A Blueprint for the Hard Problem of Consciousness

by

Paulo Jacomo Negro

DOI: 10.2174/97816810876651190101
eISBN: 978-1-68108-766-5, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-68108-767-2



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Table of Contents

Foreword

- Pp. i-vii (7)
Ezequiel Morsella and Ngoc-Cam T. Bui
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Preface

- Pp. viii-xiii (6)
Paulo J. Negro
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Dedication

- Pp. xiv
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Introduction

- Pp. 1-3 (3)
Paulo J. Negro
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Does It Make Sense to Trace Consciousness to Single-Celled Organisms?

- Pp. 4-9 (6)
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Consciousness: Computable, Noncomputable or Both?

- Pp. 10-18 (9)
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A Brief Criticism of Theories

- Pp. 19-24 (6)
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Expectation Without a Spectator

- Pp. 25-29 (5)
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Negative Entropy and Inference in Living Organisms

- Pp. 30-35 (6)
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Expectations in a Strange Loop

- Pp. 36-40 (5)
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In Search of Meaning

- Pp. 41-44 (4)
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Supplanting the Integrated Information Theory

- Pp. 45-48 (4)
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Awareness of Location

- Pp. 49-59 (11)
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Awareness of Time

- Pp. 60-68 (9)
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Interoception

- Pp. 69-75 (7)
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Predictive Coding

- Pp. 76-88 (13)
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Cortical Signals of Consciousness

- Pp. 89-93 (5)
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Olfactory Awareness

- Pp. 94-112 (19)
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Attention, Neuronal Oscillations and Predictive Coding

- Pp. 113-131 (19)
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The Global Neuronal Workspace Theory and the Adaptive Resonance Theory

- Pp. 132-144 (13)
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Networks of External and Internal Awareness and the Neurology of Consciousness

- Pp. 145-168 (24)
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A Problem of Records

- Pp. 169-179 (11)
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Final Conclusions

- Pp. 180-192 (13)
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References

- Pp. 193-212 (20)
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Subject Index

- Pp. 213-222 (10)
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Foreword

Why we need a blueprint for consciousness

The enigma of how consciousness rises from biological phenomena has perplexed scientists, leading some of the greatest minds, including Nobel Laureates Leon Cooper, Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, Eric Kandel, and Charles Sherrington, to conclude that answering this question is one of the greatest challenges in science. As Shallice [1] concludes, “The problem of consciousness occupies an analogous position for cognitive psychology as the problem of language behavior does for behaviorism, namely, an unsolved anomaly within the domain of the approach”.

Similarly, Chalmers [2] states, “We know consciousness far more intimately than we know the rest of the world, but we understand the rest of the world far better than we understand consciousness”. The puzzle of “consciousness-and-the-brain,” or of the “mind-body” problem, is often ranked as one of the top two unanswered scientific questions [3].

When speaking about consciousness, we are referring to its most basic form, the kind falling under the rubrics of ‘subjective experience,’ ‘qualia,’ ‘sentience,’ ‘basic awareness,’ and ‘phenomenal state.’ This basic form of consciousness has been best defined by Nagel [4], who claimed that an organism has basic consciousness if there is something it is like to be that organism—something it is like, for example, to be human and experience pain, love, or breathlessness. Similarly, Block [5] claimed, “the phenomenally conscious aspect of a state is what it is like to be in that state”.

The scientific challenge concerning consciousness is far more daunting than what non-experts may surmise: investigators focusing on the problem are not only incapable of having an inkling regarding how something like consciousness could arise from something like the brain, they cannot even begin to fathom how something like consciousness could emerge from any set of real or even hypothetical circumstances. That is, if a neuroscientist were provided with all the materials and dimensions (all eleven of them) of the known universe, he or she would still be unable to have an inkling regarding how to go about having basic consciousness arise from anything physical.

