A Sum of All the Parts

Cover of the Book Conscious Robots
Cover of the Book Conscious Robots (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consciousness is fascinating and I keep coming back to it. It is personally verifiable in that a person knows that he or she is conscious, but it is difficult if not impossible to tell if a person is conscious from the outside.

When you talk to someone, you and that person exchange words. You say something, and they respond. Their response is to what you say, and it appears to show that the person is a conscious being.

It’s not as easy as that, however, because it is conceivable that the person is a zombie (in the philosophical sense) and his or her responses are merely programmed reactions based on your words. In other words he or she is not a conscious being.

It seems to me that the best counter to this suggestion is that I am a conscious being and I am no different in all discernible ways from others. It is unreasonable to suggest I am the only conscious being anywhere and that all others are zombies.

Of course this leaves open the suggestion that some people may be philosophical zombies, but that then raises the question of what the difference is, and how can one detect it. William of Occam would probably wield his razor and conclude that, if one can’t tell, one might as well assume that there are no zombies, as assuming that there are zombies adds a (probably) unnecessary assumption to the simple theory that all humans are conscious beings.

It follows that consciousness is probably an emergent phenomenon related to the complexity and functioning of the brain. It also follows that lower animals, such as dogs, cats and apes are also probably conscious entities, though maybe to a lesser extent that we are.

English: A liver-coloured Border Collie with h...
English: A liver-coloured Border Collie with heterochromatic eyes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only way we can directly study consciousness is by introspection, which is more than a bit dubious as it is consciousness studying itself. We can indirectly study consciousness by studying others who we assume to be conscious, maybe when they have been rendered unconscious by anaesthetics and are “coming round” from them.

In addition, consciousness can be indirectly studied using mind altering drugs or meditation. However we are mainly dependant on verbal reports from those studied this way, and such reports are, naturally, subjective.

Chemical Structure of LSD (Lysergic acid dieth...
Chemical Structure of LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we introspect, we are looking inwards, consciously studying our own consciousness. There are therefore limits on what we can find out, as the question arises “How much about itself can a system find out?”

A system that studies itself is limited. It can find out some things, but not all. It’s like a subroutine in a bigger program, in that it knows what to do with inputs and it creates appropriate output for those inputs. Its sphere of influence is limited to those processes written into it, and there is no way for it to know anything about the program that calls it.

English: Illustration of subroutine in Microso...
English: Illustration of subroutine in Microsoft Excel that reads the x-column, squares it, and writes the squares into the y-column. All proprietary Microsoft art work has been cropped to leave a generic spreadsheet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A subroutine of a larger program uses the lexical, syntactical and logical rules that apply to the program as a whole, though it may have its own rules too. It shares the concept of strings, number, and other objects with the whole program, but it can add its own rules too.

The Universe is like the subroutine in many ways. The subroutine has inputs and outputs and processes the one into the other. In this Universe we are born and we die. In between we spend our lives.

An aware or conscious subroutine would know that it processes input and creates outputs, but it would have no idea why. We know that we are born, we live and we die. Apart from that we have no idea why.

This sort of implies that while we may use introspection to investigate some aspects of consciousness we will always fall short of understanding it completely. We may be able to approach an understanding asymptotically however – we might get to understand consciousness to the 90% level, so it would not be a total waste of time to study it.

Česky: Asymptotická křivka.
Česky: Asymptotická křivka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consciousness seems to be more than a single state, and the states seem to merge and divert without any actions on our part. For instance, when I am driving there is a part of me that is driving the car and a part of me that is route planning, and maybe a part of me that is musing on the shopping that I intend to do.

The part of me that is driving is definitely aware of what is happening around me. I don’t consciously make the decision to slow down when other traffic gets in the way, but the part of me that is driving does so.

The Last Royal Show
The Last Royal Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly the part that is route finding is also semi-autonomous – I don’t have to have a map constantly in my mind, and don’t consciously make a decision to turn right, but the navigator part of my consciousness handle that by itself.

Those parts of my mind are definitely conscious of the areas in which they are functioning, because if they were not conscious, they would not be able to do their job alone and would frequently need to move to the front of my consciousness disrupting my musing about my shopping.

