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Conscious Thought?

  1. Apr 10, 2010 #1


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    I was wondering why we have conscious thought. We have clarified (have we?) that atoms and molecular structures have no conscious thought at all. Why, then, do we possess conscious thought, if we are (and this is a very simple way of putting it) simply giant molecular structures? Could this mean that, for example, in a quartz rock, it is undergoing conscious thought?

    Another thought I had was that, if it were possible to reconstruct my body with an identical molecular structure, would I be the same?

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 11, 2010 #2
    This is still an open question.
  4. Apr 11, 2010 #3


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    There are some who want to argue that even rocks might have awareness of some kind if consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter - google panpsychism. Philosopher David Chalmers is one proponent.

    But the better way to think of things is that complex structures have both their substance and their form - both what they are made of, and the organisation they enjoy.

    So consciousness arises as just the way it is to be a collection of materials with a specific kind of organisation. You need both the substance and the form of course, which would rule out souls too.

    Being a giant molecular structure does not mean having the right organisation. A theory of consciousness would largely be a theory of the correct organisational descriptions (as a description of the substances, the chemistry and even the biology, does not seem so challenging).

    The best theories of organisation are all varieties of systems thinking - complex adaptive systems, anticipatory systems, hierarchy theory, dissipative structure theory. This sounds like a bunch of different theories, but in fact they all share common self-organisational properties.

    People are always saying science cannot explain consciousness, it is not even close. Actually we have a bunch of models that do make much of it feel explained. But the models are not widely taught. They are certainly not part of the public "consciousness".
  5. Apr 12, 2010 #4
    This is a question I was wondering about and I'm sure you have some insight on it. First, what field or subfield is most responsible for our current knowledge about consciousness and is most qualified to talk about it? Neuroscientists? And is there a consensus? Like if you asked 10 random experts what consciousness is would all their answers basically be the same? Would they give the same definition? It often seems to be thrown around as some enigmatic term by non-experts.
  6. Apr 12, 2010 #5


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    Consciousness is making the transition from philosophy to neuroscience right now, so both are highly involved in it. You won't get the same answer from asking 10 random experts (from either field).

    Electrical engineers are jumping in on it (Theoretical Neuroscience). Really, a lot of different science subjects are becoming interested (my background is in Physics).

    But still, it's quite up in the air, it's a new frontier for science, and the scientific study will open new frontiers for philosophers (who are helping to lay down concepts and examine the validity of claims currently).
  7. Apr 12, 2010 #6


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    The funny thing is that people made more sense about 100 years ago than they do today. If you read James, Wundt, Kohler, Luria and other old timers, they seem far less confused.

    So extra "knowledge" is not necessarily the issue here. In fact it is the fracturing of expertise, the fragmentation of any big picture, holistic view - along with the rise and rise of mechanicalism, the false computational model - which has made it more difficult for most to see the wood for the trees.

    One thing which I think is fundamental to getting to grips with consciousness is that you have to be willing to make the break between neurology - the naked animal awareness of brain biology (which is actual "consciousness" in terms of the production of qualia, a flow of experience) - and the socially-constructed aspects of human mental processes (the way that language scaffolds a bunch of higher abilities such as self-awareness, recollective memory, reasoning, socialised emotion, etc).

    If you cannot divide "the mind" into its biological and social aspects, they you can't begin to makes sense of it. And sadly, neither neuroscience, nor psychology, as disciplines respect this fundamental divide. So it just causes endless conceptual confusion.

    Consciousness is not one thing. It is a biological ability or process, extended, transformed even, by human language and the socialised mental habits and skills that the logical structuring of language allows.

    For this reason, I found the study of sociology and anthropology just as important as the study of neurology, psychophysics (v. important in fact) and cognitive psychology.

    If we are then just talking about the biology of consciousness, then this is where a systems perspective - drawing in the general models of anticipation, dissipation, hierarchy, complexity, etc - start to create a clear view of the abundant data.

    So there is no one place to start the study. You need to be studying at least four levels of science (neurology, psychology, sociology and anthropology). In fact, child development and human paleo-evolution are very important too. Then as I say, you have a variety of systems science disciplines to give you some maths rigor.

    Computer science and quantum mechanics you can skip. (Only neural networks are useful). Philosophy would also be better avoided. :devil: There are only rare exceptions such as Evan Thompson.