In everyday life, being conscious usually just means “being alive.” From the standpoint of this lay intuition, consciousness comes “for free” if one happens to be a living organism: one is alive and, because of this, one is aware of one’s surroundings, bodily states, thoughts, and so on. In truth, however, consciousness is actually an achievement of nervous function. To date, we do not have a single clue regarding how consciousness is achieved.

How can something unconscious be turned into something conscious, that is, to something for which there is something it is like to be that thing? More specifically, what must we do to a set of unconscious neurons to turn them into something that generates a basic conscious state? We will here pose a straightforward question that I think reveals the gravity of the problem: What would one have to do to cause an (unconscious) machine, such as a robot, to experience, say, a dream? This would require more than just the capacity to detect and respond to external stimuli. The challenge is so daunting that any small glimpse of a new clue regarding how it could be solved is priceless.

In this stimulating treatise, Paulo Negro provides thoughtful insights regarding clues and potential answers to the problem of consciousness-and-the-brain. Through the process, he provides an alternative to currently prevalent approaches, such as Integrated Information Theory, Global Neuronal Workspace Theory, Adaptive Resonance Theory, Orchestrated Objective Reduction, and panpsychism (in which consciousness is a property of all matter), each of which is reviewed thoughtfully in the treatise.

Negro’s theory emphasizes action and “the subject and its agency,” which, according to Negro predicates any form of conscious experience (e.g., conscious experience of qualities). Negro states, “There can be no consciousness without a subject because consciousness is the phenomenology of a world presented to a subject.” Unlike prevalent approaches to the study of consciousness, which focus on perception, Negro’s account focuses on action: The “generative model of consciousness has a basis on actions”. Negro concludes, “Consciousness provides a device to dynamically process and extract evolutionarily useful information from reality, for stepwise adaptive behaviors. Consciousness is how evolution feels”.

As noted by Paulo Negro throughout the book, when one embarks on a journey to study consciousness scientifically, one encounters many challenges. Below we delineate just some of these challenges, problems which are addressed throughout this tome.

The Problem of Conscious Versus Unconscious Processes

The natural scientist must explain the difference between conscious processes in the brain and unconscious processes in the brain, of which there are many. Using a descriptive approach, the scientist attempts to explain the products of evolution as they are and not as we would have designed them or as they should be (which would be a normative approach). (Similar to Negro's account, a descriptive approach focuses on phylogeny). As Negro concludes, “Natural history is not the search for an abstract theory, but the understanding of the history of life in our planet”

To the detriment of the scientists, this difference cannot be dismissed and must be explained, one way or another. An explanation is required of science even if one proposes that all matter possesses consciousness (a form of panpsychism), for one must explain how unconscious processes could exist in a panpsychist reality. An explanation is required even if one proposes that consciousness serves no role in the nervous system (a form of epiphenomenalism). Biological phenomena must be explained and incorporated with the theoretical framework for understanding the rest of the natural work, whether they are deemed to be “useful” or not.

Thus, a complete theory of the natural world must explain the difference between conscious and unconscious processes, a difference that exists in every subfield of psychology and of neuroscience. In perception research, there is the distinction between supraliminal versus subliminal processes. In the study of attention, the term ‘attentional awareness’ is often contrasted with unconscious, ‘pre-attentive’ processing [6]. In memory research, there is the classic distinction between ‘declarative’ (explicit) processes and ‘procedural’ (implicit) processes [7-8]. In research on language production and motor control, the conscious aspects of voluntary action and action monitoring are contrasted with the unconscious aspects of motor programming [9-10], including the implicit learning of motor sequences [11]. Last, various fields contrast ‘controlled’ processing, which tends to be associated with consciousness, and ‘automatic’ processing, which tends to be associated with unconscious mechanisms [12]. In short, the difference between conscious and unconscious nervous processes is inevitable and must be explained, even if one adopts the stances of panpsychism or epiphenomenalism.

