Review: The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This book (Amazon review and link below) is another attempt to find a solution to both the necessity and sufficiency of brains to minds. Gazzaniga is a materialist, and so by his supposition, there must be, in the brain itself, the secret to mind’s manifestation. He has written a very cogent examination of the brain’s layering and the complementarity of a rule-law combination that animates life and (he thinks) is the secret to the otherwise mysterious properties of consciousness. This theme is reflected in “Incomplete Nature” (Deacon 2011), while his connection between life, consciousness, and quantum mechanics brings Henry Stapp (“Quantum Theory and Free Will” 2017) and others to mind. 

Gazzaniga is not a physicist but a neuroscientist, and his specialty is the connection between brain lesions, surgery, and consciousness. What he notes, profoundly enough, is that consciousness is not something that must be generated by a whole, healthy brain, nor does it arise from a specific part or even anatomical layer, but emerges from any parts of the brain that still work! When only parts of the brain are working, the affected individual reports (sometimes in very indirect ways depending on what damage there is) that they are conscious and feel mostly normal, despite considerable gaps in accounts of that experience’s content. For example, a patient may report feeling perfectly normal even though her awareness includes nothing whatsoever to her left.

In this book, we have a well-written account of the various ways in which the brain, a marvelously complex and mysterious thing, generating some “what is it like to be” inner world the individual reports as her subjectively-recognizable self, even when damaged! But even if the principles and mechanisms of this process are something like what Gazzaniga suggests to us, they are empirical evidence only of their necessity, not their sufficiency, to bring about the emergence of subjective experience. 

Nor, it has to be said, are the limits of what we know about the brain evidence that it is not sufficient to bring about mind’s emergence. The problem here is metaphysical. In all other emergent phenomena identified by science, even the case of life, the point of emergence is identifiable, as are the properties of what emerges. There is always a physical connection between prior and post-emergent physics. Both are always physical. The one can be fully traced, with mathematical rigor, through to the other. The brain-mind connection is different. No one has identified where, in the chain of neurological causes, a subject appears, nor precisely what the subject is. The brain’s physics plays its essential role, but what emerges isn’t physical in any sense that physics understands that term.

Yet there is also no evidence (evidence taken to involve physical observation) that there is anything in the universe (besides brains) that contributes some other “necessary ingredient”, that together with the brain, becomes sufficient for the emergence of the individual mind. The hypothesis that such a phenomenon exists is speculative and grounded on physics’s inability to do the job thanks to causal closure, the principle that physics produces only physics.

Gazzaniga suggests the emergence, in living matter, of translated information (in our case, DNA to RNA to proteins), what he calls a rules-based ordering, allows physics to violate the causal closure principle. Gazzaniga is saying, essentially, that the rules-based operation and interaction between layers and sub-sections of the brain can and does produce a non-physical emergent reality, mind! But there is no evidence that rules-based violation of causal closure is possible. None of the other emergent phenomena in the universe, including life (the other “rules-based” phenomenon), violate causal closure. No one has suggested how information ordering as such would or could produce a violation. Physics has nothing here. “Mind exists, therefore physics must be sufficient to produce it” is the sum and substance of the claim. 

There have been attempts to side-step this problem. Russellian Monism suggests that every object in the universe, from protons to galaxies, has “mental properties” (sometimes called “proto-mental properties”) that “add up” to mind of the sort familiar to us when brain-objects appear on the scene. None of these theories includes any suggestion as to the nature of these “mental properties”. David Chalmers (“The Conscious Mind” 1997 and others) suggests “mental laws” built into physics (a view that collapses into Russellian Monism), or a set of laws parallel to physics and present with them from the moment of the big bang (collapsing into what Philip Goff [“Galileo’s Error” 2019] calls “cosmological panpsychism”). Like mental properties, the form such laws might take, or how we might go about detecting their specific influences, is left unspecified. 

