Our mind can fully understand our mind

1. Conscious experience


The "decade of the brain" is already a thing of the past. Quite a few brain researchers believe, however, that a problem of this complexity cannot be solved in a decade. For a somewhat deeper understanding of the diverse aspects of the brain, research needs at least a century (cf. Pauen and Roth, 2001).(1) The neurobiologist T. Wiesel from Rockefeller University in New York recently said in an interview that brain research is roughly where Galileo was when he explored the universe. The universe in our heads is still at an early stage of research (ORF 06/27/2001). However, the findings of the neurosciences are remarkable. Brain research is increasingly identifying the neurophysiological processes that underlie our experience and behavior (cf. Goller 2000).(2) The philosophical discussion of the mind-brain relationship in the seventies and eighties was characterized by the optimism that consciousness could ultimately be explained physically. Right now, however, there are increasing voices that hold awareness of something puzzling and mysterious that will forever remain beyond our understanding.


The basic thesis of brain research is: Our entire experience and behavior depends on the brain and its functions. Without a functioning brain in a functioning body, we experience nothing. So everything that has ever been thought and written about soul, matter and consciousness has its origin in brain processes (cf. Rohracher, 1965).(3)


Conscious experience is the most familiar and at the same time the most enigmatic event of all. There is nothing we know more directly than about our own experience. But it's extremely difficult to reconcile with everything else we know. Why does it exist? What is it doing How does it emerge from brain processes? Such questions have always been one of the great riddles of human research and thought (cf. Chalmers 1996, 40).(4) Despite brisk research activity on the question of conscious experience, the neurosciences have made practically no progress. Although this problem has been known since ancient times, it is often negated or misunderstood in current scientific discussions. It is the so-called difficult problem of consciousness (cf. Windmann and Durstewitz, 2000,75).(5) What about conscious experience so stubbornly eludes scientific access?


The expression experiencing means all internal processes and states that are only directly accessible to self-observation: sensory perceptions such as colors, tones, smells, taste sensations, tactile experiences; Body sensations such as pain, cold, heat, pressure; Wishes, needs, decisions of the will; Feelings like joy, anger, anger, surprise, shame, and disgust; Moods such as cheerfulness, anxiety, and depression. What is special about the states of experience? They are not just there like objects like tables, chairs or cars, but it feels a very specific way to be in them. They determine for us what it is like to be human. They are crucial for ensuring that every person experiences himself as the subject, as the author of his actions.


In philosophy the expression "the mental" is used for mental and psychological phenomena (cf. Brüntrup, 1996).(6) The mental states include thought content, reflections, opinions and knowledge content on the one hand, and qualitative perceptions and sensations on the other. For the qualitative states of consciousness, the term qualia has become common in philosophy (Lewis, 1956).(7) Qualia are qualities of experience such as the sight of shiny mountains of snow, the sound quality of a harp, the smell of roasted chestnuts, the taste of pistachio ice cream, the painfulness of pain, the tactile experience of smoothness that you have when you run your hand over the table ; Feelings like joy, surprise, sadness, anger, anger, disgust, shame, fear or contempt. The qualities of experience have a very specific phenomenal content. They form the real riddle of the mind (Chalmers 1996, 42)(8), the so-called "difficult problem" of consciousness.


2.1 The experience is subjective and private


The experience is subjective and private. The behavior, the body processes and brain processes are public, i.e. objectively comprehensible, intersubjectively verifiable. Our own experience is directly accessible to us. We have no direct access to other people's experiences. Nobody has yet experienced the experience of another from within. We can observe other people's behavior, but not their subjectivity. On the basis of our behavioral observations and on the basis of experience reports of those affected, we infer their well-being. In addition, we carry out a cross-check based on our own experience in similar situations. We are able to imagine what is going on in the other when he is in a certain situation. This is only possible with the help of a theory of mind.


