Consciousness - science or philosophy?

There seems to be a widespread problem with philosophical speculation being claimed to be science in neuropsychology. Of course, this is a difficult area - human complexity means that results are unlikely to be simple, there are major ethical and practical challenges, and, because we are humans, there is likely to be significant investigator bias relating to the desired answer and supposed significance. The latest technologies allow us to map where things are happening in the brain in unprecedented detail. But that cannot answer philosophical questions such as determinism; the results can equally be interpreted more or less deterministically. Such questions have also become entangled in political preferences, with claims that more free-will or more deterministic spins are supposedly more in line with Marxist or other popular political errors.

Following up on an item in " Reasons why metaphysics and philosophy of mind are needed to figure out human origins": Time Magazine treated the article as a description of scientific discovery, but in fact it is a proposal of a redefinition of consciousness (conscience was indeed a typo on my part). The journal describes itself as follows: " BBS is the internationally renowned journal with the innovative format known as Open Peer Commentary. Particularly significant and controversial pieces of work are published from researchers in any area of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral biology or cognitive science, together with 20-40 commentaries on each article from specialists within and across these disciplines, plus the author’s response to them. The result is a fascinating and unique forum for the communication, criticism, stimulation, and particularly the unification of research in behavioral and brain sciences from molecular neurobiology to artificial intelligence and the philosophy of the mind." To put a less positive spin, BBS publishes speculation and argument in the hopes of getting lots of citations.

The abstract of the paper in question is as follows: " What is the primary function of consciousness in the nervous system? The answer to this question remains enigmatic, not so much because of a lack of relevant data, but because of the lack of a conceptual framework with which to interpret the data. To this end, we have developed Passive Frame Theory , an internally coherent framework that, from an action-based perspective, synthesizes empirically supported hypotheses from diverse fields of investigation. The theory proposes that the primary function of consciousness is well-circumscribed, serving the somatic nervous system . For this system, consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output, thereby yielding adaptive behavior. The mechanism by which consciousness achieves this is more counterintuitive, passive, and “low level” than the kinds of functions that theorists have previously attributed to consciousness. Passive frame theory begins to illuminate (a) what consciousness contributes to nervous function, (b) how consciousness achieves this function, and © the neuroanatomical substrates of conscious processes. Our untraditional, action-based perspective focuses on olfaction instead of on vision and is descriptive (describing the products of nature as they evolved to be) rather than normative (construing processes in terms of how they should function). Passive frame theory begins to isolate the neuroanatomical, cognitive-mechanistic, and representational (e.g., conscious contents) processes associated with consciousness."

In other words, they redefine consciousness in a narrow sense and find that consciousness is narrower than under other definitions.

Aye, we have always overstated consciousness in our self importance and all the nonsense that goes with it like free will, choice and the shame and judgement that result from that.

Thereby proving that: if you load enough of the right kind of baggage on a donkey, it can’t walk.

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The definition of consciousness is pretty simple: awareness – awareness of self and the environment. Though you do see some definitions blatantly trying to limit this to human awareness.

Google: the awareness or perception of something by a person.

After all it is more than obvious that all living things are aware of themselves and the environment. It is a requirement of the process of life. And I guess they want to believe that human beings are special. Well they are. But it is not because their consciousness is something different, but because of the quantitative differences in scope, complexity, and the use of abstraction and symbolism. These are significant differences but not warranting this ferocious struggle to define it as something qualitatively different. Awareness. That’s it.

The first sentence of the OP’s second paragraph is my cue to respond.

