8.28.2003

The Mystery of Consciousness

A pair of scissors is, at its most basic, a pair of blades attached by a pivot. Someone thought to put a couple loops on one end to make it easier to use. My arm is a pair of rods attached by a ball-joint. I flex my muscles by sending a signal along my nerves which stimulates millions of muscle cells to expand or contract in a practiced sequence. Choosing how and when to control those muscles is learned in our infancy when we are completely unaware of our ineptitude and are not able to comprehend our ignorance. In the end, mastery of our body becomes innate and invisible. Those who are burdened with physical disabilities would tell those of us who aren't to appreciate the ease with which we move and flow through space. Our struggle was fought years ago as babies and now we possess our bodies to a such degree that we consider them a part of ourselves, more than mere extensions but rather a full expression of who we are. That is a fallacy, of course. I would still be myself were I to lose an arm or a leg. Sure, I would change in many ways but it would not affect my consciousness other than having to constantly remind my brain that, no, it's gone. An awkward and frustrating retraining of the mind's relationship to its vessel.

I can dissect my arm and tell you how the muscles pull. I can understand how oxygen flows from the air, through brachioles into my blood on the bus marked 'Haemoglobin'. Yet, I will always struggle to tell you how my mind works.

What physical manifestation of consciousness will we ever find in our squishy, folded brain? Axons and dendrites, neurons and myelin sheathing. How do they fit together to store the memory of my wedding, the scent of bubble gum, the sound of thunder? Do I have some strange and unfathomable series of ones and zeroes, some organic version of registers and pointers? Where is the RAM? The hard drive? Where are those ancient memories of infancy stored? All of these questions are beyond my reach.

Part of the problem lies in emergence. You can look at a hydrogen atom and an oxygen atom all day long but you'd never be able to predict their behaviour in a water molecule. Take two things and mix 'em together and you get something greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence, by definition, is unpredictable. So even if we do manage to understand the basic components, it will not be immediately obvious (though perhaps not impossible) how consciousness arises from a sloshy mess of gooey brains.