Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Stuart Kauffman - The Brain, Consciousness, and Free Will


Here are three recent blog posts from Stuart Kauffman at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog - all three of them are related in various ways, so I'll post them all here - you can go the site to read the whole post. Hmmm . . . new book in the works?

The well known philosopher of mind, Jerry Foder, famously quipped that, "Not only have we no idea what conscious 'is,' we have no idea what it would be like to have an idea what consciousness 'is.'"

To my considerable surprise, I do have an idea what consciousness may be, and how to begin to test for it.

In the last blog, following Alfred North Whitehead, who thought in terms of Actuals giving rise to Possibles giving rise to Actual, and W. Heisenberg, among the giant founders of Quantum Mechanics, with a similar view, I proposed a testable hypothesis of a new dualism, the realm of the Possible, Res Potentia, and the realm of the Actual, Res Extensa. Res Potentia and Res Extensa really are linked by quantum measurement. In von Neumann's axiomatization of Quantum Mechanics, this is his R process, the "collapse of the wave function".

I quote Shimon Malin, a quantum field theorist, from "Physics and Whitehead" (Ed. T.E. Eastman and H. Keaton). "According to Heisenberg, the interplay between the two modes of quantum systems, being isolated and being measured, is an interplay between potentialities and actualities."

Quoting Malin again, "Heisenberg's interpretation implies that the collapse of a quantum state is not a process in time."
Read more.

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My aim in this post is to consider a new scientific hypothesis: Standing the Brain on its head. I will briefly summarize the best standard views of the neural correlates of consciousness as discussed in Francis Crick's 1994 book, The Astonishing Hypothesis as a firm background to my testable suggestions.

The human brain has about 10 to the 11th power neurons, with many distinct regions from the brain stem to the thalamus to the cortex. A neuron can be thought of as having three main parts, a cell body, a descending axon which may or may not branch, and a dendritic "tree" with about 6000 synapses that leads into the cell body. Neurons have cell membranes with a transmembrane resting electrical potential which is about - 70 millivolts inside. The axon of one neuron terminate on one synapse, or if the axon is branched, each branch terminates on one synapse of the same or different neurons.

Each synapse is a small "bubble" of membrane attached by an anatomical "spike" to a very small region, less than a micron squared, of adjacent dendritic membrane. A synapse contains about 200 specific proteins on the "presynaptic" half of the synapse, and 1500 on the "postsynaptic" half of the synapse. The two parts of the synapse are separated by the synaptic cleft.

Read more.

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I have now published a substantial series of posts, starting with "Closed Quantum Systems" to yesterday's "Standing The Brain On Its Head." My hope has been to lay out a possible conceptual and scientific framework that may allow us to see our humanity as "Re-Enchanted. I end this series with the present post, which hopes to find plausible and testable grounds for an ontologically real, responsible free will.

Rene' Descartes gave us Res Cogitans and Res Extena, "thinking stuff" and "mechanical stuff". Res Cogitans was to be the locus of self, agency and a responsible free will. Res Extensa was his mechanical philosophy, our bodies and clocks as machines.

With Newton, his differential and integral calculus, his three laws of motion and universal gravitation, the universe became a vast deterministic clockwork, all Res Extensa. Res Cogitans disappeared as a useless, forever un-united, dualism in a materialist world.

With the loss of Res Cogitans, and rise of Newtonian mechanics, our humanity became disenchanted, for we too became mere machines, now identified with Mind-Brain as a classical physics deterministic dynamical machine. With deterministic classical physics Turing algorithmic machines, we came to think mind must also be algorithmic.

Hence the problem of free will. If I am deterministic, I have no free will.

Read more.