Closing up on Consciousness?


(“I can predict that the dual reflecting surface of the mirror neuron will be the new area of neurophilosophy research as we march slowly but unrelenting along the reductionist asymptotic plank knowing that we have choices because free-will survives.”)


Note: This is the concluding chapter of the second volume of “Neurophilosophy of Consciousness.” Which has been adapted for  a formal presentation.


I could have titled this presentation in a number of ways: ”Between an indeterministic and a deterministic reality.”, “Between epistemology and ontology, a hybrid model of reality.”, “Reality as a complex probabilistic chaos.” or “The physicalist religious horse blinders, their faith on reductionism.” The common thread between these alternate titles is the falsifiable premise that the human species has limited brain capacities for sensory resolution and combinatorial processing. If we accept those premises then the solution seems to just increase / extend the resolving power of the senses with the appropriate instruments and / or extend the human computational capacities with supercomputers. We have also witnessed the demise of the Skinnerian ‘behavioristic’ pessimism about the reality of a mind of the pre-Chomskian era and have taken long strides in both instrument and computational pursuits. Yet we remain ever so far from ascertaining the ontology of consciousness or the characterization of the Kantian ‘reality in se’, if either one exists. Why do we keep trying? I suppose humans will always hunger for answers as to his origins and destiny. What alternatives remain, barring an unforeseen species mutation sometimes soon?

Let it be clear that, our species limited resolution capacities notwithstanding, all of us involved in modeling reality should be committed to a reductionist view of reality as an asymptotic goal by stretching to the limits the resolving powers of our ontological descriptions and epistemological explanations and fuse them into a functional hybrid, what we have termed an epistemontological view of existential reality. Let us briefly review what neuroscientists and mind philosophers have accomplished in this respect and speculate on why a quantum theoretical probabilistic approach may be the best compromise where conscious free decision-making or “free will” survives the perfectly deterministic, physicalist world faith/dream.   


First things first. For the sake of an efficient and productive timed communication, I will use the term ontology when exclusively referring to sense-phenomenal / instrumental ‘descriptions’ of observable/measurable beings in empirical reality leaving any ‘explanation’ of structure or function of an object or event beyond our species sensory phenomenal resolution to be inferred epistemologically with the aid of symbolic or sentential logic tools. Terms like ‘correlation’ between mind ‘m’ & brain ‘b’ describes their relation when there is empirical evidence to back up the claim and ideally there is logical supervenience between them. But in most cases we have to rely on a ‘natural supervenience’, as when e.g., there is a consistent reproducible correlation between an increased glucose consumption and/or blood circulation in an activated brain area where we need not worry about intermediate causal factors intervening as long as they remain stable and invisible. If we claim a causal relation between ‘m’ & ‘b’ we are expected to theoretically explain the correlation. E.g., if we posit that the conscious mind free will can cause the selection and activation of a cortical attractor the claim must be backed-up by falsifiable empirical correlations (EEG, MEG pattern description, brain potentials, etc.) and ideally explained by one or more fundamental type of causal interaction between ‘m’ & ‘b’ (weak, strong, gravitational or EM forces). If all attempts at precision fail we can always ascribe and explain ‘consciousness’ *as having a Russellian type of primordial existence or as ‘emerging’ from a special brain material complexity, both of which are metaphysical constructions to embellish our ignorance about matters immaterial! So, one often wonders about conceptual ego-trips into the invisible when others with their feet on solid grounds are trying to resuscitate and bring behaviorism through *the back door with the Don Quijote’s Sancho Panza reality test, *e.g., the psychophysical archetypal order approach of Chalmers, Jung, Bohm, Primas, etc. Our own biopsychosocial model (BPS) implicitely, albeit reluctantly, gives in into it… for now at least.

I will also use the term unconscious to refer to that mental state totally unaware of those inherited reflex neuronal networks charged with the preservation of biological integrity for the species and whose conscious access is denied during normal functioning, like access to programs running a computer registry or BIOS. The term subconscious I will reserve to the mental state of conditioned awareness to those network processings containing both inherited (genetic) and acquired (memetic) components that, when necessary, can subconsciously access higher mental faculties to extract conscious meanings from the changes monitored / detected in the ongoing contingencies, e.g., by accessing the language faculty. We have argued that at that time the adopted language processing and accompanying thought or conscious activities are recursively co-generated. We admit that this is a controversial premise because we do not always realize that unless there is a significant change in the ongoing, familiar scenery (external or internal), the customary ongoings and familiar perceptual/conceptual inputs are not reportable or generate ‘inner language’, a kind of neurophysiological ‘habituation’ like the one experienced when using a cell phone while moving down hill along a familiar but dangerous un-eventful road where the focus of attention is in the phone conversation and the driving is set to ‘pilot control’ subconscious mode. We may likewise have someone playing music in front of me while I focus my attention on a conversation with another person without being conscious of the music or the source, as opposed to what would happen to my attention threshold if the musician is pointing a cocked gun at me instead!

