Set the Hard Problem aside and tackle the real problem instead, says Anil K Seth in a thought-provoking piece in Aeon. I say thought-provoking; overall I like the cut of his jib and his direction of travel: most of what he says seems right. But somehow his piece kept stimulating the cognitive faculty in my brain that generates quibbles.
He starts, for example, by saying that in philosophy a Cartesian debate over mind-stuff and matter-stuff continues to rage. Well, that discussion doesn’t look particularly lively or central to me. There are still people around who would identify as dualists in some sense, no doubt, but by and large my perception is that we’ve moved on. It’s not so much that monism won, more that that entire framing of the issue was left behind. ‘Dualist’, it seems to me is now mainly a disparaging term applied to other people, and whether he means it or not Seth’s remark comes across as having a tinge of that.
Indeed, he proceeds to say that David Chalmers’ hard/easy problem distinction is inherited from Descartes. I think he should show his working on that. The Hard Problem does have dualist answers, but it has non-dualist ones too. It claims there are things not accounted for by physics, but even monists accept that much. Even Seth himself surely doesn’t think that people who offer non-physics accounts of narrative or society must therefore be dualists?
Anyway, quibbling aside for now, he says we’ll get on better if we stop worrying about why consciousness exists at all and try instead to relate its features to the underlying biological processes. That is perfectly sensible. It is depressingly possible that the Hard Problem will survive every advance in understanding, even beyond the hypothetical future point when we have a comprehensive account of how the mind works. After all, we’re required to find it conceivable that my zombie twin could be exactly like me without having real subjective experience, so it must be possible that we could come to understand his mind totally without having any grasp on my qualia.
How shall we set about things, then? Seth proposes distinguishing between level of consciousness, contents, and self. That feels an uncomfortable list to me; this is uncharacteristically tidy-minded, but I like all members of a list to be exclusive and similar; whereas as Seth confirms, self here is to be seen as part of the contents. To me, it’s a bit as if he suggested that in order to analyse a performance of a symphony we should think about loudness, the work being performed, and the tune being played. That analogy points to another issue; ‘loudness’ is a legitimate quality of orchestral music but we need to remember that different instruments may play at different volumes and that the music can differ in quality in lots of other important ways. Equally, the level of consciousness is not really as simple as ten places on a dial.
Ah, but Seth recognises that. He distinguishes between consciousness and wakefulness. For consciousness it’s not the number of neurons involved or their level of activity that matters. It turns out to be complexity: findings by Massimini show that pulses sent into a brain in dreamless sleep produce simple echoes; sent into a conscious brain (whose overall level of activity may not be much greater) they produce complex reflected and transformed patterns. Seth hopes that this can be the basis of a ‘conscious meter’, the value of which for certain comatose patients is readily apparent. He is pretty optimistic generally about how much light this might shed on consciousness, rather as thermometers transformed…
“our physical understanding of heat (as average molecular kinetic energy)”
(Unexpectedly, a physics quibble; isn’t that temperature? Heat is transferred energy, isn’t it?)
Of course a complex noise is not necessarily a symphony and complex brain activity need not be conscious; Seth thinks it needs to be informative (whatever that may mean) and integrated. This of course links with Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory, but Seth sensibly declines to go all the way with that; to say that consciousness just is integrated information seems to him to be going too far; yielding again to the desire for deep, final yet simple answers, a search which just leads to trouble.
Instead he proposes, drawing on the ideas of Helmholtz, that we see the brain as a prediction machine. He draws attention to the importance of top-down influences on perception; that is, instead of building up a picture from the elements supplied by the senses, the brain often guesses what it is about to see and hear, and presents us with that unless contradicted by the senses – sometimes even if it is contradicted by the senses. This is hardly new (obviously not if it comes from Helmholtz (1821-1894)), but it does seem that Seth’s pursuit of the ‘real problem’ is yielding some decent research.
Finally Seth goes on to talk a little about the self. Here he distinguishes between bodily, perspectival, volitional, narrative and social selves. I feel more comfortable with this list than the other one – except that these are are all deemed to be merely experienced. You can argue that volition is merely an impression we have; that we just think certain things are under our conscious control – but you have to argue for it. Just including that implicitly in your categorisation looks a bit question-begging.
Ah, but Seth does go on to present at least a small amount of evidence. He talks first about a variant of the rubber hand experiment, in which said item is made to ‘feel’ like your own hand: it seems that making a virtual hand flash in time with the subject’s pulse enhances the impression of ownership (compared with a hand that flashes out of synch), which is indeed interesting. And he mentions that the impression of agency we have is reinforced when our predictions about the result are borne out. That may be so, but the fact that our impression of agency can be influenced by other factors doesn’t mean our agency is merely an impression – any more than a delusion about a flashing hand proves we don’t really have a hand.
But honestly, quibbles aside this is sensible stuff. Maybe I should give all that Hard Problem stuff a rest…