The Problem of the Unanalyzability of Conscious Contents

As noted by several theorists, basic conscious contents (e.g., the color blue, urges, or the smell of lavender) are “unanalyzable,” with their qualities being irreducible. Lashley (1923) [13], regarding traditional versions of subjectivism, states:

“Quality is something unique, indescribable, except in terms of itself. Red is red, green is green. Neither is, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of ether vibration or chemical change in the brain
 when by analysis the simplest qualities are reached, nothing more can be said of them save that they are in different, undefinable degrees diverse. They have no describable characters inherent in themselves; they are not analyzable into anything else. They exist by virtue of their indescribable differences and by virtue of nothing else discoverable by introspection (pp. 252 - 253)”.

Thus, the conscious contents of blue, red, a smell, or the urge to blink are the tokens of a mysterious language understood, not by consciousness itself, as is clear in Lashley’s conclusion, and not by the physical world. Instead, they seem to be comprehensible by brain systems whose operations are cognitively impenetrable to us. We experience these conscious contents, and they affect behavior and our decision making, but we simply do not know what they are in the sense that we know what other things are (e.g., heat). We also know that they do not exist as such in the physical, “mental-less” world.

Similarly, our basic sense of a first-person perspective or of time is also a creation, creation with no analogs in the world of physical reality [14]. (Regarding the former, most conscious contents appear as if from a first-person perspective [15-17], be it during waking or dreaming. It has been proposed [15-16,18] that the demands of adaptive action selection, in which action targets can be, say, to the right or left of one, require the creation of this first-person perspective, which is a primitive form of ‘self’). Regarding the first-person perspective, Negro states, “Predictive Coding supports a subject-centric view in which actions are not only the source of consciousness, but also the building elements of the subject itself. The neural correlates of consciousness are what the subject is doing”.

Conscious states such as nausea, the auditory perception of pitch, the urge to sneeze, or the color white [19] simply do not exist in the physical world, just as the symbols displayed in navigational system of a modern car do not exist as such in the physical world. These navigational systems depict restaurants and gas stations as fictional, simplified icons (e.g., large forks and gas pumps, respectively). Though fictional, they influence the driver’s decisions and actions. Based on this example, one can appreciate that our experience of time, space, nausea, and qualities such as colors are not givens of physical reality, or of being alive, but achievements of devoted and specialized neural activities. These achievements are constructions that, unlike their counterparts in the world of physics, can be manipulated experimentally. Consistent with this view, regarding time, Negro states, “Local networks affect qualia of time experienced both in visual and auditory experiments”.

The Problem of Completeness

To the self, the conscious field seems “all encompassing”—complete even when conscious contents are obviously absent, as in the cases of sensory neglect (with anosognosia) and in the phenomenon of change blindness [20]. This “completeness” property is evident also in the dream world, in which circumstances are often irrational and fragmented, but not detected as so. As Paulo Negro concludes, “conscious experiences can be seen as running models (expectations) simulating reality” which, to the subject, is the only reality.

This property of completeness stems in part from the fact that one cannot be aware of that which one is unaware of [21]. To illustrate this point, Jaynes [21] uses the example of the blind spot in vision. One is usually unaware of the blind spot, simply because—again—one cannot be aware of that which one is unaware of. More generally, if a conscious content is not in the field, then it cannot influence volitional decision-making and action in any way [18]. For example, if the knowledge representations necessary for, say, ‘reality monitoring,’ are not in the field (e.g., due to high fever), then nothing else can assume the functional influence of these contents. In short, when the appropriate contents are absent, there is no independent repository of knowledge that can supplant these contents [18]. Thus, in the conscious field, there is often the absence of information but seldom information about absence [20,22]. Consciousness is always the totality of one’s experience at one moment in time.

Thus, when the nervous system is functioning normally, the contents of the conscious field at each moment seem not only complete, in the sense described above, but they also seem unambiguous. Merker [23] concludes that, because of the very nature of the constitution of the mechanisms giving rise to conscious sensory representations, the conscious field is actually incapable of representing stimulus ambiguity (e.g., as in the Necker cube), at least at one moment in time.

