Theories of the emergence of consciousness

Af Denis Ebbesen, stud.psych og Jeppe Olsen, stud.psych

As we outlined in our last article in Indput, the methodology being used to study consciousness by neuroscientist does not consider what the brain is conscious of. So there’s the problem (as we mentioned in the first part, the criteria for a scientific explanation was already outlined by Aristotle: both form and substance is required). The emergence of consciousness is being studied by neuroscientists as if it were a static process, and so the brain is treated as an object that is detached from the spatiotemporal world in which it operates and through which it has evolved. The subject’s relation to the world is then explained away – it has been reduced to an object and then dissolved into a mere object-object relation (the brain dissolved into the world), supposedly ignoring any asymmetrical relations there might be between subject and object. Most contemporary philosophers do not agree to Descartes’ divine solution to the psychophysical problem. However, many of them do agree that Descartes posed the right questions – what is the nature of the relationship between subject and object? How is this relationship constituted? The point is here to acknowledge that there is an asymmetrical relationship between subject and object, so not to reduce any scientific questions to a mechanistic and deterministic object-object relation. Indeed there is no such thing as Descartes’ psychophysical problem, since Descartes (1967) actually found two solutions: The pineal gland and God. It is our problem, in modern science, since we do not accept Descartes’ solutions and have a hard time coming up with solutions ourselves (Mammen, 2000). This asymmetrical relationship, cannot be reduced to a subject-subject relationship (i.e. different variations of a relational ontology has been proposed within psychology, not to mention theories of performationism and discoursivism that do not even recognize ontology let alone the subject-object divide!) (Mammen, 1997). So, the right question has been posed many years ago, and the question is how we deal with it, if we are not to accept Descartes’ solution.

Now let’s take a look at the dialectical character of consciousness. Since Hegel, many philosophers and psychologists have argued that consciousness emerges as a result of a dialectical interplay between subject and object (Engelstedt, 1989). Even for the most reductionist neuroscientist, this should not seem like a greedy argument – there has to be something in the world that triggers the neuronal processes (Hebb, 1976). In this connection, Hegel’s conception of dialectics should not be used as a way of black-boxing the specifics of this interplay between subject and object and how it is constituted. It is a coherent and precise term; NOT simply meaning reciprocal influence (Hegel, 1816, § 232). Hegel’s successors contemplated about the concrete constituents of consciousness. Karl Marx did this by introducing work as a form of mediator between the subject and its life-world. By work, Marx didn’t specifically mean some kind of job-occupation. By work, Marx meant something that is much more primal for all human beings: he was thinking about the mediating processes by which human beings integrate and cultivate objects from the external world only to re-shape and project them back into this world in a continuous process (see e.g. Marx’ 1962 commentaries on the alienated labour).

Albeit these early modern theories of the emergence of consciousness were developed by a schooled philosopher (Hegel) and a schooled economist (Marx), modern theories of mind and consciousness within psychology did not hesitate to be inspired by these theories (in example G.H. Mead & W. James). One school of thought that was inspired particularly from this line of thought is the Russian Activity Theory (Mammen & Mirenko, 2015). The Russian School of activity theory, as represented by Vygotsky, Luria and Leontiev, explicitly acknowledges and takes into account this asymmetrical relationship between subject and object. Ironically, modern neuroscience is often accredited to the works of Luria (Proctor, 2016). As the name implies, this school focuses on activity. Again, it is important to understand that activity is not playing tennis once every other week, it is to be perceived as a primal and inherent structure that all organisms capable of evolving is interwoven into from genesis. That is, activity is viewed as an ontological mediator that makes it possible to overcome the subject-object dualism identified by Descartes and thereby describe it as a monistic-dualistic relationship between mind and matter (Mammen & Mirenko, 2015). These axioms (pertaining to work and activity) thereby explicate the asymmetrical relationship between subject and object and lay the groundwork for any methodology developed within activity theories of consciousness. Neuroscientific theories of the emergence of conscious, on the contrary, seem to dodge axioms in general, or at least they seem to end up in the exact same Cartesian problems that they are denying: 1) The dualistic, mechanistic and deterministic empty factory model or 2) the divine (and unscientific) inner observer model whose inception can only be tied to various formalistic methods or AI lingo. Indeed this last mentioned ex nihilo observer cannot itself explain anything, since simulations (a procedure accepted as evidential in cognitive-neuroscience) show that any sudden innateness burst of fundamental human properties, like language, would make that same property disappear again in just a few generations time (Deacon, 2009).

In other words, these versions of neuroscientific methodology rest upon either ideology (1) or religion (2) against the dialectical line of thought that is instead axiomatically explicated in theory of science. This can be summed up in the following illustrations:

Thus reductionist, mechanicist and neuroscientific closet-versions thereof only have methods left to explain their empirical results with regards to emergent properties of consciousness, and methods (e.g. statistical models) do not explain anything in itself, or rather, they cannot explain anything outside of themselves: thus the empirical findings will often be couched as seemingly suggesting the exact formal-method chosen to study the object, since all steps of the research was tacitly guided by that same model, and so anything non-representable in the semantics of the model only receives the predicate Noise (Køppe, 1998). This all comes down to what one accepts as an explanation (Mammen, 1994d), and here most modern neuroscientist are not picky, as will be illustrated in the following passage.

