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Consciousness and the Brain

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If the brain needs to give rise to awareness of each and every concept, how, where, and by what means does our volitional thinking operate on a complex conceptual whole which demands an entire array of concepts to be connected?

I think that it is fair to say that it is beyond the competence of any current science to give a detailed answer to this question! However, I have already given my answer in general terms:

...the brain is the machinery of cognition and consciousness is its manager. Neither the brain nor consciousness can usurp the other’s functions. Consciousness cannot do what neural processes do, but the brain cannot do what consciousness does, because the physical processes of the brain are deterministic.

What performs thinking? The consciously managed brain. Where is it performed? Well, one could say that thought is produced in the brain, but not being a Marxist, I regard management as an essential part of production (especially cognitive production) so I would prefer to say that cognition is performed in and by the conscious human being. Consciousness and the brain work together.

:) Now, if further argumentation on this point is needed, I can always resort to the time-honored Argument from Intimidation: anyone with half a brain knows that neural activity is necessary for thinking, and anyone not in a complete stupor knows that consciousness is needed, too. Finally, Stephen, if all else fails, know that I could make my point using the “5-Point Palm Exploding Brain Technique”! :)

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I think that it is fair to say that it is beyond the competence of any current science to give a detailed answer to this question!

Lee, I was not asking for the neurobiochemical processes of cognition, but rather some simple understanding of how thinking is even possible given my understanding of the circumstances you described. Perhaps we are just talking past each other here, or perhaps each of us is missing something from the other. In either case we seem to have diminishing returns, so I will not push the issue any further.

:) Now, if further argumentation on this point is needed, I can always resort to the time-honored Argument from Intimidation: anyone with half a brain knows that neural activity is necessary for thinking, and anyone not in a complete stupor knows that consciousness is needed, too. Finally, Stephen, if all else fails, know that I could make my point using the “5-Point Palm Exploding Brain Technique”! :)

:D Since I have been arguing with half my brain tied behind my back, I could always resort to the Argument from Ignorance. And, as impressed as I am by the modern “5-Point Palm Exploding Brain Technique,” it can easily be countered with the old-fashioned "10-Finger Stranglehold," rendering the debater unconscious and thereby making the brain superfluous. :D

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...volition is an attribute of consciousness.

Free will [is] an attribute...of consciousness.

If volition is an attribute of consciousness, why don't animals have volition? What is different about human consciousness that makes us volitional? Would animal consciousness be better termed something else in order to account for the difference? Doesn't such an enormously important difference imply a difference in kind and not merely degree?

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If volition is an attribute of consciousness, why don't animals have volition?

Volition is an attribute of human consciousness, which is the context usually assumed, and therefore seldom specified, when discussing consciousness in philosophy.

What is different about human consciousness that makes us volitional? 

The question is backwards. What makes us human is our volitional consciousness. Man as the rational animal is the animal of volitional consciousness. Reason works on volition. We choose to focus (to become aware, at some degree) and we choose to concentrate (to focus on some particular problem using some particular method and tools).

Would animal consciousness be better termed something else in order to account for the difference?

No, in the broadest context -- discussing all forms of consciousness -- saying volitional consciousness is distinguishing as well as essentializing.

Doesn't such an enormously important difference imply a difference in kind and not merely degree?

Yes, the (other) animal kind and the (volitional) human kind. However, not all differences in kind deserve a separate concept and name. "Kitchen chair" is a phrase that works well without further need to create a new, single concept and name. In the case of human consciousness versus the consciousness of other animals, no new concept (and new term naming the concept) is necessary. The current terms -- animal consciousness, perceptual-level consciousness, human consciousness, volitional consciousness -- do the job required. Nothing new is needed philosophically.

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Your consciousness causes changes in your brain. Changes in the brain, which is physical, require the application of physical force. Therefore, your consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain. It may be a different variety of physical force than the two or three now know (depending on how you count them) or it may be one of those familiar forces originating in consciousness. That we don't know at all. But when you focus your mind or decide to stand up, that has physical effects on your brain. That's the fact.

[emphasis mine]

Halle-friggin'-lujah! That's the admission I've been after all along - "consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain." PHYSICAL! Dammit! In another private email I had given HB an example that, I see now, only that statement properly answers, but his reply seemed to imply something different. Threw my thinking off for more than a freakin' year now! If only he had just said that one thing!

