain chemicals.
This is a chemical sense similar to taste.
This is a tactile sense which is sensitive to disturbances of certain nerve cells, particularly certain such cells near the surface of my body and distributed throughout my body. Pain is such a sense.
6. Limb position
This is a sense similar to feel which enables me to be aware at least approximately of the relative locations of my various limbs.
Note that these senses respond to affairs external to my brain.
The important point is that my brain and hence my mind receive information concerning what is external to my brain only through my senses. Streams of sensory data flow to my brain via my nervous system. I can conceive of my mind as being distinct from all that surrounds it, but not isolated. That which surrounds my brain is the world of reality. Included in this world of reality is even that portion of my body which is external to my mind, even the reality of my brain.
My body is to my mind what is denoted in contemporary computer jargon as a system of peripheral devices. Sometimes my body makes demands on my mind, such as “Yank the right hand from the flame!” Nature has devised a scheme wherein the body exists to enable the existence of the mind, or perhaps the mind exists to enable the existence of the body. The mind-body system functions so as to provide mutual support. From my own selfish point of view, it is my mind which is central!
The information which enters my mind via my nervous system as sense-data streams is processed by my brain before being presented to my mind. Wilder Penfield, the famous neurosurgeon (3), and also a philosopher by training, has described the brain as a computer which starts out largely unprogrammed when born, and which becomes programmed gradually by the experiences which it has. As we grow and develop, we learn not only to think but also to coordinate our body movements. Athletes and musicians, for example, do this by training. Our brain thus gets programmed to perform complicated operations essentially automatically, with but minimal direction from our minds. Penfield describes how certain of his patients temporarily performed unconsciously as automata when victims of an epileptic seizure which disabled their minds. These automatic acts could be complicated, for example playing the piano. Penfield was able to locate that region in the brain which contains the mind.
The brain is an immense electrochemical computer. Some idea of its immensity can be obtained by comparing it with the most powerful contemporary digital computers. The fundamental unit of information representation in a digital computer is called a bit, and such contemporary computers have access to the order of one billion bits. Now, I cannot conceive of understanding in its entirety a computer program which occupies most of the storage capacity of such a computer. Typically, developing such a computer program would involve the coordinated efforts of a team of programmers. The brain, on the other hand, has an information-storage capability of the order of a hundred thousand digital computers such as I described above!
Thus, my brain, an immensely powerful information-processing system, receives a stream of sense data from my nervous system, and performs a series of transformations on these sense-data streams before presenting transformed results to my mind. My mind then makes me aware of an image, a sound, a feeling; I’ll call them all images. This image complex is a complicated representation of what originated the sense-data stream.
What is the correspondence between the external world of reality, which is the source of all my sense-data streams, my brain which transforms those streams, and the images which my mind makes me aware of? There is ample evidence to suggest that the correspondence is far from one to one. I say that I see a red object, but I know that it is misleading terminology. I would do better as a philosopher to say that my information processing system has computed a red object from the sense it is receiving! The redness lies in the results of the computation and not in the object. Indeed, I have had it demonstrated to me in a lecture by Edwin Land that I can see a red object when in fact there is no “red” there at all in the electromagnetic radiation entering my eyes! To quote Land (2); “The eye makes distinctions of amazing subtlety. It does not need nearly so much information as actually flows to it from the everyday world. It can build colored models of its own out of informative materials that have been supposed to be inherently drab and colorless.”.
I heard a certain harmonic tone which sounded like a note from a flute, and yet it was demonstrated to me experimentally by Campbell Searle (5) that while the Fourier spectrum of the sound was similar to that from a flute, the phase relationships were totally unflute like. My brain is insensitive to phase relationships between harmonic sound components! I don’t experience a blank; I experience a null. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be able to experience an acoustic phase relationship.
Engineers at Stanford Univ. (6) are learning how to feed electric signals directly into the auditory nerves of deaf humans so that these people can actually experience sound. The “sound” is not sound at all, but computed sensations which originate as electric pulses in an electronic box!
I like to refer to all the sensations my mind makes me aware of as images, images of sight, sound, smell, taste, and feeling. When thinking as a philosopher, I recognize that these images are but computed transformations of sense data I received from the world of reality. These images give me a sense of existence, but they are images. These images are limited to having a character which nature, through the evolutionary process, has seen fit to enable me to enjoy.
Immediately, my imagination tries to conceive of alternate types of images beyond those I can experience. What would my impressions of the world of reality be if my eyes were sensitive to the X-ray band of electromechanical radiation? Perhaps one day scientists will learn how to feed signals into the visual nervous system, signals having their origin in the X-ray band. Then humans could experience the world of X-rays! Biologists have discovered bizarre senses in some animals. Cetaceans and bats have a sonar sense and can apparently form elaborate mental images from sonar sense data. Nature has been even more interesting with electric eels, which are sensitive to the electrostatic field which they generate surrounding their body. Their bodies form an extremely sensitive antenna from which they form an image of their environment based on how surrounding objects distort this field. Objects invisible to us could assume definite shapes for an electric eel.
It is thus that I conceive of the world of the mind as truly distinct from the world of reality. The images which my mind presents to me are but computed transformations of the sense-data streams which flow into my brain via my nervous system. These sense-data streams have their origins usually but not necessarily in the world of reality. The images which my brain-mind system computes are images which nature has seen fit to present to me. These images are just that, images. They are not reality. They could, in principle, be absolutely unrelated to what is going on out there in reality; they could even all originate within myself. However, as I’ll discuss in Section D, I do not think that the latter possibility has a significant probability of being true. However, I do hold that my brain-mind system creates for me as I’ve described above what I call the world of the mind.
In Section B I discussed the scientific method and my concept of the scientist as a modeller of the world of reality. The models thus created are, of course, in the world of the mind. Electrons, photons, and the like are mental images. In everyday terms, scientists will talk, and find it useful to talk, as though there really were things out there which nature views as electrons, photons, etc.. However, the philosopher, when thinking as a philosopher, should never forget that these terms are really images in the world of the mind.
Is it possible for the mind to use the scientific method to learn about itself? I think so, but with limitations. The scientific process would remain the same, the scientist being again a modeller. The model will be in the form of hypotheses, to be tested by critical experiments. Hypotheses will suggest improved hypotheses, etc.. The process will have to be recursive, in that the mind will be modeling itself.
What fundamental issues are there to consider in applying the scientific method to the world of the mind? Two important issues immediately come to mind for me. First we must postulate that the behavior of the mind is sufficiently regular to admit modeling to begin with; we must postulate that there can exist laws of the mind. Only if such a postulate can be made can the modeling process rationally continue. Secondly, we must consider whether the epistemological problem will be confronted when modeling the world of the mind. Is there a gap we can never close in understanding the world of the mind?
I’ll conclude this section with a brief discussion of each of the two issues I mentioned above. As regards laws of the mind, I believe there exists ample evidence to suggest strongly that such modeling is feasible. Such is the basis for psychology, psychiatry, and neurology, all applications of the scientific method to the world of the mind yielding encouraging results. More interesting to me in this regard are philosophy and theology as regards the field of ethics. What else can ethics be but an attempt to model the world of the mind? Ethics concerns how humans feel when they are confronted with interactions with other humans. Those feelings are beyond our control; surely they originate from the inner depths of our minds, depths beyond our reach as regards controlling what we feel. Philosophers have not coined a term for this system of law yet; I am attempted to call it GOD. What grounds the hypothesis that the world of the mind can be modeled? The theologian calls it faith.
Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the epistemological problem as regards the limits it imposes on our ability to model the world of the mind. Recall that the scientific method involves making critical experiments, and that obtaining information about a natural entity always involves an interaction between that entity and some sort of measuring entity. The epistemological problem arises when the natural entity is so disturbed by the measuring entity that it is not possible to determine the original state of the natural entity. Such a problem does seem to exist in biology, particularly in the study of the nature of life. The measuring process disturbs the living organism and may prohibit determination of its original state. If this epistemological problem does exist, then we are confronted with a barrier to our knowledge of the world of the mind, and beyond that barrier will lie a world we can never know. What might we call this part of the mental world which lies beyond access? I am tempted to call it the soul.
In the previous two sections I have discussed my conceptions of the world of reality and of the world of the mind. Basically my point of view is that there exist reality and me. By “me” I mean my consciousness and my awareness of my consciousness. Reality itself is unknowable to me, but I nonetheless believe that it is the source of all those sense data which impinge upon my consciousness. I also believe that there are other intelligent beings out there (with the exception, perhaps, of Congress), and that I can communicate with those beings. In this section I shall attempt to justify those beliefs.
To me the essence of my personal existence is information. The world of the mind is a world of information. It is also a world of meaning, and thus meaning involves operations with information. Meaning is the ultimate stuff of philosophy, and I thus find the field of information processing to be of great importance to philosophy.
Information and matter are not independent. Matter can exist without information, but I cannot conceive of information existing without matter. Information must be stored somehow, and the storage medium involves matter, even if the information is stored in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Claude Shannon, who founded information theory, described information as an improbable arrangement of data entities. He defined the bit as the data entity. Consider an improbable pile of stones. Does it also contain information. I would say probably not. Information involves not only an improbable arrangement, but also a system capable of processing that arrangement, a possible receiver. Information itself thus has a two-fold character - source and receiver. Information is also relative in that what is information for one information processing system might be meaningless for another.
Information is not governed by the conservation laws that govern matter. Information can be duplicated exactly. Vast amounts of information can be created with what seem to be arbitrarily small expenditures of effort. For example, consider a large wall containing a long complicated crack. Assume the crack is observed without particular notice for a long time; it is just a crack. Eventually a famous artist passes by and remarks that the crack has a beautiful form. Suddenly, a large body of information had been created out of nothing. An aggregate suddenly becomes more than an aggregate with no change in physical form!
The informational nature of my sense-data streams, and the coupling between information and matter, have led me to reach some important personal conclusions concerning the issue of solipsism. I affirmed earlier that I am confident that there are other intelligent beings besides myself. How can I affirm this? How can I respond to those who claim that adopting my view which I call the world of the mind leads logically to the view that I cannot affirm that anything exists besides myself? My answer is that I cannot prove with certainty that other intelligences do exist. However, I can apply the scientific method and conclude that a model of that which is external to me and which includes other intelligences is a valid model in the scientific sense. My reasoning is as follows. This view has two aspects. First, and most importantly, it is reasonable. I am aware of an information flux into my consciousness. This information could have its origin in only two places, either from within myself of from without myself. Now, it seem to me entirely unreasonable to assume that this source originates entirely from within myself rather than at least partially from without. That information flux requires matter for storage, and that matter lies outside my mind in the world of reality. The quantity of information involved is simply too vast for me to be able to consider myself as the source of it all. Also, the nature of this information includes not only the kind associated with inanimate objects, but also information which can originate only in intelligences such as my own. Thus, in the style of Descartes, I cannot conceive of being the source of all the information flows which I experience. The second aspect concerns testing the model in the spirit of the scientific method. My model says that there are other intelligences outside of myself, and this model is valid because, despite all the efforts I make, I am unable to devise any experiments which show that this model is invalid.
I exist. Reality exists. Other intelligences exist. I can know only the my own world of the mind. I have faith that this world of the mind has a regularity which can, within certain limits, be modeled scientifically.
1. Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, Wiley, 1958.
2. Edwin H. Land, Experiments in Color Vision, Scientific American, May, pp 84-99, 1959.
3. Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind, Princeton Univ. Press, 1978.
4. Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge, Simon and Schuster, pp 24-25.
5. Campbell Searle, A Seminar on the Mechanics of the Ear, Mechanical Engineering Department, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ontario, 1979.
6. Robert L. White, The Stanford Artificial Ear Project, The Stanford Engineer, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp 3-10, 1980.
Edward F Kurtz, Jr. Nov 18, 1992
Our environment is under stress. Few would argue otherwise. Nonetheless, there is much disagreement about what that means. Environmental enthusiasts seem willing to take extreme measures to help the environment. Conservatives balk when proposed measures to help the environment seem bad for business. Few would welcome proposals that would require them to sacrifice their own prosperity.
