Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Consciousness: The Final Frontier (Part 2)

Continuing from the previous post let me give a few more interesting facts about consciousness and the brain. Ramachandran describes in his book patients whose had Capgras Syndrome, which in which the connection to the fusiform gyros (the part of the brain that deals with our facial recognition) was damaged. This patient, whose memory was intact and was able to perceive and recognize faces, would think that his mother was not his mother whenever he saw her. He thought that she was someone else who had come to deceive him because whenever he saw her he did not have the emotions he normally does upon seeing his mother. So this poses another problem for us, is the emotional factor something that is integral to the definition and understanding of consciousness? Is it an epiphenomena or necessary element?

Another interesting syndrome is synesthesia, which is when the individual's brain has some cross wiring and they experience different things than we do for normal stimuli. To clarify further, when we listen to music we hear it but those with the above condition will see a color. Another example of this is mixing up pain and pleasure, if you hit someone and cause pain, they will laugh. Again this shows that our perceptions and how we understand the world is entirely under the dominion of our brains/mind.

Clearly emotion is connected to the mind but the question is how? It is a function of the brain, probably due to our evolutionary past, fear probably being the most base emotion from which all emotions may spring from. Anger is correlated with the activation of various cortizols and adrenaline in the body and the recirculation of blood flow to prepare for fighting. Fear does the same but to flee. Happiness is correlated with activation and emission of endorphins and other neurochemicals. Recent studies also show that genes might play a vital role on happiness. The brain controls all these functions of emotions, in an unconscious way.

Ok, well now lets try and address the questions I came upon above. First, from the above I think it appears that consciousness is the property of the mind/brain. The examples given above show that what we normally term to be key arguments for the existence of soul such as laughter, emotion, perception and so on are all dependent on the brain. If a few things in the brain are damaged or meddled with we will have a vastly different experience than we do now. Emotions can be "removed", our perceptions can become contradictory (seeing colors when we hear notes, laughing when being hurt), experiencing God and so on. Doesn't this all destroy the notion of soul?

Well, now we get into the realm of philosophy because it does destroy a few conceptions of the soul but not all. If the soul is linked with emotions, perceptions, memories individual identity and such then it strongly calls into question if such a soul really exists. Descartes notion of mind/body distinction is rendered untenable because the evidence shows that a mind/body distinction doesn't really exist. Our minds exist entirely dependent on our brains, and for the most part are the same thing (unless one day we can "download" our minds into computers and other things/beings but that is the realm of science fiction for now). Are we infact machines and only machines as Dawkins and Dennent contend (super simplification of their very powerful and intricate arguments)?

I'm not so sure. Now is the time as in all my posts that I bring forth some ancient Indian wisdom and philosophy, I mean after all India did invent everything :). Vedanta, end of all vedas or knowledge (VEDA = knowledge and Anta = End) delves into determining what is the soul and what is consciousness, it is not scientific but rather speculative and logical. Shankara in his great Vedanta Sutra Bhasya (commentary on the aphorisms of Vedanta) delves into the discussion of what is the soul. He and other Indian thinkers came to the base concept that the soul is the I, not the Individual Identity but the notion of I, first person experience. Similarly consciousness is the "I"ness, the very act or ability to know or experience. Emotions, Identity (Individual), memories and such are all products of the mind. The mind is distinct from the soul. The Samkhya system of Indian philosophy postulates 8 senses: sight, scent, touch, taste, hearing, intellect, mind and Ego. The Ego is ones personality and individual identity, this is understood by Hindu thinkers to be connected to the body. The Individual Identity or Self is an illusion, has no real existence. Shankara also takes it one step further and says that even the notion of first person experience is an illusion and all there is pure consciousness, this is where many Hindu schools of philosophy differ. But that is another topic.

Similarly, Hindu thought also places free will into the realm of illusion because in truth there is no action. I'll avoid the theological explanations and stick to the philosophical view (although they do go hand in hand). The notion is that we are not really acting because we are really instruments of Being and are also free intrinsically of "bondage" only we don't know it cause we are deluded by the world of illusion we live in. Illusion in this sense is not a ontological illusion (meaning its not inherent in the universe itself) but its a psychological illusion. The I thinks its acting because it experiences the universe in relation and through the brain and body, as such it mistakes the body and brains action for its own. Furthermore, the "I" sees itself as separate from all things and independent of all things when it is caught in state of interdependence (theologically it is also considered dependent on the Supreme Spirit). The idea is that true nature of existence is the "I" or consciousness both as a quality and substance. The I experiences the world through the body and brain but is not touched by it. Its difficult to grasp so I'll try with another example much like the water exists in the world but condition by the form (solid, liquid and gas) yet remains untouched and water still, so does the soul or "I" exist in bodies and brains yet remain untouched. Hopefully that offers some thought and insight or brings more questions, which is great. Any comments are appreciated.

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