Archive for February, 2017

Louie Savva kindly invited me to do a couple of podcasts recently which are now accessible on his site. These are part of the ‘Existential Files’ series he and Matthew Smith have been doing on his blog of despair (actually quite cheerful, considering) Everything is Pointless. I understand Susan Blackmore is pencilled in to do one soon, which should be interesting.

This was a new departure for me, but I must say I had great fun maundering away.  A vast range of subjects got covered at high speed, from consciousness and brain preservation to the limits of reason and why the universe exists.

One interesting thing (for me) was that I don’t think I quite sound like a Londoner even after all these years. I don’t sound like John Major’s geeky nephew, as I had feared: but it turns out I’m in no danger of being mistaken for James Mason either.

Anyway if you’ve been looking for the chance to listen to a confused old git wibbling about cognition, this might be your lucky day…

You can’t build experience out of mere information. Not, at any rate, the way the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) seeks to do it. So says Garrett Mindt in a forthcoming paper for the JCS.

‘Information’ is notoriously a slippery term, and much depends on how you’re using it. Commonly people distinguish the everyday meaning, which makes information a matter of meaning or semantics, and the sense defined by Shannon, which is statistical and excludes meaning, but is rigorous and tractable.

It is a fairly common sceptical claim that you cannot get consciousness, or anything like intentionality or meaning, out of Shannon-style information. Mindt describes in his paper a couple of views that attack IIT on similar grounds. One is by Cerullo, who says:

‘Only by including syntactic, and most importantly semantic, concepts can a theory of information hope to model the causal properties of the brain…’

The other is by Searle, who argues that information, correctly understood, is observer dependent. The fact that this post, for example, contains information depends on conscious entities interpreting it as such, or it would be mere digital noise. Since information, defined this way, requires consciousness, any attempt to derive consciousness from it must be circular.

Although Mindt is ultimately rather sympathetic to both these cases, he says they fail because they assume that IIT is working with a Shannonian conception of information: but that’s not right. In fact IIT invokes a distinct causal conception of information as being ‘a difference that makes a difference’. A system conveys information, in this sense, if it can induce a change in the state of another system. Mindt likens this to the concept of information introduced by Bateson.

Mindt makes the interesting point that Searle and others tend to carve the problem up by separating syntax from semantics; but it’s not clear that semantics is required for hard-problem style conscious experience (in fact I think the question of what, if any, connection there is between the two is puzzling and potentially quite interesting). Better to use the distinction favoured by Tononi in the context of IIT, between extrinsic information – which covers both syntax and semantics – and intrinsic, which covers structure, dynamics, and phenomenal aspects.

Still, Mindt finds IIT vulnerable to a slightly different attack. Even with the clarifications he has made, the theory remains one of structure and dynamics, and physicalist structure and dynamics just don’t look like the sort of thing that could ever account for the phenomenal qualities of experience. There is no theoretical bridge arising from IIT that could take us across the explanatory gap.

I think the case is well made, although unfortunately it may be a case for despair. If this objection stands for IIT then it most likely stands for all physicalist theories. This is a little depressing because on one point of view, non-physicalist theories look unattractive. From that perspective, coming up with a physical explanation of phenomenal experience is exactly the point of the whole enquiry; if no such explanation is possible, no decent answer can ever be given.

It might still be the case that IIT is the best theory of its kind, and that it is capable of explaining many aspects of consciousness. We might even hope to squeeze the essential Hard Problem to one side. What if IIT could never explain why the integration of information gives rise to experience, but could explain everything, or most things, about the character of experience? Might we not then come to regard the Hard Problem as one of those knotty tangles that philosophers can mull over indefinitely, while the rest of us put together a perfectly good practical understanding of how mind and brain work?

I don’t know what Mindt would think about that, but he rounds out his case by addressing one claimed prediction of IIT; namely that if a large information complex is split, the attendant consciousness will also divide. This looks like what we might see in split-brain cases, although so far as I can see, nobody knows whether split-brain patients have two separate sets of phenomenal experiences, and I’m not sure there’s any way of testing the matter. Mindt points out that the prediction is really a matter of  ‘Easy Problem’ issues and doesn’t help otherwise: it’s also not an especially impressive prediction, as many other possible theories would predict the same thing.

