111 What I’ve learned about the hard problem of consciousness

[00:00:00] Al Scott: Computer scientists have shown that neuronal networks representative of our brains can be simulated in computers and trained to perform specific computational tasks. They seem to learn. They seem to process information similar to how we process information.

[00:00:23] The Rational View is a weekly series hosted by me, Dr. Allen Scott, providing a rational evidence based perspective on important societal issues.

[00:00:34] Soapbox Media LLC: Produced by Soapbox Media.

[00:00:39] Al Scott: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Rational View. I’m your host, Dr. Al Scott. This is a vacation episode for me enjoying some summer vacation with the family.

[00:00:49] So in this episode, I wanted to summarize some of my findings regarding consciousness. I’ve been exploring consciousness and the, the hard problem of consciousness. For some time now, I’ve been [00:01:00] interviewing experts and there’s a, I’ve encountered a huge diversity of thought on the topic of thought.

[00:01:07] It’s called the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem is apparently to explain why we have a subjective experience of existence. So this one’s gonna be my, maybe a little bit of a summary of what I’ve learned and maybe some speculation about consciousness, my thoughts on the topic. So sit back and relax.

[00:01:31] Pour yourself a cold one and enjoy. If you like what you’re hearing. Please press like on your podcast app and share it with your friends. Come join us on my Facebook group, The Rational View, and, and ask any questions you’d like to. So what have I learned over these several episodes? I’ve encountered some amazing experts on some great opinions.

[00:01:52] The problem of consciousness is hard, I think to a certain extent because people don’t agree on an [00:02:00] objective set of criteria. About what consciousness really entails. And if you can’t define it, if there’s no clear definition, then how can you study it? How can you say anything definitive about it at all?

[00:02:12] It’s such a subjective thing to say that I have an experience and philosophers have been debating this for, for centuries. So it was no surprise that it’s hard to come to a conclusion and that the thought is so diverse. Philosophers fall back on the word. Qualia when they’re discussing experience, first person experience, things that cannot be explained in other words or that we have not come up with a good definition for.

[00:02:43] And they call these things qualia, which really mean first person experiences that cannot be otherwise defined. And it’s a bit of a circular definition is it’s those set of first person experiences which evade any objective definition. [00:03:00] First of all, before I go through what I’ve learned, I want to speculate a little bit about what the definition of consciousness is and what, what do I know about it.

[00:03:09] So relax and close your eyes and sit back and unless you’re driving or refueling a nuclear reactor, of course, and speculate with me on the question of, of what is, what is consciousness? So to start out with what is consciousness, what is thought? When I’m always either trying to make a prediction or a, a post diction in the case of an unknown past event, trying to predict what others might do or perhaps what the results of my actions will be.

[00:03:41] In this way, thought is a bit like science to me. I, I attempt to impose my model of the universe and of other people on the current situation in an attempt to predict an outcome and to; Assess my options in a scenario. My [00:04:00] model of the universe appears to be based on sets of observations gathered throughout my life, modified to a certain extent by extrapolations beyond the set of observations.

[00:04:12] A second thing that I do when I’m thinking is to assess relationships between concepts. Concepts I think are observables or sets of observables with some identifying relationship. Now, this mode of thought is a little bit like math, I think, and this mode one can extrapolate beyond observations by predicting the results of new possible relationships between concepts.

[00:04:41] So then this gets me to what am I? This makes me think, what am I that I can impose a model on an observation? What am I that I can make an observation? What is, what is me? And this is the the core question about consciousness. I can compare my observations to my predictions [00:05:00] and update my models in my brain or what I think is happening in my brain.

[00:05:06] I can exist, I can actually just merely exist without thinking, without processing thought. I’m. Observing, gathering observations, perhaps creating memories. I can remember past observations. I feel like I am defined by my past observations, or, or more correctly my recollections of my past observations. My memories in that the models that I have in my brain must be composed entirely by these past observations are, are mostly unless there is an aspect of, of inheritance or genetic determinants in, in the pathways of my brain.

[00:05:53] So existing without thinking, so I’m not thought. Right? I, I also have emotions [00:06:00] which are another aspect often associated with observations; emotions, I think are impulses to act without emotion. There would be little motivation. I, I suspect that emotions are the influence, which the biological process of bodies and continuance of the species.

