Is It Time to Give Up on Consciousness as ‘the Ghost in the Machine’?

Summary: Giving up the theory that consciousness is like a “ghost in the machine” to focus on the neurobiology of brain mechanisms behind conscious awareness is an essential step to better understand the human mind, researchers argue.

Source: The Conversation

As individuals, we feel that we know what consciousness is because we experience it daily. It’s that intimate sense of personal awareness we carry around with us, and the accompanying feeling of ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories.

But science has not yet reached a consensus on the nature of consciousness – which has important implications for our belief in free will and our approach to the study of the human mind.

Beliefs about consciousness can be roughly divided into two camps. There are those who believe consciousness is like a ghost in the machinery of our brains, meriting special attention and study in its own right. And there are those, like us, who challenge this, pointing out that what we call consciousness is just another output generated backstage by our efficient neural machinery.

Over the past 30 years, neuroscientific research has been gradually moving away from the first camp. Using research from cognitive neuropsychology and hypnosis, our recent paper argues in favour of the latter position, even though this seems to undermine the compelling sense of authorship we have over our consciousness.

And we argue this isn’t simply a topic of mere academic interest. Giving up on the ghost of consciousness to focus scientific endeavour on the machinery of our brains could be an essential step we need to take to better understand the human mind.

Is consciousness special?

Our experience of consciousness places us firmly in the driver’s seat, with a sense that we’re in control of our psychological world. But seen from an objective perspective, it’s not at all clear that this is how consciousness functions, and there’s still much debate about the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.

One reason for this is that many of us, including scientists, have adopted a dualist position on the nature of consciousness. Dualism is a philosophical view that draws a distinction between the mind and the body. Even though consciousness is generated by the brain – a part of the body – dualism claims that the mind is distinct from our physical features, and that consciousness cannot be understood through the study of the physical brain alone.

MIT’s Alex Byrne explains the philosophical underpinnings of the dualist position. Credit: Wireless Philosphy

It’s easy to see why we believe this to be the case. While every other process in the human body ticks and pulses away without our oversight, there is something uniquely transcendental about our experience of consciousness. It’s no surprise that we’ve treated consciousness as something special, distinct from the automatic systems that keep us breathing and digesting.

But a growing body of evidence from the field of cognitive neuroscience – which studies the biological processes underpinning cognition – challenges this view. Such studies draw attention to the fact that many psychological functions are generated and carried out entirely outside of our subjective awareness, by a range of fast, efficient non-conscious brain systems.

Consider, for example, how effortlessly we regain consciousness each morning after losing it the night before, or how, with no deliberate effort, we instantly recognise and understand shapes, colours, patterns and faces we encounter.

Consider that we don’t actually experience how our perceptions are created, how our thoughts and sentences are produced, how we recall our memories or how we control our muscles to walk and our tongues to talk. Simply put, we don’t generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions – we just seem to become aware of them.

Becoming aware

The way we simply become aware of thoughts, feelings and the world around us suggests that our consciousness is generated and controlled backstage, by brain systems that we remain unaware of.

Our recent paper argues that consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself, just as there’s no additional function to digestion that exists separately from the physical workings of the gut.

This is an illustration of neurons
The neural machinery of the brain may be all we need to study in order to understand the human mind. Credit: The Conversation

While it’s clear that both the experience and content of consciousness are real, we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself. In other words, our subjective experience of consciousness is real, but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.

Future study of the brain

Our position is neither obvious nor intuitive. But we contend that continuing to place consciousness in the driver’s seat, above and beyond the physical workings of the brain, and attributing cognitive functions to it, risks confusion and delaying a better understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

To better align psychology with the rest of the natural sciences, and to be consistent with how we understand and study processes like digestion and respiration, we favour a perspective change. We should redirect our efforts to studying the non-conscious brain, and not the functions previously attributed to consciousness.

This doesn’t of course exclude psychological investigation into the nature, origins and distribution of the belief in consciousness. But it does mean refocusing academic efforts on what happens beneath our awareness – where we argue the real neuro-psychological processes take place.

Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying, but we believe it provides a future framework for the investigation of the human mind – one that looks at the brain’s physical machinery rather than the ghost that we’ve traditionally called consciousness.

About this consciousness research news

Source: The Conversation
Credit: Peter Halligan and David A Oakley – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. “consciousness involves no separate independent psychological process distinct from the brain itself” True. Also, obvious, despite philosophical exercises in dualism. “our subjective experience of consciousness is real..” Tautologically true. “..but the functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.” Tautologically false. Revealing the underlying activity that informs our consciousness does not tell us anything new about the nature of consciousness. Consciousness is still an executive function of awareness, attention and decision. The idea of consciousness as merely a phenomenal passenger is just as needlessly fanciful as dualism. It’s not terribly complicated, really. Consciousness a portion of our experience and capacity to access and experience various aspects of ourselves, make decisions, influence some of those aspects, and to sense this process itself, too.

