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.

Review: Deacon “Incomplete Nature”

The book here is 6 years old but only recently reviewed by me. Somehow it escaped my attention until now. This is one of those books that no short review could do justice. I said so much in the review, but I will stand for now on what I wrote in it albeit I emphasize that it is summary, oversimplified, and confusing because terms like “teleodynamic” are not defined (in the review) not to mention a half dozen other terms that Deacon creates for the sake of necessary abstractions with which to continue the narrative. In the book, every one of these new terms is carefully explained, defined, and justified.

In this commentary, I’m not going to expand on or further clarify the review but rather say something about what “isn’t there”, something I think Dr. Deacon will appreciate. In “Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” the authors build a case that amounts to saying what is important about the way the universe turned out is the particular historical path followed by its events. At different points of the universe’s history different things might have happened, but what should be informing present science, theories about origins and destinies, is what actually happened. The material world is contingent; things might have happened otherwise, but they happened to happen the way they did and that way was not only perfectly compatible with the regularities of physics but just as likely to have happened as any other outcome compatible with those regularities. The question of why things went one way rather than another can be asked, but not answered (if even then) until after the fact.

This view is perfectly compatible with Deacon’s account of the rise of life and consciousness but Deacon emphasizes what Unger and Smolin leave out. As goes life and mind what didn’t happen, that is what was excluded and made impossible (or improbable) by what did happen, is the real key to understanding how the particular path that is history came out as it did. As in “Singular Universe”, from any given temporal viewpoint, we can no more predict what exactly will be excluded in the future than we can predict what will happen. Why certain possible histories were precluded can, again, be answered only after the fact. While this viewpoint may make it possible to more fully understand the relation between basic physics, the origin of life, and the nature (and causal efficacy) of consciousness (a case Deacon makes well), it doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that the path actually taken was accidental.

Since historical outcomes (and exclusions) were just as possible as alternatives that “might have been”, if in fact such outcomes were not literally accidental, there would be no way to tell. To put it another way, if God wanted to make physics do the maximum possible work (sans intervention) to result in life and consciousness, the possibility of this pathway, this set of exclusions (emergent constraints resulting in emergent attractors), perfectly lawful and equally likely, would be the very sort of process involved. Because the information bearing nature of the final outcome is the result of possibilities subtracted away from the infinite possibilities present at earlier stages it stands out only after the fact. Rather than there being no evidence for teleology added up-front, there couldn’t be (evidence) by presupposition because what happened was always one possibility among others.

Deacon is a materialist and insists that his theory at least suggests how life and consciousness could arise out of nothing more than the regularities of physics. He insists that his theory explains these phenomena without resort to anything but physics and he is right, in a way it does. But the theory relies on the fact that the “telos” of the physical process appears only after-the-fact and that renders anything non-accidental (provided it does not violate the regularities of physics) occurring before-the-fact completely invisible.

But perhaps this is a superficial criticism. It can be applied to any purely physical theory whatsoever. Deacon has a bigger problem. Truly an absence, a hole for example, is not a material thing; neither substance nor process. So we have an easy route from physics to non-materiality. It is less clear how absences are causes, formal or efficient (the two levels Deacon relies upon). Surely they can contribute to efficient causes (contributory cause) by being one of a combination of circumstances that together are a cause. They can also be a component of formal causes, of the form of a thing that determines its causal efficacy. But I cannot think of an example where absence qua absence is the sole, single, cause of anything efficient or formal.

Further, consciousness, at least as I experience it, while it might emerge as a result of constraints resulting in an important non-material absence, an attractor (surely these do have a role to play) in association with other causes, is not itself an absence, but a positive; a presence. It is the most present phenomenon to my experience because it is my experience, my subjective perspective. But nowhere in Deacon’s book does he manage to explain how a causally efficacious non-material presence (not absence) emerges. This is merely another way of saying “the way our experience is and not some other way”, but either way you phrase it, Deacon doesn’t arrive at it. In Deacon’s view, consciousness has to emerge from a constraint that emerges in an attractor. But attractors are empty, while consciousness, that is subjectivity, is not.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)

This is a great book! For years now I’ve read books by scientists and philosophers addressing the origins of life and consciousness. Many often point to “self organizing” phenomena in the universe (a simple example, simmering water in a pot organizing itself into columns of bubbles, or the way in which water flow in a chaotic rapid can here and there form stable whirlpools) and claim that life’s origin, and eventually even consciousness, are nothing more than complex examples of this process. But none of them make the attempt to cross the divide between these simple regularities and the far more complex nature of life and mind.

In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn’t what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn’t what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.

Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn’t the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.

Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that “telos” here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.

This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn’t what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon’s far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.

This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.