That's what I want to know! That's the knowledge that connects consciousness to the physical world without demoting it to deterministic brain activity (and, in a sense, "raises up" matter so that it is "capable" of such a phenomenon). Without that knowledge, consciousness appears to me to be (and, in my opinion, is described even by Objectivists as) too supernatural. Knowing what that force is, and how consciousness exerts it, will change everything for me; my mind will finally see consciousness as fully in reality. It's not just a ghost welded to a corpse!

It may be a different variety of physical force than the two or three now know (depending on how you count them) or it may be one of those familiar forces originating in consciousness. That we don't know at all.

Like I said, there's real work to be done. Einstein did some pretty good stuff when he worked in the patent office - maybe I can come up with a little something while running a tutoring business. :)

(If anyone else made that same point previously, it didn't register with me like this. Somehow this one connected in just the right way. PING!)

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All other points in your post well taken.

What is different about human consciousness that makes us volitional?

The question is backwards. What makes us human is our volitional consciousness. Man as the rational animal is the animal of volitional consciousness. Reason works on volition. We choose to focus (to become aware, at some degree) and we choose to concentrate (to focus on some particular problem using some particular method and tools).

True, but sometimes asking the question backwards leads to insight. Volitional consciousness arose later in evolution than lesser forms. I'm after isolating and identifying the difference. "The difference is volition" doesn't satisfy me - it's not like volition was floating around in the universe and suddenly attached itself to perceptual consciousness. The "why" is clear - survival advantage. I'm curious about the "how." If we could examine the consciousnesses involved, what exactly changed from a set of parents to an offspring that made that offspring the first ever volitional being?

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If volition is an attribute of consciousness, why don't animals have volition? What is different about human consciousness that makes us volitional? Would animal consciousness be better termed something else in order to account for the difference? Doesn't such an enormously important difference imply a difference in kind and not merely degree?

Consciousness is what differentiates animals from lower-level living entities; consciousness is awareness. Lower-level forms of life have no awareness of the external world; they are goal-directed (in the biological sense of term) but they act automatically on a strict biochemical basis. Consciousness in animals regulates physical action on the basis of awareness -- awareness based on data through the senses -- but the actions of its consciousness remain automatic. The advent of volition in the consciousness of man is what differentiates man from other animals. Man regulates his physical actions as do animals, but with volition man can regulate his own consciousness.

As far as we know, volition is unique to man. As to why man has volition but other animals do not, all we can say is that volition is part of man's nature, a unique attribute of his consciousness. The act of volition is a primary, not to be explained in terms of anything more fundamental. (And, when I previously said that volition is an attribute of consciousness, I was obviously talking in the context of man. It is almost superfluous to have to qualify the statement about volition by referencing man every time it it is used. Volition should always be understood as meaning an attribute of man's consciousness, even if we leave out "man.")

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(And, when I previously said that volition is an attribute of consciousness, I was obviously talking in the context of man. It is almost superfluous to have to qualify the statement about volition by referencing man every time it it is used. Volition should always be understood as meaning an attribute of man's consciousness, even if we leave out "man.")

Yes, of course, but it got me thinking.
The act of volition is a primary, not to be explained in terms of anything more fundamental.

I remember thinking about evolution, trying to answer the question, "Why sexual reproduction?" I was stuck with a perspective that, because "why" can imply purposefulness, viewed evolution as an active force. Suddenly it hit me: Why sexual reproduction? Because those are the ones that survived. No purpose behind it - just "they didn't die out" and no more. If, so to speak, a rock had fallen on the first sexually reproductive creatures, sexual reproduction may never have arisen again. But they survived, and that's the whole answer.

For now, "[volition can't] be explained in terms of anything more fundamental" doesn't satisfy me. There must be a similar "Ah ha!" moment in my future with on this topic, too.

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Your consciousness causes changes in your brain. Changes in the brain, which is physical, require the application of physical force. Therefore, your consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain. [...]

Halle-friggin'-lujah! That's the admission I've been after all along - "consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain." PHYSICAL! Dammit! In another private email I had given HB an example that, I see now, only that statement properly answers, but his reply seemed to imply something different. Threw my thinking off for more than a freakin' year now! If only he had just said that one thing!