    Consciousness was of course a forbidden subject in the 1970s and much of the 1980s. Then it became possible to talk wildly about it within computer science because people were going to do something useful - build artificial intelligence. What a crock that was (in the UK, most of the Alvey AI grants got diverted to building Ada software engineering environments).

    It then became an official subject known as consciousness studies for a combination of reasons. One important one was Crick and Koch putting forward a soundly reductionist paradigm for research (and so one almost guaranteed to fail) - the hunt for the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC).

    This made sense at the time as experimenters were just able to do the first single cell recordings from the brains of awake and unanaethetised animals. So actually conscious animals. And also PET scanners were arriving, allowing brain recordings on conscious humans. (No matter EEG had been around a long time - it arose in the wrong era).

    So in the early 1990s, it was all coming together in a hopeful way. The Woodstock moment was the first Tucson Towards a Science of Consciousness (yes, I was there). This turned out to be more a QM-fest orchestrated by Hameroff. But everyone thought that was OK. It gave you the duality science requires - the official view (Crick's reductionism) and the loyal opposition (the quantum consciousness merchants).

    For me, the standout guy at Tucson was Walter Freeman - a systems guy of course. Others like Bernard Baars were OK too.

    Anyway, consciousness studies did become a "sub-discipline" in its own right with conferences, journals, forums, university courses.

    As to consensus, there is a general agreement that the hunt for the NCC is important to the field being scientific. There is a consensus that there is a "hard problem" of qualia - material description on its own would seem to have no way of giving a satisfactory theory. There is a lot of consensus (among those in the sub-discipline that is consciousness studies) that the mind is probably a quantum phenomenon, or something else bizarre to science like a coherent EM field.

    You can guess how little I appreciated this consensus and why I disengaged from involvement with "consciousness studies" to instead spend my time talking to theoretical biologists and systems thinkers instead.
  8. Apr 16, 2010 #7
    thanks for the info guys. It is even more complicated than I thought.

    And yes Apeiron, I have seen your disdain for QM in consciousness and people like Penrose getting involved in the subject. It is interesting to hear that this view is popular. I thought it would be fringe. Quantum consciousness sounds like new age stuff. QM is basically being invoked because part of consciousness can't be explained by materialism? So they reduce it to QM?

    You say there is general agreement that NCC is important to the field being scientific. But think it is being overemphasized at the expense of the other fields you mentioned and what they add to the understanding of this subject?
  9. Apr 16, 2010 #8


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    It does seek to reduce the notion of consciousness to localised material actions - whether this is thought of as synaptic activity or QM processes in microtubules or whatever. Whereas I take the view that the reduction must go in both directions - downwards to the substances out of which reality is constructed, but also upwards to the forms that are the constraints on those materials.

    So a search for the NCC does yield something. A view of the material substrate. But it is not approaching the question from the global organisational perspective which is just as much (probably more) a part of the scientific equation (more, as less well understood so far).

    This is why I switched tracks to systems science where the "laws of form" are taken seriously. Understanding neurons and synapses is pretty easy. Understanding self-organisation, adaptive hierarchical structure, anticipatory processing, semiosis, autopoiesis, etc, is the interesting frontier stuff to me.
  10. Apr 16, 2010 #9
    I see, that makes sense. The whole is obviously constrained by the sum of its parts but the parts when brought together form their own, new restraints. The parts are constrained by the whole as well. It's a push from the bottom and top. Like two forces acting on an object.
  11. Apr 16, 2010 #10


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    I would actually disagree with apeiron here (not about QM, but about the consensus). QM Consciousness is considered fringe by the majority of neuroscientists that I've encountered.

    I would also disagree about synapses and neurotransmission in general. As it is taught in my neurobiology class, the neuroscience community really has little understanding of how synapses work. Many consider the medicinal treatment of mental illness to be a sort of empirical guesswork.

    Even what we do know about the events that take place in synapses isn't very straightforward. There's lots of intermediate steps in receptor activation.

  12. Apr 16, 2010 #11


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    That is the radical part of holism. The whole makes the parts and the parts make the whole. It is the success in the way that the whole shapes its own constituent parts, and that these parts self-assemble to recreate that whole, which makes it a "system".

    A computer clearly does not make its own processing parts. But the global constraints placed on a developing brain (from the need to interact with, and thus predict, an environment) shapes up the micro-circuitry to do the job.

    So yes, the totality of the system emerges from two scales of action in interaction - downward constraint and upwards construction.

