Monday, 1 June 2015

A Conversation about Human Beings, Mind and Consciousness: Andrew and Bob have a chat

The following "chat" came about as part of an on-going online discussion I have been having with an online friend called Bob. He, I think he wouldn't mind me saying, has long been interested in matters of mind and consciousness. Indeed, it was talking to him that nurtured and gave impetus to my many articles on Being recently on this blog. I thought it would be interesting if we could ask each other 5 questions on the subject of our own free choice and then publish them here complete with the answers that were given. I'm glad to say that Bob agreed. We start with us both giving our answer to the following question:

What is Consciousness for you?

BOB: I have to warn you that I come at the concept of consciousness from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective. After years and years of searching, questioning, surveying world religions, and reading the classical Western philosophers, it's the only approach that has made sense to me as a complete package and answered the most questions. I've been practicing in this tradition about 20 years now, bringing a lot of hardheaded skepticism to it at first. I'm still here and find no conflict between this approach and modern science.I'm going to use the term "mind" to consciousness.

With that caveat in place, i would tell you that mind is nonphysical, perhaps a type of energy or a state we don't understand yet, that can exist independently in awareness and perception. It has awareness of its own existence, perception of what is beyond itself, and discrete thoughts and reactions concerning perceptions. What it lacks is an interface to interact with the physical world, and this is where the brain comes in. The brain is a tool that mind uses to experience and carry out actions in the physical world. 

There are several reasons I believe this. The strictly material approach argues that all thought is the result of electrochemical activity in the brain. While I accept that brain activity we can observe shows processing activities, I can't accept that brain activity itself can produce all the content of thought. If I think of a blue monkey, what chemical or neural configuration.has to occur?  Does that configuration reoccur every time I think of a blue monkey? How many processes have to occur every day to account for all the thoughts? It doesn't make sense that a strictly physical system could keep up. I think it would burn our brains out if everything actually happened right there. And the big question, what determines the content of thought? I don't believe a physical brain, marvelous as it is, generates the blue monkey on its own strictly driven by chemicals and electricity. I believe the brain processes sense perception for mind and mind generates thought and controls the actions of the body. You have probably noticed that this is getting very close to your idea of a consciousness in a machine. You could say we are "meat machines" used by consciousness.

For the non-physical mind, I also turn to out of body experiences and past life recall, and I'm not getting "new age" here. I'm talking about strictly documented cases that cannot be explained any other way. There are enough of both to convince me and you can find them too if you look for them, but in the West we generally disregard them because they don't fit our scheme of things.
With out of body experiences, they seem to be a natural, controllable thing with some people, but for the most part they seem to occur at times of great physical trauma when the mind-body connection is weakened. With past life recall, there are also enough well documented cases, but almost universally they occur in young children. This is because the memories are fresh for a while, but as the mind struggles to learn control of the new body, process the new experiences, and strongly identify with a new identity, the old memories fade until we think what we are now is all there is.
It's similar to when I was learning Japanese. In the beginning, when I couldn't think of a Japanese word, my mind, desperately grabbing at language, would find and plug in the correct word from my old college German. That went on for a long time and I would make these horrible sentences that were half Japanese and half German. When Japanese really started to be deeply ingrained as a complete language system and I could comfortably communicate, the German started fading to the point that I couldn't remember any German. Even today, I can still speak Japanese, but if I try to think of German words, I can only pull up the Japanese equivalents. German has been totally erased.
Why would a mind, with perceptions far beyond our own, limit itself by inhabiting a physical body? Because of great attachment to the physical world! As we go through our lives we develop habits and attachments and desires that drive our mind to come back as soon as possible when we lose our current body. It's an act of desperation driven by attachment and there is no choice in the selection of a new body. That is driven by the long long ingrained habits and the seeds planted in the mind in the recent life.Over many lifetimes, you cut a groove in your mind that you tend to follow and will propel you to an existence that perpetuates the groove. So you have a new body and shiny new identity, but the old habits and tendencies remain.
Back to the strictly material view, how do you explain a Jeffery Dahmer from strictly observable behavior and electrochemical activity? What was the particular electrochemical reaction that caused him to kill and eat his victims, and does that same brain process occur in other instances of serial killers? Dahmer had a normal middle-class upbringing in a house, his parents were nice people, and they certainly never taught him this or encouraged it. He didn't have any traumatic incident that might have caused this. In my view, it's a deeply ingrained habit of killing from the past that was carried into this life.
Buddhism has no moral problem with homosexuality because it's obviously just a strong memory of being the other gender in a previous life.Don't you have situations, people, places, and things you find yourself inexplicably attracted to? You probably make up some kind of story to explain those based on your current life, but I doubt you can explain them all and some of our "logical" explanations turn out to be very destructive to us.
So, from the Buddhist view, our current type of existence is a trap for the mind. There is no problem with having a physical body, but we get so wrapped up in our created identity, desires, and attachments that we limit mind to basic gross functions and blind ourselves to the reality of how things exist.

