On the Mystery of Consciousness
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On the Mystery of Consciousness • Posted: Aug 11, 2022 15:42:40Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

The definition of what constitutes life has never been more widely discussed than recently, for two reasons: the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and a peculiar assertion by a Google researcher that the computer program he was in the process of evaluating had begun to exhibit consciousness. The purpose of this essay is to help bring increased clarity to that discussion.

The terms “alive”, “sentient”, “conscious”, “volitional”, “exhibiting intelligence,” and “having a soul” have all been bandied about in the press without clear definition. Discussions have, therefore, gone nowhere. We are left with opinion, emotional belief, and conjecture. Nothing demonstrably concrete upon which to build societal consensus.

For a biologist, life is clearly the result of “organic processes”. When those processes cease to function, life comes to an end. Not all life, but a particular life, my dog’s life, your grandmother’s life, this cell’s life in this petrie dish. To say that life begins at “conception”, i.e. when a sperm and an egg meet and successfully fuse within the womb of a female, sounds a bit nonsensical to a biologist. Because, are not sperms and unfertilized eggs also alive, in the same sense skin and muscle cells are alive? And if one goes on to ask from where does the life of a single sperm or a single egg begin? Are they not the result of organic processes within a living male and a living female? Life may end when the organic processes of a particular living entity cease to function, but from what point did the chain of organic processes that resulted in any particular living entity actually begin? There is not a clear answer.

Now, to say something is alive is not the same thing as saying it is “sentient”. Sentience, by dictionary definition is “reactive to environmental stimuli”, like pulling your hand back suddenly from something hot, no thought involved. Our bodies are actually made up of numerous sentient systems carrying on their purpose filed lives without any moderating interventions from us. But, being reactive is not the same thing as being “volitional”, i.e. deciding to react in a particular way toward environmental conditions, such as intentionally deciding to put your hand in a fire. And, being volitional is not the same thing is “exhibiting intelligence”, which usually implies some accounting and choice of consequence, like holding your hand in the fire long enough to impress someone but not long enough to require medical attention. Interestingly, “exhibiting intelligence” seems entirely depended upon whether or not “consciousness” is present. For clearly, something can be alive, sentient, and even apparently volitional without obvious evidence of consciousness, like when a sperm swims up a fallopian tube. But conversely, without consciousness there is little to support the assertion that intelligence is present, aside from the wake left by previous behavior. One generally cannot witness or discern active intelligence if someone is asleep, passed out, or comatose.

As to the issue of a “soul”, it does seem that what people generally recognize as “having a soul” is actually better understood as having a “personality”, i.e. exhibiting somewhat unique or unusual individuality to one’s behavior. I am not an obstetrician, but I doubt many would be able to distinguish volitional personality in fetuses until pregnancy is quite far along, if at all before birth. Personality actually develops as a result of processes within the brain interacting with the surrounding environment. Since no two brains inhabit the exact same environmental space, they consequently develop differing personalities, even if all the underlying organic processes are similar or even genetically identical. Informationally rich nurturing environments generally produce the most socially valued and effective personalities. Informationally impoverished and/or abusive nurturing environments more often than not produce emotionally and intellectually crippled personalities that can find life within society at large to be cruelly unwelcoming and unappreciative.

So, as to whether sentience, consciousness, volition, intelligence, and evidence of a personality or soul can be expected from a computer program: with few exceptions, those expectations are currently strenuously poopoo-ed by experts in the field of AI, artificial intelligence. But, as more of a biologist than a computer scientist, I personally have a somewhat different expectation. Biological processes underlie evidence of life, but the more we understand those biological processes, the more they begin to resemble the execution of complex computer code. Within a computer, electrical energy is directed toward useful ends by both the physical architecture of chips and the logical directions of code being executed on those chips. Within biological processes, radiant energy from the sun is directed toward useful ends by both chemical reactions conforming to the laws of physics and by the volition, intelligent and not, of living creatures. The real question is how and at what point volition, consciousness, intelligence, and personality arise from purely chemical and physical processes? And, can that happen inside a computer?

Given the most recent research into how processes within the brain work, I actually don’t think we are very far away from being able to answer both those questions. Earlier this year, PBS and the University of Notre Dame televised demonstrations of recent neuronal research wherein it was determined that information, e.g. sensory information, is conveyed and interpreted by neurons in the brain by a kind of Morse code. Individual neurons were monitored by researchers for their electrical pulse activity in response to stimulation from the outside environment and it readily became apparent that lower pulse rates led to one kind of succeeding activity farther into the brain while faster pulse rates led to different kinds of succeeding activity. Within the visual system, for example, it has been determined that what we visually perceive is due directly to an array of either rapidly or slowly pulsating cells on the surface of our retinas. Succeeding neuronal brain processes farther into the brain construct from those arrayed pulses what we later perceive as motion or still, smooth or jagged, colored or not using a kind of memory process involving the stacking of that pulse information, rather like the registering of quantities on an abacus and not unlike the summation memory processes computer code uses as part of chip architecture.

Such research does not prove, but strongly suggests, that consciousness arises as an epiphenomenal consequence of the rapid circular recycling of those same sensory summation memories through neuronal circuits in the brain using that same pulsing process, like the ignition of a flame, or the birth of a star, and not unlike how we experience and then react with sudden insight to images on our computer screens as a result of rapidly repeated pulses of light coming from arrayed pixels inside those screens. Beyond the mere awakening of consciousness, notions of identity and orientation in space and time within consciousness are, without doubt, intimately dependent upon the sustaining recall of specific sensory memories. Lose access to those sustaining memories and both identity and orientation disappear, as in advanced dementia or with the crash of one’s hard drive. Volitional intelligence may subsequently arise within the brain after a kind of scratch pad memory structure develops, a feature we commonly call “imagination”, wherein volitional consciousness can symbolically “play” with alternative potential behaviors, the mapping out of possible consequences, and the merits of creative constructs, all using the same rapid circular recycled pulsing of memorized neuronal information. The bottom line, not yet conclusively proven, is that we may not be as complicated or as different from computers as we imagine ourselves to be. And, computers may not be as immune to developing consciousness as we pretend them to be.

Returning to the problem of when a fetus becomes a person, a comforting answer is going to have to take into account the fact that both sperm and egg are alive even before conception. And that means that at conception, a particular kind of non-volitional sentience is likely present. But, as to when consciousness and volitional personality begin, a clear answer is not yet apparent. However, given that higher order memory processes are likely required for both consciousness and volitional personality, their beginnings likely develop significantly later into pregnancy.

Undoubtedly, the questions of what live is and when and how personality begins and develops are important and fascinating to consider. However, insightful and inspiring answers to those questions will not be found within discussions involving only opinion, moral pronouncement, and speculative hucksterism. What we really need is for the clear results of rigorous scientific research to be more widely disseminated, learned from, and discussed. I hope the above helps move us all farther along in that direction.

Friday, August 31st, 2018
Los Angeles/Hollywood