Monday, May 29, 2006

Origin of consciousness: the missing principles.

With the publication of the "Origin of Species by means of natural selection" by Charles Darwin in 1859, the modern theory of biological evolution began.
The genius of Darwin lay in the fact that he tried to bring together the miscellaneous facts known at that time about living forms on the earth, and made an amalgam of them to come to a plausible story behind speciation based on the key concepts of random mutation and natural selection.
Since then, it took some time for the theoretical and empirical basis of evolution to be solidified and detailed. It was not until 1900 that the works of Gregor Mendel were rediscovered. The classical genetics of Dorosphila melanogaster by Thomas Hunt Morgan was developed, followed by the genetical theory of natural selection by Ronald Aymer Fisher. Even at the time of the modern evolutionary synthesis ("neo-Darwinism") in the 1930s and 1940s, the physical foundations of evolution were not known. The discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 led to the final and definitive verification of the principles laid by Darwin almost 100 years before.
As to the origin of consciousness, we may be in a similar state of affairs as that which faced Charles Darwin at the time of the conception of the ideas described in the Origin of Species. It is not necessary or possible, at this stage, to work out all the details how and why consciousness arises from the activities of billions of neurons in the brain.
Some possible theories clearly need some time for maturation. For example, many people suspect that quantum mechanical effects (understood in the most general and possibly an extended sense) have something to do with the non-locality apparent in conscious experience. However, as it stands, it is extremely difficult to coin any sensible theory of quantum consciousness at this stage, linking the nanophenomena involving the biomolecuels with the macroscopic activities of neurons that are apparently responsible for producing the intriguing phenomenology we call consciousness (refer to the neuron doctrine in later entries).
In the face of the reality of the difficulties involved, the best we can do, at this stage, is probably something similar to what Charles Darwin did in 1859. We may hope to lay down some yet-to-be-discovered fundamental principles behind the origin of consciousness, which have enough explanatory power to tackle, for example, the zombie issue or the binding problem. The following consolidation and detailed theoretical development towards a final theory of the origin of consciousness might take another 100 years, just like it took almost 100 years for the theoretical possibility of genetic evolution to be materialized in the form of DNA.
The question, then, is this. Where can we find the fundamental principles behind the origin of consciousness, some key concepts that correspond to "random mutation" or "natural selection" that were so instrumental in the Darwinian theory of the origin of species?


Blogger xeric said...

I am very pleased to have found your blog; I am also very interested in the mind-body relationship and the quest for answers regarding consciousness. I am not a scientist, but I enjoy philosophizing about how the relationship between the mind and body may function. I am curious, is there a field of study which combines neurosciences with particle physics? I speculate that the two are very closely related in terms of studying consciousness, and I wonder if cognitive science joins these fields in some way. Thanks for posting your thoughts; I really look forward to reading future posts here.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Ken Mogi said...

Dear, xeric.

There are number of attempts trying to connect consciousness and elementary physics, notably that of quantum domain. To date, however, no attempt has been successfully made to really come to terms with the complexity of the brain and the rudimentary facts about the particles world. It is a logically obvious road to go, though.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Straw Dog said...

It has always struck me that the concept of 'consciousness' is nothing more than a post-modern anthropocentric conceit and the study of 'consciousness' is nothing more than philosophical and psychological equivalent of alchemy. I often feel like the small boy in Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Kings New Clothes' pointing out that the King is naked. This kind of metaphysical navel gazing is doing nothing to advance our understand of ourselves and serves only to perpetuate itself. The ability to abstract our thoughts is not peculiar to Humans, it is a fundamental part of survival found in strategic thought. A more highly developed sense of 'self' has obvious evolutionary advantages when it come to strategic thinking and ultimately survival. It stands to reason. We need to spend more time understanding the interrelationship between this evolved process and other mental processes if we are ever to advance our understanding and not wallow knee deep is quasi-religious aesthetics. Once we have accepted this simple but fundamental truth and dispensed with the delusion that somehow we are unique among the animals we begin to see how mental constructs such as 'society' and 'morality' have distinct evolutionary advantages that directly link back to instinct.