Each of these suggestions has numerous problems besides leaving key requirements unspecified. I’ve addressed these in other papers (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”, and “For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists”). All of these ideas amount to a quasi-dualism (what Chalmers calls “property dualism”), and in every case, causal closure is violated. Materialism (if some of these ideas can be called materialistic at all) in the philosophy of mind comes down to a two-horned dilemma. Either mind is real and non-physical in which case we must account for its apparent violation of causal closure, or mind isn’t real at all, leaving us nothing for which to account.  

A few philosophers have made a go at the second horn, but it strikes most as prima facie absurd. If you accept the first horn (as does Gazzaniga, Chalmers, Goff, and many others), you are already a dualist no matter what your materialistic credentials. Substance-dualism is another alternative. There are more nuanced versions than the simple Cartesian “mind imposed on brains”.  For example, a detection, by brains, of some field with which brains, and only brains, interact. Individual minds are analogous to the sound (compression waves) issuing from radios whose antennae are sensitive to some electromagnetic radiation; the field is the radiation, the brain is the radio and antenna, mind is the music (see “From What Comes Mind”). 

The problem with substance dualism is that whatever the field is, it isn’t physical. Its source must be something other than physics. Critics argue that this demands both a plausible source (for example God. See “Metaphysical Stability in the Philosophy of Mind”) and an accounting of the field-brain interaction. But as noted in papers linked above, the unspecifiable “proto-mental properties” of Russellian Monism, panpsychism, or the “psychic laws” of Chalmers’ property dualism, demand the same dual accounting (asserting that these qualities “just belong to physics” is not an account of their origin) while violating causal closure (they are purportedly physical after all). Substance dualism preserves causal closure. Physics is not required to be both necessary and sufficient for consciousness. 

Yet even granting that such a model is correct, how the brain works to detect the field remains an open empirical issue. Gazzaniga and Deacon (see link above to “Incomplete Nature”) both have more nuanced views here than philosophers like Chalmers, Nagel, Russell, Goff, and many others; all moderns trying to make that first horn work. 

The Consciousness Instinct by Michael Gazzaniga

This is a book about consciousness and specifically, an attempt to find a solution to the qualitative difference between “minds” and brains from within physics. This is a consequence of the “materialist paradigm” (it can only be physics). Dr. Gazzaniga is a true believer. But his is the case for ninety-percent of the philosophy of mind I read and review anyway. What distinguishes this one?

Gazzaniga reviews some history for us and brings forward insights from psychology, biology, medicine (in particular observations of damaged or surgically altered brains), and physics, in particular, the notion (from quantum mechanics) of complementarity. Phenomena can have two aspects, they can exist as two sides of the same coin but at the same time, one cannot always say how each becomes the other. The two sides are not mutually reducible.

Gazzaniga, along with many others in the field, believes that quantum phenomena have some connection to consciousness (many others have speculated about this), but he also believes that this connection began way back at the origin of life. Life, like consciousness, rests in part on quantum behavior! I’ve been calling attention to this very reasonable idea for years, so it’s nice to see the idea expressed by someone with more credibility than I seem to have.

This is an important aspect of Gazzaniga’s theory because it allows him to trace the root of “the subjective” not merely to brains, but all the way back to the origin of life. Here he brings in the distinction between “rules” and “laws”. The mechanisms that characterize living things, all living things, are “rule-governed”, not “law-governed” The distinction is important because a rule (in our case how DNA sequences become specific protein sequences) adds an extra layer, an abstraction, on top of laws. Laws are fixed, rules can be changed. That is the secret of both life and consciousness. He is NOT claiming that early life was conscious. Instead, what makes life alive, its complementary double-sided nature (lawful rules), is the same principle operating in the emergence of consciousness from brains. 

From medical brain research, he notes that damaged brains are still conscious. Aspects of the former consciousness will be missing, but the person (whose damaged brain it is) doesn’t notice what’s missing. From this, he concludes that consciousness is not produced by a particular part of the brain but rather is a product of every part of it operating to produce its own small part of the whole subjective experience.

