Origin of the Conscious Mind

Dave Howard
rev. 11/22/2018


In two dozen years a fourth century will have come and gone since Descartes recast the age-old search for the soul (which before him had probably been debated over flagons of mead) as an investigation into the origin of consciousness.1 Known in modern parlance as the mind-body problem, no credible explanation has yet been found. Many solutions once thought to hold promise have run aground, some on logical shoals, some embattled by empirical improbability, and some just tainted, as Thomas Nagel has noted, with the "faintly sickening odor of something put together in the metaphysical laboratory." 
It has been thought that if mentality were to have a physical origin it must be produced somehow in and by the brain—selection pressure would bring about its emergence at some point in the evolution of life. This assumption of the physicality of consciousness arguably locates the mind within a causal chain linking consciousness with the body, replacing Cartesian dualism with a materialism—a  monism—consisting of a single type of substance devoid of supernatural provenance. Descartes hadn't needed to explain how consciousness came about because according to him it was provided by God, one conception at a time. As that hypothesis is now abandoned (at least in the present paper) it is incumbent on materialist theorists to provide an explanation for the purported physical genesis of consciousness.

The price to be paid by a theory that shifts authorship of the soul from God to evolution is that it must now explain how evolution can create the phenomenon of experience from physical elements not known to have any experiential properties. And it seems there would have to be a cut-off point somewhere along the evolutionary succession at which organisms on one side would have minds and those on the other side would not.2
2 For Descartes the cutoff point was between humans and the rest of the primates—he believed animals other than humans to be autonomous mechanisms, without consciousness (i.e., soul).
The Hard Problem.
In 1996 the Australian philosopher David Chalmers published a book (The Conscious Mind) from which the phrase 'hard problem' became a shorthand reference to the enigma of explaining how experience can evolve or emerge from elements which have no experiential properties. Chalmers wrote:
It still seems utterly mysterious that the causation of behavior should be accompanied by a subjective inner life. We have good reason to believe that consciousness arises from physical systems such as brains, but we have little idea of how it arises, or why it exists at all. How could a physical system such as a brain be an experiencer? Why should there be something it is like to be such a system? (Chalmers, 1996, p.xi)
He points out that most books and papers written about the subject today deal mainly with easy problems such as how "the brain processes environmental stimulation" and/or the integration of information. These may be easy problems, and doubtless important ones, "but to answer them is not to solve the hard problem: Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life?" (Chalmers, 1996, p.xii)

Does the brain create consciousness? It is impossible to deny that we are conscious, and it is nearly as impossible to deny that the brain has something to do with it, yet with the explosive recent technological progress of robotics one can't help wondering whether consciousness might never have been an evolutionary requirement. Cognitive scientist and former editor of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences Stevan Harnad puts it this way:
If organisms were indeed mindless, then there would only be the “easy problem” of explaining how and why organisms can do all those things they can do (swim, fly, learn, communicate) . . . . But if organisms do have minds, the hard problem is to explain how and why such survival/reproduction machines would evolve minds: What is the added causal role and adaptive value of having a mind, over and above the causal role and adaptive value of just having the behavioral capacities themselves, to do whatever needs doing in order to survive and reproduce: those behavioral capacities that the slow but growing successes of modern robotics are showing to be implementable mindlessly. . . .(Harnad, 2016)
Questions such as these lead us to ask why, if consciousness wasn't necessary, do we have it at all?

In his Principles of Psychology William James rejected the idea that the evolutionary succession could contain some organisms with and some without consciousness. He wrote that 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]
This idea that consciousness might not have emerged due to natural selection—that it might exist at the root level of reality in the universe, that it had preceded the evolution of biology rather than having been born of it—holds an allure that has prompted a growing minority of philosophers (Coleman, Goff, Seager 1995, 2006, G. Strawson 2003, 2006) to revisit panpsychism, which literally means that everything is conscious, or that consciousness is in everything. If everything is conscious, then this must have been the case since the beginning—since the Big Bang. Consciousness would not have evolved, having existed as an aboriginal element of the universe, inhering, it is supposed, in elementary particles.