  • For the benefit of thosewho didn’t follow or don’t remember the short walk that Nelson Garcia, initiator of Reasons why metaphysics and philosophy of mind are needed to figure out human origins, and I had, I offer the following recapitulation of that walk.
  • In his OP, Nelson wrote:
    • “I claim: seeing or hearing anything in the external world is impossible, and by extension it is also impossible to smell, taste, or dermal feel by touch anything located in the external world.”
    • “…what is cognized is not something located in the external world, only the appearance-less essence of what is cognized is located in the external world and it is mind what provides all cognized appearances and details.”
    • “In other words, the external world is constituted by force (different levels of force) and appearances or details do not exist there independently, it is only stimuli promoters what lead to appearances or details when mind does its job using the five human senses.”
  • And later, Nelson confirmed that the 5th chapter of a book that he had written was entitled: “Consciousness” which, together with his comments above, moved me to write the post which inspired this thread’s OP, sharing the now “infamous” and, I daresay, maligned Time magazine article: "Why You’re Pretty Much Unconscious All the Time” [Consciousness].
  • Subsequent to my response to Nelson, he replied:
    • “Having made [my] claims I doubt very much you could compare what scientists are discussing about scientific characteristics of consciousness with my new metaphysical concepts on the nature of awareness, consciousness, reception, and perception.”
    • “…one key element I must state at this point, what I present is an explanation of Intelligent Design, not evolution, I do not recognize evolution; only a biological development directed by genetic instructions which were programmed at the moment of indirect creation of the chain of species.”
  • To which, I replied: “Ahhh! That explains the “disconnect” that I experienced when reading your OP. Not to worry; you’ll be better off ignoring me. Take care on Biologos’ “bumper-car” court. Keep your helmet on and your seat belt strapped.”

In other words: If I had realized where Nelson Garcia was coming from and where he was headed, I would never have meddled in his thread. And if I had not meddled in his thread, I would not have picked up new members in my growing fan club. :laughing:

That said, I now find it incumbent on me to explain to new members in my fan club that, although you may think my source for “cutting edge”, “breaking news”, latest scientific discoveries is from Time magazine articles, that’s not true.

You missed your calling. Had you studied to become an anesthesiologist, your definition of consciousness might not be so simple, especially if you had studied to serve in a human hospital and a veterinary hospital.

During his hip replacement, my grandfather had the anesthetic kick in locally before it put him to sleep, hence he could hear what was happening, followed by smelling burnt bone (from sawing through his femur). Soon afterwards, he was given a bit more of the anesthetic.

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My hackles came up at that too. Whatever else it is it is elusive. I side with the philosopher John Searle when he says ultimately the question of consciousness needs to be understood as a bodily function. Just as we understand how the heart works and how the GI tract accomplishes digestion, we need a thorough account of how the brain produces a conscious field. But until that happens philosophy is where you’ll find the best thinking about that unsolved problem along with some of the more loopy ideas.


For anyone who failed to recognize that the donkey in my aphorism is a metaphor for consciousness, consider:

  • It’s easy to load down the topic of consciousness with enough of the right kind of baggage so that the word consciousness becomes meaningless; not so easy, however, to come up with an interesting or useful contribution to the construct.
  • I once was acquainted with fellow who attributed a lot of features to consciousness but denied its roots in material substance, leaving it as barren as a cubic meter of 3-dimensional Absolute Space filled with an infinite number of points and nothing of material substance.
  • At the same time, I was acquainted with a woman who declared that “consciousness” was a synonym for “love” and in whose hands it became so warm and fuzzy that it was impossible to find any other purpose for it.
  • Marvel of marvels, the fellow and the maiden encountered each other in the forum where I met them and began corresponding. I’ve wondered, from time to time, if they would ever take their on-line relationship to the next level and elope.
  • What is “Consciousness”? It’s fine to object to “philosophical speculation being claimed to be science in neuropsychology”, but what are we to think when we find that the neuropsychologists themselves are speculating?
    • In “Levels of consciousness and self-awareness: A comparison and integration of various neurocognitive views” [Consciousness and Cognition 15 (2006) 358–371], Alain Morin wrote:
      “While carefully and clearly defining ‘‘consciousness’’ is certainly desirable (Natsoulas, 1983), this avalanche of new concepts is proving to be fairly confusing (Antony, 2001, 2002). Some theorists formulate their models without making reference to existing views, redundantly adding unnecessary complexity to an already complicated problem. The goal of this paper is to present and compare nine recent models of levels of consciousness to extract points of convergence and divergence. In order for the task at hand to be manageable, I will exclusively focus on neurocognitive (and to some extent developmental) theories and deliberately neglect more philosophical ideas.” Excuse me? "Nine neurocognitive theories and Morin deliberately neglected “more philosophical ideas”???
  • For something more current, I found an on-line publication dated 2019 Jan 30: Neuropsychology of Consciousness: Some History and a Few New Trends which tells me:

The philosopher Searle (1993) defines consciousness as “those subjective states of sentience or awareness that begin when one awakes in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until one goes to sleep at night or falls into a coma, or dies, or otherwise becomes, as one would say, ‘unconscious.”’ While this terse definition captures many essential aspects of the natural dichotomy between consciousness and unconsciousness, as well as their relations with the physiological sleep-wake cycle and with the pathology of consciousness, it requires several qualifications based on current neuroscientific knowledge. It is true that there is a strong association between wakefulness and consciousness, but to be awake does not necessarily mean to be conscious, and to be asleep does not necessarily mean to be unconscious. Brain damaged patients in the vegetative state are persistently unaware of themselves and their environment, despite exhibiting irregular sleep-wake cycles whereby waking occurs with eye opening, but without any meaningful contact with the environment. Brief dissociations between consciousness and a wakeful appearance characterize the absence seizures or the complex partial seizures of epileptic patients and can be interpreted as momentary vegetative states (Plum and Schiff, 2003), although the presence of a minimal form of consciousness in at least some cases cannot be excluded (Bayne, 2011).

(Note: Published via .)

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I’m going to go out on a limb here, which is what my friends down at the local bar tend to do, and offer some initial thoughts on “the nature of consciousness”, with more to be added if and when they occur to me.

  • Dead humans don’t appear to exhibit any detectable signs of “consciousness” so, IMPPO (i.e. “in my possibly-premature opinion”) we can say that the dead don’t have it. However, the reverse of that is a risky opinion: Just because a living thing doesn’t appear to be conscious is no guarantee that it’s dead.
  • That Free Will requires consciousness seems to me to be a safe bet; ergo, I surmise that the Dead don’t have Free Will. :laughing:
  • My understanding is that " We test a theory by means of its predictions. For example, a theory may predict that light bends under certain conditions, or that a liquid will change colour if sprayed with acid, or that a psychotic person will respond badly to particular stimuli. If the predicted event fails to occur, then this is evidence against the theory.
    A theory cannot be tested when it makes no predictions. It is also untestable when it predicts events which would occur whether or not the theory were true." Ergo, I think, a theory of consciousness that is untestable is speculative at best.

dead humans? :confused:

Do you mean human remains? Or are you referring to when Jesus said in Luke 9:60, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” So by “dead humans” do you mean those without spiritual rebirth and thus dead in their sins?

I will leave the woo woo to those who want to chase wild geese. :wink:

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Yes, … corpses.

In the past I’d have been all over this topic, a life long interest. But lately I’ve been trying to digest Iain McGilchrist’s book, where BTW you’ll find hundred of scientific studies of consciousness cited. Trouble is The Master and His Emissary is such an ambitious book covering philosophy, neuroscience, literature, art and psychology. His conclusions have loosened the hold some of my previously held opinions had on me.

I think we are actually agreeing a good deal. It is unclear how to test many of the claims relating to consciousness, free will, etc. The article at highlights how problematic verification has been for many claims that unconscious forces have major impact. Philosophical approaches can point out weaknesses in various arguments, but don’t solve the problem of what is real.

The article in BBS states that “consciousness serves as a frame that constrains and directs skeletal muscle output”. This is a rather problematic definition, as much thinking does not constrain or direct skeletal muscle output. Skeletal muscle output tends to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

More generally, much of the headlines about science being non-reproducible prove to be about psychology (and get misused as an excuse to ignore firmly established science such as climate change or the age of the earth). It’s an inherently complex field, making the temptation to find Newtonian-style simple general laws especially dangerous.

Not really. I’m ready and willing to speculate because I believe that free will without consciousness is an incoherent concept and, therefore, that Christian synergists are zonkers, and you appear to be a mugwump on a fence afraid of getting his white shirt dirty on a “bumper-car” court.

“Don’t solve the problem of what is real”???
LOL! That problem ain’t gettin’ solved in this world by anybody, including the boys at CERN, anytime soon, and until it is, we’re just counting coup. You gonna play or not?

