Fundamental Consciousness

Dave Howard


Philosophic study is the habit of
always seeing an alternative.
    —William James

Abstract

Theories which propose that consciousness emerges from non-conscious physical elements fail to verify this or explain how it could occur. The putative explanans known by third person acquaintance and the explanandum known by first person acquaintance are divided by an epistemic gulf. This conundrum is known as 'the hard problem' of consciousness. As a way to escape this hard problem some theorists assume that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of the universe like mass, electric charge, spin, and space-time, entities the existence of which is axiomatic. As an inference to the best explanation this assumption is a key ingredient of panpsychism which ascribes mentality, or consciousness (psyche), to everything (pan). Being ubiquitous, consciousness, according to panpsychism, is a property of the basic elementary particles of matter—quarks, strings, or whatever elementary particles a completed physics may ultimately settle upon. This leads to a problem regarding how 'conscious' particles could merge or combine without losing their integrity and independence while at the same time resulting in a new unity. A solution to the combination problem can be seen if consciousness is identified as the intrinsic character of the electromagnetic field. Thus the hard problem is mooted by the ontologically fundamental character of consciousness, and by not identifying consciousness with particles as panpsychist theories do the combination problem ceases to pertain.
I
Introduction

We acquire evidence of consciousness via first person acquaintance—perceptions, sensations, conceptions, memories, thoughts, dreams, etc. We each have private—and veridicalaccess to our own consciousness. Evidence for everything else is by third person acquaintance which is our access to the external world.

Emergentist theories hold that the brain creates consciousness, or facilitates the emergence of consciousness, from non-conscious physical elements such as the compounds that make up neurons and their circuits, neurotransmitters, proteins, DNA, RNA, and all kinds of "brain stuff." Validation of the hypothesis that brains transmogrify bits of non-experiential physical stuff into experience—as Colin McGinn puts it2, how brains turn the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousnesswould require applying evidence acquired in the third person mode to explain what can only be observed in the first person mode. It does not work: the fact that an explanans known only on the basis of third person acquaintance is required for an explanandum known only by first person acquaintance exposes a conceptual gap in the explanation of emergence, famously called 'the hard problem" by David Chalmers (Chalmers 1995).

William James addressed the argument from evolution this way:

   Consciousness, however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution.
   "If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things." (James, 1890, 1950, p.149) [James's emphasis]

Evolution of consciousness from non-conscious elements, as James points out, would seem impossible, or at least impossible to explain, but we cannot explain the origin of matter, or space-time either. This difficulty has led an increasing number of theorists to seriously consider panpsychism as a monistic alternative to emergentism as well as to Cartesian substance dualism.

Panpsychism is a species of theory which holds consciousness to be a ubiquitous part of the Big Bang's ontological furniture, and that therefore all matter is somehow conscious (or infused with consciousness). Although this moots the hard problem since consciousness is not held to have emerged from non-conscious physical stuff, it nevertheless faces an onerous requirement: how can conscious microphysical elementary particles combine to form consciousness at a macro level, i.e., that of a human being or other conscious biological organism?

The Combination Problem

The combination problem is the difficulty of satisfactorily explaining how these purportedly conscious elements of the physical universe can come together, combine, aggregate or merge to become the representations of awareness at the human level known as thought, sensation, perception—in  a word—mentality. Most writers on panpsychism assume that the identification of physical elements with consciousness must be at the level of particulate nature, i.e., that there are units of matter such as microphysical entities, e.g., quarks, electrons, (or strings?), which possess the characteristic or property of consciousness. The elemental entities are subjects which are conscious—they experience. This atomic sort of theory fails to explain how a congeries of discrete, distinct, and independent "micro" elements can merge into a "macro" element such as, e.g., a conscious thought or a feeling in an organism while also preserving the individual integrity of the elements being combined.