The existence of mass/energy, and the existence of space-time, fundamental constituents of the universe, have long been counted as objectively known empirical facts and questions about their respective origins don't as a rule show up on final exams, but as an inference to the best explanation, the idea that consciousness is a fundamental ontological constituent of the universe is less persuasive. The saving grace for such an explanation right now is that there isn't a less problematic explanation.

The Combination problem.
Despite his feeling that consciousness "must have been present at the very origin of things," William James spent most of chapter six of The Principals of Psychology criticizing what he acerbically referred to as the Mind Dust theory, a panpsychist theory promoted by Herbert Spencer, which held that consciousness is ubiquitous, and possessed by the smallest indivisible building blocks of the universe. Having initially subscribed to the idea that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of the universe he then ironically developed an argument against the possibility proposed by the panpsychists that an aggregation of conscious elementary particles could combine their individual consciousnesses to form a mind. 

He searched for a logical explanation of how bits of aboriginal consciousness inhering in elementary particles could combine into the unitary macroscopic consciousnesses of biological entities, and failed to find it. In his mind, an aggregate always remains an aggregate—separate entities can't "self-compound" into a new unity:
Aggregations are organized wholes only when they behave as such in the presence of other things. A statue is an aggregation of particles of marble; but as such it has no unity. For the spectator it is one; in itself it is an aggregate; just as, to the consciousness of an ant crawling over it, it may again appear a mere aggregate. No summing up of parts can make an unity of a mass of discrete constituents, unless this unity exist for some other subject, not for the mass itself. (James, 1890, p. 159)
If individual particles possess consciousness as a fundamental property then aggregating them in order to combine their individual points of view would seem on the face of it impossible. If particles possess consciousness they are subjects, and a biological being composed of billions of these particles would then have a fragmentary subjectivity composed of billions of different points of view while as a subject in its own right would be expected to have a distinct and singular point of view.

Chalmers addresses this as it impacts a related proposal which he calls type-F monism:
There is one sort of principled problem in the vicinity, pointed out by William James (1890: ch. 6). Our phenomenology has a rich and specific structure: it is unified, bounded, differentiated into many different aspects, but with an underlying homogeneity to many of the aspects, and appears to have a single subject of experience. It is not easy to see how a distribution of a large number of individual microphysical systems, each with their own protophenomenal properties, could somehow add up to this rich and specific structure. Should one not expect something more like a disunified, jagged collection of phenomenal spikes? (Chalmers, 2003)
How to reconcile this inconsistency?

The problem results from assuming that consciousness exists at the level of elementary particles or their properties. It was thought that if consciousness were physical, not located in some transcendental realm as Descartes had believed, and if it also were a natural part of the original composition of the universe rather than having emerged as a product of evolution, its location would need to be at the level of particles which are irreducibly simple. This is because if the entities underpinning consciousness are not irreducibly basic we would then be owed an explanation of how such composite particles could come to be conscious when the ones comprising them are not.

If consciousness is physical, not transcendental, and if it actually has causal power over the body, then it must be a force. Consciousness is holistic, continuous, and its analog character suggests that its substrate would most likely be a homologous counterpart in the brain such as a field of some sort—say, a force field.  Being a part of the natural world, such a force would necessarily be a fundamental element in the repertoire of current physics. Of the four known forces of nature, gravitational attraction is too weak to have any effect on the operation of neural processes, and the two nuclear forces act over distances too infinitesimal to affect the brain.  In the brain's environment only one sort of field could be of any consequence, the electromagnetic field.  We have known for over a century that the action potentials of billions of neurons produce an endogenous electromagnetic field (EMF), which can be detected non-invasively with electrodes on the surface of the scalp.  Remarkably, it happens to be generated by the activity of the very neurons assiduously studied by neuroscientists. This electromagnetic field may be the most experientially relevant structure in the functioning brain, but most attempts to explain the origin of consciousness ignore it.

