Mind and Brain: Scaling Descartes’ Chinese Wall:
Ever since Cartesian dualism (discussed elsewhere in this blog) was introduced into both science and philosophy, it has been almost impossible to eradicate this false insidious dichotomy and reverse this conceptual corruption of scientific and philosophical discourse. This dualistic view of modern science, derived entirely from the New Science of the Enlightenment, is thoroughly Cartesian with respect to its rigorous methodology demanding the geometric mathematical quantification of all scientific subject matter.
But such a methodology can only study the physical world, the world of res extensa, for only res extensa can lend itself to geometric (i.e., spatially extended) quantification. Indeed, the very essence of res extensa is it geometrical nature. Mind, res cogitans, on the other hand, has no geometrical properties and so cannot, according to the doctrines of the New Science, be studied scientifically.
When res extensa was conceptually enhanced, by the Neo-Cartesians of the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment, to include the properties of simple matter (including its static properties of shape, weight, solidity, and its dynamic properties of rectilinear motion, impenetrability, inertia, momentum, etc.), this only further constrained science to study only the properties of matter, for none of these properties can be found in the phenomena of consciousness, or mental being. This mathematization was the Newtonianization (more generally called the Egyptianization) of science (see Mathematics, Explanation and Reductionism: Exposing the Roots of the Egyptianism of European Civilization by Arran Gare).
After Descartes, the science of mind, psychology, wishing to emulate the so-called ‘hard’ sciences of physics and chemistry, was almost forced to ignore and abandon the idea of mind as a natural faculty of a class of life-forms and ignore and abandon as well the rich array of phenomena unique to consciousness, in order for psychology to be formally studied as a science. Robert Efron, M.D., a neurophysiologist and experimentalist, who deeply and extensively studied consciousness as a natural phenomenon, called this ‘mind-is-brain’ doctrine: ‘Biology without Consciousness.’ Efron’s seminal paper, essentially an epistemological attack on doctrinaire reductionism, and defense of the objectivity of the concept of consciousness is discussed at length below under Mind and Brain: The Epistemological Battle (Efron ¹).
Given the reason-blocking nature of ‘Chinese Wall’ of Cartesianism, it is remarkable to realize Roger W. Sperry’s immence achievement of reaching an original and new ontological understanding of the relationship between mind and brain, between consciousness and its biological basis. Sperry’s new conception of mind (discussed in detail below under A Mentalist Monist Emergence Theory of Mind (Sperry ²) and ) was that consciousness is an emergent reality growing out of the active processes of the nervous system including, most importantly, its interaction with the world outside of the organism. Most importantly, mind and brain causally interact, bidirectionally! This does not imply that mind alters the ontological nature of the brain nor vice-versa, but that they can alter each others states.
I have chosen to feature the works of Sperry and Efron primarily due to the fact that both are widely published neuroscientists with strong practicing backgrounds in experimental neurology, neurophysiology, rather than featuring the works of academic philosophers. Such philosophers certainly occupy an important place in and are necessary intellectual contributors to the philosophy of biology, consciousness and mind. Sperry and Efron also bring two different perspectives to their philosophical/scientific writings. Sperry’s perspective is essentially ontological, Efron’s is essentially epistemological. These two perspectives complement each other and, when combined and integrated, provide a broader view of the nature of mind as a biological phenomenon.
Conceptions of mind as emergent and causally interactively potent continue remain, as they have been for several decades, a long fought battle against the well-entrenched reductionist biologists of the twentieth century who (until very recently) virtually dominated all of biological science.
The battle to understand mind as a real level of existence that can interact causally with lower levels of physical organization, and which is of fundamental causal significance to the being and the very survival of any organism that possesses mind (i.e., consciousness) is both ontological and epistemological. Dr. Sperry took on the ontological problem. Dr. Robert Efron took on the epistemological problem directly and deeply analyzed its nature and significance in his seminal paper: Biology without Consciousness–and it’s Consequences, published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 11, N0. 1, Autumn 1967. In that paper and elsewhere, Efron argues that the current chaos in addressing the problem of mind-body causality and the underlying ontology of the mental as having physical causal efficacy, lies in a fundamental epistemological disorder.