4:43 AM  
Blogger Ken Mogi said...

Dear, Straw dog.

Thank you for your interesting comment.

I actually agree with you in thinking that human consciousness is not that special among living organisms. The human consciousness is within a continued spectrum with animal consciousness.
I do not agree, however, when you say that consciousness studies are just " philosophical and psychological equivalent of alchemy" or "metaphysical navel gazing". There are more materials than that.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Driving_Blindly said...

Can it be shown that in fact conciousness is independent of the brain? Do we see ourselves as "individuals" only if we conciously cling to characteristics which differentiate us - such as our separate physical appearances or the different thoughts produced by each of our minds? If we can show that all thoughts arise from biological processes in the brain, which the conciousness interprets, yet does not create...could it be correct that we all actually share the same conciousness? This conciousness existing like the concept of time itself or space itself?

8:03 AM  
Blogger apple407 said...

There is a world famous scientist, a biologist, at Harvard whose lectures even on flora and fauna that exist within a spoonful of mud can sound like a poetry, yet, when he begins his arguments against the existence of God he, the scientist, can sound like a cad; his main argument being "there is no evidence", or "cannot be proven scientifically".
Of course you "cannot prove scientifically" if you define God in scientific language. Of course "there is no evidence" if you look for God as if hunting for as yet unnamed specie of a critter. For when you focus in on what the scientist really has as his notion of God is that his notion of God is similar to that of a 3 year old child's notion of Santa Clause. Yes, the scientist has an easy day of ridiculing believers.
Does this mean that all scientists are so one-dimentional thinkers? Obviously not!

5:48 AM  
Blogger John Heininger said...

I was interested in your comments regarding the origin of consciousness. Unlike you I have concluded that the theory of evolution falls well short of explaining either the origin of life or consciousness. Evolutionary theory belongs to historical science and is well short of ever being established empirically. It is based on "inference" and the "interpretation" of fossil data laid down over vast spans of time, ensuring there would never be an observer. In the words of the late Dr Colin Patterson, head paleontologist of the British Museum of Natural History,There is not one transitional fossil for which a watertight case can be made. So if you have any empirical evidence that proves evolution by random mutation and natural selection I would like to know. I am forever amazed that people assume evolution to be true without any empirical, testable, repeatable and observable proof. Regards from the Gold Coast Australia

6:14 PM  
Blogger Sofia said...

Thank you John Heininger! That is the most concise version of my hypothesis regarding evolution that I have read yet on the internet.

Kenichisan, 今日は。ソフィアと申します。宮崎県のALTです。もう九年前に大学から生物学で卒業しました。その時に落ち込んでいました。私の考え方は誰でもわかっていなと思いました。もう、いると分かっても、そう言いう人々少ないです。During my studies in Biology, I often thought of how I could disprove Darwin's Evolutionary Theory as far too simple. There are so many examples... for example, there are too many questions as to unexplainable symbiotic relationships between organisms. Why have human beings changed so much in the past 100 years? Only due to food? I have a strong hunch that most of evolution is due to consciousness during evolution. If this theory is correct, then your computers will at some point begin to think for themselves. The more complex the organism, the more it has the ability to choose its path.
As in the Matrix, we may be digging our graves, for there is no heart that we are making, no understanding of the ecological system that humans depend on (which often guides us; do you think anyone would care about being green if we didn't think our lives depended on it?) inside the machine. What would be the consciousness of a computer being? Where is its dependence? Where would any love be? And then, it would be very, very powerful in its logic. It has the possibility of being a dangerous adversary.
Just a set of questions and hypothesis.

6:10 AM  
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2:20 PM  
Blogger sophie said...

The only vivid fact that I can remember when I hear the name of Darwin is that people came from monkeys, rather, monkeys, evolved and became humans. :-)
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6:17 AM  

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