A soul-like substance as a solution for the hard problem of consciousness — Why not?

In this article, more than straight answers I would like to raise questions and draw attention to the real mysteriousness of counsciousness, a very old mistery that always baffled philosophers and scientists — and definitely me.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the existence of the soul — or some soul-like entity — must be considered as a possible answer to the so called “hard problem” of conciousness, the problem that concerns the nature and origin of subjective experience, as formulated by the american philosopher David Chalmers.

In other words, I think there´s a strong possibility that all the strictly physicalist-materialist attempts to answer this fundamental problem might be exhausted, therefore making it urgent to review or at least reinterpret the physicalistic aphorism turned into dogma “no brain, never mind”, because this probably reflects above all a very common and wide spread philosophical prejudice among philosophers, neuroscientists e cognitive scientists. A prejudice that reflects a broader scientific and philosophical paradigm which underlies several research fields but lacks solid empirical and factual basis. Like all the paradigms of investigation it gives not answers, but rather a set of rules and epistemological principles that orientate the scientific work, and also points to possible horizons of solution. In the case of the problem of consciousness in its “hard” formulation, it may well be the case that the investigation has been pointing to the wrong horizon of solution for to long.

In recent times some non-strictly-physycalist approaches emerged though, recognizing the limits of nowadays mathematics and science in their attempt to give a straight materialistic answer to the problem of consciousness. I recall for instance the significant study of a korean mathematician and physicist, Daegene Song, stating that counsciousness simply isn´t computable, and never will, which means that machines will never ever be able to reproduce the subjective experience of the human mind (see Consciousness Does Not Compute (and Never Will), Says Korean Scientist, from PRNewswire [May 5 2015]).

As Song writes in his paper, based in cutting edge mathematics and quantum computation: “Among conscious activities, the unique characteristic of self-observation cannot exist in any type of machine”. In other words, “self-observation” or subjective experience is a unique and misterious feature of the conscious mind that today´s science is not yet able to explain much less reproduce, no matter how cutting edge our technology might be. This is something that the british physicist Roger Penrose, for instance, had somehow already foresaw in his writings about counsciousness more than twenty years ago (see Discovery of quantum vibrations in ‘microtubules’ corroborates theory of consciousness [phys.org, January 16 2014]).

Roger Penrose and his colleague Stuart Hameroff even spoke about an hypothethical “proto-conscious’ quantum structure of reality” (!), leaving the door open for the possibility of the physical brain not being the sole and only producer of counsciousness; that is, counsciousness not being exclusively a byproduct of the brain, but rather something deeply rooted in the fabric of reality, perhaps like gravity, mass or some other elementar force. As Song states in his paper: “The brain and consciousness are linked together, but the brain does not produce consciousness. Consciousness is something altogether different and separate. The math doesn’t lie.” (Consciousness Does Not Compute[…], Id.)

The brain, Song astonishingly but justifiably argues, does not produce consciousness. So, the deep core of our quest for the nature of counsciousness, the “hard problem” stubbornly remains: what on earth produces subjective experience? What´s its nature and origin? As I wrote in a previous work (The Boson of Conscience [O bosão da consciência — uma proposta humildemente audaciosa para resolver o “hard problem” da experiência subjetiva — pt version § 33):

“…no matter how rigorous are the maps of the brain, no matter how comprehensive and profound they might be describing certain aspects of its operation, there is a dimension of consciousness that continues to elude the best (both scientists and philosophers ). This dimension is precisely the second level of the problem identified by Chalmers, the “hard problem” of consciousness. For, admirably, neuroscientists are able to partly explain how our brain identifies, for instance, a known face on the street, describing the neurological processes underlying it; they can even successfully describe the way the brain transforms the scattered data that penetrate through the senses in recognizable informational patterns, i.e., how the brain in practice translates the information coming from the exterior world (e.g. through light in the case of visual patterns) in mental images , ideas, perceptions. What they permanently fail to explain, the “thorn in the side” of neuroscientific research, is the process by which we are able to subjectively experience these patterns, these mental images, these perceptions. In other words, the key issue is to understand how subjective experience is possible, meaning in practice to understand the deep fundamental nature of mind and its quality (qualia).”

Maybe the time has come for a copernican revolution in the field of neurosciences, allowing the emergence of a new paradigm that may rehabilitate some non-physicalistic hypothesis in order to unlock this problem — yes, such as the hypothesis of the soul. An hypothesis that has been in the very center of all the philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions for thousands of years, in all civilizations, though with some theoretical differences.

