I have never been a fan of the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. In part, this is probably because I never have considered myself a philosopher. While, like most people, I have some “philosophical” ideas, philosophy itself as a formal, academic discipline always has seemed like an elaborate form of intellectual activity serving no practical purpose. Count me a pragmatist if we must pick a philosophical word, I am more interested in science and results than elaborately spun arguments which seem to turn back on themselves in the end. I have written previously about the “hard problem” which I consider something of a trap for scientists (armchair or otherwise) since in my opinion it is inherently unanswerable. We cannot answer why red is red or green is green any more than we can answer why there is something rather than nothing. Many neuroscientists seem to suspect the problem is unsolvable and avoid it altogether. This does not seem to stop some physicists and other scientists from trying to solve it with a “just physics and chemistry” answer while omitting almost all of the in-betweens, leaving consciousness almost as much of a mystery as the philosophers.
While I think the exact and rigid form of the “hard problem” is unsolvable (and probably meaningless), that does not mean that I think a weaker form of the problem might not be meaningful. Give me some explanation how qualia, which seem very immaterial, arise from matter. Certainly the “just physics and chemistry” answer is inadequate, even if it is ultimately correct, because we can explain everything the same way. Neuroscientists, for the most part, barely improve on that answer when they answer it is “just neurons firing”. “Just neurons firing”, like “just physics and chemistry”, will likely be ultimately correct but it does not tell me the important thing: how do neurons firing result in something that looks like our experience? It does not do enough to fill the gap between electrochemical activity in a piece of meat to something that looks to us on the inside like what we call mind.
For the most part, neuroscientists have been disappointing in their answers.
Until now. I have now read an interesting explanation that at least provides some plausible “in-betweens” even if it does not have all the answers. What is more, it was written in book published nearly twenty years ago.
The book is I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self by Rodolfo R. Llinás. Llinás is a professor at the NYU School of Medicine. He has had a long career with numerous publications and credits for scientific contributions. He even has a law named after him: Llinás’s law or law of no interchangeability of neurons.
Llinás believes the brain and nervous system developed to enable intelligent locomotion. The brain’s ability to predict the outcome of future events – actions by the body itself –was central to its evolutionary development. Without intelligent locomotion, based on prediction, an organism could not find food or avoid becoming food. For Llinás the brain is a reality emulator. It is closed system. Llinás writes:
It is primarily a self-activating system, one whose organization is geared towards the generation of intrinsic images… the central nervous system must have developed over evolutionary time as a neuronal network that initially handled very simple connectivity relations between sensory and motor systems. As the nervous system evolved, the constraints generated by the coordinate system that describe the body were slowly embedded into a functional space within the nervous system.
Llinás looks to the oscillating patterns of neurons firing synchronously as central to how the brain works. He believes organisms come pre-wired to a considerable extent with the patterns needed to move the body, to understand and interact with the world. Learning is about selecting and tweaking the pre-existing patterns, modifying them based on experience in the world.
While many neuroscientists hardly mention consciousness or subjectivity, Llinás takes the question head on:
Is subjectivity necessary at all? Why is it not just enough to see and react, as robot might do? What advantage is conferred on the organism by actually experiencing something over just doing it? It is important to consider that animals may not have subjectivity but only react as if they do. Some in this field point out that because we cannot determine that animals do have subjective feeling (qualia), we can say in fact they don’t until it is demonstrated otherwise. It may be argued, however, that the burden of proof is on those who deny subjectivity in animals. For myself, I suspect that subjectivity is what the nervous system is all about, even at the most primitive levels of evolution. As an obvious corollary to that suspicion, I also suspect that consciousness as the substrate for subjectivity does not exist outside the realm of nervous system function or its nonbiological equivalent, if there is any.
Llinás is willing to take the idea that subjectivity arises at the most primitive levels of evolution to single cell organisms. He points to single cell animals as capable of irritability – the ability to respond to stimuli and react in a goal directed way. He is not saying single cell organisms are conscious but that the ancestry of subjectivity can be found in such capabilities. (I have noted that both cilia and flagella, which serve as stimuli detectors and provide an able for movement, are constructed with a microtubule, cytoskeleton-based structure like that found neurons.)
Llinás, however, rejects any notion that single neurons are conscious. Consciousness arises in the global activity patterns of many neurons oscillating and firing in resonance. This time ordered coherence mapped on top of the possibilities of spatial structure create “almost infinite possibilities of combinations” to represent the world. “Temporal coherence is believed to be the neurological mechanism that underlies perceptual unity, the binding together or conjunction of independently derived sensory components, called ‘cognitive binding’.” He points especially to the global 40 hertz generated by the thalamocortical system as a potential candidate for the creation of this coherence. The self, in his view, arises from this.
This temporally coherent event that binds, in the time domain, the fractured components of external and internal reality into a single construct is what we call the “self.” It is a convenient and exceedingly useful invention on the part of the brain. It binds; therefore, I am! Temporal coherence not only generates the self as a composite, singly perceived construct, but creates a single seat or centralization from which the predictive functions of the brain, so critical to survival, may operate in a coordinated fashion.
Since Llinás thinks consciousness or subjectivity arises from primitive evolutionary origins, it is not surprising that he thinks qualia does also.
My argument is that sensory experience leading to active movement (motricity) through the function of prediction is the ultimate reason for the very existence of the central nervous system. If one takes into consideration the fact that perception itself- through any sense modality – has become the elaborate process we see now through the course of evolution, then the most parsimonious view is that sensory experience, qualia, must be primordial in the global organization of nervous system function. In fact, qualia must represent a significant and influential drive through evolution.
Perhaps not surprisingly Llinás returns to the irritability feature of single cell organisms to explain the actual nature of qualia. The ability of such an organism to respond to stimuli and act with intentionality constitute a sort of primitive sensory function. Qualia then “represent a specialization of such primitive sensorium”. As the nervous system evolved as multicellular units, qualia arose from the properties of single cells amplified by acting in concert with other similar cells.
Llinás draws a comparison between muscle cells and sensory cells. Muscle cells are organized with the skeletal system so they when they fire in unison the force of each cell is additive to the other cells. Llinás thinks that a similar summing operation is happening with sensory cells to produce the sort of corporate feelings in high organisms.
Of course, Llinás acknowledges, a significant difference is the force generated by muscle contraction is obvious and measurable. The product of sensory cells firing in unison seemingly less substantial and, he writes, “corresponds to nothing we know about at this moment, inside a cell.” Also, he notes, neurons supporting qualia do not seem obviously different from other neurons currently, whereas muscle cell do have a unique structure.
An obvious candidate for the product of firing sensory cells that Llinás does not write about is an electromagnetic field. Such a field (or perhaps fields) manifesting in time ordered coherence mapped over the spatial structures of the brain are exactly what electromagnetic theories of consciousness theorize to be the substrate of consciousness. What is more, such a field could additionally provide feedback to neuron firing by triggering additional firings. The additive effect of multiple fields could, in addition, overlap with weaker fields to explain the simplification of reality that our internal reality emulator seems to generate. Both possible attributes might help to provide more insight into the question of the “advantage is conferred on the organism by actually experiencing something”.
All in all, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self is a fascinating and non-technical book. I’ve hit some of the major highlights but there is still a good bit more I have left out.