Consciousness Without Neural Correlates

Presented in Mike Mozer's seminar

"The Scientific Study of Consciousness"

January 28, 1997

Patricia Churchland seems to argue that the proper theory of consciousness will be based on an understanding at the level of neurons in the physical brain. She offers evidence that we may be able to correlate the firing of specific neurons with certain mental behaviors taking place simultaneously. However, I would claim that she gives no evidence for thinking that we will be able to explain the distinction between conscious and non-conscious mental states in terms of a distinction at the neural level. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what such an explanation would be like.

Of course, it is likely that conscious states will be associated with neural correlates of linguistic, working memory or symbol manipulation tasks. But how do we explain the distinctively conscious aspects such as self awareness? (I take it that this is the main issue of qualia, rather than the secondary issue of how do we know that we experience the same qualia as someone else.)

Churchland’s main argument seems to be that we cannot imagine a non-neural explanation for consciousness without positing some phlogistin-like soul-substance. But someone like Searle does not believe in a non-physical substance of consciousness any more than Churchland does, and he insists that there are neural correlates of conscious states he merely doubts that an understanding of neural activity could explain what is distinctive about consciousness. That is, the same physical evidence might or might not be accompanied by consciousness as in Searle’s Chinese room and there would be no way of telling which was the case based on events at the neuron level.

In the following I sketch two rough stories about consciousness just to show that we can imagine an explanation of consciousness that is independent of neural behaviors. In fact, I think it is easier to imagine a satisfying explanation of consciousness in such terms than at the level of neurons.

* * * *

Once upon a time people had no conscious states. They went through life on auto-pilot, interacting with each other and with their environment instinctively, with no concept of self and no worries about the purpose of "their" lives. Their behavior was driven by raw physical and simple social needs. Neurons fired in correlation with their behavior, but there were no firings of consciousness.

Gradually, people started to use tools, raise food and generally engage in tasks that required increased interpersonal interaction, social decision-making and group memory. As their vocal abilities evolved and their brains grew, they developed languages that met those needs. Spoken language is concrete in that there is always a specific physical speaker, yet abstract in that it can refer to things no longer present (memory) or not yet present (predictions, plans). Neurons fired now in new brain regions of language capabilities, but they were just like the other behavior correlates, and there were no firings of consciousness.

Then, perhaps mostly in rather modern, especially literate times, people started to internalize language. That is, they would engage in the useful practices of articulating things in language, but now even when no other people were present. As they discovered how really useful this could be, they talked to themselves even while in the physical presence of other people by talking silently. As a derivative of spoken language, such "self-talk" implied a speaker or subject. While people may have at first attributed this role to some external authority figure (tribal chief, god, super-ego), they eventually postulated a self (soul, homunculus) as the subject of their own current and remembered internal monologues. Thus, consciousness arose: an internal monologue about various behaviors of one’s self. This in no way affected the character of neural firings.

* * * *

Once upon a time I was born. Or rather, a physical human infant was born who grew into the person I now am. At first this infant just behaved non-reflectively and without conscious memory. It responded to its environment directly based on physical needs and reflexes. It responded to stimuli without articulating and manipulating a symbolic representation of them and it remembered events that had a physical impact on it by adjusting its bodily responses in accordance with its body’s needs.

(It may be hard for you to imagine that I was ever so thought-less. But think about common animals. When you were young and under the sway of Walt Disney, you probably projected a lot of human personality and thought onto the behavior of your pets. But now, having studied behaviorist psychology you may see through that anthropomorphism and understand how animals do all the things they do without consciously debating what to do and how to do it. Now look at an infant that same way.)

Gradually, in order to enhance my social interactions, I learned to communicate in language. As Vygotsky argued against Piaget, I then internalized this social language as self-talk or mental reflection it is fascinating to hear four-year-olds talking to themselves just as I later learned to read out loud first and silently subsequently. Now I use self-talk extensively. It is useful to me in many ways, letting me engage in the complex, socially-constructed activities that fill my mental day. It is also confusing, causing me to wonder about this self who started talking gradually in my youth and now won’t shut up.

* * * *

So what is consciousness? How can we study it scientifically? According to these stories, it is a product of social culture. As a human behavior, it relies on brain functions and so there will be neural correlates of thought just like there will of non-conscious behaviors. But there will be nothing about the neural correlates that distinguish or identify (let alone explain or shed light on) the consciousness behaviors except to say that they involve linguistic activities, which we already know. Because consciousness is a confusing business, scientific study can clarify just what some of the causal relations are among conscious and non-conscious behaviors, but neuroscience will never explain consciousness, let alone eliminate it (except to agree it is not a distinctive brain function).

So who is conscious according to this theory? Anyone who engages in self-talk! But exactly what is self-talk according to this theory? It is the internalized form of social communication developed through social interaction to help with one’s behavior in a mixed cultural/natural environment. Accordingly, consciousness is a cultural product, shared only by relatively mature people i.e., not by very young children or primitive homo sapiens. One could probably identify a stage in history (c. 1000 BC says Jaynes, 1976) and in child development where consciousness grows from dim awareness to full self-consciousness.

Can computers be conscious? They can certainly manipulate symbols internally and report on their states, including remembered states. But their "language" both internal and external is different from human language: it is not the evolutionary product of active interaction with a natural and cultural and social environment. Thus, the language of computers is purely formal (syntactic) and lacks the meaningfulness (semantics) that grounds both human language and human consciousness.

Is Data of Star Trek conscious? When he does formal information retrieval from his data banks, no. When he muses emotionally about his interactions with his shipmates, one suspects consciousness is dawning. But Data and his adventures are a thought experiment, not necessarily possible in principle. He serves to show how far the computers we use and program actually are from being conscious.

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