Burden of Proof


Burden of Proof composite 01Over the past little while I found two interesting sources arguing against a materialistic viewpoint of consciousness. I thought they were both neat and clever and so wanted to share them here.

Clever Stuff
Don Salmon in an article here says this:

“We set out first to clearly dispel the notion that science is inseparably wedded to a materialistic view of the universe. As neuroscientist Donald Hoffman put it, scientific observations and theories are compatible with any number of seemingly contradictory views of reality – including the idea that everything can be reduced to matter and energy (materialism, or physicalism), everything is made up of some combination of mind and matter (depending on the formulation, dual-aspect monism, dualism, panpsychism or panexperentialism) and the idea that everything can ultimately be reduced to mind (idealism).

Toward this end, we devote an entire chapter to what we called “the hard problem of matter”. Philosopher-mathematician David Chalmers had framed the dilemma as “the hard problem of consciousness”. The easy problem, according to Chalmers, concerns the relationship between physical brain processes and various aspects of cognition and emotion.; the hard problem is understanding how a purely physical brain gives rise to conscious experience. To put this in a larger context, Chalmers is addressing the problem of how a universe of purely unconscious, nonliving matter and energy gives rise to consciousness in the first place.

We suggest a reversal of Chalmers formulation – since consciousness is the means by which we know all that we know – including what we know about matter – it would seem that a dogmatic belief in self-existing, non-conscious matter requires an unwarranted leap of faith.”

The second source is from Alex Tsakiris’ Skeptiko Show. I cannot copy/paste a quote from Alex because his stuff is all in the form of audio podcasts. I will have to go from memory and paraphrase him here. When Alex interviews a guest with the staunchly materialistic position that the brain creates consciousness, he always says something to the effect:

‘Well, if you are going to make that claim, then the burden of proof is on you. Please tell me where consciousness starts and where it ends, and what are the functions and processes in the brain that make consciousness.’ (I am using single quotes to indicate a paraphrase).

For all three of you that are my regular Readers, perhaps you have heard these ideas before. But surprisingly, I have not. At least not expressed so succinctly and so clearly in these forms.

Salmon Steak
Don Salmon is flipping the situation on its head and saying, ‘Ok Mr. Know-it-all materialist, if you are so smart tell us what matter is’. He gives some examples of famous physicists saying in so many words that the issue of the nature of matter is still an open question.

Given my knowledge of physics, this is true for the most part. This is why physicists fight over string theory, for example. Some theoretically-inclined physicists believe the mathematical structure of string theory is an explanation of matter. Other, more experimentally-inclined physicists and onlookers (I had to add “onlookers” to account for those outside of physics interested in this issue) would like to see some empirical testing of string theory. It all gets very convoluted and I don’t want to open this can of worms here. My point is, the fact that there is contention and disagreement over string theory is a symptom of exactly what Don says: there is no agreed-upon consensus of what matter even is.

Once this is appreciated, the rest of the logic is quite simple. People who claim that the mind and consciousness stem from matter are really in a bind because, when pressed to the wall, they can’t tell us what matter even is.

Alex is Not Jonesing
Alex is, correctly I believe, asking the person who believes the brain makes consciousness to tell us exactly how that is accomplished. This is an absolutely reasonable thing and is exactly how science works. Science tells us the how of things.

For those of you who haven’t heard this, Alex interviewed the relatively well-known philosopher Patricia Churchland. The interview itself is an abstract work of art, so I highly recommend those of you not in-the-know about this to check it out. It is quite outrageous actually.

But I raise this interview as an example of what seems to be the general response from people like Churchland who want to assert that the brain makes consciousness. She basically says something to the effect ‘We don’t know for sure yet, but we will eventually’. Then, Alex makes the obvious point: how can one make a claim with certainly when they can’t demonstrate the claim?

It’s all very wonderful. Alex calls it “sand bagging”. I guess that is as good a term as any.

Enter the Master
There are a couple things I wish to add to this. One is a famous quote from Leibniz. He is asking: where in the material world would we find consciousness residing? This is paragraph 17 of his Monadology (this is translated by my favorite Leibniz translator, Jonathan Bennett). This is the famous “Mill metaphor”:

“It has to be acknowledged that perception can’t be explained by mechanical principles, that is by shapes and motions, and thus that nothing that depends on perception can be explained in that way either. Suppose this were wrong. Imagine there were a machine whose structure produced thought, feeling, and perception; we can conceive of its being enlarged while maintaining the same relative proportions among its parts, so that we could walk into it as we can walk into a mill. Suppose we do walk into it; all we would find there are cogs and levers and so on pushing one another, and never anything to account for a perception. So perception must be sought in simple substances, not in composite things like machines…”

Okay, I just can’t resist stating the obvious. Here we have the guy that invented calculus – hello calculus!! – and classical physics, telling us that consciousness cannot be found in “composite things like machines”. In comparison, who is Patricia Churchland? Has she done anything like invent calculus? I think not.

So, we have one of the smartest men to ever live in modern times in the West coming to the conclusion that mind and consciousness cannot have its source in matter. I’d say Don Salmon and Alex Tsakiris are in pretty good company.

Number Crunching
“But wait!” you say. Invoking Leibniz is no good. That dude died in 1716. What the hell did he know about brain physiology, most of which was discovered in the 20th century? In fact, most of the really interesting stuff has been discovered in the 21st century!

And I would say, “Oh God, don’t get me started on brain physiology….”

But since you asked…

When people say the human brain is the most complex structure known in the universe, you know what? They are correct. It is made of 100 billion neurons hooked together in a veritable jungle of wiring connections. It is so complex it isn’t even funny. A single neuron in your cerebral cortex has between 3000-5000 synapses on it. Imagine trying to listing to 3000 people talk to you all at the same time. It would be pretty hard, right? Well that is what a single neuron does all the time.

But when people focus on the neurons as the basic unit of the brain, they are just simply wrong. By today’s standards the basic functional unit of any brain is the synapse. If we just look at the human cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is most often associated with conscious operations, we find it has about 10 billion neurons, each making 3000-5000 connections. That means there are about 60 trillion synapses just in our cerebral cortex.

But not only neurons make synapses. There are cells in the brain called astrocytes, and they too make synapses with each other and with neurons. So, the current accepted estimate is that, if you take 1 cubic millimeter (yes, millimeter, go look on a ruler at how small this is) of cortex tissue, it has about a billion synapses in it.

So let’s do some simple math here:

The human cerebral cortex surface area is 100,000 mm2. The depth of the cortex is about 3 mm on average. And 1 mm3 contains about 1 billion synapses.

3 mm x 100,000 mm2 x 1 billion synapses/mm3 = (cancel your units and)

300,000,000,000,000 synapses = 3 x 10^14 synapses

To put this in perspective: There are 7 billion (7×10^9) people on the Earth. That means there are about (3×10^14/1×10^7 =) 10 million synapses per person on the Earth. There are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. This is 3×10^14/3×10^11 = 1000 synapses per star in the Milky Way.

So, there are more synapses in your cerebral cortex (this is just the cortex mind you!) than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy…by a factor of 1000.

So what is the point of all these numbers? It lends credence to the idea that the brain is the most complex system we know of. But it is not just sheer numbers.

One must ask: how are these 3 x 10^14 synapses organized?

Things Within Things Within Things Within Things…
Well, it turns out that it is much more complex than just neurons and synapses. Here is a quick sketch of the hierarchical structural organization of any piece of brain tissue:

Single synapses 0.001 mm Connection between neurons
Synaptic microcircuits 0.01 mm Several synapses form a functional entity
Dendritic subunits Functionally isolated regions of dendritic tree
The whole neuron 0.01-0.1 mm
Triadic circuits (local circuits)      0.3   mm Local interactions of neurons within a region
Bigger local circuits 0.4 – 1 mm Cortical columns ~ 100 neurons
Topographic maps    10   mm Organized based on sensory apparatus
Dedicated regions 100 mm Brodmann areas e.g. area 17, MST, etc.
Interregional pathways 1000 mm The central nervous system

So, you can see, the brain has the structure of “things within things within things within things”, just like our real life does.

I mean, consider: inside your body are your organs. You are inside your house. Your house in on your block or is an apartment in a building on a block. That block is in a neighborhood in a city. That city is in a county. That county is in a State. That State is in a country. The country is on the Earth. The Earth is in the Solar System. The Solar System is in the Milky Way. You get the point.

And the point is, the brain is similarly organized. As you can see from the table above, a single neuron sits in the middle of the structure hierarchy. Imagine you are a synapse, then a neuron would be like the city you are in. And just as some cities are big (New York, Paris, Hong Kong) and some cities are small (Houghton, MI), it is the same with neurons: some are big, some are small.

So, we are in a pretty good position with our modern knowledge to do exactly what Leibniz suggests. Let’s do his thought experiment. Let’s shrink down (or make the brain big enough for us to walk into) and take a tour through the brain tissue and look for consciousness.

Fantastic Voyage
If we shrink to the level of synapses, we see all kinds of molecules floating around, we see neurotransmitters being released, we see little sparks of electricity.

If we go to the synaptic microcircuits, we see little bundles of a dozen synapses all talking to each other like a closed chat session in an online chat program. But again, we see chemicals floating around and little electric sparks being generated.

If we look at the dendrite trees we see something that looks like electricity moving amongst complex tangles of brambles and tree branches. We see little liquid currents and eddies flowing around the branches.

If we look at whole neurons, we see something like what you would see under a microscope: a bunch of cell structures: nuclei, endoplasmic reticulum, etc. Looking down on a cell would probably remind one of looking at a city from a helicopter (except everything would be all clumpy and globby, instead of angular and square).

The neuron cells have electric tree branches extending from them. To watch the neurons talking to each other might be something like seeing millions upon millions of bells hooked together, and over here some of the bells ring, and that causes a group of bells over there to ring, and you would see these complex patterns of bell ringing, moving around through all of these millions of neurons. But replace the idea of bells ringing with flowing electricity and you get a more accurate picture.

So, the local circuits are groups of bells that ring in tandem. Trigger one bell, and all its neighbors start ringing too. It’s kind of like a gossip circle. Get one of the neurons to talk and they all start to gossip amongst themselves.

Again however, in spite of the cute metaphors, these ringing bells and gossiping groups of neurons are all actually the conduction of electricity, the flowing of ions in and out of the cells. And there would be associated with currents eddies of fluid flow both inside and outside of the cells.

When we get to the highest levels of organization, what we see looks something like a computer. There are areas of brain tissue where the neurons are concentrated, but we have backed out so far that we can’t really see the individual neurons. Instead, these areas of concentrated neurons, called gray matter, instead look something like a CPU circuit diagram, and we see super complex patters of electricity flowing in all manner of shapes. And we see the areas of concentrated neurons are connected by wires, the white matter, to other areas of concentrated neurons. We see flowing along these wires pulses of electricity that also make very complex rhythms of pulses flowing along the wires.

So, through our whole Fantastic Voyage in the brain, when we zoom way in and the smallest scales, we see molecules all over the place bouncing around in all these complex ways and forming structures that might remind us of a bizarre blend of modern art and Euclidean geometry.

When we zoom out to the highest levels, the biggest structures, we see nothing but electricity flowing along wires and inside of little circuit boards. And the flowing in one circuit board looks about the same as it does in another circuit board.

Leibniz Wins!
Now, we can go back to Leibniz and ask: where is the consciousness in this fantastic, multi-leveled, multi-layered machine we call the brain?

Did you see any consciousness on our tour just now? I didn’t see any. I just saw things within things within things, flowing, writhing, ringing, conducting electrical patterns within electrical patterns. I saw a lot of stuff that looks like a way over-grown jungle of electrical wires.

But I didn’t see consciousness.

To put the final nail in the coffin, when we look at the area of the brain that makes hearing and we look at the area that makes seeing, we see, overall, the exact same thing: flowing patterns of electricity. The electricity looks exactly the same and is carried out by the same microscopic machinery in both parts of the brain.

However, the patterns of flow themselves are not identical. The shapes of the rivers of electrical flow are a different patterns in the visual and auditory computers, the way the Nile Delta looks different from the Mississippi Delta. But that is about the only difference we can see: the patterns of electrical flow are different in their overall shape and patterns.

So why is it when the visual area “rings”, I see? And when the auditory area “rings” and conducts electricity I hear? Seeing and hearing are the consciousness. Where does that come from? I did not see blue or green, or squares or circles in the flowing electricity. I did not hear the sound of a baby crying, or the sound of a dog barking, or the sound of a violin, I only saw the flowing patterns of electricity.

Where did the consciousness come from?

THIS is the problem these materialists face. This is what THEY must explain if they want us all to believe that this incredible organ, the brain, is somehow like a cotton candy machine. Except instead of making cotton candy, it makes consciousness. This is what these materialists claim. But as yet, exactly as Mr. Tsakiris points out, they have not answered the simple question: where does consciousness start and where does it stop in the brain?

It just shows how dumb these materialists really are. They really have no idea how impossible a task they have set for themselves.

If I was Leibniz today, and, as Leibniz, I knew all the stuff said above, I would turn to these materialists, give them a raspberry and say, “So there! I told you so!”

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