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The Binding Problem of Consciousness : Transhuman Debate 2.0 Review

4/19/2016 12:00:00 AM 

Consciousness Global Binding

The "Transhumanist Debate 2.0" took place at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland on April 2nd, 2016. The event was hosted by Hank Pellissier and sponsored by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technology, Brighter Brains and East Bay Futurists.

Three topics were debated:
1. The Binding Problem of Consciousness
2. Gun Rights & Gun Control
3. Eugenics

Scholars Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Dr. Randal Koene took on the question of consciousness, specifically the relation of quantum physics to global binding. Below is a summary of the arguments presented.

What is Global Binding?

In its simplest form, "global binding" is a theory of consciousness that holds that the mind pulls bits and pieces of information together to comprise a cohesive and meaningful conscious experience.

As Dr. Koene explained, global binding is "something you need in order to process the world as a whole. If you didn't have global binding, you couldn't take all of the disparate parts of your brain is receiving into account when you're trying to process what to do next."

The theory of global binding can be compared to the aggregation of thousands of pixels, which hold little meaning as individual units. When bound together, however, these pixels form a larger picture that is rich in meaning.

Philosophers have been reflecting on the concept consciousness for centuries, but only recently have scientists started to explore the field in depth. Today, the study of neuroscience is still in its infancy and as such, science is merely beginning to understand all that comprises the conscious experience.

One interpretation is that global binding occurs as a result of quantum entanglement, while another counters this view on the grounds that quantum theory simply isn't necessary; that other classical neuroscience concepts can explain global binding.

The Case for Global Binding via Quantum Entanglement

Andrés Gómez Emilsson argued that global binding must necessarily entail quantum entanglement—a phenomenon whereby the quantum states of two or more particles exhibit a connection that enables the properties of one to impact those of other particle(s), despite the fact that there exists a spatial separation.

Albert Einstein once described quantum entanglement as "spooky action at a distance." It's this "spooky action" that Emilsson sees as the mechanism responsible for global binding.

Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Dr. Randal Koene - Transhuman Debate 2.0
Andrés Gómez Emilsson and Dr. Randal Koene

"I'm aware that the view I'm presenting is very unpopular and it goes against the current neuro-scientific paradigm," He explained, adding, "I used to think that all that mattered for consciousness was the internal causal relationships that happened in the brain and the information processing that derives from that."

Emilsson explained that he changed his former point of view after meeting philosopher David Pearce at Stanford. Pearce convinced him that his functionalist account of consciousness simply couldn't accommodate phenomenal binding and its three sub-concepts, which are local binding, neighborhood binding and global binding. The latter process enables the brain to perceive different phenomenal objects, weaving them together simultaneously to form an individual's single field of awareness.

He further pointed out that modern concepts of synchrony and implicit information processing simply don't account for the unity of consciousness.

"Functional unity is not sufficient for the kind of unity that we experience. We experience something that's better described as ontological unity, the various features of your conscious experience are fundamentally part of a unified conscious experience."

To illustrate his point, Emilsson drew upon an interesting thought experiment. Imagine that the brain is divided into separate pieces, which are distributed to various locations throughout the galaxy. "You can have all the synchrony you want between these components, but they would not be unitary in a meaningful sense because you still have the speed of light and they can't overcome that."

The theory of quantum entanglement, however, allows for ontological unity because the various chunks of brain can communicate and impact each other despite any spatial separation.

The Argument Against the Quantum Entanglement model

Dr. Randal Koene opposed the hypothesis that quantum entanglement is the fundamental mechanism that underlies global binding. He made the case that such a theory is inconsistent with what is currently understood about the way in which the brain operates.

Koene acknowledged that it is essential to produce actual unity in some form, but maintained that Emilsson was focusing on the wrong part of what constitutes a sense of unity.

"You don't try to make a hypothesis for a belief in one particular outcome, for example, the fact that this is based upon quantum mechanics. You try to make a hypothesis for the evidence you have, for an experiment." He provided an example: "You report that you just had a conscious experience, conscious awareness. But that report is based upon that experience."

So a person may report having perceived a unitary experience; that his auditory, visual and tactile sensations were all part of a single conscious experience. However, Koene warned, "Giving that report means that you are already making a judgment... So basically you're saying that what happened there, all these different parts that were going on, somehow all contributed to this output." In short, there is an assumption of causality that is inherently problematic.

So how can zero-time light speed communication arise between neurons without quantum entanglement?

"In the brain we have a number of different things in the brain that make this possible," Koene argued, pointing to examples such as working memory and the neural patterns that have been found to take place in the brain.

He added, "From the point of view of the next pattern that bumps up, all of the previous patterns—no matter where it was in the brain—has had enough time to propagate its information to the other neurons its connected with. From the next pattern's point of view, all that information has already arrived. It might as well have arrived instantaneously with no time in between. This gives you global binding."

This theory of binding deals with the issue of neural propagation in a manner that does not require quantum entanglement as part of the equation.

The discussion was entertaining and educational. As the secret patterns of the brain come to unfold, it is fascinating to listen to experts express varying opinions on that which makes up the human conscious experience. ◼


A video transcription of the debate on consciousness is available at: ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/koene20160405

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