Consciousness

And he has found his way
to the resonance of the word,
and to wind-swift all-understanding.
                                -Sophocles

There is disagreement about the definition of human consciousness, but a team at Harvard has located where it has been hiding all these years: in the rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum, a small area of the brainstem. They did this with a study of brain damaged individuals in a coma, and brain damaged not in a coma. The individuals without damage to that area of the brainstem regained consciousness. So to paraphrase a once famous baseball player, "when you're unconscious you can't do nothing."

This implies that "doing something" indicates consciousness. So watching paramecium under a microscope or observing ivy twine we can conclude that both show at least some degree of consciousness. On the other end of that scale we might place Albert Einstein,  J. S. Bach or a Sperm Whale; since whales have brains five times larger than humans, perhaps their rostral dorsolateral pontine tegmentum is larger.

This is an obvious conundrum and whenever I encounter such a conundrum a visit to Wikipedia is in order.

Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined variously in terms of sentience, awareness, qualia, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood or soul, the fact that there is something "that it is like" to "have" or "be" it, and the executive control system of the mind. In contemporary philosophy its definition is often hinted at via the logical possibility of its absence, the philosophical zombie, which is defined as a being whose behavior and function are identical to one's own yet there is "no-one in there" experiencing it.

Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: "Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives."

Western philosophers, since the time of Descartes and Locke, have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness and identify its essential properties. Issues of concern in the philosophy of consciousness include whether the concept is fundamentally coherent; whether consciousness can ever be explained mechanistically; whether non-human consciousness exists and if so how can it be recognized; how consciousness relates to language; whether consciousness can be understood in a way that does not require a dualistic distinction between mental and physical states or properties; and whether it may ever be possible for computing machines like computers or robots to be conscious, a topic studied in the field of artificial intelligence.

All of Western philosophy and psychology on the subject can be summed with one short statement: they disagree. In Western thought understanding consciousness is not unlike a flashlight trying to illuminate itself.

 Let us turn to other sources:

The Mayans had more agreement. The pyramid of consciousness defined their thought since the beginning of the civilization. Their priests defined consciousness as an awareness of being aware.  Because consciousness incorporates stimuli from the environment as well as internally, the Mayans believed this the basic form of existence, which they referred to as a translation of cosmos, made up of nine underworlds, depicted with their various nine-storied pyramids.  Within these nine underworlds are a specified "day" and "night", symbolizing periods of enlightenment, increased consciousness, and a heightened ability to interact with the universe.

Whereas the Ancient Mayans defined consciousness in almost evolutionary terms, the Inca civilization considered it a progression of awareness and concern for others, not unlike the teachings of Siddhartha and Jesus. In Buddhism  consciousness is the only thing that exists.

 Eastern belief structures hinge on the principle of the Cosmos as merging with human awareness. Some branches stress the sound AUM, or Om, as the sound or word associated with the life force.  In Christianity this concept is the Logos of Genesis and the Book of John.  In Greek philosophy the concept is associated with Heraclitus.*

cha
Chakra  from the Sanskrit "wheel," as well as "circle" and "cycle".  Like other Indian religions, Chakra in Jainism  means yogic-energy centers

Now to a my own limited attempts to understand consciousness.

In the  play and the movie, The Miracle Worker, who can forget the electrifying scene at the well when Miss Sullivan and Helen are at the  pump and Helen connects the word "water" with the stuff flowing across her hands. Helen's higher consciousness begins with the word. Does our spiritual journey begin with our first word and culminate with comprehension of the cosmic Logos?  Can we actually comprehend the cosmos or are we simply finessed by our own delusions. Is human existence only "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."  Hmmmm.

In my high school geometry class students were forced to memorize theorems, axioms, rules, and so on, without comprehending what we were doing, then one day "the light goes on" and, like Helen, it suddenly all makes sense.  For years I could not appreciate Mozart. Sure I could enjoy parts of some of simpler works, but not until around my 40th birthday could I comprehend the entirety of a Mozart symphony.  It was even later before the works of  J.S. Bach entered my consciousness, or I should say my consciousness evolved to a point Bach could enter.  Now, for me, listening to Glen Gould or Hélène Grimaud play Bach is as far as my mind can go: the yogi "crown of head".

