Archive for July, 2010

Picture: ghost. I suppose the zombies couldn’t have the film industry all to themselves for ever, and here it is: Qualia, the movie (via). I wondered at first whether this was something to do with Sony and their Qualia man Ken Mogi, but in fact it seems it is a small independent venture. I said ‘here it is’, but actually all we have for the moment is a trailer: it seems that the funds required (amounts which I expect wouldn’t cover one day’s catering budget on a Hollywood blockbuster) have been difficult to get together.

How do you make a film about qualia? (Ken Mogi would probably ask how you could make one without them.) I can’t quite decide whether getting ineffable qualities into a film is an amusingly quixotic endeavour or an admirable ambition. It seems all too likely that you would end up with either the talkiest, chin-strokingest film ever made; or an exciting dramatisation of the life of Mary the Colour Scientist. (Susan Blackmore suggested that students should act out this famous gedankenexperiment, after all, though how that would help still rather eludes me.) Actually there’s no reason why a film can’t at least raise genuine philosophical issues. I’ll always remember the Captain’s advice on how to deal with the malfunctioning bomb in Dark Star (“Teach it phenomenology”), and The Matrix is often credited with asking interesting questions – though sadly the red and blue pills were soon put aside so that the film could become a kung fu movie performed by people dressed as a Eurythmics tribute band (The Revenge Tourists?).

I haven’t found much information about the actual plot of Qualia, but it seems it has something to do with research which triggers or examines ghostly occurrences and disturbs someone’s complacent monist materialism. Nothing wrong with disturbing our dogmatic slumbers, of course. I like to think that at some stage a grave scientist will say “Sir! We’re detecting… phenomena.”

But the association with ghosts is not particularly welcome. I wonder whether this is another sign, like the use of qualia to buttress the theist case, that the hard problem potentially appeals to those who would like the world to be less scientific and more magical.  I hope not: I’d hate to see New Age shops selling qualia-enhancing crystals. Perhaps that’s just snobbery?  After all It’s legitimate to claim qualia as evidence for some kind of dualism, and some kind of dualism is what you might well be looking for if you wanted to provide ghosts with some respectable ontological underpinnings. Still, I can only look forward to the film with qualified enthusiasm .

Picture: substance. Mostyn W Jones might seem to be leading with his chin a little when he offers us, in the JCS, “a clear, simple mind-body solution”. His “clear physicalism”  is meant to banish many of the “obscurities” (a favourite word) involved in other accounts, especially reductionist and functionalist ones.

One problem with functionalism, according to Jones, is that it requires us to believe that conscious sensations are multiply realisable. So long as it embodies the right functions, any physical thing can have consciousness. But functions are abstract; what have they got to do either with my physical brain or with my vivid actual experience? These relations are surely “obscure”. Another problem is that none of these reductive theories can deal with qualia (the inherent phenomenal redness of red, hotness of heat, etc). Once you’ve reduced consciousness to computation, to non-computational functions, or to anything similar, you can no longer explain why it is that real inward experience occurs, or what causal relations that experience has with anything, or how it contrives to have them. Jones sympathises with Strawson and Stoljar: he would like to be able to say that qualia are just the reality of experience: science gives an outside account, and qualia are how it looks from the inside.

In some ways this is an appealing position to take, but there are a number of pitfalls. If all you’re saying is that science is the third-person perspective and qualia are the first-person perspective, you’re just re-stating the problem: why is there a first-person perspective, anyway? And if qualia are just the reality, you have two options. One is to find an explanation of why they don’t crop up all over the place, but seem only to arise in the presence of appropriate brain functions; the other is to bite the bullet and say that in fact they do crop up all over the place, and that panexperientialism is correct. Strawson, if I’ve understood correctly, leans in this latter direction; Jones, in spite of his hostility to functionalism, seems to lean back the other way: he describes consciousness as a neural substance arising from highly active, highly connected neural circuits; so there still seems to be a broadly functional explanation of why these phenomena are confined to brains.

“Substance” is a treacherous word: in ordinary parlance it suggests a lump of stuff, simple physical matter: but in philosophy, especially older philosophy, it has a much more slippery meaning as a basic element, one of the things that remains when analysis is complete. By pursuing this idea of a substance as something unanalysable to its logical conclusion, Leibniz produced the bizarre relativistic ontology of the Monadology:  Jones certainly doesn’t mean monads, but what does he mean? He says “Clear physicalism avoids this obscurity by treating qualia as electrochemical substances that underlie observable brain activity and do work in brains”.  The combination of both underlying observable physics yet doing work – causal work, we assume – seems very problematic. It would be odd but compatible with physics if Jones were merely saying that qualia are aspects of the physical world that run along with – perhaps over-determine – the causal effects specified by physics: but that doesn’t seem to be quite it.

If we take a step back, the idea of making consciousness a physical substance of any kind seems difficult to accept; consciousness, after all, comes and goes, but matter is conserved. If we take a more flexible view of the notion of substance and allow the substance of consciousness to come and go in line with certain vigorous firings of interlinked neurons it becomes a little hard to see what our quarrel with some sort of functionalism can be. Pain, it turns out, is not the firing of C-fibres (or whatever), but it is a substance that occurs in perfect correlation with the firing of C-fibres. Hmm.

Picture: correspondent. Paul Almond’s Attempt to Generalize AI has reached part 13 (pdf), which introduces the idea of reflexive outputs.  Earlier pieces in the series and non-pdf versions are on the same site.

Gilbert Wesley Purdey has produced the T=0 Complexity Theory of Consciousness, which is based on a new attempt to tackle the surprisingly durable problem of defining consciousness, and is grounded in ‘a reformed-Macleanian overview of the evolution of the brain’. The idea that ‘Consciousness is an emergent property of the grey matter of the neo-cortex’ is one which many will accept fairly readily, but there are some unusual and interesting conclusions developed in the course of the discussion.

Carey R Carlson, whose views I briefly discussed a while ago has produced a new paper Causal Set Theory and the Origin of Mass-ratio.

Huping Hu has added a forum to the JCER site.