What Is Consciousness?

rynner2

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#1
Human Consciousness.
This long article looks at how various novelists approach the subject of consciousness, and compares it with scientific methods, also examining how the two approaches interact.
That mystery is what bedevils the entire scientific community about consciousness–particularly self-consciousness, or the self itself. The slipperiness of the problem explains why many scientists defer it by studying what they call awareness or attention, neither of which they believe to be dependent upon words or other symbols that the inventive brain uses to represent its experiences and itself. But because scientific knowledge is always a third-person account, the question remains: How do you make a third-person account of first-person experience?
 

mejane

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#2
I've only skimmed through the article so far, so forgive me if this is way off the mark...

Coinky-dinkly, I've just finished a slightly less cerebral novel (Host by Peter James) which addresses the issues of cyrogenics, artificial intelligence/conciousness and the possibilities of uploading a human brain into a computer. It's not the greatest novel ever written, IMHO, and the ending is blindingly obvious a third of the way through the book, but is nonetheless interesting. Another thought-provoking (and at times very funny) take on AI is Dean Knoonz' (sp?) "Demon Seed" (don't be put off by the 1970's film - I'm sure I've mentioned this before).

One thing that both books have in common is the idea that sentient AI's may well be sociopathic with no innate understanding of "right" or "wrong" - how could they have? And then of course there's Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury... and a brilliant but sadly persecuted mathematician called Alan Turing.

Being unaccountably serious for a moment, it seems to me that we are searching for the secrets of conciousness in much the same way that we searched for the secrets of powered flight - some people look to nature for the answers ("flap your wings like an albatross = build a neural network... bit of fuzzy logic and a bit of duck tape, it'll be all right") whilst others sit on the sidelines looking distainful and saying "it'll never work you know, such things were not meant to be". The real geniuses work out a different way altogether.

(Um, that last paragraph was supposed to be serious - as were the previous ones - but I'm so happy to be back that I got carried away again.... sorry).

Jane.
 
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#3
mejane said:
it seems to me that we are searching for the secrets of conciousness in much the same way that we searched for the secrets of powered flight - some people look to nature for the answers ("flap your wings like an albatross = build a neural network... bit of fuzzy logic and a bit of duck tape, it'll be all right") whilst others sit on the sidelines looking distainful and saying "it'll never work you know, such things were not meant to be". The real geniuses work out a different way altogether.
Jane.
It may be that the many different approaches to building artificial consciousness might all work, and the 'mind children' of the future might be widely diverse and unforeseen, mutually antagonistic or incomprehensible perhaps...
one approach that might work is hyperfast machines that constantly ask themselves the question 'if I were conscious what would i think/do in this situation?' and simulate the result with enough accuracy to fool a slower thinking human.
Yet such a machine might be entirely different in essence to a human, and could decide to abandon self awareness as 'not needed on voyage'
or not
hehheh
 

rynner2

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#4
This article is about visual perception and how it relates to brain activity.
The relationship between the physical brain and the psychological mind is still a mystery, however. ''To be brutally honest, scientists do not yet have even the remotest idea of how visual experience arises from physical events in the brain,'' said Stephen Palmer, director of the Visual Perception Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.
 

MrRING

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#6
Well, what is it? Can it be scientifically proved, or is it something in our every day experience that we never really question but that we have no good scientific basis to prove it's existance?
 

MrRING

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#7
Well, here is the possibly interesting thing: if we can't prove that conciousness exists, then we have a big ol' wopping experience that everybody shares in but it can't be proved using the scientific method.

What would that then say about how extreme claims require extreme proof if a shared experience that everybody has witness to can't be proved in a satisfactorily scientific way?
 

MrRING

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#8
I was just reading the Alan Moore interview in Eddie Campbell's Egomania and I thought he made a good point about conciousness being the sort of thing that is unproveable scientificly, yet in a way that's all we are as humans, the spark that gives rise to our personality and the like.

