Archive for June, 2012

Leonard MlodinowThe subtitle of Leonard Mlodinow’s book Subliminal makes bold claims: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and what it Teaches us about Ourselves.

Mlodinow is a talented fellow: I first became aware of him as Stephen Hawking’s co-author on The Grand Design (I blamed him then for the terrible jokes in that book, but the evidence of Subliminal, which is amiable but wince-free throughout, I think Hawking was probably to blame for them after all). Being Hawking’s colleague is probably the nearest the modern world can offer to being God’s assistant, but in addition Mlodinow has done impressive original work in physics and written successful screenplays.

The book is a wide-ranging compilation of a lot of interesting stuff. In the early stages of the book, it seems Mlodinow is basing his claims on contemporary technology and fMRI in particular: he tells us it is transforming our knowledge. But in fact not much of the research he reports is dependent on scanning. It feels as if the book might have changed direction in the writing, as Mlodinow found that most of the stuff he wanted to include actually didn’t involve advanced technology after all, but retained in the text the laudatory stuff about fMRI which it no longer really justifies.

How come the scanners don’t feature more strongly? One possible reason is sort of indicated when Mlodinow talks about how experimental subjects were shown to rate wine more highly when told it was expensive. Mlodinow wants to say that the tasters did not merely give the ‘expensive’ wine better ratings, but actually enjoyed it more: so he tells us that fMRI scans showed activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, ‘a region that has been associated with the experience of pleasure.’  Has been associated (not necessarily by me) associated with (not necessarily controlling or unambiguously diagnostic of). If the trumpet sounds as uncertainly as that, we must ask whether whether we’re really being told anything of value. Of course we know why Mlodinow is so hesitant. First, nobody has a really clear idea of what the orbitofrontal cortex does; it seems to be involved in addiction and motivation – but for Mlodinow’s purposes we need to be talking about the qualia-laden appreciation of fine bouquets and the like, which may well be an unrelated matter.  Second, fMRI is a fuzzy and ambivalent tool  and the wider implications of the data it produces are always debatable. Third, this business of real pleasure is a philosophical swamp: put aside all the Hard Problem issues: were the subjects experiencing real pleasure, or did they just think they were experiencing pleasure, or were they just thinking about pleasure? Was the pleasure straightforwardly gustatory, or did it come from thinking what smart guys they were and wishing their friends could see them now? These are not mere quibbles; the latter case for example, would be much less interesting than the radical and somewhat implausible claim that beliefs about price really change the experience.

That points to a general difficulty: books of this kind often give us stuff that is interesting, new, and well-founded; but the stuff that is well-founded isn’t new and the stuff that is interesting is debatable and looks over-interpreted. I wouldn’t say Mlodinow escapes this pitfall entirely. He tips his hat generously to Freud, which is nice, but that’s surely the Old Unconscious. The wine experiment – how many eyebrows would that have raised around the table at Plato’s symposium? Perhaps not many. Mlodinow tells us yet again the story of how Nixon lost out to Kennedy in 1960; people who could see him on TV were less inclined to think he had won the debate than those who merely heard him on the radio. Well, we’ve known that people are influenced by candidates’ appearance at least since Pericles took to appearing in a helmet which both reminded the electorate of his generalship and concealed the weird shape of his head. Do we even know that people were unconscious of being influenced by Nixon’s appearance? It seems quite possible that some of them drew the entirely conscious conclusion that he looked too rough and too shifty to be credible (a verdict which some would argue was borne out by later history, incidentally). On the other hand, Mlodinow reports research showing that people named ‘Brown’ are significantly more likely to marry other people called ‘Brown’ than statistical chance would warrant. Is that true?  Or is there some quirk here  – perhaps there are ‘Brownsvilles’ where by chance or history a concentration of Brown families mean you’re more likely to meet people of that name than random population matching would suggest? I don’t know, but I’m left in doubt, and as a human being myself I need something pretty strong to convince me to give up my strong intuitive understanding that surnames are not generally relevant to my species’ mating decisions.

The point that electors may have assessed Nixon’s appearance emotionally but consciously leads us to another difficulty: quite a bit of the research Mlodinow recounts doesn’t really bear on his thesis about the unconscious. He recounts the experiment, by now fairly well-known, in which an experimenter asked a stranger for directions: accomplices interrupted the conversation by carrying a door between the two, behind which the experimenter was switched for someone else: subjects often resumed the conversation without noticing the change in their conversational partner (the book here sort of undercuts the experiment by including pictures in which it is clear that the two experimenters were not that dissimilar in looks, and, if I may be rude,  also of a rather unstriking generic appearance, too).

