Archive for May, 2006

Babybotl was interested recently to read about Babybot, a research robot intended to model some of the characteristics of a two-year old child. Babybot reminded me slightly of Steve Grand’s Lucy without her mask (there seems to be a consensus in engineering circles that for consciousness you only need one arm and no legs). A bad omen, I’m afraid: poor Lucy has apparently been gathering cobwebs for a while now.

The thinking behind Babybot is based on a process model of consciousness, which sounds interesting, but my impression is that the researchers have spent more time on the technological challenges of the sensorimotor apparatus than on the philosophical issues (quite reasonably, no doubt).

It wasn’t so much that that interested me, though (and provoked a largely unrelated chain of thought), as the idea that you needed to produce a baby’s consciousness before moving on to the adult version. As a practical research strategy, this has some obvious appeal – infant movements and senses provide a slightly easier challenge and may yield insights into the developmental process. But could it be that there is actually a stronger constraint here – that consciousness cannot be generated full-blown, but has to go through embryonic and infantile forms? Alan Turing certainly implied that this was a possibility in his famous paper of 1950, albeit in a tone which characteristically mingled the frivolous with the profound (“It will not, for instance, be provided with legs, so that it could not be asked to go out and fill the coal scuttle.”), and even said that he had conducted some experiments on a child machine.

The emergence of consciousness in human beings is itself an unclear and controversial matter, of course. We can feel pretty sure that a newly-formed zygote lacks consciousness (perhaps I ought to specify human-style consciousness, for those of a panpsychist leaning); we can feel reasonably sure that a two-year-old has consciousness, though perhaps without the refined self-awareness of an adult. But we don’t know exactly when consciousness dawns, and we don’t know whether it is like switching on the light or something much more gradual, passing through a series of partly-conscious states (whatever those might be). I think we tend to assume that the arrival of consciousness could be sudden, even if it isn’t: that in principle we could construct an artificial consciousness in any arbitrary state x, where x might correspond with say, thinking about the cup of tea you’re going to have when you get home, or trying to remember what your brother gave you for your twelfth birthday.


But not all states of affairs are programmable, and it might be that conscious mental states are not. Even machines sometimes need to be constructed in a particular sequence, so that state z, the finished product, can only be reached through a suitable series of earlier states. When in operation, some machines also have states which are constrained by sequences of previous states. Analogue clocks provide a simple example: you can’t get the hands to a reading of tea-time without passing through readings which correspond to adjacent times. I once saw an orrery, which showed not only the date and year, but the position of the planets at any given time. Most clocks allow the hands to be disengaged from the mechanism and turned quickly to any time – a good enough practical approximation to being able to set times arbitrarily: but in this one the mechanism did not allow the planetary ‘hands’ to be wound forward quickly. If the clock ever stopped, the only way to reset it was effectively to take it apart and reconstruct it in a later date configuration which you had worked out separately.


What if conscious states were like a much more complex version of this? What if you could only get to the state of thinking about tea-time through an appropriate series of earlier states? It might be that our whole conscious life is made up of a kind of rope of these threads of relevant states, stretching all the way back to the inscrutable autopoietic event in which our consciousness appeared out of nothing. If that were so, it might account for our sense of being responsible for our own actions: while the causes acting on inanimate objects are simply those that happen to be around in the environment at the time, a dominant factor in our own behaviour would be the self-contained stream of causality running along in our heads.

Moreover, an artificial intelligence would indeed have to start life in the same kind of unready and undefined state as a new baby, and generate itself as it went along. It would also follow that a computer was a uniquely unsuitable machine for supporting such an entity. In principle a computer can go directly into any state: if you want to introduce a rule that state B follows state A, you have to do it through the program: so although a computer might be capable of exhibiting the right sequence of states which occur in thinking about tea (supposing those could be defined), the causal relationships between those states would be actually indirect. All you would get is a simulation, analogous to the simulation of motion provided by the rapid sequence of frames in a film.


What about sleep? It seems a pretty good piece of evidence that human beings can indeed switch off and then resume when the right time comes. It might be hard to imagine coming into existence already thinking about a cup of tea; but awakening and starting at once to think about it is a thoroughly ordinary experience. It may be that some kind of mental activity continues even in sleep (and a theory of continuity might provide a new rationale for dreams); but people also come out of a coma, or dreamless unconsciousness. Unless we want to say that these are new people who merely inhabit the bodies and memories of their predecessors, it seems there is a difficulty.

Perhaps, in response, we could argue that beliefs persist even in sleep and coma. I may not think about anything while unconscious, but in some sense I go on believing that the Earth goes round the Sun, and not vice versa. Worryingly, in a similar sense beliefs continue even after death: does Luther still believe in God (discounting, for the sake of argument, the possibility of his surviving in a better place)? It seems odd to say so, but he certainly hasn’t become an atheist in the last few centuries. Personally, however, I don’t much like that line of argument, which seems to make our continuity both too absolute and too abstract at the same time. I would rather say that our continuity is not essentially disturbed if some of the states in the sequence persist, recorded in our memories and otherwise, through periods of inactivity.