Window shopping at Eaton's department store. (...
Window shopping at Eaton’s department store. (Toronto, Canada) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s like part of my consciousness are carved off and allowed to perform their functions autonomously. However if an emergency should arise, then these parts are quickly jolted back into one.

The parts of my mind are definitely conscious as, at a low level, I am aware of them. I’m aware of the fact that I’m following that blue car, and I’m aware that I have to turn left in 200m or so. I’m also aware of my shopping plans, while I’m aware of the music on the radio.

Deutsch: Servicemenü des Blaupunkt Bremen MP74...
Deutsch: Servicemenü des Blaupunkt Bremen MP74 (Aktivierung: Gerät mit gedrückter “Programm1”- und “Menü”-Taste einschalten). Aktuelle Frequenz: 89,70 MHz (France Musique, Sender Luttange (Metz), PI-Code F203); aktuelle Suchlauffrequenz: 96,80 MHz (bigFM Saarland, Sender Friedrichsthal/Hoferkopf, PI-Code 10B2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds scary that I’m not totally concentrated on my driving, I believe that this sort of has to happen. If I was totally concentrated on my driving, I would need to stop at every intersection so that I could decide which way to turn.

I would need have my shopping list completely sorted out, to the point of knowing which stores I am going to before even getting the car, and I would have to plan my route precisely. This would not allow for those occasions when passing by something or some shop reminds you that you need something that is not on your shopping list.

Planning options considered, the most northerl...
Planning options considered, the most northerly route was chosen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This splitting of consciousness allows us to perform efficiently. The only downside is that splitting things too much can result in us becoming distracted. And that is the reason we shouldn’t fiddle with the radio or use cellphones when driving.

English: A motor bike team arrive to the scene...
English: A motor bike team arrive to the scene of a car crash in Maracaibo, Venezuela. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A pain in the…

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with...
Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with pain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone has experienced pain at some time, even it is caused by a simple knock or scratch. Many people have  experienced pain over the whole range from mild to excruciating. Of course it is impossible to know what another is experiencing so we compare pains by saying that a pain is like, for example, toothache, or that it is a stabbing pain.

We still don’t know exactly what others feel. As JLS sings “Do you feel what I feel?”. But we might have some idea, by comparison with our own experience. Another way that doctors use is to ask the patient to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to ten. as in this case the doctors can usually assess the type of pain. But they will sometimes ask if the pain is stabbing, pricking, aching, or whatever.

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There is no doubt that pain, real pain, is an intense feeling. but our memories of pain that we have experienced seem curiously muted. If you think back to a time when you were injured, however, you will probably not be able to exactly how intense the experience was. I recall from somewhere that a mother, reflecting on the whole process of child-bearing said of the pain that if mothers could remember how it felt to give birth then it would be unlikely that there would be any second or third babies in a family.

Just as one remembers some life events and forgets others, seemingly at random, we may remember some injuries and forget others. I remember vividly scraping my skin on a rock which resulted in a nice scar, but I don’t remember the pain that I must have suffered when I received another scar, on my hand this time. It could of course simply be that the second injury happened decades before the first, and the memory of the pain may have simply faded. I think that there is more to it than that, though I don’t know what, exactly.

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When a predator brings down its prey, say a lion captures a gazelle, it may often start to feed on the prey even though it might not yet be completely dead. This seems to us, today, to be cruel, but some people say that the prey doesn’t experience the pain as its brain switches off the pain and its consciousness, as a result of the shock. I’m not sure that this isn’t wishful thinking with nature thereby being thought of as “being kind” to the prey.

I put the scare quotes in there because it is gross anthropomorphism to say that. Nature is neither kind nor cruel. Also, on the rare occasion that a prey animal is accidentally freed by the predator, the prey will immediately try to escape, which it would not if it were stunned by the shock of its capture.

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Nevertheless, there is something in the idea. People who have been stabbed or shot sometimes say that they thought that someone has hit them and that they were unaware that they had been stabbed or shot. This could be for a number of reasons. The nerves that affected by such puncturing wounds pain are mainly located on the surface of the skin, and a projectile or blade may affect only a few of them. When a person notices that they have been stabbed, they may suddenly experience the pain.