Also incorporated is the idea of modularity and layers of neural activity. Consciousness bubbles up through the layers becoming progressively richer in richer brains, but existing in some sense from the times of the earliest true nerve ganglia. The book is crafted to carry us through the development of these ideas from both medicine and philosophy. Gazzaniga’s “instinct idea” is the last aspect introduced. He notes that, like consciousness, brain research points to instincts being distributed phenomena, hence, consciousness is an instinct! Logically this is a stretch and is not as important to the theory as his rules-laws distinction and synthesis of complementarity and modularity.

In the end, like other speculations referenced in the book, he fails to nail down the “how” or the “what” of consciousness. Gazzaniga’s approach might prove to be a useful addition in the quest to answer these questions, but all of them, including this one, are perfectly consistent with a dualism holding that brains are necessary but not sufficient to explain the appearance of the subjective from the objective. Every one of his ideas can be true, while still not giving him what he needs. Every other complementarity known to our physics can be physically measured on both “sides of the coin”. Not simultaneously, but that is beside the point. It remains precisely the problem with mind that physical measurement of the “other side”, the subjective side, is impossible! That makes mind different. That makes brains insufficient, or at least leaves open that possibility.

Metaphysical Stability in the Philosophy of Mind

I have said there is, in the philosophy of mind (PoM), no stable position between eliminative materialism (EM) and substance-dualism grounded in theism (T). Stability refers to the inability of these theories to suggest answers to fundamental grounding questions. I have in mind three grounding issues.

    1. Interaction 
    2. Specification 
    3. Origin

EM (and its cousin Functionalism (F)) are stable because they deny there is anything, any “mystery of mind”, to be explained (in the case of F that there is anything besides various functional descriptions we can cogently talk about). Nothing interacts, there is no need to specify anything, and there is nothing whose origin requires any explanation.

Property Dualism (PD), Russellian Monism (RM) of many forms, and panpsychism (P), also of many variations (some built upon RM, and others not) are unstable hypotheses because they float free of any metaphysical ground. Along with T, they accept there is something about mind to be explained, but they do not address any of the three issues (PD having only the first to worry about). T addresses all three of the issues, having answers to two of them, and provides good reasons for our inability to resolve the third. T is metaphysically grounded. 

Each of these PoMs also has some relation to the principle of causal closure (CC) in the physical. CC consists of two fundamental axioms: (CCA) physics comes only from prior physics, and (CCB) physics can produce only more physics. CC is not one of the listed issues because each of these theories does address their relation to CC. Ironically, T is the only PoM, besides EM&F, that fully respects CC (see below and also “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind” for more detail). 

All of the other PoMs have two things in common (I do not include idealism in this essay because it differs from the others in this respect). First, there is a mind-independent world fully subject to CC, and second, the mind is in some way a part of this world (exists in the physical universe), and it’s unique (seemingly non-material) qualities warrant explanation.  Idealism denies a mind-independent world (a slippery slope to solipsism) and ends up having to fall back on T (or a “simulation scenario” see later)  for an explanation. 

The interaction issue plagues every PoM (including T) other than EM&F.  Every PoM apart from EM&F is offered to explain the existence of mind without resorting to T, because (among other things) T is taken to have an interaction problem! Yet to one degree or another, every PoM from PD on suffers from the same problem.

PROPERTY DUALISM 

The interaction problem is particularly acute for PD, which also makes the most overt break with CC. In PD, plain-old-physics is the causal root of mind in violation of CCB. Most, but not all, PD advocates also accept the reality of “mental cause”, which violates CCA. Thanks to PD’s stipulation that CC is false, it manages to address the “origin issue”; brains cause (it must be a causal relation) mind, which is the end of the matter. Thanks to this emphasis, PD manages to avoid any need to specify anything mental before the brain’s appearance, but PD cannot escape its interaction problem. How exactly does plain-ordinary-physics produce and then subsequently interact with a subjective-anything at all? 