[00:06:21] These are the things that hold over my mind as so as to promote this endless cycle of, of struggle and, and rebirth. I can also act to affect changes to my environment. I and my thought processes, and even my memories can be affected by that environment. My identity, what I think of as me, is thought and memories and emotions.

[00:06:51] Mostly memories. I think. I suspect that if my memories were lost to me, I wouldn’t be me anymore. [00:07:00] Another identity might be born from the body, which I currently find myself in. Amnesia would seem to be quite similar in, in my mind to the concept of, of reincarnation that some religions experience or, or, or hold as, as possible after death experiences.

[00:07:19] But I think amnesia. Is very similar. You don’t have your memories which define you as you really, without those memories, you’re not you anymore. You’re, you’re going to start as a set of models in your head. I, I suspect that any new identity that would emerge after I’ve lost my memories might share the models which I’ve constructed as, as the science seems to indicate.

[00:07:42] That the models of, of knowledge might be encoded in our neuronal networks in our brain. The neuronal connections is supported by computer science and neural nets and learning models that we have some sort of a, a working model in our brain that is, that is [00:08:00] intricately linked to these neuronal interconnections.

[00:08:04] What other observations do we have about consciousness? I know I sleep. There are times when I am not. Some of my memories consist of, of dreams from these. Between times. These dreams are memories that are inconsistent with my model based expectations. So I don’t believe they correspond to the reality that we all share.

[00:08:30] They seem to be very specific to me in my mind, and when I discuss them with other people, they’re, they’re not the same, and they don’t correspond to the shared reality that we seem to inhabit. Sometimes I become aware that I am dreaming and then I awaken, or at least my perception shifts to the consistent model I associate.

[00:08:52] With not dreaming. I appear to be linked to this single body on a, a [00:09:00] space show, temporal path. Or to put it another way, my observations appear, always to be sequential to and consistent with a set of memories that have brought me to this time and place. What do we make of this? What is this me, this eye, this, this.

[00:09:22] Being that we all think we are? Well, neuroscience has progressed significantly and is able to interrogate the activity of the neuronal networks in our brains. Magnetic resonance imaging studies show that certain areas of the brain are consistently activated by thinking certain thoughts. Computer scientists have shown that neuronal networks representative of our brains.

[00:09:51] Can be simulated in computers and trained to perform specific computational tasks. They seem to learn. They seem [00:10:00] to process information similar to how we process information. And there’s also tantalizing evidence starting to emerge that quantum processes could be involved in consciousness and physicists have put together.

[00:10:15] What I would call hypothesis at this point, I wouldn’t grant the status of theory to any theory, any of these hypotheses of mind, Penrose, and Hammer off being the most famous of these posit that the, the microtubule organelle networks in each living cell are actually powerful quantum computers.

[00:10:36] And that, this is where the thinking. Processing happens and that the, the neuronal networks are a way to tie these together, but each cell is a super computer. Is there any evidence of this? Well, I interviewed physicist Jack Kazinski and he’s shown that there are unexplained photo resonance processes that can occur in these very microtubules [00:11:00] that would be consistent with long lived quantum superpositions necessary.

[00:11:06] For quantum processing. Like the, the quantum computers do. Now this isn’t definitive. This isn’t this needs to be backed up with more study and we need to figure out what these resonances mean and how, if at all, they are linked to thinking is not. Clear at this point. But I did interview Dr.

[00:11:27] Kazinski and, and he went over his work with me and it was very interesting to, to learn where it might lead. And he actually is not necessarily a supporter of Penrose’s modified quantum mechanics, but he does think that these microtubules may be in, are, are consistent anyways with processing.

[00:11:48] I also interviewed Famous Dr. Luca Turin, who’s shown convincingly using anesthesia that electrons spin. Polarization in fruit flies is directly [00:12:00] correlated with consciousness. So here we have a measurement of an an esoteric physical phenomenon that goes away. When we apply anesthetic to fruit flies and it comes back when you remove it, and this is a really cool finding and, and points, maybe the direction of where we should be studying and what hypotheses we should be discussing.