Despite his belief that consciousness must be fundamental William James nevertheless took this sort of "mind dust" theory, as he called it, to task in chapter six of his Principles of Psychology. He argued that conscious elementary particles could not join together to create compound mental events dissimilar to any of their constituents:
All the 'combinations' which we actually know are EFFECTS, wrought by the units said to be 'combined,' UPON SOME ENTITY OTHER THAN THEMSELVES. Without this feature of a medium or vehicle, the notion of combination has no sense.  (p.158)

In other words, no possible number of entities (call them as you like, whether forces, material particles, or mental elements) can sum themselves together. Each remains, in the sum, what it always was; and the sum itself exists only for a bystander who happens to overlook the units and to apprehend the sum as such; or else it exists in the shape of some other effect on an entity external to the sum itself.  (pp.158, 159)
. . .
[I]n the parallelogram of forces, the 'forces' themselves do not combine into the diagonal resultant; a body is needed on which they may impinge, to exhibit their resultant effect. No more do musical sounds combine per se into concords or discords. Concord and discord are names for their combined effects on that external medium, the ear. (p.159)
. . .
Where the elemental units are supposed to be feelings, the case is in no wise altered. Take a hundred of them, shuffle them and pack them as close together as you can (whatever that may mean); still each remains the same feeling it always was, shut in its own skin, windowless, ignorant of what the other feelings are and mean. There would be a hundred-and-first feeling there, if, when a group or series of such feelings were set up, a consciousness belonging to the group as such should emerge. And this 101st feeling would be a totally new fact; the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together; but they would have no substantial identity with it, nor it with them, and one could never deduce the one from the others, or (in any intelligible sense) say that they evolved it.  Take a sentence of a dozen words, and take twelve men and tell to each one word. Then stand the men in a row or jam them in a bunch, and let each think of his word as intently as he will; nowhere will there be a consciousness of the whole sentence. (p.160)

The arguments James makes strike home when understood as being directed at the claim that a multitude of discrete elementary "conscious particles" combine to form, say, a thought or a perception or sensation in someone's mind. First of all, elementary particles (say, e.g., quarks) can't combine without losing their individual nature, so it would have to be their properties which combine or merge. But if the properties are the consciousness, and the particles just have this consciousness, or as it is sometimes expressed, 'are infused with consciousness' then the theory has not explained what causes the properties. Where do these properties come from? What generates them? Are they a fundamental characteristic of the universe, and if so how can they be detected. If they cannot be detected, then what would distinguish them from the supernatural cogitatio of Descartes? The questions which panpsychism had set out to answer remain unanswered.

An alternative to panpsychism which also retains the fundamental character of the mental as a basic component of the universe, but which avoids the difficulties which follow from the particulate, or "democritean," character of micro-ultimate conscious entities is the electromagnetic field (EMF). The effects of moving charges are subsumed into the EMF by induction, so combination is straightforward.

Although James is correct that "a body is needed on which [the forces] may impinge, to exhibit their resultant effect" if one is discussing billiard balls but it is incorrect with respect to superposition of vectors in a force field. As a description of vector force fields the forces themselves most certainly do combine into the diagonal resultant. The vector field does not require a particle or any other medium to impinge upon because it exists in free space, radiating out from the particles which carry the various interacting charges. James's conceptual difficulty regarding the combination of elements of consciousness is resolved, and without supernatural intervention.

It would seem that James was groping for a field-like concept to supplant the "mind dust" as he called the panpsychist theories of his day, but Maxwell's field theoretic unification of electricity and magnetism had not been studied long by the time James wrote, nor had electroencephalography been discovered.

Bertrand Russell pointed out that all we know about the entities studied by physics are their extrinsic properties—the way they interact with each other. For instance the relative masses of two particles is measured by their displacements and velocities before and after a collision, but nothing is known about their intrinsic characteristics, e.g., what mass actually is. Russell's theory of neutral monism was based on a supposed experiential indeterminateness of the intrinsic nature of matter. Sir Arthur Eddington said  that we only know about particles from the pointer readings they cause on our measuring instruments, but what they are like intrinsically is a complete unknown, and they could very well have mental characteristics.

Since consciousness is something that each of us has access to only from the "inside"—intrinsically—then it is possible that consciousness is the intrinsic property of some fundamental physical entity known to physicists only extrinsically, i.e. from pointer readings which are known from third person acquaintance.