Mindt’s prescription is that we should go back and have another try at that definition of information; without attempting to do that he smiles on dual aspect theories. I’m afraid I am left scowling at all of them; as always in this field the arguments against any idea seem so much better than the ones for.


Emotions like fear are not something inherited from our unconscious animal past. Instead they arise from the higher-order aspects that make human thought conscious. That (if I’ve got it right) is the gist of an interesting paper by LeDoux and Brown.

A mainstream view of fear (the authors discuss fear in particular as a handy example of emotion, on the assumption that similar conclusions apply to other emotions) would make it a matter of the limbic system, notably the amygdala, which is known to be associated with the detection of threats. People whose amygdalas have been destroyed become excessively trusting, for example – although as always things are more complicated than they seem at first and the amygdalas are much more than just the organs of ‘fear and loathing’. LeDoux and Brown would make fear a cortical matter, generated only in the kind of reflective consciousness possessed by human beings.

One immediate objection might be that this seems to confine fear to human beings, whereas it seems pretty obvious that animals experience fear too. It depends, though, what we mean by ‘fear’. LeDoux and Brown would not deny that animals exhibit aversive behaviour, that they run away or emit terrified noises; what they are after is the actual feeling of fear. LeDoux and Brown situate their concept of fear in the context of philosophical discussion about phenomenal experience, which makes sense but threatens to open up a larger can of worms – nothing about phenomenal experience, including its bare existence, is altogether uncontroversial. Luckily I think that for the current purposes the deeper issues can be put to one side; whether or not fear is a matter of ineffable qualia we can probably agree that humanly conscious fear is a distinct thing. At the risk of begging the question a bit we might say that if you don’t know you’re afraid, you’re not feeling the kind of fear LeDoux and Brown want to talk about.

On a traditional view, again, fear might play a direct causal role in behaviour. We detect a threat, that causes the feeling of fear, and the feeling causes us to run away. For LeDoux and Brown, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, while the threat causes the running away, that process does not in itself generate the feeling of fear. Those sub-cortical processes, along with other signals, feed into a separate conscious process, and it’s that that generates the feeling.

Another immediate objection therefore might be that the authors have made fear an epiphenomenon; it doesn’t do anything. Some, of course, might embrace the idea that all conscious experience is epiphenomenal; a by-product whose influence on behaviour is illusory. Most people, though, would find it puzzling that the brain should go to the trouble of generating experiences that never affect behaviour and so contribute nothing to survival.

The answer here, I think, comes from the authors’ view of consciousness. They embrace a higher-order theory (HOT). HOTs (there are a number of variations) say that a mental state is conscious if there is another mental state in the same mind which is about it – a Higher Order Representation (HOR); or to put it another way, being conscious is being aware that you’re aware. If that is correct, then fear is a natural result of the application of conscious processes to certain situations, not a peculiar side-effect.

HOTs have been around for a long time: they would always get a mention in any round-up of the contenders for an explanation of consciousness, but somehow it seems to me they have never generated the little bursts of excitement and interest that other theories have enjoyed. LeDoux and Brown suggest that other theories of emotion and consciousness either are ‘first -order’ theories explicitly, or can be construed as such. They defend the HOT concept against one of the leading objections, which is that it seems to be possible to have HORs of non-existent states of awareness. In Charles Bonnet, syndrome, for example, people who are in fact blind have vivid and complex visual hallucinations. To deal with this, the authors propose to climb one order higher; the conscious awareness, they suggest, comes not from the HOR of a visual experience but from the HOR of a HOR: a HOROR, in fact. There clearly is no theoretical limit to the number of orders we can rise to, and there’s some discussion here about when and whether we should call the process introspection.

