Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Consciousness Instinct" Tells No Coherent Tale As to How a Brain Could Make a Mind

In the recent book The Consciousness Instinct, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga writes about the brain and the mind. The subtitle of the book is Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind. The book is obviously written with the assumption that brains do make minds, a very dubious proposition there are many reasons for doubting.  The book fails to make anything like a substantive defense of the claim that brains do make minds.  

One of the key issues in whether brains make minds is how a brain could possibly generate any such thing as an abstract idea. Brains and neurons are physical things, but ideas are mental things. We can understand how a physical thing can generate another physical thing, and we can understand how a mental thing (a mind) can generate another mental thing (an idea). But no one understands how a physical thing (a brain or some neurons) could generate a mental thing (an abstract idea).

Looking at the index of Gazzaniga's book I see it has no entry for “idea.” But I do see four pages that refer to “thoughts.” Searching those pages, I find on page 8 what seems to be Gazzaniga's only description of how thoughts or ideas are created:

It is as if our mind is a bubbling pot of water. Which bubble will make it up to the top is hard to predict. The top bubble ultimately bursts into an idea, only to be replaced by more bubbles. The surface is forever energized with activity, endless activity, until the bubbles go to sleep. 

As an attempt to explain the origin of ideas, this is a flop. A bubble is a physical thing, not a mental thing. When someone creates an abstract idea (such as the idea of a Trumper after viewing various zealous Trump supporters), such an abstraction (a mental act) bears no resemblance to a bubble floating up from hot water, a physical event which does not involve any observations. It may seem mysterious that bubbles pop up from water as it heats, but that's not an example of something appearing mysteriously. Water has some air trapped inside it, and the air just comes out as the water heats.

Water being heat up in a pot and producing bubbles is in several respects a very poor analogy for the creation of an idea. A human being will come up with a new idea only very slowly, and a human will only have one thought in his head at any single time. But in a heating pot of water, we see dozens of bubbles very quickly rising at the same time. When water starts to boil, it is a frothy chaos that bears no resemblance to the orderly thinking of a person trying to produce a new idea.

Not like a thinking mind

Again on page 206 and 207 Gazzaniga continues his bubble analogy, saying the following:

Thinking about this led me to use the metaphor of bubbling water as a way to conceptualize how our consciousness unfolds....The results bubble up from various modules like bubbles in a boiling pot of water....Each bubble has its own capacity to evoke that feeling of being conscious....Our smoothly flowing consciousness is itself an illusion.

Consciousness is certainly not an illusion, and there are no neurological facts supporting any such metaphor, or the idea that our smooth flow of consciousness is anything like a stream of individual bubbles.

On page 214-215 Gazzaniga gives us more bubble babble, and says “we have memory bubbles and feeling bubbles.” We are told, “As one bubble quickly passes to the next, we have the illusion of feeling about the remembered event.” No, the feelings we have when remembering important events are not illusions. A woman remembering being raped is not having an illusory emotion.

Gazzaniga speaks very frequently about modules in the brain. The term module derives from computer programming. A module is a distinct unit of computer programming code that accomplishes some particular job. There is no meaningful insight involved in talking about mental function as a set of modules. The human mind is a seamless whole. We can speak of different aspects of the human mind, such as insight, imagination, memory, emotion, and so forth. But you're not doing anything to explain such things by fancy talking and calling such things “modules.” There is nothing like computer code producing the aspects of our mind. 

One of the biggest mysteries of the mind is memory. How is it that humans are able to remember things for 50 years or more, despite all the rapid molecular turnover in the brain? And how is it that a human is able to instantly retrieve an old memory, such as we see happening when someone mentions some obscure figure in history and you immediately recall some facts about that person? If the information is stored in some tiny spot of the brain, there should be no way in which the brain could find that exact spot so quickly in a brain that has no indexing, no coordinate system, and no position notation system. Doing such a thing would be like instantly finding just the right book in a vast library in which none of the books had titles on their covers, and none of the bookshelves or book aisles were marked.

Gazzaniga says nothing to explain such difficulties. He says on page 214 about a memory, “It is placed in memory in ways we still don't understand, but it is symbolic information, cold and formal, just as DNA is symbolic information – and just like DNA it has a physical structure.” This is another case of a scientist pretending to have some knowledge he does not have. We have no evidence that our memories are physically stored in our brains as symbolic information, and (as discussed here) no one has a credible theory of how episodic memories could be stored as neuron states, synapse states, or chemical or electricity states. There is no current theory of a structure or encoding scheme by which episodic memories and abstract learned concepts could be brain stored.

What about understanding, insight, and imagination? None of these things are mentioned in the index of Gazzaniga's book.

On page 79 Gazzaniga says, “I will argue that consciousness is not a thing.” He then claims that “consciousness” is just a word we use for “the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism.” This is not true. I can close my eyes and lie on my bed, thinking of nothing at all, and not remembering anything. That is consciousness that does not involve any instincts or memories.

The final chapter is entitled “Consciousness is an instinct,” which mirrors the title of the book. The claim that consciousness is an instinct is erroneous. The dictionary defines an instinct as “an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli.” An example of an instinct is the instinct of a newborn baby to suck its mother's breast, or the instinct of a young man to get an erection when he sees a naked woman. Consciousness is not any such thing. It is not a particular reaction we have to a particular stimulus. We can have consciousness even when we are closing our eyes and receiving no stimulus at all.

One wonders: why on earth would Gazzaniga be claiming that consciousness is an instinct, a claim I can never recall any neuroscientist or philosopher of mind making? The only guess I can make is that maybe he was thinking that it would sound like an explanation for consciousness if we can explain consciousness as an example of something we understand: instincts. But we don't understand instincts at all. Instincts are one of the most mysterious aspects of biology. How is it, for example, that an average male would become sexually aroused by a female rather than some other stimulus? There's no neurological or genetic explanation that we can come up with for this. There's no little picture of a naked woman in the genes or the brain that a man reads to serve as a guide for what to become sexually stimulated by.

The lack of any neurological or genetic basis for such an instinct is shown by homosexuality, in which five percent of the male populace becomes sexually stimulated not by women but by members of their own sex. Many other animal instincts cannot be explained by genetics or neurology. Genes are just recipes for making proteins, and lack any power of expression to state behavior rules for organisms. So as we don't understand instincts, we would do nothing to explain consciousness by saying it is an example of an instinct; and consciousness is not an instinct.

What do you do when you're someone claiming that the brain makes the mind, but with no powerful ideas to offer as to how a brain could handle memory or generate ideas or generate consciousness or produce understanding? You fill up the book with digressions and detours, which is what this book does. We are treated, for example, to many pages talking about quantum mechanics.

It is rather like the way it was in high school when the teacher asked you to explain something you did not understand, and you tried to kind of fake your way through rather than saying, “I don't know.” For example, the teacher might ask you, “How did World War II begin in Europe?” and you might answer something like:

World War II was a very important conflict. There were big noisy battles, and American troops were landed in France, and there were lots of tanks shooting at each other. And they dropped lots of bombs. It all ended on a day called VJ Day.

Such is the approach of our neuroscientists, who give us endless assorted facts designed to impress us with their knowledge, but fail to give the answers they would give if they actually understood how a brain could make a mind.

Because of reasons discussed in great detail here, I assert that brains do not actually generate minds, and that no neuroscientist has either a credible theory of how a material brain could produce the memory skills that the human mind has (such as the instantaneous recall of very old memories), or a credible theory of how a brain could store memories for 50 years despite rapid molecular turnover in synapses, or a credible theory of how material brains could produce nonmaterial things such as consciousness, understanding, ideas, or thought.