Fire and Consciousness: A Metaphor

fireBorghish was a genius, the most respected man in his village. For he was a genius about fire. Borghish lived on the island of Manula with 100 clansmen, an estimated 50,000 years ago. The group lived off of fishing, hunting and gathering. Fire was especially important, for preparing meals, for preserving meats, for preparing clothing, for warmth at night, to help protect against dangerous animals. Fire was part of the essence of life. And Borghish understood fire. He could make a small fire large in minutes, he could preserve a fire’s embers, making a second fire easy to start, he could control a fire’s warmth and its direction of spread. He could prepare the perfect fireplace, and understood which woods and material made best fires. When it came to fire, he was the man. He had absolute control. Compared to anyone in his clan, compared to anyone in present-day America, Borghish was a master of fire. Although the people of Manula knew that Borghish was a genius, Borghish, himself, wasn’t so sure. Sometimes, he thought “yes, I have gifts unimaginable to others, I am all powerful, I understand fire.” Sometimes he realized that there was variation in his craft, variation he hid from others, variation he could not control. And sometimes, at the moment when the turning rod caused the smoke to turn to fame he thought, “I don’t understand what’s going on; I don’t understand fire”. He could control the instance of magic, but the fire itself was magic.

Borghish had absolute control of the conditions necessary for fire, but he did not understand fire.

Neuroscience appears to be advancing in the battle to understand consciousness. We are rapidly moving towards understanding what Cristof Koch calls the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC), that is, the brain events that correlate with conscious states. As this work advances, correlations will become more precise. Rather than simply recording from a brain and recognizing sleep from wakefulness, or stages of sleep, we are and will be able to identify the type of task the conscious brain is engaged in. Slowly specifics about the task will emerge. The ability to determine which of two movies a subject is thinking about can be identified. Eventually, conceivably, via precise correlates, neuroscientists may be able to accurately read conscious minds. In a parallel train, in a manner similar to Borghish, physicians and scientists may be able to advance consciousness control, and steer someone’s brain into particular patterns. Perhaps very precise states. Perhaps, very precise thoughts and memories.

If this advance in technology is reached, will we be able to say that we understand consciousness? No. We will have gotten no farther then Borghish. We will have precise understanding of the physical conditions necessary for consciousness to emerge, but the conscious state that we all know (and love) will remain deeply mysterious. We will know the recipe, not the chemistry (or physics). Whence the unity of conscious experience? The sense of self? The perception of agency and control? Answers are not clear.

That is how consciousness is like fire.

Some will say that it ends there. Consciousness, like fire, is an emergent property. It exists at a different level than the physical state of the brain. Ryle termed mixing consciousness with brain states a categorical mistake. He felt it improper to cross categories of knowledge, such as physical world events and mental events. I find Ryle’s view a cop out. The term “emergent property” is hand waving for “stuff we don’t understand“. That is, an emergent property is a function of the brain, not the world. I consider settling for an “emergent property” conception of consciousness “soft dualism”. Reductionism is the opposite. It is the quest to remove an “emergent property”, by explaining a higher level property via lower level properties, such as physics explaining chemistry. Or chemistry explaining fire. Just as Borghish had no theory of fire, in 2013 we have no strong proposals for crossing the boundary between brain state and consciousness. The project lies ahead.


27 thoughts on “Fire and Consciousness: A Metaphor

  1. Consciousness is hyperactive agency detection focused on itself.

    To detect anything, neural networks use pattern recognition. All pattern recognition suffers from type one and from type two errors. False positives and false negatives. Both are unavoidable. Neural networks can be tuned to minimize false positives, but then they suffer from increased false negatives.

    Evolution has tuned human agency detection to be hyperactive. All humans (all organisms?) exhibit hyperactive agency detection. Responding to predation selects for neural networks skewed to exhibit more false positive detections of predators and fewer false negative detections of predators.

    What is the minimum neural network pattern recognition necessary to detect agency? The first thing needed is a pattern, and then neuroanatomy to compare that pattern with sensory data and detect a match. What is the most economical pattern to use? How about the self? The already existing neuroanatomy that is just sitting there? Compare it to incoming sensory data and if there is a match, then bingo, you have identified an agent.

