Archive for July, 2004

Picture: Damasio.

Bitbucket Recent theories of consciousness have tended to neglect or marginalise the emotions. I suppose this is because the dominant conception of thought these days sees it as a computational or at any rate, a problem-solving process. It isn’t obvious where emotions fit into a program about high-level control of visual and motor systems. Perhaps there’s also an unconscious feeling that emotions are wishy-washy stuff, unworthy of the attention of proper scientists. But they clearly have to be included in any full account of human mentality

With a few exceptions (such as Aaron Sloman’s worthy attempts to give emotions a computational reading), most recent theories either disregard them or treat them as something bolted on to the main cognitive process. Perhaps they are the thing that provides the mental computer with motivation and goals? Perhaps they are the relics of older mammalian or even reptilian mental processes? Perhaps they are some kind of singalling process which plays a role in game theoretic transactions between human beings?

At any rate, they can (it’s generally assumed) be left on one side while considering the purely rational functions of the mind, rather in the way that connectionist networks generally leave aside all the vastly complex chemistry of real biological neurons.

In ‘The Feeling of What Happens‘ Antonio Damasio offers a very different account, one which integrates the emotions with both consciousness and the emergence of self and personhood. A holistic, or at least an integrated view is clearly something close to Damasio’s heart: in ‘Descartes Error ‘ he attacked the dualism which puts a gulf between the spirit and the body (or the mind and the brain, for that matter).

Blandula I really think poor Descartes deserves a bit of a break in this respect. OK, he was a dualist, but he wasn’t the first dualist, nor the last. I think it’s even debatable whether the net effect of his work was to reinforce or erode the position of dualism overall.

Bitbucket In any case, according to Damasio, consciousness, selfhood, and the emotions all spring ultimately from a single source: awareness of the current state of the body. The way they develop is complex, but this shared underlying focus neatly clarifies the relationship between them and ensures a close integration all the way up.

So far as the emotions are concerned, Damasio’s idea resembles an earlier one put forward by William James. Putting it crudely, James said that it is the state of your guts which constitutes your emotions and influences your brain – not your brain which conceives emotions which then influence your guts. Damasio’s theory gives a sophisticated development of this
down-to-earth insight and lacks the debunking, reductive overtones of the earlier version. He draws a useful but novel distinction between emotions, which he defines as states of the body related to excitement or arousal, and feelings, which are the patterns evoked in the brain by emotions.

Many recent theorist have fought shy of the self or even dismissed it as an illusion, but Damasio proposes a whole hierarchy of selves, the lowest level of which is the proto-self. This is merely a short term collection of neural patterns of activity which represent the current state of the organism. The core self is a second-order entity which maps the state of the proto-self in rather the same way the proto-self maps the current state of the body: whenever an encounter with an object impinges on the proto-self, the change is registered by activity in the core self. The core self represents the first, lowest level which deserves to be regarded as conscious, though this is the kind of immediate, unreflecting consciousness presumably possessed by animals in general, not just by human beings.

With the next step up, we get the autobiographical self, which draws on permanent (though modifiable) memories instead of just the immediate experiences which power the core self. At this point, there is a real, though still pre-linguistic, sense of self. Damasio thinks chimpanzees and probably dogs enjoy this level of consciousness.A final layer of development, with greater use of longer-term memory, delivers the kind of foresighted, reflective consciousness which we typically associate with human beings

Blandula That’s rather a lot of different varieties of self for someone who’s supposed to be a proponent of integration, isn’t it? It’s not even the full list, is it? We’ve also got the ‘as if’ body loop, which allows, as it were, hypothetical states of the body to be represented and considered – that seems to imply an ‘as if’ self. And then, on top of consciousness itself, we have conscience. Conscience seems a different kind of thing altogether to me – a function of consciousness, not a variety of it – but Damasio has it as the pinnacle of mental development.

Bitbucket You normally like the moral element emphasised, don’t you? You could say that the point about conscience was to bring the moral sense, too, within the same general framework. Again, I think it’s rather neat to regard conscience as another higher-order level. Our normal desires are a matter of wanting more x, but morality is arguably a matter of desires about desires – we wish we didn’t want certain kinds of x and resolve to over-ride our first-order desires by abstaining? That’s not a point Damasio makes, but it does show how nicely his theory coheres, I think.

Anyway, all this is backed up by plausible neurological ideas, but the most convincing aspect is the way it ties emotional states of the body into the process of thought and reasoning. In Damasio’s view, certain emotions (which in his account are states of the body, don’t forget)get associated with certain possible contingencies or outcomes in the external world: they function as ‘somatic markers’ which allow us to be steered towards certain options, and react appropriately to potential longer term rewards, instead of responding to the immediate situation around us. Damasio backs this up by quoting examples of people with emotional impairment arising from specific brain lesions: as his theory predicts, they have trouble dealing effectively with the world even though their purely rational thinking is unaffected.

