Series – Philosophy

Series – Philosophy – The Riddle of Consciousness – II

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The Two Problems of Consciousness

You are nothing but a pack of neurons” – Francis Crick

Continuing from the previous article we divide the problem of consciousness into two parts.

The Easy Problem – Difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. This was best described by Sigmund Freud, when he posited the realm of consciousness with three compartments – The Conscious, the Preconscious and the Unconscious. The easy problem is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computations, identify its correlates in brain and explain why it evolved. Scientists hope to solve this problem by within this century and it is called the easy problem in the same way as landing on moon is called easy, imagine the difficulty of the hard problem.


The Hard Problem: The hard problem can be addressed like this: why does it feel to have a conscious process going in one’s head = why is there this first person, subjective experience. Not only does a red thing look different from a green thing, it appears so subjectively red that it produces an experience of sheer redness, a qualitative feeling.

Neither of the problems has been resolved but there is an agreement among the scientists on many features:

a) The astonishing hypothesis : coined by Francis Crick– the idea that all our thoughts, sensations, joy and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissue of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

b) The Brains as a machine – Scientists have debunked the myth of a separate you existing in the brain or mind, they say that you are nothing but a pack of neurons. Using functional MRI cognitive scientists can almost read people’s thought fro the blood flow in their brains. They can tell if a person is thinking about his wife or his cat by looking the areas that are lit up by the rush of blood. It has also been observed that consciousness can be altered by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, chemicals like affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD can profoundly alter how people think feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy) spawns two consciousness within the same skull, like your soul has been cleaved into two with a knife.

c) The Illusion of Control – A startling conclusion from the science of consciousness is that the intuitive feeling we have that there’s an executive “I” that sits in a control room of our brain, scanning the screens of the senses and pushing the buttons of the muscles, is an illusion. Consciousness turns out to consist of a maelstrom of events distributed across the brain. These events compete for attention, and as one process outshouts the others, the brain rationalizes the outcome after the fact and concocts the impression that a single self was in charge all along. This is philosophically nearer to the tenets of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. We expand this view more in the next article.


Series – Philosophy – The Riddle of Consciousness – I

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Addressing Consciousness

“Cogito ergo sum” [“I think therefore I am”] – Rene Descartes

A woman suffers a car crash; parts of the brain had been crushed. She could open her eyes but did could not respond to lights, sounds or jabs. This is what we in the scientific domain would call a vegetative state. During her MRI scan (that detects blood flow to the active parts of her body) something perplexing was observed – when sentences were recited parts of the brain involved in the processing of language lit up, when she was asked to imagine visiting her room parts of the brain associated with navigating space and locating places ramped up. Her scans were scarcely different from the healthy individual – even at vegetative state she was showing the glimmering of consciousness.

Here we are moving into a specific direction in our expedition into the realms of metaphysics and epistemology. The study of consciousness is one of the most challenging and difficult tasks before the smartest humans in the world, and it won’t be an overstatement to say that none of them can claim with certainty that they are any closer to unravelling the riddle is consciousness. In the study of consciousness everything from cognitive sciences and Upanishads have been invoked, verily joining the threads of civilizations, cultures and philosophies is the mystery of consciousness, indeed this is what makes us human too. Understanding consciousness can have consequences in the field of Ethics, politics and sciences and in general how we understand our world. In this Article we wish to address the problem of consciousness and how it has moved from theological discussions to the forefront of cognitive sciences, it is indeed fundamental to philosophy more so now than ever, where we may be very close to actually solving its riddle.

Definition: Defining consciousness is a very difficult task. We reproduce the definition given by philosopher John Searle for its simple and all inclusive disposition.

By consciousness we mean those states of sentience or awareness that typically begin when we wake up in the morning from a dreamless sleep and continue throughout the day until we fall asleep again

The historic view of consciousness is steeped in deep mysticism. The major religions locate consciousness in a soul that survives the body or deserts it to fuse into a global mind.  Consciousness is life as we know it. The conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality; it is based on the premise that other humans are conscious sentient beings like ourselves.

We need to get some misconceptions about consciousness cleared though 1) Consciousness does not depend on language, even animals, deaf and dumb people exhibit consciousness where they do not have and enabled function of language. 2) Consciousness cannot be equated with self-awareness; we may feel a lack of self-awareness when we are deeply engrossed in a musical treat or sensual activity but lack of awareness is not the same as lack of consciousness (knocked out cold).

To Be Continued …

Series – Philosophy / Ontology

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Ontology is the central subject matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The word ontology was coined in the early seventeenth century to avoid some of the ambiguities of ‘metaphysics’; Leibniz was the first major philosopher to adopt the word. The terminology introduced by Christian Wolff in the early eighteenth century came to be widely adopted: Ontology is the general theory of Being as such, and forms the general part of metaphysics, or theoretical philosophy.

The three special parts are:  

1)      General cosmology  –  Theory of the World

2)      Rational psychology  – Theory of The Soul

3)      Natural Theology –   Theory of God

In the usage of analytical philosophy, ontology is the general theory of what there is. For instance the question about the mode of existence of abstract entities such as numbers, imagined entities such as golden mountains and impossible entities such as squares circles, are ontological questions. And it is on an ontological question that modern materialism, physicalism and naturalism differ from their opponents: the question of what there is.