Now, I'm not an expert in neurochemistry, but I don't think that Dr. Binswanger's statement about consciousness exerting physical force on the brain is necessarily valid. Yes, the changes to the brain - that we can measure - are physical. But that does not mean that a physical force must have caused them. For, metaphysics does not specify that a physical world exists.

You seem too attached to the notion of being "scientific" (in the sense of not being satisfied with the non-mathematizable), and I think that is what is holding you back from understanding consciousness.

The concept of "existence" is the widest of all concepts.  It subsumes everything - every entity, action, attribute, relationship (including every state of consciousness) - everything which is, was, or will be.  The concept does not specify that a physical world exists.

That's what I want to know! That's the knowledge that connects consciousness to the physical world without demoting it to deterministic brain activity (and, in a sense, "raises up" matter so that it is "capable" of such a phenomenon). Without that knowledge, consciousness appears to me to be (and, in my opinion, is described even by Objectivists as) too supernatural.

Yes, I'm sure that we'd all like to know what force is exerted by consciousness on the brain and how. But, the truth, and I hate to be the one to broach this, is that we may never know and it wouldn't make for a life less extraordinary.

Consciousness is an irreducible metaphysical primary and outside the realm of physics. Deal with it.

Like I said, there's real work to be done. Einstein did some pretty good stuff when he worked in the patent office - maybe I can come up with a little something while running a tutoring business. :)

Yes, indeed. Right after you take a number and join the line of people who recognize that consciousness exists and is not physical.

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Your consciousness causes changes in your brain. Changes in the brain, which is physical, require the application of physical force. Therefore, your consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain. It may be a different variety of physical force than the two or three now know (depending on how you count them) or it may be one of those familiar forces originating in consciousness. That we don't know at all. But when you focus your mind or decide to stand up, that has physical effects on your brain. That's the fact.

[emphasis mine]

Halle-friggin'-lujah! That's the admission I've been after all along - "consciousness exerts a physical force on your brain." PHYSICAL! Dammit!

Sorry, but with all due respect, this is pure rationalism. We do not deduce reality. Philosophy tells us the broad principles true of all existence, but it does not prescribe the detailed nature of what exists, nor does philosophy dictate by what means existents act.

It is unquestioned that consciousness has causal efficacy on the brain, but to demand that that efficacy be mediated by a physical force is completely unwarranted. We would have to omniscient to know that. We cannot so arbitrarily restrict the means by which consciousness acts. This is not the province of philosophers; this is the province of science. It is the job of physicists, neurophysicists, neurobiologists, neurophysiologists, etc. to discover the means by which consciousness exerts efficacy over the brain.

How could we possibly know in advance that the means is a physical force? Maybe consciousness determines the environment that makes localized graded potentials possible, similar to how light affects the local graded potentials in photoreceptors, causing a chain leading to localized signal in a bipolar cell, to the ganglion cell, to action potentials in the cell, and eventually to the higher center structures. Or maybe consciousness does the same for synapses, such that it bypasses all neurotransmitters but makes electrical transmission possible. None of this demands a physical force.

We have no idea, scientifically, in fact, by what means consciousness acts on the brain, nor do we have any idea of what level of structure it affects. We simply do not know, even if there was such a physical force, that it acts on atoms. Why not the particles of which atoms are composed? Why not the molecules made of atoms? Why not the higher structures made of molecules? We simply do not not know upon which brain structure consciousness acts, nor do we know the means by which it does so. This is not a game of philosophical deduction; this is the work science.

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[...] but I don't think that Dr. Binswanger's statement about consciousness exerting physical force on the brain is necessarily valid.  Yes, the changes to the brain - that we can measure - are physical.  But that does not mean that a physical force must have caused them.  For, metaphysics does not specify that a physical world exists.   

This is intriguing. What do "physical force" and "physical" mean? As differentiated from what? I realize now that I have never examined the ideas that underlie such terms. For example, is "physical" usually a synonym for "material" or does it have a specialized scientific meaning? And is "physical force" distinct from other kinds of forces -- such as electrical or gravitational?

I assume that "material" and "spiritual" are philosophical terms/ideas and that the others are the province of the special sciences because they require special tools and methods to identify.

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This is intriguing. What do "physical force" and "physical" mean? As differentiated from what? I realize now that I have never examined the ideas that underlie such terms. For example, is "physical" usually a synonym for "material" or does it have a specialized scientific meaning? And is "physical force" distinct from other kinds of forces -- such as electrical or gravitational?