    We could also talk about this as synergy, mutuality, strange loops, holons - a number of descriptions exist. But I don't believe the logic of systems has been completely worked out in a fully mathematical way yet. Which is why so many earlier descriptions sounded right, but also can be dismissed as too hand wavey.
  13. Apr 16, 2010 #12


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    Yes, not many neuroscientists would take a QM approach these days (though you have Eccles, Libet, Pribram and other well-known, well-respected, neuroscientists who were quite convinced of some kind of coherent field explanation).

    But I was talking of the sub-discipline of consciousness studies that arose in the 1990s - the decade of the brain - where there were many physicists, anaethetists, mathematicians, computer scientists, etc, etc, who bowled up at the various conferences or published in journals like the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

    So at a big consciousness conference, there always had to be a quantum session. But there was never an equivalent holism/systems session, or a social constructionism/Vygotskean/anthropological session.

    I don't know. I just give my impression of how easy I found it to cut through the various disciplines. So psychology, computer science, anthropology - that kind of stuff is dead easy. Neuroscience - a little more difficult. Systems science - now things begin to get conceptually challenging.
  14. Apr 17, 2010 #13
    Everything has a form, yet not everything is conscious.

    So why would some forms be just forms, while other forms (brains) are forms that are also conscious?
  15. Apr 17, 2010 #14


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    The way to approach that question would be through a model of the appropriate form. The form of consciousness is obviously going to be the most complex we would have to model. But the best model would also be the most general. We would want to explain consciousness as a very particular (and more complex) example of some process or structure (ie: some form) that is general to nature (and can be found in much simpler examples too).

    So that is the shape of the task. And I've frequently mentioned the body of models that I consider useful. Anticipatory systems, complex adaptive systems, hierarchy theory, semiosis, dissipative structure theory...and there are more. There is quite a bit of overlap between all these, but each arose in their own domain and so have different terminologies, somewhat different focuses, and they also have different levels of generality. So some apply really only to bios - systems with life and mind - others to a-bios as well (material systems in general).

    Should we have many theories then, or just one model of the form of consciousness? And how general should its level of description be? Should the grain of resolution just capture the mental processes of higher animals, all life, or all dissipative structure (dust devils for example)?

    There are many such questions if you want to do this properly.

    But anyway, a quick answer to give a flavour is that consciousness is anticipation. It is what it is like for a system to model its future and have a running state of expectation about its world, encoded in an intentional way (so purposes and plans are part of the shape of what is being represented in a focused web of predictions).

    A rock does not really anticipate anything in this sense.

    A dust devil does anticipate in some very rudimentary sense. Its own whirling shape predicts its next step, its next state. It encodes a purpose of sorts and it is exploring a landscape of entropic gradients in some (admittedly weak) sense.

    A bacteria anticipates its world both in having some persistent structure, but more through the information stored its genes. It is a living expectation of a set of opportunities and the actions that will be appropriate. Though that state of "mental expectation" does not change much. It takes many generations of bacteria to shift its genetic "state of mind" about the actions and opportunities of its world.

    A frog now is reacting more "in the moment". It has the neural complexity to encode a variety of anticipatory states. It can see what is happening around it and become selective among a remembered repertoire of purposes and responses.

    But the frog's awareness is still very reflexive. It does not see a fly as a fly but as a jerky movement that triggers a targetting activity. But we still see an awareness in the frog, especially in the way it watches, waits, and then makes a prediction about the moment to lunge.

    So we come to higher animals like humans with the mental dexterity to have complete "in the moment" awareness of the world. Or rather, develop and execute anticipatory states with a high degree of novelty in fractions of a second rather than developing them over lifetimes and even multiple generations of genetic adaptation.

    So if I hear the door latch click, I am already expecting one of my kids to walk in the door. And that makes me all the more prepared to react when I am wrong and it is some stranger. Seeing a stranger, I have the mental complexity to generate a fresh state of expectation and anticipation. It takes only around a third to two-thirds of a second to reorientate my running state of mind.

    So purely in the language of anticipatory processing - in the language of that form - I can say something sensible, capture the essence, of "minding" all the way from rocks to humans.

    I am sure you will say, well that is not what I mean by consciousness. But to me, it does capture the "what it is like to be aware" quite successfully. For example, it does explain the frozen pause we often experience when something like a stranger walking into the room does happen. It explains the aha! moment of radical reorientation. It explains how I can hit a tennis ball. It explains why computers and rocks are not conscious in any interesting way.