The interaction issue is about mechanism. What exactly are the mechanics of the physical production of mind or mind’s capacity to cause physics? PD advocates assert that minds and brains do interact, and they admit that these are violations of what CC fundamentally says. Still, they are as unable as theists to say anything about how exactly this works. PD does not have any specification issue because there is nothing mental about the universe either in part or whole except when brains are present. 

RUSSELLIAN MONISM AND PANPSYCHISM

RM and P both developed to avoid PD’s problem with CC and interaction. In the end, they fail to avoid either. The foundation of RM and P is the idea that there isn’t any “interaction problem” because the mental is in some way built into the physical. “Some way” hides a lot of skeletons. What we take to be CC already includes the effects of “the mental” as these are taken to be either constitutive (often the un-observable essence) of the physical, or having a causal relation to it. There are many variations, but in every case, the idea is that when brains come along whatever-it-is that constitutes the mental embedded in the physical, results in consciousness as we experience it. 

RM rests the mental on the micro-physical, quarks, leptons, bosons, and all their assemblies. While we’re being speculative, if we ascribe the mental to any one particle, the force bosons would be the logical candidates because they mediate the relation between the quarks that give matter (protons, neutrons, atoms) its dispositional qualities. But I digress.

Some advocates of RM ground the mental in quantum phenomena. Somehow, these “essences of the mental” add up in assemblies until reaching brains, consciousness as we know it emerges. How and what goes on in this assembling (the infamous “combination problem”) is anyone’s guess. Some variations of RM assign a special status to the total assembly, the whole universe. RM adds-up to P.

Without RM adding up to it, P holds that there is no mental in the micro, but instead, it appears only as a quality of the total, the universe.  Indeed one might look at the present universe at vast scales (billions of light-years) and note its resemblance to a giant brain. In a recent paper, Phil Goff suggests that the cosmological settings, fixed in the opening second of the big bang, are the result not merely of cosmological mentality, but also intentionality, operating in and on a universe filled with undifferentiated radiation (see link to his article below)! In effect, the claim is that in this state, the universe is mind in its purest form!

While this is not idealism, the idea of “mind independence” is shifted. There is a physical world independent of mind as we (and presumably the higher animals) experience it, but it is no longer shorn of mind altogether. The universe (or particle) mind is not our mind, but it is the case that a “mental essence” lies at the heart of the material world. Yet, (we are assured) this mind is not consciousness as we (or even fish) experience it. 

This brings us to the heart of the “specification problem”. In what, even partly, does this “mental essence” consist? No RM or P advocate that I know has the slightest positive suggestion regarding any of it! They say “it isn’t consciousness as we understand it”, but that is saying what it is not. I would not presume to demand philosophers give us rich detail (as we can do about our mental properties), but they seem unable to specify even one of these qualities. This failure applies equally to RM and P. In the case of P, the quality in question is a mental property (at least one) of the universe. Again, no positive suggestion is forthcoming.

Every one of these philosophers pays homage to this problem. They all admit they cannot provide any positive quality specifications. Goff goes so far as to suggest that such qualities may remain forever unknowable. What philosophers ignore are the consequences of this failure to the theory itself. To say that X, having properties we can never in principle discriminate, is responsible (causally or constitutively) for Y is to say that X cannot be confirmed or dis-confirmed! This admission empties the theory (a hypothesis about the physical world) of any possible physical content! Proposed solutions to the “combination problem” rest on nothing because no one can say (even speculatively) what is being combined!

This brings us again to interaction. The whole point of RM or P is to make mind, of our sort, un-mysterious. Biological mind, the interaction between mind and brains, is not [supposedly] a mystery because atoms (or the universe) encompass mind’s potentials before its appearance, not merely its possibility, but also the mechanics of the process that produces it. How do they do this? The same mystery is transferred to the micro-physical or the universe.

