Events and Observations: How we know what we know

It has long been fascinating to me to see the confusion that arises due to the conflation of two or more “logical types” (Russell) or “orders of abstraction” (Korzybski), particularly in the theories and literature of modern physics (and cosmology). We have all had the experience of listening to people “talking past each other” as a result  of confusing  one level of abstraction with another. In particular, we find almost everywhere in the literature of physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics a confusion between events or phenomena and their observation.

As I pointed out in a recent post in regard to Einstein’s famous thought experiment on simultaneity as observed from two differing frames of reference, this confusion often results in a conclusion that is easily refuted by distinguishing between the real events (two simultaneous lightning strikes) and the differences in their observations between a stationary reference frame and a moving one.

A similar confusion exists in explanations of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It is easy to understand that there might be uncertainty in our observations of submicroscopic events but it takes a quantum leap of interpretation to then assert, as most do, that the uncertainty accrues to the actual events that are being observed. or that the act of observation itself actually changes or even creates the event. This is far from being proven.

So it was interesting to see, in a field where this kind of confusion would seem highly likely to occur, that it seems to finally have been recognized and taken into account, and that is in studies of the links between brain science and consciousness. This is where the so-called hard problem has arisen for hundreds of years, the famous question of what is mind and what is body. It is the question of where the physics and mechanics going on inside the head, in the jungle where chemical, electrical, mechanical forces run free, connects with its output, our fantastically rich thoughts, images, senses of the world outside of our heads. In Christof Koch’s new book, “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist,” while mostly a history of his life’s work in this field, he does lay out the dimensions of a problem that is a classic case of how important logical rigor is in science. Not only is the physical question of the link between activity in the chemical/electrical soup of the brain with the almost impossible definition of the conscious output of the mind a problem, but even the identification of consciousness as a real, physical, observable entity is in question. Keeping a clear vision of such an issue throughout an entire book is a powerful challenge, but he accomplishes it well.

Late in the book, Dr. Koch describes recent work in this area that appears to have real promise of success. Giulio Tononi, a researcher now at the University of Wisconsin, has posed a theory based in part on Claude Shannon’s work in information theory. Called Integrated Information Theory, Tononi proposes a model of consciousness that is based on two important qualities of any powerful information system, one of a high degree of differentiation of each element of the system, along with a high degree of integration of the system as a whole. The human brain qualifies on both counts, in that each neuron is able to respond appropriately to wide range of sensory inputs, and each has a multitude of cross-connections across the brain’s entire range.

One of the important things we know about consciousness is that it is presented to us in each instance as a unique, complete whole. When I sat outside my local coffee shop this morning, I was presented with a visual scene of town, trees, and companions. My body received multiple inputs from the warm sun, a slight cool breeze, the taste of coffee,  the discomfort of the hard bench on which I sat, and the distortions of that field my own aging eyes delivered to me. But I could not consciously edit or modify any part of that scene. I could not leave out its left half; I could not see it in shades of gray rather than in full color; I could not remove any person from my consciousness of the scene. I had to take it as a whole experience. But If I had turned around, I would have been almost instantly conscious of an entirely different scene.

What happens here is that our receptive senses deliver to our brains a broad set of raw inputs, simple shapes to the visual cortex, aural vibrations through our ears physical sensations of temperature, texture and the like; our brain in its chemical/electrical operating system integrates those inputs, and then delivers them back to us as what we interpret and probably describe as a compete, integrated whole, our mental image. But that mental image is not outside in the world, it is there inside our brains, perhaps as a pattern of on and off neurons, (or partly on, partly off) in a real physical sense inside our head. An outside set of patterns,  from multiple sensory inputs, converted and delivered as a real, if transitory, set of patterns in the brain.