The Problem of Contextual Sensitivity

In order for action to be adaptive, it must be context-sensitive and must allow for what the Behaviorists called a conditional discrimination, in which the response to one stimulus depends on the nature of other stimuli in the stimulus scene. Hence, the consciously experienced meaning of a conscious content in the field, and how one responds to it, depends not only on the semantic representation associated with that conscious content, but also on the relationship between this semantic representation and the semantic representations of the other conscious contents participating in the field at that moment in time [24]. (The critical relationships among stimuli could also be spatial in nature, as in the case in which the adaptive response to Stimulus A depends on the spatial distance between, say, Stimulus B and Stimulus C, with these two stimuli being just two out of many stimuli composing the conscious field). Just as in color perception the nature of the phenomenal experience of one hue is determined in part by the nature of the other hues composing the stimulus scene, a conscious content is framed by the nature of the other conscious contents composing the stimulus scene at that time.

We should add that our intuitions regarding how nervous systems should solve this problem of contextual sensitivity, in which sensory inputs are connected to motor outputs, are actually computationally impossible [25-26]. The conscious field seems to be solving this problem of contextual sensitivity in a manner that is counterintuitive and different from the manner in which we humans would attempt to engineer a solution to the problem of contextual sensitivity.

It turns out that our intuitions regarding how a nonconscious creature might solve the problem of contextual sensitivity in the perception-and-action cycle are actually computationally impossible. That is, just as a computer cannot solve the traveling salesperson problem, many of the problems humans solve in the perception-to-action cycle are known, a priori, to be unsolvable through formal computational means. These problems cannot be solved through computer logic, regardless of how much computational power a computer has.

Nature is doing things differently in its peculiar and often happenstance ways. Reverse engineering the brain and consciousness might reveal clues, not only about what we are, but regarding how to deal with the limitations of our computer and robotic systems, just as the study of the dragonfly, the most sophisticated flyer within and outside the animal kingdom, has led to improvements in aerospace engineering.

Because of their deterministic design, traditional computers are also incapable of generating a truly random event, and hence cannot produce random numbers. Computerized slot machines, for example, are not truly random in nature. But other physical systems, such as those at the quantal level, are truly random in nature [27]. With this in mind, engineers can have slot-machines procure random numbers by having their computers refer to a random event (e.g., a decaying radioactive diode). In this case, a computational goal is achieved by having two different kinds of systems interacting with each other, each system benefiting from the physical properties of the other [28].

Likewise, from a descriptive approach to nervous function, one assumption is that the computational goals that humans confront require, given the hardware at hand, at least two kinds of physical processing—one conscious and one unconscious. Until robotic systems can solve the problem of contextual sensitivity (which seems to be computationally impossible), these systems must interact with humans to function adaptively in the natural world, because humans possess a property (a conscious field) that seems capable of somehow solving this challenge of contextual sensitivity.

Thus, in response to the common criticism “but one can imagine that function without consciousness,” a scientist today can argue that, first, evolution might not have carried out that function the same way that humans imagine it should be engineered, and, second, that our human ideas regarding how such functions could be carried out nonconsciously are actually impossible, a priori.

The Problem of the Speed of Processing

Perhaps conscious experiences (e.g., nausea, blue versus red) are easier to explain by appealing to, not our physical world, but the bizarre world of neurons, a world operating at vastly different size and speed scales. Much as a classroom model of the solar system that cannot not instantiate the critical phenomenon (strong gravitational fields) that glues our solar system together, the scale of our everyday human experience is far different from that in which consciousness arises (fast neurons interacting with each other). In other words, there is nothing that we can perceive in everyday life that works as fast, and in such an interactive manner, as the functional units of our brain.

Regarding the speed variable, our conscious experience is far slower than whatever processes that give rise to it. Perhaps some property may be arising from the extremely fast speeds of neurons and their networks that cannot happen at the slower speed of our everyday existence, which is the only environment we evolved to understand. The cause and effect relationships among billiard balls striking each other, which we evolved to be capable of understanding, also occurs at a slower scale than the workings of neurons. Returning to the topic of physics, it is important to appreciate that gravity seemed to be a conceptual mystery (dubbed ‘action at a distance’) until Einstein proved that our basic assumptions about it were wrong: space is not ‘empty’ but actually has a fabric that is warped by mass, giving rise to the phenomenon we identify as gravity [27]. Our assumptions about how things work (and cannot work) at the ‘human scale’ of existence might not be applicable to the smaller, faster scale of the world of neurons.

