Are We `Nothing but a Pack of Neurons?'

© 1995 Don Watson

(Reprinted from Telicom XI, 25: 62, Feb, 1995

On rare occasions, a distinguished scientist from one discipline shifts attention to make a significant contribution in a different field. Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" is decidedly not one of these contributions ("Taking an Inward Look: A Scientific Search for the Soul," Telicom, October, 1994).

The hypothesis in question is the materialist view that consciousness is a mere by-product of neural activity within the brain--labeled an epiphenomenon by William James more than a century ago. Crick characterizes the hypothesis as astonishing because most people would find alien the idea that "You're nothing but a pack of neurons." Perhaps this is true, but it is far more astonishing that reputable scientists could interpret modern neuroscience research to support the hypothesis.

Neuroscience research does not apply to the question of consciousness. To demonstrate this, I provide a critique of Crick's argument, then share a few notes about my own odyssey to find the nature of consciousness.

In the title of his synopsis, Crick uses the adjective, scientific. It turns out, understanding his meaning of this term is key to understanding the epiphenomenon hypothesis.

Scientific qualifies obtaining knowledge of the natural universe by applying the empirical method: that is, by relying on experience (observation). In contrast, knowledge obtained by the rational (axiomatic) method derives from pure reason, and its axioms and their implications are not subject to testing by experience. In other words, scientific knowledge is distinguished from religious, political, and literary knowledge by its testability a posteriori.

Because remarkably few persons distinguish a priori from a posteriori methods, the adjective scientific has come to identify the products and properties of the social institution labeled "science." Of course, this definition is tautological, so it is ironic that "scientists" adopt this colloquial usage. By self-reference, members of this subculture consider themselves scientists, and whatever they do, they label "science." I term this subculture ethnic science.

Like members of any ethnic group, ethnic scientists are trained to limit their thinking and behavior to narrowly defined, socially prescribed beliefs, rituals, customs, and linguistic forms (jargon). For conformity, they are rewarded with salaries, prestige, promotions, and tenure. For nonconformity, they are punished with professional shunning. Clearly, ethnic science is not an environment conducive to original thought.

As social animals, all humans are subject to ethnic influences. And though remarkable scientific originality typically occurs outside the boundaries of ethnic science, they are never free of any ethnic influence. For example, the work of Albert Einstein illustrates the interplay of ethnicity and discovery in three ways: First, with his mind free from contemporary ethnic beliefs, he accomplished his seminal works on light quanta and special relativity while working in a Swiss patent office. Second, although Einstein himself remained outside the boundaries of ethnic science, he felt the suffocating effects of ethnicity when his theories were relentlessly attacked in the 1920s by the German physicists Stark and Lenard, the would-be founders of Aryan physics. And third, his own nonscientific ethnic beliefs compelled him to reject the uncertainty of quantum mechanics: "God does not throw dice."

As Einstein disregarded the belief of then-ethnic physics in the luminiferous ether to consider the propagation of light, we must approach the question of consciousness from outside contemporary ethnic neuroscience, for thinking within this subculture is constrained by faith in heuristics that require objective, reductionist methodologies. The problem is, these methods do not apply to observed data concerning consciousness (self-awareness), for these data are holistic and subjective.

There is no justification for limiting the boundaries of the empirical method to objective observations. Indeed, without self-awareness, there would be no observation, no abstract thought--and no science. Nevertheless, to avoid subjectivity and to reduce consciousness to an ethnically acceptable topic of research, conventional neuroscientists have resorted to objectivizing the subjective. That is, they have conceptually annihilated consciousness by defining it out of existence: Conventional thinking extinguishes the mind/body problem by simply equating mind and brain.

The discipline of behaviorism illustrates the predictive poverty resulting from objectivizing subjective data. Behavioral theories apply to observed behavior of small children, mentally retarded adults, and lower animals, but their predictions are too limited to be valid when applied to persons applying abstract thought. Similarly, when ethnic neuroscientists try to apply the models of neuroscience to consciousness, their predictions collapse into the epiphenomenon hypothesis--an untestable axiom.

The slag-heap of the epiphenomenon hypothesis results from the operating on disparate concepts as though they belonged to the same category (Ryle termed this type of error a "category mistake"). Thus, Crick's argument falls apart when three faulty conflations are corrected.