    What happens if you use that system to try and detect self-agency? You are comparing something with itself, so you always get a match. No matter how the self has been degraded, the pattern recognition still comes back with “yup, it is a match”. Gabby Giffords self-recognition pattern recognition still comes back with “yup, it is a match”. No matter how much people change, they still feel like themselves because they are the pattern being compared against itself. It will always match, unless the comparative neuroanatomy is so damaged that a match cannot be made.

    Consciousness is a cognitive illusion, albeit a persistent one.

  2. Hi jkubie,

    Thank you for your article. In reply, I do think there are some strong proposals for how to bridge that boundary, and they have to do with light, non-local causation and Nobel Laureate neuroscientist Roger Sperry who said the new interpretation of brain science would come to see consciousness as primary (not emergent or brain-based), as a causal reality.

    That proposal holds that consciousness came first and gave rise to brains…I happen to think that consciousness is a creative, self-organizing intelligence that interconnects the universe.

    Einstein said if he could he’d like to spend his whole life over again studying light and Max Planck said photons behave like intelligent human beings. Research by Vladimir Poponin shows photons in a vacuum line up in orderly fashion with molecules that are introduced, by Rene Peoc’h that baby chicks who think a random-moving robot is their mother affect the movements of the robot, and decades of research at Princeton Engineering Anomolies Research Lab with Robert Jahn (who was asked by JFK to design a rocket that could get us to the moon, and now is with, provide just some of the findings that combine to create a picture of consciousness as a self-organizing, creative intelligence that interconnects all of life.

    There may be brain-based electromagnetic and biochemical correlates to various states and processes of consciousness, but correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Yes brain chemicals and electrical stimulation can induce or give rise to thoughts, memories and emotions and that is consistent with the current mechanistic, materialist, Cartesian paradigm, but that model cannot explain the reverse…like the placebo effect, or how imagery can cause the firing of a single or group of motor neurons or – like the observer effect – influence another’s behavior (let alone one’s own blood flow or “autonomic” nervous system).

    Light enters space time and in a gravitational collapse creates electrons and protons…the buiklding blocks of the universe. Scientists don’t even know how to talk about where light comes from or that it has no mass or charge until it enters space time and then from nothing creates the stuff of everything. What if that who-knows-where-it-comes-from light is in everyone? But our fears and anxieties and lack of imagination/ruts of thinking and perception have just about put out the light?

    Jacques Lusseyran, blind since age eight discovered that the light was still there on the inside and it gave him guidance and strength…he went on to lead a student resistance movement to the Nazi occupation in France, was a founder of the clandestine paper that became France Soir (one of the largest daily papers) and out of 2000 Frenchmen was one of only 30 that survived Buchenwald. He said the light is the source of life and turning on his light was possible only when he was in a state of loving…when he was angry, self-pitying, resentful the light went out completely.

    There is more from different disciplines – and cultures – that relates to this “proposal”…I think it is both elegant and inclusive of human phenomena (like dreams that happen later, preominitions, esp and placebo) that conventional science is forced to discount, deny, distort or ignore. It also places interconnectedness and love squarely at the center of life…a center from which the materialist/mechanistic paradigm of physicality and separation into parts has alienated us.

    In my opinion many have a knee-jerk rejection of this because they can’t imagine this description of consciousness as something separate from God or religion, or are so tied to the physical/mechanistic paradigm that it has become like a religion to them and so can’t entertain anything considered blasphemous to the dogma.


    • Hi Jane,
      Thanks for your comments. Not sure if you are summarizing one, broad hypothesis to bridge the gap or several less likely ones. I’m uncertain about some of your data points, or whether they may have more prosaic explanations (placebo effect). My guess is that “bridging the gap” will come form physics, not neuroscience. Perhaps understanding the entanglement of particles or discovering that ‘information’ is not just a descriptive term, but a fundamental unit of the universe. Glad you see across the boundary; not so clear to me.