Blandula There’s a problem with these examples, though, isn’t there? If the emotional faculties can be knocked out by a few specific lesions in the brain, leaving the rational faculties still working, the two can’t be as closely intertwined as all that, can they?

It’s not clear to me, moreover, that the examples really are cases of people whose decision-making per se is impaired. We don’t get a long account, but it sounds as if the problems are partly a matter of judging how to behave towards other people and partly a difficulty over managing one’s own desires coherently. Those are bad problems to have, but they sound to me like the loss of particular mental modules rather than the impairment of central mental processes.

But my main problem with all this is that it skates over the real issues. Damasio talks about the proto-self representing the state of the body without any explanation of how merely being affected by something turns into being a representation of that something. He gives only cursory attention to the whole issue of qualia…

Bitbucket Well, you know, not every book has to be about your beloved qualia. And what Damasio does say (a brief diagnosis of the favourite story about Mary the colour scientist) is spot on, in my view. Understanding the process of having an experience is not the same as having the experience.

But I understand your attitude now. In this respect, and in his friendliness towards the ‘multiple drafts’ idea, Damasio is basically Dennettian (in other respects he certainly isn’t, speaking with respect of both Searle and McGinn). Your problem is that Damasio demonstrates how a Dennett-style account is capable of being developed into an even more comprehensive theory, which is anathema to you, of course…

Picture: zombie. I don’t know who first introduced them into philosophy, but zombies are frequently quoted in discussions of consciousness. Perhaps the obsession with brains which Hollywood zombies share with cognitive scientists has something to do with it.

Philosophical zombies are indistinguishable from normal people: their appearance and behaviour is perfectly normal, but they have no inner life: no phenomenal experience, no qualia, just colourless information processing. There isn’t, to use Nagel’s phrase, ‘something it is like’ to be a zombie. They are, to use a word which is no longer so unambiguous as it once was, robotic. Philosophical zombies are therefore, in fact, quite different from Haitian zombies or the Hollywood variety.

Philosophical zombies are used in various ways, but the main point about them is that they provide one of the chief arguments for the existence of qualia. The key question is: could zombies exist? According to one school of thought, it is intuitively obvious that they could, and that fact establishes that qualia are an important part of the riddle of consciousness – perhaps the most important part. The other main view is that zombies could not exist. You might take this view if you believed zombies would necessarily have to have qualia if they were to behave in exactly the way we do; or you might think that there are just no such things as qualia, anyway – so that in the relevant sense we are all effectively zombies anyway.

Zombies are often conceived of as being identical to their qualia-having equivalents, on an atom-by atom basis. Dennett ‘s zombies, by contrast, only resemble normal people externally (Dennett finds the whole zombie idea ridiculous, so the atom-by-atom version is probably just too extreme for him, even as a debating position). Inside, any kind of jiggery-pokery could be going on, so long as it does the (presumably computational) job required. He goes on, however, to propose a super-zombie or ‘zimbo’, which besides its routine processing of inputs and outputs, is capable of addressing and ‘considering’ its own internal states. He asks the interesting question, what would such a zimbo ‘think’ about its own experiences?

It would presumably think it had qualia. In fact, if all of the external behaviour of a zombie (or zimbo) exactly matches that of a normal human being, then a zombie would somehow have to talk as if it had qualia even though it didn’t. It might well write a phenomenological dissertation on the subject, which would be indistinguishable from that of a real human writer. This is one of the main problems for a proponent of zombies. If they really are indistinguishable from normal human beings apart from qualia, that seems to make qualia a kind of ghostly irrelevance of a kind we’d be better off without.

It can’t be denied, though, that the idea still seems plausible. Suppose we were cataloguing the badly-organised stock of a sweet-shop. While we note down the figures, our colleague calls out the quantities of red or black licorice found on various shelves. Even if we visualize red licorice the first time, after writing down the twenty or thirty figures, we are surely not having any red qualia in association with the red licorice figures: but we are certainly acquiring information about the redness of various items. It seems perfectly reasonable to think that a zombie could function quite well with this kind of information, without ever having the kind we get when we actually see the licorice.

A second difficulty is over the issue of possibility. It seems unlikely on the face of it that zombies are possible in practice (Though how would we know? Everyone but you and I could be zombies – and I’m not completely sure about you), but it’s generally felt that that isn’t really necessary. They only have to be possible in theory – but what exactly does that mean?

