Is consciousness an inconsequential illusion?

Consciousness is the state of mind that allows us to realize our own existence, that of other people and the things that happen in the world in which we live. It is created by millions of neurons that lie in the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes of the brain, that is, in the posterior cerebral cortexa knowledge that, sooner or later, can make possible the recovery of the conscious state in those who have lost it by accident or illness and lie unconscious in a hospital intensive care unit.

With greater or lesser precision, we therefore know where the neurons that create consciousness are located, but we do not know, nor do we know if we will ever know, how they create it, that is, how those neurons give rise to thoughts and perceptions. conscious, subjective imagination. Surprisingly, for some scientists, like the unfortunately late Gerald Edelman, of the Neuroscience Institute of San Diego (California) and Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, that might not matter too much because for them consciousness is just an illusion, an inconsequential reflection of brain activity, something like the noise of a car engine or the smoke from a fire, phenomena, noise and smoke, as inevitable as they are dispensable. Ultimately, consciousness would be what philosophers call an epiphenomenon.

According to this belief, the thoughts and conscious reflections that we have would not be the determinants of our decisions and behavior, because the one who determines them is the brain itself without consciousness being of any use. In short, biological consciousness is an illusion without causal value, which seems to contradict common sense, since we all feel that we move and act according to what we consciously decide. As it was difficult for me to accept it, a few years ago I plucked up the courage and personally wrote to the Nobel Edelman while he was still alive, with the request that he explain it to me better, lest I not understand his way of considering consciousness. I did not expect to have an answer from such a noble scientist, but, to my surprise, he answered in his name Joseph Gally, a colleague from the same institution, with whom we began an exchange of opinions on the subject that lasted several weeks.

Gally repeatedly insisted that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, an illusion without causal value that the brain creates when it functions in a certain way, something, he also said, somewhat fortuitously, like the color of blood, which is red due to hemoglobin. , the protein it contains to carry oxygen to the tissues. If that protein were a different one, as in some animals, the color of their blood would also be different. Color, therefore, is not important for the functioning of the blood and, in the same way, consciousness is not important for the functioning of the brain. I persisted insisting that, if it is not something important, why has consciousness evolved, why are we conscious beings? Gally didn’t give me an answer to that question, but, in the heat of the debate, he went so far as to say that knowing how the brain creates consciousness is the biggest biological science challenge for the 21st century. And it was then when I told him that if he didn’t find it incongruous that the greatest scientific challenge of the new century is to discover how the brain makes possible something that, according to him, is useless. And there was the debate.

No doubt Edelman, Gally, and like-minded scientists are right when they say that we cannot see how an illusion (consciousness) could activate a single neuron to produce a movement, an action. But what we do know is that the opposite is possible, since it is a common experience that neurons produce illusions (consciousness). Metaphorically then, if we know how water turns into ice, that could help us to know how ice turns into water, that is, how consciousness makes us act. Even so, pretending that our conscious thoughts, whatever they do, determine our behavior comes to be considered by these scientists as a form of dualism, like believing that the body and the mind are different things, a return to René’s theory Descartes, the French philosopher.

That is why some time ago I proposed an alternative option* according to which consciousness works as a mirror, that is, as a feedback mechanism that allows us to know in detail the course of our behavior in order to be able to correct it and adjust it continuously to our purposes and needs. This being so, there is no dualism, since consciousness is not an external agent that commands and controls us, it is only an auxiliary mechanism of the brain itself to gain precision in behavior. Let us remember that when we look at ourselves in a mirror we come to ask “how am I doing” and not “how do you think I am”. That is, to the mirror, as to consciousness, we do not attribute a personality independent of ourselves. The brain, therefore, is the one who does everything, consciousness included, because without it our behavior would be erratic, similar to that of someone who walks with his eyes closed. No unconscious robot, no matter how sophisticated, could replace a state like consciousness that provides great flexibility and precision to behavior. Consciousness, in short, is not an epiphenomenon, it is not an inconsequential illusion, it is much more than that. Whether the human brain has evolved enough to understand how objective matter turns into subjective imagination is a different thing, a topic we can deal with another time.

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Is consciousness an inconsequential illusion?