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I've been wondering recently about the nature of consciousness. It seems that, from what we know, consciouss thought is a result of neurons firing in the brain in a certain pattern. This would mean that the firing of the neurons has to come first, before an actual thought can be formed. (It wouldn't be possible the other way since a "thought" would not have the required physical influence to make the neurons fire in any specific pattern, it seems physically impossible). Doesn't this suggest that consciousness is just our interpretation of what is going on in the body on a way lower, deeper, purely physiological level?

What I'm saying is that, it would seem that the notion that we can "control our actions with our thoughts" is just an illussion in the sense that the "decision" to take any action would have already been made by our body, at it's core animalistic level, in a way that is no different from how any other animal would do anything. And only "after" that decision has been made by the body does the decision manifest itself in a way that we interpret as "conscious thought"?

So it would seem that the human organism functions on two levels:

1) The base level, where literally everything a human being does is completely outside their conscious control.

2) The "higher" level, where we get to interpret what the body did in a way that allows us to convey the actions/processes of the body to other members of our race. (these are things like language, gestures, etc.)

Essentially, I cannot for the life of me find a logical explanation that would justify the belief that "we can control our surroundings with our thoughts" - seems to me that however I come at the problem, I always arrive at a conclusion wherein conscious thought is just an interpretation of something I have completely zero control over.

Does this make any sense, or am I just overthinking (whatever that means.. LOL) things? I'm guessing this is a topic that has been covered in the past, maybe in some book(s) - if so, could someone make a recommendation?

EDIT: When I say "thought", I mean anything that has either a linguistic or visual component to it and which I can relay further to other individuals. For instance, if I think to myself "I wonder if I should go shower", I'd consider it a thought since there were words involved (even though I don't necessarily need to articulate the words in my head - but I can phrase it in terms of words). What I'm suggesting is that the process of deciding whether to take a shower is already going on at a base level and came before the thought.

Thank you.

  • I suggest you take a look at "The Mystery of Consciousness" by John R. Searle. Books from António Damásio also may help. – Rodrigo Mar 16 '17 at 16:24
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The adequacy of descriptions and explanations:

If consciousness were just interpretation, then sure, you could have no control over your actions because all you could consciously (i.e. interpretively) do is interpret. That said, isn't interpreting an action? When a reader interprets the metaphor of a poem, is this something other than an action on the readers part? Is an implicit unwrought understanding not an action on the readers part? Perhaps you mean perceiving?

If consciousness were just interpretation (including action or not) then it would be logically impossible to have language. One of the few things which distinguishes us from other animals is how we use language.

As an illustration of the scope of explanations, by one adequate description WWI started with the assassination of an archduke; by another with formal State declarations of war; by another the start goes back to ancient Rome... We simply do not know enough about the causal processes in the brain to adequately explain consciousness with the same molecular precision which we use to describe water as H2O instead of "colorless, tasteless liquid"; and explain features like "potable", "delicious", "undrinkable" or aspects like "steam" or "ice".

Controlling our surroundings with our thoughts depends some on how the terms "thought" and "control" are used. Don't we all just agree and think that, for example, ink and carbon fibers in a certain configuration are paper money? The status of the "base" material in the certain configuration and its status function are matters of institutional fact (as compared to "brute fact" - per Anscombe), i.e. something we create with language (speech acts). Could we achieve such control of our surroundings without language? Without collective intentionality? If consciousness were just interpretation?


Necessity and sufficiency

If a thought is the result of neurons "firing" (as I believe is scientifically proven at this point), then the neuron firing must, by this definition, take place before the appearance of thought itself.

An axiomatic explanation of empirical phenomena begs the question. We know that neurons are involved, but as of yet and even with fMRI there is little to distinguish an unconsciously conscious brain from a consciously conscious one. In addition to neurons firings causing mental activity, it can also be said that intentionalistic focus causes neuron firings.

This to me is the same as saying that the activities that lead to a specific thought will have already taken place before that thought itself is conjured. How can one, in this case, say that the thought was the actual source of anything? Could you address this issue in specific, disregarding the rest?

I may vote for a Presidential candidate because I think that their administrative policies and positions will better suit the country. This is a sufficient cause for me to vote, and, of my voting, but it is not necessary, nor is voting necessarily caused by my thnking such.

Yes, neurons are involved in brain activity but is a thought as you describe? Do you mean "thought" strictly in terms of propositional (linguistic) and sense (visual - why not sound, taste, smell, touch?) content such that may be expressed to any other similarly structured and intentionalistic biological form? Do you mean "thought" to describe all of consciousness or only something like "a proposition with a sense" (pace Wittgenstein)? By "appearance of thought" do you mean consciously conscious consciousness or awareness of awareness? The language we use and how we use it will sometimes lead us astray.


As for physically changing (i.e. exercising a control over) our immediate environment, the motor nervous system can be intentionalistically engaged, for example, to swat a fly without thinking just as the motor nervous system can be engaged to inadvertently jump at a loud bang perceived through the sensory nervous system. There is an explanatory behaviorist/materialist/determinist I/O analogy, but think more about how you breathe consciously at times and yet when you sleep you do not die from oxygen starvation in your brain.


You might also enjoy, "The Phenomenological Illusion" and considering your "animal" metaphor, "Animal Minds".