The basic problem is that we all have a basic conflict-of-interest problem when it comes to considering environmental proposals. Our industrial society provides us with jobs, and with convenience, comfort and pleasure. For example, how we do love our cars! What would we do without electric lighting? It's one thing to ask the people of Brazil to stop destroying the rain forests. It's altogether something else if it is suggested that, to consume less fuel, we sacrifice some of the performance of our automobiles or raise the tax on fuel! We are willing to demand sacrifices, just as long as it's the other guy who has to make them!
Just how bad is this environmental problem? Is it just a matter of how pretty the countryside is? There used to be lots of lovely open farmland that is now filled with houses. To eliminate smog maybe we just need to develop solar-powered cars. If so, maybe things aren't so bad after all. We can adjust, change our expectations. Maybe the technology causing the problems can be used to solve them. Wait! Are we talking, instead, of something more basic?
Albert Einstein used to conduct what he called thought experiments. He would use his imagination when practical considerations prohibited a real physical experiment. I propose here a thought experiment concerning our environment.
For this thought experiment imagine that there is an extraterrestrial observer that has been watching the earth during the entire period during which life has evolved. This observer does not
attach any value to any particular forms of life. It has no favorites. Ethical and moral issues are irrelevant to it. It is absolutely objective in all its observations. It simply observes. This observer also maintains a record so that it can make comparisons. It observed and recorded the entire evolution of life on the planet.
It will be difficult for us to imagine making observations without any value judgments. However, that is exactly what I propose here. I want to make an objective assessment of what has occurred during the entire period of evolution of life here on earth.
What would this record be like? It would show how millions of species evolved, and how millions of species disappeared. For the most part, things evolved rather gradually, new species developing over a period of millions or tens of million years. There were occasional cataclysmic events. A popular current theory holds that an asteroid or large meteor struck the earth 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of thousands of species. The observer's record would show that, nonetheless, the biosphere recovered and evolution continued. The biological system was able to respond and adjust to drastic changes on the earth.
This extraterrestrial observer would note that something unusual has been proceeding during the last several thousand years. Whereas all the animals on the earth exhibit varying degrees of consciousness, one animal has recently developed a consciousness so powerful that it is distinct from that of all the others. Comparing this consciousness with that of the other animals is like comparing a thermonuclear explosion with the ignition of a match. It is of such a different order of power that it has to be considered to be a totally unique phenomenon. It is a superconsciousness.
With the emergence of this new consciousness, striking changes are occurring on the earth. The character of the land masses is changing rapidly, especially as regards the degree of forestation. The chemical composition of the atmosphere is changing noticeably. There is a drastic increase in the rate of disappearance of other species. This highly conscious animal has assumed complete domination over all other species on the planet and even over the planet itself. What is most striking about these changes is the accelerating rate at which they are occurring. They became noticeable several thousand years ago, and their rate has increased steadily ever since. In the last few decades the rate has increased explosively.
The evolution system has behaved in a stable fashion throughout the millions, even billions, of years past. As new species appeared they effected other species, sometimes favorably and sometimes adversely. Yet, the system as a whole was stable, maintaining good natural balances, and recovering well from large disturbances.
However, the evolution of this new high-level consciousness raises the possibility of an instability in the evolutionary system itself. Now the system appears to be out of balance, and to be diverging at ever accelerating rate towards some new state, the character of which is simply unpredictable at this time. The viability of the biosphere is threatened.
That ends the observations from the hypothetical extraterrestrial observer. They are cold statements, without passion. "Now the system appears to be out of balance, ... The viability of the biosphere is threatened." If the entire biosphere died, ended, this observer would simply note "The biosphere died." Simple statements of fact from the totally objective observer. However, these statements cannot pass without causing passion in us, for the animals with the new form of consciousness are of course humans. The totally objective observer, a machine, if you will, does not care, but we do! We care! These statements must evoke great passion in us, regardless of where we stand on environmental issues, whether politically on the right or on the left, whether anti- or pro-environmentalists. These observations are either rubbish or factual.
I said that the evolution of human consciousness may represent an instability in the biological-evolution system. What is stability?
Stability is a branch of applied mechanics. We are always, or at least should always, be glad when designers or operators do a good job as regards considering stability. Sometimes they don't, and then bad things happen. One famous example familiar to lots of school children is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster. A beautiful new suspension bridge across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington started to gallop one day in 1940 when a strong wind blew across the bridge. The galloping motion increased steadily in amplitude until the structure failed, and the bridge fell into the narrows. The event was captured on a now famous film, and is frequently shown to school children.
It was subsequently realized that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was unstable in the wind. Small disturbances to the bridge enabled the wind to generate ever increasing disturbances. The bridge left its original state and entered a new state; it collapsed. The bridge contained within it the instability which was the seed for its own destruction.
There are lots of examples of instabilities. Consider a supersaturated solution. Disturb the solution slightly and it will instantly cloud up as the dissolved material crystallizes.
All stable systems have a common characteristic. If they are disturbed slightly, they will respond by going to a new state that is only slightly different from their original state. The measure of their response is of the same order as the measure of the disturbance causing the response.
On the other hand, unstable systems behave in a drastically different way. If they are disturbed ever so slightly, they will go to a new state that is extremely different from their undisturbed state. The measure of their response totally out of proportion to the measure of the disturbance.
There is a branch of mathematics called chaos theory in which the behavior of unstable systems is studied. A typical example would be that the dropping of a feather in Massachusetts could cause a hurricane to develop in the South Atlantic Ocean. The disturbance is the falling feather. The response is a hurricane, a catastrophe.
I have used the word catastrophe in my title in the chaos-theory sense to denote in a dramatic fashion how an unstable system behaves. The measure of the new state that an unstable system
enters differs so much from the measure of its original state that it is appropriate to say that a catastrophe has occurred.
When the evolution system produced human consciousness, it may have produced something that is going to lead to the destruction of that very system. The possible development of this consciousness had to be implicit in the evolution system at its very beginning, when the first single-cell organisms evolved to multicellular organisms! The evolution system maintained a beautiful balance through millions of years of development until it produced human consciousness. Consequently, the state of the biosphere is departing drastically from the equilibrium state it enjoyed previously. This is why I suggest that the evolution system is unstable, that a catastrophe has occurred in evolution.
I have arrived at a really terrible conclusion. I am saying that something really basic has gone wrong in the biological system, and that this thing is human consciousness! I have discovered the
problem, and the problem is that very capacity for intelligence which is a boundless source of pleasure and pride for us all!
