Archive for June, 2017

Could the Universe be conscious? This might seem like one of those Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is ‘No’ that so often provide arresting headlines in the popular press. Since the Universe contains everything, what would it be conscious of? What would it think about? Thinking about itself – thinking about any real thing – would be bizarre, analogous to us thinking about the activity of the  neurons that were doing the thinking. But I suppose it could think about imaginary stuff. Perhaps even the cosmos can dream; perhaps it thinks it’s Cleopatra or Napoleon.

Actually, so far as I can see no-one is actually suggesting the Universe as a whole, as an entity, is conscious. Instead this highly original paper by Gregory L. Matloff starts with panpsychism, a belief that there is some sort of universal field of proto-consciousness permeating the cosmos. That is a not unpopular outlook these days. What’s startling is Matloff’s suggestion that some stars might be able to do roughly what our brains are supposed by panpsychists to do; recruit the field and use it to generate their own consciousness, exerting some degree of voluntary control over their own movements.

He relies for evidence on a phenomenon called Parenago’s discontinuity; cooler, less massive stars seem to circle the galaxy a bit faster than the others. Dismissing a couple of rival explanations, he suggests that these cooler stars might be the ones capable of hosting consciousness, and might be capable of shooting jets from their interior in a consistent direction so as to exert an influence over their own motion. This might be a testable hypothesis, bringing panpsychism in from the debatable realms of philosophy to the rigorous science of astrophysics (unkind people might suggest that the latter field is actually about as speculative as the former; I couldn’t possibly comment).

In discussing panpsychism it is good to draw a distinction between types of consciousness. There is a certain practical decision-making capacity in human consciousness that is relatively well rooted in science in several ways. We can see roughly how it emerged from biological evolution and why it is useful, and we have at least some idea of how neurons might do it, together with a lot of evidence that in fact, they do do it.  Then there is the much mistier business of subjective experience, what being conscious is actually like. We know little about that and it raises severe problems. I think it would be true to claim that most panpsychists think the kind of awareness that suffuses the world is of the latter kind; it is a dim general awareness, not a capacity to make snappy decisions. It is, in my view, one of the big disadvantages of panpsychism that it does not help much with explaining the practical, working kind of consciousness and in fact arguably leaves us with more to account for  than we had on our plate to start with.

Anyway, if Matloff’s theory is to be plausible, he needs to explain how stars could possibly build the decision-making kind of consciousness, and how the universal field would help. To his credit he recognises this – stars surely don’t have neurons – and offers at least some hints about how it might work. If I’ve got it right, the suggestion is that the universal field of consciousness might be identified with vacuum fluctuation pressures, which on the one hand might influence the molecules present in regions of the cooler stars under consideration, and on the other have effects within neurons more or less on Penrose/Hameroff lines. This is at best an outline, and raises immediate and difficult questions; why would vacuum fluctuation have anything to do with subjective experience? If a bunch of molecules in cool suns is enough for conscious volition, why doesn’t the sea have a mind of its own? And so on. For me the deadliest questions are the simplest. If cool stars have conscious control of their movements, why are they all using it the same way – to speed up their circulation a bit? You’d think if they were conscious they would be steering around in different ways according to their own choices. Then again, why would they choose to do anything? As animals we need consciousness to help us pursue food, shelter, reproduction, and so on. Why would stars care which way they went?

I want to be fair to Matloff, because we shouldn’t mock ideas merely for being unconventional. But I see one awful possibility looming. His theory somewhat recalls medieval ideas about angels moving the stars in perfect harmony. They acted in a co-ordinated way because although the angels had wills of their own, they subjected them to God’s. Now, why are the cool stars apparently all using their wills in a similarly co-ordinated way? Are they bound together through the vacuum fluctuations; have we finally found out there the physical manifestation of God? Please, please, nobody go in that direction!

Arnold TrehubRegular readers will be sad to hear that Arnold Trehub,  a fairly regular contributor to discussion on Conscious Entities, died in April.

Consciousness: it’s all theology in the end. Or philosophy, if the distinction matters. Beyond a certain point it is, at any rate; when we start asking about the nature of consciousness, about what it really is. That, in bald summary, seems to be the view of Robert A. Burton in a resigned Nautilus piece. Burton is a neurologist, and he describes how Wilder Penfield first provided really hard and detailed evidence of close, specific correlations between neural and mental events, by showing that direct stimulation of neurons could evoke all kinds of memories, feelings, and other vivid mental experiences. Yet even Penfield, at the close of his career did not think the mind, the spirit of man, could yet be fully explained by science, or would be any time soon; in the end we each had to adopt personal assumptions or beliefs about that.

That is more or less the conclusion Burton has come to. Of course he understands the great achievements of neuroscience, but in the end the Hard Problem, which he seems to interpret rather widely, defeats analysis and remains a matter for theology or philosophy, in which we merely adopt the outlook most congenial to us. You may feel that’s a little dismissive in relation to both fields, but I suppose we see his point. It will be no surprise that Burton dislikes Dennett’s sceptical outlook and dismissal of religion. He accuses him of falling into a certain circularity: Dennett claims consciousness is an illusion, but illusions, after all, require consciousness.