The experiment is interesting, but how does it show that the unconscious is more important than we thought? Is there any suggestion that the difference was recognised unconsciously while being ignored consciously? Well, no: in fact we might think that this is the sort of thing the conscious wouldn’t deal with, leaving itself to be warned by unconscious processes, so if anything the hit is against the effectiveness and influence of the unconscious. Simply showing errors in conscious beliefs does not establish a revolution in favour of a new unconscious.

But then Mlodinow never formulates what he means by either the old or the new unconscious. We don’t even know whether he thinks the unconscious really amounts to one thing, several different unconsciousnesses, or simply a lot of default non-conscious mechanisms. The word ‘consciousness’ notoriously covers a number of different entities or processes, but we never get told explicitly which of them Mlodinow believes in or which of them he wants to dethrone. If you want to carry out a revolution against one form of mental activity and in favour of another, you really need to offer a pretty clear of view about what those different forms actually are and what roles they play, don’t you? Mlodinow would never try to get away with such vagueness if he were trying to sell us a revolution in physics, so the fact that he seems to think it will do for consciousness suggests an unattractive casualness, to say nothing worse. Perhaps in a way it’s evidence in his favour that Mlodinow never seems to have noticed consciously that so much of his material doesn’t really bear on his thesis; perhaps his unconscious is subtly offering us a different verdict.

That may be just a little hard: there’s a lot of very readable stuff about genuinely interesting research here, but the Revolution of the New Unconscious seems to me to have gone missing.

So now let’s look at the review by Richard Brown of Rocco J. Gennaro’s new book, which sets out his HOT.  I should disclose that I have not read Gennaro’s book, so I’m merely reviewing a review of a theory. You could call it a higher order review.

Gennaro’s own concerns feature concepts strongly: his theory includes conceptualism, the belief that concepts provide key structure for our conscious experience.  This causes him some difficulty over animals and infants, as he needs them to have sufficiently advanced concepts to form the required higher order awareness. He needs at least some account of how the required concepts are acquired (or how they came to be innate), and he needs to avoid getting into the bootstrap bind where you need to have sophisticated conceptual structures in order to pick up the concepts you need in order to have sophisticated conceptual structures.

My personal bias is that conceptualism tends to bring unnecessary complications, and in this particular case I’m not sure why we need to make the weather so heavy (though no doubt Gennaro has his reasons). All we need is the awareness of an awareness: the higher order awareness does not need to look through to the objects in the external world. The conceptual apparatus required surely ought therefore to be modest, and I wouldn’t fight very hard against the idea that it could be built in or be the result of a very early internal rewiring exercise in the infant mammalian brain.

The main point of interest for us is the difference which Brown sets out between his own view and Gennaro’s. This hinges on a fundamental point: are we talking about higher order awareness of a mental state (Gennaro), or of our being in that mental state (Brown)? At this point I’d say I find Brown’s view, which he characterises as the non-relational view, more appealing. It seems important to specify that the awareness involved must be ours, after all.

However, both sides claim that their view is best able to deal with the kind of objections raised by Block and discussed last time, arising from cases where we have the higher order awareness but actually through some error the lower-order awareness which it targets is not actually there. Gennaro, it seems, wants to disqualify these states altogether: where the first-order state is not there, there’s no consciousness. If you’re not seeing something red, you can’t have the subjective consciousness of redness. This is neat in its way, but seems arbitrary (How come subjective experience, of all things, comes to have a special kind of immunity from error?), and surely we want to retain the possibility of a subjective experience not based in reality? I can see that some might argue that dreams lack real subjective experience, but are we prepared to say the same of illusions and mirages? That seems a high price to be paying.

Brown’s escape route is quite different: by adopting the non-relational view he can cut free from the first-order state altogether. Who cares whether it’s there or not? It’s just about the right kind of second-order state, that’s all. This may seem a little weird, but after all the orthodox view of qualia, our subjective experiences, is that they are largely decoupled from ordinary causal reality. On Brown’s view, if we see green, we can have the experience of red without invalidating the experience. We’ll still behave as though we were having the experience of green.  Block might denounce our qualia as fake, but meh, if that’s what you mean by fake, all qualia were always fake, so who cares?