The entirety of chapter six in James' Principles of Psychology can be read as a swan song for panpsychism beginning with James' endorsement of the ontologically fundamental nature of consciousness, and ending in disillusionment—he could find no coherent physical candidate to replace the suppositious soul of the scholastics. The main problem with panpsychism, he argued, is that:
the theory of mental units 'compounding with themselves' or 'integrating'... is logically unintelligible; it leaves out the essential feature of all the 'combinations' we actually know.
    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. [James' emphasis]

 ... 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.
    ... Just so, in 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. (p. 158-159)[ my italics]
The Principles was published in 1890; Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity dispelled the theory of  a luminiferous ether supporting electromagnetic wave transmission in 1905, so where James writes 'forces' the word should be interpreted as mechanical forces such as those that billiard balls have on one another. As regards a force field there is no medium required. The electromagnetic field needs no body in order to combine the resultant of two or more interacting field sources. The forces combine by superposition into a new force vector, not an aggregate, in the free space surrounding their sources.

As a candidate to replace the idea of consciously-propertied elementary particles as the substrate of experience in the universe, the EMF, existing as a virtual unit, could quite naturally provide a solitary point of view rather than a composite of many disparate points of view—not at all a "disunified, jagged collection of phenomenal spikes," as Chalmers has suggested—and all while binding together the multitudinous contributions from billions of neurons into a virtual unity. Moreover since the EMF is ontologically fundamental the interaction between mind and body can be mediated by the EMF without violating causal closure—unlike the inevitable effect of a supernatural entity, or that of some heretofore undiscovered physical property—because the EMF belongs to the repertoire of physics, and therefore is, so to speak, already baked into the equations.

Thus we have two different types of theory on offer, panpsychism and electromagnetic field theory of consciousness, each of which has interesting potential, but each of which also has a major problem. The problems are quite different and yet fortuitously complementary—it seems that each theory has the potential to resolve the problem that besets the other. Panpsychism's combination problem, is due to its inherent atomicity, whereas it is the so-called hard problem of explaining how the physical becomes experiential that beleaguers electromagnetic field theories. The combination problem doesn't affect a field theory because a field is a unity, not an aggregate, and the hard problem doesn't apply to panpsychism because panpsychism axiomatically assumes consciousness to be a fundamental constituent of the universe's ontology, not something that emerged from non-conscious reality. The proposal in this paper is, therefore, to retain panpsychism's remit but to apply it instead to the universe's electromagnetic field, ascribing aboriginal status to consciousness, and attributing it to the electromagnetic field and not to individual, irreducibly atomistic, elementary particles. This proposal moots the hard problem and provides a holistic physicalism as a correlative of consciousness, thereby obviating the combination problem as well.

Whereas the ascription of consciousness to elementary particles leads to a form of property dualism, if consciousness is actually identical with the EMF it is a substance. Substance dualism of the Cartesian variety resulted in the inaccessibility of consciousness by the methods of science due to its repose in a dimensionless domain, and its failure was because physics in the world of extended things can give no accounting of causality between the two domains. But if consciousness is identical with the EMF it would then be a non-supernatural, or—to remove the double negative—a natural substance, capable of causal relations with other physical entities.

This hypothesis bears a resemblance to Russellian monism. Consider this gedankenexperiment: A neurologist believes she has discovered the neural correlate of consciousness attending my sensing of redness. I see redness, and she sees an event in my brain. The event of "my sensing redness" is viewed by me as being perceived from the inside, or intrinsically. The event of her seeing the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC) is her monitoring of the same event from the outside, or extrinsically.

Bertrand Russell wrote that the "only legitimate attitude about the physical world seems to be one of complete agnosticism as regards all but its mathematical properties" (Russell, The Analysis Of Matter, p. 270-271). He pointed out that we only know the extrinsic characteristics of the entities with which the science of physics deals but that we can't rule out the existence of an intrinsic mental feature of them:
Common sense believes that we know something about mind, and something about matter; it holds, further, that what we know of both is enough to show that they are quite different kinds of things. I hold, on the contrary, that whatever we know without inference is mental, and the physical world is only known as regards certain abstract features of its space-time structure—features which, because of their abstractness, do not suffice to show whether the physical world is or is not different in intrinsic character from the world of mind. (Russell, 1948)
Sir Arthur Eddington's expression of this idea was that we only understand physical stuff extrinsically—by the way that it affects the pointer readings of our instruments. Each of these men, in his own way, suggested that physical material may have an intrinsic nature unobservable from a third person perspective but perhaps introspectively available.