To quote a bit (and this is just the tip of the iceberg of a great interview):

"All we directly experience is our own conciousness of the universe. Conciousness, this lovely and mysterious gift, is the only thing that any of us truly have or are. Science is probably the most accurate tool that conciousness has developed with which to probe reality, but ironically science cannot discuss or explore conciousness itself, since scientific reality is based entirely upon empirical phenomena that can be reproduced in a laboratory setting. Conciousness clearly does not fall into this category, and as such, being annoyingly beyond the provence of science, becomes the 'ghost in the machine'. Conciousness cannot prove it's own existance. Th 'I' is it's own blind spot. Like a ghost, nobody really knows what conciousness is, or where it comes from, and the only tool we have crated to test reality is incapable of detecting or measuring it. "

He goes on to explain that science tries to prove conciousness with memes and other kind of word jargon, but he takes it down as just semantics... I thought it was interesting, to think of an everyday experience as being indefensible to scientific proof, particulaly in a Fortean context... I'm sure Mr. Moore could explain 300 times better than myself, I just thought it might be a good thought for a topic.
 

MrSnowman

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#9
i.e. it's an unquantifiable abstract, yet, like outer space, we know it's there, you just can't hold it in your hand.
 

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#10
Ah, another good, yet difficult question Mr. R.I.N.G. !

I think that's one of those things that people have quite nailed down yet. Whether it is possible to define is still up for debate.

I have several interesting models I could point to as to how people think it might function. But as to what it is, who knows.

My current working theory is along the lines of NLP. Conciousness is the awareness of your own thinking processes. (And possibly also having the ability to modify those processes.)


--------------------------------------------

I saw within the last week a reference to a study by a psychologist with infers that the same strategies that we apply to others to understand their thinking, we also apply to ourselves. That we don't directly know our own thoughts, but infer them the same way we do when dealing with others.
(Aside from Philo T : but we all know that Clever Hans can't really count! We're good at fooling ourselves sometimes.)

That, and something involving strange loops. It's gotta have a basis on a strange loop. (Someday I should get around to actually reading GEB.)
 

marion

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#11
Well all the times I've been unconcious its been very different to my usual state which I would assume to be concious. If that proves anything.
 

zardozzz

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#12
Most of us westerners aren't really 'concious' at all most of the time. We think we are, but were rarely thinking about what is actually happening around us, or really concentrating on the task at hand whilst all the time being aware of ourselves.
Its actually extremely difficult for us to do this now. If you try and sit and think strongly about being alive at this second and be aware of yourself thinking this thought, you cant do it for longer than a m inute before your mind wanders off to something else. Often much less than a minute. Anyone who has a knowledge of the works and ways of G.I.Gurdjieff will know what i mean.
 
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#13
There is nothing in the world that I can do to prove to you that I am conscious,
and not just a very comprehensive non-sentient computer program or a clever joke of Maxwell's demon...
there is nothing that you can do that can prove to me that you are conscious either.

Even if, in twenty years time or less, an intelligent computer is created which thinks that it is conscious, and regularly says things like
"I think therefore I am"
and
"Can't you see what I'm trying to tell you; I love you!"
there would still be no proof that it was conscious.
The whole world could be full of fake personalities pretending to be people, and no-one would know.

And if they don't know, it doesn't really matter.
 

Mattattattatt

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#14
Here's an odd thought - what if everything is conscious, just not aware. All we are is a collection of complex molecules. Surely on at least some level the potential for conciousness exists in matter itself, the matter that forms sentient life.
 
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#15
THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF STONES

Certainly the matter that makes up the earth has had an interesting life so far-
born as hydrogen and helium in an acausal big bang, it has collapsed under it's own weight into a protogalaxy and then into a giant, short-lived star, which exploded as a supernova creating a hundred different elements, then as a cloud it drifted until another supernova nearby compressed it again until it collapsed...
little lumps of matter bashed into others, until there were two huge lumps, one slightly smaller than the Earth, and one as big as Mars-
these collided and splashed about until one became the Earth, and the now much smaller one the Moon.
Matter has an interesting life story of its own, and even without the development of life there would be much for the possible consciousness of matter to consider.
 
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#17
My mate would say that conciousness is the result of evolution, where to survive in this world, only those beings with conciousness of sufficient balls would last the distance to breed.

That's a good view on how we are concious or have conciousness, but it doesn't tell us what conciousness is. I ask him that and all I get is a blank stare.

Where do you start? Is it a law that all living beings are concious? Is it simply part of the key to life?