What makes the mind-brain problem so tricky is the difficulty in doing justice to the subjectivity and privacy of experience. Joy feels different from anger, anger different from disgust, contempt different from boredom. Such states have a very specific quality of experience for each of us. It feels in a characteristic way to have the experience of looking at a green meadow, hearing the calming tone of a clarinet, or feeling the bitter taste of Campari on your tongue. Experiencing such states is something different from thinking, judging or believing to be in them (cf. Bieri, 1992).(9) Everyone lives in their own personal world of experience. He perceives other people, objects and events in a unique way, with meanings that are only felt by himself. This inner world of experience with its felt meanings and experiences is only accessible to the person concerned. Only she can say what she feels, what she is experiencing and how she is experiencing it. There are as many worlds of experience as there are people. The neurosciences research the neural basis of experience, but not the experience itself. If brain research, for example, could already indicate which neural activity patterns are associated with experiencing joy, we would still not know what it is like to be happy without our own joyful experiences .


2.2 The experience is immeasurable


The physical is of a spatio-temporal structure, states of experience are non-spatial, unexpanded and have only a temporal existence. There is no point in asking how long, how wide, how high or how heavy a feeling or a wish is. The brain activity that accompanies feelings can be said to be expanded, but not the feelings themselves. Consciousness is not an "object" that fits seamlessly into the ordinary world. René Descartes' intuition of non-expansiveness is an integral part of our normal concept of the mental. Several questions arise from this: How can something non-spatial, such as a volitional decision, cause changes in the spatial world? If consciousness is not spatial, how can it originate in the spatial world? First there was the unconscious universe. Then the evolution of life began and matter arranged itself more and more complex and refined. As a result of this, consciousness came into the world. Something radically non-spatial was produced. Something essentially non-spatial emerged from something purely spatial. How can something unexpanded arise from the expanded? The American philosopher Colin McGinn speculates: The origin of consciousness somehow makes use of those properties of the universe that precede and explain the Big Bang. Consciousness would therefore be older than matter in space, at least as far as its raw material is concerned. Our brain must have properties that are not represented in our current physical worldview. Properties that we don't understand in the least. According to this view, our view of reality, including physical reality, is fundamentally incomplete. Consciousness is an anomaly in our current worldview (cf. McGinn, 1996).(10)


2.3 The experience is tied to a perspective


There are two fundamentally different approaches through which we gain knowledge of consciousness: from within and from outside. From the inside, from the inside perspective, the experience perspective or the first person perspective; from the outside, from the outside perspective, the observer's perspective or the third-person perspective. The first approach is introspection, the so-called phenomenological approach. The second approach is the attempt to approach consciousness from the outside, e.g. with the help of behavioral observation and brain research. The two perspectives cannot be reduced to one another. Science can only observe from the outside. Fortunately, each of us has the opportunity to look inside. The job of science is to find out how things work. However, there is a difference between explaining how something works and experiencing it. Experience is something very special and individual.


The qualities of experience are tied to the first-person perspective. This cannot be taken from an objective point of view. There are no experiences in themselves. They are always someone's experience. Nobody knows what it is like for me to watch a snow avalanche roll down. Our consciousness is a centered consciousness. The center of consciousness is ourselves. Consciousness has a perspective nature and that should be the subject of any convincing scientific theory of consciousness. Objective science, however, abstracts from all subjective perspectives. For example, a theory about pain that does not include the quality of experience of the pain is not a theory about pain at all. It would be infinitely far from us, because it would leave out exactly what interests us. This is the reason why some philosophers consider the phenomenal content of the qualities of experience to be an irreducible property of such states (cf. Metzinger, 1996, 15-53).(11)


We can describe the world in such a way that we ourselves are only one object among many other objects in it. We try to describe the world as it were "from the outside" without taking our experience perspective into account. In view of the infinite expanse of space and time, my life shrinks to insignificance. I am only one person among billions of people. I live on this earth, which is just a speck of dust that rotates in the infinity of space. Whether I exist or not does not change anything about humanity as a whole or the universe as a whole. On the other hand, I don't just experience myself as an object in the world. I look at the world from the subjective perspective of my consciousness. This view is unique and unacceptable. With my end, with my death, a whole world comes to an end: the world of my sensations, experiences and mental states, which have an indissolubly subjective character. My world, my world of experience will be wiped out.