The science of biology suffers from a progressive and potentially fatal epistemological disorder. It is characterized by such profound chaos in the realm of definitions and the logical relationships between concepts that those who suffer from it have lost cognitive contact with reality. — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 9.
What, then are these fundamental scientific concepts that suffer from epistemological malady? One of the most influential and deeply influential is that of psycho-physical (mind-body) reductionism:
One of the most fundamental causes of this disorder is a philosophical principle: It holds that all the phenomena of life will ultimately be reduced to–that is, accounted for, described by, and deduced from–the laws of physics and chemistry. It is known as the “principle of reductionism.”— from Biology without Consciousness, p. 9.
Efron argues that the ontological status of consciousness is an irreducible reality that must be recognized as a causally efficacious phenomenon in the field of biology if we are ever to understand scientifically the behavior of conscious, living beings. For these fundamental reasons, Dr. Efron, in his 1967 paper Biology without Consciousness, and later in his 1968 paper Consciousness: An Irreducible Reality, attacks the principle of materialism and its corollary of materialist reductionism:
The most important premise of the philosophy of materialism which affects the field of biology is the “principle of reduction,” that is, the premise that all the phenomena of life can be accounted for, described by, and deduced from the laws of physics and chemistry. — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 10.
Efron argues that reductionism is the product of smuggling into the science of biology the implicit premise that the science of physics is the study of all of the material world, which means all of the world, qua materialistic. This ad hoc principle, in effect, reduces (by definition not by proof ) all other sciences, including chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, biology, physiology, and, most importantly, psychology.
This principle becomes intelligible only when the traditional definitions of physics and biology are used. Historically, the body of knowledge referred to as “physics” studies the nature and actions of inanimate entities; historically, the body of knowledge referred to as “biology” studies the nature and actions of living entities.
Based upon these more restrictive and accurate definitions, the principle of reduction asserts that every action of a living entity will be accounted for, described by, and deduced from those laws of physics which are entirely derived from a study of inanimate entities; that is, it asserts that there are no fundamentally different principles of action (causal factors) found in living as contrasted to inanimate entities. — from Biology without Consciousnesspp. 10-11
The problem of reducing, by definition and in an ad hoc fashion, all sciences to the science of physics, has been pointed out by other authors in more recent publications.
Suppose the physicalist accepts reduction. It follows that no science other than physics has a distinctive region of entities with their own properties and causal powers, which it is the proper province of that science to investigate. Or, at least, if it is conceded that chemistry, molecular biology, physiology, psychology, etc. have their own work to do, that is merely a convenient division of labour – necessary in our current state of ignorance about how to ‘reduce’ them to physics. But it is not an intrinsic division in the ontological map. In principle, physics is the only science. This position is likely to generate understandable tensions amongst scientists who would like to believe that they are practising different disciplines! — from Physicalism, Emergence and Downward Causation, 3: The Failure of Reductive Physicalism, by Richard J. Campbell and Mark H. Bickhard, 2011, p. 6.
Efron goes on to explain the arbitrary nature of reductionism as essentially a doctrine of “faith” rather than a proven principle of science. This point has also been repeated in recent years, for example, again by Campbell and Bickhard.
More seriously, this position is also more than a little embarrassing. For while reduction treats the psychological (and perhaps the biological) as epiphenomena, physicalists know that Carnap’s program has failed, and they cannot point to any plausible bridging laws that are effective in explaining such phenomena. In the absence of relevant explanations, their doctrine is mere dogma. — from Physicalism, Emergence and Downward Causation, p. 7.
