Issues in Biology

The mind-body problem

To address the mind-body problem is really to ask about the origin of consciousness. Before plunging right into the topic and explain consciousness, it might be worthwhile to look at where consciousness is not supposed to be. For this we have to take a step back from our anthropocentric believe that human consciousness is the most evolved one. Therefore our approach to consciousness should go somehow like the following. It would be ignorant to say that animals have no consciousness, though we agree that plants and microorganisms do not have consciousness due to a lack of a nervous system. It would further be ignorant to assume that animal consciousness is 'all the same' and equal to that of humans. Furthermore, as I am not walking into a tree, but choose to walk around it so as not to hurt myself, or simply because I know that a tree would never step aside for me to continue on my path, a bird does not fly into a tree, but chooses to fly around it, so as not to hurt itself, or because it must know that the tree will never move away. The choice to avoid bumping into a tree by both man and bird are due to awareness or what we could call consciousness. It would be presumptuous to call the human's choice conscious, and the bird's choice instinctive, a mere reflex. The question that begs to be answered is of course not the one about bumping into trees, but if birds have philosophical thoughts, in other words, memory, history, and culture. It is this kind of higher consciousness which is addressed by the mind-body problem (and which we attribute to the conditio humana or man's second Nature), and not the instinctive behavior of animals, the reactions of plants to sunlight and humidity, or the swimming behavior of bacteria towards a source of nutrients. We don't associate with metabolic activities of organs other than the brain any kind of consciousness or awareness. We do not think with our liver or biceps, but our brain. So what makes the neuronal metabolism special? The most often heard answer is that about complexity. The complexity of the brain's structure and chemical composition, that somehow this complexity creates a new category of functional properties. This complexity enables us to think and dream, calculate and talk, see and draw. Sensory input is as important an element in this model as moto-neuronal control (the brain controlling leg muscles after seeing a tree). But again, these are basic tasks that most animals can handle too. What we are most in awe of about our selves as humans, and this is how we would like to distinguish us from animals, is our ability to think, exercise free will, accept morality, and to be creative. As it turns out, there are currently neither biological  nor physico-chemical answers to what consciousness is, how the mind is created by the body's brain (assuming it is a property of the brain and no non-biological entity). Every scientific expert in consciousness research has his or her own favorite explanation. Theories are abundant, experimental evidence scarce.

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