[00:12:25] To explain consciousness, and it was a great interview with Dr. Turin. I really enjoyed it. I, I highly suggest you go back and look at it after this, but this work provides a potential link between consciousness and the chiro basis of all biology that Is represented by amino acids, encoded by DNA, and chiro means handedness.

[00:12:48] These hilosees have a handedness. They’re either right handed or left handed, and all of biology shares the same handedness. And we know that electrons going through wires made of [00:13:00] DNA or, or RNA, for example, can become. Spin, polarized, and these measurements of spin polarization could be linked to the basic building blocks of, of life.

[00:13:12] And, and this could enlighten the mystery that’s really unexplained as to why all of life is, is chiro the way it is. This is not, This was not an expected result of neuronal processing based theories of mind because neurons communicate through electrical impulses in electromagnetic fields that in general are mediated without any need for spin polarization.

[00:13:38] Now, maybe this is just on aside of the consciousness processing and is not directly related. It could just be correlated but not causative. And this is something we always have to watch out for in science is correlation without causation. Because  there you could really get yourself mixed up if you, if you believe that this is positive without proof.

[00:13:59] So far we’ve [00:14:00] found correlations. These are kind of indicators as to where to look for for more evidence, more proof. And Dr. Turin notes that consciousness seems to be tightly linked to electron currents in the energy producing mitochondria of cells. That’s what his experiment is suggesting. That’s the, the, the basic truth that comes out of this work.

[00:14:22] And his work leads to some work or is very closely associated with work by Dr. Mash. Matthew Fit. Dr. Matthew Fisher, who I have not been able to interview, but he’s proposed a potentially viable model that cubits the, the basic. Building blocks of quantum computers that humanity is now building and trying to associate and maintain stable, coherent quantum superpositions to do really high powered processing that classical computers cannot match in certain aspects in certain special projects.

[00:14:58] Dr. Fisher [00:15:00] has proposed a model with that nuclear spin qubits in certain molecules. Could. Stably for years in mitochondria. Now this is really cool. Nuclear spin polarization is one of those methods that an engineers chose as the basis of quantum computers because they’re very stable against environmental perturbations, normal quantum Superpositions would break down within Femtoseconds without some sort of way to isolate them from the environment, from bouncing off of other nuclei and transitioning and losing their alignment effectively.

[00:15:38] So a lot of scientists are skeptical that any sort of quantum superposition that would be associated with quantum processing in the brain and in the mind could actually be stable in life forms. But life continues to surprise us and, and with billions of years of, of evolutionary processes being evolutionary enhanced [00:16:00] behind it it’s not surprising that cells.

[00:16:04] Have been able to figure out to do some things that we have not in, It’s in, It’s the application of natural selection and randomization. Over billions of years and billions of generations have have brought us to the stage that we’re at. Despite all this work, despite all this wonderful work, we still don’t really know how memories are stored, and this is one of the.

[00:16:29] Core aspects of consciousness and awareness and, and our identities. Memories don’t seem to be localized to a single region of the brain, but they’re stored in a distributed fashion that can withstand the loss of individual brain regions. People can lose chunks of their brain, but they won’t lose memories.

[00:16:47] The memories seem to be holographically stored in the whole of the brain in some fashion. Some scientists think that it’s the, the neural network itself that patterns of [00:17:00] fields. Firing from new neutrons, firing electromagnetic signals back and forth, and code memories in, in the ratios of synaptic strengths.

[00:17:12] So, now going to the philosophy a little bit, what does this mean toward, what does all of this that we’ve discussed mean in regards to the hard problem of consciousness? Well, philosophers have outlined several approaches to explaining awareness. One of the popular methods to explain it is called panpsychism, which means that everything has.

[00:17:35] Some element of self-awareness down to the smallest particle. But the level of awareness varies depending on maybe the size of the object. It’s not really clear what the criteria are to focus this awareness to create minds and I interviewed Dr. Sangha Manon, who’s a, a Hindu scholar, and she [00:18:00] described.

[00:18:00] The elements of Panpsychism that permeate Hinduism and. Honestly there were a lot of words and not having studied it. A lot of concepts that I, I wasn’t familiar with. So I struggled a little bit to follow some of those things. But it’s clear that Hindus have an idea of a barma consciousness, which kind of permeates the universe, but it’s not a, an act of awareness.