I like to think that the bio electric field generated by animate organisms spontaneously generates a conciousness or spirit, but I can't go any further than that, unless I start theorising that our thoughtspace is another dimension and that raises many more questions about the nature of reality.

I think I should lie down now......... QS not used to thinking like this.....
 

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#18
http://www.studentnewspaper.org/view_article.php?article_id=20030506173129

EDINBURGH PARAPSYCHOLOGISTS have claimed that it is possible for the mind to exist outwith the body.

The controversial ‘discovery’ came about after years of research into near death experiences (NDEs).

Professor Robert Morris of the University's Koestler parapsychology unit was one of the key members of the team, who presented their findings at the Edinburgh Science Festival.

One incident that startled the scientists involved a man who recalled a nurse removing his dentures while he was clinically dead.

The team claims to have collected many similar stories from patients who were temporarily dead.

If it is proven conclusively that NDEs occur, then for the first time, scientists will have shown that the mind exists independently of the body.

The research could change the way scientists look at the mind forever.

Understandably, the team's findings have been met with mixed reactions by the scientific community.

Dr Peter Fenwick, another member of the team, has called for funding to further research in this field.

His “Horizon Foundation” wants to investigate NDEs by placing cards above the heads of patients who have entered a death-like state.

The cards would only be visible from the ceiling of the operating theatre, meaning that any patient who could recall the card would become further evidence of NDEs.
 

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#19
Susan Blackmore and others postulate that consciousness is a very powerful illusion; kind of an uber-meme or super-religion, lagging slightly behind real-time events and constructing an effectively fictitious version of those events at the same time as convincing itself of its own over-riding power.

The best example of this, I think, is when someone speaks, you don't need to wait until the very end of their sentence until you suddenly get the impression that you fully understand their meaning. If consciousness was real-time then you would expect that to be the case.

http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/ns02.htm

Sorry - there are no illustrations there with the article.

I don't think this devalues conciousness - it's still the thing that essentially makes us what we are. We still make future decisions and plans based upon it.

I'm currently reading "The Mind and the Brain" by Jeffrey M. Schwartz (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060393556/026-9001060-4544409), which argues that current scientific theories somewhat undervalue the mind and includes evidence that the mind can physically re-map the brain by the power of mental force and directed concentration.

I see 2 possibilities:

1) It's an illusion, convinced it rules the roost in your head but really containing no more sense than any other religion, hence its similar lack of explicability.

2) It's a process that has arisen through the biology of the brain, which has developed into far more than just the sum of the physical processes which constitute it.

I'm still on the fence myself. Perhaps the meme is just too darned difficult to shift!
 

Fats_Tuesday

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#20
Jobbo said:
Susan Blackmore and others postulate that consciousness is a very powerful illusion; kind of an uber-meme or super-religion, lagging slightly behind real-time events and constructing an effectively fictitious version of those events at the same time as convincing itself of its own over-riding power.

The best example of this, I think, is when someone speaks, you don't need to wait until the very end of their sentence until you suddenly get the impression that you fully understand their meaning. If consciousness was real-time then you would expect that to be the case.

http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/ns02.htm

Sorry - there are no illustrations there with the article.

I don't think this devalues conciousness - it's still the thing that essentially makes us what we are. We still make future decisions and plans based upon it.

I'm currently reading "The Mind and the Brain" by Jeffrey M. Schwartz (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060393556/026-9001060-4544409), which argues that current scientific theories somewhat undervalue the mind and includes evidence that the mind can physically re-map the brain by the power of mental force and directed concentration.

I see 2 possibilities:

1) It's an illusion, convinced it rules the roost in your head but really containing no more sense than any other religion, hence its similar lack of explicability.

2) It's a process that has arisen through the biology of the brain, which has developed into far more than just the sum of the physical processes which constitute it.

I'm still on the fence myself. Perhaps the meme is just too darned difficult to shift!
Oh, and of course there's a third possibility, consciousness could be both of the above - they're not mutually exclusive.
 

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#21
Re: An illusion?

garrick92 said:
An "illusion" that is experienced by ... what, exactly?

That's the trouble with this explain-away jobs -- another question flies wide open in your face.
The key is that even if it is an illusion, it is what gives us the spark of humanity. the illusion theory isn't devaluing consciousness.

