III Publishing

Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Edelman on Consciousness
November 21, 2018
by William P. Meyers

Site Search

Also sponsored by Earth Pendant at PeacefulJewelry

Popular pages:

U.S. War Against Asia
Democratic Party
Republican Party
Natural Liberation

Rival Philosophies of Consciousness

A couple of weeks ago I began reading The Remembered Present, a Biological Theory of Consciousness by Gerald M. Edelman. It had been on my to-read list for a while, since I saw it mentioned in Life Ascending, the Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane a few months back.

Since I was a teen (in the 1960s) I have occasionally contemplated how the brain might give rise to consciousness, with not too much success over the years. Partly I think my failure has to do with prioritizing computers and artificial intelligence over studying neurology. For instance, the course I took in Neural Networks at UCSD and the course in AI I took from Stanford, while wonderful in themselves, did not advance my understanding of this science and philosophy problem much.

The Remembered Present is a very tough read for me. It assumes a better knowledge of brain anatomy and neurology than I possessed when I began (I have been backfilling using Wikipedia).

Easier to read, at least for me, is a book that I have now read for the second time. It is a history book with a lot of philosophy in it: The Jew Of Linz by Kimberley Cornish. It is about a twentieth century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his adversarial relationship to the most famous person of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler. It also puts considerable focus on the issue of consciousness.

Both Hitler and Wittgenstein went to the same school in the small Austrian City of Linz in 1904. Wittgenstein is Cornish's Jew, and he argues Wittgenstein was Hitler's Jew as well. Actually, the Wittgenstein family had converted to Roman Catholicism (which Cornish calls Christianity) at least two generations earlier. Like little Adolf, little Ludwig was instructed in Catholicism, attended mass regularly as a child, and was an altar boy. Ludwig even considered becoming a priest. So both boys were Catholic when they were in school together. They both would have been 15 (born a few days apart in April 1889), though they were at differing grade levels.

To the point of this essay, Cornish claims that Wittgenstein and Hitler both shared a Philosophy of Mind derived from Arthur Schopenhauer but interpreted in different ways. That theory of mind stands as a counterpoint to Edelman's viewpoint.

I don't find Cornish's arguments convincing, though I don't dispute his facts about the biographies of his two subjects. I don't think either Hitler or Wittgenstein did anything more than flirt with the concept that there is a Universal Mind which sees the world through the window of human consciousness. I don't think Wittgenstein headed a Russian spy ring in England. I don't think Hitler believed in magic or that he was a pagan. There is plenty of evidence that Hitler thought Teutonic mythology was bullshit, just a prop for German nationalism and a nod to a relatively few Nazis who obsessed on it. Cornish builds his arguments on a thin scattering of quotes. Hitler, for one, was a non-stop talker who often contradicted himself and at times said what he thought would go over with a particular listener. Hitler repeatedly stated, throughout his life, that he was Roman Catholic and his death certificate lists him as Catholic. Wittgenstein sometimes called himself a Jew, but was buried in a Catholic ceremony.

Disclaimer: I write about financial topics, and so unlike philosophers, I have learned the importance of disclaimers. Like Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I was raised Roman Catholic and served as altar boy. I rejected the Church at the age of 15 and stopped attending mass when I escaped parental control when I was 17 years old. I passed enough philosophy courses to major in it at college, but I took a major in Political Science instead.

The Bad Model: Many Little, or One Big Soul

The words "consciousness," "awareness," and "soul" are interrelated. Not only do different people use them in ways that are sometimes interchangeable, but different people may use any one of them somewhat differently than other people. This is true of professional philosophers and neuroscientists too. Wittgenstein spent much of his later life showing how careless use of language can lead to erroneous philosophic conclusions. Nevertheless, I will assume that no one would be reading this unless they were conscious and interested in the nature of consciousness. Further more, I believe most people are no more likely to mistake consciousness for unconsciousness than to mistake a tree for a boulder. It is the complexity of consciousness that makes it a difficult topic to get agreement on.

Kimberley Cornish makes clear that he believes that the universe is essentially one big soul, and that he believes both Wittgenstein and Hitler subscribed to this view, following Schopenhauer. This can be contrasted both with the materialist view of consciousness and the more common western religious and philosophical stance that there is a material world with minds or souls that look out of humans to see the world, and God or gods off somewhere pulling the strings or not.

