Mechanism and Meaning: Making Room for Consciousness

The following is an exchange I had on YouTube with cosmanthony21 about the nature of “awareness.”

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cosmanthony21’s original message:

Ok, lemme give it a shot. This is an interesting topic for discussion, so if you’ll humor me, Id like to write some thoughts coming to mind on the topic of awareness you had brought up.
Awareness as a recepticle of information-the capacity for containment of sensate data. Embodiment. Throwing around words I think are descriptive enough…Awareness is sensation. Awareness is pain, heat, sunlight, and color. It is heavy and light. Its not these typed words, but what they are pointing to.
If awareness were a container of sensations, it must be a physical, material thing like a cup would be filled with liquid. Are there boundaries to awareness? Just as far as my eyes can see and the lowest tonal threshold my ears can hear. It is the quality and quantity of what an organism can process. It can be measured. Awareness is dull, it is sharp.
I am aware of the pressure the pen between my finger creates. It is the pressure of impression on these living, tactile appendages. Is there a physical location in the brain that is responsible for awareness, thats what you are trying to figure out I think.
You may say awareness is a process, an emergent property of physiological alchemy. Is it located Everywhere? Not bound and confined to the span of my arms and legs, or even a portion or organ of the brain…It still seems that if this were true, awareness being everywhere, I would have no distinct way of experiencing that a part from this condensed packet of information and systems that is me.
Anything within the boundary of my physical body that is alive is subject to awareness, save hair and such. Maybe not so much my toenails or kidneys, but my fingers have sensitive nerve ending so them, yeah. What if awareness was only a product of a nervous system, a system with the capacity to be impacted by pressure, heat, wetness and relay that impression to the brain which does its damnest to recreate and mimick what the actual “external” stimuli is. Perhaps our experience of reality is second hand and lesser than that which is the responsible stimulative.
Its like a painting of a landscape. Although we cant compare the two entirely, we can say that if the artist intended to paint the mountainscape Realistically, the mountainscape he is seeing will always remain superior on this basis because it is the primary, direct source, yet that requires a belief in an objective world. That out there coming in here, in the painters eyes I mean. So the best the painter can do is the best his nervous sytem can recieve, process and recreate the mountainscape reflecting light intowards his eyes.
OK, so what if Whats being seen is no more than a mock up of what is impressing the rods and cones of the retina. The image of the mountainscape has to go through a few medium conduits until he sees the mountainscape. Is what we call seeing just the awareness of this process? Oh wow, thats an interesting thought! Ok, let me finish up my jumble of thoughts. So, what is awareness? My best guess is that awareness is aliveness, sensation, and feeling. Slightly recursive to say feeling feelings, sensing sensation…thinking thought. Awareness is just this? Anyway, I presume this isnt the kind of stuff you Usually respond to as its rough and tumble, but theres some good thoughts in here and make of it what you will.

Taylor

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my (0thouartthat0’s) response:

Hey Taylor,

Great thoughts, let me see what I can unpack here…

The relationship between awareness and information is a good place to start. In standard, mechanistic biology, they talk about the genome containing information. But they do not mean the kind of information that requires “awareness” to be processed. What they mean is mechanical information. Like the digital sequences of computer code, it is all based on the formal structure (syntax) of the symbols (in this case, sequences of nucleic acid bases) and requires no “interpretation” or semantic awareness of their meaning. All that is required is the transfer of energy from one entity (DNA) to another (mRNA, followed by interaction with ribosomes to produce proteins). It can all be described mechanically, one inert molecule interacting with another based solely on their electromagnetic properties, etc. So in this reductionistic sense, “information” really has no meaning. In other words, the syntax can perform a task (transcription and translation of DNA into proteins) without the need for semantic interpretations of each symbol. Now, this all rests on the standard neo-Darwinist understanding of evolution, which has it that “performing a task” (ie, the apparent teleology of biological systems) is accomplished purely by chance as the result of billions of years of random mutation and environmental selection. The corollary of this approach in the cognitive sciences is representationalism, where what we think of as “consciousness” is explained as just the result of the mechanical interaction between syntactical structures in the brain. “Information” comes in from the objective structure of the world through the senses and is processed in much the same way that my computer translates each of my key strokes into a pixelated letter on the screen. Further syntactical processing, based on evolutionarily instincts embedded in brain structure and experiential changes reflected by synaptic connections, then leads to an appropriate motor response. While this may pass as an explanation for animal/human behavior, it isn’t an explanation of consciousness. It makes our subjective awareness completely superfluous at best (if it doesn’t deny that it exists all together!). Now obviously, we all know we are conscious. We feel pain, we see color, we experience emotion and insight, etc. So it can’t be that consciousness simply doesn’t exist (claiming that it doesn’t is absurd, so far as I can tell, though many neuroscientists/cognitive scientists still claim this for theoretical purposes). So we are left with the idea that consciousness is superfluous, like “the whistle on a train,” as T.H. Huxley put it. It serves no mechanical purpose (ie, has no effect on sensation or behavior, which means free will is a complete illusion). Now to my mind this creates a HUGE explanatory problem for the mechanists/reductionists, because how and why would consciousness have evolved if it served no adaptive function (and so could not be selected for like other beneficial traits)? If consciousness has no role to play in the way information is processed in the brain syntactically, then it should not exist at all and we should all be zombies. Of course, we aren’t! So…?

