The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Consciousness is a Place

Consciousness is a place. I donít feel myself in a foot or a hand: I feel myself in the head. I donít feel myself outside my body. If you built an exact replica of my body, I would still feel myself only inside my original body (and ďsomeone elseĒ would feel himself into the replica of my body).

The mother of all problems is that the human brain is not the most intuitive structure to generate consciousness. If we asked a team of engineers (who have never seen a lake or a mountain) to build areservoir of water, they might come up with the same alpine lake that nature created. If we asked them to create an organism that can survive at high elevation, they might design a marmot. But even if you put the smartest engineers in the world in a room and asked them to design something that is conscious, nobody would come up with an oddly shaped jelly of bilions of interconnected neurons. The brain is such an unlikely structure (and, letís face it, a fairly ugly one).

Consciousness and Complexity

It has become fashionable to explain how consciousness emerges from the brain by invoking the emergent properties of complex adaptive systems. The problem is that the brain is not the only complex adaptive system inside the human body. The eye, the heart, the stomach and pretty much every other organ are complex and adaptive too, but they don't seem to have much to do with consciousness, not even a faint one. The property of complexity alone does not explain consciousness. The question is what makes the complex system of the brain different from the complex system of any other bodily organ.

The US neurophysiologist Paul Nunez emphasizes the cortex's nested hierarchical structure ("neurons within minicolumns within modules within macroculumns inside cerebral cortex lobes"), a model pioneered in the 1970s by the US neurobiologist Walter Freeman.

That might be the unique feature of the brain, but, to some extent, many other bodily organs and natural systems exhibit a "nested hierarchical" organization: are they conscious too? It seems odd that consciousness is a zero or one: the highly nested hierarchical complexity of the brain yields my consciousness, while the less nested hierarchical complexity of the heart yields absolutely no consciousness. It would be more logical to find a continuum of contributions to my consciousness by all the complex organs of my body all the way down to fingertips and hairs. Consciousness should be distributed all over the body, to different degrees.

Of course, an alternative theory is that every complex system, including my eyes and my heart, generate some kind of conscious life, and the one that is writing these words, that can communicate with other consciousnesses, and that can teach cognitive science in universities is the one created by the brain. Hence the literature (created by brain-generated consciousnesses) will only know of brain-generated consciousnesses and never know of, say, heart-generated consciousnesses.

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