Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Consciousness: The Final Frontier (Part 1)

Its been a few weeks, well, actually a month since I've last wrote but in the interm I have been doing some reading and thinking. More reading than thinking because my cognitive process is pretty sporadic and short lived. In the last few weeks, I've been reading a lot about biology. Specifically, evolution and neuroscience. First off, my disclaimer I am not a scientist nor an individual who does research or possesses any technical knowledge about these areas. I am merely someone who reads as much as possible about these issues and thinks about them. One of the issues I've been reading about a lot and thinking about is consciousness.

For many years the study of consciousness has been lacking and ignored by the scientific community but in the past couple decades it has come to the forefront. It has been heralded by many scientists as the next great revolution in scientific thinking and progress, the first four being Copernacian, Darwinian, Freudian and Einsteinian/Bohrian (my own addition). I am going to try and be methodical and structured about my thoughts on this subject. So bear with me.Consciousness refers to the quality of the mind to perceive and possess subjective experiences such as thought (in general), emotions, language, awareness and self-awareness. Before we delve into consciousness, I think a basic discussion of the mind is needed.

Most of modern thought and even more adamantly western religion has believed in the dichotomy of mind and body. The mind is fundamentally different from the body and vice versa. This was most staunchly defended and argued by Rene DesCartes . This is called the Cartesian Dualism or the Mind-Body Distinction. His argument is rather intricate and delves into res cognitans and res extensia so I'll avoid that. In brief he argues that just as the body has its root in all things extension (material) so does the mind have its root in all things thinking (mind stuff) which is another name for the soul. They are connected through the pineal gland in the brain or so goes his theory. He even goes further and disavows perception and only admits deduction as how to know a thing. In otherwords, he (the thinking thing) is all that can be affirmed, his longer argument for why he can accept his perceptions involves his view of God and will not be needed here.I only used Descartes to show the philosophical basis for having mind as the object of consideration. Descartes and even most western thinkers place the mind and the soul as synonmous. It is the soul that thinks and the soul that acts and the soul that does all. This is a concept we will return to later.

Now, modern science agrees that the locus of study for consciousness should be the mind and the basis of the mind is the brain. Yep, all 3 pounds of an average human brain is the basis of the mind. Science is and should be about what can be observed, tested and explained. With that foundation, neuroscience attempts and has been providing evidence and data that our minds are nothing more than the bundle of synaptic exchanges in our brains. For example, a study by Ben Libet shows that 500-600 milliseconds before you "decide" to move, the unconscious part of your brain has already begun the action of moving. In otherwords, your thought of moving comes after beginning the movement. So what of free will? I'll come back to that later.

In the book Phantoms of the Mind, Dr. VS Ramachandran of UCSD presents evidence of various experiments that he has conducted in regards to the question of consciousness. He and other researchers have shown that feelings of devotion and spiritual sensations can be stimulated in people by sending electrical impulses through the patient's temporal lobes, they call this the God module. This God Module can either be used to support or contest God. Religious supporters say that its how God makes himself known to us while detractors say it is nature's way to make people more subservient and clan oriented. Another thing is that when parts of the brain which control our spatial perceptions (for us to interact in this 4-D world the brain has to be able to "read" all the spatial-temporal information and create in our minds what we see) are probed or affected, the patients experience of the world expands and the patient has feelings of oneness with the universe and being everywhere at once. This is the basic science stuff in the next post I'll try and deal with issues that all of this brought forth.

No comments: