Human consciousness is by far the biggest mystery in the universe. We can be pretty sure that a researcher bold enough to claim to have found simple answer is mistaken. A recent study out of Tel Aviv University dramatically illustrates the problems we face. The researchers, focusing on the methods of study (methodological choices) that consciousness researchers from various schools of thought chose, found that a computer program could predict their results with 80% accuracy.
That wasn’t supposed to happen:
“The big question is how consciousness is born out of activity in the brain, or what distinguishes between conscious processing and unconscious processing,” Prof Mudrik explains. “For example, if I see a red rose, my visual system processes the information and reports that there is a red stimulus in front of me. But what allows me—unlike a computer for example—to experience this color? To know how it feels? In recent years, a number of neuroscientific theories have been proposed to explain how conscious experience arises from neural activity. And although the theories provide utterly different explanations, each of them was able to gather empirical evidence to justify itself, based on multiple experiments that were conducted. We reexamined all these experiments, and showed that the parameters of the experiment actually determine its results. The artificial intelligence we used knew how to predict with an 80% success rate which theory the experiment would support, based solely on the researchers’ methodological choices.”Tel-Aviv University, “The nature of consciousness experiments found to largely determine their results” at Medical Xpress(March 16, 2022)
The research analyzed 412 studies that were designed to test the four leading theories — Global Workspace Theory (GWT), Higher Order Thought Theory, Recurrent Processing Theory, and Integrated Information Theory (IIT). The paper requires a subscription.
“Each of these theories offers convincing experiments to support them, so the field is polarized, with no agreed-upon neuroscientific account of consciousness,” says Prof. Mudrik.Tel-Aviv University, “The nature of consciousness experiments found to largely determine their results” at Medical Xpress (March 16, 2022)
Here’s an example of this type of problem: Suppose teams of researchers are studying whether humans have an innate preference for big vs. small dogs. One team believes that humans evolved to prefer big dogs because they helped early man hunt. The other team believes that humans are psychologically adapted to prefer dogs they can dominate, thus they will innately prefer small dogs. As it happens, the first team researches dog choices in rural areas where sport hunting is an important industry. The second team researches dog choices in urban areas with a high population of seniors living in condos and rental apartments. Both groups could publish research showing that their theory accounts for the evidence. But a computer program might predict, with eighty percent accuracy, what each group’s findings will be…
Professor Mudrik notes that advances in science tend to come from refuting theories rather than accumulating evidence for them:
“Another one of our findings was that the vast majority of the experiments we analyzed supported the theories, rather than challenging them. There appears to be a built-in confirmation bias in our scientific praxis, though the philosopher of science Karl Popper said that science advances by refuting theories, not by confirming them,” adds Prof. Mudrik.Tel-Aviv University, “The nature of consciousness experiments found to largely determine their results” at Medical Xpress(March 16, 2022)
One of many famous examples of a refuted theory was the “planet Vulcan”:
A small planet that was supposed to exist in an orbit between Mercury and the Sun, French mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier coined the name “Vulcan” while trying to explain the nature of Mercury’s orbit. No such planet was ever discovered, while the orbit of Mercury was explained in detail by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.[name], “10 Most Famous Scientific Theories That Were Later Debunked” at Famous Scientists
Of course, Vulcan was not nearly as big or complex a conundrum as consciousness. But in the process of showing that Vulcan is not needed to account for Mercury’s orbit, Einstein advanced our understanding of our universe in many ways. Had he simply accumulated more “evidence” for the necessity of Vulcan, he would not have helped nearly so much.
Here are three facts about consciousness to ponder:
We might have expected human consciousness to “reside” in the specifically human part of the brain, the cerebral cortex. But, in a recent discussion, neuropsychologist Mark Solms and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor agreed that it is more likely associated in some way with the brain stem, a part of the brain we share with fishes.
Some scientists think that consciousness persists after death. In some cases, people suddenly gain considerable awareness about their lives just before death. Others have some form of awareness even during when apparently unconscious.
Lastly, near-death experiences — where consciousness persists for some time while a person is clinically dead — are recounted much more frequently now than in past eras because physicians can bring patients back from various states of death. Many of the near-death experiences reported in recent decades are hard to account for on a purely materialist basis so even agnostic physicians consider the possibility that consciousness is not entirely dependent on the physical body.
The whole area is very much a frontier.