Both Russell and Eddington are agnostic as to whether the entities dealt with in the science of physics actually possess intrinsic natures. However it can be ascertained through introspection by each of us that (our own) consciousness exists and it seems to make sense to infer that it must be the intrinsic element of the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) sought by neurophysiologists.  As a gedankenexperiment imagine that a neurologist detects a particular field event in my brain if and only if I observe, say, a red patch. Call this event a neural correlate of consciousness. For me, the event is intrinsic, whereas the neurologist is observing pointer readings—an extrinsic event. The best explanation is that my observation is of the intrinsic nature of the EMF event whereas for the neurologist hers is an observation of the extrinsic nature of the same event. Both my observation and that of the neurologist are of the same existent: the electromagnetic field. My view is from the "inside", and hers is from the "outside."

Alternative Field Theories

Recently there have been other theories proposing that consciousness, or the neurophysiological correlates of consciousness, might be electromagnetic fields generated by brains. Two prominent ones, the theories of McFadden (McFadden, 2002c) and Pockett (Pockett, 2000) each propose that only EMFs generated by and contained within brains are conscious.

McFadden's theory has it that only those electromagnetic field effects which are downloadable to the motor cortex are conscious events whereas electrical phenomena elsewhere in the brain as well as those "in the wild," i.e., beyond the confines of the skull are not. How being downloadable to the motor cortex causes a transition from the water of biological tissue to the wine of consciousness remains unexplained.

Pockett's theory likewise fails to explain the claim that the EMF must be processed within a brain in order to become conscious.

Neither McFadden's nor Pockett's theory proposes that consciousness is an original and fundamental constituent of the universe. Neither allows for electromagnetic fields exterior to the skull to be intrinsically conscious, and yet neither theory presents an explanation of how the field inside the skull achieves its experiential characteristics. Thus they fail to address the hard problem.

Nevertheless both these theorists have made pointed and valuable contributions to the mind-body discussion. McFadden has done yeoman's work arguing for possible causal influence of interstitial EMF on the firing probability of neurons, and Pockett, in a countervailing exploration suggests consciousness as EMF might be epiphenomenal, and therefore lacking in causal efficacy.

McFadden suggests that (but doesn't explain how) a field theory resolves the binding problem, which I view like this: one can see a yellow car speeding along with a loud roar when the brain area for color vision is in one place, the area for motion detection is in another and the auditory area is yet somewhere else. How is it that the appropriate color, motion and sound become bound together so as to reference the car (rather than the nearby parked red truck) when the neural representations of these three categories are connected neither spatially nor temporally? This is known as the binding problem. It is frequently supposed that the binding of elements in visual-cum-auditory, etc., sensory events can be correctly integrated (so that, e.g., the color of the car is seen as yellow, not red, and it is seen as moving, not at rest) somehow by synchronous oscillations in the neural networks of the relevant sensory modalities. But it is never explained (a) how oscillations in disparate brain regions are associated simply on account of their synchrony and without physical contact, without some sort of fabric to knit them together, nor (b) how the oscillations of physical events such as action potentials can morph into phenomenal experience. However, as regards (a), the electromagnetic field brought about by action potentials of networked neurons may entrain distant loci into "virtual" contact by magnetic induction, thereby effecting a spatial and temporal categorization of modal elements. The true neural correlate of consciousness on this accounting is the field itself, not the oscillating neurons responsible for inducing it.


A solution to (b) however is a tougher nut to crack. The electromagnetic field theories which have been proposed thus far have failed to explain how conscious awareness might emerge from purely physical elements which are not known to have any conscious properties. I propose the solution is to combine the fundamental ontology of consciousness with the unifying field effect of electromagnetism. Neurons do the heavy lifting insofar as "operating" the organism, receiving sensation, and organizing motility, while consciousnessthe EMFwas bought and paid for at the Big Bang and harvested by the magnetic induction from action potentials.
 