Efron further argues, that if consciousness can be reduced to physics and chemistry, as reductionists claim, then consistency demands that consciousness be studied and a reductionistic program applied. This program can then be shown to either succeed or fail.
Since the reductionist believes that all “laws of consciousness” are at root merely “laws of physics,” he should, if her were consistent, not only grant the existence of consciousness but actively study the phenomena of consciousness as important or unusual manifestations of matter and energy. — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 15.
But, as Efron points out, studying consciousness will not do, for the reductionist has already embraced the doctrine that consciousness, by its very nature, cannot be studied scientifically.
As for why scientists continue to believe, indeed insist on the non-scientific nature of the concept of consciousness, see Cartesian Dualism, which is still alive and well in modern science, and asserts (1) That there exist two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive forms of being (or substances): res extensa (matter) and res cogitans (mind or consciousness). (2) That these to categories of being, by their very nature cannot interact. (3) That moreover, since only res extensa is subject to mathematization, through the application of analytical geometric concepts, and since without mathematics, there is no science. It follows (4) That mind, lacking geometric quantifiability, can never be studied scientifically.
Modern physicalist would add: Moreover, to give mind any kind of causal efficacy would be to deny the universally accepted doctrine that all causality must be traced down to the ‘concrete physical particulars.’ i.e. the actions of the ultimate lowest level ontology of the fundamental infrastructure of matter. Those who denied the exclusivity of upward causality and held that the laws of mind (psychology) and life (biology) were best understood in terms of principles based on downward causality, were overwhelmingly rejected by the physicalist reductionists philosophers of science.
In that context, which pitted the ‘mental’ over against the ‘physical’, there was no shortage of philosophers prepared to embrace a physicalist position with enthusiasm and without any compromises. For these, the only enlightened response to modern science is the hard-headed one: every regularity described in the language of higher levels, including those of biological function and human intentionality, is causally redundant. All the causal work occurs at the fundamental level of concrete physical particulars. According to this program, the role of a philosopher is to explain how the concepts we ordinarily use to describe both ourselves (‘folk psychology’) and the world (‘naïve realism’) can be reconciled with this metaphysical picture. The success of the program in working out, hand-in-hand with scientific research, the details of the required ‘reductions’ would be the vindication of this physicalist ontology. — from Physicalism, Emergence and Downward Causation, p. 1.
Efron points out the contradiction inherent in the reductionist’s premises regarding, on the one hand, the non-scientific nature of the concept of consciousness, and on the other hand that all phenomena of consciousness can be entirely reduced to the laws of physics.
Instead, he usually denies their importance or their significance by claiming that the phenomena of consciousness, by their nature, cannot be studied “scientifically.” If this excuse were valid, then consciousness could never be “explained” by the laws of physics! — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 15.
The Commensurable Unit: A Precondition of Scientific Measurement
Efron points out the fact that scientific study of any class of phenomenon requires the identification of a natural unit of measurement for that phenomenon. For example, heat is measured in calories, current in amperes, charge in coulombs, distance in meters, mass in grams, etc. It is not valid to use a unit of measurement for a phenomenon for which it is not a natural unit, i.e., a unit defined as a given quantity of that property or substance. Thus each unique substance or property of the world must have its own natural units specified before it can be studied scientifically.
Efron makes it clear that unit non-commensurability is the fundamental underlying issue upon which the so-call ‘unscientific’ nature of conscious phenomena is based. The error in the argument from the non-physical measurement of conscious phenomena was that of failing to recognize that every phenomenon in the universe must have its own proper unit (and methods) of measurement, and that each unit is based on a corresponding quantitative unit of the substance property being measured. It is, therefore, patently absurd to argue that a given phenomenon cannot be studied scientifically because it cannot be measured in terms of units that apply to entirely different classes of phenomena. Thus one cannot apply to consciousness the same physical measurement units that one would apply to such physical phenomena as matter and energy. One cannot apply, for example, the unit of measure applicable to the physical property of mass, such as erg, or to electomagnetic energy, such as joule to the properties of consciousness. But this only means that the units of measure of the properties of consciousness must be discovered empirically, as were all of the units of physical measurement.
When they make the claim that “consciousness cannot be measured,’ reductionists are actually referring to the fact that no aspect of conscious experience can be measured in ergs, grams, centimeters, or calories — which is to say that no aspect of attribute of the conscious experience of a living entity can be measured in units appropriate to the attributes of inanimate entities and their actions. — from Biology without Consciousness, pp. 16-17.
It follows directly:
If consciousness cannot be measured in units which are applicable to inanimate entities, it cannot be reduced tho those laws of physics which are expressed in these units. — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 17.
Mind-Brain Identity and Epiphenomenalism
Efron also addresses the arguments of the mind-brain identity theories, who hold that all properties of consciousness are ultimately properties of the active brain, and that, therefore, studying the physical brain will reveal all that is needed to understand the nature and laws of consciousness.
Some reductionistic biologist adopt a different position. They hold that consciousness is identical to, that is, the same as, the physiological and physico-chemical actions of the brain. They believe that the reduction of consciousness to the laws of physics will be achieved when every different or unique conscious state or experience is correlated with particular or unique physico-chemical state of the brain. This position is referred to as a “psycho-neural identity theory.”– from Biology without Consciousness, p. 17.
Efron then points out the fallacy of denying the independent existence of consciousness and at the same time trying to find correlations between conscious and brain phenomena.
In the first place, it is a blatant contradiction to argue that mental states are identical with physico-chemical states and at the same time to maintain that the two can be correlated. To correlate is to compare the occurrence of, or association between, two different existents… — from Biology without Consciousness, p. 17.
Emergence as Universal to Science
Efron does not discuss the concept of emergence, which was not a prominent concept in biology in the 1960’s (as I show in my brief history of concepts underlying the emergence of life). But emergence has since become a fundamental concept embraced by modern science to bridge the doctrine of reductionism and the well-established laws of the non-physics branches of science, especially biology and psychology.
Further, for a reductionist to deny some sort of emergence seems foolhardy – even for a philosopher! Emergence appears to be ubiquitous throughout the world. Just about everything that exists now, which is at least a potential topic of scientific interest, has emerged since the Big Bang. So, any purported scientific model of any phenomenon must be able, at least in principle, to account for the ontological and historical emergence of that phenomenon since the Big Bang. Any model that does not provide such an account has to be reckoned as thereby incomplete. — from Physicalism, Emergence and Downward Causation, p. 7.
Emergence: Downward Causality Without Dualism:
But this broad definition of emergence, is not really the problem. For the physicist will accept emergence conditional on the premise that all causality flows upward from the laws of the underlying infrastructure from which new phenomena emerge. But in its narrower meaning, emergence is about new laws at a higher level of organization which cannot be reduced to the laws of its infrastructure. Thus strong emergence is about the emergence of irreducible laws of nature that manifest themselves at high levels of organization and are not mere manifestations or reflections of the lower level laws of physics. To the reductionist physicalist, this is a serious assertion that cannot be accepted.
On the other hand, accepting emergence, in the sense of higher-level, causally efficacious powers that are not explicable in terms of the lower-level powers of physical constituents, is to give up physicalism. Unless there is some way of explaining how higher-level causal powers are derived from lower-level powers, a physicalist is at a loss to explain how mental events can cause physical changes. It would seem that mental events can be causally efficacious in themselves. For a physicalist, that amounts to embracing dreaded dualism. — from Physicalism, Emergence and Downward Causation, p. 7.
Modern physicists’ fear that abandoning physicalism in favor of emergence must lead back to ‘dreaded dualism’ is not warranted. As Roger W. Sperry has shown in his mentalist monist theory elaborated at the start of this page, it is possible to have a monist ontology that admits consciousness without embracing materialism or dualism.
The view that consciousness (or the mind) is an emergent phenomenon with its own laws and powers to act downward on the brain, and therefore effect the actions of the organism, is a recent theory that is most strongly associated with Roger W. Sperry a world renowned neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize Laureate. Sperry’s position is explicitly not dualist, but does assert the reality of mind, and is therefore, mentalist (asserting that mind has causality). In the abstract of his famous paper on this topic, Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No, (written and published while at the California Institute of Technology, Division of Biology, reproduced in Neuroscience Vol. F, pp. 195-206, Pergamon Press Ltd, 1980), Sperry wrote:
A traditional working hypothesis in neuroscience holds that a complete account of brain function is possible, in principle, in strictly neurophysiological terms without invoking conscious or mental agents; the neural correlates of subjective experience are conceived to exert causal influence but not mental qualities per se. This long established materialist behaviorist principle has been challenged in recent years by the introduction of a modified concept of the mind-brain relation in which consciousness is conceived to be emergent and causal. – Sperry, Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No
So consciousness is emergent and causal, that is to say truly emergent ontologically and not merely epistemologically. It is not merely a conceptual distinction between observed phenomena, categorized according to the genus-species rule of concept formation. It represents a new ontological power of the organism which, qua power, has causal efficacy. But how does this psychological causality work with respect to the physical body of the organism? In other words, how is psychophysics explained in Sperry’s theory?
Psychophysical interaction is explained in terms of the emergence in nesting brain hierarchies of high order, functionally derived, mental properties that interact by laws and principles different from , and not reducible to those of neurophysiology. Reciprocal upward and downward, inter level determination of the mental and neural action is accounted for on these terms without violating the principles of scientific explanation and without reducing the qualities of inner experience to those of physiology. Interaction of mind and brain becomes not only conceivable and scientifically tenable, but more plausible in some respects that were the older parallelist and identity views of the materialist position. – Sperry, Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No
A power emerging from a new level of organization is not itself a new substance. It is still the same substance, the human body (or more accurately, in Aristotelian terms, the human being with its emphasis on the active nature of all being) with its own integrated, self-subsistent nature. So consciousness is part of being human, it is part of the substance of this form of an organism. It is a power of the organism but is not itself a separate substance. Thus Sperry consistently argues that his theory is not dualist (demanding two independent substances: consciousness and matter) but rather monist (representing a single substance, not mere ‘matter’ but the organism, that evolves multiple levels of organization each with its own non-reducible level of causality).
This revised concept of consciousness as causal, with its recognition of mental phenomena as explanatory constructs in science, has brought a marked change during the past decade in the scientific status of consciousness and of mental and cognitive phenomena generally. …Reasons are advanced to show that our latest mind-brain model is fundamentally monistic and not only fails to support dualism, but serves to further discount fading prospects for finding dualist forms or domains of conscious experience not embodied in a functioning brain. – Sperry, Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No, by R. W. Sperry, CIT, Division of Biology, reproduced in Neuroscience Vol. F, pp. 195-206, Pergamon Press Ltd, 1980
Sperry: End of the Science-Value Dichotomy
Sperry’s theory of the causal efficacy of consciousness ends the historic debate about the place and significance of human values in a world of scientific facts. Writing about the ‘cognitive revolution in psychology,’ Sperry writes enthusiastically about the end of this dichotomy:
Among further effects, this turnabout in the causal status of consciousness abolishes the traditional science- values dichotomy. That we are in a new era today in respect to values is well recognized (Edel, 1980). Thus, the cognitive revolution, from an ethical standpoint, might equally well have been called a values revolution. The old, value-free, strictly objective, mindless, quantitative, atomistic descriptions of materialist science are being replaced by accounts that recognize the rich, irreducible, varied and valued emergent macro and holistic properties and qualities in both human and nonhuman nature. Subjective human values, no longer written off as ineffectual epiphenomena nor reduced to microphenomena, become the most critically powerful force shaping today’s civilized world (Sperry, 1972, 1991a), the underlying answer to current global ills and the key to world change. from R. W. Sperry, The Impact and Promise of the Cognitive Revolution, p. 879.
Sperry: End of the Denial of Volitional Efficacy
In addition to the end of the fact/value dichotomy, Sperry argues that the revolution in cognitive psychology also ends the denial of the efficacy and causal power of the faculty of human volition and free will:
A different approach is opened also and a resolution offered for that age-old enigma, the freewill-determinism paradox. Blending previous opposites in a heterodox middle-way position, the new cognitivism retains both free will and determinism, each reconceived in modified form and integrated in a way that preserves moral re- sponsibility (Deci, 1980;Libet, 1992; Sperry, 1964, 1970). Volition remains causally determined but no longer en- tirely subject to the inexorable physiochemical laws of neurocellular activation. These lower level laws become supervened by higher level controls of the subjective con- scious self in which they are embedded (just as, intro- spectively, it seems to be). The implications become crit- ical for a scientific treatment of personal agency and social interaction (Bandura, 1989; Smith, 1983). from R. W. Sperry, The Impact and Promise of the Cognitive Revolution, p. 879
Sperry and Aristotle: A Needed Unification
Apparently without realizing it, Sperry’s theory of conscious vis-a-vis the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ is a application of Aristotle’s theory that mind and body exist as a single unified substance, where mind (the soul) has the power to both respond to and to regulate the general behavior of matter (the body) and as a faculty possessing free will, to guide the individual in the discovery of values and practice of morality.
Because Sperry, in his mentalist monist theory of consciousness, implicitly but not explicitly references the Aristotelian concept of substance, in this case the substance of the human as a unified being of mind and body, Sperry was and continues to be entirely misunderstood by his contemporaries in both neuroscience and philosophy of science. This misunderstanding is partially if not entirely the consequence of the powerful but fallacious mind-matter dualism of Rene Descartes, with its denial of Aristotle’s concept of substance, and the doctrine of res extensa as the only object of science, which has dominated Western science and its philosophy for over 350 years and still dominates all attempts to solve the mind-body problem in the modern world.
Mind: The Hierarchical Nature of Consciousness
The layered nature of high-level of emergent processes, can be best understood by studying our own levels of consciousness. Consciousness is not all or nothing. We all have different layered levels of consciousness that we may pass through during the day, and under special traumatic circumstances (such as regaining full consciousness after total loss of consciousness as a result of a concussion, for example).
The more common form of experiencing consciousness layering occurs whenever we ‘fall’ asleep or awaken from sleep. During sleep we are at a dramatically lower level of conscious awareness. We lose contact with our immediate surroundings, begin to dream (allowing our creative subconscious mind to imagine and ‘play-out’ mental scenarios, sometimes causing us to move our bodies in response to dramatic dreamed conflicts. But universally, we ‘watch’ our dreams as we sleep. This (as far as we can tell) is the true basis of the rapid eye movement (or REM) that is observed during dreaming. Research has shown that when a subject is awakened from REM sleep, he always reports that he/she was dreaming at that time. (See Why Do We Dream? by Joe Griffin et al. 2007. Though valuable for understanding REM sleep, bioperipatetic does not agree with all of the conclusions of this paper. ) During deeper sleep, we do not dream and are harder to awaken. No one knows why we must sleep, nor why we must dream, but we know that deprivation of either will cause mental and physiological ill effects. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that higher-level vertebrate mammals, such as dogs and cats, also sleep. If you have a dog, for example, you may have noticed its eye movements, growling or whimpering, and paw movements during sleep. This is most probably due to the animal being in REM sleep, and having its own level of dream experiences. It is also interesting to note that for neonates “Sucking is frequently seen during REM periods.” (quoted from Sleep, Dreams, and Arousal by Edward J. Murray of Syracuse University, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965, p. 299)
More dramatic is the what happens when we suddenly lose consciousness either from fainting (as a result of sudden drop in blood pressure) or from a traumatic blow to the head. If this has ever happened to you, you may have noticed, as I have when recovering from ‘passing out.’ That my consciousness returns in a gradual layered way. First I am aware that there is something out there, without being quite aware that the out-there is in contrast with the ‘in-here, and have, in that respect, no clear view of myself as a conscious being. Soon the out-there begins to make ‘sense’ and its order is perceived. I then gradually become aware that I am the counter-pole of this experience of inner-outer as self-world. Then I gradually became aware that I was someone but could not get yet ‘who’ I was. Then I am able to understand words, conversation and can then think in words and mentally ‘bring’ myself gradually up the the level of full consciousness.