The dilemma of the two perspectives shows itself in another form. On the one hand, as a material body, I am part of the physical world and am therefore subject to the regular necessities that the natural sciences describe. From this point of view, I am just a plaything of the forces that determine the mechanical process of our world. I am embedded in a web of causal relationships. On the other hand, I experience myself as autonomous and as the causal origin of my actions. This finds its expression in moral responsibility and guilt. We are familiar with both perspectives and both have a high degree of plausibility for us. The problem arises from the fact that they seem to contradict each other, at least at first glance. Whichever of the two self-images is true, the other seems to be based on an error. How can one eliminate the contradiction between these two perspectives? Anyone asking this question begins to think about the mind-body problem (cf. Brüntrup 1996, 11-12).(12)


Conscious experience appeared very late in the evolution of the universe. With the emergence of consciousness, individual spaces for inner experience are formed. In a center-less universe, I-centers, focal points of consciousness suddenly arise. Each of these centers of consciousness forms its own perspective on the world. Each of these perspectives has its own world of experience. These individual worlds have their own history and biography. Consciousness always creates what we call conscious experience in everyday life. The point now is to understand the following: How can many subjective universes constantly arise and disappear again in an objective universe? How can each of us be a subjective universe?


The many philosophical interpretations range from reductionist models, which presuppose that consciousness can be explained with the usual methods of neuroscience and psychology, to the position that we will never understand the relationship between mind and brain (Chalmers 1996, 40).(13) In the following I outline two reductionist interpretations, identity theory and functionalism, and discuss the open questions they raise.


3.1 The materialistic identity theory


Materialistic-monistic interpretations of the mind-brain relationship are currently popular. Due to the progress made in brain research, it is believed that in the future we will be able to explain consciousness scientifically. Once we know exactly how the nerve cells in the brain process information, then we have solved the puzzle of consciousness. The molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Francis Crick says: After two thousand years of preoccupation with the mind-body problem, the balance sheet of philosophy and theology is so poor that they have lost all credibility and should now give way to neurophysiology. In his book "What the soul really is. The scientific exploration of consciousness" (1994) "he advocates the following hypothesis:


"'You', your joys and sorrows, your memories, your goals, your sense of your own identity and free will - all of these are really just the behavior of a huge collection of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Lewis Carroll's Alice from the Wunderland might have put it like this: 'They are nothing more than a bunch of neurons.' This hypothesis is so far removed from most people's imaginations that it can truly be called astonishing "(Crick 1994, 17).(14)


Materialistic identity theory regards mental phenomena as physical states of our brain. "Mental states and events are states and events as neurophysiology deals with them ..." (Bieri, 1993, 36).(15) It follows that mentalistic and neurophysiological descriptions de facto refer to the same object. Our conscious experience, so the argument goes, can be described on the one hand by psychological and on the other hand by physical terms. That both descriptions refer to one and the same phenomenon could be discovered through empirical research. The stronger variants of identity theory envisage a reduction in psychology to neurobiology. Accordingly, we would describe our experience in the distant future with neurophysiological terms. Instead of speaking of sensations, feelings, thoughts, or needs, we would refer to the same phenomena with terms from neurobiology.


An empirical discovery often consists in the reduction of phenomena through identification. Reductionism is of the opinion that material descriptions provide a more complete and precise explanation of reality than spiritual descriptions. This does not mean that the mental explanations of our actions that we use in everyday life are completely wrong. Although we know that neurophysiology ultimately provides the more appropriate explanation for our actions, we can use mental descriptions in everyday life.


Is identity theory an empirically plausible hypothesis? The mere evidence of strict psychophysical correlations in no way justifies identification. A successful reduction of psychology to neurobiology would be the only legitimate way to empirically confirm this interpretation of the mind-brain relationship. If one looks at the few interdisciplinary research approaches in the field between brain research and psychology, the result is sobering: "A reduction of psychology to neurophysiology is not in sight" (Carrier and Mittelstraß 1989, 134).(16)