TM&E has 615 pages and not one mention of the difference between the Brodmann 10 area in monkeys and in humans. (sigh)

Source: Neurobiology of Sexual Desire [NeuroQuantology | June 2013 | Volume 11 | Issue 2 | Page 332-359]:

"The concept of self and the concept of future comes from this area [the Brodmann area 10] … Rats or monkeys do not have self as an autonoetic entity (awareness of oneself as a continuous entity across time) that … encompasses past, present and future.

Monkeys have the Brodmann area 10, but monkey Brodmann area 10 appears to be the functional analog of the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex to monitor action outcomes … The human dorsolateral Brodmann area 10 (monkeys do not have this part of the brain) appears to subserve unique anthropoid function, providing cognitive flexibility that leads to emergence of human reasoning and planning abilities …

Through this anatomical arrangement humans can link sexual motivation to an almost unlimited number of strategies that will trump temporal and spatial limitations. For example, rats cannot say “Let’s meet again next week at the corner ice cream parlor”.

In humans, sexual desire that emerges during adolescence parallels the development of self-concept. From this point on, a person (self) makes a conscious (volitional) decision to have or not to have sex, a Shakespearean metaphor but based on scientific evidence …

Animals will never kill themselves (willfully) out of romantic fallouts. Countless numbers of young people have done just that when their intense love fell apart. Why does this happen? This happens because human strategies and human identity (self) are one and the same. They both originate within the executive regions; especially in the Brodmann area 10 (see the references above). “Self” is an abstract representation of accumulated episodic memories. Humans have a monster called “self”. Each and every decision has to be filtered through the self. It is the self that makes decision to kill the self; animals do not have a sense of self, so animals die only when they run out of food, or are killed by a predator, or by accident, but humans commit suicide even if plentiful amounts of food are available to them. In this regard, the methods of engineering human sexual desire are significantly more complicated than those of animals."



No specific mention of that but certainly there is discussion of “self” and the regions that contribute. I believe the article you quoted is dated from 4 years after TMAHE was published. The other thing to recognize is that the book does not aim to be encyclopedic in regard to all neuroscience. Even focusing on just the laterality of the brain required enormous research, but frequently the front-back dynamic gets mentioned as contributing in important ways.

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If only the definition of consciousness were so simple. You are referring to awareness, not consciousness.

Personally, my first conscious thoughts appeared when I was about three or four. I asked my daughter, and that was true for her. This may be generally true.
I also note that I lose consciousness every night when I fall asleep, and only regain it in my dreams and when I wake in the morning.

And most likely I was pretty aware of myself and my environment when I was a one year old. I can attest that my daughter was too. I know that I am also aware of self and environment when I am sound asleep. Before I had my hip replacement, my wife told me to take pain medication before I go to sleep because I was moaning in pain at night. It was interfering with the quality of my sleep, but not my dreams.

As far as I am concerned, the evidence points to the conclusion that consciousness is way more than awareness or even self-awarenss. It may even be true that no other creature has consciousness, even though they have self-awareness. My late beloved Minature Schnauzer Emma had self awareness and even an empathy for her humans, but I would say that her mental development was at about the level of a two year old human. Self-aware, but perhaps not conscious.


What evidence?

Not sure what you are getting here. But if you are attempting to point to a discontinuity of some sort… I agree that there is one. But not between the meaning of awareness and consciousness but between two different living organisms… that of the body and that of the mind.

We have two sets of inheritance where information has been passed on to the next generation in two entirely different mediums – that of DNA and that of language. It is demonstrable that language has at least the capacity of DNA for information and representation – thus both can equally be a medium for the process of life. Furthermore it is also demonstrable that the life and awareness of the mind is vastly greater and faster than that of biological organisms. In addition to the greater speed of electrochemical signals compared to chemical transport, there is the inheritance of acquired characteristics – biological life has almost none while the life of the mind excels at this. This has enabled a rapidly accelerating development of mankind with regards to culture, civilization, science, and technology which has been at least a thousand times faster than evolution. We are in fact rapidly approaching the point where evolution will be obsolete as far as we are concerned because we have taken technological control of our own genetics.

With such a sharp divide between the consciousness of the mind and the consciousness of biological organisms, then why is it so important to understand that they are really the same thing in different mediums. It is to stop wasting our time looking for looking for non-physical answers and inventing woo woo mysteries. I, at least, see no need or evidence for any such thing.

Greetings, btw. :slightly_smiling_face:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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