A Metaphysical Laboratory

Dual aspect theory
"has the faintly sickening odor of
something put together in the
metaphysical laboratory.”
Thomas Nagel*

Dave Howard (November 2016)

Impractical as it may seem to their more pragmatic fellows there have been men and women for whom understanding where consciousness comes from is paramount. These individuals are philosophers of mind and their bailiwick is the mind-body problem. For them a solution to this problem is the holy grail of philosophy.

Philosophers since the days of the presocratic Greeks have pondered the existence of the mind (nous), or soul (psyche). It's likely that prehistoric humans also wondered about their capacity to think and to experience. History is peppered with these individuals; less so during the metaphysical quagmire of the middle ages but revivified by the seventeenth century French scientist and philosopher René Descartes.

Generally considered the father of modern science, Descartes believed the soul to be a part of the natural order but he also thought that the soul had no spatial dimensions. He identified it with consciousness, located its point of contact with the brain in the pineal body but his notion of consciousness as a substance with no spatial dimensions—unextended—was tantamount to declaring it to be supernatural. Thus, in his thinking the world consists of two thoroughly independent kinds of substances: extended substance (matter and energy) and thinking substance (consciousness).

In the waning years, now, of the fourth century since Descartes sundered the universe, philosophers of mind have yet to put it back together. Consciousness was dispatched by Descartes to the diaphanous existence of the supernatural. As matter and energy comprise the natural world and consciousness supposedly resides in some supernatural world, there is a problem of causality: How can an entity with no physical extension, no location in the three dimensional world, exert any influence on a material substance?

As the armamentarium of science is powerless to investigate the supernatural, neuroscientists and (most) philosophers of mind believe that only if consciousness is a part of the natural world can an explanation of the interaction between mind (or consciousness) and body be found. The origin of consciousness is the primary focus of the mind-body problem and the general assumption is that Cartesian dualism is false—consciousness is a natural phenomenon and the ontology of the universe is monism.

* Nagel, 1996

Neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers that hope to discover how consciousness emerges from matter seek to discover the neural correlates of consciousness (NCC), patterns and events having a one to one correspondence—a mapping—of neurological signals onto psychological/behavioral events. The general idea is that if and when NCC are discovered we will then know what causes consciousness. This idea is mistaken. If consciousness emerges from non-conscious elements, neural networks in the brain for example, there would have to be some point at which a transition is made from non-conscious to conscious, and the mere determination of the NCC is no more an explanation of this than a pulse is an explanation of how the heart pumps blood.

If a theory should succeed in demonstrating such a mapping it might explain a lot about structure and function of the mind/brain complex. It might explain how information is taken in from the environment and processed, and how action addressing the organism's needs is accomplished. Elucidating these functions would only solve what the Australian philosopher David Chalmers says would be easy problems about brain function.

Chalmers coined the term hard problem for the problem of accounting for the fact that brain events are associated not merely with behavior but with experience (Chalmers, 1996). Why do we have a subjective inner life, an awareness of an external world as well as an awareness of our thoughts, imaginings, impulses to act, sounds, pains, delights, smells, feelings, etc.? Why is it that, as Thomas Nagel famously pondered, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism? If bats, for example, are conscious then it could be said that there is something it is like to be a bat (Nagel, 1979). If bats are not conscious, then there is nothing it is like to be a bat, just as there is probably nothing it is like to be a robot or a stone or a river.

Thinking is consciousness, perceiving is consciousness, feeling is consciousness. Explaining what is responsible for consciousness is the hard problem and is the focus of the theory addressed in these pages. What makes this problem so hard is that an explanans (the NCC) known only on the basis of third person acquaintance is required for an explanandum (the experience) known only by first person acquaintance. This exposes a conceptual gap in the explanation of emergence of consciousness which no theory has yet been able to bridge.

Evolutionary biology teaches that to explain the origin of a trait it is generally useful to look for some way in which the trait contributes to the survival and reproductive success of the species. But how does consciousness do this? Stevan Harnad asks:
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)

The question of whether animals, particularly those "lower" on the evolutionary scale, is empirically indeterminate. Common sense inclines us to suppose that they do possess consciousness, at least those of a certain level of complexity. But where would the cutoff point be? At what level of evolution would non-conscious species evolve into conscious species? William James had his opinion:
     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]
If consciousness had emerged with the development of brains, then before life (and therefore before brains) arose on the planet there would have been no consciousness. But if, as the hard problem would seem to indicate, consciousness is not emergent, then it would have to be a fundamental constituent of the universe, something that came into being at the same time as matter and energy. This theory therefore proposes that consciousness is the intrinsic characteristic of the electromagnetic field (EMF) which is richly structured and continuous across the universe and is a primitive, fundamental constituent of the universe.

Regarding fundamental physical phenomena 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. As Sir Arthur Eddington said we only know about physical entities from the pointer readings they produce on our instruments, but what they are like intrinsically is a complete unknown. 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, a property such as the electromagnetic field.