The logic of that seems faultless, but I couldn’t help feeling that my sympathies were swinging back to Gennaro somewhat. Brown mentions a second problem, the problem of the rock: why can’t we make a rock conscious by having the right kind of second-order mental state about it? For Brown’s decoupled  view, there’s no problem because we’re not even talking about the first order awareness – rock, schmock, it’s simply irrelevant. Gennaro does have to face the issue and it seems he seeks to do it simply by disqualifying rocks with an additional rule or specification. Brown considers this another unattractively arbitrary lash-up, and perhaps it is, but in another light it seems far closer to common sense (though of course the realm of common sense is some way off by now in any event).

For myself the net effect of the discussion is to make me feel more strongly than before that if we are to have a HOT (and I’m not absolutely wedded to that in itself), we’d do much better to stick with what Block calls the unambitious variety, the kind that doesn’t seek to explain subjective experience or exorcise those deadly sirens we call qualia.

Higher OrderYou may have seen the very interesting review that Micha kindly mentioned recently. I plan to discuss that next week, but before talking about Higher Order Theories (HOTs) it seemed best to set the context by talking about Ned Block’s paper which seeks to demolish them.

Higher Order theories come in many flavours, but the basic proposition is that a mental event, a thought or a feeling, is conscious if there is another thought about it, that original mental event. The basic intuition is that you can be aware of something unconsciously, but when you’re aware of your awareness it’s conscious.

Not everyone likes this perspective (Roger Penrose caustically pointed out that pointing a video camera at itself doesn’t make it conscious) and some would say either that it only explains certain varieties of consciousness or that it only explains certain aspects of consciousness. Nevertheless, HOTs have had a long run as respectable contenders, representing one of the major areas where we might choose to look for The Answer.

Block’s paper last year was unusual in seeking to offer something like a knock-down destruction of the case, or perhaps it would be more accurate to sought he meant to pursue the HOTists until their last hiding place had been flushed out. His targets were not the modest theorists who claim that HOTs may explain some varieties of aspects of consciousness, but the ones he characterised as ‘ambitious’: in particular those who claim HOTs could explain the ‘what-it- is-likeness’ (let’s call it WIIL) of conscious experience.

The starting point is the uncomfortable fact that we can have thoughts about being in conscious states we’re not in fact in. We can think we’re seeing red when in fact we’re seeing green, or not seeing anything at all. You might well feel that this in itself is something of a blow for HOTs, and your first reaction might be that they should give up any claim of a conscious state where there is no state to work with. That sounds sensible but the retreat is not so easy as it seems if we want to retain WIIL for dreams and illusions, as we surely do.  In any case, Block’s targets take the opposite path: sure there can be WIIL in those cases, they reply.

Now Block springs the trap. So you’re saying, he observes, that an episode is conscious if it is the object of a simultaneous higher order thought?  And that thought is a sufficient condition for a conscious episode. Yet it’s also a necessary condition that that episode is the object of a higher order thought. Yet in this case we have only the one, higher-order thought to work with (and we can assume it ain’t self-referential). So there is no conscious episode. We’ve got necessary and sufficient conditions which are not compatible – what madness is this?

There is a way out which those unused to philosophical discussion may find a little odd: this consists of saying that in these cases, where we have a second-order thought about an experience we’re not actually having, there is an object of the second order thought after all: it’s simply one that doesn’t exist, that’s all.  We must remember here that the objects of thought are slippery customers; we often think about things that don’t exist (Pokemon, the sixth wife of Henry VII, the house I would have built if I had won the lottery, square circles).

But, says Block, if you take that route, where’s your WIIL (or maybe in this case it should be WIIAL –What It Isn’t Actually Like)? It’s now fake WIIL – and you can’t rest content with that.

I’ve omitted some important technicalities and details in the foregoing, but I hope the gist comes through: where does it leave us?  It seems an effective argument to me, and I would add that for those who are seeking the essence of WIIL, it seems intuitively unlikely to me that it could ever have resided in thoughts about thoughts: that brings it all back into the head, whereas what it is like ought to out there with ‘it’. Those who never believed in WIIL will not, of course, be troubled by any of this.

So following Block’s demolition, the advocates of HOT admitted their error, thanked him for clarifying, and issued a full retraction. No, of course they didn’t, as we shall see…