Eddington tells us:
we realise that science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. The physical atom is, like everything else in physics, a schedule of pointer readings. The schedule is, we agree, attached to some unknown background. Why not then attach it to something of spiritual nature of which a prominent characteristic is thought. It seems rather silly to prefer to attach it to something of a so-called "concrete" nature inconsistent with thought, and then to wonder where the thought comes from.
Consciousness can accordingly be thought of as either the intrinsic, or categorical mode, of the brain's electromagnetic field, viewed via introspection, or its extrinsic, or dispositional mode, known only by inference from the effects it has on the pointer readings of our instruments. It is not that there are two entities, or two sides to one entity, it is that there are two perspectives from which the one entity can be viewed. The inside/outside metaphor is an analogism used didactically in order to aid conceptualization of an ontological monism that can be perceived from either a first person or a third person perspective.

Memory. It is sometimes asked what the brain is for if it doesn't produce consciousness. (McGinn, 2003; Searle, 1996)  Brains create memory. Brains are needed also for mobility, for feeding, for defense (and offense), for breeding, and—importantly—to retain lessons learned. There is plenty of work for brains to do—survival necessitated their evolution even if consciousness came "for free." In neural networks is incorporated the organism's behavioral repertoire which provides for the functioning and survival of the organism while consciousness rides along as the intrinsic nature of the accompanying EMF.

What factors determine which events are committed to memory? Nature is parsimonious when it comes to energy expenditure. In terms of memory we shouldn't expect brains to have evolved to encode into memory any more information than necessary for survival and reproduction. Memory storage of irrelevant data would impose an unnecessary burden on the energy budget. Only 'mission critical' situations and functions would have memory implementations and so nonessential conscious electromagnetic activity probably won't leave a residual memory trace beyond a few milliseconds, if at all. Hence a subject might be aware of some episode as it unfolds and yet have no memory of it milliseconds after it concludes.

Motile organisms typically have brains, whereas sessile ones do not. Survival requires memory of food sources, locations of sanctuary, etc., as well as the means of motility. Contrast these needs of animals with the absence of similar needs in plants. The mammalian hippocampus contains place cells which allow the individual to map its territory, a very useful ability for motile organisms (e.g., taxi drivers, at least before GPS and Uber came along), and of no use to sessile ones. Thus it should not be a mystery why plants do not have an analog of the hippocampus. In fact an inventory of the behavioral repertoires of motile versus sessile organisms makes it pretty clear why only the former even need brains at all. Plants don't need to remember where the food is.

There are plenty of functions acquired as the animal brain evolved and  consciousness wasn't one of them. They all seem to be contingent on the mobility of animals, learned improvement thereof, and memory—plants seem to get along fine without brains. Indeed the Sea Squirt, a member of the phylum chordata, when leaving the larval stage attaches head-first to some object where it will become sessile for the rest of its days, and proceeds to consume its brain. If you're going to live like a plant, who needs a brain?

Of especial importance for understanding the present hypothesis is sensory memory. It has been known for many years that memory of the present persists for a very short time before either decaying or entering into working memory. This can be observed by twirling a bright object such as a glowing ember at the end of a branch in the dark. If twirled fast enough the ember describes an enduring 360 degree ring of fire. From the rate of rotation at which the ring becomes steady the length of persistence of memory can be be calculated.

In 1960 George Sperling designed an experiment to obtain significantly more accurate assessment of decay time of this form of memory. He used a tachistoscope to present his test subjects with a grid of 12 letters, three rows of four each, flashed on a screen for a brief interval of time. He found that the subjects could recall three or four letters out of the twelve. Then he added a sound as a cue to indicate which row for the subjects to attend to. Several milliseconds after the letters were flashed either a high, or a medium, or a low pitched tone was sounded, the pitch of the tone indicating which row of letters that he wanted them to attend to.

But the letters had already by this time been flashed and were gone.

Nevertheless the subjects could still recall three or four of the letters but this time they were all from the cued row. To do this they would need to have initially possessed a memory of all 12 letters. The maximum length of time after the letters had vanished from the screen before the cue was sounded gave an estimate of decay time. The conclusion is that sensory memory is retained in consciousness for between 250 and 1000 milliseconds before decaying, varying among persons. After this decay, sensory memory of no more than one fourth to one third passes into working memory—the rest is lost. It seems to be a sort of involuntary winnowing or culling of information not directly attended to, perhaps in order to defray the burden on the brain's memory registers.

