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Review of A Universe of Consciousness
How Matter Becomes Imagination
by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi
December 24, 2018
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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How does a material brain generate consciousness?

It is complicated. Very, very complicated. No, more complicated than that.

Faced with complicated facts, most people, of necessity, simplify. Often down to a yes or a no.

When thinking about consciousness the simple choices are: One, its in the brain, leave it at that; and Two, it is not a material phenomena, so call it a soul, spirit, or mental phenomena, not a neural.

In philosophy, the first simple choice is called realism or materialism. The second choice is called dualism.

Edelman and Tononi take the issue seriously, delving into the complications of the scientific viewpoint that consciousness must be generated in the brain by the neurons of the brain. They admit there is still much to be learned even as they make their case.

A Universe of Consciousness was published in 2000. Why am I writing about it just now? Because I just now read it. While it sold reasonably well in 2000, the issues are still with us. We live in a world where irrational thought is being promoted as the best decision making process and where the main form of simplification amounts to just plain lying. I believe people in general should know more about philosophy, history, economics, and science. We rely our brains to sort the world out. We should all make an attempt to understand how we work.

Gerald Edelman won a Nobel Prize for his work in immunology. Prior to the reviewed book, which is geared to a general, but scientifically literate, audience, he wrote three others on the subject. I started by reading The Remembered Present, which was a difficult read. The two others are Neural Darwinism and Topobiology. I can certainly recommend reading Universe first, then the others if you want more detail.

The authors believe that to some extent there are degrees of consciousness, with lower animal being essentially unconscious but capable to reacting to their environmental. Vertebrates and especially mammals have what they call primary consciousness. Humans have higher-order consciousness. Thus consciousness can be seen as something constructed by Darwinian evolution. The more conscious an animal, the better it is able to respond to its environment, survive, and reproduce. Areas of the brain that differ from other apes have been developed to better handle tools, planning, and social interactions. These brain areas, interacting with the world including other speaking, tool-using humans, enable the brain to construct what we call consciousness, a model of our immediate surroundings and extended world that is continuous in time, except when we are sleeping.

That idea is not new, it certainly has precedents before Darwin and William James. But how do our brains do this, in detail? Most of the book describes the details as shown by neurologists and psychologists.

One complexity I agree with is that we often use metaphors or analogies that are wrong when we think about ourselves. For instance, we tend to think that memories in our brains are like the kinds of memory technologies we use. One example is visual memory, which we tend to think of as a picture or painting. So we might think that our brain records what we see like a photograph or movie camera. If you know that the flexible elements of the brain are the synapses between nerve cells, you might think that a particular set of synapses replicates a visual scene. But examination reveals the brain's memory is nonrepresentational. Remembering (knowing) how to throw a ball is not a picture that has instructions that we follow when we want to throw a ball. The parts of the brain, and their communicating neurons have very complicated relationships. Perhaps painting a picture, which is a long process, is a better analogy for what happens when we commit something visual to memory. But when we remember it, we do not use some inner eye to see the painting: we repaint it.

I was walking my dog and wife through the cemetery and took a moment to marvel at how what I was conscious of, when I took in the general scene, was not at all like a picture or movie. It was a complicated, basically 3D world, and I was walking through it, easy as icing a cake. That is what consciousness allows us to do. There was little danger in the cemetery, nor was I there to gather anything, but my hunter gatherer ancestors would quickly become conscious of, perhaps, a dangerous predator or source of food. Automatically. Because in a certain sense most of the conscious present is being conjured up from a few hints form the eyes and ears and our innate ability to know where the parts of our bodies are. These are related to non-representational memories: that is a tree, the asphalt in front of me is safe to walk on, that is a row of gravestones and if I want I can stop at each ones and read the names of people who once lived.

It is a long book. There were statements in it that I am not sure I agree with. If you don't know what a homunculus is, read the link before you start the book. There are a lot of parts of the brain and their interactions to learn, but fortunately we are mostly spared the details of neurochemistry and workings of synapses and neurons.

You can also see why the current approach to AI is so seriously limited. The AI of today is levels of complexity down from the human brain. If the authors are right about the complexity required to create consciousness, we are at least a century away from being able to build a conscious AI.

I do believe the overall argument of the book is strong. But until the details of consciousness are pinned down, and can be explained to the (hopefully) average human being of the future who has a strong background in biology, there will be plenty of room for theologians and dualist philosophers to run amok.

I will be treating specifics of the argument, and their relationship to philosophy and real-world decision making, in my regular blog entries.

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