[00:18:29] Dr. John Dunn also a really good interview. He’s a, a Buddhist philosopher. He’s described how Buddhist also share some panist model of the universe. And I really enjoyed that interview. It was cool to learn because a lot of scientists and physicists actually suppose a Buddhist. Model of, of the universe.

[00:18:52] And it’s mainly a model of, of humanity and, and how we find ourselves in this, in this, [00:19:00] in this universe and how we assess value and interact with the world. So in that way, it’s, it’s not maybe as prescriptive as some of the other religious models of the universe and, and may resonate more with scientific minds.

[00:19:17] The entire pan psychic approach will relax is, in my opinion, a well defined scientific theory to describe how these diverse, aware elements come together to create individual awarenesses. There’s a lot of hand waving about vibrations and synchronous firings of em fields. But it’s, it’s horribly indistinct from my perspective.

[00:19:46] So into this bucket of, of pan psychic theories fall, a number of quantum mechanics based and field based theories that suggest that certain physical processes such as wave, function, collapse [00:20:00] or, or continuous em fields in these things, intrinsic to the nature of the universe are the source of all awareness.

[00:20:10] And, and this is similar to the the Penrose Hammer Hoff model of orchestrated objective, reduction of the wave function. Philosopher of consciousness. Dr. Arthur Reber had a great interview with him. Was fun to talk to a majority of cellular biologists as well. Believe that individual cells show sentient behaviors and although.

[00:20:33] Lacking a solid definition that would differentiate these behaviors from non sentient programmed complex program sense response effects. It seems like this is a possible theory that may be descriptive of what we’re seeing. I know people that observe cells believe they’re sentient and really lacking a good definition of sentient.

[00:20:56] Perhaps they’re correct. Dr. Michael Levin [00:21:00] who is also a, a great interview ha, has described. Some very intriguing emergent behaviors from groups of cells, individual cells that are mediated by electrical and, and chemical signaling. Amongst the group tries to answer questions of how do cells self-organize?

[00:21:19] So he’s trying to answer these cells, which may also these, these questions, which may also address going from panpsychism. Up to minds because cells do self-organized. They can make shapes and body features and maintain these shapes for years. And, you know, he’s studying how this gets disrupted in cancer and, and how you can regrow severed connections of things like that.

[00:21:43] So a really groundbreaking research being done in his lab. And he’s got some really very interesting things to say about how, and very interesting questions. I think this whole field is mostly questions and, and fewer answers, but that’s what makes it great for scientific [00:22:00] exploration. It’s a ripe field for, for learning.

[00:22:03] So competing with these pan psychic models. Is the thought outlined by Dr. Bernardo Castro of a single universal awareness that is fragmented into individual consciousnesses somehow, and this is ill defined again but this universal consciousness, Gives parts of itself into a sort of a schizophrenic world here where we’re all part of a single consciousness, but we’re, we’re split off and isolated from it by our, our brains and our brains somehow entrap.

[00:22:41] Bits or, or vortices of, of the universal consciousness to become individual consciousness consciousnesses. And this has a, a nice feel to it. You know, you feel like you’re going to return to the universal consciousness upon your death. And that you’re in a temporary state and you’ve got this thing to look forward to.

[00:22:59] And [00:23:00] this has similarity to, again, the, the religious views as well. It’s always very comforting to know that in some way, your consciousness will continue after the body is dead. Now, a third route to the hard problem of consciousness is of course, to suggest that it’s. That consciousness and awareness is an emergent property that comes from complex networks of information processing activities.

[00:23:28] This is a hotly contested hypothesis and it’s still viable in my opinion. Many people will say that processing can be completely represented by moving matter and energy from one place to another in an extremely complex network of motions obviously. And that any combination of movements, no matter how complex, won’t result in a qualitatively different thing like qualia or subjective experience.

[00:23:57] Others will say that [00:24:00] Consciousness could be a could emerge as a side effect of the way the body processes information that creates consciousness. Others would suggest that qualia are convenient, illusions that don’t really need to be described. These are things that are. Arise as illusions. We know that our processing networks create illusions for us all the time.

