Jan 7, 2011

On the Mind-Body relation: A New Look at Consciousness and Free will

What is thought to be mind? Whence from it cometh? Whither does it go? In what relation to the corporeal organism does it exist? What are, if any, the physical and physiological bases for the mind to emerge? And does it do so as a differentiated organ of the body itself, i.e. is it merely identical with brain or is the unmistakably distinct 'qualia' of mind sufficient reason to consider it a phenomena of its own accord?

Reductionist view: Mind=Mechanics of the Brain
It should be theoretically profitable to consider all these questions as occupants of certain positions on a continuum, at one end of which is a conception of mind-body relation as a strict dichotomy to reconcile, i.e mind and body as 'separate things', the other end of which condenses around the mind-body relation conceived as only an 'illusion of separatedness' and as such (being only an illusion) is to somehow be explained away to establish that mind=brain. The latter view is commonly ascribed the label 'monism' (often 'material monism') and the former 'dualism'. While 'dualism' has been very explicit since Plato in theology and in the popular imagination, the reductionistic Monist view has gained philosophical legitimacy in the scientific age. Though patent limitations of both the positions, when conjured simplistically in the absolute, have launched a frenetic academic search since at least the mid-twentieth century for a viable alternative to the two extremes.

Though, lest it be mistakenly presumed, it is not my intention to merely add one to the number of adherents of either position here on this blog. What I am to humbly attempt, while trying my best to navigate the intellectual mine-filed of historically-established positions, is to present my own view, that of mind and body being two categorically distinct 'emergent' phenomena of the  same underlying physical 'complex system' within a materialist-monist framework.

Human body is scant more than a metastable atomic configuration of an endothermically balanced open energy system - which is to say that it is a set of processes encapsulated in a vessel which continuously needs to consume energy  to self-perpetuate, else it decays.  It is just as subject to the universal tendency to chaos, i.e. thermodynamic entropy, as anything else is.  Entropy, as the initiated would know, is a measure of disorder in any system, and for a system that is isolated (as human body is from its surroundings) it ALWAYS increases.  Any system then, including the human body, will sustain only as long as the systemic entropy is overpowered by a net positive consumption of energy, which happens recurrently in our bodies as we burn organic compounds (mostly compound sugars) begotten from oral, and on rare occasions of illness, intra-venous consumption. All elements of any ordered arrangement, including our bodies, were put in such an arrangement, in the first place by a net consumption of energy. Though through entropic impulsion they would much rather be in a more stable, lower energy inorganic free elemental state (perhaps in the atmosphere). They would duly be granted that wish once entropy takes over - upon the intervention of death and cessation of all bio-chemical reactions that overcome the tendency to chaos. 

In reality, the boundaries of all systems hugely overlap

The brain is very much, incontestably,  a constituent part of the body. The 'Brain' is a convenient label for a set of bio-physical systems, the core of which all, is co-located in cranial cavity of the human body. This is despite the fact that functionally the 'brain-system' well distends into every section of the human anatomy through the peripheral nervous system. It is in fact quite an arduous task to precisely point out the 'systemic boundaries' that separate the 'brain' in the human body from all that is 'not the brain' in the human body. Just for instance, there are coagulated bunch of neural circuits dispersed and decentralized throughout the body, which perform many computational, regulatory, reflexive and sensory functions, just like a brain - a simple example being the 'ganglia' cells behind the retina which pre-processes the visual input in a basic fashion before it reaches the cerebral cortex for higher processing. More so, the central core of the brain (the one locate in the head) is also inseparably tied to other bodily systems like the endocrine network, the lymph network et cetera. While the ganglia-type 'mini-brains' are scattered throughout the body, the functioning of the various other bodily-systems too is so profoundly entangled with the core of the brain that when considered collectively, the two facts above very convincingly gnaw at the very premise of the compartmental definitions that most among us are given in to thinking in terms of, mostly on account of sloppy school curriculum. So the brain then, is better thought of as a "control system" that isn't nearly as localized in the skull as the common imagination would have it be. It is a physio-chemical "coordinator" between the electronic, chemical and physical control systems of the human body (represented by the nervous system, endocrine-lymph system and the skeletal muscles respectively). The problem of mind-body relation is thus better considered a problem of mind-brain relation.

Now mind, or the contemplation of it in the light of the foregoing arguments, appears considerably parsimonised if we may think of it like (mind)=(brain+consciousness). This is so because the brain, as an electro-physio-chemical control system is in-itself a common feature in the design of most planetary life but we do hesitate in concluding that worms, insects or other lower forms of animals do have a mind so to say, as they appear to lack an evolved symbolic self-consciousness. So if we are to encounter a system that possesses all the attributes of a brain and the quality of self-consciousness, we may satisfy ourselves at having chanced upon a variant of 'mind'. The problem of mind-brain then, will reduce to a problem of explaining the possibility of the 'emergence' of consciousness in the mind-brain symbiosis, so conceived as by my article so far.