"Souls" as Electromagnetism

Chapter six of James' Principles is his attempt to find a possible explanation to justify any theory which proposes that microscopic pieces of consciousness freely floating in space can combine in a brain in such a way as to create a new awareness unlike any of the several units which make it up. He ultimately found the concept incoherent, and felt forced to conclude that despite his rejection of the existence of a "soul" it nevetheless provided the best analogy for a solution to the problem of combination. And the analogy serves interestingly as a model for the brain's electromagnetic field. I think that James intuitively felt mentality had to result from something more like a field than a collection of particles ("mind dust"), and he drew an image of his concept using metaphor. His discussion of the soul can make perfect sense by substituting 'electromagnetic field' for every occurrence of 'soul':
If there be such entities as Souls [read: EMF] in the universe, they may possibly be affected by the manifold occurrences that go on in the nervous centres. To the state of the entire brain at a given moment they may respond by inward modifications of their own. These changes of state may be pulses of consciousness, cognitive of objects few or many, simple or complex. The soul [EMF] would be thus a medium upon which (to use our earlier phraseology) the manifold brain-processes combine their effects. Not needing to consider it as the 'inner aspect' of any arch-molecule or brain-cell, we escape that physiological improbability; and as its pulses of consciousness are unitary and integral affairs from the outset, we escape the absurdity of supposing feelings which exist separately and then 'fuse together' by themselves. The separateness is in the brain-world, on this theory, and the unity in the soul-world [EMF]; and the only trouble that remains to haunt us is the metaphysical one of understanding how one sort of world or existent thing can affect or influence another at all. This trouble, however, since it also exists inside of both worlds, and involves neither physical improbability nor logical contradiction, is relatively small.  (James, 1890, p. 181 ff )

 The problem "of understanding how one sort of world or existent thing can affect or influence another" is solved, since as he says "the separateness is in the brain-world, on this theory, and the unity in the soul-world" and since the "soul world" is actually the EMF it is not supernatural: The EMF may be "affected by the manifold occurrences that go on in the nervous centres." These occurrences likely are events manifested in the neural circuitry such as the synchronous oscillation suggested, e.g., by Crick (40 hertz thalamocortical oscillation), the reentrant signalling between neuronal groups (Edelman), the signal strength of which, owing to the massive recruitment of neurons oscillating in synchrony, can affect the EMF significantly. The changes in the state of the field—James' "pulses of consciousness"—result from sensory input ("cognition of objects") or other cognitive processes and this neural input jointly impacts the "medium" (the EMF) by vector superposition ("combine their effects"). "The separateness is in the brain-world" (separate neurons) . . . "and the unity in the soul-world" (the electromagnetic field). (Notice that when going from the "brain world" to the "soul world" it is the soul world—the electromagnetic fieldwhich is the medium now, and is impacted by the firing of the neuron population, in accordance with James' conception of how combination must proceed.)

Nearly two decades later in his Hibbert Lectures James had more to say about the soul and one can sense his regret that the soul is not a more legitimate player on the mind-body stage, as he knows it could resolve the dilemma:
This solution is obvious and I know that many of you will adopt it. It is comfortable, and all our habits of speech support it. Yet it is not for idle or fantastical reasons that the notion of the substantial soul, so freely used by common men and the more popular philosophies, has fallen upon such evil days, and has no prestige in the eyes of critical thinkers.

The word 'soul' refers to a nonentity in James' mind, and therefore renders the concept meaningless:
 Souls have worn out both themselves and their welcome, that is the plain truth. Philosophy ought to get the manifolds of experience unified on principles less empty. Like the word 'cause,' the word 'soul' is but a theoretic stop-gap—it marks a place and claims it for a future explanation to occupy.  (James, 1909, p. 209ff)

Logically the electromagnetic field fills the "theoretic stop-gap," as James puts it, because being empirically verifiable and therefore a principle "less empty" it can stand as the "future explanation" of which he speaks.

The Subject Combination Problem

If consciousness were instead to be identified with elementary, corpuscular, 'democritean' particles, then their merging in various combinations to form the consciousness of biological organisms makes no sense. The alternative would then be that particles must instead be infused with consciousness. On this accounting consciousness becomes viewed as a property of matter. An elementary particle then is to be considered a subject which possesses a point of view.

Philip Goff writes that "subjects of experience, i.e. things which have consciousness (things such that there is something that it is like to be them), just don’t seem to be the kind of things that can ‘sum together’ to make other subjects of experience." (Goff, 2009) This conception of the fundamental elements of consciousness as little particles leads to the idea that each particle has a "point of view" and that therefore each particle is a subject which possesses consciousness in some manner. How can one point of view be combined with another point of view to produce a third point of view? The supposition that the ultimate microparticles of the universe possess consciousness leads directly back to some form of property dualism.