From my own understanding of these terms, I would say that, philosophically, "material" and "physical" are co-terminous, and are used to refer to any existent whose behavior is determined, i.e. predictable and thus, mathematizable. The best way to grasp the distinction between the physical and the non-physical is to obtain some familiarity with the work of the pre-Socratic Greek atomist Democritus and the post-Socratic philosopher Epicurus.

This is the sense in which I use those terms.

I would say that electrical and gravitational forces are "physical forces" because they are determined.

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...

As an afterthought, is it kosher to post quotes from HBL? A short quote seems reasonable to me, but, what do I know? :) You might want to check with Harry or Jean just to make sure they do not mind.

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Sorry, but with all due respect, this is pure rationalism...

OK, then I have to punt again. I'll work on it.

(BTW, that wasn't "PHYSICAL! Dammit!" as in, "See, it has to be physical!" It was "PHYSICAL! [long pause] Dammit! In another private email..." as in, "Geez I wish HB would have answered differently back then!")

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As an afterthought, is it kosher to post quotes from HBL? A short quote seems reasonable to me, but, what do I know? :) You might want to check with Harry or Jean just to make sure they do not mind.

I was thinking in terms of "fair use" (isn't it interesting how all these thread here integrate, just like our conceptual knowledge? :)), but I'll check.

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Yes, of course, but it got me thinking.I remember thinking about evolution, trying to answer the question, "Why sexual reproduction?" I was stuck with a perspective that, because "why" can imply purposefulness, viewed evolution as an active force. Suddenly it hit me: Why sexual reproduction? Because those are the ones that survived. No purpose behind it - just "they didn't die out" and no more. If, so to speak, a rock had fallen on the first sexually reproductive creatures, sexual reproduction may never have arisen again. But they survived, and that's the whole answer.

Sexual reproduction has an important evolutionary role. First it acts to "mix up" two sets of chromosomes (DNA) to produce a genetically new individual - related to its parents and thus linked to their evolutionary survival chain, but different enough for nature to play with the survival characteristics of this new organism.

There is also a theory that sexual reproduction acts as a sort of anti-aging mechanism. Consider that generation after generation produces newborn babies which have the greatest potential lifespan - after their parents have already undergone a degree of aging. I'm not aware of all of the details but that's the general idea.

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Sexual reproduction has an important evolutionary role. First it acts to "mix up" two sets of chromosomes (DNA) to produce a genetically new individual - related to its parents and thus linked to their evolutionary survival chain, but different enough for nature to play with the survival characteristics of this new organism.

There is also a theory that sexual reproduction acts as a sort of anti-aging mechanism. Consider that generation after generation produces newborn babies which have the greatest potential lifespan - after their parents have already undergone a degree of aging. I'm not aware of all of the details but that's the general idea.

True, all those things are survival advantages, but evolution itself has no "goal," as if it's something with purposes of its own. It's an explanation, not a cause, the same way that equations in physics describe without literally underlying existence.

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For now, "[volition can't] be explained in terms of anything more fundamental" doesn't satisfy me.

I am not sure in which way you mean this. Do you mean the very existence of volition being explained, or do you the act of volition? The act of volition -- the primary choice to focus -- cannot be reduced to anything more fundamental; that is what we mean by volition. On the other hand, the conditions that give rise to the existence of volition itself, that is another matter entirely.

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I am not sure in which way you mean [not being satisfied that volition can't be reduced further]. Do you mean the very existence of volition being explained, or do you the act of volition? The act of volition -- the primary choice to focus -- cannot be reduced to anything more fundamental; that is what we mean by volition. On the other hand, the conditions that give rise to the existence of volition itself, that is another matter entirely.

Sorry, but I really, really have to stick with punting. I honestly can't discuss this at the proper level of knowledge. Crikey, just your references to physiology left me in the dust. There was no way I could have even imagined the implications of the things you mentioned because I just don't know those things. I have to hit the books for, I don't know, a few decades...

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Ditto. The process of "thinking" is completely separate from the physical actions performed by the brain which make that process possible. By "completely separate" I don't mean to assert that thought can occur without the physical functioning of the brain - I mean that we can mentally isolate one from the other and consider each separately.

Thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. [Charles Sanders Peirce, founder of American

Pragmatism, Collected Works, #4551]

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