I blame Ian McHarg, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, for jolting me out of my state of materialistic bliss. This jolt occurred when I attended a lecture by Professor McHarg at Queens University, Kingston Canada, during the early 1970's. He stunned me when he declared in his humorous irreverent way that the most blasphemous thing ever written was in the Genesis chapter of the Old Testament of the Bible: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' ...". This is supposed to be the word of God! Blasphemous! I had long known that it was a good thing to be concerned about the environment, but this was something new. Ian McHarg was saying that there was something basically wrong with our attitude that makes us think that we have the right, even the destiny, the assume dominion over nature.
Ian McHarg is not the only person to have jolted my environmental sensibilities. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, his wonderful six-hour television interview with Bill Moyers, talked also about the Genesis. He described it as representing western materialistic values, in which nature is viewed as being in error, humans being destined to make corrections. He was extremely critical of this Judeo-Christian attitude toward nature, a criticism which has caused some to accuse him of being anti-Semitic, an accusation I find unreasonable. He did not hold the Genesis responsible for western materialism - he instead said that it reflected the attitude of humans towards nature that was prevalent at the time Genesis was written.
Campbell also described how the philosophies of Asia emphasized the need for humans to live in harmony with nature rather than being at odds with it as we are in the West. There nature is sacred, as reflected in the gardens of Japan.
Thus, there is an alternative to western materialism. In the west we view animals and plants as things, to be used for our advantage and pleasure. How different that view is from that of the Asians, and even the tribes who migrated across the Bering Straits to settle North and South America thousands of years ago. One can find, even today, natives in the rain forests of South America whose religions reflect the old Asian ideas of the divinity of nature.
However, the old Asian ideas seem to be no match for western materialism. As a matter of fact, nowhere in the world are the tenants of western materialism now finding greater appeal and more success than in Asia. Given the choice between nature on the one hand, and on the other cars, TV, jet airplanes, and all the other wonders of western technology, the choice inevitably goes to materialism. After all, materialism is exciting; it's a lot of fun.
Ian McHarg placed most of the blame on the shoulders of a few, the industrialists who produce the products that pollute the environment and the weapons that threaten world destruction. I think the situation is more serious that that. The responsibility lies with every single person who at any time utilizes any of the many wonders produced by our technological system. The next time you are at a meeting of environmentalists, ask them how they got to the meeting. Most probably came by jet. Anyone who turns on an electric light is part of the problem. We are all literally addicted to western materialism. Our basic philosophy, our attitude towards nature and our taste for security, comfort and pleasure, is to blame.
The basic issue has come down to this. One animal has developed a superconsciousness which has enabled it to obtain complete dominion over the biosphere. Does this animal have the ability to control its appetite so as to maintain the health - and even the very existence - of this biosphere?
At this time it seems entirely possible that the biological system of evolution contained within it from the very beginning the seed for its destruction, an instability implicit in the system which has become apparent just as the instability in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge became apparent. We thus face a monumental challenge. It is not even clear what is required of us. Is a complete renunciation of western materialism necessary, or is some sort of moderation adequate? Can we recognize the problem and do something about it? Can we muster the political will required? All this depends on whether or not our consciousness contains within it the ability to face the problem. We must assume that it does, despite the fact that the preponderance of relevant evidence suggests that it does not. We face a challenge demanding a truly heroic response!
by: Ted Kurtz, 3 Jan 1996
Tremendous advances have been made recently towards an understanding of how brains work. These advances have caused a frenzy of research activity by workers in a wide variety of fields, and have resulted in the definition of a new multidisciplinary field of research known as cognitive science. As I have read from the literature which has accumulated describing this research, I have been struck by the fact that the authors appear to have ignored conclusions reached by Dr. Wilder Penfield as he reported in his often-referenced little book entitled The Mystery of the Mind (1975), which presents a coherent model of how brains are organized. My object here is to describe the essence of what Dr. Penfield said, and to interpret that in the light of some of some of the current ideas about how the brain works.
Dr. Wilder Penfield was an American who majored in philosophy while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Upon completing medical school, his specialty was neurosurgery with patients suffering from epilepsy. He was the founding director of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Montreal when the Institute was started in 1934. After he retired, he wrote The Mystery of the Mind, in which he summarized, in nonspecialist terms readily accessible to all, what he had learned as a surgeon, a scientist and a philosopher from his work with his epilepsy patients.
Penfield describes a type of epileptic seizure denoted as petite mal automatism or epileptic automatism, which has an amazing effect on its victims, and gave him an insight into brain function. This type of seizure causes its victims to become unconscious; however, while unconscious they behave as automatons, continuing with whatever project they were involved in at the time the seizure occurred. These projects can be surprisingly complex. Penfield described, as examples, three of his patients who were subject to such seizures. One was a pianist, who, if he had such a seizure while playing the piano, would be able to continue playing despite being unconscious. Another had such a seizure while walking home, and nonetheless successfully found his way. Another had such a seizure while driving a car, and was able to get to his destination without an accident!
Penfield summarized these seizures as follows:
The behavior of the automaton during an attack of epileptic automatism reveals what the brain without the mind and without the mind mechanism can still do. It reveals what the moment-to-moment function of the normally active mind must be. If, as I have said, an attack of automatism falls upon a patient while he is in the act of planning a project, the automaton (which he becomes) may discharge that purpose in remarkable detail.
There are several things to note here. First, these patients were able to carry out complex acts successfully while unconscious. Secondly—and this is astonishing—they were able to use visual, auditory, and presumably other sensory data while they were unconscious, for otherwise they could not have carried out their projects successfully.
It is important to note here that the definition of unconsciousness used by Penfield was the clinical one used by neurologists, wherein a patient is said to have been unconscious for a period of time if the patient has no memory of that time period. This inability to form memory while unconscious is an important feature which I shall refer to later. It implies that one function of consciousness is to enable the formation of memories.
Attacks of petite mal automatism begin with an unstable electric discharge in a temporal lobe of the cerebrum and proceed to a specific region of the higher brain stem. The proper functioning of this higher-brain-stem region appears to be necessary for consciousness. Penfield describes this conclusion as follows:
Gradually it became quite clear in neurological experience, that even large removals of the cerebral cortex could be carried out without abolishing consciousness. On the other hand, injury or interference with function in the higher brain-stem, even in small areas, would abolish consciousness completely.
