Archive for April, 2017

Maybe hypnosis is the right state of mind and ‘normal’ is really ‘under-hypnotised’?

That’s one idea that does not appear in the comprehensive synthesis of what we know about hypnosis produced by Terhune, Cleeremans, Raz and Lynn. It is a dense, concentrated document, thick with findings and sources, but they have done a remarkably good job of keeping it as readable as possible, and it’s both a useful overview and full of interesting detail. Terhune has picked out some headlines here.

Hypnosis, it seems, has two components; the induction and one or more suggestions. The induction is what we normally think of as the process of hypnotising someone. It’s the bit that in popular culture is achieved by a swinging watch, mystic hand gestures or other theatrical stuff; in common practice probably just a verbal routine. It seems that although further research is needed around optimising the induction, the details are much less important than we might have been led to think, and Terhune et al don’t find it of primary interest. The truth is that hypnosis is more about the suggestibility of the subject than about the effectiveness of the induction. In fact if you want to streamline your view, you could see the induction as simply the first suggestion. Post-hypnotic suggestions, which take effect after the formal hypnosis session has concluded, may be somewhat different and may use different mechanisms from those that serve immediate suggestions, though it seems this has yet to be fully explored.

Broadly, people fall into three groups. 10 to 15 per cent of people are very suggestible, responding strongly to the full range of suggestions; about the same proportion are weakly suggestible and respond to hypnosis poorly or not at all; the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Suggestibility is a fairly fixed characteristic which does not change over time and seems to be heritable; but so far as we know it does not correlate strongly with many other cognitive qualities or personality traits (nor with dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). It does interestingly resemble the kind of suggestibility seen in the placebo effect – there’s good evidence of hypnosis itself being therapeutically useful for certain conditions – and both may be correlated with empathy.

Terhune et al regard the debate about whether hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness as an unproductive one; but there are certainly some points of interest here when it comes to consciousness. A key feature of hypnosis is the loss of the sense of agency; hypnotised subjects think of their arm moving, not of having moved their arm. Credible current theories attribute this to the suppression of second-order mental states, or of metacognition; amusingly, this ‘cold control theory’ seems to lend some support to the HOT (higher order theory) view of consciousness (alright, please yourselves). Typically in the literature it seems this is discussed as a derangement of the proper sense of agency, but of course elsewhere people have concluded that our sense of agency is a delusion anyway. So perhaps, to repeat my opening suggestion, it’s the hypnotised subjects who have it right, and if we want to understand our own minds properly we should all enter a hypnotic state. Or perhaps that’s too much like noticing that blind people don’t suffer from optical illusions?

There’s a useful distinction here between voluntary control and top-down control. One interesting thing about hypnosis is that it demonstrates the power of top-down control, where beliefs, suggestions, and other high-level states determine basic physiological responses, something we may be inclined to under-rate. But hypnosis also highlights strongly that top-down control does not imply agency; perhaps we sometimes mistake the former for the latter? At any rate it seems to me that some of this research ought to be highly relevant to the analysis of agency, and suggests some potentially interesting avenues.

Another area of interest is surely the ability of hypnosis to affect attention and perception. It had been shown that changes in colour perception induced by hypnosis are registered in the brain differently from mere imagined changes. If we tell someone under hypnosis to see red for green and green for red, does that change the qualia of the experience or not? Do they really see green instead of red, or merely believe that’s what is happening? If anything the facts of hypnosis seem to compound the philosophical problems rather than helping to solve them; nevertheless it does seem to me that quite a lot of the results so handily summarised here should have a bigger impact on current philosophical discussion than they have had to date.

 

What is it like to be a Singularity (or in a Singularity)?

You probably know the idea. At some point in the future, computers become generally cleverer than us. They become able to improve themselves faster than we can do, and an accelerating loop is formed where each improvement speeds up the process of improving, so that they quickly zoom up to incalculable intelligence and speed, in a kind of explosion of intellectual growth. That’s the Singularity. Some people think that we mere humans will at some point have the opportunity of digitising and uploading ourselves, so that we too can grow vastly cleverer and join in the digital world in which these superhuman could scious entities will exist.

Just to clear upfront, I think there are some basic flaws in the plausibility of the story which mean the Singularity is never really going to happen: could never happen, in fact. However, it’s interesting to consider what the experience would be like.