Regarding the speed of neural activity, it is important to appreciate that the puzzle of the “mind-body” problem is the same whether the tokens (conscious contents) differ from each other qualitatively or quantitatively [29]. This is an important notion because we know that the brain can implement codes that are quantitative in nature. Negro emphasizes, “​The brain has a bias towards a rhythmic mode of operation.” Specifically [30], it has been proposed that consciousness depends on, for example, “precise synchronization of oscillatory neuronal responses in the high frequency range (beta, gamma)”. Singer [30] adds, “brain states compatible with conscious processing should be characterized by a high degree of synchrony”. Negro emphasizes that sustained and widely distributed voltage deflections, increase of beta synchrony and gamma power correspond to a widely distributed cortical activity associated with conscious experiences.

Moreover, a group of neurons receiving information from another brain region cannot “see,” in a sense, the anatomical tracts connecting the two regions. Receiving neurons cannot see whether the afference stems from tracts that are visual or auditory. Hence, the receiving neurons must use some other kind of information (perhaps frequencies) to identify whether the information being received is of one kind or another (e.g., visual versus auditory).

The Need for a Blueprint of Consciousness

We have delineated only a handful of the many problems encountered when attempting to understand consciousness from a scientific point of view. Paulo Negro's blueprint provides the reader with a wonderful journey in which, regarding these and many other challenges, no stone is left unturned and in which priceless clues and thoughtful insights about the true nature of consciousness are revealed, chapter after chapter. To navigate the mounting scientific findings regarding consciousness, and the growing number of theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain these findings, a blueprint for consciousness is essential, now more than ever.

Ezequiel Morsella 1
Department of Psychology
San Francisco State University, CA
USA

Department of Neurology
University of California, CA
USA

and

Ngoc-Cam T. Bui
San Francisco State University, CA
USA

Note

[1]EZEQUIEL MORSELLA is a theoretician and experimentalist who has devoted his entire career to the investigation of differences in the brain between conscious and unconscious circuits that control human action. He is the lead author of the Oxford Handbook of Human Action (2009, Oxford University Press) and was the editor of the Festschrift in honor of Robert M. Krauss. His research has appeared in leading journals in neuroscience and experimental psychology, including Psychological Review and Behavioral and Brain Sciences. After his undergraduate studies at the University of Miami, he carried out his doctoral and postdoctoral studies at Columbia University and Yale University, respectively.  He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at San Francisco State and an Assistant Adjunct Professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco.


Preface

The origin of subjectivity constitutes one of the most challenging scientific questions in any field of human research. The fundamental mechanism that allows physical events to transcend into subjective experiences continues to elude scientists and philosophers, who have aptly named it the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

This blueprint is an abstract model that I envisioned as an explanation for the origin of subjectivity. In many aspects it is still a crude idea demanding testing and validation. It is best seen as a compass, or a map, indicating a direction towards the solution of the problem.

Here, I propose how subjectivity could have arisen out of nothing or, at least, nothing of its own kind. Human beings developed through the course of a conservative natural history. Thus, a connection must exist between the processes that sustain the life of primitive single cells, and the emergence of human consciousness. Moreover, such an association could only have taken place if these ancient biological processes, at some point, started to convey information. In other words, single-celled organisms and their communication channels with the environment generated information, as defined by Shannon’s classical information theory.

Current theories of consciousness suffer from an intelligent design bias. Their proponents often search for answers in patterns of information integration, in quantum models, and in other natural phenomena. The subject, a necessary vessel for the existence of subjectivity, becomes an afterthought, and consciousness penetrates every aspect of the physical world, in a cryptic panpsychism.