The cerebral cortex performs many important functions. It enables the functioning of vision, hearing, speech, body movements, and many other abilities. Each of these abilities is carried out in specific regions in the cerebral cortex. Damage to a region of the cerebral cortex impairs the ability associated with that region. For example, damage to a speech area of the cortex may result in inability to speak (aphasia), and damage to the visual cortex may result in partial or total blindness. Most importantly, however, such damage does not impair consciousness. It is possible to lose an entire hemisphere of the cerebral cortex without the loss of the ability to experience consciousness! On the other hand, there is a region in the upper brain stem which must be totally intact if the subject is to be able to experience consciousness. There are several important clues here which I shall refer to later.
Dr. Penfield concludes that it is possible to view the brain, in an overall functional fashion, as having two independent parts. In his chapter entitled “An Automatic Sensory-Motor Mechanism” he says:
And now there opens before us an exciting vista in which the automatic mechanisms of the brain interact with, and may be separated from, the brain’s machinery for-the-mind.
In his subsequent chapter, “The Highest Brain-Mechanism”, he says:
What has been said about epileptic automatism throws much light on what must be happening in the normal routine of our lives. By taking thought, the mind considers the future and gives short-term direction to the sensory-motor automatic mechanism. But the mind, I surmise, can give direction only through the mind’s brain-mechanism. It is all very much like programming a private computer. .... Short-term programming of the automatic mechanism seems to serve a useful purpose in ordinary life. When I get into my car in the morning with a plan of going somewhere other than to the Montreal Neurological Institute, I must decide in advance the streets to be followed. Otherwise, while I am thinking of something else, the automaton delivers me to the Institute.
Dr. Penfield has identified two distinct systems in the brain, the sensory-motor automatic mechanism, and the mind’s brain mechanism, which includes consciousness. The sensory-motor mechanism carries out the tasks assigned to it by the mind’s brain-mechanism, and, most amazingly, carries out the details of these tasks without requiring subsequent detailed intervention by the mind’s brain-mechanism!
Penfield has provided us with a simple overall model of the brain which, in functional terms, has two parts. I am going to denote the first part, which he calls the sensory-motor automatic mechanism, simply as the automatic system, using the word system rather than “mechanism”, because I like to distinguish between living creatures and machines. The second part is what he calls the mind’s brain-mechanism, which includes consciousness, and I am going to denote this part simply as the consciousness system. One of the functions of this part is to give commands to the automatic system. I shall thus describe Penfield’s model as saying that brains include two systems, the automatic system and the consciousness system.
One final point: the model must not be confused with reality itself. The model is simple, whereas reality is infinitely complex. A model is valid if it provides a useful framework for explaining and predicting the behavior of nature. Thus, the model must be tested to see if it is useful. The model is a good one to the extent that attempts to prove it wrong are unsuccessful.
The distinction between the model and reality may seem obvious here, but apparently it is not. For example, the philosophical literature abounds with arguments about whether or not the brain is a digital computer. Digital computers can be used and are being used for simulations of brains, but the simulation is never the real thing. There are wonderful airplane simulators, but they are always simulators, as the pilots can discover when they crash. There is always a gap between the real thing and the model which can perhaps be made extremely narrow, but which can, nonetheless, never be eliminated.
I find it strange that so little attention has been devoted to Penfield’s model. No attempts appear to have been made to refute it. Very little discussion appears to have occurred concerning its significance. What discussion I have found about Penfield’s work is limited to debating the validity of the definition of consciousness which he used.
One possible explanation for the lack of interest in Penfield’s model is that it might be construed as a form of dualism, which considers the body to be a material system controlled by the soul, a spiritual system. The automatic system would be the material system and the consciousness system would be the soul. The soul would not be explainable in physical terms. This model, due to Descartes, is now generally considered to be discredited. Penfield’s model might be perhaps reasonably be construed as a form of dualism, but with an important distinction; i.e. a physical explanation for the consciousness system is widely believed to exist.
The evolutionary process for brains involved adding features to ancestral brains. If these new features enhanced the probability that the animal would survive, the new features themselves survived. Old features were not discarded. Modifications were thus made by adding features. Somewhere along the line in the evolution process, nature stumbled on the scheme described by Penfield’s model. Vertebrate brains ended up being organized in this fashion because of the tremendous advantage such an organization provides. This is the way humans organize large groups of workers. There is a supervisor who typically has a small number of people working under his or her control. Each of these people may, in turn, have people under their control. The supervisor of a well run organization issues general instructions and monitors results, but does not become involved intimately in the efforts of the workers being supervised. Indeed, to do so would result in the supervisor becoming swamped in details, and in a reduction of the productivity of the subordinates, to the detriment of the efficiency of the organization.
There is an additional advantage which I shall discuss in more detail below, and has to do with the ability of the consciousness system to program the automatic system. This feature makes conscious animals extremely adaptable, greatly increasing their survival probabilities.
There are thus tremendous advantages offered by having a brain organized to have an automatic system programmed and controlled by a consciousness system which acts as a supervisor for the automatic system. Imagine, for example, what walking would be like if we had intentionally to control and coordinate the tensioning and relaxing of every muscle involved in the walking process. Relax this muscle. Now tension that muscle, not too quickly. Relax that one when this one is halfway tensioned. It’s too much to do! Consider carrying on a conversation at the same time. Pull a word out of memory. Say the first syllable. That means tension this muscle in the larynx, and also relax that one gradually, and compress the diaphragm muscle to eject air, not too strongly. I hope you can get the picture. That’s not the way we walk. When we want to walk, we just walk. When we want to talk, the appropriate words just appear and are spoken automatically. What an amazing feat it is, all performed by the automatic system with only the most general of commands being issued by the consciousness system!
When driving my car on an interstate highway, deeply in thought about something having nothing to do with driving, I have often suddenly realized that I have no recollection of where I have been driving and even no knowledge of where I am at that moment! I believe that this is a common experience. My automatic system has been driving the car while I was deeply emerged in thought.