First, it is faulty to join the notion of consciousness "that science cannot explain" with the religious concept of soul that "survives after our physical death." Melding scientific and religious concepts is fallacious because the former derives from the empirical method, and the latter from the axiomatic method--methods that diverge at Hume's Fork.

Second, Crick uses the term conscious in two ways, objective and subjective, without specifying either meaning. This maneuver obliterates the meaning of consciousness (self-awareness) by equating it to waking states. To avoid this problem, we must remain alert to the concept of consciousness as self-awareness. For example, a sleeping person is self-aware, as observed in dream states.

The error in conflating religious and scientific concepts is trivial, and the error of confusing objective and subjective terms is easily corrected. However, Crick's third conflation error is critical: He combines pain, seeing, thinking, and self-consciousness into one category, then he uses the physiology of one of these--seeing--to generalize to the others. Crick unwittingly identifies his category mistake by writing, "We believe that if we could explain just one aspect of consciousness, we would have gone a long way toward understanding them all."

This maneuver would be valid if the concepts representing sight, pain, thought, and self-awareness belonged to the same category, but they do not. This is analogous to conflating the categories of apples and oranges, e.g, "Apples and oranges are fruit, therefore apples are identical to oranges," then to declare that apples can be understood by studying oranges.

Sorting out the category mistakes of ethnic neuroscience results in recognizing three disjoint sets that describe mental activity, herein defined as perception, thinking, and awareness:

Distinguishing awareness from perception and thinking is essential, for awareness alone pertains to the subjective entity, consciousness (self, soul, first person). However, Crick does not make this distinction in his argument.

Citing studies of visual perception, Crick indicates accurately that images of the external world are mapped onto neural networks in the visual cortex, then interpreted and organized into meaningful information in other regions of the brain. Likening this process to creating a pattern on a TV screen of nerve cells, he asserts that "no one (no `homunculus') is looking at the screen." In this way, he asserts--non-sequitur--that evidence of organized neural activity eliminates the need for the concept of consciousness.

Crick further assumes that neuroscience will eventually "discover the neural correlate of consciousness (now referred to as NCC)." Although such an anatomic-physiologic correlate is purely conjectural, it has already been given a name--an abstraction that tautologically reinforces the idea that activity of the nervous system generates consciousness. Of course, only the name is new: Since antiquity, the putative "seat of consciousness" has been essential to materialist thinking, although the seat has migrated upward over the centuries. It started in the sacrum, moved to the heart, and has now arrived at the brain.

In sum, the epiphenomenon hypothesis presupposes that neurophysiological studies of perception and thinking apply directly to consciousness. This assumption is as untenable as asserting that studies of the heart can yield information about love.

So, what do we know about consciousness? Can it be studied scientifically at all? Or must we surrender to extant ethnic beliefs, and continue to exclude the sine qua non of both religion and science from scientific exploration? I think not. Nor must we continue to dodge the question posed in 1944 by Schrödinger, What is Life? (1944, Cambridge University Press).

Today, it is ethnically correct to equate life with DNA, to attribute the phenomenon of life to "a pack of molecules." Schrödinger was dissatisfied with this reductionist idea, noting that there is no justification for assuming that the known laws of physics comprise the complete set of nature's laws.

Scientists outside of ethnic science are not satisfied to trivialize life and mental activity by defining them as epiphenomena of lower order events. Indeed, the concepts of life and mentality are joined in one major respect: Life and mentality both depend entirely on organization per se. My own reflections on these ideas have propelled me through a quest for consciousness, and continue to lead me to my formulation of a theory of organization. It's been a long journey.

As a high school student in 1953, I wrote a review paper, "The Chemical Transmission of Nerve Impulses." My attention had been captured by the works of Loewi (who discovered the phenomenon), Dale, Nachmonson, and other luminaries of the day. By the time I finished the paper, I was seduced by the idea that studying the brain would lead to understanding the mind. With this belief as my guiding light through medical school, I pursued research in neurophysiology by entering a post-doctoral fellowship at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

My research at the Einstein focused on measuring the electrical activity of single neurons in the motor cortex of the brain. Although my research was considered important and ethnically correct, I soon lost interest in it, for it didn't address the questions that led me into the field.

