Hard Problems
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Trouble in Heaven
And on Earth
The Method
The Fall
Symbols of Self
Hard Problems
Flesh of the Gods
Free Will
Ever Beginning
Never Ending


Chapter 22


The essential self is innocent, 

and when it tastes its own innocence knows that it lives for ever.

                                                                            John Updike, 1989

I went to take a shower, my mind racing. Could she be right? Had she deduced how humans became 'human'? If so, when did this happen? I knew some people thought that evidence of an enlarged nerve to the pre-human tongue 400,000 years ago suggested an increased ability to speak at this early time. Then "anatomically modern humans", with a lowered voicebox capable of producing more sounds, showed up in Africa perhaps 150,000 years ago. It was these anatomically modern humans which joined or supplanted the Neanderthals in Europe some 40,000 years ago. In Europe they were referred to as Cro-Magnon until recently. These people, also called Upper Paleolithic, buried their dead in very special ways, decorated their bodies and tools, and made little statues. They drew pictures on walls that suggested a practice of sympathetic magic. They had dramatically more creative toolkits. If amulets and ritual burying of the dead suggested a sense of soul, or at least a belief in life after death, then this was the first sign of religious thinking.

Another more troublesome question formed in my mind. If Mindy was able to explain human thinking in neurological terms then what happened to God and spirituality? Was all this reducible to a very complex array of neurons? What happened to free will? Without free will, why should we try to do better, work harder, be happy?

The hot cascades of water rained down on my neck, soothing me, bringing me back to sensations and the present; from my abstract world presumably somewhere in my head. I appreciated not thinking for awhile. Just feeling. Heat relaxed my muscles. And if Mindy was right ' relaxing some muscles helped me let go of some thoughts.

A little cluster of thoughts still nagged me, and I didn't want to let them go. "Hey Mindy!" I yelled, "If you're right, then we should be able to make a computer, or some device, that has 'self-awareness'."

"What?" She couldn't hear me over the noise of the rushing water. It wasn't that I thought our minds mimicked computers. But if she understood how the neurons were connected to create self-awareness, then a creatively designed set of chips could mimic the brain. The problem had always been we didn't know how our brain produced consciousness. I hurried to finish scrubbing my head and body with the colorful suds.

"OK, OK." I said to myself, trying to slow down and regain my method. If the brain could be understood as neurons in a pattern sufficiently complex to produce self-awareness, along with objectivity and subjectivity, does the same hold true for the mind, whatever that is? When we became self-aware, did we create the psychological structures of God and the ethereal world, or did we reach a point in evolution, as animals with a new skill, that we could communicate with a realm which really was out there? I was up against the equivalency principle again. All things religious can have a perfectly coherent psychological explanation, and vice versa.

I cut the stream of droplets tickling my skin; took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Showers are a spiritual experience for me. Stepping out, I grabbed the thick clean blue towel. The friction of rubbing my head made me awake. The towel on skin from nose to toes brought me out of my reverie. I smelled frying onions.

Peeking out of the door ' no Mindy in sight. After brushing my hair and dressing my body, I caught up with Mindy over a stove. It was omelette day. But I wasn't quite ready to start a new frame of mind.

"Mindy" I started. She was crying. An automatic response from the onion fumes in her eyes. Not an emotional response. But how much less automatic was the crying caused by emotion?

"Mindy. I get what you're saying about us humans developing a self concept. But how do we get from that to consciousness? I mean, I'm thinking about you now. For a second, I thought you were crying about something I did. Now I can reflect upon a memory of myself thinking that."

"How about just your awareness of feeling the heat in the kitchen or the smell of onions?"

"Ok. That too. How do we get to consciousness, or self-consciousness?"

"Well, if you have a world model that includes a 'you' within it, you can think of yourself from the outside. You can imagine a world, and watch yourself move around within it. You can remember that you came into the kitchen and saw me crying. But you need a model of the world that includes a model of you, a self-concept, in it to do this."

"Why can't I just think of the world without me?"

