The Unlabeled World and the Embodied Brain
The Unlabeled World and the Embodied Brain
One of the most renowned neuroscientists in the world, Gerald M. Edelman, calls the human brain "the most complicated material object in the known universe." Edelman has advanced a powerful theory about how consciousness develops, a theory which is at once overwhelming and underwhelming.
I have to state my bias up front. In studying the human mind, I am not very interested in what it takes to recognize an object, but rather, what it takes to un-recognize it. That's a difficult concept, but I hope to make it clear.
Certainly the way groups of neurons react to certain stimulations and affect perception and behavior is a fascinating field, one that is adding tremendously to our body of knowledge. But the implication that we know what consciousness is because we possess consciousness is the definition of a tautology.
Is there a consciousness not comprised of memories and associations, of synaptic connections in "the remembered present?" When 'normal' consciousness gives way to completely fresh and direct perception, what should we call it?
At the risk of creating another duality, the human brain is capable of two completely different kinds of consciousness-a consciousness of the known, and a consciousness of the unknown. The duality is negated when one realizes that for the unknown to be perceived, the known has to dissolve, or at least fall silent.
Edelman calls his theory "neural Darwinism." The cortex contains billions of neurons, and countless more connections between them. In his view, these provide the raw material for the "embodied brain" to confront the "unlabeled world."
He convincingly and empirically argues that there is no 'ghost in the machine,' but that consciousness is a function of the brain itself. It arises from a complex reciprocal flow of information between groups of neurons, in a process Edelman calls "mapping."
This means there is no overarching self, no supervising entity choosing what 'I' will see and what 'I' won't see. The brain learns to avoid some things and select others because various "neuronal groups and paths" are strengthened by experience, and modified by our "value system."
It is telling that Edelman's goal is to replicate this kind of learning, and consciousness, in machines. He, or one of his intellectual brethren, will probably succeed. That could be the end of human consciousness, unless we awaken a consciousness not based on content, but on direct perception and insight.
Insight-consciousness is based on completely different principles-not recognition, but non-recognizing perception; not association, but awareness; not labeling, but the silence and space between thoughts. The mind's mappings determine the old human consciousness, destined for computers; un-mapping the mind through self-awareness determines the new consciousness, fated for human beings.
Since there is no overseer in the brain, there is no separation between 'me' and 'my thoughts.' Therefore control is an illusion, and intelligence is a matter of responding from observation, insight, and understanding.
Consciousness that orbits a center, that mechanically perceives the world through memories and symbols, words and images, should be relegated to machine consciousness. But where does one start to awaken the new consciousness?
I've found that rather than say to oneself, "I'm angry," or "I'm afraid" (unfortunately, many people aren't even that aware), it helps to say, "there is anger," or "there is fear." It sounds a little funny, and feels a little strange, but it works, by eliminating the separate self from the equation, and pointing one's attention toward the dynamic movement of thoughts and emotions within.
Intellectually grasping that there is no "supervising soul or self" is a very different thing then emotionally perceiving the illusion of ego, and ceasing to habitually operate from it. That takes a lot of self-knowing, observation, and quickness of awareness, but it can, and urgently needs to be done.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.