The ancient Chinese seem to have been aware of how the brain is organized, and of the advantages in being able, at times, to free the automatic system from the control of the consciousness system. I believe that what the Chinese referred to as the “Tao” is what I denote as the automatic system. Stephen Mitchell, in the forward to his translation of the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese poem written by Lao-tzu approximately 500 BCE, comments as follows:
A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action, the purist form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.
Mitchell then quotes his translation of Verse 48 from the Tao Te Ching. The complete verse is as follows:
In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
True mastery can be gained
by letting things go their own way.
It can’t be gained by interfering.
When Stephen Mitchell says “The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.” he means that the performer is able to keep the consciousness system from interfering with the performance. The poem writes the poem; i.e. the poem just flows onto the paper from within the poet, without inhibition. He calls this “a paradigm for non-action”. Non-action is what might be called a Taoist technical term, and means letting the automatic system perform without inhibiting interference by the consciousness system. When Lao-tzu said “True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.” he meant that we perform best if we can keep our consciousness system from interfering with the automatic system after the consciousness system assigns a task to it. When the Chinese speak of being “in the Tao”, they mean being in a state where their automatic system is allowed to perform a desired function without disruptive interference by the consciousness system.
Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, discusses consciousness and the extent to which brains do their thinking subconsciously. He maintains that much thinking does indeed occur subconsciously, referencing The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, by Jacques Hadamard. Hadamard describes how the French mathematician, Henri Poincare, was having difficulty developing what he called Fuchsian functions. Hadamard quoted Poincare as follows:
I left Caen, where I was living, to go on a geologic excursion under the auspices of the School of Mines. The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached the Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go to some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as upon taking my seat on the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for convenience sake, I verified the result at my leisure.
What is striking about this example (and numerous others cited by Hadamard) is that this complicated and profound idea apparently came to Poincare in a flash, while his conscious thoughts seemed to be quite elsewhere, and that they were accompanied by this feeling of certainty that they were correct—as indeed, later calculation proved them to be.
Poincare had set his automatic system to work on his search for the Fuchsian functions while he enjoyed himself on the geologic excursion! He was in the Tao.
This example suggests several interesting conclusions. First, of course, is that the automatic system is apparently capable carrying out complicated thought processes, without intervention by the consciousness system. The second conclusion to be drawn from the Poincare example is that the automatic system is capable of performing more than one task at a time. While Poincare’s automatic system was thinking about Fuchsian functions it was also busy walking, talking and doing a lot of other things. The automatic system is what is known in digital-computer parlance as a multitasking system. However, digital computers only appear to work on more than one task at once; they can switch from one task to another in serial fashion, spending a few milliseconds on one task, then a few on the next task, then on the next and so on, so quickly that, if they are fast enough, they appear to work on several tasks simultaneously. The automatic system, in contrast, uses its neural networks to work in parallel fashion, truly performing all its tasks simultaneously.
The Poincare example raises another interesting issue. How was it that Poincare suddenly became aware that the solution to the Fuchsian-function had been found? Was his consciousness system periodically querying his automatic system? In digital-computer parlance, this would be called polling. Or, did his automatic system send a signal to his consciousness system that a solution had been found? This is called an interrupt in digital-computer parlance. Polling would place a much bigger burden on the consciousness system than would interrupts, because polling requires periodic queries by the consciousness system to see if the task it had assigned to the automatic system was completed, whereas, if the automatic system could use interrupts, it would require no action by the consciousness system until an interrupt occurs. Thus, if evolution was able to discover the most efficient design, it would use interrupts. However, we cannot divine from the Poincare example whether the brain uses interrupts or polling.
Sometimes athletes have trouble keeping their consciousness system from interfering with their automatic system. Then they are in what is called a slump. It can be very hard to get out of a slump, because the harder they think about getting out of it the greater is the tendency for their consciousness system to interfere with their automatic system. We all know what it is like to be unable to keep the consciousness system from fouling up our automatic system. We call it being self conscious. Writers call it writers block.
In an article in the New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1995, Peter de Jonge wrote about Tiger Woods, a phenomenal young golfer at Stanford University. De Jonge wrote:
Even rarer than Wood’s ability to shape golf shots is his ability to shape the input and output of his mind. Perhaps because there is such an absurd number of things Woods is better off not thinking about, he has developed a Zen-like skill of detaching his brain from his game. “You ever go up to a tee and say, ‘Don’t hit it left, don’t hit it right’?” Woods quizzes me. “That’s your conscious mind. My body knows how to play golf. I’ve trained it how to do that. It’s just a matter of keeping my conscious mind out of it.”
Recall that Penfield used the clinical definition of consciousness wherein a patient is said to have been unconscious for a period of time if the patient has no memory of that time period. This suggests that one function of consciousness is to enable the automatic system to be programmed where, by programming, I mean establishing a procedure which can be performed at will, i.e. remembered. A commonly used trick for remembering facts involves focusing consciousness on the fact to be remembered. Thus, I conclude that a vertebrate creature that had never experienced consciousness would possess only innate skills.
A newborn baby is able to do certain basic things, such as how to nurse from the mother’s breast, and how to make certain other basic body movements. However, it is for the most part unskilled. A newborn baby can’t, for example, walk, talk, or even, in fact, see. It masters these skills over time through experience. We saw above that one function of consciousness appears to be the enabling of the creation of memories, not only memories of facts but also of procedures for performing physical acts. When an athlete practices, the automatic system thus becomes, in a sense, programmed to perform in a skillful manner. This “programming” occurs by altering the nature of the myriad of axonal connections between the billions of neurons in the brain. Actions are repeated over and over again, with feedback from the consciousness system causing the automatic system to perform its actions in an ever improving fashion. Eventually, what results are systems of neurons, interconnected by their axons, which, upon receiving input commands from the consciousness system, execute complete complicated coordinated actions without further intervention from the consciousness system. It is an ingenious arrangement.
The processes in the brain are physically very different from the processes occurring in digital computers, from where the concept of programming arose. However, in the sense that digital computers are information processing systems with the nature of the information processing depending on how they are programmed, so also are brains information processing systems. It thus does not seem unreasonable to speak of the process of developing neural networks to perform specific tasks as programming. It is, however, important to keep in mind how different a brain is from the digital computers we are familiar with. Brains are composed of networks of neurons, each neuron being something like a frequency-modulated (FM) transmitter, the output frequency of which is a nonlinear and somewhat random function of its input signals. These networks operate in parallel, doing probably thousands of things simultaneously, in distinction to digital computers, which are serial devices capable of doing only one thing at a time.