Ultimately, though, the beginnings of consciousness remain as frustratingly unclear as most of its other aspects.

Galen Strawson Galen Strawson’s paper “Realistic Monism: why Physicalism entails Panpsychism” (to be the keynote of “Consciousness and its Place in Nature”, due out in September) has already attracted favourable attention. It’s certainly an amusing read – though the entertaining tone perhaps includes a hint of bluster here and there. In any case my own view is that it contains some dreadful pieces of argument, and in no way delivers what the title promises. It promises much, of course: that physicalism entails panpsychism? That merely by sitting and thinking quietly about the nature of physicalism we shall see that everything is or has a soul? Establishing that would indeed be a magnificent achievement. There are three small snags: Strawson doesn’t mean “physicalism”, he doesn’t mean “panpsychism” – and he doesn’t mean “entails”.

Strawson makes it clear that when he speaks of physicalism, he doesn’t mean what most people would mean: no, he means real physicalism, which acknowledges that experiences are physical, and that they are all we really know of in the world, the necessary starting point for any enquiry. Of course the objects and indeed the subjects of experience are often undoubtedly physical, but it’s an odd idea that experiences themselves are concrete physical objects with a definite spatial location. I’d like to see Strawson point to some of his sometime, or catch some in a jar to use as evidence.

He distinguishes true physicalism from physicSalism – the belief, utterly false, he says, that all of concrete reality can be captured in terms of physics. But every real, concrete phenomenon is physical according to Strawson: he must therefore believe that there are physical phenomena which lie outside the scope of physics. Physical phenomena which lie outside the scope of physics? What could those be? Never mind whether this is good philosophy – it isn’t even good lexicography. Perhaps it’s just that Strawson’s exposition has gotinto a bit of a muddle. Rather than giving a radically different sense to the word “physicalism”, it would be better to choose another term – as he partially acknowledges. He suggests we could call his theory “experiential and non-experiential monism”, but I think “experientialism” would be a fair description.

What about Strawson’s alleged panpsychism? He doesn’t seem, in fact, to believe that souls are everywhere: only that experience is the ultimate building block of the world, which we could better call panexperientialism. So the proud boast of the title is reduced to the claim that “experientialism entails panexperientialism”. How does the entailment work? Stripping away many twists and turns, we come down to the observation that unless everything is constituted by experience, there must be some other stuff around, and “I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things”. Well, here’s a fiver says you’re wrong, matey.

You’re entirely missing the whole point. First of all, Strawson is absolutely right to insist on the primacy of experience. People often suppose that science is about our real experience of the world, the things we know about for sure, while phiosophy is all about complex abstractions which we know of only through complicated pieces of reasoning. In fact, of course, it’s the other way round: phenomenology deals with the undeniable realities of what we experience, while the entities described by physics have to be inferred from those experiences – what else have we got to go on?

But what you’re wilfully ignoring is Strawson’s main argument. His point is that if experience is not fundamental, it must have arisen out of non-experiential stuff. Now he accepts the phenomenon of emergence, where in particular circumstances a particular arrangement or organisation of a substance can have properties which the substance in itself does not have. But, he points out, emergence cannot be brute: you can’t get new properties emerging at random. There has to be an intelligible account of how the emergent properties are constituted by the properties of the substrate. In the case of experience, it is clearly impossible to give any account of how experience could be constituted out of a non-experiential substrate: so experience must be fundamental. It might be the case that there is also a non-experiential substrate, but it’s more economical to assume that at a micro level the world is constituted entirely from experience. Put these micro-experiences together in one way, and you get a non-experiential rock, or table: put them together another way and you get a higher-level experiential mind.

I’m not sure that’s actually right, but it’s an appealing scheme.

I’m not ignoring anything: there is no argument to ignore. Strawson wants to resurrect the medieval principle that ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing will come of nothing. Five hundred years ago, he would have been saying that that proved our minds could only have come from the greater mind of God: now he wants to say they could only have come from a world full of micro-minds. But the principle is just wrong, or at least subject to the very large exception of emergence, which does allow something to come out of nothing after all.

Of course there should be an intelligible account of how the emergent phenomenon emerges: but the fact that we haven’t got that account for consciousness yet doesn’t prove it’s impossible. Virtually the whole subject of consciousness studies is an attempt to give an account of how experience emerges from non-experience. To assume there cannot be such an account just begs the question. What Strawson really wants to do is deny the possibility of emergence; but he knows that is totally implausible, so he behaves like an amateur conjuror – he talks around the subject, moves it around a bit, shifts it back, talks about something else, and then suddenly emergence disappears up his sleeve. I think I can point to the moment when it happens – he’s just been drawing our attention away with some talk about “Z properties”, and then all at once:

“For what we do, when we give a satisfactory account of how liquidity emerges from non-liquidity, is show that there aren’t really any new properties involved at all.”