  • I understand what you're saying, but I'm still unclear on the main point: If a thought is the result of neurons "firing" (as I believe is scientifically proven at this point), then the neuron firing must, by this definition, take place before the appearance of thought itself. This to me is the same as saying that the activities that lead to a specific thought will have already taken place before that thought itself is conjured. How can one, in this case, say that the thought was the actual source of anything? Could you address this issue in specific, disregarding the rest? – user2390206 Mar 15 '17 at 14:10
  • Also, I do not believe language distinguishes us from other animals? I think we're just much better at language and that almost all living creatures possess the ability to communicate, some at a deeper level than others, but I don't believe it's something unique to humans. Statistically speaking, one of the species is bound to be able to do it better than all the rest. I guess I'm unable to see how this ties in with the main point. – user2390206 Mar 15 '17 at 14:16
  • Sorry, I'm not aware of the philosophical terminology in question. When I say "thought", I mean anything that has either a linguistic or visual component to it and which I can relay further to other individuals. For instance, if I think to myself "I wonder if I should go shower", I'd consider it a thought since there were words involved (even though I don't necessarily need to articulate the words in my head - but I can phrase it in terms of words). What I'm suggesting is that the process of deciding whether to take a shower is already going on at a base level and came before the thought. – user2390206 Mar 15 '17 at 14:53
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    I uptoved, unfortunately it says my vote won't count for now since I am a new member. Thanks for the welcome :) – user2390206 Mar 15 '17 at 14:54
  • Done! Thanks. I don't mind long articles though :) – user2390206 Mar 15 '17 at 15:09
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The answers to these questions depend on how you think about consciousness. The key challenge is this phrase:

It seems that, from what we know, conscious[sic] thought is a result of neurons firing in the brain in a certain pattern.

This is not actually as easy of an assumption to make as you might hope. The truth is that we don't have an agreed upon notion of exactly what consciousness is. By making the assumption you made above, you immediately limit yourself to a specific class of philosophies known as physicalism, which state that consciousness "supervenes" on the physical world, which is a fancy word which basically means that consciousness is merely a product of physical results similar to how lighting a lightbulb is merely the product of many millions of electrons all moving in roughly the same direction through a wire.

The trick is that, if you start from this assumption, you have already decided to reject every other model of thinking out there. There are many other approaches to consciousness, so be aware that you've ruled them out already at this step. You've decided on physicalism and you must be ready to deal with the consequences of this. Physicalism doesn't always lead to answers which jive with our intuition (or religion, for that matter).

Going deeper:

This would mean that the firing of the neurons has to come first, before an actual thought can be formed.

Here's another assumption: that thoughts follow the firing of the neuron. That is only true if you assume it to be true. There's plenty more fun to be had in the human brain, even if you only consider physicalism. For example, much of the communication within the brain is actually done with chemicals, not just electrical impulses. These chemical shifts can precede electrical activity, with the electrical activity responding to the shifting environment. There's also a great deal of unknown within the neurons themselves. We've recently found suggestions that single neurons can remember things! There's much more to neural activity than just electrical firings.

Finally, there's no reason that consciousness cannot include the neuron firings. It doesn't have to occur afterwards. This is why physicalists use the term "supervene." Consciousness is seen as a model which is built on top of physical events, including the neuron firings. Excluding the firing creates some awkward results, though there are some who argue that consciousness is indeed an illusion, developed after the fact to explain what occurred. Making this assumption is valid, but it runs the risk of assuming the consequent. You may accidentally claim that consciousness is an illusion and you have no control by first assuming that consciousness is an illusion and you have no control! That's no fun!

The final challenge is:

I always arrive at a conclusion wherein conscious thought is just an interpretation of something I have completely zero control over.

To use a phrase like "...something I have completely zero control over" requires you to have a definition of "I." It seems silly, but when you're really digging into the deepest levels of understanding what consciousness is, "I" turns out to be a much more complex and nuanced concept than it appears on the surface.

If you choose to define "I" to exclude the physical body, you run into a trap. You previously chose physicalism, declaring that the physical world is all that exists. Thus, if you exclude all that you can possibly be, "I" turns out to be nothing! When you're not comfortable with this, you have a few choices:

  • Pout! (Always an option)
  • Change your definition of "I" to include the physical body
  • Change your assumptions to include the possibility of a metaphysical "I" which is greater than just your body.

Welcome to the fun of philosophy... there's always one more stone to turn over!

  • Non-pathological consciousness is everything that is experienced right now - from the time you wake up to the time you go into a dreamless sleep: first-person subjective ontology. Such certainly is the general conception accepted by the neuro-scientific community for research programs which advance knowledge claims. What epistemic advancements have the metaphysicians made? Ever? – Mr. Kennedy Mar 16 '17 at 2:58
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    @Mr.Kennedy One can argue validity of their approaches, for sure. However, I do think it's very reasonable when asking philosophical questions about consciousness to point out when a single assumption dismisses a large body of philosophy right out of the gate. – Cort Ammon Mar 16 '17 at 3:52
  • If by "large body of philosophy" you mean metaphysical speculations which can not advance knowledge, isn't that the way natural philosophy hands off the epistemic baton to science? – Mr. Kennedy Mar 16 '17 at 3:55
  • @Mr.Kennedy Yeah, if you choose to define it that way. If you view all of philosophy as doing nothing more than handing the baton to science so that science can do the real work, then that would be the phrasing one would have to use. – Cort Ammon Mar 16 '17 at 4:09
  • "All of philosophy"? No, and certainly not necesarily so - there are certain epistemic inquiries which are more suited to the natural sciences, some to the social sciences, some to mathematics, some to aesthetics, some to ethics, etc. hence the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, philosophy of society, philosophy of language, philosophy of (etc.) – Mr. Kennedy Mar 16 '17 at 4:12

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