Archive for July, 2014

sorates and branestawmQuentin Ruyant has written a thoughtful piece about quantum mechanics and philosophy of mind: in a nutshell he argues both that quantum theory may be relevant to the explanation of consciousness and that consciousness may be relevant to the interpretation of quantum theory.

Is quantum theory relevant to consciousness? Well. of course some people have said so, notably Sir Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff.  I think Ruyant is right, though, that the majority of philosophers and probably the majority of physicists dismiss the idea that quantum theory might be needed to explain consciousness. People often suggest that the combination of the two only appeals because both are hard to explain: ‘here’s one mystery and here’s another: maybe one explains the other’. Besides, people say, the brain is far too big and hot and messy for anything other than classical physics to be required

In making the case for the relevance of quantum theory, Ruyant relies on the Hard Problem.  His position is that the Hard Problem is not biological but a matter of physics, whereas the Easy Problem, to do with all the scientifically tractable aspects of consciousness, can be dealt with by biology or psychology.

Actually, turning aside from the main thread of Ruyant’s argument, there are some reasons to suggest that quantum physics is relevant to the Easy Problem. Penrose’s case, in fact, seems to suggest just that: in his view consciousness is demonstrably non-computable and some kind of novel quantum mechanics is his favoured candidate to fill the gap. Penrose’s examples, things like solving mathematical problems, look like ‘Easy’ Problem matters to me.

Although I don’t think anyone (including me) advocates the idea, it also seems possible to argue that the ‘spooky action at a distance’ associated with quantum entanglement might conceivably have something to tell us about intentionality and its remarkable power to address things that are remote and not directly connected with us.

Anyway, Ruyant is mainly concerned with the Hard Problem, and his argument is that metaphysics and physics are closely related. Topics like the essential nature of physical things straddle the borderline between the two subjects, and it is not at all implausible therefore that the deep physics of quantum mechanics might shed light on the deep metaphysics of phenomenal experience. It seems to me a weakish line of argument, possibly tinged with a bit of prejudice: some physicists are inclined to feel that while their subject deals with the great fundamentals, biology deals only with the chance details of life; sort of a more intellectual kind of butterfly collecting.  That kind of thinking is not really well founded, and it seems particularly odd to think that biology is irrelevant when considering a phenomenon that, so far as we know, appears only in animals and is definitely linked very strongly with the operation of the brain. John Searle for one argues that ‘Hard Problem’ consciousness arises from natural biological properties of brain tissue. We don’t yet know what those properties are, but in his view it’s absurd to think that the job of nerves could equally well be performed by beer cans and string. Ruth Millikan, somewhat differently, has argued that consciousness is purely biological in nature, arising from and defined by evolutionary needs.

I think the truth is that it’s difficult to get anywhere at this meta-theoretical level:  we don’t really decide what kind of theory is most likely to be right and then concentrate on that area; we decide what the true theory most likely is and then root for the kind of theory it happens to be. That, to a great extent, is why quantum theories are not very popular: no-one has come up with a particular one that is cogent and appealing.  It seems to me that Ruyant likes the idea of physics-based theories because he favours panpsychism, or panphenomenalism, and so is inclined to think that the essential nature of matter is likely to be the right place to look for a theory.

To be honest, though, I doubt whether any kind of science can touch the Hard Problem.  It’s about entities that have no causal properties and are ineffable: how could empirical science ever deal with that? It might well be that a scientist will eventually give us the answer, but if so it won’t be by doing science, because neither classical nor quantum physics can really touch the inexpressible.

Actually, though there is a long shot.  If Colin McGinn is partly on the right track, it may be that consciousness seems mysterious to us simply because we’re not looking at it the right way: our minds won’t conceptualise it correctly. Now the same could be true of quantum theory. We struggle with the interpretation of quantum mechanics, but what if we could reorient our brains so that it simply seemed natural, and we groped instead for an acceptable ‘interpretation’ of spooky classical physics? If we could make such a transformation in our mental orientation, then perhaps consciousness would make sense too? It’s possible, but we’re back to banging two mysteries together in the hope that some spark will be generated.

Ruyant’s general case, that metaphysicians should be informed by our best physics is hard to argue with. At the moment few philosophers really engage with the physics and few physicists really grasp the philosophy. Why do philosophers avoid quantum physics? Partly, no doubt, just because it’s difficult, and relies on mathematics which few philosophers can handle. Partly also, I think there’s an unspoken fear that in learning about quantum physics your intuitions will be trained into accepting a particular weltanschauung that might not be helpful. Connected with that is the fear that quantum physics isn’t really finished or definitive. Where would I be if I came up with a metaphysical system that perfectly supported quantum theory and then a few years later it turns out that I should have been thinking in terms of string theory? Metaphysicians cross their fingers and hope they can deal with the key issues at a level of generality that means they won’t be rudely contradicted by an unexpected advance in physics a few years later.