ANDREW (ME): That's a very thorough answer Bob but, with the greatest of respect, I want to offer a different one. For me it has to come down to a physical/biological phenomenon. Obviously, no one can actually say for sure what the answer to this question is and so we can only give our best guess or our intuitions. For me, I note that human beings have consciousness and that human beings have this, as far as we can tell, when alive. Now, before you butt in, let me say that, of course, since we don't exactly know what consciousness is we can't even do something so rudimentary as test for it. So let me admit again that all guesses here are somewhat stabs in the dark. And it could be true that consciousness exists before birth and after death. A humble inquiry has to admit possibilities that it cannot rule out definitively. But since I have no way to know if consciousness does exist before or after a human life I make a more modest claim. I think that consciousness is a phenomenon related to the physical existence of human beings who are alive. I would extend this, to a lesser degree, to some other life forms as well. But I don't think consciousness exists "in the universe" or as a general thing or in some mystical sense. I do not, and cannot, envisage minds or "mind" floating about out there. I wouldn't know how to sensibly talk about such an option. It would provide me with no answers but merely exponentially raise the questions. So "minds" are related to people in terms of identity and origin. I further think that consciousness is imagined by human beings as a place where they think and feel and have awareness of themselves and their surroundings. I imagine that it is some function of the brain and arose, in ways as yet unfathomed, as part of our biological evolution because those of our forbears with a growing consciousness of themselves and their surroundings were more successful in their surroundings and, thus, better equipped to survive.
I also would like to note that I find your reasons against a physical explanation unconvincing. Is it really so hard to imagine a computer that can process at the speed and rate of a mind? Are you saying it would always be impossible? That it could never be created? I don't understand how you could. What's more, if taking up a physical explanation for the mind, we do not have to subscribe all thought to "electrochemical" processes at all. We know, for example, that people can be influenced and affected by their environment. Why do we need to make it any more complicated than saying that the brain is the means and the mind is the result? The properties and abilities of electrochemical processes, unknown as they are, need not be determinative in these things. They can just be a means to an end. And, of course, not knowing how it works doesn't mean that it doesn't work. It means that we don't know how. Fundamentally, my point is that you need to start from what you have and not leap straight to something more extraordinary. And I take your "independently existing" minds that need "an interface to interact with the physical world" to be extraordinary. On my understanding, minds can't exist without people.

I would also add that I am open to the possibility that we don't have anything specific that is a consciousness (in any corporeal or incorporeal form) but that, instead, it is merely a construct for a part of our lived experience. This is to say I can see it as possible you could never point to a consciousness and say "that is a consciousness". Human beings already rely on many useful fictions and consciousness could just be another one.

BOB: So, in that case, what for you determines the content of our thoughts?

ANDREW: I want to answer this by saying that I don't think it is enough to answer by saying that I can think of no current way how this might work and so I will posit some entity called "mind" which, like a ghost in the machine, can do it all for me. I also don't think that the immediate and pre-reflective answer "I do" is correct. At least, not without some unpacking. Brains and minds function in many ways unconsciously like many physical functions of the body. You don't have to consciously think to make your heart beat or to breathe. Neither do you need to consciously decide to think. Indeed, I find the Cartesian "I think" to be problematic. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that "Thought becomes"? I think that human beings are very integrated beings and, even with a few minutes of self-reflection, this seems obviously true. Imagine, for example, how many nerve endings you must have in your body. Your mind is aware of those all at once. That is amazing. It's something you likely could not deliberately achieve and so our evolution has built these things into the way we exist as a functioning organism.

Our human lives are intimately involved with many networks. The neural net of our brains, the thought patterns of our minds, social connections and cultural entanglements are just some of these. I know of no way yet in which we can comprehensively account for how these networks all function together but I do think that they all exert their influence upon us as thinking subjects. Sometimes this can be as the result of a goal or purpose of ours as we are beings who can have intentions and attitudes. And, as you will know, we hold beliefs. Each of us comes with a genetic make-up, a past and a context too. So thoughts can be directed or organized. But it is never as simple as this. Minds have evolved a more sophisticated and efficient form of operation, one that does not always, or even usually, require our express attention.

So you might now be saying I haven't answered the question. But in a way I have. The answer is "I do". But not in any deliberative way and not simply so.

Now, if I may, let me ask you something else. Given your views on "mind", do you think that a robot with artificial intelligence would be a person?
BOB: I have to say yes, and I certainly support the idea of rights of personhood for artificially created autonomous aware beings that generate their own unique thoughts and are not just following programmed instructions. Following the previous paradigm, an artificial person would have form, awareness of it's own existence, perception of the outer world, and discrete thoughts and reactions based on perception.

ANDREW: So what is the essence of humanity in your opinion?

BOB: Ooooh, the humanity!  I guess you would have to define human as having a human body and human sense perception coupled with a mind capable of higher awareness. I think the blindness to the higher functions of the mind and entrapment in desire, attachment, and ego would help define human. In other words, I guess the average, confused guy on the street would be a good example of the human condition. Now, what do we do with people of extremely limited or nonexistent brain activity? We still identify someone in a vegetative state as a human, but that's mostly identification with the form. On the other extreme, people who have worked deeply with their own minds and accessed higher functions of mind that we can't use or deny even exist seem to be "magic" but they are still grounded in a human existence though they view it very differently.
And now it's my turn again. So, Andrew, can we be aware of our own consciousness in your opinion?