We can’t, of course, dismiss the issues of consciousness and selfhood as completely irrelevant to normal life; they bear directly on such matters as personal responsibility, moral rights, and who should be kept alive. But I think Burton could well argue that the way we deal with these issues in practice tends to vindicate his outlook; what we often see when these things are debated is a clash between differing sets of assumptions rather than a skilful forensic duel of competing reasoning.

Another line of argument that would tend to support Burton is the one that says worries about consciousness are largely confined to modern Western culture. I don’t know enough for my own opinion to be worth anything, but I’ve been told that in classical Indian and Chinese thought the issue of consciousness just never really arises, although both traditions have long and complex philosophical traditions. Indeed, much the same could be said about Ancient Greek philosophy, I think; there’s a good deal of philosophy of mind, but consciousness as we know it just doesn’t really present itself as a puzzle. Socrates never professed ignorance about what consciousness was.

A common view would be that it’s only after Descartes that the issue as we know it starts to take shape, because of his dualism; a distinction between body and spirit that certainly has its roots in the theological (and philosophical) traditions of Western Christianity. I myself would argue that the modern topic of consciousness didn’t really take shape until Turing raised the real possibility of digital computers; consciousness was recruited to play the role of the thing computers haven’t got, and our views on it have been shaped by that perspective over the last fifty years in particular. I’ve argued before that although Locke gives what might be the first recognisable version of the Hard Problem, with an inverted spectrum thought experiment, he actually doesn’t care about it much and only mentions it as a secondary argument about matters that to him, seemed more important.

I think it is true in some respects that as William James said, consciousness is the last remnant of the vanishing soul. Certainly, when people deny the reality of the self, it often seems to me that their main purpose is to deny the reality of the soul. But I still believe that Burton’s view cedes too much to relativism – as I think Fodor once said, I hate relativism. We got into this business – even the theologians – because we wanted the truth, and we’re not going to be fobbed off with that stuff! Scientists may become impatient when no agreed answer is forthcoming after a couple of centuries, but I cling to the idea that there is a truth if the matter about personhood, freedom, and consciousness. I recognise that there is in this, ironically, a tinge of an act of faith, but I don’t care.

Unfortunately, as always things are probably more complicated than that. Could freedom of the will, say, be a culturally relative matter? All my instincts say no, but if people don’t believe themselves to be free, doesn’t that in fact impose some limits on how free they really are? If I absolutely do not believe I’m able to touch the sacred statue, then although the inability may be purely psychological, couldn’t it be real? It seems there are at least some fuzzy edges. Could I abolish myself by ceasing to believe in my own existence? In a way you could say that is in caricature form what Buddhists believe (though they think that correctly understood, my existence was a delusion anyway). That’s too much for me, and not only because of the sort of circularity mentioned above; I think it’s much too pessimistic to give up on a good objective accounts of agency and selfhood.

There may never be a single clear answer that commands universal agreement on these issues, but then there has never been, and never will be, complete agreement about the correct form of human government; but we have surely come on a bit in the last thousand years. To abandon hope of similar gradual consensual progress on consciousness might be to neglect our civic duty. It follows that by reading and thinking about this, you are performing a humane and important task. Well done!

[Next week I return from a long holiday; I’ll leave you to judge whether I make more or less sense.]

A whole set of interesting articles from IEEE Spectrum explore the question of whether AI can and should copy the human brain more. Of course, so-called neural networks were originally inspired by the way the brain works, but they represent a drastic simplification of a partial understanding. In fact, they are so unlike real neurons it’s really rather remarkable that they turn out to perform useful processes at all. Karlheinz Meier provides a useful review of the development of neuromorphic computing, up to contemporary chips with impressive performance.

Jeff Hawkins suggests the brain is better in three ways. First, it learns by rewiring; by growing new synapses. This confers three benefits: learning that is fast, incremental, and continuous. The brain does not need to do lengthy retraining to learn new things. Remarkably, he says a single neurons can do substantial pieces of pattern recognition and acquire ‘knowledge’ of several patterns without them interfering with each other.

The second way in which the brain is better is that it uses sparse distributed representations; a particular idea such as ‘cat’ can be represented by a large number of neurons, with only a small percentage needing to be active at any one time. This makes the system robust in respect of noise and damage, but because some of the ‘cat’ neurons may play roles in the representation of other animals and other entities, it also makes it quick and efficient at recognising similarities and dealing with vague ideas (an animal in the bush which may or may not be a cat).