We are perhaps victims of our own grammar, particularly of the subject-predicate form. It isn't surprising that we expect that an action—that which is predicatedrequires an actor—a subject—that performs the action, and that a property, which is predicated, requires an entitya subjectwhich possesses the property. But the intuition that I am a subject that is somehow a witness to the panoply of perceptions passing through some sort of theater (like a little screen in my mind) in which I, the perceiver,  residethe old folk-psychology canard of a homunculus (or "little man") in my brain watching a "movie" of my perceptionsseems to demand that there cannot be an experience without an experiencer, or subject.

On the other hand can there be a subject without experience? That an experiencer cannot exist without the presence of experience is Galen Strawson's "thin" conception of subjects. A thin conception of subjects is that "according to which a subject of experience does not and cannot exist at any given time unless it is having experience at that time."(G. Strawson, 2003) If there can be no subject without an experience, nor an experience without a subject then the subject must be the experiencing.

Descartes was adamant that the mental and the physical are completely distinct—that consciousness is not a property of matter, but an entirely independent existent, or 'substance.' And Descartes located his personal identity there, as the experiencer-engaged-in-experiencing.
 
Insofar as it can be said that "I" am the subject that experiences "my" conscious phenomena, that very "I" is nothing but the experience. I am the electromagnetic field corralled in "my" brain, which is experiencing, and which is being recorded in the brain's memory, resulting in my perception (and conception) of personal identity. Nevertheless I am only cognizant of a subsection of my experience by the time sensory memory3 has expired since the brain only records portions of experience which have survival value.

Thus the solution is to follow Descartes' insight that the person is the consciousness, not the body imbued with the "property of consciousness." Consciousness, however, remains a naturalistic phenomenon. While being a monistic theory in the sense that consciousness is a component of the natural universe, the theory nevertheless bears a certain similarity to Cartesian substance dualism insofar as consciousness is identified only with the EM field and not with particulate nature, interconvertible though they may be. Chalmers' "naturalistic dualism" comes to mind (Chalmers, 2003).

II

Memory

It is sometimes asked what the brain is for if it doesn't produce consciousness. (McGinn, 2003; Searle, 1996)  A short answer is that brains create memory. If consciousness literally floods the universe at large, irrespective of the presence of biological matter, memory explains what keeps Jones's experiences from finding their way into Smith's mind. And this memory creates the sense of personal identity. Jones's memory records events specific to Jones's organism, and so is unavailable to Smith. Awareness of our thoughts, sensations, perceptions etc.—conception of selfhappens via memory. Introspection is actually retrospection (Boring, 1963, p. 228).

A longer answer would include references to other aspects of an organism's behavioral repertoire such as motor skills needed for mobility, for feeding, for defense (and offense), for breeding, etc. There is plenty of work for brains to do—survival necessitated their evolution even if consciousness came for free. Neural networks provide for the functioning and survival of the organism while consciousness rides along "on top" as the intrinsic nature of the accompanying EMF.
What conventional wisdom interprets as unconsciousness due to sleep, anesthetics, traumatic head injury, coma and so forth may not be evidence of unconsciousness but rather of lack of memory during those conditions. The assumption that brains produce consciousness has no solid empirical basis.

If consciousness is identical with EMF phenomena then why is the preponderance of electromagnetic phenomena detected within the brain not introspectively available? For example, why would not the entire electromagnetic field of the brain, including that of the massive neuronal population of the cerebellum be available to introspection? or the electrical activity of the brainstem and spinal cord, etc? Certain types  of electromagnetic events in brains would have been under no selection pressure to create long term memory traces. If sensory memory decays to zero in milliseconds under certain conditions and forms no short term memory trace an experience would therefore not be reportable by a subject. It is generally but incorrectly assumed that consciousness may come and go in the living organism, even while a detectable EEG signal is present; slow-wave, or "dreamless," sleep is assumed to extinguish consciousness as is also the administration of anesthetics. These assumptions are without empirical verification.