This scenario tells us that we can be conscious to some degree, actually at some level, and not yet conscious at another higher level. So consciousness is not all or nothing. There is first the lowest level of consciousness that tells us the simple fact that there is something out-there. Then that there is something (actually some one) in here. Now we have achieve the simple bipolar state of simple awareness: ‘I am aware of something and that something stands in some relationship to me.’ At the next level, consciousness achieves a primitive ego (sense of self versus world) however limited. To achieve even this low level of consciousness is still to be a conscious being. The next level of consciousness is one of active exploration or our ‘world’ to discover both its limits and its nature as well as our limits and nature relative to our ‘world’.
Consciousness: Its Constraints and Efficiencies
Not only does consciousness exist as a psychological hierarchy of nested levels of capabilities or powers, it also exists as a hierarchy of potentialities. By this I mean that what we are conscious of at any moment reflects only the actualization of a particular level of consciousness. We can, however, activate and actualize higher levels of consciousness depending on the demands for performance in a given real-world context.
To use an example suggested by Koestler, when we are expert at the skills of driving, we may spend most of our driving time largely unconscious of ‘what we are doing’ as we drive. We have, in effect, automated our responses to the typical driving conditions. But when we sense that we are in a ‘tight’ or ‘dangerous’ situation on the road, our automatic responses are quickly overridden by our conscious control over such situations as we carefully and consciously navigate our way through the crisis. This phenomenon is a dramatic example of how downward casualty overrides certain aspects of lower-level automated processes without altering their causal or ontological nature. For lower-level powers can re-emerge (re-actualize) when the higher-level processes are no-longer needed in a given situation or functional context. In sum, cognitive automation is necessary, but not sufficient, for biological survival and efficient mind-body regulation.
Thus automation is an important ‘strategy’ and capability of our mental capacity as conscious beings. Our minds at any moment can handle simultaneously only a handful of unique facts or demands. This is the theme of a journal article by George A. Miller, entitled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information, first published in Psychological Review, 63, 81-97. In his paper, Miller writes:
Let me summarize the situation in this way. There is a clear and definite limit to the accuracy with which we can identify absolutely the magnitude of a unidimensional stimulus variable. I would propose to call this limit the span of absolute judgment, and I maintain that for unidimensional judgments this span is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of seven. – from The Magical Number Seven, p. 89.
What Miller says in his paper is that when the mind is presented with multiple stimuli which have no obvious dimensional relationships, and are thus perceived as distinct or unique in a given context, the mind can at most distinguish or identify about seven of such stimuli (or objects). But when there is some dimensional property against which the stimuli can be relationally mapped, the subject does far better. And this improves with learning and practice. Thus a non-musician when asked to identify one of five tones (for example) he can succeed, but if the number increases beyond seven or nine, the subject begins to fail as the number increases. Yet a trained musician can easily identify a hundred or more tones (or notes) and produce them on demand. This is sometimes called ‘having perfect pitch.’ In the summary of his paper, Miller draws the following primary conclusion:
First, the span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember. By organizing the stimulus input simultaneously into several dimensions and successively into a sequence of chunks, we manage to break (or at least stretch) this informational bottleneck. – from The Magical Number Seven, p. 97.
