Archive for January, 2014

scalpelExistential Comics raises an interesting question (thanks to Micha for pointing it out). In the strip a doctor with a machine that measures consciousness (rather like Tononi’s new machine, except that that measures awareness) tells an unlucky patient he lacks the consciousness-producing part of the brain altogether. Consequently, the doctor says, he is legally allowed to harvest the patient’s organs.

Would that be right?

We can take it that what the patient lacks is consciousness in the ‘Hard Problem’ sense. He can talk and behave quite normally, it’s just that when he experiences things there isn’t ‘something it is like’; there’s no real phenomenal experience. In fact, he is a philosophical zombie, and for the sake of clarity I take him to be a strict zombie; one of the kind who are absolutely like their normal human equivalent in every important detail except for lacking qualia (the cartoon sort of suggests otherwise, since it implies an actual part of the brain is missing, but I’m going to ignore that).

Would lack of qualia mean you also lacked human rights and could be treated like an animal, or worse? It seems to me that while lack of qualia might affect your standing as a moral object (because it would bear on whether you could suffer, for example), it wouldn’t stop you being a full-fledged moral subject (you would still have agency). I think I would consequently draw a distinction between the legal and the moral answer. Legally, I can’t see any reason why the absence of qualia would make any difference. Legal personhood, rights and duties are all about actions and behaviour, which takes us squarely into the realm of the Easy Problem. Our zombie friend is just like us in these respects; there’s no reason why he can’t enter into contracts, suffer punishments, or take on responsibilities. The law is a public matter; it is forensic – it deals with the things dealt with in the public forum; and it follows that it has nothing to say about the incorrigibly private matter of qualia.

Of course the doctor’s machine changes all that and makes qualia potentially a public matter (which is one reason why we might think the machine is inherently absurd, since public qualia are almost a contradiction in terms). It could be that the doctor is appealing to some new, recently-agreed legislation which explicitly takes account of his equipment and its powers. If so, such legislation would presumably have to have been based on moral arguments, so whichever way we look at it, it is to the moral discussion that we must turn.

This is a good deal more complicated. Why would we suppose that phenomenal experience has moral significance? There is a general difficulty because the zombie has experiences too. In conditions when a normal human would feel fear, he trembles and turns pale; he smiles and relaxes under the influence of pleasure; he registers everything that we all register. He writes love poetry and tells us convincingly about his feelings and tastes. It’s just that, on the inside, everything is hollow and void. But because real phenomenal experience always goes along with zombie-style experience, it’s hard for us to find any evidence as to why one matters when the other doesn’t.

The question also depends critically on what ethical theories we adopt. We might well take the view that our existing moral framework is definitive, authorised by God or tradition, and therefore if it says nothing about qualia, we should take no account of them either. No new laws are necessary, and there can be no moral reason to allow the harvesting of organs.

In this respect I believe it is the case that medieval legislatures typically saw themselves, not as making new laws, but as rediscovering the full version of old ones, or following out the implications of existing laws for new circumstances. So when the English parliamentarians wanted to argue against Charles I’s Ship Tax, rather than rest their case on inequity, fiscal distortion, or political impropriety, they appealed to a dusty charter of Ine, ancient ruler of Wessex (regrettably they referred to Queen Ine, whereas he had in fact been a robustly virile King).

Even within a traditional moral framework, therefore, we might find some room to argue that new circumstances called for some clarification; but I think we would find it hard going to argue for the harvesting.

What if we were utilitarians, those people who say that morality is acting to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number? Here we have a very different problem because the utilitarians are more than happy to harvest your organs anyway if by doing so they can save more than one person, no matter whether you have qualia or not. This unattractive kind of behaviour is why most people who espouse a broadly utilitarian framework build in some qualifications (they might say that while organ harvesting is good in principle actual human aversion to it would mean that in practice it did not conduce to happiness overall, for example).

The interesting point is whether zombie happiness counts towards the utilitarian calculation. Some might take the view that without qualia it had no real value, so that the zombie’s happiness figure should be taken as zero. Unfortunately there is no obvious answer here; it just depends what kind of happiness you think is important. In fact some consequentialists take the utilitarian system but plug into it desiderata other than happiness anyway. It can be argued that old-fashioned happiness utilitarianism would lead to us all sitting in boxes that directly stimulated our pleasure centres, so something more abstract seems to be needed; some even just speak of ‘utility’ without making it any more specific.