In contrast, I took the subject’s perspective, and looked for a solution to the Hard Problem in the boundaries that separate living subjects from non-living processes. Under this light, consciousness emerges as a form of realization of information, connecting simple life forms to their environment. Consciousness in single-celled organisms, in neural networks, or in the intact human brain shares the same mystery: the nothingness or emptiness of its existence. How could something be there and not be there at the same time?

The realization of information must occur as a self-referential abstraction, otherwise consciousness would not differ from other physical properties of inanimate objects, such as heat.

I use the word “abstraction” to portray a confluence of concepts. In computer science, an abstraction enables programmers to handle the complexity of systems by subsuming details in lower levels. However, there is no icon in a computer screen depicting qualia. The brain extracts and processes regularities from its environment through neuronal assemblies within progressively higher orders. These assemblies have a relational origin, describe phenomenal objects, and can be detached from their conditions of origin. I call this extraction by inference an “abstraction”.

Finally, I consider the realization of self-referent information across complexity levels an abstraction. When high-level realization of information occurs by means of a strange loop, this abstraction of self-referent origin can be made available to the organism as a form of subjectivity. Thus, an abstraction is not physically there, despite having a mathematical description. The physical components and interactions that give rise to abstractions can be measured, including the activity of neuron assemblies assessed by electrophysiological experiments or functional brain neuroimaging. Nevertheless, the realization of information cannot be measured directly. It is a form of nothingness.

Consider the following analogy. Capital emerges out of nothing of its order. The concept is well accepted in economic science. Capital is something abstract, not physically present. It is a consequence of the economic dialectic of companies and the market. It exerts an organizing effect on the economic activities of the same companies. Capital can be represented as a variable in economic theory. Capital has a physical and an informational basis, such as in real estate, machine tools, patents, cash, and the know-how of the working force. Capital can be realized as money. Note that paper money also represents a concept: a measure of value, a promise to pay the bearer. In the context of this book, to realize is to make it available at a different level and organization. I use the word realize to express the additional meaning of “knowing[2]”. To realize is the act of knowing. The present work shows what sort of mechanisms could render an abstract emergent order, such as capital, aware of itself.

Here, I propose a new version of Hofstadter’s strange loop that allows for the realization of information between actual and potential states. I call such states the “information” and “expectation” of processes that connect an organism and its environment. The information.expectation relationship underlies an inferential system. This implicit probabilistic model of the environment is encoded in the structure and processes of single-celled organisms and shares the same inferential informational paradigm of abstract information realized across the brain computational hierarchy as the strange loop:

‘information.expectation’information.expectation

I studied how local brain networks relate to experiences of awareness. Specifically, I drew ideas from work on spatial localization done on the hippocampus, but also from studies on the awareness of time, interoception – the awareness of our internal body, and the olfactory system. At this level of organization, the brain seems to follow the rules of something called Predictive Coding. The brain does not build perceptions from the bottom up; it creates hypotheses or beliefs from the top down. In other words, Predictive Coding supports the idea of a subject-centric consciousness, and allows for the following reformulation of the strange loop:

‘expectation.information’expectation.information

which in the feedback and feedforward language of Predictive Coding of corticocortical and thalamocortical networks can be rewritten as

‘top-down.bottom-up’top-down.bottom-up or ‘prediction.predictive-error’prediction.predictive.error

Since the beginning, I believed in a noncomputational origin for consciousness, and built up my thought experiment around this hypothesis. At its roots brain activity is analogic, not digital. Surprisingly, however, the problem of locally encoded consciousness can be approached from a computational perspective. Computation in both silicon chips and the brain follows a hierarchy that inherently supports complex systems. Thus, consciousness conceptually emerges as the realization of information, as a hierarchical abstraction through a new interpretation of strange loops across abstraction levels. This solution explains how local networks, while devoid of consciousness, encode the information necessary for the emergence of consciousness. Furthermore, the idea of consciousness as a computationally derived abstraction fits with the concept of something immaterial springing out of a physical substrate.