The difficulty of both scientific and philosophic (analytic) attempts to understand consciousness often has led people to posit a non-material awareness (or soul or God) that itself is beyond analysis. While I disagree with Cornish about his evidence that Wittgenstein and Hitler made this error, it is certainly common to many philosophies and religions, including the philosophy of Schopenhauer, all the dualists (by definition a dualist separates body from mind) and at least some of the Hindu and Buddhist schools

Bad analysis can lead an otherwise smart person to a dualist view. The world or universe is complicated, and there are many tools for analysis. Start with certain aspects of the world, use certain modes of analysis, keep your blinders on, and pretty soon you might arrive at solipsism, the idea that nothing exists but the conscious self, and that all things that appear to exist are manifestations of oneself. Another direction easy to take is Dualism, or the Cartesian (see Rene Descartes) view that the world is material but the human mind has properties of its own that cannot be reduced to material.

Rather than making a prolonged criticism of this set of essentially spiritualist views, I will point out a few big picture problems with it for readers who have not yet studied philosophy.

There is the infant development problem: why to infants need parents or other humans to learn language and thought, if infants come endowed with consciousness that is a window for the universal Soul? There is the slap in the face problem, particularly for the solipsistic take on minds: why would a Soul need to slap itself (using an outside human, like a Zen master) in the face to make it realize the nature of self? And finally, there is the whole body of science, particularly the geological record and Evolution. Why were there not humans a hundred million years ago? If a Soul makes the world, why did it take so god damn long?

In other words, in the current context, the position of Cornish and his ilk is not much different than Creationism. It is lazy theology and philosophy and science.

The good try: How the Brain Creates Consciousness

That is why I love Gerald Edelman's attempt to build a material theory of consciousness in The Remembered Present.

The idea that the brain in the seat of consciousness is not new. Breath a bit of chloroform and boom, consciousness is gone, presumably because of the affect of chloroform on the brain. I have tried it, it isn't just an old wives' tale.

The fact that there is an off switch does not mean a mechanism is simple. I know of no device as complicated as the human brain. If you could start counting the synapses in your head at birth you could not possibly finish counting them all by the time you age out of existence.

Edelman does not prove his point, but he makes a lot of interesting observations in its favor.

Degrees of consciousness are allowed. Self-consciousness is layered on simpler forms of interaction between brains (say of mammals or apes) and the environment.

The human brain is the result of a long period of evolution. And some of it, parts and neural pathways, evolved relatively recently. I don't know which came first, tool making or language, but once those became part of human culture, individual variations in brains became advantageous if they enabled better tool making or communications.

Even lizards have parts of the brain monitoring their internal states, notably hunger. Mammals and apes monitor the position of their limbs. All of that gives a sense of self.

The ability to compare the internal states of the body to what is happening in the external world has real evolutionary advantages even without tools and language. Some part of the brain must know where the tongue, vocal cord and lips are in order to make speech. All these subsystems are in near constant communication with each other, and there are feedback loops (which can be reentrant, which is a term Edelman uses a lot, but which is beyond the scope of this essay).

Humans added a much bigger cerebral cortex to the brains of our ape ancestors, but we also have more developed areas that deal with all the internals, and specialized areas that allow for speech and for comprehension of language.

Edelman emphasizes that there is a lot of randomness at play. Our genes may lay down a general pattern for our brains, but even if there are two people with identical genes our brains, even before we are born, are not identical, in the sense of the exact locations of nerve cells and their synapses being predetermined. There is a growth process that adds some randomness. As soon as we are exposed to the environment our brains start strengthening or weakening synapses, which can amplify (or not) the particulars of the nerve cells. Thus everyone will learn the word "mother" (or the equivalent in their language), but the concept, the hearing of it, and the ability to pronounce the word could be on somewhat different sets of synapses.

So what about human consciousness? We tend to think about it wrong. We tend to see it as something passive, a watching of what goes on in the world, from our own internal sensations to the brightly colored garden of a sunny day. The most common metaphor used is that the eyes are a window to the world. But a human possesses the eyes that see out a real window, and the metaphor thought through just leads us to a series of homunculi. What I want, what anyone interested in the subject should want, is the nature of the homunculus, the mechanism of consciousness.

Consciousness, as I gather from Edelman, is an activity. It is a bustle of activity. It takes a lot of goings on to write an essay, be aware of the basically 4 dimensional world we live in and listen to the Zombies at the same time. Billions of neurons and trillions of synapses are at work.

Still, despite my improved understanding, I don't see how it can all work. How do all those parts amount to my experience and sense of self?

Lots of true things are complicated. The evolution of life is a good example. Refusing to believe something just because it is complicated (or believing in something just because it is complicated) is just laziness.

I believe the people who read this essay are conscious of themselves and of the same world I live in.

Edelman makes a good try at a physical theory of consciousness. I am encouraged, but not convinced. More scientific work is needed.

A popular culture book of Edelman's theories, A Universe of Consciousness, is also available.

III Blog list of articles