The Other I

September 26, 2010

Looking for another Einstein

Filed under: Intriguing Science,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:09 pm
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For most of my professional life as a psychologist, I have been fascinated by consciousness.  I have studied how it works, asked how it emerges and develops.  I have looked at what organisms or even non-organisms are capable of consciousness, how it differs depending on where and how it operates, its relationship to intelligence.

I have been particularly fascinated with the private nature of consciousness.  Why can’t we ever access the consciousness of anyone or anything else beyond our own?  What is the usefulness in Darwinian terms of consciousness that is so circumscribed?  And why or how is it that two different people can look at exactly the same thing and yet be conscious sometimes of vastly different things?  It is even possible for two people to experience diametrically opposed things in the face of apparently exactly the same situation.

But above all, I have never stopped wondering what consciousness is.  I have little doubt that some day scientists will have built a model of the brain and the nervous system with its complex of synapses and feedback loops which outline with credible accuracy the paths which information travels throughout the organism and the extent to which various parts of the brain operate in an executive function.

But this does not begin to address the question of consciousness.  What I want to understand is how this system of electrical impulses and bio-chemical interactions which comprise our nervous system results in the experience of consciousness.  How do bio-chemical interactions become experiences such as awe or delight or fear or love or convictions?

This question is similar to the problem of the relationship between matter and energy which Einstein finally cracked with his famous equation E = mc2.  I suspect it might even be an amplification of this problem.  If we understood the nature of matter and the nature of energy better, we might be better able to understand how the nervous system and consciousness are related.

For centuries, this question has been almost invisible to science because consciousness was equated with the soul or spirit and therefore beyond the realm or interest of science.

But consciousness so clearly is, it is a phenomenon that we all experience no matter what our circumstances, and so clearly is intimately related to what we do, that science cannot afford to leave it to the theologians who explain it in terms of a “soul,” or to philosophers who on occasion dismiss its intrinsic existence altogether.

Psychology needs an Einstein of our own.

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4 Comments »

  1. I don’t have a new Einstein to offer, but the second paragraph of the above reminded me of an experience I had some 45 years ago (maybe longer). At the time I was friendly with a Swedish couple; the husband was an artist specializing in what he called “color play”. Maybe there are other descriptions of what he did. He painted abstract color areas, usually blended multicolors but one of his paintings grabbed me in particular. It was a mottled area of blues, with a bright red line going though it. I thought it was very sad. His wife saw it as a gift parcel and the red as a ribbon, a happy imagery. Being Swedish, they had spent all their WWII years in a normal childhood. I saw lots of maps with the frontline outlined in red and it could only mean killing, bombing and bloodshed.
    – – How much different could it get?

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    Comment by budavar — September 27, 2010 @ 11:56 am | Reply

    • Oh yes, this is a fascinating example of what I’m asking about. And although I agree it isn’t an Einstein solution, it does, come to think of it, offer some suggestions about why consciousness evolved as a purely private experience. While it leaves each of us isolated to some extent in our own inescapable world, it does supply diversity which potentially has huge advantages — if we listen to what the world looks like to others and don’t succeed in killing off everybody who disagrees with us first.

      Thank you – It’s a great example.

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      Comment by theotheri — September 27, 2010 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  2. I’m late to this posting, but I think there are many dimensions to this question. The one I find most intriguing and the simplest to deal with is the “sense of self.” Every living thing seems to have it. I can visibly see it in bacteria and other protozoa … I suspect that plants also have it because YEAST, which are fungi, can be seen under the microscope moving toward food and away from enemies. Certainly insects and every form of animal life shows an undeniable “sense of self” or they could never survive. The part of consciousness that simply “reasons” may someday be explained in terms of neurological structures that mimic the “one and the many” that we see in the natural world. But the “sense of self” which is so important to us as human beings is shared with all living things, even the most primitive imaginable … things that have no neurological structures whatsoever.

    On this basis I am inclined to believe that there is something inherent in MATERIAL ENERGY itself that accounts for the “sense of self” (a corollary of the drive for self-preservation) and its progressive intensification as the elements of the substrate accumulate and increase in volume and complexity of interrelationship … for there is clearly a linear correlation between them.

    Since I have a “definition” of matter that includes such erstwhile “spiritual” qualities, I have no trouble believing that it is an inherent property of matter. That part of the mind-body problem is resolved for me as pure “body.”

    Tony Equale

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    Comment by tonyequale — September 29, 2010 @ 1:05 am | Reply

    • Tony – Thank you for elaborating many of my own thoughts – many of which began with your elaboration of Chomsky’s suggestion that our scientific conception of matter was inadequate. Until I fully realized the implications of a dynamic view of matter – which I think was given its scientific footing with Einstein – I potentially remained a reluctant dualist. Not that I longed for that world of gods and saints and angels, but because I could not accept that consciousness was merely an epiphenomenon. It is too real, too basic to who each of us is to dismiss as “only” biochemistry, but I had no viable alternative to suggest.

      Now, I do. Actually, I have no more idea how consciousness is a form of the matter of which each of us is made than I did before. But in truth, I really don’t know how energy and matter are convertible either. I mean, I know the formula. I recognize its multiple manifestations. I understand what scientists say about how the splitting of the atom creates energy. But I don’t see directly how connecting my black and white electrical wires lights up my light bulb. I can explain it but I don’t see it.

      Now I’m sure “mind” and “body” work the same way. Yes, mind is pure body. And in that sense, I believe that “mind” resides in everything that exists. (Though I wouldn’t say that to anyone who does not understand what I mean.)

      The thing is, that is an absolutely extraordinary, awe-inspiring mystery in itself. It’s not just what I am that’s so incredible. Even that little bug crawling right now across my desk is.

      Thank you. Again

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      Comment by theotheri — September 29, 2010 @ 3:58 pm | Reply


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