Thursday, June 7, 2007

The hard problem

“Understanding consciousness could make for a more tolerant and lenient picture of how knowledge is acquired and I think that’s important."

Gerald Edelman, Chair neurobiology at Scripps Research institute

Beside the fact that the study of consciousness is a fascinating area of brain research, it also provides inroads into understanding the different ways people perceive the world around them. This opens the door to perhaps increasing our understanding of how we think, believe, and communicate.

In general, the problem of delving into the realm gaining insight into consciousness has been divided into two general areas described as the hard and easy problems. Until recently both areas have been difficult to study clearly and discussion was relegated mostly to philosophical or religious speculation.

The easy problem has increasingly been better understood and analyzed with the expanded use of research methods that allow a birds eye view of real time brain function with fMRI, PET scans, and MEG techniques. In other words, the brain is beginning to reveal many of its secrets providing images that demonstrate the dynamic and interactive relationships between different functional and anatomical areas of the brain.

The easy problem really not easy, but it provides a way to make solid inroads into the living brain. By studying the myriad of cerebral paths and functional centers, research can, little by little piece together how the brain gathers and processes information. This information allows us to better observe how cognitive processes become the different observable behaviors.

As the general dynamic function of the brain comes together, neuroscience and cognitive science is beginning to ponder the hard question more seriously. That is, what is this element that seems to rise above the machinations of cognition? It is described as that general hard to define “experience” or that quality (described by some as qualia) of cognition that is higher order thought (HOT). In other words, it is that internal sense of awareness of our thoughts; a consciousness of consciousness.

In spite of the incredible advances in neuroscience, understanding consciousness at this higher level continues to be a speculative area. Even so, reviewing the current theories neuroscientists have floated offers a glimpse into our minds.

Neuroscientist Gerald Edelman created the phrase ‘neural Darwinism” to describe a dynamic model of the brain, not unlike natural selection, where neurons develop a plethora of connections that are later weeded out, discarded or reinforced based on life experience and interaction with the environment. Edelman describes this concept and consciousness itself as a biological phenomenon.

He defines consciousness as a process that involves awareness that is continuous and changing, is inexhaustible, and can be modified or modulated by attention. Further, Edelman describes two sets of consciousness that together provide the functionality and qualities of human thinking that has led philosophers, scientists, and others to ponder the hard questions of dualism verses monism and the implications of each (i.e.; deism and theism).

A primary level of consciousness, probably attained by other animals, is the combination and interaction of perceptual brain function (sight, hearing, touch) and memory to create a set of mental constructs (qualia) of the world and connect them temporally creating the capacity to learn.

The second level, born somewhere during hominid evolution, is the ability to narrate, to develop syntax, language, and symbolic reference. This is described as mentioned, by being conscious of your consciousness. This begs the question- is this phenomenon part of the natural working of the brain or is it separate and outside of it and the material world?

Some theories of consciousness

It is here where the theories of the hard problem take substance and form. There are a series of interesting ideas posited by philosophers and neuroscientists that are worth a brief description providing a panorama of current thought.

The classic duel between dualistic and monistic mind/body concepts seems to be less marked among the scientists and philosophers researching consciousness. Here, a variety of monistic theories are generally favored, although some theories come tantalizingly close to a dualistic approach.

Some of the basic theories are:

  • Idealism- The reverse of materialist monism; it is a kind of ‘spiritual” monism. All things are essentially mind and perceptions of the material world are ideas put into the mind.

  • Eliminativism- An extreme version of materialistic views, it claims that experience, as Daniel Dennett describes, “is a myth and an artifact of misguided theorizing. " As sensory input creates higher levels of consciousness, these states reflect “data structures” in the brain and those sensory perceptions we call qualia and consciousness are illusions."

  • Identity Theory- The physical brain and the mind are the same and though it acknowledges that consciousness exists and is not something separate from the functioning of neurons. As Identity theorist Paul Churchland describes: “The human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process.”

  • Functionalism: A “softer” version of materialism it describes the process involved in the brain states, not the states themselves, as conscious. For example, it is the pattern and sequence of neuronal activity not the neurons, which produce the conscious state.

  • Emergence: A form of functionalism that claims that a complex system can produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is not dualism per se as it requires that matter comes first implying that consciousness is a by product or epiphenomenon.

  • Biological naturalism: Described by John Searle it states that the essential relationships between the physical and non-physical properties of consciousness are causal. Each causes the other. Searle states: “each molecule in a liquid is affected by the liquidity of the system, even though there is nothing there but molecules and in the conscious brains each neuron in the conscious portions of the system can be affected by the consciousness of the brain, even though there is nothing there but neurons.”

  • Quantum explanations: A minority opinion states that Quantum effects take place in the micro tubules within the cell walls of neurons and are the source of consciousness. Other theories describe a “field” where distributed phenomena can become entangled to create consciousness.

The best way to discover which of these and other theories of the hard problem hold weight is to continue to study the brain and its dynamic function; that is to persist in solving the easy problems. In that way, many of the present dilemmas may resolve themselves.


Kruglinski,S. The Cogitator; The brain (15-23).Spring, 2007

Carter, R. Exploring Consciusness.Univ of CA Press.Los Angeles.2002

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