No one disputes that brains are physical. How does the micro (or universal) embedded-mental interact with the physical? What does it do to physics, not merely to produce the mental that we know (that it does so is by stipulation of the hypothesis), but to drive physics (cosmology) towards its emergence? How would physics (cosmological evolution) be different if the proposed mental-in-it was withdrawn? Philosophers have only pushed the interaction problem to another part of the rug, and even that not completely. 

The origin issue is something else again. Physics has the quantum vacuum. Our physical theories show no sign of needing a mental component to operate as they do. We can trace the evolution of the entire physical universe to the big bang, and the physical equations describe all of the effects we observe without a “mental term”. From what ground does the mental essence of atoms or the cosmos arise? To say it just happens in the same big bang as everything else is merely to stipulate an answer and beg the question. 

Of the three issues, interaction, specification, and origin, the last is the least acknowledged by the RM or P community. The properties whose specification we do not know, interacting we know not how, are merely stipulated to have been present since the big bang. Surely there is something about this that warrants inquiry? I suspect the problem is that any such investigation quickly backs up into something like God. CC is purportedly teleology-free (at least this is how physicists understand it). The moment one suggests there is a mental essence associated with physical causal relations, one throws this corollary of the principle into question. If the proto-mental has the effect of guiding physics towards brains and consciousness CC, as understood by physicists, is broken. 

If the proto-mental does not affect physical unfolding until and unless brains happen along, if it is teleology-free, its existence is more mysterious still! There would be then, an essential (if unspecifiable) quality of the physical that has no effect what-so-ever over billions of years but happens to generate consciousness when brains happen along, which by sheer luck, occurs. This is exactly how PD comes out! “The mental” emerges from brains and only from brains! RM and P are teleological hypotheses, or they are explanatorily redundant!

THEISM

If there is a teleological direction, who or what sets it? Dr. Goff goes so far as to assert that the cosmos is not merely minded in some vague sense, but intentional, as far back as the big bang (“Did the Universe Design Itself” Nov. 2018). Intentionality would leave no doubt about teleology. I pointed out to Dr. Goff that once he goes this far, he is nine-tenths of the way to God. He has never commented. 

T addresses the origin question, and along with it, the teleological direction. Whatever it is that brings mind about when brains are on the scene (see “From what comes Mind”), God is responsible for it. What then is responsible for God? God is responsible for God, theism’s grand stipulation. There is a single entity at the top of the chain of being who is responsible (eternally) for its own existence. If this weren’t so, there would be yet something antecedent to God. 

In this context, it is worth mentioning simulation scenarios (SS) tangential to PD, RM, and P. These break down into three broad varieties. Mind might be simulated directly (a brain-in-a-vat) in which case SS collapses into idealism (ultimately solipsism), with the simulators (whomever they are) being proxies for God. Next, the mind-independent world is simulated directly and our physical selves simulated within it (many computer games serve as the present metaphor for this). However, the appearance of a first-person subjectivity in the simulated world is as mysterious as it is without hypothesizing the simulation. Finally, what is simulated is not the world as we find it but the big bang, the settings, and the standard model (what David Chalmers’ calls a “metaphysical simulation”). The world is left to evolve with the simulation providing whatever is required to evoke minds from brains. Except for the interaction mechanism, this scenario does remove the mystery from mind’s appearance, but at the cost of making the simulators not merely proxies for God but to all intents and purposes, actually God!

God is God if and only if he is his own eternal source, meaning there never was a time when God was not (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). Of course, this “too pat” answer is among the reasons atheist philosophers (the majority these days) reject T. But in response, as an alternative, they offer nothing to ground their speculations!

God sets the settings producing a physical universe where mind is possible. There is nothing else for God to do until somewhere conditions become life-compatible. From that point, God, or some proxy acting for him, might have something to do with life’s origin and the evolution of mind-supporting brains. There is no mystery in a teleological direction if God is the source of it. 