  2. Thanks for your stimulating and articulate essay.

    I have a minor quibble; you write” “we argue that, from a science explanation, they are epiphenomenal: secondary phenomena based on the machinations of the physical brain itself.”

    I would argue that this is incorrect.

    Let’s have a gander at visual perception. Helmholtz grounds us in everyday experience: “Similar light produces, under like conditions, a like sensation of color.”

    We can both broaden and sharpen this observation and, with a nod to Dirac and Heisenberg, say that the same state vector, acted upon by the same (matrix) operator, produces the same *spectrum* of secondary qualities.

    I’ve emphasized *spectrum,* because, as the mathematician Steen reminds us, early on in the 20th century, “The mathematical machinery of QM became that of spectral analysis.”

    So that’s kind of interesting. Weyl helps us along, here, sounding the note of *symmetry*:

    “It turned out that, once these foundations had been laid, symmetry could be of great help in elucidating the general character of the spectra.”

    Let us now circle back to Helmholtz. His remark on similar light and similar conditions — that’s like a law of nature, yes? Always true, here and everywhere, now and forever?

    But that’s what physicists would call a symmetry under translations in space and time.

    Ramond connects us to the body of physics here:

    “It is a most beautiful and awe-inspiring fact that all the fundamental laws of classical physics can be understood in terms of one mathematical construct called the action. It yields the classical equations of motion, and analysis of its invariances leads to quantities conserved in the course of the classical motion. In addition, as Dirac and Feynman have shown, the action acquires its full importance in quantum physics.”

    Finally, Weinberg lets us in on the joke:

    “Furthermore, and now this is the point, this is the punch line, the symmetries determine the action. This action, this form of the dynamics, is the only one consistent with these symmetries […] This, I think, is the first time that this has happened in a dynamical theory: that the symmetries of the theory have completely determined the structure of the dynamics, i.e., have completely determined the quantity that produces the rate of change of the state vector with time.”

    So, we seem to have a plausible path from everyday observations of color and etc. to the actions we perform as a consequence of those observations, as when we stop at ‘red’ and go at ‘green,’ for example.

    There’s much more that needs to be said, of course, but that’s probably (quite) enough for today.

    Thanks again.

  3. “Our proposal feels personally and emotionally unsatisfying…” I’ve been struggling with this for decades, and have found that the brain can revise its concept of how it works when given persuasive new information. If we have never been in conscious control of our behavior, and somehow our brains have gotten us this far in life without it, then all our personal, emotional thoughts about having conscious control are simply wrong, and always have been. It takes time to adjust to this new info, but it can be done, and it can be wonderfully freeing to shed our mistaken ideas and embrace the reality of our existence. I’ve made a bunch of videos about my own struggles in my Stoned Observations series.

  4. That our planet seems to provide consciousness…is consciousness part of evolution…

    What is consciousness for…are we subjects of consciousness…

    Can we be more conscious…

  5. Do you realize that we are trying to look at that which looks , talk about that which talks and intellectualize that which gives the intellect . Scientific methods are a product of human intellect while intellect itself is born in consciousness – that is a grandparent relation between Consciousness and and scientific methods . I am skeptical scientific methods will ever cover ” Consciousness” in its domain . In fact it is futile to talk about it because language itself was born there .

  6. To whom are such questions as this article title posed? The comments reveal it — people with insufficient education in Philosoohy, so their concepts are never logically categorized. I shall answer two questions for you in order to ellucidate:

    1) Is it time? Yes. Not only is it time, it’s been settled by first rate professional philosophers for centuries, millennia. Aristotle had no problem with this issue. Why do you 2,300 years later?

    2) “Then why did consciousness evolve?!”

    I’ll tell you if you can tell me why the laws of nature evolved. If you realize why that doesn’t make any sense, then you’ll understand why your question makes no sense. There is no reason to suppose complex relations aren’t conscious by the same laws that govern everything else. There is no reason to think laws or matter are simple and only exist exactly as we perceive them from the outside.

  7. I just read that conscious means something like to know together. Meaning joint knowledge between two people. That would mean that consciousness means common sense. Instead of individual knowledge, it means common knowledge. We really gotta get all these terms down or we’ll all be confused forever. In the information age there’s really no excuse except for the saturation of misinformation.

  8. So we can argue that neuroscience is not born from conciousness and therfore is just a desire to control the environment based upon mechanisms in the neuroscientists brains? So what therfore we must ask is the purpose of neuroscience other than to control our behaviour?

    1. Spirit or spiritus refered to air. Probably breathe. The air in your body from earth air fire water. Gases. It could literally just mean good or bad breathe. Ancient people were a little different and modern people seem more confused than anything. More superstitious and less practical. Another hint us that the mysts that come off of boiling alcohol were called spirits. So any gas that you can see or air is called spirit and spiritus meant air. So I think the spirit or soul is a big misunderstanding. It’s the air. Your breathe. It’s a big part of your life so doesn’t mean it’s not important. Without it you die in 3 minutes. Just doesn’t really have anything to do with your personality.

