Non-Conventional Theories of Consciousness
Stuart Hameroff, an anesthetist at the University of Arizona, and Roger Penrose, a mathematician from the University of Cambridge, have raised many of the limitations of the conventional brain based theories above. In particular they argue that the conventional brain based theories cannot fully explain the observed features of 'the self'. They further argue that there are single-celled organisms such as amoeba that, despite lacking brain cells or brain cell connections (synapses) are able to swim, find food, learn and multiply. Hence they suggest that there must be a different mechanism other than the activity of brain cells and their connections with each other that leads to a sense of self.
They propose that perhaps very small protein structures called mictotubules that are found in all cells whether simple single celled organisms such as amoeba (who thus do not have a separate brain) or the most complex organisms such as humans may be what leads to conscious awareness and thoughts - or in other words 'the self'. Furthermore they argue that consciousness is thus not a product of direct brain cell to cell activity, but rather the action of processes occurring in the smallest possible level within the microtubules of brain cells- the subatomic level - where things are even smaller than atoms.
The theory proposed by Hameroff and Penrose however still fails to answer the fundamental question of how subjective experiences and thought processes arise. Some have, however, also argued against their theory by pointing out that microtubules exist in all cells throughout the body and not just in the brain. Also there are drugs that can damage the structure of micotubules but appear to have no effect on consciousness.
The history of science is full of examples of situations in which scientists have been confronted with seemingly unsolvable problems using the scientific principles of the time. For example when the British scientist Maxwell first discovered electromagnetic phenomena in the nineteenth century, electromagnetism had to be described as a scientific entity in its own right, as it could not be explained according to known scientific principles. It was many years later that the first radio waves (which are electromagnetic waves) were recorded by the German scientist Hertz and now we have a whole area of science that is based upon them, not to mention numerous devices such as radio, television, microwaves and infrared cameras.
Some scientists have also suggested that consciousness or the self, too, is at present not reducible in terms of currently understood mechanisms of brain cell activity and its true nature may only be discovered when our science progresses further.
The limitations of all the theories mentioned above has thus led to the suggestion that consciousness or the self may in fact be an irreducible scientific entity in its own right, similar to many of the concepts in physics, such as mass and gravity, which have also been irreducible entities. The investigation into consciousness and the self has thus been proposed to be similar to the discovery of electromagnetic phenomena in the nineteenth century or quantum mechanics in the twentieth century, both of which were inexplicable in terms of previously known principles.
Some, such as David Chalmers, have argued that this new irreducible scientific entity is a product of the brain, whereas others have argued that it is an entirely separate entity that is not produced by the brain.
The late Sir John Eccles, a neuroscientist who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1963 for his work on brain cell connections (synapses) and was considered by many to be one of the greatest neuroscientists of the twentieth century, was perhaps the most distinguished scientist who argued in favor of such a separation between mind, consciousness and the brain. He argued that the unity of conscious experience was provided by the mind and not by the machinery of the brain. His view was that the mind itself played an active role in selecting and integrating brain cell activity and molded it into a unified whole. He considered it a mistake to think that the brain did everything and that conscious experiences were simply a reflection of brain activities, which he described as a common philosophical view:
'If that were so, our conscious selves would be no more than passive spectators of the performances carried out by the neuronal machinery of the brain. Our beliefs that we can really make decisions and that we have some control over our actions would be nothing but illusions.'
He further argued that there was 'a combination of two things or entities: our brains on the one hand and our conscious selves on the other'. He thought of the brain as an 'instrument that provides the conscious self or person with the lines of communication from and to the external world, and it does this by receiving information through the immense sensory system of the millions of nerve fibers that fire impulses to the brain, where it is processed into coded patterns of information that we read out from moment to moment in deriving all our experiences-our perceptions, thoughts ideas and memories'.
According to Eccles,
'We as experiencing persons do not slavishly accept all that is provided for us by our instrument, the neuronal machine of our sensory system and the brain, we select from all that is given according to interest and attention and we modify the actions of the brain, through "the self" for example, by initiating some willed movement.'
Eccles' theory has been well described in his book "The Self and Its Brain". However, he acknowledged that he was still unable to explain how the mind carried out these activities and how it interacted with a separate brain.
Inspired through the work of his father, the late Ostad Elahi a distinguished philosopher, jurist, and theologian - Bahram Elahi, a well respected professor of surgery and anatomy with a distinguished academic and clinical career has also studied the question of the 'self' for over 40 years. During his work he has applied the same rigor of his scientific background to this subject and concluded that although the mind and the brain are separate - unlike some of the traditional 'dualists' views, consciousness or the self is not immaterial. Rather, it is composed of a very subtle type of matter that, although still undiscovered, is similar in concept to electromagnetic waves, which are capable of carrying sound and pictures and are governed by precise laws, axioms and theorems.
Therefore, in Elahi's view, everything to do with this entity should be regarded as a separate undiscovered scientific discipline and studied in the same objective manner as other scientific disciplines. He argues that as science is a systematic and experimental method of obtaining knowledge of a given domain of reality, then 'consciousness' or the 'self' can and should also be studied with the same objectivity. Each scientific discipline such as chemistry, biology and physics has its own laws, theorems and axioms, and in the same manner the science of 'the self' or the 'soul' should also be studied in the context of its own laws, theorems and axioms. In his view, consciousness is also a scientific entity and a type of 'matter', however it is a substance that is too subtle to be measured using the scientific tools available today. Therefore in his view the brain is an instrument that relays information to and from both the internal and external world, but 'consciousness' or 'the self' is a separate subtle scientific entity that interacts directly with it.