The first article of this series described consciousness as the capacity to have an inner experience based on sensations and feelings, what philosophers call qualia, and highlighted the characteristics of the four basic categories of qualia, namely the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. This essay will further explore the basic properties of qualia, perception, and comprehension which allow us to experience life and find meaning and purpose out of conscious living.
Qualia cannot be explained by science
The nature of qualia cannot be scientifically explained either as a nervous, informational, chemical, or physical phenomenon. This simple fact suggests that we are missing something fundamental in our understanding of nature. Many scholars are telling us that consciousness is just an emergent property of a complex information processing system. If this explanation were valid, we should already be able to create a robot with a primitive consciousness, given the sophistication of our current information technology. The fact that we do not even know where to begin to design a robot with feelings, intimates that consciousness belongs to another order of reality, a reality beyond reductive machines, something beyond mechanism.
There is no evidence that electrical patterns in computer memory, or electrical signals traveling along electrical wires, no matter how complex they may be, can produce qualia. In a robot, these electrical patterns may produce reasonable and appropriate automatic responses, and the imitation of a conscious behavior may be so good as to deceive us into believing that the robot is conscious. Yet robots have no consciousness. They simply do what they are programmed to do, or what they have learned through their artificial neural networks architected by the comprehension of conscious human designers with the explicit intention to imitate human behavior. In our physical world, consciousness may only exist within living organisms.
Our proclivity to project consciousness onto anything that behaves like us, misleads us into believing that robots might be conscious. Robots have no sensations, no feelings, no self-knowing, no free will, and no meaning because these qualities cannot come from statistical matter devoid of consciousness. We perceive and understand only because we feel, and our consciousness is the strongest evidence that we are more than machines. Qualia belong to a different category of phenomena than the physical events we can measure.
For example, the pattern of voltage created in the millions of pixels of an image sensor produces no sensation of light, color, and forms in the digital camera that houses the imager. Nonetheless, when those image data are properly processed and displayed on a screen that generates light like real objects, we experience sensations as if the images were produced by actual physical things. Instead, we only see points of light turning on and off to simulate reality. That image is only a virtual reality, an imitation of the real thing. A picture of an object or a person, however, is not the real object or person. A simulation of reality is not reality. The imitation of a conscious behavior is not proof of consciousness.
A machine cannot convert light or electrical signals into qualia. The production of qualia requires “something” that is not present in our digital computers. If human nervous systems were truly reductive information processing systems like computers—what many experts believe—then consciousness could not possibly emerge from the brain either. To believe that the brain, as a physical system that uses the physical laws we know, can cause a conscious experience, is like believing that the information displayed on our TV originates from inside the TV.
The brain resembles an intelligent terminal more than a computer; a terminal that translates signals from the physical world into symbols that our individual consciousness, existing in a reality we currently do not understand, perceives, and comprehends. Consciousness is the “inner space” in which the outer information processed by the sensory-brain system—performing a function like a computer does—is converted into qualia and then into the meaning conveyed by those qualia. The conversion from signals to qualia is called perception. The conversion from qualia to meaning is called comprehension.
The simple TV analogy can explain why our conscious experience depends on our brain being in good working order and yet is not a property of the brain. If the TV malfunctions, we get no picture. Likewise, if the brain “terminal” malfunctions or its “screen” is turned off, corrupted information or no information reaches our consciousness, accounting for the dependence of our experience on the conditions of the brain. Yet, the qualia are not inside the brain any more than the news are inside the TV. This is an effective but crude explanation because I expect the connection between the qualia-reality of consciousness and the physical reality of the brain to be much more intimate and complex than in the TV example.
Perception is the capacity to have a sentient experience. We experience the world through qualia, but these are neither electrical signals nor patterns of bits in memory. Where do qualia come from? What are the physical principles allowing brain electromagnetic activity to be experienced as qualia?
We do not know. We know the physical principles that may explain the complex patterns of electromagnetic activity in the brain correlated with seeing a glass of wine, touching it, smelling it, and tasting it. But where does the image-quale of the glass, the “sense” of holding it, the “feeling” of liquid in our mouth, the “aroma,” and the “taste” of wine come from? No one knows. Physics can only explain how a machine encodes information into some physical signals to represent some variables but cannot say anything about the feelings produced by such information. There is nothing in the known laws of physics that can predict or explain qualia.
We also know little about how any specific object is represented within our brain. It is certainly something highly dynamic and quite different from the “picture of the object” we perceive in the screen of our consciousness. But then, where does that “screen” come from?
If you close your eyes and examine the mental space that seems to be empty when you take away all the objects of perception, you begin to recognize that it is like a field of awareness, similar to a computer screen, except this one is invisible, multi-dimensional, and appears to be infinite because it has no boundaries. In this field, all types of inner and outer patterns are “projected,” not just your visual information but all types of sensations and feelings, corresponding to your inner and outer realities. And each pattern-type has its own characteristic feeling-tones or qualia.
The external reality is brought inside and becomes “subjective” through the unique sensing and information processing performed by the body—different for each person—and then it is projected outside into “objective” forms. That inner field of awareness that seems to extend beyond our body, is illuminated by all types of sensations and feelings coming from picturing the electromagnetic signals produced by the sensory-brain system connected with both our inner and outer senses.