That said, there are several different paths to be taken, depending on the talents received at birth.  In the movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity, the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan's life is traced from growing up poor in India to his career at Cambridge where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories. The math path is not open for me. Nor could I every compose a symphony - I just do not have the nature-given talent. Liberal intellectuals' mantra that the mind is a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture, simply ignores common sense and all  scientific evidence to the contrary.

 Since 2006, chess programs running on commercial hardware - more recently including mobile phones - have been able to defeat even the strongest human players. And in 2016 a Go-playing application developed by Google Deep Mind, defeated Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top Go players. Obviously computers are highly intelligent, but are they conscious? To answer this question we turn to Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.


 The question Turing asked is “Can machines think?” But ultimately it’s an operational test for intelligence, not for consciousness. If you have a clever conversation with some guy in another room and after half an hour you can’t decide if it is a computer or a human, well, then you say it’s as intelligent as a human. But the Turing test would not tell me if the machine experiences anything. I could ask “Are you conscious?” and the machine could say “Yes, I am fully conscious. And why are you claiming I am not? I am insulted.” But I couldn’t really know. I’d have to say, “Sorry, I have to take you apart and understand how you are made and how you actually generate these different physical states.”

Isn’t there some trick question you could ask, that only a conscious being could answer?

A very good question. In humans we have practical tests for consciousness. If you have a bad accident and go to the ER, they will ask you: Can you move your eyes? Can you move your limbs? Can you talk? If you can talk, do you know what year it is? Do you know who the president is?

But how do I really know you are conscious? This is the problem of solipsism. In the last analysis I do not know. But I know your brain is very similar to mine. I have put a lot of people into scanners, and I know they all have a brain, and their brains behave similar to mine. So there is a perfectly reasonable inference that you too are conscious.

But the more these systems differ from me, the more difficult it is to make that step by inference.

 

 Koch is also associated with the concept of panpsychism, which posits that the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness. So the scientist seems to agree with the Eastern mystics. Om.

 Koch, above mentioned, "another system," for example, birds are an example of another system. Are birds conscious? I vaguely remember a study where a certain type of baby bird was raised away from other birds of its species, but was played recording of adult birds of other species. The subject bird learned to make noises, but had no song. Eventually the experimenters played a recording of the birds species and the subject bird quickly learned that song. There was a template in the bird's brain, but it was unfilled until the right combination was introduced.

In some species such as zebra finches, learning of song is limited to the first year; they are termed "age-limited" or "close-ended" learners. Other species such as the canaries can develop new songs even as sexually mature adults; these are termed "open-ended" learners. Researchers have hypothesized that learned songs allow the development of more complex songs through cultural interaction, thus allowing intraspecies dialects that help birds to identify kin and to adapt their songs to different acoustic environments.

Perhaps humans are not unlike birds. The difference is in degree not in kind.  Helen Keller's brain had the template, but not the combination to make it conscious until the incident at the well. Some of us are close-end learners, while others are open-ended learners. Some of us can only learn simple songs, but others, like birds, can manage, over time, more complex compositions.

Intelligence can be measured, but is there a yardstick for consciousness? Can some of us can soar up to the heavens, while others just flap?

To answer this question I go, not to Wikipedia, but to the Internet, that font of all knowledge, and there find hundreds of images of levels of consciousness and just as many shamans anxious to show you the way to bliss. Below is a sample:

chart

All such charts simply repeat, at least in part, what Christianity has been teaching for centuries: the seven deadly sins and the  four cardinal virtues. Only the Christian version is presented more artistically.
bosch

 In both cases, we are enjoined to have self control and to become useful individuals in society by obeying certain rules or laws.  However, do such guides answer the question of attaining  higher levels of consciousness? An individual might be highly intelligent and fully conscious, and reject the teaching of Christianity. Satan is no dummy.

Conclusion

If there is no clear understanding or agreed definition of consciousness, only a big mystery, then how can we possibly hold that consciousness has ascending levels? The difference between human consciousness and bird consciousness is a case of "in kind" not a case of "degree".  Man is not the measure of all things, but perhaps the thing measured and found wanting. Self awareness of our shortcomings (or curiosity)  prompts us to seek higher ground, even if no mountain exists.


* This link is to another piece of mine on the Greeks and the source of the Logos.