The inability of a subject to report conscious episodes, the existence of which are assumed to occur when EEG phenomena are detected, fails to prove that there was no concurrent awareness. During deep sleep it is usually assumed that there is no consciousness but it is by no means clear that consciousness goes away when one enters slow wave sleep. It may be instead as Michael Lockwood quizzically speculates , that when one drifts off to sleep one's "short-term memory span shrinks to a point." (Lockwood, 1998, p.84)

Anesthetics are assumed to extinguish consciousness, and yet more than a thousand surgical patients every year report having had anesthetic awareness during their operations. Is this phenomenon the result of a failure of the anesthetic to completely extinguish consciousness or is it the result of the anesthetic failing to completely inhibit storage of recallable memory? As long as this question remains unanswered it cannot be argued that EEG detected during anesthetic "unconsciousness" is not an indication of the presence of consciousness.

It might be the case that brains may fail to create memory on certain occasions, or only for certain purposes, and it might be the case that memories can be recalled only for certain reasons, or that some memories have a millisecond decay period. It is reasonable to assume that something as expensive, energetically, as memory would not have evolved by accident. Motile organisms typically have brains, whereas sessile ones typically do not. Brains are useful for mobility. Survival requires memory of food sources, locations of sanctuary, etc. Plants don't need to remember where the food is.

Procedural memory is familiar to anyone who has spent hundreds of hours mastering a musical instrument or any of a number of other manual repetitive operations. When learning to play piano, for example, one may be agonizingly aware of the need to will each individual finger to perform. But an accomplished pianist, for example, can flawlessly perform complex musical works, and have no recollection after doing so of consciously willing each finger to depress the necessary key at the required time, it having been unnecessarily to institute transfer from sensory memory (explained below) to working memory for a task already well honed.

William James disputes the presupposition that:
 In all acquired dexterities and habits, secondarily automatic performances as they are called, we do what originally required a chain of deliberately conscious perceptions and volitions. As the actions still keep their intelligent character, intelligence must still preside over their execution. But since our consciousness seems all the while elsewhere engaged, such intelligence must consist of unconscious perceptions, inferences, and volitions.

by replying:
There is more than one alternative explanation in accordance with larger bodies of fact. One is that the perceptions and volitions in habitual actions may be performed consciously, only so quickly and inattentively that no memory of them remains. (James, 1890, p. 165)

We now know that this type of memory is not stored in the same location in the brain as other types of memory. Henry Molaison, known in the literature only as H. M. until his death, unfortunately suffered epilepsy to such an extent that his hippocampi and portions of his temporal lobes were excised in hopes of lessening his seizures. After the surgery his short term and working memories no longer transferred into long term memory. Each day his memories started afresh. The investigator interviewing and testing him had to introduce herself anew each day. It was thus learned that the hippocampi mediate the transference from short-term to long term memory. Henry formed no explicit long-term memories from the time of his surgery until his death 55 years later. Surprisingly, though, he was still capable of encoding procedural (implicit) memory which he acquired during testing sessions of his abilities on manual puzzles such as the Tower of Hanoi. His improved performance over time surprised investigators and led to the discovery that long term storage of procedural memory is facilitated by something besides the hippocampi (Corkin, 2013).

Procedural memory, a form of implicit memory, was the only sort of memory that he could retain long term, yet he seemed not to be cognizant of it . At each new session playing Tower of Hanoi he seemed totally unaware that he had ever played it before, and yet his ability improved with practice. Therefore some memory of the strategy involved in playing the game must have been encoded, and must also then have been subsequently retrieved. If Henry seemed unaware of this memory, can we then say that it was unconscious? As noted above, intact individuals also seem to have no recollection of the note by note playback of implicitly learned musical ability, for instance, or otherwise implicitly learned routines like riding a bicycle. Is the action performed unconsciously, or is it simply not remembered due to a mere millisecond retention period? Correspondingly, it would hardly seem correct to assume that Henry was unconscious on Tuesday since he couldn't remember anything about it on Wednesday. His episodic and autobiographical short term memory each day failed to be transferred to long term storage because the brain region necessary to encode it had been surgically removed, not because he no longer possessed consciousness. Therefore the possibility exists that when one "unconsciously" retrieves implicitly formed memories such as learned procedures and manual abilities they are immediately conscious during the act, but the conscious awareness fades before it can be recalled.