Well, this is why I think panexperientialism (consciousness goes all the way down) might solve a lot of these conceptual difficulties. It requires a complete shift out of the mechanistic paradigm and into an organic paradigm, where semantics (awareness of meaning) is primary and syntax is a later evolutionary advance which human beings have devised (but which also may have already been devised by our cells in the form of DNA, which acts as a kind of digital memory storage adding to the analog capacities of non-genetic cellular dynamics). The molecular biologists who say the DNA contains “information,” even though they see translation and transcription as entirely mechanical processes, have been heavily criticized by semioticians, who point out that the notion of information necessarily implies awareness (meaningful interpretation) of that information. So it appears that even mechanistic/reductionistic science has been unconsciously assuming some form of consciousness exists at the molecular level, because otherwise they never would have been able to conceive of a reliable theory for how the process works. The paradigm shift is a bit easier, then, because all it involves is that science become aware of what has already been implicit in its “Central Dogma” about how organisms use DNA.

So again, the existence of “information” requires more than just syntax. It requires a semantic meaning to an interpreter. So the neo-Darwinists who see DNA translation/transcription as entirely mechanical cannot have it both ways: either molecules are sentient in some fashion, and so can “understand” information exchange, or the notion of “information” in the genome must be scrapped (and as a result, most of what we know about genetics would have to go as well). I think the former option makes more sense : ), but of course it requires a complete reconceptualization of the relation between mind and matter, which makes a lot of materialist scientists uncomfortable for some reason.

The reason your awareness seems restricted to your own body (you can’t feel my pain, at least not directly) has to do with the difference between pantheism and panentheism. For the time being, lets just assume “theism” is equivalent to “sentience.” Pantheists see the whole world as the mind of God, and so we are at somewhat of a loss to explain why it is that I (as God) feel only my body and not yours. If all is equally God, why am I seemingly restricted to awareness of my own body? Pantheism seems to ignore the reality of how material bodies organize and distinguish themselves from others (not separate, just distinguish). Panentheism seems to correct for this oversight, as each material body then becomes the focusing point for God’s mind, such that God is One Mind/Body only transcendentally, while immanently, God is Many Minds/Bodies. God is made far more vulnerable in the panentheist model, as he is fully embodied in each and every one of us (not only humans, but animals, plants, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, photons, etc). This is not to say that God is truly separated into many pieces, but only that God has devised a way to differentiate aspects of One into Many (by way of involution). The Many are of course compelled to reunite (by way of evolution). If the universe is infinite (circumference is nowhere), then each sentient being is at the center (center is everywhere). The awareness of each organism (whether you or I, or single cells, or atoms, etc) is God’s way of incarnating and experiencing Its own creation. This is certainly a paradigm shift, as no sober-minded materialist scientist is going to accept it easily considering all this mention of God. But I don’t think the concept of “God” can ever be gotten rid of. There simply is no other way to understand consciousness but to admit the existence of such an ultimate principle. It is not that we have to “believe” in God once again. That entirely misses the point. You cannot believe in that which allows you to believe to begin with. We must realize God experientially, not merely believe in the idea of It. Taking the strictly materialistic approach to explaining the universe is a dead end. It makes our own conscious experience obsolete and all but non-existent, just a persistent illusion which for whatever reason colors the otherwise mechanical behavior of our bodies.

Anyways, hope this isn’t too long for ya! Thanks for the message.

Peace,
Matt

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