Tuesday, September 29, 2009

31.5.2008 - Crypto-dualist seek neural correlates of consciousness

They claim not to be dualists; for them, the basis of consciousness and conscious phenomena is to be found in complex brain processes... So far so good (but note already that I said the basis of consciousness AND the "conscious phenomena", i.e., the qualia). However, they believe that there exist a minimum set of neural circuitry capable of eliciting the phenomenological experience of consciousness. They seek to isolate this minimum set of circuits in a methodological way, chasing it by systematically reducing the territory in the brain that seems not to be implicated in the phenomena of consciousness.
At this point, I believe there are two kind of researchers: those that understand that the goal of this procedure is to get them closer to an explanation of consciousness because the procedure would more or less efficiently help them isolate a very complex but somehow  functionally autonomous "high-level processing center", and those who probably are not able to stop the momentum they acquired and go too far, conceiving this circuit to be more that a part of a complex system, but rather THE circuit - perhaps a single neuron ? - that is completely responsible from "generating" consciousness; a some sort of antenna that would excite waves on a new form of elusive Ether, the immaterial field of Consciousness; this bunch or neurons would be the altar were you would pray for the apparition of the immaterial consciousness.
Those I want to call crypto-dualists. They conceive their research as cutting bit by bit the brain (already cut from the body and a fortiori from the rest of the world ), until they find a set of circuits, isolated from the rest of the brain, a set of neurons that when stimulated will produce conscious experiences... The center of language would not even be necessary, for the experience of consciousness could be experienced only "by the circuit" itself. (I wonder how they will detect the apparition of consciousness: if they cut to much, they will be obliged to believe that something must be happening, although the pathetic bunch of isolated neurons lack any way to interact and tell the researched that they are "experiencing" something. In truth, we are then already incapable of pursuing any scientific research here!).
Looks like they didn't learn the lesson. A century ago, people would talk about LIFE as some sort of substance that would render inanimate matter animate, i.e. alive. Most people fell prey to this ad-hoc solution for the "hard problem" of life: let's posit, so they went, the existence of something we cannot explain, something called life, that changes the way "ordinary" matter behave. Others were able to see that this would not explain anything, and tried to find the basis of life processes in the functional organization of matter that composes living beings. Eventually, it looked like a basic structure responsible for all this was found: the DNA, the replicant molecule that was in a way responsible for the cascade of chemical processes that could account for all the "signs of life". Actually, this discovery redefined the notion of life. To the point that some people find it hard to accept that from that new definition a virus could be alive, as well as meme or a computer virus!. These people were (are) in my definition crypto-vitalists. They still cling to the idea that there must be some ontological difference between living and inanimate matter; something perhaps not immaterial, but something we can point with the tip of our finger or see through a microscope. They don' realize that debating if something is alive or not is a scientific nonsense today, since science has explained how most of the phenomena that are common to what we used to call "living" are explained thanks to a very complex yet not mysterious series of processes. It may be hard - or impossible - for a human being to conceive the full chain of processes at once; but this is not a proof that they are impossible (cf. Leibniz flawed argument for the impossibility of a completely mechanical mind). The theory of evolution suffer from the same resistance among many people (and if you think about it, it's not a coincidence: the complexity of life processes is a direct consequence of these millions of years of evolution). People who embrace Evolution but don't really believe in it: crypto-creationists!
Now, let's go back to the "problem" of consciousness. The analogy is clear: consciousness seems to divide information processing systems into "conscious" and "non-conscious" just like life used to divide matter into animate and inanimate (I say used to, but this still pose problem to many).
Crypto-dualists, crypto-vitalists and crypto-creationists are a very dangerous scientific specie, for they cloud the waters with their good conciliatory intentions.

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