The main point of the illusion theory is that the rest of the brain is ticking away merrily doing stuff that the consciousness then claims as its own work.

In the sentence understanding example I gave, the speech centre of the brain is parsing the meaning of what was said, which is then handed as a whole to the consciousness, which then convinces you it worked it out itself in real-time.

Think about when sometimes you've given a witty reply to something or a pun and then realised afterwards that what you said was funny. You didn't do it consciously and on those occasions the consciousness was tripped - it feels wierd when it happens.

I like to view it as similar to the way people who are thoroughly steeped in a religion cannot possibly see the world from outside that religion. I'm an atheist and know from debates with Christians that they take as their starting point, the existence of a God. They can't logically argue for that position but it is a part of their mindset.

Now, replace god with consciousness; we take it as a starting point yet it doesn't actually really explain anyhing and as we see, can't be explained. Like a religion, we are taught it - I don't think anybody argues that consciousness is necessarily present at birth. It has become the religion of the self, if you like.

A friend of mine likened consciousness to the belief that we have a mini-pilot inside our head controlling all the decisions, bodily movements, thought processes etc. The reality supported by some experiments, however, seems to be that the rest of the brain is doing an awful lot of the stuff you do without your consciousness knowing about it. The consciousness is then fed that information after the event and then convinces itself that it instigated the event.

Unlike Christianity or any of the other religions though, I'm quite happy to sign up for this one as it seems to make life a more interesting place.

This could even tie in to the recent claims of religion being hard-wired in the physiology of the brain, as consciousness certainly seems to be.
 

Fats_Tuesday

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#22
Re: An illusion?

garrick92 said:
An "illusion" that is experienced by ... what, exactly?

That's the trouble with this explain-away jobs -- another question flies wide open in your face.
Oh, and to answer the quetion, I'd guess, an illusion expieienced by the rest of the brain.

Much like the illusion of still being in motion when a train stops, only in this case, the illusion is more like a feeling of being in control.
 

Fats_Tuesday

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#23
garrick92 said:
I don't buy that. Nothing personal, but it seems to be fiddling around to make the explanation fit. Consciousness isn't a sense of "being in control", at all, as we all realise every day. It's a state of self-awareness.

And the "moving train" illusion doesn't fit the bill either. If my self-awareness is an illusion, it suggests another awareness experiencing that illusion. You open an infinite regress with the "illusion" argument.

An illusion? No, it's real. You can't call your primary frame of reference an illusion! A consensus, in some respects, perhaps, but an "illusion"?
But one of the very problems with consciousness is this circularity.

You seem to assume that the consciousness is the whole when it comes to what makes "you". There are many other areas of the brain which are part of what makes the whole you. e.g. is the enjoyment of music conscious? We would still define ourselves partially on our music tastes.

The very fact that we can't pin it down with an explanation also strongly hints at its illusory nature.

I would also separate out self-awareness from consciousness. Other great apes and many other animals are most definitely self-aware (http://ar.vegnews.org/self_aware.html) by the definition of that expression but are they conscious? - again we flounder on this question because we can't truly define consciousness because it may be just an illusion.

It's almost as though consciousness is a personal feeling tagged on to everything else but which adds no explanation and yet it's so damned important to what makes us who we are.

Another thing to bear in mind on memetic theory. Memes compete for space in the chicken coops of our minds and the most successful memes will therefore be the most difficult to shove off their perch. I think we can safely say that the consciousness memeplex seems to rule the roost 'cos it doesn't half fight back when you try to examine it.
 

Fats_Tuesday

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#24
garrick92 said:
I don't buy that. Nothing personal, but it seems to be fiddling around to make the explanation fit. Consciousness isn't a sense of "being in control", at all, as we all realise every day. It's a state of self-awareness.

And the "moving train" illusion doesn't fit the bill either. If my self-awareness is an illusion, it suggests another awareness experiencing that illusion. You open an infinite regress with the "illusion" argument.

An illusion? No, it's real. You can't call your primary frame of reference an illusion! A consensus, in some respects, perhaps, but an "illusion"?
Oh, and in terms of being real or illusion. The feeling of a train moving when it stops is very real in the brain (i.e. a real phenomenon) but is still just an illusion.