This model predicts that the realization of information as some form of awareness requires sustained neuronal rhythms that depict expectation-based Predictive Coding. The awareness of simple phenomenal experiences becomes possible when these oscillatory rhythms integrate sensory information in a pre-motor framework for sequential global actions. Being the subject is the realization of inference inversely mapped out as hidden causes of globally integrated actions. Hofstadter’s strange loop applies here.

This action-oriented “generational” model bears computational and noncomputational aspects. It predicts the generation of hypotheses by the brain across multiple scales of cross-frequency oscillatory coupling. A model based on the generation of hypotheses constitutes a simulation in itself. Life and consciousness are thus connected. Inference in single-celled organisms and the integration of information across the computational hierarchies of the human brain share a single principle: the incorporation of the state and causal architecture of the environment.

Furthermore, this blueprint explains how the abstraction we experience as consciousness can emerge from sustained resonant states described by the Adaptive Resonant Theory. Brain resonances may support conscious states by realizing information across multidimensional mathematical objects. Such objects form and disintegrate as self-referential abstractions generated by iterations of local and global neuronal connectivity.

In contrast, I show how the most popular theory that addresses the Hard Problem, the Integrated Information Theory, is fundamentally flawed as an explanation for the cause of consciousness. It is based on a circular reasoning and, despite its qualities; it represents a cryptic form of intelligent design theory.

The ideas contained here occupied my mind as I went for dinner with a friend, who reminded me of a completely different angle to the same scientific search. I followed a thread that connected structures in single-celled organisms, to functional relationships, to informational relationships, to sensory systems, to globalization of information, to realization of information in abstractions, but he asked, “Have you ever thought that people might consider this discussion relevant to their spiritual pursuits?”

Over the years, when engaged in conversations about life after death or the possibility of a soul, I often heard skeptics challenge the spiritual stronghold by asking how a mere abstraction such as the soul could make a neuron fire. My good friend pointed out that, by inverting the thread I had been following, I could actually answer this question. If the transition from physical to abstract goes both ways, then something that lacks any physical structure, the void can indeed make a neuron fire. I am not a religious man, and by no means would I attempt to stretch the reach of this work to the realm of religion. Nonetheless, the system I propose here allows for the generation of abstractions from the concrete, as it allows for the interference of the abstract on the biology of the human brain. I decided to honor and recognize my friend's observation.

In summary, through the course of this book, I outline a blueprint for the solution of one of the most difficult problems in neuroscience and philosophy, the Hard Problem of Consciousness. What started as a narrow question may appeal to a larger audience. Nevertheless, I left my considerations about abstractions as the enablers of physical changes in neurons to an appropriately brief last section, almost as a post hoc. At that point the reader will most likely have made his or her mind about the whole scheme.

Naturally, in studying such a complex problem, I often found myself outside my area of expertise. The neuroscience summarized in this book heavily relies on the work and opinion of major scientists in each different area, who have the credit for all the precise neurobiological depictions. I am fully responsible for any inaccurate interpretation of their perspectives. As I leaned, directly and indirectly on the work of other researchers, I take credit only for the application of their ideas and concepts to test the fitness of the hypotheses advanced by this book.

This book is divided in five sections. I review the Hard Problem of Consciousness in the first section, which includes the shortcomings of current theories, as well as a discussion of the computational and non-computational aspects of the problem. In particular, I explain why the Integrated Information Theory stems from a logical fallacy.

I detail the blueprint in the second section: a variation of Hofstadter’s strange loop that uses potential states to explain how something can be generated out of nothing. This section also shows the reason why, from a computational perspective, “embodied abstractions” provide the best representations of conscious experiences. Finally, still in section two, I explain how life and consciousness share the same principles of statistical physics.

I test these hypotheses in the third and fourth sections of the book. I wrote them with no preconceived ideas, other than an intuition about how “processual expectations” underlie the kind of information eventually manifested as human consciousness. I studied local networks in search of the moment when they would become capable of hosting focal aspects of awareness. I was curious about the “why”.