The third thing the brain does better, according to Hawkins, is sensorimotor integration. He makes the interesting claim that the brain effectively does this all over, as part of basic ordinary activity, not as a specialised central function. Instead of one big 3D model of the world, we have what amounts to little ones everywhere. This is interesting partly because it is, prima facie, so implausible. Doing your modelling a hundred or a million times over is going to use up a lot of energy and ‘processing power’, and it raises the obvious risk of inconsistency between models. But Hawkin’s says he has a detailed theory of how it works and you’d have to be bold to dismiss his claim.

There are several other articles, all worth a look. Actually there are several different reasons we might want to imitate the brain. We might want computers that can interface with humans better because, in part, they work in similar ways. We might want to understand the brain better and be able to test our understanding; an ability that might have real benefits for treating brain disease and injury, and to some degree make up for the ethical limitations on the experiments we can perform on humans. The main focus here, though, is on learning how to do those things the brain does so well, but which still cannot yet be done efficiently, or in some cases at all, by computers.

As a strategy, copying the brain has several drawbacks. First, we still don’t understand the brain well enough. Things have moved on greatly in recent years, but in some ways that just shows how limited our understanding was to begin with. There’s a significant danger that by imitating the brain without understanding, we end up reproducing features that are functionally irrelevant; features the brain has for chance evolutionary reasons. Do we need a brain divided into two halves, as those of vertebrates generally are, or is that unimportant? Second, one thing we do know is that the brain is extraordinarily complex and finely structured. We are never going to reproduce all that in full detail – but perhaps it doesn’t matter; we’ve never replicated the exquisite engineering of feather technology either, but it didn’t stop us doing flight or understanding birds.

I think the challenge of understanding the brain is unique, but trying to copy it is probably an increasingly productive strategy.

What is the moral significance of consciousness? Jim Davies addressed the question in a short but thoughtful piece recently.

Davies quite rightly points out that although the nature of consciousness is often seen as an academic matter, remote from practical concerns, it actually bears directly on how we treat animals and each other (and of course, robots, an area that was purely theoretical not that long ago, but becomes more urgently practical by the day). In particular, the question of which entities are to be regarded as conscious is potentially decisive in many cases.

There are two main ways my consciousness affects my moral status. First, if I’m not conscious, I can’t be a moral subject, in the sense of being an agent (perhaps I can’t anyway, but if I’m not conscious it really seems I can’t get started). Second, I probably can’t be a moral object either; I don’t have any desires that can be thwarted and since I don’t have any experiences, I can’t suffer or feel pain.

Davies asks whether we need to give plants consideration. They respond to their environment and can suffer damage, but without a nervous system it seems unlikely they feel pain. However, pain is a complex business, with a mix of simple awareness of damage, actual experience of that essential bad thing that is the experiential core of pain, and in humans at least, all sorts of other distress and emotional response. This makes the task of deciding which creatures feel pain rather difficult, and in practice guidelines for animal experimentation rely heavily on the broad guess that the more like humans they are, the more we should worry. If you’re an invertebrate, then with few exceptions you’re probably not going to be treated very tenderly. As we come to understand neurology and related science better, we might have to adjust our thinking. This might let us behave better, but it might also force us to give up certain fields of research which are useful to us.

To illustrate the difference between mere awareness of harm and actual pain, Davies suggests the example of watching our arm being crushed while heavily anaesthetised (I believe there are also drugs that in effect allow you to feel the pain while not caring about it). I think that raises some additional fundamental issues about why we think things are bad. You might indeed sit by and watch while your arm was crushed without feeling pain or perhaps even concern. Perhaps we can imagine that for some reason you’re never going to need your arm again (perhaps now you have a form of high-tech psychokinesis, an ability to move and touch things with your mind that simply outclasses that old-fashioned ‘arm’ business), so you have no regrets or worries. Even so, isn’t there just something bad about watching the destruction of such a complex and well-structured limb?

Take a different example; everyone is dead and no-one is ever coming back, not even any aliens. The only agent left is a robot which feels no pleasure or pain but makes conscious plans; it’s a military robot and it spends its time blowing up fine buildings and destroying works of art, for no particular reason. Its vandalistic rampage doesn’t hurt anyone and cannot have any consequences, but doesn’t its casual destructiveness still seem bad?

I’d like to argue that there is a badness to destruction over and above its consequential impact, but it’s difficult to construct a pure example, and I know many people simply don’t share my intuition. It is admittedly difficult because there’s always the likelihood that one’s intuitions are contaminated by ingrained assumptions about things having utility. I’d like to say there’s a real moral rule that favours more things and more organisation, but without appealing to consequentialist arguments it’s hard for me to do much more than note that in fact moral codes tend to inhibit destruction and favour its opposite.

However, if my gut feeling is right, it’s quite important, because it means the largely utilitarian grounds used for rules about animal research and some human matters, re not quite adequate after all; the fact that some piece of research causes no pain is not necessarily enough to stop its destructive character bring bad.

It’s probably my duty to work on my intuitions and arguments a bit more, but that’s hard to do when you’re sitting in the sun with a beer in the charming streets of old Salamanca…