All introspection is retrospection according to psychologist Edwin Boring:
[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.             
    . . . [C]onsciousness actually depends upon memory for our knowledge of it, and . . . 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. (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.  (Boring, 1933, pp 228, 229)

Thus it seems that what we can report is what we can introspect from working memory, but that is limited to only the portion of the initial sensation that was attended to. What must next be asked is why does a static visual scene persist until I close my eyes (or turn my head, or douse the light, or...)? This is for the same reason that the ring of fire persists as long as the twirling continues. As long as the visual scene is beheld its memory is continuously replenished as fast as it decays. Turn away and the final impression soon decays, leaving only the fainter copy (i.e. the humean idea) dredged from memory. A great deal of the scene doesn't survive to working memory which is the source of introspective recollection, or retrospection. It has been confirmed that there is a form of sensory memory for vision (iconic), hearing (echoic), and touch (haptic). Sensory memory of olfactory, gustatory, and kinesthetic modes probably exist as well.

Benign emergence.
A preponderance of empirical evidence cited in the neuroscience literature suggests that the neural correlates of consciousness are, or are related to, synchronous oscillations of networked neurons and the feedback between various brain structures. I submit that the evidence of synchronous oscillation may be indicative not of correlates of consciousness per se, but of the processes involved in memory encoding, consolidation and retrieval.

These mechanisms which have evolved to facilitate the encoding of spatiotemporal electromagnetic patterns  may be unique to biological systems. The activity of several billion actively firing neurons confined in close proximity is only found in biological systems so it is fair to say that a distinction can be drawn between certain characteristics of the electromagnetism within brains and those extant elsewhere. This distinction conceivably satisfies the definition of 'emergence' in a sense which defangs the hard problem—the difference between the EMF emergent within the skull and that at large is merely a matter of the spatiotemporal complexity of the wave function.

The only field effects which can be encoded into sensory memory are the end result of a cascade beginning with environmental impingement of information on sense receptors and culminating in the reverberation of synchronously oscillating neural networks which have evolved to hold the information repetitively for a few hundred milliseconds. It is reasonable to believe that considerable processing occurs along the way, sorting and comparing with previous memory stores and so forth, the jist being that the spatiotemporal configuration of the final encoded field effect constituting the source of the verbal report bears little resemblance to the "raw consciousness" extant in the exterior environment aside from the fact that the seed of experiential cognizance is ontologically primal. Henceforward I will use 'protoconsciousness' to signify the EMF phenomena external to biological systems, reserving the term 'consciouness' for the retrospectable, and therefore reportable, memory of the organism's previous neurally induced sensations.

There is a type of memory which needs to persist only long enough to produce a learned procedure. 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 unnecessary to institute transfer from sensory memory to working memory for a task already well honed.

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 over again each day. It was thus learned that the hippocampus mediates 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 hippocampus (Corkin, 2013).

Procedural 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.

A case study. There are two pathways in the brain by which information passes from the occipital lobe—the dorsal stream 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 only millisecond sensory memory trace the experiences cannot be verified behaviorally, the point being, however, that D.F. may nevertheless actually be conscious of her actions while she peforms them. EMF activity may always be an indication of consciousness even though no consciousness can be reported.

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 implicates 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. Therefore failure to account for "unconsciousness" in no way invalidates the electromagnetic field theory about consciousness.

Thus it is possible that what has generally been called unconsciousness for many years is actually the void left after the decay of sensory memory. During certain conditions such as coma or surgical anesthesia decay of sensory memory reaches 100 per cent. Once it decays short term memory is blank and there is nothing to be reported. The subject is then thought to have not been conscious during the time in question. During deep dreamless sleep the subject may be conscious of relaxing peacefully in bed, but failing to record the episode in working memory once sensory memory decays. Likewise in the case of coma. And surgery patients occasionally report having (frightening) memories of their surgery.

A caveat is needed at this point. The argument presented so far is intended to show only that a lack of report of conscious experience following  conditions such as deep dreamless sleep, coma or surgical anesthesia is not sufficient to rule out the possibility that the EMF is in some way the ground of experience. 