"Oh you can. And you react appropriately. But then you don't think about what 'you' did. Because there's no 'you' in your model to think about. You just act in what I call the essential or primitive way.

"Of course humans act all the time without thinking about themselves as if viewed from the outside." She continued. "When we're hungry, we go to food. When we sense danger, we fight or flee. But those aren't the things that make us human. They aren't our 'higher' functions.

"If we are self-conscious, as we start to react, we catch ourselves, asking internally, 'What am I doing? Is this going to work out the way I want?' Or we start thinking, 'What will he think if I forget to brush my teeth?' or 'How will I be thought of if I publish my studies too soon?' When we do this, we are thinking in a self-conscious fashion."

"Right, I get that." I responded. "But how does it work within your neurological model?"

"Well, let me explain it this way. I told you about the chimps and other great apes. They can recognize that the image in the mirror represents them. They have a rudimentary sense of self.

"They can do other things too. They can put themselves in the mind, or at least the visual vantage point of others. Lots of ingenious experiments show this. For example, chimps can coax a person who is outside of their cage to get them a banana that is placed in plain view. But if the person outside their cage has a bag over his head, they'll try first to take the bag off his head and then show him where to get the banana. The chimps have in some sense imagined what it's like to be in that person's head. They know that with the bag on, the person can't see where the banana is. So they first must get the bag off. You can explain this experiment in other ways too, but related experiments altogether suggest that the chimp has an ability to imagine what the world looks like from someone else's point of view.

"It just takes one more step to do what we do." Mindy brought me with her. "Imagine, not just what the world looks like, but what we look like, from someone else's point of view. When we imagine ourselves from the outside, we call that the objective viewpoint. I call this the second consciousness."

"Why second consciousness? How can there be two consciousnesses?" I tried to imagine thinking in two places at once.

"The first is just looking outward at the world. The second is using our internal model to imagine being outside looking back in. And when you have two ways of looking at life, you're constantly flipping back and forth between them." Mindy answered.

"It's dualistic thinking; the scourge of the spiritual man." I proclaimed.

"Perhaps, but it helps this human animal's modeling potential. By seeing ourself as another object in the world, our model just became much more sophisticated. And as I pointed out before, the central self-concept allows associations to be made ad lib. With unlimited symbolization and a better world model, our thinking capability takes off."

"We can try to imagine what others are imagining. It's like standing in a hall of two parallel mirrors." I was seeing millions of myself.

"When we see ourselves from another's point of view, we sometimes guess what they may be thinking about us. And when we spend too much time imagining what they are thinking about us, we get our modern day anxiety neuroses."

"Aren't there are other types of neuroses?" I ventured.

"To be sure, and animal forms of anxiety as well." Mindy agreed. "But the self-conscious awareness allows us so much more to worry about in social situations."

"What about subjective feelings? I can sense my feelings; my hunger for omelettes, my aesthetic appreciation of your hair, your face'and so on." I pointed out fondly.

She smiled, hesitatingly momentarily. Then straightening up and refocusing, she continued. "Part of the problem of understanding feelings has always been a semantic one. Subjective awareness is at once what I call the first and the third consciousness. It's the first awareness because sensations, and our emotional reaction to them, happen before we get wrapped up in projecting ourselves outward and then looking back. As I said, I also call this the 'essential', 'animal', or 'primitive' awareness."

"Primitive sounds a bit critical." I opined.

"I simply mean it in the technical sense that it is rudimentary to the other levels of consciousness. In any case, this subjective awareness also becomes the third consciousness when we try to talk about it or understand it. First we are sensing; secondly looking back at ourselves from the outside; and thirdly trying to remember and recreate that first wave of sensation and emotional reaction which occurred before'"

"Before we tried to be conscious of our feelings." I interrupted.

"Yes. We have to go through at least a brief moment of using the second layer of objectivity before we can start to talk about our feelings to others or even internally ask ourselves 'How do I feel?'"

"Are you saying that sensations are different than feelings?"