[00:24:25] We know that our brains fill in details of scenes. We’re not seeing the entire scene that we look at right now. There are holes in our retina that are filled in by our brains and optical illusions. Can fool our brains into thinking. One thing is there when it’s not. Our minds are able to register smooth and complete scenes that are pasted together to re from relatively stochastic updates from our sensing network of eyes and ears and noses and discrete bits of information.

[00:24:56] So why not Qualia? Why? Could [00:25:00] these not be illusions that are post HOK assembled by our, our, our consciousness, whatever it is, our processing network, whichever makes it up. And all of this sound and noise and confusion, I think is going to prune down as we learn more about neurons. But another concept that I want to touch on before I sum up, before I end this this.

[00:25:25] Podcast is, is a question about free will that I also have investigated partly through the podcast is, is free will even distinguishable from  determinism? If chaos theory tells us we can’t predict a sufficiently the, the outcome of a sufficiently complex, simple, deterministic system. If we can’t predict it, what’s the difference between a deterministic universe and one that’s not deterministic?

[00:25:57] And how does free will influence the [00:26:00] physical? How do our, what we believe is our free will influence the development of the universe and future events. Philosopher Bertran Brussel suggests, This is not, the determinism is not an impediment to the concept of free will, even if the universe is completely physically deterministic.

[00:26:21] That doesn’t mean that we would not act in accordance with our preferences and appear to have free will. Even though there is only one possible future based on how the initial conditions of the universe came out, no one can know what that future is. Because it’s too complex to predict, and no one can know with certainty the initial conditions of all the particles, just because of the basics of physics show that it’s impossible to know.

[00:26:50] Many people, however, like Dr. Ruth Kasner, who I, who I interviewed on the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, take comfort [00:27:00] that quantum mechanics provides a degree of randomness in the future, and that this randomness. She feels is necessary for free will to exist. There are philosophical issues.

[00:27:12] If the universe is deterministic, do we really have free will? No matter what we choose was predetermined. So, but if nobody knows what this predetermination was and no one can predict it. What’s it worth? This is a very philosophical question that I can’t tell you the answer to, but there, there’s, there’s philosophers on both sides of the issue.

[00:27:34] And then this is always the case until experiments come along. Experiments suggest that in terms of free will Muscle activity can be monitored. When and when we’re people are told choose randomly to press a button, we know that the muscle activity can ramps up before we’re consciously able to tell that [00:28:00] we’re about to press the button so our actions can be predicted before we’re aware of them.

[00:28:07] And these, So this type of experiment suggests that free will is an illusion that our brain is gonna do something and our consciousness rationalizes what we did. Although it appears that we are choosing to do something. Now, experiments suggest these things. But you can interpret these experiments in multiple ways.

[00:28:33] This interpretation and this interpretation. Our consciousness is a passive observer that interprets actions of a zombie or blind sighted body. But I kind of feel this isn’t true, and this is my opinion. Subjects in this experiment were asked to act at random times, and their conscious mind responded to the request.

[00:28:55] So perhaps this experiment is merely evidence that the conscious mind uses [00:29:00] buildup of muscle potentials as a temporal randomness trigger. It’s unclear to me that this is a definitive experiment. Again, it’s suggestive, but not definitive. In summary, and I’m just gonna wrap this up because I’ve really enjoyed talking with you about this and I love exploring this issue, and I’m very grateful that I get to talk to all of these experts and, and explore this issue with you.

[00:29:23] And I, I appreciate you coming along. If you’ve gotten this far in the podcast this is a bit of a journey through the mind in summary. We just don’t know yet what consciousness is or where it comes from. My advice to any of you who are interested in the topic is to stay tuned to the field of neurobiology and see where the discoveries lead.

[00:29:44] I’m excited to follow some of these discoveries in, in spintronics and, and consciousness. I expect that as we learn more, we’re gonna get closer to asking the right questions. [00:30:00] About what consciousness is and where it comes from, and that is the first step in knowing. We have a lot to learn, Thank you for listening. [00:30:13] If you’d like to follow up with more in depth discussions, please come find us on Facebook at the Rational View. Join our discussion group. If you like what you’re hearing, please consider visiting my patron Page @patron.podbean.com/therationalview. Thanks for listening.

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