One afternoon, I announced to a colleague that our work was irrelevant to the problem of consciousness: "We'll never discover consciousness by studying how the brain works, because the brain isn't conscious. Persons are. And we aren't studying persons." I predicted that neurophysiology would continue to provide its own interesting questions, but would never give us answers concerning the nature of self-awareness.

After my insight, I did not immediately launch into studying persons. Instead, my chief research interest changed to membrane physiology and biophysics, then to non-equilibrium thermodynamics in electrodes, research that occupied the next 15 years at the University of Washington and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Yet, because my driving questions hadn't changed, I finally changed my career to psychiatry to study persons.

Today, having watched the progress of neuroscience research from outside, I can see the validity of my prediction. Though they still elicit research money by promising to understand "the mind," ethnic neuroscientists do not study consciousness. Not surprisingly, then, little has changed in the past 35 years. Mounds of data have been generated concerning neuropharmacology (psychopharmacology), several new technological methods have been developed, and many more facts about neurophysiology have been established. Yet nothing about the nervous system has been learned that can compare with the fundamental works of Loewi on chemical transmission of impulses, Hodgkin and Huxley on the electrical propagation of nerve impulses, and Eccles on the electrophysiology of synaptic transmission.

So, what is consciousness--the entity that is aware of its own existence? This is my driving question. Because organization per se cannot be described by any existing theory of physics or biology, I have posited the existence of a basic principle of organization--enformy--to account for life and mentality. As energy is the capacity to perform work, enformy is the capacity to organize. Two aspects of enformy are information and complexity. As a fundamental quantity, enformy cannot be described in terms of energy and mass. (For details, the reader is referred to my essay, "Enformy--the Capacity to Organize" in Rich Kapnick's ISPE book, Thinking on the Edge.)

Compare now my description of a brain organized by enformy (an "enformed brain") with that of Crick: The enformed brain is a dynamic, highly pliant network of trillions of interacting neurons. Although ethnic neuroscience presupposes that the brain acts like a solid-state device, its circuitry behaving as a computer constructed of neural nets, the enformed brain more nearly resembles a solution of charged molecules that are subject to organization under the influence of an electric field. However, it is different from such a solution insofar as the normally operating brain responds, not to energy fields, but to stressing information--perturbations in patterns of neuronal activity that arise from internal and external events.

Through well-known biophysical and electrochemical processes, individual neurons operate on a low level of information; they respond to, and produce, sequences of impulses ("bit streams"). That is, individual neurons are media for discrete information. In contrast, networks of neurons are media for statistical information. Thus, the network operates on a higher order of information than the bit streams of neurons.

Because neurons and neural networks behave radically differently, the behavior of discrete neurons doesn't predict the behavior of the network. That is, we would not know enough to describe the behavior of the network neurons comprise--even if we could know the behavior of every neuron in the system.

By analogy, a single neuron is to a network as a single pixel is to a television picture. Therefore, to describe a living brain (or to assemble a television picture), we need additional information: a map of the relationships among the elements of the array. Enformy incorporates this mapping information; therefore, the network is an enformed ensemble of neurons.

The map of the brain's network is four dimensional: That is, the relationships among the neurons changes from instant to instant. And at any one time, a subset of the overall pattern of the ensemble is identifiable to the person as an evanescent thought. So, is a neuron aware of the thought? Or the neural network? Clearly, neurons and networks recognize patterns of activity (perception) and process this information (thinking). However, there is no reason to define them as self-aware. Still, we are not justified in annihilating the concept of consciousness by tossing it on the "epiphenomenon" heap.

According to the theory of enformy, the enformed brain is prerequisite to perception and thinking, for without enformy neurons can't even live, much less become organized into useful activity. Further, enformy is required for self-awareness--consciousness.

Perhaps enformy is consciousness. Perhaps we--the entities that are aware of our own existence--are collections of enformy existing in a region of space-time, enforming the physico-chemical structures we call our bodies. This is the tantalizing idea I am currently exploring.

In conclusion, there is one caveat concerning the limits of science, and therefore our ability to understand the universe: We must use our consciousness to contemplate consciousness. In other words, we encounter Turing's problem, which I state this way: To comprehend (understand) a topic, we must first comprehend (contain) it. Because our consciousness cannot entirely contain our consciousness, our understanding of consciousness must always remain incomplete.