"This is the semantic confusion that makes the so-called 'Hard Problem of Consciousness' more difficult than it has to be."

"What is the hard problem of consciousness? I've heard that term before."

"I hesitate to state it, because I think there is an inherent problem in the way it is phrased which leads to difficulty in solving it. Nevertheless, I'll try. Briefly when we study consciousness there are some questions which, though difficult, seem to have an answer in neurobiology waiting to be discovered. For example, how we generate images out of visual input, or categorize similar objects and ideas.

"But some people think that the 'Hard Problem of Consciousness' will never have an answer in the neurobiological sciences. In a way I agree because I think it's a semantic problem. It's often posed in this fashion. If you have a scientist who understands light frequencies of different colors, the retina, the optic nerve tracts, and the organization of the visual cortex, she may be able to tell you in some sense what happens when someone looks at a red color. But if she happens to be a blind scientist, she will never have the 'experience' of seeing red. So before we say we understand the consciousness of seeing red, we want to be able to convey the experience of seeing red.

"My problem with this" Mindy continued, "is that the entire scenario seems to set up a paradox in the very structure of its asking. The word 'experience' requires subjective awareness.  We're demanding an objective description of a subjective awareness. Yet those two words are practically defined in opposition to each other. It's no mystery that talking about doing something and doing it are two different things. Whoever said that words were so perfect a representation of reality that they could recreate reality by themselves?

"When we want someone to experience red, we have to place them in front of a red color and ask them to look at the color. If most of the other people in the human race agree that red is the color that the target person is looking at, and the person can distinguish between this color and other non-red colors, then we say they are experiencing seeing the color red. But no one else is in her head seeing what she sees and feeling what she feels. It doesn't matter because we define our reality consensually and everytime the target person sees that color, she is going to call it red by agreement."

I had a question. "However, when you say that in order to feel, we have to go through an objective state before we try to recreate the first wave of subjective sensation, aren't you saying the same thing? You're stating we use an objective description of a subjective state."

Mindy answered. "Yes, but I never said that the description, in words, of the subjective state is perfect or sufficient to recreate in the listener the same state. Look here. Language was developed long ago when we were hunter-gatherers. When the hunter came back from the hunt, he used words to explain to the rest of the tribe where his kill was. His words usually gave the others an accurate enough description of the pathway back, but the words certainly did not literally place them at the kill site. The others had to get up and go walk there.

"When you ask me, 'What did I feel when I saw John kiss Mary?' I try to go back in my mind and recreate the visual image. After I do that, the neural state in my brain begins to be similar to what it was when I first saw this. Through the associations of the sensory nerves, many concepts and memories are again triggered. Plans for actions are floated, emotional states begin and both of these feed back into my sensory cortex through the proprioceptive and interoceptive systems respectively. When I try to use words, with previously agreed upon meanings, to describe my sensory state, to myself or others, we apply the term 'feelings'."

"You're including in sensation our own internal responses to emotion." I asked.

"Yes, and that's an important point, but I'm trying to keep it simple. Many of our emotional reactions to situations happen before we ever analyze things consciously. This emotion can then trigger a whole series of physiological responses which we can sense through the interoceptive system. But this can all happen before we become self-conscious of it. And in fact, all this; the emotional response and the subsequent interoception occurs in animals too." Mindy retrained on the original issue. "In order to 'feel', which is to say, become aware of our internal state of sensation including the responses to emotional output'"

"We have to be self-aware." I couldn't wait for her to finish the sentence.

"Don't interrupt." Mindy chided. "If we go no further than letting the sensations happen, without trying to remember them and summarize them for later description, then the word 'feeling' is not the one I would choose."

"What would you choose?"

"In that case we are just moving through life, sensing ' reacting, sensing ' reacting, without considering what we, ourselves, are doing. We are conscious of our environment, but not self-conscious. Many higher animals do this. That's why I call the first consciousness the animal consciousness."

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Soltrey@humanmind.net is copyrighted July 2000.  All rights reserved B.T. Brian Brown.