There is no emergence, all explanations of emergent phenomena are eliminative, and ex nihilo nihil fit! Neither true nor supported by the preceding discussion.

Yes, all very rhetorical – but don’t you have to concede the primacy of experience, as I said before? And if experience is the only direct reality we know about, isn’t it a strong candidate for the basic buidling block of reality?

No: for two reasons. Strawson spends a lot of time waving his hands over how his opponents – he names Dennett, for example – deny the reality of experience. This “deepest woo-woo of the human mind” is to the lasting shame of philosophy as a whole, it seems. But I ask – isn’t Strawson weirdly denying experience himself? He talks about experience as though it were an isolated phenomenon, but in fact the strongest feature of experience is that it is about something, and in fact, about physical reality. We don’t just have experiences and then in our quieter moments think that, hey, these experiences could be clues to an external reality: we actually experience the world and then, in our quiet times, deduce that we know about the world through something we could label experience. Strawson talks as though experience came first, and then the tenuous hypothesis of a physical world came along later: but that actually denies the most salient features of experience.

In the second place, he chooses not to draw an important distinction between our experiences and those of other people. It’s only our own experiences we have first-hand, directly: from them we infer the details of the world around us, and then another step is required to believe that other entities out there are having experiences like our own. If Strawson were rigorous, he would conclude, not that the world is probably constructed out of experience in general, but that it is probably constructed out of his own experience: he would be a solipsist. Building our own experience out of the experiences of other entities is no simpler than building it out of non-experiential entities – perhaps a good deal less simple.

But what a feeble attitude anyway! Reality must be constructed out of the things I know best, as though the basic components of the world were human beings! The truth is that physics is indeed all about phenomenal experience: it simply provides a sophisticated and well-tested set of theories about the underlying, independent realities. To ignore all this and base your conception of the world on primitive experience is perverse.

MartiniHuping Hu and Maoxin Wu‘s new paper “Photon Induced Non-local Effects of General Anesthetics on the Brain” moves things on rather dramatically. You may recall that earlier papers invoked quantum entanglement as an essential mechanism in the operation of the mind. The new paper says that, rather than waiting for things to happen, they decided to go ahead and conduct some experiments. A range of slightly different tests was carried out: it appears that applying magnetic pulses through a sample of anaesthetic into the brain causes distinct effects as though the anaesthetic were actually in the brain: moreover, water can be made to have anaesthetic effects through a similar procedure: the effects of drugs, in fact, can be transmitted into the brains of subjects through quantum entanglement.

These experiments rather recall the homeopathic doctrine of water memory (hopelessly at odds with elementary chemistry, in my personal view), but the authors distance themselves from that theory. More frivolously, they reminded me of Bunuel’s remark – “Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin.”

In Hu’s own words the significance of these results is as follows.

Significances in Physical Sciences
1. Our findings enable communications of both classical and quantum information between locations of arbitrary distances using quantum entanglement alone.
2. Our findings show that instantaneous signaling is physically real which implies that Einstein’s theory of relativity is in real (not just superficial) conflict with quantum theory.
3. Our findings provide important new insights into the essence and implications of the mysterious quantum entanglement.
4. Our findings further provide clues for solving the long-standing measurement problem in quantum theory including the roles of the observer and/or consciousness.

Significances in Biological Sciences
5. Our findings show that biologically and chemically meaningful information can be transmitted from one place to another by photons and possibly other quantum objects such as electrons, atoms and even molecules through quantum entanglement.
6. Our findings enable various quantum entanglement technologies be developed some of which can be used to deliver the therapeutic, nutritional and/or recreational effects of many drugs to various biological systems such as human bodies either on site or from remote locations of arbitrary distances without physically administrating the same to the said systems.
7. Our findings suggest that brain processes such as perception and other biological processes likely involve quantum information and nuclear and/or electronic spins may play important roles in these processes.
8. Very importantly, our findings provide a unified scientific framework for explaining many paranormal and/or anomalous effects such as telepathy, telekinesis and homeopathy, if they do indeed exist, thus transforming these paranormal and/or anomalous effects into the domains of conventional sciences.

The results are certainly surprising. I don’t think I envisaged the effects of entanglement being quite along these lines, as though a distant molecule could have its normal chemical effect in another location. But the main barrier to acceptance of the results, I think, will be the nature of the experiments themselves.

Rather than being conducted in a well-equipped lab, they seem to have involved a degree of improvisation, using an audio system, a microwave oven, and a flashlight, among other things. Some of the drugs were “leftover items originally prescribed to Subject C’s late mother”. None of that invalidates the results, but the mention of Subject C indicates another issue: I think readers will feel that there are methodological problems in the fact that the four subjects of the experiments were the two authors and Hu’s parents. I’m afraid this is likely to deter others from attempting to reproduce the results, and the experiments may not enhance the credibility of the earlier paper in the way the authors presumably hope.

Updated paper.