ANDREW: This feels to me like a trick question and I am immediately put on edge! When I think about this I would have to answer no. But that is because I don't perceive of "my consciousness" as something separate from me. I think it was formed along with me, develops and matures as I do and will end with me. I am not aware of my brain either but I imagine that if I had brain surgery and was shown video of it after the fact I would then have an insight into what lies inside my cranium!

I also want to put the idea that there is a "me" in question. Who am I? What would this "I" refer to when I talk about myself? My physical being? The various thoughts I have about myself that are always changing and being changed? A person other people would describe me as? I am not even sure that I can give a decent answer to who I am before I get to any questions of my consciousness.

But, of course, there is another answer to this question and I want to hold this answer in tension with my first ones. I do recognize that there can be different or altered states of consciousness. When I was younger I would have said that I had experienced some of these myself in a religious context. Now I would give what happened other explanations. I do also recognize that some others, such as yourself, offer testimony for differing states of consciousness and I have no way, or desire, to cast them aside out of hand. I'm open to trying to understand better what might be going on there. Of course, it's also worth mentioning that every one of us alters our state of consciousness daily when we sleep. Then we have no sense even of being alive or, in dream sleep, our state of consciousness is somewhat ambiguous. So, I'd want to take up an "interested listener" position regarding this question.

PS There is a third way. This is that when you say you are aware of your own consciousness you only think you are. How would you ever be able to demonstrate the truth of it?

BOB: How, then,  is consciousness related to the ego?

ANDREW: Man, your questions are hard! In my first answer I raised the the prospect that maybe "consciousness" was just a useful fiction. For all we know there is this little spot somewhere inside the brain that is the "consciousness spot" and it generates this field of consciousness much like a holodeck in Star Trek creates a whole world with electronic smoke and mirrors. In that way we have named what is created without knowing how it happens. I want to say that with the ego I would be a little easier to persuade with this kind of answer. What is the ego after all? Our sense of self preservation? A sense of self theorized most notably by Freud? We are talking in conceptual terms and I am reluctant to make things extant that I have little evidence for or of. So I'm saying that maybe we are naming phenomena here that are a function of something else or maybe even just utilizing ideas or conceptions thought helpful in a discussion of the self.

Be that as it may, I think what I am looking for here in answer to your question is a definition or two, a working hypothesis. Let me tentatively say that I regard consciousness as an awareness of things, of being, of self and ego as a more personal self-protection mechanism, maybe even a prison for the self. (I am speaking theoretically not physically, phenomenologically or idealistically.) Consciousness, if you want to call it mind, could be conceived of as our apparatus for existing in a world of perception. I'm thinking out loud here. Now, I wouldn't hold hard and fast to those definitions to the death. Further thought and discussion will inevitably change and refine them. But that is my starting point. To then go on to how those are related I would have to admit that I have no in depth knowledge. I would intuitively think that once more we are back to the integrated nature of our particularly human form of life. The issue is that you might want to say that consciousness is the general name for mind activity. But then ego must be a subset of that or a specific function perhaps since we would normally think of it as some mental faculty. However, when we talk about these things we are talking about ideas which we can distinguish. I think the functional reality of human beings makes it much more difficult to do that. So it's largely a "don't know" here and a reminder that I have a holistic conception of the human being.

My turn. There are people like futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who believe that we will technologically engineer our way out of death, either by the use of nanotechnology which can heal us from within or by capturing and removing our consciousness to better, robotized bodies. Do these possibilities interest you at all?

BOB: From my view, it's totally unnecessary. We're already transferring our consciousness over and over, and trading a body for a machine is just a different kind of trap. Better to learn the true nature of mind and access the subtle functions so we remove the blindness, gain some control. If mind is non-physical, to really learn to use that would mean we could be physical when we wanted but still be able to access the vast non-physical perception and knowledge of the mind.

ANDREW:  So imagine you are in a room with some animals (a cat, a dog, a monkey), a human being and a robot that has been given artificial intelligence so good it convinces you that it acts of its own free will. What makes the human being special? Anything?

BOB: What makes you think we're special? Mind is mind. Any being that has a mind has the potential to become a fully developed mind, and in fact has been more developed and less developed in the past. The dog and monkey and the robot and me are all just different current examples of the same kind of mind in a particular limited physical state.

ANDREW: So now you get the last question Bob.

BOB: What is your first memory?

ANDREW: A suitably interesting question. I was walking between my parents at a zoo. We approached the ostrich enclosure and an ostrich came close to the fence. I was frightened and made a commotion, trying to pull my parents away from the fence. I cannot precisely locate this event on a timeline of my life but can have been at most 4 as my father left us after that.

I would like to record my thanks to Bob for being prepared to answer my questions and for taking part. He is @iceman_bob on Twitter if you would like to follow him up on what he says or listen to his excellent freeform music made with guitar and synths.

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