I’m not convinced by HOTs myself. The authors suggest that single-order theory implies there can be conscious states of which we are not aware, which seems sort of weird: you can feel fear and not know you’re feeling fear? I think there’s a danger here of equivocating between two senses of ‘aware’. Conscious states are states of awareness, but not necessarily states we are aware of; something is in awareness if we are conscious; but that’s not to say that the something includes our awareness itself. I would argue, contrarily, that there must be states of awareness with no HOR; otherwise, what about the HOR itself? If HORs are states of awareness themselves, each must have its own HOR, and so on indefinitely. If they’re not, I don’t see how the existence of an inert representation can endow the first-order state with the magic of consciousness.

My intuitive unease goes a bit wider than that, too. The authors have given a credible account of a likely process, but on this account fear looks very like other conscious states. What makes it different – what makes it actually fearful? It seems possible to imagine that I might perform the animal aversive behaviour, experience a conscious awareness of the threat and enter an appropriate conscious state without actually feeling fear. I have no doubt more could be said here to make the account more plausible and in fairness LeDoux and Brown could well reply that nobody has a knock-down account of phenomenal experience, with their version offering a lot more than some.

In fact, even though I don’t sign up for a HOT I can actually muster a pretty good degree of agreement nonetheless. Nobody, after all, believes that higher order mental states don’t exist (we could hardly be discussing this subject if they didn’t). In fact, although I think consciousness doesn’t require HORs, I think they are characteristic of its normal operation and in fact ordinary consciousness is a complex meld of states of awareness at several different levels. If we define fear the way LeDoux and Brown do, I can agree that they have given a highly plausible account of how it works without having to give up my belief that simple first-order consciousness is also a thing.


Scott Bakker’s alien consciousnesses are back, and this time it’s peer-reviewed.  We talked about their earlier appearance in the Three Pound Brain a while ago, and now a paper in the JCS sets out a new version.

The new paper foregrounds the idea of using hypothetical aliens as a forensic tool for going after the truth about our own minds; perhaps we might call it xenophenomenology. That opens up a large speculative space, though it’s one which is largely closed down again here by the accompanying assumption that our aliens are humanoid, the product of convergent evolution. In fact, they are now called Convergians, instead of the Thespians of the earlier version.

In a way, this is a shame. On the one hand, one can argue that to do xenophenomenology properly is impractical; it involves consideration of every conceivable form of intelligence, which in turn requires an heroic if not god-like imaginative power which few can aspire to (and which would leave the rest of us struggling to comprehend the titanic ontologies involved anyway). But if we could show that any possible mind would have to be x, we should have a pretty strong case for xism about human beings. In the present case not much is said about the detailed nature of the Convergian convergence, and we’re pretty much left to assume that they are the same as us in every important respect. This means there can be no final reveal in which – aha! – it turns out that all this is true of humans too! Instead it’s pretty clear that we’re effectively talking about humans all along.

Of course, there’s not much doubt about the conclusion we’re heading to here, either: in effect the Blind Brain Theory (BBT). Scott argues that as products of evolution our minds are designed to deliver survival in the most efficient way possible. As a result they make do with a mere trickle of data and apply cunning heuristics that provide a model of the world which is quick and practical but misleading in certain important respects. In particular, our minds are unsuited to metacognition – thinking about thinking – and when we do apply our minds to themselves the darkness of those old heuristics breeds monsters: our sense of our selves as real, conscious agents and the hard problems of consciousness.

This seems to put Scott in a particular bind so far as xenophenomenology is concerned. The xenophenomenological strategy requires us to consider objectively what alien minds might be like; but Scott’s theory tells us we are radically incapable of doing so. If we are presented with any intelligent being, on his view those same old heuristics will kick in and tell us that the aliens are people who think much like us. This means his conclusion that Convergians would surely suffer the same mental limitations as us appears as merely another product of faulty heuristics, and the assumed truth of his conclusion undercuts the value of his evidence.