Most of the limited amount of information available about the programming of the brain comes from clinical experiences with humans and experiments with animals. It is well known, for example, that the programming necessary for speech in humans occurs in the first 12 or so years of life. Once that time period is passed it does not seem possible for a human to learn to speak. There have been, for example, cases where a child was somehow deprived of the opportunity to speak during these critical early years. In such cases, all subsequent attempts to rehabilitate the child fail. Such children may develop the ability to speak and understand individual words; however, to speak sentences seems impossible for them. The neural systems used for speech usually lie in the left half of the cerebral cortex. If a person suffers damage to these systems, they lose the ability to speak, a syndrome called aphasia. However, if a person suffers such brain damage when they are sufficiently young, it may possible for them to program the corresponding regions in their right side of the cerebral cortex so that they can speak again. The potential for speech is there as long as the programming required occurs at a sufficiently young age!
The case for vision is similar, with the exception that the time period available for programming the brain to see is much shorter, only several years. If a child somehow passes through that critical time period without being able to program the brain to process the visual data, the child will be forever blind, even though the eyes and the optic nerve may, at the time, be functionally normal. In such cases, data from the eyes may be used in the brain even though the subject is blind.
The automatic system even becomes programmed to give us our personalities. The pediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, has said that children develop their personalities in the first 5 years of life, i.e. the idea of who they are and how they react emotionally to their environment. Our personalities are a complex aspect of our automatic system which is programmed by the experiences we have in those critical first 5 years, including the period in the womb, and remains essentially unchangeable thereafter. We can all attest to how difficult it is to alter our personality later in life! This emphasizes the tragedies involved with children raised in dysfunctional families, tragedies which we later pay for dearly as society attempts to deal with the results, damaged personalities unable to cope with the demands of our society. We are dealing here with the personality aspect of the automatic system.
The process described above for how the automatic system is programmed to perform various kinds of acts gives some insight about how we come to remember facts; i.e. about how our memory works. I was in the Air Force in 1953. That was 42 years ago, and yet I can still remember my serial number, AO2230470! When I recall it I actually recall a procedure for producing a string of characters. My brain does not contain individual numbers; there is no “2” stored there. I was just now, in fact, surprised to see that the 2’d character in my serial number is an O and not a zero. Rather than recall individual letters and numbers, I recall a procedure which my automatic system uses to produce a certain string of characters. My serial-number procedure was programmed into my automatic system by my consciousness system when I was in the Air Force.
At the neural level, the procedure for recalling my serial number would not look much different than the procedure a baseball player recalls when swinging a bat. Remembering a fact is thus basically similar to remembering how to perform some specific body motion. The general picture which arises for me from the above discussion is that there is, at the neural level, much commonality regarding all of the distinctive functions of the brain. The processes of thinking, feeling emotions, performing athletic acts, playing a musical instrument, seeing and speaking, for example, all involve networks of neurons, the behavior of the networks depending on the nature of the interconnections between the neurons comprising the networks. There is thus a sense in which such disparate acts as thinking about philosophy, performing mathematics and being a baseball star are all similar. They all require neural networks which have been suitably programmed. There is thus a true sense in which a mathematics whiz and a star athlete could both be described as being extremely intelligent in the sense that they both excelled in causing their neural networks to become well programmed.
At the state of knowledge that we currently have about brains, it is not possible to determine with certainty whether or not animals other than humans are conscious, although, as I describe below, I believe vertebrate animals are.
There are scientists who maintain that consciousness is limited to humans, and perhaps also to chimpanzees, orangutans, and certain apes. These are the only animals which have been observed to indicate self recognition when viewing their image in a mirror. For example, if a mark is placed on their face, they will recognize from their image in the mirror that there is something unusual about themselves, and will attempt to remove the mark from their face.
I believe that all vertebrate animals are conscious. I once believed otherwise, but I changed my mind upon considering the implications of Penfield’s finding that normal functioning of a region in the higher brain stem of humans is necessary if consciousness is to be experienced. The brain stem is, in terms of the history of the evolution of vertebrate brains, a very ancient feature. The brains of vertebrate animals share an amazing amount of commonality. Humans share with all other vertebrates; i.e. monkeys, dogs, birds, snakes, etc.; the possession of brain stems having similar structures. Recall that this structure must be fully functional in humans if they are to be able to experience consciousness. Thus, I believe that all vertebrates share the ability to experience consciousness. However, as I will describe below in the Section “The Experience of Consciousness”, the nature of the consciousness experience must vary tremendously among the vertebrate species.
I’ll conclude this Section with a brief discussion of octopuses, which are invertibrates. Octopuses are extremely intelligent, and the question regarding whether or not they are conscious needs to be considered. I recently saw a TV program about octopuses in which an octopus was shown which had learned how to unscrew a lid on a glass jar to get some food in the jar. A second octopus, in a separate tank, was unable to unscrew the cap on the same jar. However, after it was allowed to watch the other octopus successfully unscrew the lid, it was instantly able to unscrew the lid itself! I visited the Aquarium at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco several years ago, and was greatly amused by an octopus in their big tank which seemed as interested in the people as the people were interested in the octopus. He was very tame, and liked to be handled by his keepers. They said that he was at least as intelligent as a very intelligent dog. Are octopuses conscious or are they just automatons? I do not know the answer to that question.
We have seen above that the cerebrum, which is part of the automatic system, furnishes data to the consciousness system. If the automatic system were partially or totally disabled, those data would not be available. The nature of the consciousness experience thus depends on the nature of the data made available to the consciousness system. A human with normal vision forms a mental picture in colors. A color-blind person has a different experience. A person who has suffered damage to the visual cortex may be able to experience only a portion of the normal visual field. Now, despite the real differences in the consciousness experiences in these three cases, there is some way in which they are the same. In all these cases, consciousness provides the experience of being. Considering other vertebrates, we find strikingly different types of data available to the consciousness system. Bats and porpoises can sense the sonar field. Electric eels can sense the electrostatic field. Some birds are believed able to sense the magnetic field. Dogs have a sense of smell many times more sensitive that that of humans. It is thus important to distinguish between the shape of the consciousness experience, as determined by the nature of the data available to the consciousness system, and the essence of the consciousness experience, which does not depend on the data available. It is this essence which is shared by all conscious beings.