By the same token, consciousness can be a very real phenomenon in the brain but at the same time just an illusion.

I'm not saying consciousness doesn't exist here.
 

Fats_Tuesday

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#25
garrick92 said:
Yes, I know what an illusion is thank you very much indeed!



But an illusion that is experienced by what?




Hmmm. In the same way that the Necker Vase exists, I suppose you mean.:sceptic:


I aid it's an illusion experienced by the brain as a whole. You say it's experienced by the consciousness.

The way you put it makes the argument circular. The way I put it doesn't.

I'm saying that the primary point of reference is not the consciousness but actually the whole brain with its many components.

Think about the nature of illusion. It's possible to be absolutely 100% convinced that something is real but be actually 100% wrong.

In this sense, you still need to convince me that consciousness is more than an illusion.

Furthermore, the parallels with other religions run deeper. there seems to be no set definition for consciousness or what constitutes the "conscious self" much as all god-concepts are delibaretely ill-defined to avoid debunking - this helps propogate the meme. If we say it definitely exists as more than an illusion, we need to be very specific about exactly what we define as consciousness.

(BTW, please bear in mind I'm playing Devil's Advocate whilst throwing these ideas around. Personally, I subscribe to the very religion I'm attempting to debunk!)
 

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#26
I think we may be getting bogged down in semantics.

The way I'm trying to express it is as follows:

We all experience something vague and indefinable we call consciousness.

We know that this is a result of brain processes.

There is strong evidence that this "conscious self" erroneously claims responsibility for many brain functions (see my earlier examples and Susan Blacknore's web page, also some experiments which I'm damned if I can find a link to right now - Sean, can you help if you're reading this?).

As at least some elements of consciousness are therefore definitely illusory, it is entirely possible that the whole thing is an illusion, bearing in mind that an illusion can be 100% convincing!

Using Occam's Razor, this seems the simplest explanation for consciousness.

As for an evolutionary base, good point - bear in mind normally, memetic selection runs independently of genetic selection and most "ideas" have moved beyond the normal genetic selection processes (hence the proliferation of decidedly bad memes like "suicide bombing = a good idea"). However, with consciousness (and maybe religion is a pathological offshoot of this) we may be looking at something hard-wired in the brain, therefore having a genetic basis as well.

I would think we need to look at it as part of the social structures of the brain involved in emotions, self-awareness, language etc., possibly a facilitator in all of these functions and more in a highly sociable species, which has maybe got too big for its boots and decided it now runs the show. This may possibly be a good thing that happened about 10,000 years ago. Thus was born modern man?

All that last paragraph's pure Friday afternoon pre-pub speculation and whiffle on my part - damn, I'm thirsty. Or at least, my consciousness has just decided that.
 

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#27
I don't understand why you keep straw-manning my arguments Garrick.

The non-sequitur you gave is not inferred in my posts.

I'm simply saying that in my opinion, the most likely explanation is that it's an illusion. I wasn't saying that because some parts are illusory it is therefore definitely all illusory. I was saying that in my opinion, it simply hints at this being a strong possiblilty.

I don't think you're addressing the gist of my arguments.

Also, you still haven't come up with a good definition of exactly what consciousness is. I still maintain that this ranks it alongside god-ideas in the scheme of things.

Fair enough on the suicide bombers and bees analogy, though - the main point I was making is that an idea doesn't have to promote biological reproduction or longevity to take root in a mind and spread to others. I suppose a better example would be something like breatharianism.

I can't see why you have such a problem with considering the possibilty of consciousness being based on an illusion, despite the fact that this seems to fit many of the observerd facts and wouldn't detract from its importance in human terms. Even if it started as a simple illusion, it has become more than that since.
 
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#28
Mr Bean, Looking In To A Shop Window, Trying To Comb The Hai

Trying to pin down what 'consciousness' is, is like trying to turn round real fast, so one can catch a glimpse of one's back in a mirror.

The very application of critical process to the phenomenon presupposes consciousness. It's like a feedback loop of thought, or looking into an infinite recession of mirror images, caught in the space between two, or more reflections.

An illusion? Without it there would be no meaning. A tree crashing in a forest, without an observer to register its passing, means 0.

And one describes an 0 starting anywhere.