Are those heuristics really that dominant? It is undoubtedly true that through evolution the brains of mammals and other creatures took some short cuts, and quite a few survive into human cognition, including some we’re not generally aware of. That seems to short-change the human mind a bit though; in a way the whole point of it is that it isn’t the prisoner of instinct and habit. When evolution came up with the human brain, it took a sort of gamble; instead of equipping it with good fixed routines, it set it free to come up with new ones, and even over-ride old instincts. That gamble paid off, of course, and it leaves us uniquely able to identify and overcome our own limitations.

If it were true that our view of human conscious identity were built in by the quirks of our heuristics, surely those views would be universal, but they don’t seem to be. Scott suggests that, for example, the two realms of sky and earth naturally give rise to a sort of dualism, and the lack of visible detail in the distant heavens predisposes Convergians (or us) to see it as pure and spiritual. I don’t know about that as a generalisation across human cultures (didn’t the Greeks, for one thing, have three main realms, with the sea as the third?). More to the point, it’s not clear to me that modern western ways of framing the problems of the human mind are universal. Ancient Egyptians divided personhood into several souls, not just one. I’ve been told that in Hindu thought the question of dualism simply never arises. In Shinto the line between the living and the material is not drawn in quite the Western way. In Buddhism human consciousness and personhood have been taken to be illusions for many centuries. Even in the West, I don’t think the concept of consciousness as we now debate it goes back very far at all – probably no earlier than the nineteenth century, with a real boost in the mid-twentieth (in Italian and French I believe one word has to do duty for both ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’, although we mustn’t read too much into that). If our heuristics condemn us to seeing our own conscious existence in a particular way, I wouldn’t have expected that much variation.

Of course there’s a difference between what vividly seems true and what careful science tells us is true; indeed if the latter didn’t reveal the limitations of our original ideas this whole discussion would be impossible. I don’t think Scott would disagree about that; and his claim that our cognitive limitations have influenced the way we understand things is entirely plausible. The question is whether that’s all there is to the problems of consciousness.

As Scott mentions here, we don’t just suffer misleading perceptions when thinking of ourselves; we also have dodgy and approximate impressions of physics. But those misperceptions were not Hard problems; no-one had ever really doubted that heavier things fell faster, for example. Galileo sorted several of these basic misperceptions out simply by being a better observer than anyone previously, and paying more careful attention. We’ve been paying careful attention to consciousness for some time now, and arguably it just gets worse.

In fairness that might rather short-change Scott’s detailed hypothesising about how the appearance of deep mystery might arise for Convergians; those, I think, are the places where xenophenomenology comes close to fulfilling its potential.


Or perhaps Chomsky’s endorsement of Isaac Newton’s mysterianism.  We tend to think of Newton as bringing physics to a triumphant state of perfection, one that lasted until Einstein, and with qualifications, still stands. Chomsky says that in fact Newton shattered the ambitions of mechanical science, which have never recovered; and in doing so he placed permanent limits on the human mind. He quotes Hume;

While Newton seemed to draw off the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he shewed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy; and thereby restored her ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain.

What are they talking about? Above all, the theory of gravity, which relies on the unexplained notion of action at a distance. Contemporary thinkers regarded this as nonsensical, almost logically absurd: how could object A affect object B without contacting it and without and internediating substance? Newton, according to Chomsky, agreed in essence; but defended himself by saying that there was nothing occult in his own work, which stopped short where the funny stuff began.  Newton, you might say, described gravity precisely and provided solid evidence to back up his description; what he didn’t do at all was explain it.

The acceptance of gravity, according to Chomsky, involved a permanent drop in the standard of intelligibility that scientific theories required. This has large implications for the mind it suggests there might be matters beyond our understanding, and provides a particular example. But it may well be that the mind itself is, or involves, similar intractable difficulties.

Chomsky reckons that Darwin reinforced this idea. We are not angels, after all, only apes; all other creatures suffer cognitive limitations; why should we be able to understand everything? In fact our limitations are as important as our abilities in making us what we are; if we were bound by no physical limitations we should become shapeless globs of protoplasm instead of human beings, and the same goes for our minds. Chomsky distinguishes between problems and mysteries. What is forever a mystery to a dog or rat may be a solvable problem for us, but we are bound to have mysteries of our own.