*Another forced short cut that may bias this discussion is worth pointing out. In a previously published paper we found it easier to assume that language generates thought than the reverse account based on the completeness of language data (as opposed to the ambiguous foundation of thought processes) on which to base language development. As a compromise we arbitrarily opted for tentatively positing a recursive cycling co-generation of both thought and language.

Furthermore, I will assume the troublesome possibility that the non-physical conscious choices/intentions of a human being can *influence the activities of his physical brain (as suggested by Stapp 1999, 153), a most controversial stance attributing the non-physical mind causal efficiency in driving the physical brain. This intuitive premise we are basing instead on analogies to well *established neurophysiological facts (see British neurophysiology school of Sherington) regarding the unconscious reflex determination of the best musculo-skeletal dynamic body posture (controlled by reflex networks in sub-cortical basal ganglia, cerebellum, olives, etc.) in executing a complex adaptive movement, like we saw in the Olympic gymnasts, where biological integrity for the subject is genetically guaranteed; in such cases we need not be conscious of every possible moto-neuronal synaptic connectivity to guide the many individual muscle fiber contractions resulting in the gross, balanced, integrated and coordinated adaptive movement needed. Based on the various relevant inputs (from muscle spindles, stretch receptors, Golgi tendon receptors, and others) the genetically programmed appropriate reflex arc just needs to be consciously ‘isolated’ and mobilized into actuality by the performer.

By analogy to the conscious choice of a gross movement from several unconsciously organized probable motor responses just described we are suggesting, for analytical purposes, that a conscious choice is the functional equivalent of an instrumental *measurement in quantum mechanics. This conclusion is based on our modification of Dr. W. Freeman’s seminal work on the *cortical attractor basin for the olfactory system of rabbits and von Neumann’s projection postulate (1955, Ch. V.1) describing a quantum mechanical instrumental measurement as causally efficient in producing the transition of a quantum state  à to an eigen state of  the observed event with a certain probability of occurrence, what we now call the ‘collapse’ of the wave function (opposing the expected normal continuous evolution of the Schrodinger equation). Arguably, then when we consciously ponder/measure on probable courses of action during a flow of consciousness and make a choice from available future outcomes alternatives in the cortical attractor basins (based on their probability of adaptive success), we are causing the ‘collapse’ of the free-willed chosen alternative. We have tried to develop an algorithm incorporating vector spaces (Hilbert) reasoning to *explain this but have achieved limited success.

In this respect it should be noted how a significant environmental change experienced captures our attention focus and shifts it to relevant cortical mirror neurons situated at the premotor, insular *and parietal cortex loci, (see Rizzolati, G. 2002  “Hearing sounds, understanding actions:Action representation in mirror *neurons”. Science 297, 846–848.) and related prior events registered in cortical attractors based on the content of the perceptual/conceptual change as demonstrated by Dr. Freeman. This environmental change input triggers a transition from a chaos of environmental sensations à stochastic/chaotic probability in the attractor basin à self consciousness and *certainty of the chosen attractor solution, a veritable spontaneous but negentropic activity See   . Unlike quantum theory that selects from probable ‘random’ natural events during an instrumental measurement, in our case the conscious free selection equivalent is choosing from complexly organized stochastic/chaotic synaptic architectures. Far from being random, they just happen to be complexly ordered dynamic events in potency. But they cannot be considered inexorably deterministic events either to the extent that we can consciously select even those alternatives considered the least adaptive as witnessed in heroic or pathological acts ‘contra natura’. The quantum theoretical interpretation introduces the conscious free choice of a probable future outcome alternative does away with the physicalist deterministic model of reality and brings a new unexplored domain between the deterministic and the indeterministic extremes resolved by a conscious free will selection.

Somehow we get the intuition that nature’s ‘randomness’ only exists when an event so behaving is considered isolated (for cognitive pedagogic convenience), out of its normal natural/holistic ecological environment, e.g., radioactive decay from an unstable atom. When so considered this reality ‘in se’ is non-linear, asymmetric, indeterministic, atemporal and non-causal and as such, unintelligible to human cognition. Thus the human species had to bring symmetry by temporalizing empirical reality and linearizing the sensory receptors input in harmony *with an inherited sequential language processing by inventing *the concepts of time and space to explain change (see ). Independent related events can now be processed statistically or linguistically when linearly coupled on the basis of their complementarity and entanglement potential.