Consciousness, i would argue, is an 'emergent' property of a strictly deterministic dynamical system that is the brain, with various sub-systems composed by the thermodynamics, electrodynamics & magnetodynamics of the brain. Emergence, a concept most readily identified with chaos theory, is the way "complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions - order out of apparent chaos. Nature abounds with 'emergent' properties of phenomena. Now since consciousness is an 'emergent' property - like the shape of a hurricane, structure of foam froth, the mold of an anthill or the contours of the grand canyon - it is not predictable even while being fully deterministic (just like hurricane, anthill, foam froth and the grand canyon). In a phenomenological sense, consciousness is nothing but the subjective aspect of the objective 'emergence' of patterns in the complex-dynamical system of the extended-diffused brain.  (I say extended-diffused brain as even pure sensation is a level of consciousness that 'emerges' from the parts of the brain system represented by the sensory-nervous circuits)

Mandelbrot Fractal: An simple 'emergent' with few parameters. Click on the image to see full size

As to the question of the incredible complexity, refinement and apparent creativity of the higher mental functions - the best description I have discovered in my study of frontier cognitive neuroscience so far - is that of quantum interference in the micro-tubules within the inter neuronal axons in the brain. These structures are only 100 Angstroms wide, and thus subject to quantum interference and consequently to be an eligible system for incredibly complex, copious and varied 'emergent' properties to appear. Magnetoencephalogram studies done thus far have lend some support for this hypothesis. (***By no means is it implied that this cannot happen without operating down at the quantum level, it just adds unimaginable 'scale' and 'scope' to the system, if we conceptualize it at the nano-est possible level***). We register countless quanta of energy changes from our environment every moment from all sense modalities. There are countless quanta of energy changes from inside our brain too - every moment. These are sufficient initial conditions for the dynamical system to undergo a state change wherein there are literally countless initial parameters, and nothing will be able to 'predictably' and 'exactly' account for the decrease in entropy (decrease in entropy - emergence of order from 'apparent' chaos) when the process occurs and is experienced as 'partial awareness' of thought.  So every individual instance of cognition, if possible for it to be considered this way, is a 'chaos cycle' in which a pattern 'emerges' and is experienced as a unit of consciousness.

Now we might ask ourselves as to how does this ‘emergence’ of order in the chaos of our neural-networks lead to 'self-awareness' or consciousness, as even a nematode appears to possesses the basic apparatus for the ‘chaos cycle’ to eventuate and commence, but it certainly is not self-aware in the way humans are?

We may allay such doubts with a consideration of the lack of the colossal cerebral cortex in the lower-order animals that is present in humans. Dwarfed massively also, is the general complexity of the lower-order nervous systems in comparison with the sapient ones like ours. Their ‘connectome’ (the aggregate network of neural connections which, in principle, represents the processing capacity of the system) is hugely impaired in comparison to us. So to an extent, it becomes a matter of scale and degree, but not of scale and degree alone; as a change in scale and degree, as there are many times greater a number of qualitatively different neurons in our brains than in simple nervous systems; and a change in scale and degree juxtaposed with the qualitatively varied matrix of neurons... forms the basis on which qualitative changes “emerge” and the subjective experience of that very emergence is what constitutes a 'unit' of consciousness. So if I present you a visual stimulus consisting of some symbols, like

1 + 1 = ?

....then each of the individual symbols, along with causing specific excitations peculiar to the stimulus characteristics, get "conjoined" with practically infinite pre-existing excitations in the neural circuits of your brain and a ‘chaos cycle’ ensues.. as an ‘outcome’ of which, the answer


....is what ‘emerges’ from the aggregate excitation when that neural activity is mapped onto the symbol 2 stored in the conceptual networks of our memory. And when the force-fields associated with the emergence cross an ‘activation threshold’ you become conscious of it (the answer pops into your head from nowhere).  'Activation threshold' here is a physical property of your nervous apparatus and is likely to be about the minimum energy required for the system as a whole to achieve an order-of-excitation that causes emergence. (Of course, it has to then be replicated in another neural circuit to be articulated in human language by the subject)
When the associated 'energy field' of the interactions (not atomic interactions themselves but the net resultant force field) crosses the "activation threshold" we experience the systemic "state change" as consciousness, other wise it remains unconscious. It can give the illusion of 'creativity' or 'free will' or simply 'non-determinism' as it would phenomenally "appear out of nowhere". It is only the capacity for symbolic thought that makes consciousness look 'wonderful' or 'mysterious', but that is'nt so as the 'apparently creative' patterns that it takes are always 'supervinient' on pre-existing patterns in the brain intertwined with new set of practically infinite parameters governing the 'chaos cycle'  in every  fresh run.  It 'seems' as if its a probabilistic (freewill-ish) system even though it is strictly determined by initial conditions and successive iterations - just like the shape of the grand canyon is and are other 'emergent' phenomena. The idea of "creative consciousness" is only an after-the-fact perception, EX POST FACTO, an epiphenomenon (as Behaviorists would also have us believe).  This arises essentially because of the severely limited information that the 'stream-of-consciousness' makes available to us, regarding the inner workings of the brain. What we 'experience' is only a small sample of 'end-products' sorted by energy levels.

Thus is complete our picture of the mind and the body as phenomena deriving from the same underlying foundation in reality, which need no expostulation of 'the distinct realms of material and immaterial things' . This is my humble submission. 

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