I think some care is needed over the idea of permanent mysteries. We should recognise that in principle there may be several things that look mysterious, notably the following.

  1. Questions that are, as it were, out of scope: not correctly definable as questions at all: these are answerable even by God.
  2. Mysterian mysteries; questions that are not in themselves unanswerable, but which are permanently beyond the human mind.
  3. Questions that are answerable by human beings, but very difficult indeed.
  4. Questions that would be answerable by human beings if we had further information which we (a) either just don’t happen to have, or which (b) we could never have in principle.

I think it’s just an assumption that the problem of mind, and indeed, the problem of gravity, fall into category 2. There has been a bit of movement in recent decades, I think, and the possibility of 3 or 4(a) remains open.

I don’t think the evolutionary argument is decisive either. Implicitly Chomsky assumes an indefinite scale of cognitive abilities matched by an indefinite scale of problems. Creatures that are higher up the first get higher up the second, but there’s always a higher problem.  Maybe, though, there’s a top to the scale of problems? Maybe we are already clever enough in principle to tackle them all.

If this seems optimistic, think of Chomsky the Lizard, millions of years ago. Some organisms, he opines, can stick their noses out of the water. Some can leap out, briefly. Some crawl out on the beach for a while. Amphibians have to go back to reproduce. But all creatures have a limit to how far they can go from the sea. We lizards, we’ve got legs, lungs, and the right kind of eggs; we can go further than any other. That does not mean we can go all over the island. Evolution guarantees that there will always be parts of the island we can’t reach.

Well, depending on the island, there may be inaccessible parts, but that doesn’t mean legs and lungs have inbuilt limits. So just because we are products of evolution, it doesn’t mean there are necessarily questions of type 2 for us.

Chomsky mocks those who claim that the idea of reducing the mind to activity of the brain is new and revolutionary; it has been widely espoused for centuries, he says. He mentions remarks of Locke which I don’t know, but which resemble the famous analogy of Leibniz’s mill.

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will find only parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception.

The thing about that is, we’ll never find anything to explain a mill, either. Honestly, Gottfried, all I see is pieces of wood and metal moving around; none of them have any milliness? How on earth could a collection of pieces of wood – just by virtue of being arranged in some functional way, you say – acquire completely new, distinctively molational qualities?

Is consciousness a matter of entropy in the brain? An intriguing paper by R. Guevara Erra, D. M. Mateos, R. Wennberg, and J.L. Perez Velazquez says

normal wakeful states are characterised by the greatest number of possible configurations of interactions between brain networks, representing highest entropy values.

What the researchers did, broadly, is identify networks in the brain that were operative at a given time, and then work out the number of possible configurations these networks were capable of. In general, conscious states were associated with states with high numbers of possible configurations – high levels of entropy.

That makes me wrinkle my forehead a bit because it doesn’t fit well with my layman’s grasp of the concept of entropy. In my mind entropy is associated with low levels of available energy and an absence of large complex structure. Entropy always increases, but can decrease locally, as in the case of the complex structures of life, by paying for the decrease with a bigger increase elsewhere; typically by using up available energy. On this view, conscious states – and high levels of possible configurations – look like they ought to be low entropy; but evidently the reverse is actually the case. The researchers also used the Lempel-Ziv measure of complexity, one with strong links to information content, which is clearly an interesting angle in itself.

Of the nine subjects, three were epileptic, which allowed comparisons to be made with seizure states as well as those of waking and sleeping states. Interestingly, REM sleep showed relatively high entropy levels, which intuitively squares with the idea that dreaming resembles waking a little more than  fully unconscious states – though I think the equation of REM sleep with dreaming is not now thought to be as perfect as it once seemed.

One acknowledged weakness in the research is that it was not possible to establish actual connection. The assumed networks were therefore based on synchronisation instead. However, synchronisation can arise without direct connection, and absence of synchronisation is not necessarily proof of the absence of connection.