I suppose what we really need is someone who can come up with a really good specific theory that shows the value of metaphysics informed by physics, but few people are qualified to produce one. I must say that Ruyant seems to be an exception, with an excellent grasp of the theories on both sides of the divide. Perhaps he has a theory of consciousness in his back pocket…?

wiring a neuronA few years ago we noted the remarkable research by Fried, Mukamel, and Kreiman which reproduced and confirmed Libet’s famous research. Libet, in brief, had found good evidence using EEG that a decision to move was formed about half a second before the subject in question became consciously aware of it; Fried et al produced comparable results by direct measurement of neuron firing.

In the intervening years, electrode technology has improved and should now make it possible to measure multiple sites. The scanty details here indicate that Kreiman, with support from MIT, plans to repeat the research in an enhanced form; in particular he proposes to see whether, having identified the formed intention to move, it is then possible to stop it before the action takes place. This resembles the faculty of ‘free won’t’ by which Libet himself hoped to preserve some trace of free will.

From the MIT article it is evident that Kreiman is a determinist and believes that his research confirms that position. It is generally believed that Libet’s findings are incompatible with free will in the sense that they seem to show that consciousness has no effect on our actual behaviour.

That actually sheds an interesting side-light on our view of what free will is. A decision to move still gets made, after all; why shouldn’t it be freely made even though it is unconscious? There’s something unsatisfactory about unconscious free will, it seems. Our desire for free will is a desire to be in control, and by that we mean a desire for the entity that does the talking to be in control. We don’t really think of the unconscious parts of our mind as being us; or at least not in the same way as that gabby part that claims responsibility for everything (the part of me that is writing this now, for example).

This is a bit odd, because the verbal part of our brain obviously does the verbals; it’s strange and unrealistic to think it should also make the decisions, isn’t it? Actually if we are careful to distinguish between the making of the decision and being aware of the decision – which we should certainly do, given that one is clearly a first order mental event and the other equally clearly second order – then it ceases to be surprising that the latter should lag behind the former a bit. Something has to have happened before we can be aware of it, after all.

Our unease about this perhaps relates to the intuitive conviction of our own unity. We want the decision and the awareness to be a single event, we want conscious acts to be, as it were, self- illuminating, and it seems to be that that the research ultimately denies us.

It is the case, of course, that the decisions made in the research are rather weird ones. We’re not often faced with the task of deciding to move our hands at an arbitrary time for no reason. Perhaps the process is different if we are deciding which stocks and shares to buy? We may think about the pros and cons explicitly, and we can see the process by which the conclusion is reached; it’s not plausible that those decisions are made unconsciously and then simply notified to consciousness, is it?

On the other hand, we don’t think, do we, that the process of share-picking is purely verbal? The words flowing through our consciousness are signals of a deeper imaginative modelling, aren’t they? If that is the case, then the words might still be lagging. Perhaps the distinction to be drawn is not really between conscious and unconscious, but between simply conscious and explicitly conscious. Perhaps we just shouldn’t let the talky bit pretend to be the whole of consciousness just because the rest is silent.

platformsThe European Human Brain Project seems to be running into problems. This Guardian report notes that an open letter of protest has been published by 170 unhappy neuroscientists. They are seeking to influence and extend a review that is due, hoping they can get a change of direction. I don’t know a great deal about the relevant EU bureaucracy, but I should think the letter-writers’ chances of success are small, not least because in Henry Markram they’re up against a project leader who is determined, resourceful, and not lacking support of his own. There’s a response to the letter here.

It is a little hard to work out exactly what the disagreement is about; the Guardian seems to smoosh together the current objections of former insiders with the criticisms of those who thought the project was radically premature in the first place. I find myself trying to work out what the protestors want, from Markram’s disparaging remarks about them, rather the way we have to reconstruct some ancient heresies from the rebuttals of the authorities, the only place where details survive.

We’re told the disagreement is between those who study behaviour at a high level and the project leaders who want to build simulations from the bottom up. In particular some cognitive neuroscience projects have been ‘demoted’ to partner status. People say the project has been turned into a technology one: Markram says it always was:  he suggests that piling up more data is useless and that instead he’s doing an ICT project which will provide a platform for integrating the data, and that it’s all coming out of an ICT budget anyway.