My experience backs this up. I have found that even a quite deep cut may not hurt until you notice it. A burn, however, is usually felt very quickly. In fact the body’s response to a burn is an almost immediate recoil.

Burn icon
Burn icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some pain, organ or visceral pain, happens deep inside the body. It’s the pain of appendicitis for example, or of gall bladder disease to name just two examples out of many. It may be difficult to tell which organ is affected as the pain may seem to be located in a different location from the affected organ. For instance in appendicitis the pain may start towards the middle of the abdomen rather than at the side where the appendix is located.

A different category of pain is mental pain. This is distinct from physical pain, though the two types may be linked as pain can affect the emotions, either directly through the autonomic nervous system, or indirectly through the sufferer’s physical restrictions caused by the pain, such as frustration, anxiety and other symptoms.

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Mental pain is often likened to physical pain, as when grief is described in terms of physical pain and other symptoms. To someone who has suddenly been bereaved it often seems very much like a physical blow, and physical effects such as weight loss, nausea, sweating and feeling cold are all possible. I believe that mental pain can be as deeply felt as physical pain.

While we have pain killers for physical pain which can be targeted at specific symptoms and even organs, treatments for mental pain seem to me to be primitive in comparison. I need to add a disclaimer here, as I am not a medical practitioner nor have I experienced grief or other deep mental pain, so I simply do not know for sure if what I said above is true.

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I do know that treatment for depression, which I suffer from now and then, appears to be effective, but there appear to be as many treatment and drugs as there are people suffering from the disease. Again, this is my non-medical view and I may be unaware of why there seem to be so many treatments for one condition. There may be reasons.

One other thing from my random stroll through the topic of pain – we seem to be able to feel things outside of our bodies. Amputees often report feeling itching and pain in their removed limbs or parts of limbs. This is known as “phantom pain“, and strangely it can be helped by superimposing an image of the patient’s intact limb over the absent or partial limb.

English: SAN DIEGO (June 13, 2011) Lynn Boulan...
English: SAN DIEGO (June 13, 2011) Lynn Boulanger, an occupational therapy assistant and certified hand therapist, uses mirror therapy to help address phantom pain for Marine Cpl. Anthony McDaniel. The Occupational Therapy department provides patients with rehabilitation services to heal and restore service members to their highest level of everyday functional outcomes. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joseph A. Boomhower/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phantom limb pain obviously arises in the mind and the mirror trick fools the mind somehow into thinking that the limb is intact again. Of course, all pain is, fundamentally, in the mind, but apparently the mind can be fooled into firstly creating the phantom pain and secondly, into forgetting it, even though the patient knows that the limb has been damaged.

The reason for pain seems obvious – the body (or mind) is damaged in some way, and the pain is a signal that something needs to be done. But this simplistic answer doesn’t cover a lot of cases – the phantom pain of an amputated limb, for example. Nothing can be done about such pain, so why do we feel it? I think that I need to do some reading!

Breaking the Chain

An elephant named Neelakantan owned by trying ...
An elephant named Neelakantan owned by trying to break its chain on . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A good friend of mine has posted at least one picture a day for a long time now. He has posted for well over a thousand days without a break. It’s a phenomenal achievement and I’m in awe of his accomplishment.

Just recently he has been ill and confessed yesterday that he had been close to breaking the chain, which would have been a real shame. But his predicament led me to consider my own blogging and the drives that make me add a new post every week and prevent me from breaking my particular chain.

Figural sculpture representing 'Introspection'...
Figural sculpture representing ‘Introspection’ at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t speak for him of course, obviously, but I can do a bit of introspection on my own blogging. When it comes down to it one can only speak for oneself and attempts to speak for others are doomed from the outset.

I have tried before to create a blog and failed. I’d get three or four weeks into it, I’d forget and then months would pass before I thought of it again. This time I’m well past the 100 posts and pushing on. To put it another way I’ve been burbling on for around two years and I’m still going.