      • It’s actually a broad holistic hypothesis that synthesizes findings from many other fields of science. Since we are talking about consciousness I think its exploration/understanding would definitely include neuroscience. I agree with your suggestion regarding information at a fundamental level…Democritus in 500 BC said consciousness is a unit of matter in a continuum of life. (I got that quote from the Continuum Exhibit that was first on display in 1978 at the Museum of Science and Industry in California.)

  3. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (16 March 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  4. “The term “emergent property” is hand waving for “stuff we don’t understand“

    The term “emergent” is used in different ways, but it is widely used to refer to higher-level properties even when we fully understand how they emerge from the underlying physics. The temperature of a gas is emergent (no single particle is 25 degrees), but we have a good understanding of how that property is connected to the motions of the particles.

    I like to use the term “weak emergence” for the cases where the higher level property reduces to physics, and “strong emergence” for properties that don’t. (As I physicalist, I hold that there are no strongly emergent properties.)

    • Excited by your comment. To a degree, I was talking thru my hat about emergence, hoping for thoughtful feedback. I’ve heard physicists who seem to have internal contradictions. But I don’t know physicicists very well. Your concepts of “weak” and “strong” emergence seem useful.

      • Once I get this book shipped off, I’m thinking that I might write up a series of posts on physicalism and emergence on my blog. It won’t be this week, though.

  5. Near the beginning of my time as a student computer programmer, around 1970, I wrote a little program that displayed this question:

    What is your name?

    So the person in front of the keyboard would type,


    And the computer would then type,

    Hi, Ralph! How are you today?

    Back then (remember, this is 1970), if I showed this program to a person with no computer background, the person would be amazed. “The computer wrote a message to me!”

    But of course, the little two-line computer program was not writing a message to the person. The little program was something like this:

    1 Write “What is your name?”
    2 Read NAME
    3 Write “Hi, “, NAME, “! How are you today?”

    Clearly, there was no consciousness involved. But the person sitting in front of the screen did not know how simple my program was. At that moment, to that person, the computer seemed conscious, intelligent, even friendly.

    That is kind of funny now. But the really, really funny thing is this: if that computer really had somehow been conscious, or if there had been a real person hiding under the table typing those same phrases, the result would have looked exactly the same.

    Think about that. A genuine, conscious, nice person under the table types, “Hi, Ralph! How are you today!” — and means it.

    And the visible result is exactly the same. And maybe the next version of the program would then type, “Glad to meet you, Ralph. My name is Harold, and I am a conscious, friendly person.”

    If the program gets gradually more talkative and more convincing, how can anyone tell whether it becomes genuinely conscious?

    And how can you tell whether I, who is writing this, is conscious? Well, you can’t. You never can. No matter what I write, you can never know. But let me tell you, I feel conscious!

    Do you believe me?

    • I’ve thought about how to pass the Turing test. (or is it fail?). Anyway, how to ask a question that would reveal consciousness. My first thought it that if the machine were a computer, not a robot, I could easily get it. But a robot is far more difficult. Going a step further, what about human behavior could NOT be emulated by a well programmed robot? There are features of consciousness that would be important to include, like goals, and self-awareness and one-at-a-time processing. But these are not the “hard question”. (Would need a concept of ‘self’ and the boundaries from non-self; one reason a robot, not a computer). Its hard to see the operational benefits of the experience of consciousness, and, without clear behavioral differences, hard to see how you’d program a robot, or a zombie, to have full-bore consciousness.

      • If you could somehow program consciousness, the robot’s conscious behavior would not look any different from non-conscious behavior. So you could write some code, if you wish, but it never has to run. And whether you run it or not, no one will ever be able to tell the difference.

    • I got an email saying you made a comment. I think, since you had commented before, it didn’t need approval. But I went looking for your comment to ‘approve’ and couldnt find it. If I deleted, it was an error. But I really can’t see how my maneuvering in wordpress should resulted in a deletion. I may be able to find your comment and reactivate it. I’ll try.


      • Good. I was hoping you had the text. I just went looking through comments, both approved and unapproved, and it wasn’t there. But I got an email from wordpress with your comment text (the only place I saw it). It was very interesting, and certainly inoffensive!