What is not argued is that there cannot be such a thing as The Unconscious Mind. The vast reservoir of intelligence, feelings, fears, urges, intuitions, etc. that is hidden from the "conscious" mind is not by any means ruled out by the foregoing arguments. The term 'unconscious' in the latter case is a noun. The same term is an adjective when arguing that an organism cannot be both alive and insentient. Much neural activity probably never generates the quality of EMF signal that would trigger sensory memory, but which nevertheless may produce a Hebbian connection. It is unlikely that all increases in synaptic efficacy could result in a memory trace.

Cosmopsychism. It is known that aside from isolated pockets of space surrounded by electrically shielding material, regions called faraday cages (e.g., microwave ovens, etc.), the electromagnetic field spans the universe. There are no barriers where the field is terminated, nor where it commences. Therefore, as the skull and/or meninges obviously do not provide a faraday cage-like environment (since  EEG signals can be detected from the scalp) it can be concluded that if the EMF, being the ground of consciousness, is ontologically fundamental then the entire universe must be in some sense experiential.

Since the universe is spanned by a single unitary electromagnetic field it would follow that a single consciousness of some sort, or a protoconsciousness pervades the cosmos. Others have speculated, trying to avoid the combination problem, that the entire universe may be a singular subject of experience. None of the theories of cosmological panpsychism, or cosmopsychism, that have so far been advanced (Mathews, Shani,  others) pick out the electromagnetic field as the most likely correlate of consciousness. Mathews and Shani both ascribe consciousness ubiquitously to the whole of physical reality, interpreted from a unified field theoretical (or geometrodynamic) perspective. Mathews uses the metaphor of an ocean to describe this imagined  unity, replete with waves and vortices, much like the electromagnetic field, but she fails to make the identification.

Cosmopsychism brings with it a problem which is a sort of inverted combination problem. Rather than a problem of how to combine things which are inherently separate, it is a problem of how to separate that which is an amalgam or some sort of holistic unity into individual components, viz., individual consciousnesses. It raises the question of what separates one individual consciousness from another when they are all thought to derive their essence from the universal EMF. How does an organism sequester its own private bit of mind away from the universal protoconsciousness? What prevents mind-reading, for instance? A 'quick and dirty' response to this is that the local inputs to the field, generated from the synchronous firing of neuronal tracts (a) may suffer some attenuation simply in exiting the brain due to the conductive meninges and skull and (b) attenuation over distances of mere millimeters would at any rate suffice to prevent intercranial signalling.

But there is a more compelling explanation of the "individuation" or privacy of consciousness. Sensory memory is the gateway from the senses to the mind, and as a gateway it culls information which is not of imperative priority in order to conserve resources. What we generally consider to be instantaneous awareness of the stream of consciousness is actually retrospection of that portion of the previously stored awareness, or if still ongoing, of the reverberation of what remains after the culling. Since the only electromagnetic impetus of sufficient amplitude and frequency to trigger memorization (synchronous oscillation) is of local  origin, external influence from the field at large is therefore invisible to the organism's awareness. Unlikely as it might be, anything that should dribble into the brain from external EMF effects would simply not be remembered.

If consciousness literally spans the universe-at-large, irrespective of the presence of biological matter, memory encoded in a brain creates the sense of personal identity. The only EMF events Jones's memory records are events occurring within Jones's brain, and so are unavailable to Smith. Awareness of our thoughts, sensations, perceptions etc.—the conception of self—results from memory and we are oblivious to EMF events occurring outside our brains because EMF field strength attenuates with distance (remaining in virtual contact but with diminished amplitude) so barring anomaly nothing outside the skull can affect one's "personal" field. And information within a brain can have no unaided effect beyond the skull.

Thus there is no "individuation problem." Physiologically electrical activity of neuron firings unites each organism's brain with the omnipresent universal consciousness by virtual contact, but attenuated greatly and therefore without the possibility of introspecting anything not stored in the organism's own memory structures. Each organism is part of the whole by virtue of its connection to the universal field, but possesses only the awareness of an individual because of the privacy of its memory.

The electromagnetic field which spans the universe has no agency. It's relevance to the existence of consciousness is the quality of experientiality, which I have opted to call protoconsciousness, reserving the terms 'consciousness' and 'mind' for the EMF generated in biological systems which evolution has endowed with the means to interact causally with the environment.


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