How would we digitise ourselves? One way would be to create a digital model of our actual brain, and run that. We could go the whole hog and put ourselves into a fully simulated world, where we could enjoy sweet dreams forever, but that way we should miss out on the intellectual growth which the Singularity seems to offer, and we should also remain at the mercy of the vast new digital intellects who would be running the show. Generally I think it’s believed that only by joining in the cognitive ascent of these mighty new minds can we assure our own future survival.

In that case, is a brain simulation enough? It would run much faster than a meat brain, a point we’ll come back to, but it would surely suffer some of the limitations that biological brains are heir to. We could perhaps gradually enhance our memory and other faculties and gradually improve things that way, a process which might provide a comforting degree of continuity, but it seems likely that entities based on a biological scheme like this would be second-class citizens within the digital world, falling behind the artificial intellects who endlessly redesign and improve themselves. Could we then preserve our identity while turning fully digital and adopting a radical new architecture?

The subject of what constitutes personal identity, be it memory, certain kinds of continuity, or something else, is too large to explore here, except to note a basic question; can our identity ultimately be boiled down to a set of data? If the answer is yes (I actually believe it’s ‘no’, but today we’ll allow anything) , then one way or another the way is clear for uploading ourselves into an entirely new digital architecture.

The way is also clear for duplicating and splitting ourselves. Using different copies of our data we can become several people and follow different paths. Can we then re-merge? If the data that constitutes us is static, it seems we should be able to recombine it with few issues; if it is partly a description of a dynamic process we might not be able to do the merger on the fly, and might have to form a third, merged individual. Would we terminate the two contributing selves? Would we worry less about ‘death’ in such cases? If you know your data can always be brought back into action, terminating the processes using that data (for now) might seem less frightening than the irretrievable destruction of your only brain.

This opens up further strange possibilities. At the moment our conscious experience is essentially linear (it’s a bit more complex than that, with layers and threads of attention, but broadly there’s a consistent chronological stream). In the brave new world our consciousness could branch out without limit; or we could have grid experiences, where different loci of consciousness follow crossing paths, merging at each node and the splitting again, before finally reuniting in one node with (very strange) remembered composite experience.

If merging is a possibility, then we should be able to exchange bits of ourselves with other denizens of the digital world, too. When handed a copy of part of someone else we might retain it as exterior data, something we just know about, or incorporate it into a new merged self, whether a successor to ourselves as ourselves, or as a kind of child; if all our data is saved the difference perhaps ceases to be of great significance. Could we exchange data like this with the artificial entities that were never human, or would they be too different?

I’m presupposing here that both the ex-humans and the artificial consciousnesses here remain multiple and distinct. Perhaps there’s an argument for generally merging into one huge consciousness? I think probably not, because it seems to me that multiple loci of consciousness would just get more done in the way of thinking and experiencing. Perhaps when we became sufficiently linked and multi-threaded, with polydimensional multi-member grid consciousnesses binding everything loosely together anyway the question of whether we are one or many – and how many – might not seem important any more.

If we can exchange experiences, does that solve the Hard Problem? We no longer need to worry whether your experience of red is the same as mine, we just swap. Now many people (and I am one) would think that fully digitised entities wouldn’t be having real experiences anyway, so any data exchange they might indulge in would be irrelevant. There are several ways it could be done, of course. It might be a very abstract business or entities of human descent might exchange actual neural data from their old selves. If we use data which, fed into a meat brain, definitely produces proper experience, it perhaps gets a little harder to argue that the exchange is phenomenally empty.

The strange thing is, even if we put all the doubts aside and assume that data exchanges really do transfer subjective experience, the question doesn’t go away. It might be that attachment to a particular node of consciousness conditions the experience so that it is different anyway.

Consider the example of experiences transferred within a single individual, but over time. Let’s think of acquired tastes. When you first tasted beer, it seemed unpleasant; now you like it. Does it taste the same, with you having learnt to like that same taste? Or did it in fact taste different to you back then – more bitter, more sour? I’m not sure it’s possible to answer with great confidence. In the same way, if one node within the realm of the Singularity ‘runs’ another’s experience, it may react differently, and we can’t say for sure whether the phenomenal experience generated is the same or not…

I’m assuming a sort of cyberspace where these digital entities live – but what do they do all day? At one end of the spectrum, they might play video games constantly – rather sadly reproducing the world they left behind. Or at the intellectually pure end, they might devote themselves to the study of maths and philosophy. Perhaps there will be new pursuits that we, in our stupid meaty way, cannot even imagine as yet. But it’s hard not to see a certain tedious emptiness in the pure life of the mind as it would be available to these intellectual giants. They might be tempted to go on playing a role in the real world.

