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.