I see soul in a minimalist sense, that is, not in the sense of an absolute and all-mighty organ, substance or metaphysical entity being the sole origin and cause of all the intelectual-cognitive, emotional, sensory and volitional functions, which now we know can only be proper attributed to the biological brain and its neurological processes. I see soul, not as the sole origin of thought, will, intelections, emotions, feelings or perceptions, but rather as the necessary ground — let´s say, metaphisical ground -, deeply routed in every mind, where all the thoughts, intelections, emotions, feelings and perceptions in general are reflected acquiring their subjective character. In resume: soul is not the mind, but without soul never mind. As without brain, by the way…

Again I quote my previous work (Id., §21): “Being conscious is, thus, being reflexive, because every conscious being possesses an inner world, an interiority where every meaningfull pattern echoes significantly due to the phenomenon of subjetive experience. This means it doesn´t disperse vainly, it doesn´t fall into oblivion or in pure nothingness, just as it happens in a supercomputer, no matter how sophisticated, because there´s not one there inside to be sensitive to the patterns of information it produces. Rather, the supercomputer produces its patterns to someone else for which they are significant, not to himself.”

Thus, has I said before, one cannot deny that brain — probably the most complex of all the biological and non-biological systems known — is in fact the cause of all the cognitive, emotional and volitional processes, given the compelling cutting-edge neurocientific evidence. But not necessarily the cause of the consciousness that sustains and makes subjective experience possible. In fact, conscious mind may be the product of two natures intertwined, permanently communicating with one another — the biological brain and the metaphysical ground of counsciousness or “soul”. But what is soul?

I would define soul as the “conscious ground”, the fundamental axis or deep core of every individual identity. Let me explain: we all are constituted of a complex self or “Ego” that is basically a sociocultural construct — that´s the “I” I immediately recognize as me, whenever I think or talk about it; it´s my social identity, carrying in it a singular and unique life´s history, and always projecting itself to the future through personal dreams, aspirations and goals-setting that form my, say, “projeccional identity”. Then, on the very root of the cultural and symbolic “I” we found its sine qua non: the simple self I shall call “Id”, in the absence of better notion (Please let us not confuse this “Id” with the freudian conception of subconscious realm of libidinal energy and blind pulsions. That´s not what I´m talking about, though by this term I also want to mean some kind of hidden realm of conscious, but definitly not volitional, blind or pulsional).

By “Id” I want to mean the very foundation, the very marrow of the “I”, the sine qua non of every individual identity, for it´s the basis of all conscious reflexivity. “Id”, the soul, does not move, pulse, thinks or does anything: it´s there, only to enlighten the mind, to be the “watcher”, the conscious rear, the “final consumer”, first and last observer of the electrochemichal and neurological events produced by our brains — that misterious “eye of the spirit” deeply rooted in a misterious and elusive place of our minds.

About its nature one can imagine several theories, including that I proposed in the speculative adventure of my previous work twice quoted. But in truth we cannot yet grasp the real nature of it. At least not yet.

As I was saying, “Id” as I conceive is the foundation of the “I” or “Ego”, for this socio-cultural-symbolic-conceptual sphere that constitutes the “I” would be ontologically unsustainable without the dimension of the conscious interiority or subjectivity — without inner mental world made possible by the existence of this elusive “inner conscious eye”, there can be no subjective experience, thus no mental life in any way. Without this, say “continuous conscious essence” deeply rooted in the core of our selves, independent of the physical brain for is not caused by it, but somehow cooperating with it, no mental life would ever emerge — no complex mind would ever come to be.

Now, here are some of the reasons why I argue that consciousness can not be fully explained without recourse to this fundamental reality. As I said before, although neurosciences as well cognitive sciences are close to explain the neurophysiological processes through which the brain produces perceptions — which are basically mental images and patterns of informational character — , the “hard core” of the problem remains virtually untouched, which is how these perceptions — which originally are only electrochemical events in the brain — are interpreted subjectively. How is it possible that mere electrochemical events acquire the nature of mental events perceived from a subjective point of view, in the context of a conscious interiority? How is it that an electrochemical event triggered in the brain of a living being that, for instance, gets burned in the fire, can be effectively felt as pain in a subjective, unique and untransferable way?

While it is true that our mental world is an endless stream of different perceptions, images and various mental events, it is also true that there is a common denominator to all perceptions: they are always “ours”, they mix and coexist with the identity of the subject that perceives, the cognitive subject; that is, the experience is indistinguishable from the experiencer. One cannot exist without the other.

As indeed the very “I” — that is, the social or socio-cultural identity — does not exist outside of the subject that subjectively interprets and thinks conceptually, and the identity as conceptual-symbolic construct is both a mental complex event (the “idea of self”) and the very “I” to which the subject refers when he speaks or becomes aware of himself — yes, the very “I” is always and idea of self subjectively experienced. Thanks therefore to the subjective experience, social identity acquires its reflexive character, that is, it becomes identity to someone, as well as someone´s identity.

But how does subjective experience emerges? And where, by the way? It´s if it occurred in some strange, mysterious and elusive stronghold of the mind where a strange transmutation occurs: mere electrochemical informational patterns become mental events, perceptions, feelings, theories, poems, and even selves!

It is as if, in some unknown mental or physiological center located somewhere in the brain or in the mind, occurred a conexion, a contact or full overlay that allows communication and continuity between two substances of different nature, an integrate and absolute contact (for instance at a very deep quantum level) between a physiological byproduct (electrochemical event) and other substance of different kind (yes, perhaps Descartes and its dualism is not totally outdated afterall).

