Is It Possible to Explain How Consciousness Works?

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Is It Possible to Explain How Consciousness Works?

Jim Holt

Quote:Put with brutal succinctness, Damasio’s brief goes like this: Mental activity consists of a stream of “images” that map aspects of the world around us. But these images, by themselves, cannot be conscious. For that, they must be related to a perspective, an “owner,” a self — this, after all, is what subjectivity means. And here is where feeling comes in. As Damasio uses the term, “feelings” are “the hybrid, interactive processes of the interior, at once mental and physical.” They register how well or badly its various subsystems are doing at maintaining homeostasis, at keeping the organism alive and flourishing. So feelings point within, to the interior; images point without, to the world. And when feelings and images come together in the brain, the result is conscious thought. To adapt a simile of Damasio’s, feelings are like a musical score that, when added to the silent reel of images in the mind, produces cinematic consciousness.

This is Damasio’s solution to the mystery of consciousness. What’s not to like? Plenty!

First, Damasio has adroitly dodged the “hard problem.” An image of (say) a bear is, in his account, a pattern of neural firing in the brain. A feeling of (say) fear is another such pattern. Put them together and you’ve just got a bigger and more complicated pattern of neural firing. Why should it be accompanied by qualitative consciousness? For Damasio to use the terms “images” and “feelings” to refer to these electrochemical events is to make them sound already conscious — which might be called the fallacy of tendentious nomenclature.

'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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