The outer senses (vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) take signals from the external world and process them to produce a composite picture of “objects,” which we then project out of ourselves as if they existed in that form at the locations in space that was computed by the brain. We see and hear a “real” world out there, when it is instead a representation produced within us, using an infinitesimal amount of the information that exists in the vast outside world.
The inner senses, called proprioceptors, take physical signals produced by our body that, once processed by the nervous system, create a qualia-image of our internal physical world. To them we must add the emotions, thoughts, and spiritual feelings, whose origin is still a mystery.
The seamless integration of the four classes of qualia generates an “augmented reality” combining all our sensations and feelings into a unitary conscious perception that captures the entire state of our inner world and of the outer environment. This multi-dimensional qualia-field makes us feel like a conscious agent with free will interacting with other agents and objects in the external world. Each of us is the unique "owner" and experiencer of our inner world that is strictly private, whereas the outer world is shared by all.
Without qualia we would be unconscious, translating the signals of the physical world into other symbols and behaving in the world exactly like our robots, zombies, sleepwalkers, unaware of existing and deprived of any inner experience, meaning, and purpose.
Consciousness is indispensable for the exercise of what we consider exclusively human characteristics: thinking, reasoning, comprehending, willing, imagining, emoting, and deciding. The machinery controlling the symbol, however complex and prodigious that may be, is irrelevant compared to the incommensurable significance of our conscious life that allows us to "live" the information that the brain presents to our consciousness. Consciousness is what makes us experience in the moment our life and gives us the capacity to understand the meaning of our perceptions and pursue our purposes with intention, determination, and gusto.
Understanding, comprehending, and knowing
For this and subsequent articles, I will use the words understanding, comprehending, and knowing with the following specific meanings:
- Comprehension indicates the integration of all our understandings. It also provides the context for any new understanding to occur.
- Understanding requires to intuitively “get” how the elements of a body of knowledge are linked together within the context of comprehension, thus capturing the deepest possible meaning.
- Knowing refers to the process that constantly increases comprehension by the integration of new understandings. Knowing is what drives the evolution and growth of a person.
Comprehension is generally organized hierarchically. At the first hierarchical level one understands just the bare facts, the “atomic” units of that body of knowledge. The next level requires knowing meaningful relationships among the atomic units. Using chemistry as a metaphor, the next level of understanding is like discovering the “molecules of meaning” into which those “atoms of meaning” can be organized to get a richer meaning. The next level involves discovering relationships among those molecules. And this process continues to ever-higher levels.
Every time one achieves a new level of understanding-comprehension, that sudden “discovery” is expressed by a “Aha!” that captures the surprise and joy of “getting the new meaning” in an instant of delight. The excitement is proportional to the degree of surprise in the manifestation of a previously incomplete understanding. The “Aha!” expresses the achievement of a new “quantum of knowing” that emerges in our consciousness together with a quantum of self-fulfillment or joy. And here I use the words emerges and quantum quite intentionally because the increase in comprehension appears in its own terms, unannounced, coming from our unconscious, in response to our desire to know. But desire is not enough. Desire only acts like a field of force, like a “prayer” that invites the object of our desire to manifest. Desire simply directs the inherent “capacity to know” of our consciousness to deliver the wanted outcome.
The knowing process that always increases comprehension is completely unknown. It occurs underneath the veil of consciousness, requiring a sophisticated combination of differentiation and integration. Differentiation relies on the ability to discriminate subtle differences and similarities between the elements one is trying to join into a new cognitive structure to give birth to a new understanding. Integration involves the capacity to synthesize a new set of semantic relationships among lower-level cognitive elements by “connecting them” into a new structure that will eventually characterize the new comprehension.
The knowing process also requires a "rearrangement" of certain relationships between the various hierarchical levels of meaning, until the final configuration emerges. This happens when "mysteriously" a new coherent semantic structure at a higher-level emerges. Notice that for this remarkable feat to occur, our consciousness must be able to “know that it knows” as well as to “know that it does not know.” This type of inner knowing is even more remarkable than understanding and comprehending because it hints at the existence of some form of “direct knowing,” also suggested by the mystical experiences described over the centuries.
At this point we can summarize as follows: Understanding is local, comprehension is global, and knowing is the process of differentiation and integration of a provisional understanding within the existing comprehension to realize a new understanding and a new comprehension. In other words, a new comprehension occurs when a provisional understanding (the part), attempting to concurrently self-realize and integrate with the previous comprehension (the whole), reaches the point at which "the part integrates with the whole" and "the whole integrates the part" forming a new whole in the instant of knowing. In that instant, the new understanding and the new comprehension take their final form by having “adapted” to each other.
The "Aha!" then marks the unpredictable and fundamentally creative instant of knowing when the final synthesis has occurred. Therefore, the new comprehension cannot be simply the sum of a new understanding with the previous comprehension. This type of synthesis requires differentiation, integration, and intuition to guide the process. They are extraordinary properties that characterize the deeper nature of consciousness. Surprisingly, many scholars tend to value reasoning and analysis much more than the intuitive and creative synthesis that come with true knowing, even though most discoveries and inventions are due to creative synthesis.
It is important to realize that perception, understanding, comprehension, and knowing are subjective and creative processes taking place within the inner reality, inaccessible by outside observations. However, human beings can find intersubjective agreements that allow them to communicate with each other and agree on a common reality that becomes "objective by convention."