The following objections can be formulated against identity theory: How can consciousness phenomena such as joy, sadness, anger or volitional decisions be identical with brain states? There are considerable differences between the subjective quality of experience of these phenomena and the brain processes assigned to them. The leap from the subjective experience perspective to the objective description on the neurophysiological level leads away from the mental phenomena as we experience them. The objective analysis misses the essential aspect of these phenomena. What is left of our emotional experiences if we delete the subjective perspective of experience and describe it only as brain processes? The feelings experienced are exactly as they appear, i.e. how they feel. Even the most precise knowledge of the neurophysiological basis of anger experiences says nothing about what it feels like to be angry (cf. Bieri 1992).(17) The American philosopher John Searle emphasizes that the qualities of experience cannot be grasped by “naturalizing them, that is, tracing them back to physical phenomena. When we say that pain is really nothing but a pattern of neural fire, then we are disregarding the essential characteristics of pain (Searle 1994, 117).(18)


3.2 The philosopher Thomas Nagel says in his book The view from nowhere:


"To insist on explaining the psychic in terms and theories that were specifically developed to explain non-psychic phenomena is intellectually backward-looking and scientifically suicidal in view of the radically different characteristics of the psychic. The difference between the psychic and the material is much larger than that between electrical and mechanical processes "(Nagel, 1986, 52).(19)


For functionalism, the relationship between the mind and the brain is like the relationship between software and hardware in a computer. In this comparison, the brain would be the "hardware" of the computer. If I want to know how a computer works, why it doesn't display umlauts on the screen, for example, then there is little point in disassembling the computer and finding out what material components it is made of. I can only understand how the computer works if I know the program, e.g. the word processing program. Similarly, there is little point in trying to explain human behavior in a purely neurophysiological way. I have to know something about a person's "program", his mental abilities, his "soul life" if I want to explain his behavior. Spiritual explanations are superior to material ones, but both descriptions refer to one and the same reality.


Functionalism became the leading paradigm in the artificial intelligence scene. What does Artificial Intelligence want? It is often proclaimed that she wants to build machines that are intelligent, that think, that perceive, that make decisions, that want something, that in short, are conscious. A much used "definition" of artificial intelligence formulates this much more cautiously:


"Artificial intelligence is the branch of computer science that deals with programming computers so that they can perform tasks that, if performed by a human, would require intelligence" (Gevarter 1987, 9).(20) In other words: The aim of artificial intelligence is to build machines that behave in such a way that we would explain this in everyday psychological terms to humans through mental states "(cf. Tetens 1994, 106).(21)


One can ask: If a machine copies the observable behavior of a person, do the internal states of this machine copy the experience of this person at the same time? So far we only know machines that bring about the psychologically explained human behavior, if at all, then through internal mechanisms. These internal mechanisms resemble mental states very little or not at all.


According to the thesis of strong artificial intelligence, beings with mental states are nothing more than very complex computers. If this thesis were correct, then there would no longer be any limits to the replication and surpassing of the human mind on computers. Computer-aided artificial intelligence is not just a simulation of human intelligence, both are basically of the same type (cf. Brüntrup, 1996, 101).(22) Weak Artificial Intelligence is of the opinion that brain and mental processes can be simulated using a computer.


Functionalism reduces the mental to its causal role, which can be realized mechanically in different ways. The thesis that in humans mental states are in fact realized as brain states, functionalism becomes functional materialism. It is the brain states that are causally effective. Functionalism is mainly accused of misunderstanding the subjective quality of experience of mental phenomena, because for it these are merely abstract functional states. Qualities of experience cannot be adequately interpreted with functional categories. When using the expression joy, for example, we do not refer to the functional state of joy or to its causal role in the information processing process of our organism, but to the experience of joy itself.


The American philosopher John Searle(23) fights the view that the relationship between mind and brain is analogous to the relationship between computer program and computer machine. Computer programs are only syntactic, but the mind is semantic and has content as well as a formal structure. The computer performs its operations without understanding them because its programs are entirely defined by the syntactic structure. He works with characters only in consideration of the syntax. The signs themselves have no meaning for him. On the other hand, when people speak, they don't just connect words according to certain rules, they talk about something, the words have a meaning for them. Searle illustrates his argument with the now well-known thought experiment of the Chinese room:


"... Imagine that you were locked in a room with several baskets with Chinese symbols. And imagine that you (like me) don't understand a word of Chinese, but that you understand a set of rules written in German for the handling of these Chinese symbols. The rules state in a purely formal manner - with recourse only to the syntax and not to the semantics of the symbols - what should be done with the symbols. Such a rule might be: "Take a scribble -Scratch sign from basket 1 and place it next to a squiggle-snarkel sign from basket 2. Let us now assume that any other Chinese symbols are passed into the room, and that you are given additional rules for which Chinese symbols Symbols are to be reached out of the room. The symbols that are passed in are called "questions" by the people outside, and the symbols that you then reach out of the room are called "answers" - but di it happens without their knowledge. Let us also assume that the programs are so excellent and their execution so good that your answers can soon no longer be distinguished from those of a Chinese native speaker (cf. Searle 1984, 31; after Beckermann 1999, 278-279).(24)


Would that mean that the person in the room would suddenly start understanding Chinese? Obviously not. Although she handles Chinese characters, she doesn't know what they mean any more than before. But if the person in the room does not understand Chinese, then no computer that generates and changes Chinese characters based on the same formal rules will understand Chinese.


Will we ever understand the mind-brain relationship? Or are we confronted here with an ultimately indissoluble mystery? Is consciousness the white spot on the map of the scientific worldview? Does this stain always have to remain a white stain for reasons of principle?


Brain research suffers from the incompatibility of the first-person perspective and the third-person perspective. We describe thinking, feeling and wanting from the first-person perspective. They are only directly accessible to us from this perspective. In the third-person perspective of the scientific description, these phenomena do not occur at all. The two perspectives cannot be reduced to one another (cf. Singer 2001).(25)


The philosopher Colin McGinn says: Consciousness is in principle withdrawn from an objective approach due to its inwardness. No amount of knowledge, however complete, about the neurophysiological facts of a person is sufficient to be able to derive knowledge from the conscious experience of this person. A purely physical explanation of the world must be wrong because there are obviously non-physical facts (cf. Metzinger 1996, 115-53).(26)


Zoglauer (1998)(27) speaks in this context of a "blind spot of knowledge." Anyone who wants to explain the occurrence of conscious experience purely biologically or physically does not take into account that every explanation, every description and every theory is designed by a thinking subject. Every recognized object presupposes a knowing subject.


"The subject consists of the set of all those mental states that actually need to be explained and acts as the explainer itself. Any attempt to make the subject an object ends in a pathological self-reference and is doomed to failure. .. . We cannot explain what was assumed as a condition of this enterprise from the beginning as given and unquestionable, namely our own consciousness. ... The riddle of consciousness is therefore like a blind spot that leaves a gap in human knowledge "(Zoglauer, 1998, 187-188).


Many believe that physics provides a complete catalog of the fundamental properties and laws of the universe. The American physicist Steven Weinberg calls the goal of physics a "theory about everything" from which one can derive completely what one can know about the universe. Weinberg admits that awareness is problematic.


"Despite the general validity of theoretical physics, its existence apparently cannot be derived from physical laws. Weinberg defends physics with the argument that it will one day explain the objective (i.e. neural) correlates of consciousness - but of course that would mean consciousness itself not yet explained. But if its existence cannot be deduced from physical laws, a physical theory is not a theory about everything. An all-encompassing theory must contain an additional fundamental component "(Chalmers 1996, 44).(28)


That is why the philosopher David Chalmers suggests(29) propose to recognize conscious experience as a fundamental, irreducible trait.


Our knowledge of the brain and its performance is incomplete in a fundamental sense. We have absolutely no idea how conscious experience, which is only accessible to us in the first-person perspective, emerges from objectively describable brain processes. This problem is also not accessible experimentally. We know that our subjective experience is closely connected to brain processes, but this connection itself seems puzzling. Nobody knows why certain brain processes are accompanied by conscious experiences or why we have experiences at all. There always remains an "explanatory gap" between conscious experience and its assumed material correlate (cf. Windmann and Durstewitz, 2000, 78).(30) Only when we knew how and why brain processes produce conscious experience could we overcome this explanatory gap. We grope in the dark about how consciousness fits into the natural order. Consciousness is the greatest obstacle to a scientific understanding of man and the universe.




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