Consciousness continues to amaze and elude


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I make no excuse for returning to the topic of consciousness. It’s a phenomenon that, apparently, everyone experiences, and almost certainly some animals experience it too. However, it is the ultimate in subjectiveness. No one except yourself knows how you experience consciousness.

It can’t currently be measured and we can only detect it by the behaviour of a person. The old chestnut of a comatose patient coming round with hovering relatives and medical staff is familiar to all. “He’s coming round!” says a person at the bedside as the patient’s eyes flicker and his muscles twitch.

English: Man in coma still not responding to s...
English: Man in coma still not responding to stimuli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a reliable way of determining consciousness. People have surfaced from comas or anaesthetics and have reported that contrary to the physical evidence they were in fact conscious for at least some of the time when they were comatose. Also, deep brain scans have shown changes which may indicate that the patient was responding to question in that his brain patterns changed, which has led to a medical furore. There is disagreement as to whether or not the changes in the brain indicate that the patient was in fact conscious.

Definition of “Conscious”
1.

a. Characterized by or having an awareness of one’s environment and one’s own existence, sensations,and thoughts. See Synonyms at aware.

b. Mentally perceptive or alert; awake: The patient remained fully conscious after the local anesthetic was administered.
2. Capable of thought, will, or perception: the development of conscious life on the planet.

The fact that consciousness is an objective phenomenon (so far as we can currently tell) means that we can only subjectively assess if it exists in a person. Even if a person behaves as if he or she were conscious, feeling pain, drinking beer, doing all the things that a conscious person would do, how does one know that this person is actually a conscious person? It is conceivable that what looks like a person is a sort of zombie, programmed to behave exactly like a conscious person would behave.

English: zombie
English: zombie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(These philosophical zombies are not like the usual cinematic concept of a zombie – they look like ordinary people, they have not died and revivified, bits do not fall off them, and they don’t have a hunger for brains. It’s a technical philosophical term).

The short answer is that there is currently no objective was to tell. Everyone except yourself might be a zombie. Erm, although I subjectively know that I am not, which might mean that I am the only conscious person in a world of zombies. It’s probably simplest to argue, that I am conscious, and I appear to be little different to everyone else, so it would be silly to argue that everyone else is a zombie. It’s much more likely that we are all subjectively conscious in our own heads.


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Consciousness appears to be an aspect of the brain/mind. If parts of the brain are destroyed, or momentarily shocked by a blow, consciousness ceases and the person becomes unconscious. As above, though, it is conceivable that a person might not be able to move or respond, but still be conscious in the prison of their skull. It sounds like a particularly unpleasant fate.

Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the brain/mind, because there does not appear to be a particular part of the brain that is related to consciousness as such. I think that it is fair to say this, though I haven’t delved into the subject much recently, though I do read things as I write these posts. In doing this I read an article on The Time website which hits many of the same high notes as I’ve hit here. It’s nice when I find an article that does that!

Emergent (software)
Emergent (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An emergent phenomenon is something like a family or a sports team or a termite nest. The emergent phenomenon is not implicit in individual members of the family or the sports team or the termite nest, but all the members make up a new entity which has an identity of its own.

Emergent phenomenon rely on the synergistic effect of all the members working in a concerted way to achieve more than a single individual can achieve by themselves. (Emergent phenomenon are not restricted to social interactions – water is wet, though an individual water molecule cannot really be considered to be wet in itself).

Synergy-reaching-with-kite
Synergy-reaching-with-kite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It follows that, just as the higher animals band together into families, bands and packs, which is an emergent phenomenon seen in humans societies, that the brains/minds of some animals are likely to experience the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, as they behave as if they do. It is highly unlikely that consciousness only evolved in one species, though of course it is possible.

Opponents of the idea that animals may exhibit consciousness suggest that we are anthropomorphising when we detect conscious behaviour in animals, and that they may be be zombies (in the philosophical sense of the word), and that the apparent consciousness is merely behaviours that are instinctive.

English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczare...
English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczarek niemiecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, no one knows for sure if animals do experience consciousness or not. I rather feel that it is likely that they do, and the extent to which they do is determined by how sophisticated their minds and brains. Certainly, I feel it is unlikely that consciousness is controlled by a genetic on/off switch and that it evolved in animals in the same way as any other trait, that is gradually, and our near relatives on the genetic tree are to some extent at least conscious.

If this is so, then consciousness in animals other than ourselves inform ethics – we should treat animals as if they are conscious beings, as far as we can. I read a science fiction story once in which every being on the earth got a boost in brain function as a result of the earth leaving any area of space where a brake was put on brain function by some physical field or similar phenomenon.


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The human race immediately became super-intelligent, and apes became at least as intelligent and conscious as we were. Also other animals, which we used as food sources became to some extent aware. As the story ended one of the characters was musing on this fact and suggested that maybe a religion of self-sacrifice could be given to these animals so that we could continue to eat them. I’d suspect that, more likely, the human race would become vegetarian! Or possibly, as suggested in the story, we would employ the apes to do the dirty work for us.

