CHAPTER 5: CONSCIOUSNESS

     What is consciousness? This question has bothered humanity for centuries. Even in modern times, despite the spectacular achievements in science and technology, the answer to that has remained elusive and vague, and might continue to be so in the foreseeable future. One of the hurdles, being faced by scientists and experts, is the fact that they cannot place the phenomenon of consciousness under their microscopes for scientific scrutiny.

   Nonetheless, many scientists and philosophers have expounded conceptual ideas on the nature of consciousness; and entering into that debate would be like daring to enter a wild forest fraught with dangers. This debate is characterized by a broad divide with many finer shades on both sides. One group of experts believes that consciousness, though enormously complex, is computational and can be explained like any other phenomenon. They have offered different perspectives of consciousness as a cognitive phenomenon or perceptive phenomenon. Many of them follow a step-by-step approach or what is termed in science as a reductionist method.

   The more well-known expert among them is Dr. Francis Crick, the Noble laureate who unravelled the secrets of DNA. In his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul , he has put forward the view that our sense of self, our joys, sorrows, memories, ambitions and free will are nothing but the behavior of vast ensembles of nerve cells. We, as a psychic entity including our consciousness, are just a bundle of neurons. Personally I see much truth in what he has stated. It is time to demystify and bring down from the high pedestal mind and consciousness that are commonly believed to be nonmaterial mysteries.

    Dr. Crick feels that if we can adequately understand all integrated processes of how one sub-faculty of the brain functions, such as vision, that would make it easy to move ahead and unravel the secrets of the entire brain and consciousness. With the help of research, he has proceeded to explain the complex task of vision and how its multiple aspects are processed and synchronized by different regions of the brain, which finally enables us to experience images in their complexities of color, size, motion as well as cognitive and emotive contents. He has focused upon the thalamus and other contiguous parts of the brain stem that are believed to play a crucial role in the making of consciousness. However, he admits some real problems being faced in grasping the holistic dynamics of not only the more complex issue of consciousness, but even the sectoral functions like vision, smell and other perceptual processes.

  There are several other experts who feel that consciousness can be understood by explaining how cognitive and behavioral functions are performed by our brain. But, they have not made spectacular headway in resolving the issue. They encounter mysteries of the integrative globality of consciousness as well as the properties of awareness and understanding.

  In contrast, the experts on the other side of the divide hold the view that consciousness is non-computational and any physical account of mental processes, sectoral or otherwise, cannot explain the mysteries of consciousness. In support of their view, they cite several problems that have eluded explanations, such as the questions of understanding, awareness, and subjectivity. No satisfactory answers are available as to how these phenomena, which are the intrinsic properties of consciousness, occur in the brain in the first place. The cognitive theory merely accounts for how cognitive processes take place, but falls short of explaining the unique property of understanding and generic intelligence.

  The issues of subjectivity and ownership—my feeling, my thought, and I—have remained as baffling as ever. I am I, and you are you, but why can’t I be you or vice versa? How does the exclusive owner of thoughts, feelings, and experience—the sense of self as such—come into being? The explanation of self as a collective embodiment of autobiographical memories and future intentions merely relates to the consequential properties that build up at the subsequent stages and keep varying with the age. But how the construction of the primordial sense of self or the subjective owner takes place from moment to moment still defies explanation…read more in the book ……

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