25 Years – The Chain
25 Years – The Chain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t do it for an audience, though around 100 people have “followed” this blog over the months. I don’t know how many people, if any, actually read this blog on a weekly basis. So although I put it “out there”, I do it mainly for myself, even though I hope that those who stumble across it like it.

So what is different this time? When I started this blog it was intended to be a record of my culinary activities and each entry was just a few hundred words. Then I switched to posting more general stuff and the number of words reached 1000 per post. Early on I decided to post once a week. Now I post pretty much only “general stuff” and waffle on for 1000 words.

English: cooking in desert
English: cooking in desert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I posted earlier on how I choose the subjects that I post on. Roughly speaking something suggests itself to me or I sit down and pluck a subject out the air at the last minute. I don’t generally find it difficult to reach 1000 words – Look! I’ve already typed more than 300 words and I haven’t yet got to where I thought I was going when I started!

I was going to talk about the urge to keep the chain going. Come Saturday I might have an idea in mind, maybe not. If not I might not have even thought about the blog, but come Sunday it is nagging at the back of my mind.

The grotesque nagging wife
The grotesque nagging wife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no question that I am going to write the blog entry, but my enthusiasm may be low. It may seem a chore, something that is going to take up my time, when I could be slouching around doing nothing. I call that relaxing.

But I may also have thought of something that I want to write about. I may have some idea of the points that I want to make, but I always think that I won’t have enough ideas to bulk out the article to 1000 words, even though I have never failed to reach that limit every time!

...More Than 1000 Words
…More Than 1000 Words (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I expect that in the early days of my blog, if I had missed a week that would be it. I doubt that I would have picked up the thread again. The chain got longer and longer and it would seem to be a shame if I were to break it now

As it was, I nearly broke the chain when I and my wife went away for a weekend, and I didn’t have the time to write the blog for that weekend. However, I had posted that I was going to catch up, and catch up I did, thank the little gods. Even though I may not have many regular readers, I felt an obligation to any that I might have to keep the chain complete.

English: The M2 missing link, Ballymena See 19...
English: The M2 missing link, Ballymena See 190444. A view of the site for the missing motorway, some eleven years after the M2 had opened. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a period coming up in the future when it will be very difficult for me to post weekly as usual. I will be away from home for a month or so and will not have easy access to my usual computer. I will have to work out a way of getting past this period, either by cutting down my posts in size or just by declaring that I will be skipping a few weeks.

Preparing and planning for a break is a bit different to having difficulties in posting because of illness or some other reason. If illness or other reason prevents one from posting and forces a break there is of course the possibility of making an extra post to re-link the chain. Posting weekly as I do, I have a week to catch up, but my friend does not have that luxury as he posts every day. I’ve been able to catch up before my next post is due, so far at least, so it is less likely that a break in my chain would be fatal.

The missing-link between corset and corselette...
The missing-link between corset and corselette from 1914 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, when we talk about likelihoods, we must take into account the people involved. The blog in question has gone through several versions, including a version on Usenet newsgroups and a web-based version. It started as a newsletter for New Zealand expatriates, but has evolved into a blog featuring my friend’s interest in photography. And birds. So it has survived and evolved, and I hope and suspect that it would continue to survive and evolve even if some event should occur which causes a hiatus.

English: Sgùrr a' Mhaim and the Devil's Ridge ...
English: Sgùrr a’ Mhaim and the Devil’s Ridge Taken just as the ridge drops down to the hiatus in the ridge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What about mine? Well I’m frankly amazed that I have managed to keep going for so long. My previous efforts have lasted a few posts at the most. Obviously, at some time or other my blog will cease. I just hope that I can keep it going for a long time yet.

I don’t think that I will run out of ideas and if I do I can just take a metaphorical pin and stick it in the Internet somewhere and pull out a topic. After all, Google has an “I feel lucky” button. Pressing that button reveals that 22 January 2015 was Grandfather’s Day in Poland. Hmmm, I could make something out of that, I think.

"The Favorite" - Grandfather and Gra...
“The Favorite” – Grandfather and Grandson – “Ο Αγαπημένος του Παππού” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)