This is a most controversial and dark grey area indeed where it has to be demonstrated how receptor input (e.g., sounds / phonemes) is eventually represented and readied to be parsed and processed in the language mill. Humans process information *in serial sequences with the aid of innate language processors (see S. Pinker). For humans to extract the meaning of the quotidian Kantian ‘chaos of sensations’ we inherited the ability to represent crucial audiovisual environmental events with individualized phonemic and visual content attributing primitive survival meanings when compared to an inherited gallery of audiovisual representations, what we have called the proto-linguistic organ (plo) in the amygdaloid complex. We have not developed equivalent explanations for other sensory inputs variations, but the ‘freeze response’ to pressure, tactile and other receptors can be easily demonstrated. What has remained a mystery is an explanation of how the information travels and relates to mirror neurons strategically located in pre-motor, insular, parietal and Broca’s cortical areas where we speculate they generate the emotional qualia as consciousness awakens.

All this allows us to linearize the sense-phenomenal environmental receptor input and couple it to the processing of the adopted language. This way we integrate the inherited protosemantic, amygdaloidal unconscious processing of sense-phenomenal data input with the hippocampus subconscious, contextual analysis of the sensory input and the insular mirror neuron input. The amygdalar and insular components are charged with the preservation of species biological integrity and visceral brain neuro-humoral homeostasis and the hippocampus/executive cortex with the preservation of psycho-social equilibrium. As long as there is no significant environmental change threatening the biological homeostasis and the psychosocial equilibrium we remain in a state of subconscious awareness, like a sophisticated robotic monitor. As soon as a significant perceptual/conceptual change ensues we either continue updating the attractor basins with perceptual and/or conceptual memory based inputs or adaptively respond to the environmental contingency. We can reflexly respond stereotypically at the unconscious protosemantic *level by a temporary inhibition of any response (‘freeze response’) pending a contextual analysis by the hippocampus at the subconscious level. If the contextual analysis is semantically positive and the sensory stimulus represents a biological survival threat, the amygdala is disinhibited and a Cannon, ‘fight or flight’ response is unleashed. Otherwise, when the change carries the potential for a psychosocial disequilibrium then higher mental faculties’ are accessed to extract meaningful information, e.g., a language sequential, linear processor to parse the inherited and/or acquired audiovisual representations data and generate the corresponding syntax structure to express the proper symbolic and/or sentential premises preceding the appropriate logical conclusions and co-generate the corresponding thought/consciousness in the process. Brain lesions to angular *gyrus and Brocas area interfere with this processing. A flow of consciousness is thereby triggered from which the most probable and best adapted cortical attractor solution is consciously and freely chosen from the probable future outcomes.

A cortical attractor (including the corresponding mirror neuron components) represents the unit behavioral complex attending the solution to a novel contingency. It comprises a complex behavioral strategy integrating the phenomenal and attitudinal / emotional aspects and their associated perceptual/conceptual qualia included.  Once more we emphasize that perceptual and conceptual qualia are semantically neutral and find their existential meaning within the context of an individualized BPS equilibrium context requiring the language faculty to generate the appropriate symbolic/sentential representations for recursive parsing.

It has been most difficult to integrate the participation of mirror neurons in this unit behavioral complex because of our paucity of anatomico-physiological data. Their presence in association with Broca’s area, insular cortex and parieto-temporal angular gyrus is an indication of their likely involvement in the semantic, emotional and multimodal assembly of the unit behavioral entity, not to mention their possible role in the emergence of self-consciousness as we reverse the mirror neurons focus on the agent / observer. As we published elsewhere, just like a newborn baby can watch her lactating mother’s facial / body movements and listen to her baby talk cooing until eventually discovers the self from that of mother’s and reciprocally mother can anticipate the newborn needs, an empathy only possible with the help of mirror neurons, we see no reason why the same ‘mirror neuron’ mechanism cannot be directed inwards to auscultate the self in action and discover the self as self! We can demonstrate using fMRI techniques the complex coordination of left somatotopic premotor cortex with auditory and left parietal cortex which lightens up when we either move a hand while making a sound or watching someone else do it! If the observer can empathize with the subject making those sounds and movements via mirror system, especially the likely emotions attending such behavior (as suggested by activity of insular mirror neurons), we don’t see any serious problem about turning that empathy faculty on ourselves and achieving self-consciousness in the process! This area needs more development because both phenomenal and conceptual qualia in our BPS model requires the language faculty to be accessed for ‘interpretation’ as to what it existentially means to me whereas in an ordinary ‘introspection’ a semantic analysis may be waived, like when we are just ‘mindreading’ someone else. I can predict that the dual reflecting surface of the mirror neuron will be the new area of neurophilosophy research as we march slowly but unrelenting along the reductionist asymptotic plank knowing that we have choices because free-will survives.

Dr. Angell O. de la Sierra, Esq.   Deltona, Florida  Winter 2007


de la Sierra, Angell O.  Telicom 2006-2008



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