Still, overall the results look good and the picture painted is intuitively plausible. Putting all talk of entropy and Lempel-Ziv aside, what we’re really saying is that conscious states fall in the middle of a notional spectrum: at one end of this spectrum is chaos, with neutrons firing randomly; at the other we have then all firing simultaneously in indissoluble lockstep.

There is an obvious resemblance here to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) which holds that consciousness arises once the quantity of information being integrated passes a value known as Phi. In fact, the authors of the current paper situate it explicitly within the context of earlier work which suggests that the general principle of natural phenomena is the maximisation of information transfer. The read-across from the new results into terms of information processing is quite clear. The authors do acknowledge IIT, but just barely; they may be understandably worried that their new work could end up interpreted as mere corroboration for IIT.

My main worry about both is that they are very likely true, but may not be particularly enlightening. As a rough analogy, we might discover that the running of an internal combustion engine correlates strongly with raised internal temperature states. The absence of these states proves to be a pretty good practical guide to whether the engine is running, and we’re tempted to conclude that raised temperature is the same as running. Actually, though, raising the temperature artificially does not make the engine run, and there is in fact a complex story about running in which raised temperatures are not really central. So it might be that high entropy is characteristic of conscious states without that telling us anything useful about how those states really work.

But I evidently don’t really get entropy, so I might easily be missing the true significance of all this.

Anne Phillips says we have lots of rights over our bodies but no absolute authority to do what we like. John Harris doesn’t believe bodies are the sort of thing that can really be owned. Brooke Magnanti says that criticism of people’s choices about their bodies is framed in moral terms but often stems from disgust rooted in religious or other prejudices rather than in science.

Why should our rights to our bodies be any different to those we have over land, goods or money? I can think of seven arguments one could make.

The first is connection.  We cannot be separated from certain parts of our body (at least not while remaining alive), so our rights are inalienable in a way that our rights to other property are not. If we were fixed to a particular tract of land, then perhaps we should naturally have similarly special rights to that land?  What of the bits of us we can dispose of? Perhaps those are like crops grown on our special land, which we may sell or give away. There is, nevertheless, a presumption that these things are ours to begin with, which is perhaps why we feel Henrietta Lacks, whose cell culture was taken from her without permission or payment, and still thrives in labs around the world, was badly treated.

The second reason our rights to our bodies are treated as special might be a combination of precautionary hesitation and respect for humanity at large and human dignity. Generally the law and morality is concerned to give human beings special protection, and if our bodies are seen to be treated with disregard as if they were no more important than old clothes, that might encourage bad consequences for the treatment of human beings generally. But some people might abuse their special rights and be reckless and disrespectful to their own bodies, and so it seems to me that the respect arguments tends more to support the conclusion that bodies should not be property at all – not even our own.

Third is a sense that our body is a protected sphere – no-one else’s business. I think it’s impossible to deny the powerful appeal of this intuitively. It seems related to the moral view that you can do what you like so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. However, I can’t see any strong rational case for it apart from the other arguments considered here.

Fourth is a pragmatic argument similar to the one often advanced for private property in general. While there are no absolute rights in play, it is in practice likely that most of the time we will manage our own property best.  Society should therefore strive to limit its interventions and give us as much control as it can, consistent with other moral requirements.

The fifth argument is that rights over our own body are absolute and special, perhaps because they were given by God or because they are just a prima facie desirable good in themselves like (according to some) freedom.

Sixth, we might offer a more technical argument. Rights, we may notice, all appertain to persons. There cannot, then be any ownership of persons because then the recession of rights would have no final root and might be circular or indefinite. If we cannot have ownership rights over persons, then it is a natural extension to limit the ownership of rights over bodies.

The seventh reason suggests that a special ownership of our own bodies is invariably part of the implied social contract in place in any organised society. The deeper reasons may be matters of psychology or anthropology, but ultimately this is simply a human universal.

I think there’s at least something in all seven, but I still don’t think they completely over-ride society’s right to regulate the matter given sufficient justification.