So, I recently got in a bit of a..... lets say conversation, with a particularly cute biology/ philosophy student, upon the subject of consciousness.... the following is the transcript:
well... what are your thoughts on consciousness..... purely chemical, or something else?
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Q: Consciousness is... A: A good topic for debate; my answer is too long. Explanation: “Let's talk about it!”
Haha - alright, here it goes (sorry if it gets super long and abstract. Philosophers. Jeez.)!
To be honest, I'm not totally sure. There's definitely some component of chemistry there, but chemistry can't be all there is to consciousness, can it? How we interpret what we sense adds another layer to the problem.
If everyone were guaranteed to interpret the world in the same way, then yes, consciousness would come down to a series of cause/effect relationships based on neurochemistry. But we don't all interpret the world the same way, making my consciousness different than yours. I suppose even the way we react to the same stimulus might depend on brain chemistry or the activation of a different neural pathway in response to registration of the stimulus in the brain. For example, we both see the same apple and it triggers the visual pathway in the same way. But once the signal hits the visual cortex, for me it activates different memory pathways than you, since we have different experiences with apples. So it could still ultimately be explained by chemistry.
Despite that, the specific memory pathway that ends up being activated in response to the apple still comes from outside us. That is, the formation of the path depends on our experiences. And while in some sense we might be said to own or be able to control our brain chemistry, many of our experience are beyond our control. So in that sense, consciousness is a summation of experiences.
But it's more likely a combination of the two. I think that who we are transcends chemistry, since chemical reactions are not the same thing as perception and understanding. That is, if you took the required cells out of my brain and stimulated them in the same way as if you showed me an apple, the brain cells in the petri dish wouldn't understand that what is in front of it is an apple. That depends on my experiences with apples and an integration of what I see with my memory. At the same time, the chemical signals and anatomical architecture of my brain are required for any of that transcendent stuff to happen. So I think it's really a combination of biology and experience, spirituality, instinct, etc.
What do you think?
As a biologist, as well as a skeptic and a naturalist, I have yet to see anything beyond the biochemical (and anatomic, which is simply biochemical on mass) to explain consciousness. That being said, I am certainly open to the idea (true skepticism must include self skepticism).
I do agree that everyone's consciousness is different, and that it is constantly changing, but I will posit that instead that the difference in consciousness is a result of new experiences, but also that experiences are experienced by a consciousness. As a result of this, you have a very dynamic, changing ordeal.
Which I find to be one of the most beautiful things imaginable...
That being said, I have yet to see anything that really transcends the chemical world. For instance, in work done with with the Koren helmet, people have described amazing, religious, or even nightmarish things, yet it was all due to electro-magnetic manipulation... beyond that, the fact that our consciousness can be affected chemically, without our knowledge by things like caffeine and ketamine, leads me to believe that that we are simply a dynamic, constantly changing, complexly firing, mush of brain cells....
That being said, you built a very nice argument.... Sorry it took so long to get back to you... (life is kicking my ass right now)