“An overture on consciousness”
If we are more than the physical substratum of our cerebral cortex, why is it that everything we do is modulated by our brain? I go to sleep because of chemical-electrical signals triggered within my skull; I wake up for the same reason. Yet, because my awareness seems distinct from my bodily apparatus, I somehow believe that I am running the show. However, the reality is that I can do very little. “I” don’t digest my food. “I” don’t beat my heart. “I” don’t develop antibodies to ward off diseases. “I” don’t even know if I originate thoughts or only direct them. The “I” does very little indeed, except believe itself to be more than what it really is–an epiphenomenon of networking neurons.
So far so good, but there’s one glitch here: consciousness talks about neurons, neurons don’t talk about consciousness. Everything we have know in the world must come through the medium of consciousness; even the idea of neuroscience, even the idea of philosophy, even the idea of materialism, must arise through the medium of self-reflective awareness. It is, in fact, that medium of consciousness–non reducible in terms of actual lived-through experience–which contextualizes everything we can ever know about the universe. What comes first: Neurons or Awareness? If you say the former, how do you know unless you are already aware? If you say the latter, why it is that when someone clubs you over the head with a bat your awareness of this world ceases? The fact remains that whatever is the source of our “I” awareness, it does not alter our existential dilemmas. We are still stuck to living in a world which seems to transcend its neural origins. The following seems to summarize the mind-brain debate, at least from a materialist perspective:
“Indeed, we know we are more that just neurons firing; or at least we think we are while the neurons are firing.”
A Glorious Piece of Meat, Patricia Churchland