  6. There is a preposterous notion that: fMRI… heterophenomenology… Gee! computers!… blah-blah… miscellaneous hand-waving… somehow amounts to a coherent chain of evidence and argument demonstrating that consciousness “emerges” from brains. Actually, this piffle is indistinguishable from any other kind of religious faith.

    Objective science is an unparalleled cultural and utilitarian achievement, but it rests squarely upon several unverified assumptions about the subjective, i.e. about consciousness. Such truly fundamental assumptions include:

    1) The consciousness which I experience is localized.
    2) This consciousness is distinct from and independent of all other conscious entities which may exist.
    3) This consciousness can be considered to operate independently of its content.
    4) This consciousness, as it now manifests, is comprehensively representative of consciousness as it has been experienced by humans.

    Empiricism is clearly the best approach to knowing the objective world, but it works equally well for investigating the subjective world (a process which is properly called meditation). Despite what you may have heard, it requires no belief systems whatever, and never entails the acceptance of anything without evidence.

    Just as it takes many years to get a real science education, however, it takes even longer to develop an authentic understanding of your own nature. In each case, only a small minority can be bothered to do the work.

    Fortunately, all of us get glimpses of the numinous. Whether systematically, through meditation; experimentally, through psychedelic drug use; or idiosyncratically, through those marvellous moments when we spontaneously find ourselves in harmony with nature. Objective science is awesome, but it isn’t enough: we need subjective science as well.
    Despite its current ascendancy, scientific materialism is patently false; and this can be known directly by anyone who cares to conduct an empirical enquiry into their own subjectivity.

    Consciousness is primary. It simply can’t be reduced into information, and it can’t be finessed into non-existence. I AM, and even though my nature is obscure, still nothing is more directly observed than the fact of my own existence.

    • Interesting post. Not sure why you reject ‘information’. It may be the transition you’re looking for. It’s not as if we have a scientific understanding of information. Is it a description or a an entity?

    • thanks. Just bought and downloaded the kindle version. I’ll try to read it soon and get back to you. Very promising. It is 400+ pages, so either it takes a long time to describe ’emergent properties’, or it has other stuff. I assume the latter.

  7. Fire is close, it’s what physicists call a dissipative system. You might want to look into the work of Ilya Prigogine and many successors for mathematical treatment. Thermoregulation is better. Where in a room thermostat is the target temperature? The target temperature is in the air, not the thermostat. Reduce that!

    Or less philosophically, consider the relationship between the brainstem nuclei and the neuronal receptors that are sensitive to body core temperature and the metabolic effects of shivering. Is studying “the neural correlates of body temperature” a useful endeavor in understanding thermoregulation? Relate to the neurophysiology of reptiles, fishes, and insects, i.e. homeothermy, poikilotherms, etc. The concept of kleptothermy is especially interesting when analogized to consciousness.

    • I think “fire” works better than your suggested examples because it is understood now, while in earlier times it seemed like magic. That’s what I think (hope) consciousness turns out to be: some day it will be understood at a causal level, but currently its magic. Its hard to make that story about thermistats of thermoregulation. As earlier commenters have noted, there are 2 kinds of ‘ermgence’. One is an apparenlty complicated process we don’t understand (consciousness); the other is a complex process involving many interactive elements that we do understand. The second kind is what, I think, you are talking about. Its complicated in a different way.
      I have a separate blog post on whether a thermistat has consciousness (it doesn’t). It makes a similar point that ‘set point’ only exists as a system property (and in the mind of an observer)..

  8. Oh, new to this blog, I see that you addressed thermostats last December. I’m not suggesting that thermostats are conscious, only that thermoregulation is an undeniably real phenomenon that is of a higher order of emergence than steady state objects like rocks or water droplets, and is also higher order than a flame. The easy problem of consciousness, self-control of attention, is even higher order, and the hard problem, the “feel” of awareness, is higher order still.

    • No, I didn’t think you were suggesting that thermostats are conscious, but others do (Chalmers, Tononi, Koch). I understood that you were using the functionality of thermostats (set point, etc) as an emergent property that wasn’t localized in any part. This type of ’emergent property’ may only exist in a conscious mind — I think that’s an argument that Searle makes. if that’s correct it presents other kinds of problems.

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