T also addresses the specification issue.  Mind emerges from the functioning of brains as PD advocates imagine it, except that something God adds to the physical universe (see again “From what comes Mind”) supports mind’s emergence. There are no mental qualities or essences of atoms, stars, or even the whole physical universe. Interestingly, Dr. Goff suggests a field idea for whatever it is that embodies the intentionality of the cosmos (as do I in the aforementioned essay), but he says nothing about what might ground it metaphysically. If there is a fire in a fireplace, we say “the fire is intentional”, but this is a metaphor. The fire has no intention. The intention belongs to she who lit it. T grounds intentionality because it belongs to God, who is minded — conscious!  

That leaves the “interaction issue”, identical to that faced by PD, RM, and P.  Under T, even brains have no “mental qualities” of their own. The mental is a response, an outcome of the interaction between brains and whatever supports its emergence. Consciousness is analogous to the movement of a pointer on a dial, a  response to the interaction between some phenomenon and an experimental apparatus. 

T can say no more about how this works or what “the something” does to brains to evoke mind than any other hypothesis. But T does have two arrows in its quiver the others lack. First, it has God who knows the trick! Second, it gives a good reason why we cannot fathom the interaction mechanism. Whatever it is that interacts with brains to produce mind, it is metaphysically antecedent to the mind, the subjective individual consciousness, it invokes. 

Whatever God (directly or indirectly, e.g., via a field in spacetime) does to produce consciousness is transparent to us. We have only the result, the output of the interaction that constitutes our experiential arena. That arena has phenomenal access to the structure of the material (mind-independent) world through qualia, the mediation of physical senses. It has no access to the phenomenon that invokes consciousness from brains beyond that which is invoked. Individual mind is our brain’s measurement or detection of the supporting phenomenon, whatever it is. Like the motion of the needle, that’s all we get!

T has one other advantage. It leaves CC alone! PD accepts that CC is false. RM and P try to save CC but do so only by stipulation — “the physical is fundamentally also mental”. In T, CC genuinely holds. The purely physical produces, and emerges from, only the physical! As Dawkins puts it (The Blind Watchmaker), “God is redundant” (he should add “in or for the physical as such”). Mind’s source is outside the physical, from God, directly or indirectly. God also happens to be the source of the material, including the properties of CC. This fact explains the ability of mind to both represent the physical and manipulate it. Mind is designed and intended, by God, to do that!

CONCLUSION

If atheist philosophers want to be taken seriously by theists who are, at this time, the only philosophers who grasp the fact that God alone grounds all the metaphysical questions, they must suggest reasonable answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this essay. PD, RM, and P all suffer by breaking with CC one way or another. Only T (besides EM&F) fully preserves CC, and only T explains why the interaction mechanism is, in principle, out of our reach.

Both RM and P (especially P) could claim (along with T) that we cannot specify the proto-mental or how it interacts with brains because it is antecedent to the consciousness invoked. But unlike T, these qualities supposedly originate in a physical event, the big bang, which is historically, but not metaphysically, antecedent to mind. It may well be that we cannot fathom the interaction between mind and proto-mental assemblies (or the cosmological totality) in brains. But hydrogen atoms and planets, not to mention the universe, are of the mind-independent world, the world to which we have phenomenal (sensory) access. If we cannot even hypothesize about the effect of the proto-mental on the physical, if the proto-mental has no measurable effect on cosmological evolution (at least up until brains come along) then it is explanatorily redundant. 

T is not an empty hypothesis. It posits no unspecifiable proto-mental qualities embedded in physics or cosmology. What evokes the mental comes from outside physics altogether, from God who is not explanatorily redundant because he is the source and ground of both whatever-it-is that evokes the mental from brains, and the physical, ultimately the brains, from which consciousness emerges. For this reason, because it is metaphysically antecedent to physics, its interaction with brains cannot be fathomed by the consciousness invoked by it. 

None of this impels us to say that God exists, let alone that he must exist. In this PoM context, T is a hypothesis like all the others. It happens to be the only hypothesis that answers most of the questions left unanswered by PD, RM, and P. Not only is it logical, it is the best hypothesis we presently have and should therefore be taken seriously.