Animal husbandry
Animal husbandry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

All things are connected

English: computer network IP address
English: computer network IP address (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are networks everywhere. Not just the Internet or the LAN at work, but everywhere. A network could loosely be defined as being comprised of a number of nodes and a number of connections between them. A node is a point or thing which is connected through a connection to another node. A connection is what joins nodes together. This rather circular definition will do for now.

A family can be described by a network. Let’s consider a typical average nuclear family with parents and 2.4 kids. Errm, on second thoughts, lets make that 3 kids. If each person in the family is a node, we can’t really have 0.4 of a kid.

A Date with Your Family
A Date with Your Family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So there are multiple connections between any one family member and another. The father has a connection with his wife, his daughter and his sons. The daughter has connections with her father, her mother and her brothers. One way that this could be shown in a diagram is to draw a pentagon, each vertex of which is a member of the family and lines between the family member showing the relationships.

That’s a total of 15 interrelationships in a small family. Actually depending on the way you look at it, there may be more, as the father is the father of his daughter but the daughter is not the father of the father (obviously). This can be looked at at two relationships, one from father to daughter (A is B’s father) and another from the daughter to the father (B is A’s daughter), or one relationship between father and daughter.


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If you consider that there are two relationships between any two family members, then each relationship can be considered to have a direction and a value. “A is B’s brother” and “B is A’s brother”, for example. Alternatively the relationship could be simple viewed as “brothers”, in which case the relationship has a value, but is non-directional.

I’ve described the familiar relationships in detail to hopefully bring out the facts that relationships between nodes and connections can be complex or describe complex situations. It’s entirely a matter of what you want the network to show.

English: Semantic Network with 7 nodes and 6 links
English: Semantic Network with 7 nodes and 6 links (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Internet is what people tend to think of when someone says “network” and it is indeed a complex network with myriads of interconnections across the globe, but in another way it is quite simple. Basically you have a computer, say your desktop or laptop, connected to the Internet. When you request a webpage, your request is sent to another node on the network, which then sends it to another node, and that forwards it on to yet another node and eventually the request arrives at the destination.

The clever part is that you might think that every “node” on the Internet needs to know where all the other nodes are, but in fact all it needs to know is where to send the request next.

English: nodes
English: nodes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems almost magical. Your computer doesn’t know where wordpress.com is, though it does look up its unique address (known as an IP address). It still doesn’t know where wordpress.com is, so it sends the request and the IP address to your ISP. Your ISP looks at the IP address and sees that it isn’t one local to the ISP, so it passes it on.

As noted above the message is passed on and on until it reaches its destination and then more magic happens as the remote machine responds to the request and sends the response all the way back. It may even travel back by a different route.


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The magic is that some of the nodes know around 200,000 addresses on the Internet and where the next step should go. These addresses are in the most part partial in that the address will be like the street address, without the building number.

So although the Internet is a complex network with many many connections between nodes, the basic principle by which it works is simple, based on an address lookup system (DNS) and a simple unique address for each device on the Internet.


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(OK there’s more to it than that, but the complexities are mainly at the “edges” of the Internet and mainly spring from the need for security and for organisations to have a “gateway” or single address on the Internet).

When we plan a journey over the road network, we generally have some idea of where we are going or we get out a map. We then scan it for the start and end of our journey and work out what direction we need to travel and the intermediate towns.

1945 map of the Pentagon road network, includi...
1945 map of the Pentagon road network, including present-day State Route 27 and part of the Shirley Highway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But if we travelled like a message travels on the Internet we would first travel to the nearest town and ask someone where we need to go to get to our destination. He or she would point us to the next town to which he or she believes we should go. We would then travel to the next destination and ask again.

It would seem that such a process could result in us going round and round in circles, but eventually we will reach a place where the traffic director knows a large part of the roading network and is able to redirect us to another city which is known to be closer to our destination. Once we are on the right road, the process will eventually result in us reaching our destination.

Road to the A48 near Llancarfan - geograph.org...
Road to the A48 near Llancarfan – geograph.org.uk – 1297530 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another network is the network formed by people we know and the people that they know, and the people that they know and so on. There is a theory that to from you, to someone you know to someone they know and so on, it takes six or less steps to reach any person on the planet. This is referred to as “six degrees of separation“.

Similar numbers can be calculated for smaller sets of people. The Kevin Bacon Number relates movie stars through films that they have starred in with other people. Number higher than 4 are rare. The Erdős Number relates people by the number of scientific papers that they have co-authored.

head of Paul Erdös, Budapest fall 1992
head of Paul Erdös, Budapest fall 1992 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These somewhat whimsical numbers do demonstrate how closely linked the human race is. So far as I know no study has been done of the importance of bridging individuals is. I’m talking about those who perhaps emigrate to a country, thereby directly linking together two populations that may be less loosely connected, increasing the connectivity and reducing the number of degrees of separation.

Six degrees of separation.
Six degrees of separation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)