The real world, though, is far too slow. Whatever else they have improved, they will surely have racked up the speed of computation to the point where thousands of years of subjective time take only a few minutes of real world time. The ordinary physical world will seem to have slowed down very close to the point of stopping altogether; the time required to achieve anything much in the real world is going to seem like millions of years.

In fact, that acceleration means that from the point of view of ordinary time, the culture within the Singularity will quickly reach a limit at which everything it could ever have hoped to achieve is done. Whatever projects or research the Singularitarians become interested in will be completed and wrapped up in the blinking of an eye. Unless you think the future course of civilisation is somehow infinite, it will be completed in no time. This might explain the Fermi Paradox, the apparently puzzling absence of advanced alien civilisations: once they invent computing, galactic cultures go into the Singularity, wrap, themselves up in a total intellectual consummation, and within a few days at most, fall silent forever.

Is there a Hard Problem of physics that explains the Hard Problem of consciousness?

Hedda Hassel Mørch has a thoughtful piece in Nautilus’s interesting Consciousness issue (well worth a look generally) that raises this idea. What is the alleged Hard Problem of physics? She say it goes like this…

What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics?

To cut to the chase, Mørch proposes that things in themselves have a nature not touched by physics, and that nature is consciousness. This explains the original Hard Problem – we, like other things, just are by nature conscious; but because that consciousness is our inward essence rather than one of our physical properties, it is missed out in the scientific account.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the original Hard Problem is about an aspect of the world that physics misses out, but according to me that aspect is just the reality of things. There may not, according to me, be much more that can usefully be said about it. Mørch, I think, takes two wrong turns. The first is to think that there are such things as things in themselves, apart from observable properties. The second is to think that if this were so, it would justify panpsychism, which is where she ends up.

Let’s start by looking at that Hard problem of physics.  Mørch suggests that physics is about the mathematical structure of reality, which is true enough, but the point here is that physics is also about observable properties; it’s nothing if not empirical. If things have a nature in themselves that cannot be detected directly or indirectly from observable properties, physics simply isn’t interested, because those things-in-themselves make no difference to any possible observation. No doubt some physicists would be inclined to denounce such unobservable items as absurd or vacuous, but properly speaking they are just outside the scope of physics, neither to be affirmed nor denied. It follows, I think, that this can’t be a Hard Problem of physics; it’s actually a Hard Problem of metaphysics.

This is awkward because we know that human consciousness does have physical manifestations that are readily amenable to physical investigation; all of our conscious behaviour, our speech and writing, for example. Our new Hard Problem (let’s call it the NHP) can’t help us with those; it is completely irrelevant to our physical behaviour and cannot give us any account of those manifestations of consciousness. That is puzzling and deeply problematic – but only in the same way as the old Hard Problem (OHP) – so perhaps we are on the right track after all?

The problem is that I don’t think the NHP helps us even on a metaphysical level. Since we can’t investigate the essential nature of things empirically, we can only know about it by pure reasoning; and I don’t know of any purely rational laws of metaphysics that tell us about it. Can the inward nature of things change? If so, what are the (pseudo-causal?) laws of intrinsic change that govern that process? If the inward nature doesn’t change, must we take everything to be essentially constant and eternal in itself? That Parmenidean changelessness would be particularly odd in entities we are relying on to explain the fleeting, evanescent business of subjective experience.

Of course Mørch and others who make a similar case don’t claim to present a set of a priori conclusions about their own nature; rather they suggest that the way we know about the essence of things is through direct experience. The inner nature of things is unknowable except in that one case where the thing whose inner nature is to be known is us. We know our own nature, at least. It’s intuitively appealing – but how do we know our own real nature? Why should being a thing bring knowledge of that thing? Just because we have an essential nature here’s no reason to suppose we are acquainted with that inner nature; again we seem to need some hefty metaphysics to explain this, which is actually lacking. All the other examples of knowledge I can think of are constructed, won through experience, not inherent. If we have to invent a new kind of knowledge to support the theory the foundations may be weak.