Some (non)explanatory schemes of the ‘emergence’ of consciousness
Here we summarize three (paradigmatically accepted!) explanatory models of the emergence of consciousness, in recent cognitive-neuroscience.

To even understand what type of explanation these theories propose, we need to state that it is an accepted premise that some operations of the brain is accountable for a “broadcast” – that is, some type of motion-picture, which is your everyday experiential sphere (like an absolute Trumann-Show). This postulate provides the basis of a paradigmatic debate about how much of the brain is involved in this transmission (is it state-funded or private TV-station) and how noisy the signal is (how much enters your awareness and how much gets lost in transduction so to speak...). Notice how this conception steers the whole debate away from the origins of the input (where does the electricity come from) and likewise eschews the debate about emergence from the relation between subject and object to a (non)relational intrinsic to the brainy meat-bulb (the transmission from TV-Station to TV is seen as intrinsic to the TV-station).

One set of theories arguing in this realm of dogma are called Globalists. They argue that consciousness (the television show) is first set to on, when the enti- re brain coordinates its parts into an organized state, wherein different modules (departments of the TV-production or film company) align and transduces a unified signal to the audience (See in example Baars, 2005). Of course, if everyone needs to be aligned for a broadcast worthy show to be put together, then connecting every modular department becomes an issue – this is called the binding problem – and is akin to putting together a good company for a Christmas party every year...

Another set of theories, the localists, argue that already single modules (that is, functionally separated neuronal clusters) can account for consciousness (Zeki, 2003). Thus, the final TV-show broadcast, does not give adequate credence to all the staff-members of the production, who all provide a vital contribution to the final broadcast. This has the implication that the show you are currently watching (your everyday experiential sphere) is illusionary and rather un-thankful towards all the neuronal parts of the production. This approach has an advantage in explaining how such clear signals get through to you, since no binding (coordination at the TV station) is necessary when every single department has the ability of putting a show together that is ready for broadcasting. However, why some shows (combinations of neural-clusters) gets broadcasted instead of others is not that easily given for the localists as the globalist, because the globalists can point towards long-range cables (neuronal-connections) whereas the localists must try to explain radio-waves (distal neuronal thresholds). Usually the localists must therefore provide some auxiliary hypothesis about associative learning, to account for the selection and combinations of shows (fx. Tononi, 2004).

The reader will notice that these theories accept as valid explanations of consciousness a broadcast transduced to you through your brain, and the most exciting and vexing issue then becomes how big a part of your meat-bulb you should credit.

...but what about emergence, how do the cognitivists explain that (away)?
Since the field of neuroscience has applicable values regarding various somatic conditions (e.g. neurodegenerative diseases and chomathosis) where consciousness is not adequately debated in terms of awareness (Engelsted, 1997), it has become pivot for neuroscientific researchers to argue that consciousness is a graded phenomenon (Damasio, 2001). In so far as cognitive-neuroscience wants to be Darwinians, they simply must stick to such a continuum claim (Engelsted, 1984) since any naturally selected trait must reflect graduation (Darwin, 2003). But with only natural selection in the explanatory tool-box, it gets impossible to catch a qualitative leap (emergence) into consciousness (even though some, like Edelmann (2001) and Damasio (2001), honourably tries too). This Neo-Darwinian scheme and the embeddedness of neuroscience in somatic practices, has brought about an eschew from conceptualizing the emergence of consciousness as a historical and evolutionary issue, to something that either occurs when you wake up (the Globalists) or occurs subliminally in the brain, even when in coma (the localists). Either way it is argued to be something that happens ontogenetically, even at a millisecond basis (!). To be fair, even Neo-Darwinism cannot be blamed for this, since even their mechanical scheme needs an organism to be in an environment, so that natural selection can select ways of relating to an environment. This snapshot of (non)emergence of consciousness is thus out of tune with Darwinism and is even more radical than Neo-Darwinism, since it does not need to take notice of any environment, but only brain-activity. An ultra-solipsistic mechanicism!

“The brain is embodied and the body is embedded” claims Edelman (2001), and this is the minimum criterion for any conception of the emergence of consciousness (even in a strictly naturalistic framework).

We believe that the reason for this position (that brain-activity equals the emergence of consciousness) must partially be due to the need of an argument in cases involving giving up life-support to people in coma or otherwise non-aware/explicatable states of mind. This is an honourable struggle – but it is not most adequately fought by reducing consciousness to electrical or chemical processes in the brain: for these are not the reasons why we wish to fight for helping people back to life, and these are not the reasons that people want to stay alive (or not). Such reasons have to do with the engagements (Subject-Object) and relations (Subject-Subject) that such patients need their brains for participating in. As humans, they are members of a collective who has wrestled their flesh from nature into history – this is called dialectics – and this is something worth fighting for beyond the apocalypse!


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