The human consciousness experience differs from that of all other animals extremely important ways. Because humans have language ability, we are able to communicate complicated concepts over large spaces of distance and time. We are able to store information in locations external to our brains. Humans have thus been able to accumulate knowledge, and this knowledge has enabled humans to dominate the earth (constituting, by the way, a catastrophe for the ecological system, another evolutionary experiment seemingly doomed to eventual failure!). Our consciousness experience differs from that of the other animals because of the data made available to our consciousness system by our complex cerebrums, not because of fundamental differences between the consciousness systems of humans and other animals.
Julius Jaynes, in his book The Origin of Consciousness, presents the thesis that human consciousness is a recent phenomenon, having occurred only a few thousand years ago. I believe he would claim humans to be the only conscious animals! This is a fascinating, well written and scholarly book, containing many important and relevant references to the literature. I just don’t agree with Jaynes’ thesis.
When Jaynes asserted that humans have been conscious for only the past several thousand years, he may have meant not the essence of consciousness, but, rather, the difference between the human consciousness experience and the consciousness experiences of animals. They are of such different orders of richness and complexity as to constitute different phenomena, as different as are hydrogen bombs and matches. However, I believe that adopting Penfield’s model leads to the conclusion that the essence of human consciousness might not be as different from the essence of animal consciousness as we might want to believe.
I have distinguished between the consciousness system and the data available to that system. The sources for these data would thus have to be considered as external to the consciousness system. Some writers, such as the philosopher Ned Block, define consciousness as including the last stages of these data sources. I exclude these data sources from the consciousness system as part of the definition of that system. I have done this because, as I discussed early on, the cerebral cortex is the source of data for the consciousness system, and large portions of the cerebral cortex can be lost or damaged without eliminating the ability to experience consciousness. Only the nature of the consciousness experience is affected; the subject may, for example, become blind, but can still experience consciousness.
Consciousness is perhaps the deepest mystery facing humans. It is the most private aspect of our lives. It is through consciousness that we know that we exist, that we enjoy, that we fear, that we care, and all the other aspects of being alive. Consciousness is the essence of the human personal experience.
What is it about consciousness that gives us this experience of being alive, now, here? What is its the most central aspect? There are people who think that consciousness must be due to some sort of external energy, a spiritual force not explainable in terms of the sort of models created by scientists. This is Descartes dualism, as I discussed earlier. Wilder Penfield reluctantly admitted that such a dualism was a possibility. He preferred a physical explanation, but was unable to see how such an explanation could be found. Currently, there is absolutely no information, whatsoever, to indicate that such a nonphysical explanation for the phenomenon of consciousness is wrong! It is simply an act of faith to believe that a physical explanation either can or can not be found.
However, the bulk of those thinking about consciousness believe, as do I, that a physical explanation will one day be found. Their optimism has been bolstered by the advances made during the past several decades in the simulation of neural networks, human-made networks which can exhibit many aspects of brain-like behavior. There is no doubt whatsoever that fantastic achievements have been made. However, none of this work has shed any light on what it is that constitutes the central aspect of consciousness. We would not even know how to test the validity of a claim of consciousness for a synthetic-neuron machine exhibiting human-like behavior, because we have no model of what it is that constitutes the essence of consciousness.
What does it mean to say that some aspect of the brain is understood? I take it to mean that it must be possible, at least in principle, to model that aspect and to simulate it, probably on some sort of computer. For example, the automatic system is in this sense at least partially understood. Neural-net models have been constructed which simulate quite well many aspects of how the automatic system appears to function. However, such is not the case for the consciousness system, which appears to be veiled by an impenetrable screen. A necessary prerequisite for simulating consciousness is to define it. Such a definition simply does not exist.
I discussed above the hypothesis that one function of the consciousness system is to cause the automatic system to become programmed in an appropriate fashion. What causes the consciousness system to become programmed? Is there some sort of interaction between the automatic and consciousness systems which causes them both to become programmed? That seems unlikely to me. It seems more likely that the program for the consciousness system must be determined by the DNA, and thus develop automatically as the embryo develops.
Finally, what would be the effect on us should the mystery of consciousness be solved? What would it mean to us if the greatest mystery of our experience should be unwrapped? It is a lot of fun to think about the brain and consciousness, and humans are certainly not going to abandon the effort to understand ourselves, no matter what the outcome!
Where in the brain does the consciousness system lie? Recall that Penfield observed that there is a region in the higher brain stem that must be fully functional if consciousness is to be possible, and it is thus tempting to conclude that the consciousness system must lie there. There is, at this date, insufficient knowledge to point to any physical region in the brain as the location of consciousness. The term “consciousness system” denotes a functional system and not a specific compact physical region in the brain. The consciousness system may be physically diffuse. Thus, while it seems necessary that a certain region in the higher brain stem be properly functional for consciousness to occur, it does not follow that the proper functioning of this region in the upper brain stem is necessary and sufficient for the occurrence consciousness.
I have attempted to show that Wilder Penfield’s model of how brains work provides a useful framework for gaining insight into the nature of brain functions. The cognitive-science literature seems largely to have ignored it. Time, effort, and resources are being wasted by not taking advantage of it.
It seems to me that there is much to be gained from exploring the automatic system. The consciousness system seems to be inaccessible to us. However, we could indirectly learn a lot about the consciousness system by flushing out in the greatest detail possible what the functions of the automatic system are. Even if we can’t solve the mystery of the consciousness system, we would learn a lot about it if we could understand how it interacts with the automatic system.
How does the automatic system come to be programmed to perform in an optimal fashion? Does the automatic system furnish the data to the consciousness system that shapes the consciousness experience? What sequence is followed in performing a conscious act? Does this sequence start in the consciousness system or in the automatic system?
If we could determine the functional boundaries of the automatic system, that would delineate the boundaries of the consciousness system. I think that one problem we have here is that people who fancy themselves as thinkers may find it repulsive to consider that that thinking is being performed by an automaton!