No clear answer then, but it looks as if qualia might at least be relevant to a utilitarian.

What about the Kantians? Kant, to simplify somewhat, thought we should act in accordance with the kind of moral rules we should want other people to adopt. So, we should be right to harvest the organs so long as we were content that if we ourselves turned out to be zombies, the same thing would happen to us. Now I can imagine that some people might attach such value to qualia that they might convince themselves they should agree to this proposition; but in general the answer is surely negative. We know that zombies behave exactly like ordinary people, so they would not for the most part agree to having their organs harvested; so we can say with confidence that if I were a zombie I should still tell the doctor to desist.

I think that’s about as far as I can reasonably take the moral survey within the scope of a blog post. At the end of the day, are qualia morally relevant? People certainly talk as if they are in some way fundamental to value. “Qualia are what make my life worth living” they say: unfortunately we know that zombies would say exactly the same.

I think most people, deliberately or otherwise, will simply not draw a distinction between real phenomenal experience on one hand and the objective experience of the kind a zombie can have on the other. Our view of the case will in fact be determined by what we think about people with and without feelings of both kinds, rather than people with and without qualia specifically. If so, qualia sceptics may find that grist to their mill.

Micha has made some interesting comments which I hope he won’t mind me reproducing.

The question of deontology vs consequentialism might be involved. A deontologist has less reason — although still some — to care about the content of the victim’s mind. Animals are also objects of morality; so the whole question may be quantitative, not qualitative.

Subjects like ethics aren’t easy for me to discuss philosophically to someone of another faith. Orthodox Judaism, like traditional Islam, is a legally structured religion. Therefore ethics aren’t discussed in the same language as in western society, since how the legal system processes revelation impacts conclusion.

In this case, it seems relevant that the talmud says that someone who kills adnei-hasadeh (literally: men of the field) is as guilty of murder as someone who kills a human being. It’s unclear what the talmud is referring to: it may be a roman mythical being who is like a human, but with an umbilicus that grows down to roots into the earth, or perhaps an orangutan — from the Malay for “man of the jungle”, or some other ape. Whatever it is, only actual human beings are presumed to have free will. And yet killing one qualifies as murder, not the killing of an animal.

correspondentNarrative Complexity is what it all comes down to according to R. Salvador Reyes. His site features a series of essays which bring together a number of sensible ideas. Perhaps too sensible? The truth, we suspect, is not just out there, but way out.

If you missed it, you might be interested in the strange tale of Samantha West, who is probably not exactly a robot as such. Or is that what they want us to think?

Walter Freeman’s correspondence reveals that patients and their families often expressed satisfaction with the results of ice-pick lobotomy. This may be partly because they focussed on getting the patient working again, without worrying too much about other aspects. Desperation probably played a part too, one poor woman coming back to ask for a third attempt even after two previous lobotomies had failed.

The European Human Brain Project got under way late last year.

lightChristof Koch declares himself a panpsychist in this interesting piece, but I don’t think he really is one. He subscribes to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of Giulio Tononi, which holds that consciousness is created by the appropriate integration of sufficient quantities of information. The level of integrated information can be mathematically expressed in a value called Phi: we have discussed this before a couple of times. I think this makes Koch an emergentist, but curiously enough he vigorously denies that.

Koch starts with a quotation about every outside having an inside which aptly brings out the importance of the first-person perspective in all these issues. It’s an implicit theme of what Koch says (in my reading at least) that consciousness is something extra. If we look at the issue from a purely third-person point of view, there doesn’t seem to be much to get excited about. Organisms exhibit different levels of complexity in their behaviour and it turns out that this complexity of behaviour arises from a greater complexity in the brain. You don’t say! The astonishment meter is still indicating zero. It’s only when we add in the belief that at some stage the inward light of consciousness, actual phenomenal experience, has come on that it gets interesting. It may be that Koch wants to incorporate panpsychism into his outlook to help provide that ineffable light, but attempting to make two theories work together is a risky path to take. I don’t want to accuse anyone of leaning towards dualism (which is the worst kind of philosophical bitchiness) but… well, enough said. I think Koch would do better to stick with the austere simplicity of IIT and say: that magic light you think you see is just integrated information. It may look a bit funny but that’s all it is, get used to it.