    The Hard Problem of consciousness, the qualia argument, is the standard objection to any such "material" explanation of consciousness. It is said that we can imagine a brain doing all these things and yet being also unaware, an unfeeling zombie.

    That seems possible if you just take a mental representation approach to neural activity. But to be in a state of anticipation is different. There is first what you were expecting, then what actually happens. A forward model of the world has to feel like something to the modeller. I can't imagine going to all the effort of forming a state of neural expectancy, a living model of my reality that is constantly updating, without it having something "that it is like to be".

    A zombie that is predicting its world no longer sounds like a zombie, does it?
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2010
  16. Apr 17, 2010 #15
    I dont think "anticipation" sounds material, its not mentioned as a physical property in physics and if you are just talking about motion, then i would call it that.

    But i will go along with what you described. You describe this anticipation as something that gets more complex over time, so the dust devil, bacteria, frog, all have a degree of it.

    But there is still the gap between the rock and the dust devil. What is it that the rock completely lacks, but that the dust devil has some of?
  17. Apr 17, 2010 #16


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    It is material in the sense that all forms must be instantiated via substance to actually exist. So I am talking Aristotle rather than Plato here (well, actually Plato also saw the necessity of the chora if you read all the way through to the Timeaus).

    Well, anticipation surely?

    But not completely. When we get down to the level of a-biotic descriptions of nature's forms, the language of dissipative structures becomes more appropriate. All material structure is constrained by the laws of thermodynamics. And even a rock is a dissipative structure.

    For example, a rock could once have been part of a flow of lava (a motion that was dissipating heat, just as a dust devil dissipates the heat of an atmospheric gradient). The rock has now done its work and cooled to an unchanging form.

    So here we can see a difference at the level of form, of purpose. One is still active (in the moment), the other is dormant, a now frozen configuration (ruled by the third law of thermodynamics). This is why the rock seems less interesting, less remarkable.

    The rock is still doing some micro-dissipating of course. It may be warmed by the sun and releasing the heat in degraded fashion. It is being weathered and so contributing to the entropy of the universe in that way.

    So a rock is doing the second law's bidding at a low level tick-over while the dust devil is doing it in a more vigourous, landscape exploring and mobile, way.

    You can then create a hierarchy of dissipative structure. And pound for pound, humans are the greatest dissipative devices ever developed under the constraints of the second law.

    Just think of all that fossil fuel that was locked in the ground like inert rock, going nowhere much, until we came along - the organised dissipative structure of consumer society - willing to dig it up and waste it to entropy in accordance with the desires of the second law.

    If you need proof that "consiousness" is something special, yet also natural, then that would be it.
  18. Apr 18, 2010 #17
    By what device do I determine something does or doesn't have consious thought?
  19. Apr 18, 2010 #18
    And that would mean the rock has a bit of anticipation/consciousness.
  20. Apr 18, 2010 #19


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    Sounds silly, but the modelling approach I suggest would allow that. Though to make things sound more sensible, you might say a rock is a good example of some object which has the least possible degree of these qualities.
  21. Apr 18, 2010 #20
    Maybe you could look at how proactive the system is.

    A rock, a dust-devil are both purely reactive (it seems). They can only react to stimulus, like a strong wind, and only in a 'mechanical' fashion. Note it is not black and white, and they react to varying degrees.
    A frog will also react to the wind - by hiding from it. But a frog, who i propose has a degree of consciousness, may also proact to the wind. It will make it's nest in a sheltered area to avoid the wind, before the wind has even come.
    Humans react too. But we have a greater degree of proaction born from our awareness of the environment. We may react to the wind by pulling up our coller, but we can also proact to the wind by watching the weather reports a deciding to stay in today and visit PF. This really fits in quite well with the idea of a self-organising systems. A greater awareness of the external system allows greater pro-action of our internal system.

    It is interesting that a more complex the physical system seemingly affords a greater level of consciousness or awareness. Consider a simple system - elementary particles have no proactive qualities. The atomic structure of the elements are more complex but still no proaction. Molecular structures the same. Proteins, etc the same.
    Not until you get to very complex systems involving combinations of all these things, like insects, mammals, etc do you get apparent consciousness. I suspect that the higher complexity of the system allows a higher 'level of consciousness'. All guess work but I have been writing a science fiction story based on this and it makes for quite a good story.

    That would be me then.
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