Consciousness: Marvel of the Mind

April, 2002
Joe Spears MS

The bodies of living things are what evolution tries to explain. But what about behavior? Within the evolutionary model, the only possibility is that behavior results from the chemicals, cells, and components of the organism's body. And what about soul? Spirit? Mind? Likewise, these things are viewed in evolution, if they are dealt with at all and not simply ignored, as simply results of chemical or other natural processes in a body.

Is there any evidence for anything beyond the body? Something involved in the operation of our minds? Something that transcends the simple mechanics and natural forces involved in the matter composing our bodies? If so, then this would be something unaccounted for by evolution. If evolution is true, then evolution must have given rise to consciousness. But, first, what is consciousness?

One view that we could take concerning consciousness is that consciousness, or mind, is nothing more than chemical reactions occurring among brain cells. The brain would be analogous to a computer. However, there is a theory that human consciousness is qualitatively different from what computers do. According to this view, something is happening in consciousness that is beyond the ability of science to explain. In particular, this view holds that it is beyond the ability of physics to explain consciousness.

Who holds this view that human consciousness is qualitatively different from what computers do, and that physics - even quantum mechanics - as presently understood, is insufficient to explain consciousness? None other than Roger Penrose, one of the greatest mathematical physicists of our time. (You may have heard of one of his students, Stephen Hawking.) Penrose is famous for Penrose tilings and work dealing with black holes. Others also hold to this view concerning consciousness, including Stuart Hameroff. 

In fact, Penrose argues in his book, Shadows of the Mind, that it is impossible for man to build a computer that can do what humans do. Now, he does not claim that there is a spirit or a soul, but he certainly questions the assumption that human mental activity/understanding/consciousness is basically the same as what computers do. And the difference is not a matter of degree, or quantity - it is a basic, qualitative difference.

He suspects that there is a deeper level than what we normally think of as being involved in mental activities. We normally think of the components of mental activities as consisting of neurons and their dendrites, axons (long, thin projections from neurons involved in conducting nerve signals), and synapses (the connections between nerve cells). The signal travels along the nerve cells' neurites and "jumps" across the synapse to the next cell. Of course, this oversimplifies. Some signals are inhibitory and decrease the likelihood of the next neuron being stimulated to carry the signal farther. And some signals do stimulate the next neuron. We may think of this as roughly an electrical circuit, with nodes and wires connecting the nodes. But Penrose suspects that there is a deeper level of complexity involved, with more basic components - more complexity by orders of magnitude. Note: We already have billions of neurons.

He thinks that the tiny structures in cells known as microtubules may be involved. These serve several important functions. They are involved in maintaining cell structure, transporting molecules within cells, and supporting cell division; and they are major components of cilia, tiny hair-like projections from cells. They also seem to be able to influence neural signals.

What else can they do? Some researchers believe they are involved in human consciousness. They may serve as places in which certain as yet not-understood phenomena take place, related to human consciousness.

This may explain why certain organisms seem to be able to learn without a brain [see references below]. For example, paramecia move about toward food, away from danger, and around obstacles. There is even evidence that paramecia can learn. Now, how can it learn, when it doesn't have a human brain - it doesn't even have a brain at all, nor even a single brain cell! In fact, its whole body consists of just one single cell - it is a single-celled organism! So, even single celled organisms, obviously not having even a single neuron in their "body", seem to be able to learn. How is this possible?

Well, though they may lack a brain, lack an extensive network of thousands of nerve cells, and lack even a single brain cell, single-celled organisms do contain microtubules. There are hundreds of microtubules per neuron. Penrose suspects that some quantum-coherent state, similar to those existing in Bose-Einstein condensates, may be involved and exist in or associated with the microtubule. Yet, he claims something is happening that is beyond known science.

In Shadows of the Mind, he says, "The unity of a single mind can arise, in such a description, only if there is some form of quantum coherence extending across at least an appreciable part of the entire brain. Such a feat would be a remarkable one - almost an incredible one - for nature to achieve by biological means. Yet I believe that the indications must be that she has done so, the main evidence coming from the fact of our own mentality...."

"However, the arguments I have been presenting require more than just quantum coherence on a large scale. They require that the biological systems that are our brains have somehow contrived to harness the details of a physics that is yet unknown to human physicists!" (emphasis mine) pp. 372-373.

Penrose also says, "...there is yet no physical, biological, or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness and consequent intelligence..." on p. 8. To be fair, he does think that eventually, though not now, science will be able to explain the "missing ingredient" from our understanding of mentality. He also writes that quantum-coherent states may be involved. But he still says our present level of understanding of science cannot explain what is involved in human awareness, understanding and consciousness.

But the question remains, how could all this have evolved? Scientists don't even know how it works, much less how it evolved. But one thing is certain - our minds do function.

Research indicates there is something qualitatively and fundamentally different about consciousness that seems to defy explanation. Why and how could such a complex mechanism, utilizing cell components that already serve multiple functions, give rise to consciousness?

Many of those who believe that God is creator of all believe also that God made life somehow different from inanimate material. For example, the Bible mentions that after God formed man from the dust, he then did something extra: he breathed life into man, and man became a living soul. There seems to be something about man that transcends the purely material, that transcends the mere body formed from dust. The Bible says that man has not only a body, but also a soul and a spirit. (Even animals in the Bible are mentioned as having a spirit or soul. Remember the paramecium.)

We see that science - at least some scientists - are pushing the frontiers of knowledge and exploring areas where they find evidence that our understanding of computation and biology is insufficient to describe what actually happens. This hints that there is more to man than meets the eye.

Irreducible Complexity

One concept that has arisen in the examination of biological forms is the notion that some complex systems are simply too complicated to have evolved. Typically, these systems require multiple component parts, each of which has no survival value in and of itself, or any survival value during required intermediate evolutionary stages. Yet, they do exist - there they are. How do we account for them? Evolution is often inadequate to account for these systems. It has often been stated that there is no more complex object than the human brain. Whether true or not, the increased complexity of the brain that we have seen described above and the invocation of physics that has not yet been discovered to explain it, hints at probably more complexity than evolution can explain.

Indeed, man is fearfully and wonderfully made, and as we learn more, as the blueprint of this design unfolds, the design we see suggests not only design, but intelligence on the part of the designer.

In conclusion, as increasing discoveries unfold, we see even more complexity in the design of man and other life. We also see evolution is now forced to account for ever more than before. And note, evolution has not done a good job at all in accounting for even the body of man. Lastly, we see evidence of something beyond the physical - possibly a hint of the spirit or soul, which as yet has no scientific explanation. All of this points, if ever so subtly, to a creator.

 


References:

Penrose, Roger. Shadows of the Mind, A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

French, J.W., "Trial and error learning in paramecium," 1940. Journal of Experimental Psychology 26, 609-13.