He starts off by arguing persuasively that consciousness is not the unique prerogative of human beings. Some, he says, have suggested that language is the dividing line, but surely some animals, preverbal infants and so on should not be denied consciousness? Well, no, but language might be interesting, not for itself but because it is an auxiliary effect of a fundamental change in brain organisation, one that facilitates the handling of abstract concepts, say (or one that allows the integration of much larger quantities of information, why not?). It might almost be a side benefit, but also a handy sign that this underlying reorganisation is in place, which would not be to say that you couldn’t have the reorganisation without having actual language. We would then have something, human-style thought, which was significantly different from the feelings of dogs, although the impoverishment of our vocabulary makes us call them both consciousness.

Still, in general the view that we’re dealing with a spectrum of experience, one which may well extend down to the presumably dim adumbrations of worms and insects, seems only sensible.

One appealing way of staying monist but allowing for the light of phenomenal experience is through emergence: at a certain level we find that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts: we do sort of get something extra, but in an unobjectionable way. Strangely, Koch will have no truck with this kind of thinking. He says

‘the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical’.

At first sight this seemed to me almost a direct contradiction of what he had just finished saying. The spectrum of consciousness suggests that we start with the blazing 3D cinema projector of the human mind, work our way down to the magic lanterns of dogs, the candles of newts, and the faint tiny glows of worms – and then the complete darkness of rocks and air. That suggests that consciousness does indeed build up gradually out of nothing, doesn’t it? An actual panpsychist, moreover, pushes the whole thing further, so that trees have faint twinkles and even tiny pieces of clay have a detectable scintilla.

Koch’s view is not, in fact, contradictory: what he seems to want is something like one of those dimmer switches that has a definite on and off, but gradations of brightness when on. He’s entitled to take that view, but I don’t think I agree that gradual emergence of consciousness is unimaginable. Take the analogy of a novel. We can start with Pride and Prejudice, work our way down through short stories or incoherent first drafts, to recipe books or collections of limericks, books with scribble and broken sentences, down to books filled with meaningless lines, and the chance pattern of cracks on a wall. All the way along there will be debatable cases, and contrarians who disbelieve in the real existence of literature can argue against the whole thing (‘You need to exercise your imagination to make Pride and Prejudice a novel; but if you are willing to use your imagination I can tell you there are finer novels in the cracks on my wall than anything Jane bloody Austen ever wrote…’) : but it seems clear enough to me that we can have a spectrum all the way down to nothing. That doesn’t prove that consciousness is like that, but makes it hard to assert that it couldn’t be.
The other reason it seems odd to hear such an argument from Koch is that he espouses the IIT which seems to require a spectrum which sits well with emergentism. Presumably on Koch’s view a small amount of integrated information does nothing, but at some point, when there’s enough being integrated, we start to get consciousness? Yet he says:

“if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make something. If a small brain won’t be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling?”

Well, because a small brain only integrates a small amount of information, whereas a large on integrates enough for full consciousness? I think I must be missing something here, but look at this.

“ [Consciousness] is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We have reached the ground floor of reductionism.”

Isn’t that emergence? Koch must see something else which he thinks is essential to emergentism which he doesn’t like, but I’m not seeing it.

The problem with Koch being panpsychist is that for panpsychists souls (or in this case consciousness) have to be everywhere. Even a particle of stone or a screwed-up sheet of wrapping paper must have just the basic spark; the lights must be at least slightly on. Koch doesn’t want to go quite that far – and I have every sympathy with that, but it means taking the pan out of the panpsychist. Koch fully recognises that he isn’t espousing traditional full-blooded panpsychism but in my opinion he deviates too far to be entitled to the badge. What Koch believes is that everything has the potential to instantiate consciousness when correctly organised and integrated. That amounts to no more than believing in the neutrality of the substrate, that neurons are not essential and that consciousness can be built with anything so long as its functional properties are right. All functionalists and a lot of other people (not everyone, of course) believe that without being panpsychists.

Perhaps functionalism is really the direction Koch’s theories lean towards. After all, it’s not enough to integrate information in any superficial way. A big database which exhaustively cross-referenced the Library of Congress would not seem much of a candidate for consciousness. Koch realises that there have to be some rules about what kinds of integration matter, but I think that if the theory develops far enough these other constraints will play an increasingly large role, until eventually we find that they have taken over the theory and the quantity of integrated information has receded to the status of a necessary but not sufficient condition.

I suppose that that might still leave room for Tononi’s Phi meter, now apparently built, to work satisfactorily. I hope it does, because it would be pretty useful.