At the end of the day, the simplest and most parsimonious view, I think, is to say that things just are made up of their properties, with no essential nub besides. Leibniz’s Law tells us that that’s the nature of identity. To be sure, the list will include abstract properties as well as purely physical ones, but abstract properties that are amenable to empirical test, not ones that stand apart from any possible observation. Mørch disagrees:

Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but  intuition rebels at this claim. For there to be a relation, there must be two things being related. Otherwise, the relation is empty—a show that goes on without performers, or a castle constructed out of thin air.

I think the argument is rather that the properties of a particle relate to each other, while these groups of related properties relate in turn to other such groups. Groups don’t require a definitive member, and particles don’t require a single definitive essence. Indeed, since the particle’s essential self cannot determine any of its properties (or it could be brought within the pale of physics) it’s hard to see how it can have a defined relation to any of them and what role the particle-in-itself can play in Mørch’s relational show.

The second point where I think Mørch goes wrong is in the leap to panpsychism. The argument seems to be that the NHP requires non-structural stuff (which she likens to the hardware on which the software of the laws of physics runs – though I myself wouldn’t buy unstructured hardware); the OHP gives us the non-structural essence of conscious experience (of course conscious experience does have structure, but Mørch takes it that down there somewhere is the structureless ineffable something-it-is-like); why not assume that the latter is universal and fills the gap exposed by the NHP?

Well, because other matter exhibits no signs of consciousness, and because the fact that our essence is a conscious essence just wouldn’t warrant the assumption that all essences are conscious ones. Wouldn’t it be simpler to think that only the essences of outwardly conscious beings are conscious essences? This is quite apart from the many problems of panpsychism, which we’ve discussed before, and which Mørch fairly acknowledges.

So I’m not convinced, but the case is a bold and stimulating one and more persuasively argued than it may seem from my account. I applaud the aims and spirit of the expedition even though I may regret the direction it took.

Self-discovery: fascinating journey of life or load of tosh? An IAI discussion.

On the whole, I think the vastness of the subject means we get no more than first steps here, though the directions are at least interesting. Joanna Kavenna notes the paradoxical entanglements that can arise from self-examination and makes an interesting comparison with the process of novelists finding their ‘voice’. Exploration of selves is of course the bedrock of the novel, a topic which could take up many pages in itself. She asserts that the self is experientially real, but that thought also floats away unexamined.

David Chalmers has a less misty proposition; people have traits and we are inclined to think of some as deep or essential. Identifying these is a reasonable project, but not without dangers if we settle on the wrong ones.

Ed Stafford seems to be uncomfortable with philosophy unless it comes from an ayahuasca session or a distant tribe. He likes the idea of thinking with your stomach, but does not shed any light on the interesting question of how stomach thoughts differ from brain ones. In general he seems to take the view that for well-adjusted people there is no mystery, one knows who one is and there’s no need to wibble about it. Oddly, though he mentions being dropped on a desert island where the solitude was so severe, that even when the helicopter was still in view, he vomited. To suffer radical depersonalisation after a couple of minutes alone on a beach seems an extraordinary example of personal fragility, but I suppose we are to understand this was before he centred himself through contact with more robust cultures. Of course, those who reject theory always in fact have a theory; it’s just one that they either haven’t examined or don’t want examined. In response to Chalmers’ suggestion that a loving environment can surely lead to personal growth, he seems to begin adding qualifications to his view of the robustly settled personality, but if we are witnessing actual self-discovery here it doesn’t go far.

Myself I reckon that you don’t need to identify your essential traits to experience self-discovery; merely becoming conscious of your own traits renders them self-conscious and transforms them, an iterative process that represents a worthwhile kind of growth, both moral and psychological. But I’ve never tried ayahuasca.

Is colour the problem or the solution? Last year we heard about a way of correcting colour blindness with glasses. It only works for certain kinds of colour blindness, but the fact that it works at all is astonishing. Human colour vision relies on three different kinds of receptor cone cells in the retina; each picks up a different wavelength and the brain extrapolates from those data to fill in the spectrum. (Actually, it’s far more complex than that, with the background and light conditions taken into account so that the brain delivers a consistent colour reading for the same object even though in different conditions the light reflected from it may be of completely different wavelengths. But let’s leave that aside for now and stick with the simplistic view.) The thing is, receptor cells actually respond to a range of wavelengths; in some people two kinds of receptors have ranges that overlap so much the brain can’t discriminate. What the glasses do is cut out most of the overlapping wavelengths; suddenly the data from the different receptor cells are very different, and the brain can do a full-colour job at last.

