Archive for October, 2012

SatanMy dear Wormwood,

How delightful that after so long you should again be seeking my counsel! I remain, of course, your ever-affectionate Uncle; but what a tizzy you seem to be in! I suppose it is understandable. Here you are, a junior devil – still only a junior devil, alas – and you find that the soul you have been set to ensnare has suddenly become a leading champion of the Enemy! Eben Alexander, a neurologist of good standing and therefore surely our rightful prey, has had  a near-death experience, and on his recovery has published a book sensationally claiming that he now knows the truth of the afterlife at first hand. Why me, you complain in whining tones, why does it have to be me that gets the Celebrity Christian?

Please compose yourself. As a matter of fact the situation is nothing like as bad as you suppose; in fact I will venture to say that it is excellent. In the first place you talk as though Dr Alexander had undergone a miraculous conversion, but in fact is it not the case that he was always a declared Christian? Of course, we should prefer him not to be a Christian at all, but if it must be so then a Celebrity Christian, I assure you, is the very best kind he could be. Consider, to begin with, the opportunities for that most useful sin, spiritual vanity. I say opportunities, but are we not in fact dealing with a sin which is already fully realised? The symptoms of vanity are bad enough in those people who merely insist on telling one about their dreams; this fellow believes his are a Divine revelation which we must all read about! I hardly think Dr Alexander, in the quiet of his own mind, can suppose himself to be much less than a saint – and then which of the saints could claim to have the further distinction of being a proper scientist? A neurosurgeon, to boot! He surely feels that he has been called to a high and lonely eminence. Apart from its inherently damnable qualities, this vanity will encourage a misplaced feeling of certainty and divert his attention away from the very area – his own failings and imperfections – which most need his attention. And of course it is always especially delightful when a man’s religion is the very thing that helps drag him Hellwards.

In passing we may note that while firm faith is highly adverse to our cause, a feeling of scientific certainty about God and Heaven is very helpful to us. The humans forget that faith can only exist where there is doubt (otherwise why would the Enemy leave them to work things out for themselves in that perverse manner of his?) and forget that if they behave well merely in order to get into a scientifically established Heaven, their acts are self-interested and lack true virtue. Our Lord Below once pointed out to the Enemy how well this all works for us: look, he said; to be virtuous the humans must not be acting for reward, so only someone who doesn’t believe in Heaven can really be good. Only the atheists have an opportunity of disinterested virtue  – and obviously only the believers have faith; so between the two tests virtually no-one can qualify for Paradise. No wonder, he said, that the Pearly Gates stand almost unused, disconsolate angels telling each other hopefully that surely this year a couple of people will get in, while all the time the mouth of Hell gapes and swallows, gapes and swallows, a thousand miles wide every time. I’m not asking you to concede defeat in any humiliating way, Our Father Below explained to the Enemy, all I’m saying is, be realistic – let’s get round a table on this one and see what we can work out? I regret to say, dear nephew, that these very rational and reasonable overtures were summarily rejected.

The second splendid thing about a Celebrity Christian is the scope for humbug. It’s virtually impossible for these people to be completely honest. One of Dr Alexander’s claims to a special status for his revelation is that, uniquely, it was scientifically established that his ne0cortex was entirely inactive throughout the period of his absence; established by neurological investigations and CT scans. Now as a neurosurgeon Dr Alexander must be well aware that even fMRI scans only measure neuronal activity via the proxy of blood flow (albeit it’s a fairly good one), and that CT scans don’t measure it at all, merely looking for damage and possible bleeding. The ‘neurological tests’ we may confidently take to be little more than the observation that he was unresponsive while unconscious. None of this would actually prove that his neocortex was completely inactive. Even if it were, a scientist of Dr Alexander’s standing surely knows the evidence that dreams and dream memories may be generated almost instantly at the point of awakening: they do not have to have occurred in real time. So on two counts it cannot be shown that he was having experiences while his neocortex was ‘dead’. We need not accuse him of direct dishonesty over this; but he clearly isn’t going out of his way to correct any misunderstanding  which might arise and be helpful to his case.