To understand this in the simple sense let us conduct a thought experiment. Posit an entity in your consciousness and name it x, now posit another name it y. x = reality; y = appearance of reality. Now in this case imagine the entity x to be a Cat. The knowledge we have about cat is its biological, physiological, morphological and sociological nature, this knowledge is attained by the scientific method as it is the closest to reality (or perhaps the best version of reality)  – this would be called the ontology of the being as such (Cat). Now suppose that it is your pet Cat and you interpret its actions in a storytelling landscape to narrate to a child – ‘The Cat is a Martian refugee on Earth, spying on the Earthlings and sending information back to Mars through hyperconscious dimension of cat brain simulated reality”. This is obviously not the reality of the Cat, but nonetheless can be useful in entertaining a Child, this would constitute y; i.e – Phenomenology – which we discuss in the next article.

It is sometimes understood that even Science does not really have an ontological right to claim as the description of reality but is only a way of looking at the reality which is more perfect than others. It is often claimed that Scientific method is also not as perfect as it is presented to be. So do we have no way knowing anything about what there is? Is knowledge doomed to always remain in the shadow of ignorance?  Was Socrates really wise only because he at least knew that he did not know?  And if knowledge is not our redemption then what is?


Series – Philosophy / Epistemology

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Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that inquires into the nature and possibility of knowledge. It deals also with the scope and limits of knowledge and how it is acquired and possessed. It also investigates related notions such as perception, memory, evidence, belief and certainty. The 20th century thinker – Bertrand Russell, once remarked, ‘The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.’ What he means to say is that in a social order we commit actions and those actions have consequences, what those actions are guided by is a certain idea of knowledge, like when people say, ‘Stop bothering me I know what I am doing’. What they imply is that they know why they are doing and what are going to be the consequences of their actions, of course because of the complications surrounding the nature of knowledge we have devised the study of epistemology – the theory of knowledge through which we know for certain what knowledge can be relied upon. It is really a metaphysical process (if you can recall how we decoded metaphysics in the last write up).

When you say ‘I know’, you can take one step beyond yourself and ask yourself what is the nature of knowledge or what does it mean to know anything, this meta thinking gives birth to the theory of knowledge – Epistemology.

The traditional investigation from Plato to the twentieth century of the nature of knowledge concentrated on the question of – what is it for someone to know that something is so and so. Pervading all epistemology was a desire to provide a foundation for knowledge which would make it immune to scepticism. Today much of what we understand as ‘knowledge’ comes from the scientific method, indeed science is organized knowledge. The birth of the scientific method was an epistemological and therefore a philosophical triumph, in this regard epistemology always stands meta (super) to science. If we can have this basic understanding about epistemology it will be easy for the reader to really understand the follow up articles as we discuss how epistemology gave birth to science and how at the advent of scientific revolution the human species was able to gather knowledge about everything from unconscious activities of the human mind to super massive black holes. If we understand epistemology here, we can understand the progress of Homo sapiens from an insignificant hunting gathering and tool making tribe to the top of the food chain operating supersonic jet planes and Mars orbiter missions. This is truly fascinating, and all of that has roots in philosophical understanding.



Series – Philosophy / Metaphysics.

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                                                                                What is Metaphysics?

Aristotle pointed out that every object has an essence, meaning if the object is stripped off that essence it ceases to be that object. For instance a lot of new empirical studies have pointed out that self awareness is the essence of human beings, the ability to step back from the phenomenon and observe it objectively, without indulging in it actively. We have often been advised during our trysts with meditative techniques to ‘observe our thoughts’ and ‘observe our breath’ etc. As we do this we enter into the realm of philosophizing through Metaphysics. Meta means beyond or super, Metaphysics means what comes beyond or after physics. It is still the most important branch of Philosophy in both academic and non academic discourse.

To understand it better let us take an example: When I say to you – ‘Think’, you are actively employed in the activity of thinking, you may think what a mess the world has become due to over consumption of plastic and about the impending catastrophe of climate change. But now I say to you that think about how you think, then what you do is carve an observer out of that unity of thinking to observe that very thinking itself, when you do this, in all technical means you go Meta, we can call this Metathinking, to think about thinking. Now it will be easy for you to understand the use of the prefix Meta, when you think about difficult moral questions and what is Good and Bad and Right and Wrong you are involved in the contemplation of Ethics, but when you think about how you have the capacity to involve in such questions and the nature of the ethical dialectic in your mind you are involved in Meta – ethics.

Once we have good clarity upon the usage of the prefix meta both in theory and practice we can now understand what metaphysics means. What we observe from our senses is stored as sense data, but anyone who has paid any attention in life knows that if our endeavour is to find Truth in any matter, we cannot rely on our senses – senses are treacherous. At this junction we make use of our faculty of reasoning to arrange the sense data into coherent theories. This is where we enter into metaphysics – An inquiry (meta) into the ultimate reality which lies beyond our sensory experience (physics), this understanding is not itself based on any sensory experience but on rational analysis or insight.

Once we have really understood the import of Metaphysics in Philosophy we have certainly made a good start at understanding the subject. We can now easily move on to study the metaphysics of various thinkers like Rene Descarte, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Plato, Buddha, Adi Shankaracharya. In Indian traditional schools of Yoga, Buddhism and Vedanta where meditation is given a high value, the practice of meditation is nothing but an involvement in meta thinking and metaphysics. Metaphysics leads to both Science and Nirvana.


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