Surely the whole point of consciousness is the struggle into 'being' ? If consciousness is an illusion, then why should it be any less 'real' than anything else in the Universe? After all, without consciousness, would the rest of the Universe matter a jot?

Memes, or DNA. They 'struggle' for what, exactly? Why should certain, scientifically minded, atheists be so concerned to search for some alternative engines of causation? Memes as cultural viruses, DNA engineering creation to maintain its own existence, why are those start points mooted as any more valid than any others?

Why life, anyway? Why do simple forms of matter and energy seem to 'struggle' into contortions of increasing size and organisational complexity, apparently defying the (alleged) laws of Thermodynamics? Feel free to argue about the actual engines of life and evolution, elsewhere.

I realise, of course that the concepts of 'struggle' and 'competition,' applied to memes and DNA are rather misleading anthropomorphic value judgements, inferring as they do, some sort of conscious struggle on a molecular, or informational level of organisation.
 

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#29
Sorry for the late response - been out of town.

I'm not touting that the book is closed on the consciousness as an illusion theory. I'm simply saying it's an intriguing idea that needs some consideration as a possibilty.

I'm not trying to address the "meaning" of consciousness here, just something of its nature. I don't personally follow the human tendency to look for meaning in everything - some things just happen. e.g. gravity exists and we can study its nature but can we realistically study its meaning?

I wish somebody would address the points I raised about evidence of the consciousness being tricked after the fact into believing it instigated actions. This is so important when considering the nature of consciousness.

If parts that we are convinced are real are shown to be illusory it means we have to consider the intriguing possibility that it's all illusory. (Please note, Garrick, I'm still not stating that this implies that it definitely is an illusion, as you seem to keep saying).

It may be that the various areas of the brain are simply doing things and the consciousness is writing a fiction in which it stars after the event. I personally find this possibility fascinating. (Again, I'm not saying this is what is definitely happening here)
 
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#30
Sorry to butt into this thread at this point- very good debating, by the way, but the thing I find most interesting about consciousness is how fragile it is.

I've just been reading an account of the true story behind the sinking of the Essex which inspired Moby Dick and the author also mentions starvation experiments conscientious objectors agreed to do in Austalia in the second world war and it's truly FASCINATING how basically we're big feeding and sh-tting machines...and that's it when it comes down to it. I know it sounds very Da Vinci. But it's amazing how consciousness reduces from this self-aware and wondering thing to a shrivelled impulsive, reflexive hunter when denied food and water for only a very short amount of time!!! A few days and we're ravening BEASTS, I tell you! You can't think straight about ANYTHING. It gets to the stage where you start looking at your sentient conscious mates as huge slabs of meat waiting to be carved up. And you don't waste precious time wondering if its ethical to do it, either.

ps. If anyone's mentioned the next then casually ignore it for me, would you? Professor Dale Jacquette at Pennsylvania State Uni has 'proved' that the universe does exist - objectively.

I think this means that consciousness has to exist objectively too, doesn't it? And also there was a documentary on Religion on the BBC Horizon that said that there are microscopic structures within the cells of the brain that could account for this consciousness - or at least be the hardware to allow consciousness to operate within the human mind. Does any one else remember the show who could give more info? :)

Also the idea that consciousness is a 'meme' thing is ridiculous - because Susan Blackmore thought of it, primarily, and that woman needs a good firm slap for being so dismissive of others, may i just say! The brain and the way we all 'hunt' on this planet needs a mind that can calculate and extrapolate so obviously the mind preempts reality on many occassions and can understand someone's sentence before they've finished it - you had to know that the hunter who told you he was going to be on the other side of the ridge is going to be there in reality, in a particular time-frame to be successful. When you are in a fight or flight instance your brain reverts to type and its just not sophisticated enough to be a few seconds behind reality - you'd be dead, surely? Consciousness developed from the development of the cranial lobes because we ate rich foods and we were skilled and adept enough to look after children for longer and feed ourselves well enough that we had time to sit and think and improve our surroundings and our understanding of it and it took millions of years to get our consciousness but go for a week without water, or three without food and all you have is...insect-brain again.

Or have i missed the point on some embarrassingly grand scale and you're all shaking your heads and saying 'what? Has she not read all the posts, AGAIN?!!!':eek: ;)
 
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