Now a somewhat similar approach has been used to produce glasses that turn normal vision into super colour vision. These new lenses exploit the fact that we have two eyes; by cutting out different parts of the range of wavelengths detected by same kind of receptor in the right and left eyes, they give the effect of four kinds of receptor rather than three. In principle the same approach could double up all three kinds of receptor, giving us the effective equivalent of six kinds of receptor, though this has not been tried yet.

This tetrachromacy or four-colour system is not unprecedented. Some animals, notably pigeons, naturally have four or even more kinds of receptor. And a significant percentage of women, benefiting from the second copy of the relevant genes that you get when you have two ‘X’ chromosomes, have four kinds of receptor, though it doesn’t always lead to enhanced colour vision because in most cases the range of the fourth receptor overlaps the range of another one too largely to be useful.

There is no doubt that all three kinds of tetrachromat – pigeons, women with lucky genes, and people with special glasses – can discriminate between more colours than the rest of us. Because our trichromat eyes have only three sources of data, they have to treat mixtures of wavelengths as though they were the same as pure wavelengths with values equivalent to the average of the mixtures – though they’re not. Tetrachromats can do a bit better at this (and I conjecture that colour video and camera images, which use only the three colours needed to fool normal eyes, must sometimes look a bit strange to tetrachromats).

Do tetrachromats see the same spectrum as we do, but in better detail, or do they actually see different colours? There’s never been a way to tell for sure. Tetrachromats can’t tell us what colours they see any more than we can tell each other whether my red is the same as yours, or instead is the same as what you experience for green.The curious fact that the ends of the spectrum join up into a complete colour wheel might support the idea that the spectrum is in some sense an objective reality, based on mathematical harmonic relationships analogous to those of sound waves; in effect we see a single octave of colour with the wavelength at one end double (or half) that at the other. I’ve sort of speculated in the past that if our eyes could see a much wider range of wavelengths we would see lower and higher octaves of colour; not wholly new colours like Terry Pratchett’s octarine, but higher and lower reds, greens and blues. I speculated further that ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ might actually be experienced as ‘cooler’ and ‘hotter’. That is of course the wildest guesswork, but the thesis that everyone – tetrachromats included – sees the same spectrum but in lesser or greater detail seems to be confirmed by the experimenters if I’m reading it right.

Of course, colour vision is not just a matter of what happens in the retina; there is also a neural colour space mapped out in the brain (which interestingly is a little more extensive than the colour space of the real world, leading to the hidden existence of ‘chimerical’ colours).  Do pigeons, human tetrachromats, and human trichromats all map colours to similar neural spaces? I haven’t been able to find out, but I’m guessing the answer is yes. If it weren’t so, there would be potential issues over neural plasticity. If your brain receives no signals from one eye during your early life, it re-purposes the relevant bits of neural real estate and you cannot get your vision back later even if the eye starts sending the right kind of signal. We might expect that people who were colour blind from birth would be affected in a similar way, yet in fact use of the new glasses seems to bring an intact colour system straight into operation for the first time. So it might be that a standard spectral colour space is hard-wired into the genes of all of us (even pigeons), or again it might be that the spectrum is a mathematical reality which any visual system must represent, albeit with varying fidelity.

All of this is skating around the classic philosophical issues. Does Mary, who never saw colours, know something new when she has seen red? Well, we can say with confidence that the redness will be registered and mapped properly; she will not have lost the ability to see colour through being brought up in a monochrome world. More importantly, the scientifically tractable aspects of colour vision have moved another step closer to the subjective experience. We have some objective reasons for supposing that Mary’s colour experience will be arranged along the same spectral structure as ours, though not necessarily graduated with the same fineness.

None of this will banish the Hard Problem, or dispel our particular sense that colours especially are subjective optional extras. For a long time some have thought of colour as a ‘secondary’ property, in the observer, not the world; not like such properties as mass or volume, which are more ‘real’. The newly-understood complexity of colour vision leads to new arguments that it is in fact artificial, a useful artefact in the brain, in some sense not really there in objective reality.  My feeling though is that if we can all experience tetrachromacy, the gap between the objective and the subjective will not be perceived as being so unbridgeable as it has been to date.