By betaking Kant´s terminology on the “transcendental apperception”, we can state that there´s a “unity of perception” that fully communicates with a “unity of conscience”, in a total overlap, which is the only possible explanation for the fact that any given perception — the sight of a tree outside the window for instance — is always perceived as a totality, that is, as an integrated experience in which there´s no gap, nothing is missing that one can have direct awareness as much is permited by the actual conditions of distance from the object, accuracy of the sensory organ, etc. Kant writes: “…the various representations that are given to us in a certain intuition, would not be all my representations if they did not belong in their entirety to a self-conscience”, that is, “The thought that these representations given in intuition belong to me all it´s equivalent to saying that I put them together in a self-conscience or at least I can do it(KANT, Critique of Pure Reason, B133-B134, pp. 132–133, underlined is mine)

And please note that this “unity of consciousness” unifying and integrating the electrochemical flow of the brain in wholes designated perceptions, is quite mysterious as the neurosciences have not yet been able to find, accurately and conclusively in the brain as in the rest of the nervous system, no “center” where the referred physical-to-mental transmutation may occur. There is no known physiological center, no neuronal cluster, where the various informational electrochemical flows can locally converge from separate areas of the brain, so as to form a whole, a complex informational pattern to be perceived as a complex mental perception.

For as it is known, the formation of a complex perception involves inputs of different sensorial and cognitive data processed in neuronal clusters or modules located in different points of the brain. For example: right now while i´m writing this I have a very clear, coerent and integrated perception that i´m seated in a wooden chair a bit hard, at home, typing on my laptop with a continuous flow of thoughts about the paramount mistery of consciousness on my mind. The table sustaining my laptop is made of very polished wood; I feel its smooth texture when I touch it. I also see the sunlight getting in my living room´s window, while I delight myself with the background music that comes out of laptop´s playlist. In my mouth I still feel the sweet taste of the coffee I just drank from the cup lying on the table close to my right hand, as well some of its smell.

Those are not just a bunch of fragmented perceptions of different kind, but a complex integrated perception that I call my surrounding environment, made of converging imputs. This perception is not yours or theirs — it´s mine, because its unity — the “unity of perception” — it’s the projection and the reflection of the “unity of conscience” that indeed lies in me.

Well, all the stimuli that make up this complex perception are processed into electrochemical patterns located in different sectors of the brain, namely: the tactile in the somatosensory area located in the parietal lobe; the visual in the visual cortex located in the occipital lobe in the back of the brain; the auditory in the auditory cortex located in the temporal globe; the olfact in the olfactory cortex; etc.

Despite the distance between the various sectors, the subjective perceptional experience is always one, always a whole, not fragmentary or partial. The stream of perceptional data, although fed by currents of cognitive and sensory information produced in different parts of the brain, is mysteriously unified by a bond that overcomes and suppresses this distance; a bond that surpasses the merely local; a bond, say, nonlocal.

Finally: even if this well established physical center in the brain existed, still yet to explain the puzzling process by which, in this particular hypothetical location, the physical would become mental, that is, the mere electrochemical in conscious subjective experience. The how and why this particular spot would allow this strange “alchemical” transfer of a number of objectively observable and measurable physiological phenomena in the unobservable and not objectively measurable world of mental subjectivity.

If, on the other hand, there´s no neuronal center clearly and objectively identifiable, we can only conjecture, for example, that the brain is it all as a whole a “major center” where the, say, immaterial substance of consciousness (that I decided to call “soul”) coexists alongside the neuronal brain matter, perhaps even at a very fundamental quantum level, allowing the constant and immediate unification of multiple streams of sensory and perceptual information processed in sectors located in different areas of the brain; that is, permitting a constant and immediate complete unification of different cognitive and sensorial patterns of information in unified complex perceptions that owe their essential character to the fact they are perceived from a subjective point of view — that is, a conscience, a soul firmly rooted in the abyssal depths of the mind.


- Consciousness Does Not Compute (and Never Will), Says Korean Scientist [PRNewswire, May 5 2015], with a link to the original arXiv paper (arXiv:0705.1617 [quant-ph]) (see http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/consciousness-does-not-compute-and-never-will-says-korean-scientist-300077306.html)

- Discovery of quantum vibrations in ‘microtubules’ corroborates theory of consciousness [phys.org, January 16 2014], http://phys.org/news/2014-01-discovery-quantum-vibrations-microtubules-corroborates.html.

- The Boson of Conscience [O bosão da consciência — uma proposta humildemente audaciosa para resolver o “hard problem” da experiência subjetiva — pt version] — [Blog Casa do Ser, July 20 2015], link: http://casadoser.blogspot.pt/2015/07/o-bosao-da-consciencia-uma-proposta.html.

- KANT, Immanuel, Crítica da Razão Pura [Critique of Pure Reason — pt edition], trad. de Manuela Santos e Alexandre Morujão, Lisboa: Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1997.