Consciousness and Musical Performance
We can all do this to some extent, i.e., reproduce a tone on demand, such as when we whistle a tune, but only after a long period of practice in which we learn to both make the whistling sound and automatically select the appropriate shape and position of our lips and tongue to produce the desired tone (or note). Have you ever asked yourself, how it is that you can whistle a tune? How exactly do we know which complex shape of the lips, position of the tongue, control of the breath to combine to produce the exact note that we want? To me it is amazing! Yet we can do it. This is the power of learning and automation. We learn and then automate the relationship between the sound ‘in our head’, the mechanics or lips, tongue and breath, and the resultant tone that we hear and that matches the tone we hear in our head! Yet this automation process is absolutely necessary if we are to overcome the ‘magic number seven’ in all fields of study and skill. How is this stored and how is it instantly retrieved? We do not know for sure. But it must include some mechanism for rapid classification and recall.
Consciousness and Language Achievement
Certainly this is what is happening when, as children, we rapidly learn our first language. Yet language goes beyond the problem of the ‘magic number seven’ for it is more than a system of unique phonemes (or graphemes) it included the capacity to understand referents, that is, the capacity to hold phonemes (or sequences of these) as words, as things that ‘stand for’ or ‘mean’ something that they themselves intrinsically clearly are not, for they are intrinsically only unique sounds.
But language is itself yet another level in the hierarchy of cognitive capacities, a level (so far as we know) that is only possible for humans. We must never take this level of cognitive capacity for granted, for it requires in each of us a cognitive ‘breakthrough’ a sudden leap to a new level of cognitive functioning. It is the ultimate example of emergent cognitive powers of consciousness.
Let us take just one example of this breakthrough to see the drama and amazing achievement that it represents. I am talking about the story in ‘The Miracle Worker’. In my bioperipatetic article entitled ‘Emergence of Language‘ I wrote about the amazing achievement of language as a cognitive level of functioning:
The language breakthrough is dramatically illustrated in the beautiful first scene of act three of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, wherein Helen (the deaf and blind child) suddenly ‘gets’ that the finger patterns pressed against here hand by her teacher Annie Sullivan, are not mere playful shapes, but rather signs that stand for things, things that have nothing to do with fingers! Watch this beautifully acted scene from the movie The Miracle Worker. Which shows so dramatically and beautifully the miraculous breakthrough from the perceptual world of concretes to the world of language and what that capacity opens to man’s understanding of himself and of the universe!
I also pointed out in that article:
Achieving the abstract attitude underlies the emergence of true language development, the ability to grasp a whole new category of existents, the category of symbols. Symbols are, at the level of perception, merely concrete shapes, and nothing more. With the breakthrough to the conceptual level of consciousness, symbols are grasped as objects that ‘stand for’ or ‘mean’ or ‘refer to’ other objects of a given class. This breakthrough is not a case of operant conditioning in which an event or visual cue is paired with a reward or punishment, which any mammal can learn to respond to appropriately. On the contrary, this breakthrough, which is possible only to humans (as far as we know) is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. It does not represent a cognitive achievement of gradual awareness on a continuum (as in the case of unfocused to focused vision, for example, or gradual operant conditioning, the conditioned learning of concrete associations between perceptual events) but rather, as with all emergent phenomena, a fundamental discontinuous break with its foundational level or sub-hierarchy, in this case, the merely perceptual level of cognition.
References (in order of citation):
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1. You can find many of Robert Efron’s scientific research papers listed on PubMed.
2. You can find many of Roger W. Sperry’s scientific research papers listed on PubMed.
First published on: Aug 17, 2014 @ 11:16
Latest Revision: August 1, 2017 @ 11:09 am
NOTE: A reorganization of the original Aug 17,2014 paper
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