Awareness as retrospection

Edwin Boring writes:
[L]et us try to imagine a condition of progressive amnesia in which consciousness is normal but no memory persists for more than a second of time. . . . Without memories of a second's duration no introspective report would be possible, nor would there, if the subject had no memory at all of what was immediately past, be any moment in which he would be aware of his own consciousness.
  It was once suggested that sleep is not unconsciousness after all, but a state of concentrated attention upon a fatigue sensation. Could we disprove such a theory? Suppose the same sensory phenomenon could occupy the range of consciousness all through the night. Since the sleeper is aware only of his fatigue he will not have been aware of his consciousness. He could not remember the fatigue afterward, for of what could such a memory consist? A mere imaginal reproduction of the fatigue would not date it as having occurred the night before or at any particular time at all. The subject would not even know that the memory was a memory.

. . .  

[T]hese instances go to show that consciousness actually depends upon memory for our knowledge of it, and that the concept of a consciousness that exists independently of memory is a concept pretty far removed from the actual consciousnesses that enter as subject matter into scientific psychology. And memory, of course, is relational. It means that an initial term is represented in a subsequent term, which reciprocally implies the first.   (
Boring, page 224, 225)

. . .

To be aware of a conscious datum is to be sure that it has passed. The nearest actual approach to immediate introspection is early retrospection. The experience described, if there be any such, is always just past; the description is present. However if I asked myself how I know that the description is present, I find myself describing the processes that made up the description; the original describing is past and it is presumably the new description of the description that is present. To find myself thus landed in an infinite regress is to find myself just where I seem to myself to be. Experience itself is at the end of the introspective rainbow. The rainbow may have an end and the end be somewhere; yet I seem never to get to it.
(Boring, 1933, pp 228, 229)

III

A case study


There are two pathways by which information passes from the occipital lobe
the dorsal stream, or pathway, which terminates in the parietal lobe, and the ventral stream which terminates in the medial temporal region. Melvin Goodale and David Milner (Goodale and Milner, 2004) have extensively studied a subject, D.F., who has bilateral lesions of the cortical ventral stream. As a result of her trauma, she is unable to identify objects, qua object, seemingly conscious only of colors and textures. Nevertheless her dorsal stream is intact and consequently she has little difficulty reaching out and grasping objects, although she frequently will grasp an object quite deftly but in a manner unlike that which a person familiar with the object's use would tend to grasp it. The reason for this, it is surmised, is that she is unable to perceive the object as an object due to the damage to her ventral stream. A person with an intact ventral stream would tend to grasp the screwdriver by the handle; D.F. will likely as not grasp the screwdriver by its shank. She nevertheless does not report having any conscious experience of the object.

Goodale and Milner (GM) theorize that the ventral stream is necessary for conscious perception whereas the dorsal stream enables action but does not provide perception. It could be the case, however, that D.F. consciously perceives her actions, which rely upon the dorsal stream, but simply cannot remember them. The inability to remember would make introspection impossible, as introspection depends upon retrospection. Reportage of experience is reportage of mediate experience, i.e., experience as mediated by memory. Therefore if certain experiences leave no memory trace the experiences cannot be verified behaviorally, the point being, however, that D.F. may nevertheless actually be conscious of her actions as they are performed. EMG activity may always be an indication of consciousness even though no introspection follows.

If actions such as grasping, which are modulated via the dorsal stream, are experienced simultaneously with their performance but result in no memory trace, then a differential physiological examination of the two inter-cortical routes might yield empirical insight into memory formation.

GM write:
First let us revisit for a moment what natural selection has designed the two systems to do. Visual perception is there to let us make sense of the outside world and to create representations of it in a form that can be filed away for future reference. In contrast, the control of a motor act from picking up a morsel of food to throwing a spear at a fleeing antelope requires accurate information about the actual size, location and motion of the target object. This information has to be coded in the absolute metrics of the real world. In other words, it has to be coded in terms of the actual distance and size of the objects. In addition information has to be available at the very time the action has to be made. These two broad objectives ... impose such conflicting requirements on the brain that to deal with them within a single unitary visual system would present a computational nightmare. (p. 73)

The ventral pathway employs relative metrics based on relations among objects perceived not relying upon the location of the observer. Physical interactions such as grasping of objects in the visual scene require that the brain analyze the scene using absolute metrics, or egocentrically, i.e., placing the observer at 0,0,0 rather than relating objects to other objects. This is accomplished via the dorsal pathway.