    2. Do you realize that we are trying to look at that which looks , talk about that which talks and intellectualize that which gives the intellect . Scientific methods are a product of human intellect while intellect itself is born in consciousness – that is a grandparent relation between Consciousness and and scientific methods . I am skeptical scientific methods will ever cover ” Consciousness” in its domain . In fact it is futile to talk about it because language itself was born there .

  9. When you don’t like something. Change your thoughts and you’ll have a new experience. Are you concious of what Jesus said,”The things I can do. You can do that and more.”

  10. Science admitted that the concept of form of objects is valid and can be described by geometrical shapes.The colour of objects proved more difficult to describe and measure, but scientists didn’t give up and succeeded in giving us colorimetry.Had they treated colour as the “ghost in the machine” they would have been wrong and mankind deprived of a method of analysis. Giving up on consciousness is scientifically wrong and very dangerous in terms of law and religion.

  11. Since I first pondered it I have always believed that consciousness was a product of the physical processes of the brain developed by evolution. The authors state:

    “functions of control and ownership we attribute to that experience are not.

    The brain is generating a mental model of the self. This models attribution of “control and ownership” to that self is actually a valid model. Especially since it is probably done in a very efficient way being crafted by evolution. The fact that we experience solid objects the way we do is sufficiently accurate for our needs. We don’t need to gave a brain that models the space between atoms in a solid object. Nor do our brains need to model nerve firings.

  12. You literally point out the duality of consciousness while talking about the it not existing.

    For example:”Simply put, we don’t generate or control our thoughts, feelings or actions – we just seem to become aware of them.”

    That’s because it thoughts, feelings and actions, at least the ones you used as examples, are not consciousness. It’s the aspect of us that “becomes aware of them.”

    That awareness. That observer is consciousness. Consciousness preexists all those things in order to “become aware” of them when they happen.

    The “deus” preexists the machina. And those thoughts feelings and actions are influenced by it, not the other way around. It’s not emergent.

    Then you go on to talk about thoughts and emotions a not having control of them, to things like digestion and breathing..

    Those things are as different as legs and arms.

    Although both are limbs, they serve different functions. We have an autonomic nervous system that’s defined by the fact that it requires no conscious interaction to continue. You can control it to a limited degree by doing things like holding your breath. But the second you stop trying it reasserts itself.

    The opposite is true of conscious thought, and actions. You can develop muscle memory with practice, and build pathways in the brain for making repetitive tasks easier by practicing. But those are completely different processes.

    The part of you that becomes aware is still just sitting there, observing and becoming aware of your thoughts and actions..

    You can’t simply move the goal posts and say the ghost isn’t in the machine anymore.. both camps need to agree on terms or you’ll never make any progress.

  13. Before you put the cart in front of the horse and start associating your personal philosophical bias towards the nature of consciousness, you need to check your metaphysical imperatives. You missed something profound. Pushing Determinism is a failure to understand an objective Epistemology.

  14. If you are right and biology is all there is then why should I believe your conclusion? It’s just a function of your biology not your reason.

  15. I’m fascinated with the subject, however being aware doesn’t seem subjective. The roll of memory is probably the most significant aspect of awareness, I think.

  16. “ownership and control over our thoughts, emotions and memories”. Funny belief😁😂 neuroscience has a long way to go…

  17. You folks are on the right track. How can you hope to understand the conscious mind without first plunging into the depths of the unconsciousness mind. Only there will you find what you seek.

  18. Super pretentious article. Treating an opinion as fact is not how an article about science should be written. Use facts next time.

  19. Soooo wrong.You cannot explain experience from function becasue they are not the same ontological thing.

  20. The mind (and consciousness) is an abstraction of the physical processes of the brain (and, to a much lesser extent, the body) much like knowledge and stories are abstractions of a library that can be combined, compared and leveraged. As an abstraction (and far more than the library’s abstracts), it is more versatile, a virtual entity far greater than a sum of it’s physical parts, as it can reach beyond its physical limitations with imagination, grasping experiences that its parts never had and generating motives (“free will”) from the piecing together of abstract components (not just physical components). The ability of different minds to exchange abstract components and even share component compilations like imagination, experiences and motives, given that brains would otherwise have no physical impact on other brains, is strong evidence that the mind is something much more than you suggest

  21. This is philosophy dressed in science pushing epiphenomalism, when a study litterally just released just condemned most of the studies, they site, as NOT being proof of their point of view. There would be no advantage to treatment by adopting epiphenomalism. Infact we’ve already have shown that just by how medications alone often DON’T correct mental illness. Obviously the hard problem of the consciousness was to hard for their chemical soup to handle so they gave up.

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