Chalmers surely sets the bar too low when he claims that the mere intelligibility of the notion of zombies is enough. The idea of light without electromagnetic radiation is intelligible, but it does not establish that electromagnetic radiation is something over and above ordinary light. A more reasonable demand is that they should be logically possible – that is, they don’t have to be compatible with the laws of physics, but they must not involve contradictory suppositions. On these terms, zombies seem acceptable, but it could be argued that that only establishes that qualia exist, or could exist, in some other world with different laws of physics, whereas we are really concerned with the world we actually live in.

Perhaps, then zombies have to be possible in this world – and why not? Well, it is a basic assumption we generally make that under the same conditions, the same events occur. This is a hard assumption to give up, because if different events could occur in identical circumstances, the world would become much harder to understand and predict, perhaps even entirely incoherent. But if philosophical zombies existed, we would have two identical physical sets of circumstances (one with me, one with my zombie twin) in which wholly different qualic events occurred.

In the final analysis, I think even the most committed zombists would accept that the argument is an appeal to our intuitions rather than a knock-down logical one. But the continuing interest in the issue of qualia shows how strong those intuitions are.

Picture: Walter J Freeman.

In “How Brains make up their Minds”, Walter J Freeman set out to tackle the ancient issue of free will, but he also addressed many of the other fundamental issues about consciousness and thought. The book has an unusually even balance of neurology and philosophy, with similar ideas coming into play in both fields.

Freeman uses some familiar terms from philosophy in rather unusual ways. For him, intentionality does not mean “aboutness” in the way it generally does to contemporary philosophers. Instead, it means the property of being directed towards some object or goal. So in his eyes, the food-seeking behaviour of simple organisms displays intentionality even though there is no question of their having plans or acting deliberately. In his view, this is Thomas Aquinas’s original meaning, and a key foundation for consciousness. Aquinas is credited with a number of important insights which Freeman has incorporated into his own views.

‘Meaning’ also has a special sense in Freeman’s account, quite distinct from simple information. Freeman speaks of meaning in what sound at first like worryingly poetic or metaphorical terms, but the point is really a matter of context. Meaning, in Freeman’s sense, is given to mere information when it is set in the context of an individual mind, with all its multiple life experiences, history and characteristic quirks. This matches his views about the neuronal operation of the brain, where rather than discrete bits of data working their way through a program, he sees a mathematically chaotic pattern of activity in which the whole system comes to bear. Each brain has its own individual pattern of basic activity which provides a unique context in which meanings develop. It follows that meanings are, strictly, unique to particular individuals, and in stark contrast to Putnam’s famous doctrine, meanings are only in the head. Consciousness is the high-level pattern which brings the whole thing together, and emotional and moral self-control may well be a matter of how closely overall consciousness binds lower and more partial patterns of activity.

In Freeman’s view, the process of perception and action is not a two-way matter of inputs and outputs, but a one-way street of action on the world. Many people would agree that perception is an active business, not just a passive reception of impressions, but the idea that it consists entirely of action on the world sounds bonkers, and in fact Freeman does allow the outside world to influence our behaviour – the point is that all the ideas and interpretations bubble up from inside, and merely survive or fail to survive the impact of external reality. This is rather reminiscent of Edelman’s views and his analogy with the immune system, but Freeman draws from it the rather bleak conclusion that we are all, in a sense, in a state of solipsistic isolation from the world.

This creates a special problem for Freeman: how is it that we ever manage to overcome our isolation and communicate with each other? He sees social interaction as playing a mediating role, with processes rather similar to those which go on in the brain operating in the wider social sphere – though not so similar that society itself becomes a conscious entity. Freeman has a number of ideas about signalling and communication to offer, but I’m not sure he really manages to deal with the underlying problem, and it remains a weak spot in the theory.

What, then is the answer on free will? At times Freeman seems to assert free will, while at others he seems to deny it: in fact he ultimately considers the question an ill-formed one. We see actions in terms of freedom or determinism because we are wedded to linear causality, even though we know that it does not provide an adequate view of the world, and that circular causality and more sophisticated perspectives are often more appropriate. For the swirling chaotic patterns of the brain, dynamic analysis is a more appropriate tool than those based on linear causation, and when we apply it correctly, the old opposition between free and determined is no longer an issue.

There’s something in this, undoubtedly, but it doesn’t dispel the sense of mystery which has made the old debate such a long-running philosophical staple. There does seem, intuitively at least, to be something uniquely odd about the causality of our minds, but if the problem arose entirely from a lack of dynamic analysis, we should surely find some of the causality of the normal world more mysterious than we do?