I’m always looking for analogies, something that might be similar to that process that I do understand. So I ask myself, Is there anywhere else in our modern experience that we can find an analogous to this process? A small personal experience then struck me. On one of the several computers around our house, the  screen saver is set up to serially display all of the photographs stored in a file of personal digital photographs, in a random sequence, each seamlessly it seems, appearing on the screen every few seconds, As each became part of my consciousness, I became aware that here perhaps is a simple analog for consciousness. A typical display screen on a computer has a resolution of from one to several million pixels, each of which is characterized by what is called a color depth of 64 bits. Each pixel, then has a relatively high degree of differentiation, though far less than the neurons in the brain. And, in this particular range of the visual display, these pixels’ responses are driven by an operating system that can modify their appearance in an integrated way, so that a succession of complex visual images can be shown one after another. The same process occurs when I operate my  portable video camera. When pointed at a scene in nature, its receptive sensors respond to the inputs of light and color as do our visual senses, processes them through its operating system and then presents them to my sight on the small attached video screen or in the digital eyepiece that I use to select and compose the image I want to record. This seems just like the process my brain must use to deliver scenes to my consciousness.

How is this accomplished in the head? We know that our direct sensory apparatus does not itself deliver completed information to memory, It rather delivers raw data that is then internally processed by rapid comparison to remembered, stored information, perhaps in many steps, before being delivered to consciousness. But we also know that these same processes, using in most cases the same capabilities, are used to bring remembered information to consciousness, so that tomorrow morning, if it is, say, pouring rain, confining me to the indoors, I can recall, in fairly great detail the scene, and even the conversations from today’s coffee shop experience. The same mechanisms that enabled my brain to process the primitive sensory inputs into the nearly simutaneous consciousness of the event, enables me to later recall it to consciousness from memory.

Now we know that everything that happens in the brain is not there to support consciousness. There is strong evidence that most of the activity that we engage in is neither observed nor monitored consciously. Some researchers feel that upwards of 90% of our mental activity is unconscious. Dr. Tononi’s studies with functional MRI scanners indicate that the processes that result in conscious thought and monitoring of behavior occur mostly in the thalamo-cortical area, that part of the brain with the highest concentration of reciprocal connections, supporting the information integration function. Other areas,  like the cerebellum, are structured with more parallel, one-to-one connections, and seem mostly involved in managing autonomic and unconscious body functions.

And we are not continuously conscious. Times of deep sleep, in particular, are basically unconscious, the reason you seldom remember them in the morning (particularly sometimes after a party).

So, where does this capacity come from? How did it evolve, how might it have come about, this rich source of experience and memory? Did something in our evolution favor its development? Here is Dr. Tononi’s take on that question:

“The theory predicts that consciousness depends exclusively on the ability of a system to integrate information, whether or not it has a strong sense of self, language, emotion, a body, or is immersed in an environment, contrary to some common intuitions. …… the ability of a system to integrate information grows as that system incorporates statistical regularities from its environment and learns. In this sense, the emergence of consciousness in biological systems is predicated on a long evolutionary history, on individual development, and on experience-dependent change in neural connectivity. Indeed, the theory also suggests that consciousness provides an adaptive advantage and may have evolved precisely because it is identical with the ability to integrate a lot of information in a short period of time. If such information is about the environment, the implication is that, the more an animal is conscious, the larger the number of variables it can take into account jointly to guide its behavior.”

Now, I am not imputing consciousness to my computer. It cannot, as Dr. Koch points out, connect my perception of the photographs on the screen with the rich associated memories of my children’s activities, emotions, and histories that those images evoke in my brain, so my human consciousness has an incalculably greater capacity than this succession of images.

And this kind of consciousness, this level of generating the images and impressions, the “knowledge,” of what we perceive outside of our heads, is not nearly what my book in progress, “A Place of Dreams and Delusions” is all about. What I am seeking there is where that more creative place in consciousness, the one that can generate new models and explanations, came from. What in our evolutionary history created this place where we do not just know “what is?”, but lets us imagine “what might be?” and to compare that image with what is? When and how did we become capable of thought experiments and conceptual models? More on that later.

Where does this leave us in our discussion of logical types? Well, I think what Dr. Koch and Dr. Tononi are showing us is that we can be rigorous in our investigations and better arrive at testable, repeatable results in science if we are clear about what is real and what are just our observations of what might or might not be real. Their work is showing not the link between what are clearly physical processes in perception and some mystical mind-substance, but that both the perceptual processes and the consciousness processes are physical, and that their link is real and no longer mysterious.

So, have we really cleared up the hard problem of what is mind and what is body? Perhaps not yet, but maybe we are on the way.

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About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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