I addressed the baffling thought of focal awareness: the brain is empty of consciousness much like local networks and single-celled organisms. The experience of being there that emerges from human consciousness is an illusion of the void. Nevertheless, I address the tension between focal awareness and the global sharing of information that characterizes human consciousness in section four. This section ends with an explanation of how consciousness may emerge even in the absence of the cerebral cortex.

The last section includes the most important thought experiment of this book. The “problem of records” reduces the Hard Problem to a specific set of questions and answers. The “problem of records” is not algorithmically compressible. Thus, it has no computational solution. It necessarily demands a physical, rather than a metaphysical answer. I believe the “problem of records” may eventually allow for a serendipitous solution to the Hard Problem of consciousness. Such a solution may emerge from the symmetry between equations describing abstract “objects” that emerge from cross coupling of neuronal oscillations and the mathematical description of natural phenomena. This section indicates how to connect computational theories of consciousness with theories based on quantum mechanics.

This book can be read in different orders. Readers with a background in biology may wish to start from the sections focused on neuroscience. However, they may find some of the analysis perplexing. For example, it may seem that I treat focal awareness and global consciousness as something concrete. In the initial sections, readers will notice that I do exactly the opposite. I created a variable to depict the elusive “traces” of consciousness across hierarchical levels. The abstractness of the variable allows for the kind of treatment I later apply in the neuroscience review.

Those without a background in biology may find it easier to follow the order of the chapters and start with the philosophical aspects and the review of theories. The discussion starts at an abstract level but becomes practical and applied throughout the neuroscience review. I believe that is likely easier to start from the chapter entitled Final Conclusions, then go through each chapter summary, and finally move to the beginning. This is optimally followed by a new look at the text with emphasis on footnotes. Many footnotes expand on the text and provide clarifying information.

I find the use of terms in the literature confusing and overlapping. In this book, I mostly use the word “awareness” for specific aspects of consciousness, such as awareness of location. I do not use the word “consciousness” to address mental states such as the loss of consciousness during a coma. Here, the word refers to phenomenal consciousness, such as the consciousness of objects, colors, and sounds in an immediate and non-reflexive manner. Higher, global experiences, including the narrative consciousness and self-awareness of human beings, are thus preferentially addressed by the word “consciousness” instead of “awareness”.

I would like to thank Dr. Leonardo Ganem for reviewing the manuscript. I am grateful for his advice on science and language. I would like to thank those friends who endured our long and often repetitive conversations about consciousness – even when they had no knowledge of the subject, their support gave me confidence to continue on this journey. You all know who you are. Finally, I would like to thank the reviewers of this manuscript. I do not know who you are, but I thank you for the helpful feedback. I hope the good qualities of this book outweigh its shortcomings.

The subject is void, and the mind its avatar.


Paulo J. Negro, MD PhD
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at
the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral
Sciences at Howard University
Chief Medical Officer
Kolmac Outpatient Recovery Centers


CONSENT FOR PUBLICATION

The author consents to the publication of this work.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

The author(s) declared no conflict of interest regarding the contents of each of the chapters of this book.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Ideas have pedigree. I would be remiss to not recognize those whose work greatly influenced this publication. György BuzsĂĄki for all things oscillatory. Douglas Hofstadter for the strange loop. Terrence Deacon for the incompleteness of things, Dana Ballard for the hierarchy of abstractions. And Ezequiel Morsella, not only for the action synthesis, but for his kindness. There are many others that influenced this book, as recognized in the text. I thank you all. I should extend my gratitude to Ginger Campbell whose podcast awakened old thoughts and feelings about the origin of human consciousness. And, finally, to Kƍun Yamada Roshi whose Gateless Gate still sits on my nightstand.

Note

[2]In Italian: “Io ho capito” (I realized), in Portuguese: “Eu compreendi” (I realized or I understood).

List of Contributors

Author(s):
Paulo Jacomo Negro




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