Both Russell and Eddington are agnostic as to whether the entities studied by physicists actually possess intrinsic natures. However 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. This could be 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—I view it from a first person perspective—whereas the neurologist's observation is a third person view—both my observation and that of the neurologist are of the same entity: an electromagnetic field event. My view is from the "inside" and hers is from the "outside." Another way of putting it is that I am inside it in my mind and she sees it with her eyes. As the extrinsic aspect of the EMF is what is measured by physicists whereas the intrinsic aspect of the EMF provides the variegated phenomena of subjective experience, this is a dual aspect theory.

It has been proposed by others (McFadden, 2002c, Pockett, 2000) that electromagnetic phenomena within the brain might be the substrate of consciousness. Such theories fail to explain what occurs in brains that adds consciousness to the EMF that is assumed to lack consciousness when on the outside of the brain. The matter is resolved if the total electromagnetic field of the universe is a form of awareness. Then to question the origin of consciousness makes no more sense than to question the origin of matter or of gravity.

The theories of McFadden and Pockett each propose that only EMFs generated by and contained within brains are conscious events. 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 "infuses" the EMF with 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.

Unconsciousness?

It is a doctrinal axiom of neuroscience that some brain processes result in conscious awareness, i.e., phenomenal "what-it-is-likeness," and some do not, i.e., are "unconscious." If consciousness is identified as the intrinsic nature of electromagnetic field activity, and since electromagnetic activity is present continuously from the third trimester of gestation (in the human case) till brain death as much as a century later, there would seem to be no way to account for unconsciousness. It is commonly believed that:
  • comatose patients are unconscious.
  • a person in deep nREM (dreamless) sleep is unconscious.
  • a person under anesthesia during major surgery is unconscious.
Yet all of these conditions are accompanied by an EEG signal in the brain.

We have only behavioral clues, chiefly oral self-reporting, to assess whether other persons are conscious. None of this available evidence is incorrigible. And the old saw "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" applies here. It is possible that the conditions generally assumed to indicate unconsciousness are instead a result of memory failure, paralysis, or aphasia.

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. 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.—conception of self—happens via memory and we are oblivious to EMF events occurring outside our brains because the field strength attenuates with distance so nothing outside the skull can affect one's "personal" field.

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 as the intrinsic nature of the accompanying EMF.

Nevertheless, 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? Phenomena due to sleep, anesthetics, traumatic head injury, coma and so forth
which conventional wisdom interprets as unconsciousness may not be evidence of unconsciousness. Such phenomena may instead be evidence of absence of memory during those conditions.

Now it might be asked what reasons there are for this proposed incomplete memory storage. It is a truism that nature is parsimonius when it comes to energy expenditure. In terms of memory we shouldn't expect that brains have evolved to encode into memory any more information than what is of survival or reproductive value. Memory storage of irrelevant data imposes an unnecessary burden on the energy budget. Only 'mission critical' situations and functions would have memory implementations and so portions of conscious electromagnetic activity probably don't leave a residual memory trace beyond a few milliseconds.

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 locomotion. Contrast these needs of animals with the absence of similar needs in plants. The mamalian hippocampus contains place cells which allows the individual to map its territory, a very useful ability for motile organisms, and of no use to sessile ones. Thus it should not present a mystery to learn that 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. However, in spite of this, electromagnetic activity can be detected in plants. There are plenty of reasons for which the animal brain was selected for and perhaps consciousness wasn't one. They all seem to be contingent on the mobility of animals
—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?

Sensory memory.
 

There is a well known phenomenon whereby a light such as an ember at the end of a stick or a July Fourth sparkler rotating rapidly gives the illusion of an unbroken static ring of fire. It turns out that from the minimum speed of rotation the length of time that memory holds the light present in consciousness can be calculated. In 1960 an ingenious experiment was devised by George Sperling (Sperling, 1960, 1963) to test the hypothesis that the brain supports an extremely short term form of memory. 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 vision (iconic), hearing (echoic), and touch (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 a millisecond decay of sensory memory.

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. By the time an awakened subject is queried all memory may have lapsed if slow wave sleep omits transference from sensory memory to short term memory. The subject will then have nothing to introspect and therefore nothing to report, but will in fact have been conscious.

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.

There is also a type of memory which needs to persist only as long as necessary to produce its programmed behavior. 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 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 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

Some years before Sperling's experiments the psychologist Edwin Boring proposed that all reported introspection is actually retrospection (Boring, 1933, p. 228). This can be explained if our conscious awareness is of the recallable memory which survives the extinction which follows sensory memory. 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)

Thus it is possible that what has been called unconscious 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.

These considerations are intended to show that there is really no way of invalidating the EMG theory of consciousness by citing a supposed failure to account for "unconsciousness."

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 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 as they are performed. EMF 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.

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 last1. Perhaps this last frontier can be better brought into view by lyrical prose than crisp deductive logic. Sherrington's metaphor of the enchanted loom2 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 billion3 cortical neurons pulsating ceaselessly, the currents from spiking neurons weaving a dynamic informational warp and woof into multidimensional electromagnetic phase space.

Notes
1As maintained by McGinn, et al.

2“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

3Suzana 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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