To be effective and reliable actions must be initiated concurrently with the real-time analysis of the objects' locations. If the actions depended on recollections from memory of the objects' locations, inaccuracy would be introduced by movement of either the subject, the objects, or both during the time intervening between perception and recall.

GM argue that "the brain has to compute precise parameters needed to specify an action immediately before the movements are to be initiated. By the same token it would make little sense to store this information for more than a fraction of a second, whether or not the action is actually performed. Not only would its value be strictly time-limited, it would be positively disadvantageous to keep the information hanging around in the system." (p. 77) Its sell-by date follows in milliseconds.

The subject may very well be conscious during the exact few milliseconds when the decision to act occurs, but retains no recoverable memory of it a few milliseconds later, and therefore will have nothing to report. It can thus be concluded that at least some of the brain's electrical activity may leave no memory trace even though it is a signal of conscious awareness. This fact is not incompatible with the notion that all electromagnetic field effects in the brain are immediately perceived consciously but that some are pruned off by millisecond decay spans depending on their relevance to survival.


IV

Conclusion

1. Consciousness is the intrinsic manifestation of the electromagnetic field and is therefore
a fundamental constituent of the universe's ontology.

2. Consciousness is independent of (does not emerge from) biological material.

3. The so-called neural correlates of consciousness are any and all extrinsic manifestations of an electromagnetic field.

4. Only in the absence of an electromagnetic field is there an absence of consciousness.

5. The absence of introspective reportage of (human)consciousness at any given time can be attributed only to failure of robust memory storage, paralysis, or death.

Some or all of these five points are either explicitly denied or their negation tacitly assumed in every proposed solution to the mind-body problem produced in the last 375 years. Perhaps that is why there has not yet been a satisfactory solution to the mind body problem.

The manner of argumentation employed above has been abductiveinference to the best explanation. Perhaps human curiosity outruns human cognitive/deductive ability at long last4. Perhaps this last frontier can be better brought into view by lyrical prose than crisp deductive logic. Sherrington's metaphor of the enchanted loom5 comes to mind now, and maybe the billions of neural networks are the loom and the electromagnetic field is  the "shifting harmony of subpatterns." Imagine the loom with its 16 billion6 cortical neurons pulsating ceaselessly, the currents from spiking neurons weaving a dynamic informational warp and woof into multidimensional electromagnetic phase space.

Notes


1 James, William, (1876)

2 (McGinn, 1999, p. 13)


3 In 1960 an ingenious experiment was devised by George Sperling (Sperling, 1960, 1963)  Sperling was able to demonstrate the existence of a form of memory, not subject to voluntary control, which has a millisecond decay-to-extinction time. Sensory memory, as it is called, precedes short term memory in healthy individuals. The transfer from sensory memory to short term or working memory is incomplete—only a subset of its contents can be recalled after some 250 to 1000 milliseconds. It is now believed that there is a form of sensory memory for each sensory modality. The visual form of sensory memory is called iconic memory, the auditory echoic, and memory of touch is called haptic. Tests to discover sensory memory of olfactory, gustatory, and kinesthetic senses have not been devised, but it is suspected that each sensory modality has its own version. The epistemological point is that the lack of introspective reportability of an episode is not sufficient to prove unconsciousness. It may instead be an indication of millisecond decay of sensory memory.

4  As maintained by McGinn, et al.

5 “Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern-always a meaningful pattern-though never an abiding one.”  Sherrington,
p. 178 

6 Suzana Herculano-Houzel and her team devised a novel way to get an accurate assessment of the number of neurons in a brain: an entire brain element (cerebrum, or cerebellum, etc.) is emulsified and then neurons in a manageable percentage of the mass, say, e.g., .0001% are counted, and then the quantity is multiplied by 1,000,000 to get the total. 16 billion is the most accurate estimate for an average human cerebral cortex wherein it seems that explicit memory is stored.

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