Us naive outsiders had picked up the impression that the project had a single clear goal; a working simulation of a whole human brain. That is sort of still there, but reading the response it seems to be a pretty distant aspiration. Apparently a mouse brain is going to be done first, but even that is a way off; it’s all about the platforms. Earlier documents suggest there will actually be six platforms, only one of which is about brain simulation; the others are neuroinformatics, high performance computing, medical informatics, neuromorphic computing, and neurorobotics – fascinating subjects. The implicit suggestion is that this kind of science can’t be done properly just by working in labs and publishing papers, it requires advanced platforms in which research can be integrated. Really? Speaking as a professional bureaucrat myself, I have to say frankly that that sounds uncommonly like the high-grade bollocks emitted by a project leader who has more money than he knows what to do with. The EU in particular is all about establishing unwanted frameworks and common platforms which lie dead in drawers forever after. If people want to share findings, publishing papers is fine (alright, not flawless). If it’s about doing actual research, having all the projects captured by a common platform which might embody common errors and common weaknesses doesn’t sound like a good idea at all. My brain doesn’t know, but my gut says the platforms won’t be much use.

Let’s be honest, I don’t really know what’s going on, but if one were cynical one might suppose that the success of the Human Genome Project made the authorities open to other grand projects, and one on the brain hit the spot. The problem is that we knew what a map of the genome would be like, and we pretty much knew it could be done and how. We don’t have a similarly clear idea relating to the brain. However, the concept was appealing enough to attract a big pot of money, both in the EU and then in the US (an even bigger pot). The people who got control of these pots cannot deliver anything like the map of the human genome, but they can buy in the support of fund-hungry researchers by disbursing some of the gold while keeping the politicians and bureaucrats happy by wrapping everything in the afore-mentioned bollocks. The authors of the protest letter perhaps ought to be criticising the whole idea, but really they’re just upset about being left out. The deeper sceptics who always said the project was premature – though they may have thought they were talking about brain simulation, not a set of integrative platforms – were probably right; but there’s no money in that.

Grand projects like this are probably rarely the best way to control research funding, but they do get funding. Maybe something good somewhere will accidentally get the help it needs; meanwhile we’ll be getting some really great European platforms.

claustrumDoctors at George Washington found by chance recently that stimulating a patient’s claustrum served to disrupt consciousness temporarily (abstract). The patient was being treated for epilepsy, and during this kind of surgery it is normal to use an electrode to stimulate areas of the brain in the target area before surgery to determine their role and help ensure the least possible damage is done to important functions. The claustrum is a sheet-like structure which seems to be well connected to many parts of the brain; Crick and Koch suggested it might be ‘the conductor of the orchestra’ of consciousness.

New Scientist reported this as the discovery of the ‘on/off’ switch for consciousness; but that really doesn’t seem to be the claustrum’s function: there’s no reason at the moment to suppose it is involved in falling asleep, or anaesthesia, or other kinds of unconsciousness, The on/off idea seems more like a relatively desperate attempt to explain the discovery in layman’s terms, reminiscent of the all-purpose generic tabloid newspaper technology report in Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men:

British scientists have developed a “magic box”, it was learned last night. The new wonder device was tested behind locked doors after years of research. Results were said to have exceeded expectations… …The device is switched on and off with a switch which works on the same principle as an ordinary domestic light switch…

Actually, one of the most interesting things about the finding is that the state the patient entered did not resemble sleep or any of those other states; she did not collapse or close her eyes, but instantly stopped reading and became unresponsive – although if she had been asked to perform a repetitive task before stimulation started, she would continue for a few seconds before tailing off. On some occasions she uttered a few incoherent syllables unprompted. This does sound more novel and potentially more interesting than a mere on/off switch. She was unable to report what the experience was like as she had no memory of it afterwards – that squares with the idea that consciousness was entirely absent during stimulation, though it’s fair to note that part of her hippocampus, which has an important role in memory formation, had already been removed.

Could Crick and Koch now be vindicated? It seems likely in part: the claustrum seems at least to have some important role – but it’s not absolutely clear that it is a co-ordinating one. One of the long-running problems for consciousness has been the binding problem: how the different sensory inputs, processed and delivered at different speeds, somehow come together into a smoothly co-ordinated experience. It could be that the claustrum helps with this, though some further explanation would be needed. As a long shot, it might even be that the claustrum is part of the ‘Global Workspace’ of the mind hypothesised by Bernard Baars, an idea that is still regularly invoked and quoted.

But we must be cautious. All we really know is that stimulating the claustrum disrupted consciousness. That does not mean consciousness happens in the claustrum. If you blow up a major road junction near a car factory, production may cease, but it doesn’t mean that the junction was where the cars were manufactured. Looking at it sceptically we might note that since the claustrum is well connected it might provide an effective way of zapping several important areas at once, and it might be the function of one or more of these other areas that is essential to sustaining consciousness.

However, it is surely noteworthy that a new way of being unconscious should have been discovered. It seems an unprecedentedly pure way, with a very narrow focus on high level activity, and that does suggest that we’re close to key functions. It is ethically impossible to put electrodes in anyone’s claustrum for mere research reasons, so the study cannot be directly replicated or followed up; but perhaps the advance of technology will provide another way.