At the same time he realises quite well at some level that in recounting his vision he isn’t telling the strict and literal truth. Does he suppose that those high cheekbones possessed by his female guide were real cheekbones, of real bone with real marrow, fed by real blood with real haemoglobin oxygenated by contact with real air? No: if he thinks about it all (which you should discourage, by the way) he thinks the cheekbones were spiritual, or metaphorical; but he has to keep saying they were cheekbones, because if they weren’t real, why should we suppose he was really in Heaven or that any of it was actual, rather than simply a set of absurd noodlings by a man who was half conscious? Once that gap has opened up between what a man says and what he knows to be the strict truth, the beetle of humbug is in place and we can begin to force the gap wider; keep him thinking that he has to make allowances for what simpler folk can cope with, and within a few years he’ll be thinking of himself as peddling a mere metaphor for a sophisticated truth from which in fact all honesty and semblance of real religion has long since leached away. Any tiny, dangerous fragment of real mystical experience which Dr Alexander may have had will be quite lost under a heap of things he thinks it judicious or appropriate to say or think. It isn’t likely, of course, that Dr Alexander had a genuine mystical experience of any kind, even in a fleeting, momentary form, but it’s just the sort of cheating the Enemy indulges in now and then, letting the little vermin have an uncovenanted fragment of the truth in amongst the falsehoods which they actually sought out for themselves.

Of course you will want to keep Dr Alexander from realising quite how absurd his noodlings are; in this respect I think we can be proud of the work we have done within the education system.  A man  like Dr Alexander can pass right through to the highest level of academic attainment these days without ever reading Plato or encountering any of the classical texts or poetry which might enlarge his cramped imagination. If we were now to reproach such a man for expressing his vision in terms fit only for a child’s comic paper, we need no longer fear that he will apologise and try harder, or even issue a manly rejection of the triviality of our  complaint when set against the importance of his message; no, far likelier he will embark on a gratifyingly silly defence of comics as an imaginative medium and mature art form!

Naturally others, by contrast, can be encouraged to realise in full the absurdity of the noodlings: another great benefit of Dr Alexander’s intervention is the heart it will put into our friends the atheists. If this is the tosh we are up against, they’ll think, we need not work too hard. I dare say Professor Dawkins will allow himself an extra glass of port and perhaps decide he can cancel one or two of his more tedious public appearances. This is all good in two ways: first, of course we like the atheist cause to prosper; but also we like people to relax into their slogans and their easy rhetoric. We like the well-worn clichés. We don’t want anyone impelled to try a bit harder to come up with new ideas on either side.  The last thing we want is for people to be prompted into genuine fresh, open-ended thought; and I’m sure you’ll take good care that never happens with Dr Alexander’s revelations.

Your affectionate Uncle,

Screwtape

Apologies to C.S. Lewis, and to readers who notice that Screwtape’s theological acuity and literary gifts seem to be a bit below his old level. I should add Lewis’s customary warning to readers: Screwtape, like all devils, is an habitual liar and nothing he says should be taken at face value. In passing, it’s worth noting another thing about near-death experiences: materialist champions of artificial intelligence are often accused of wanting to change the meaning of certain words – ‘intelligence’, ‘learning’ and so on – to favour themselves: but it seems that some on the other side are just as bad and want to monkey with the meaning of that simple, homely old word ‘death’!

What about it, though: could our consciousness possibly survive death? There has always been rather strong evidence that consciousness arises from the activity of our brain. Stop the brain with a blow to the head and you get unconsciousness: stop it permanently with a slightly harder blow and you get death. Over the last hundred years or so the correlation has been worked out in more and more detail and the empirical evidence of exquisitely detailed correspondences is pretty overwhelming. Although we don’t yet have a scientific explanation of consciousness, the size and shape of the gap where one might go is becoming clear. In fact, I should say it’s now rather difficult to see how the kind of God envisaged by Lewis could be conscious; never having had to face the challenges of survival on the ancient savannah which presumably shaped the evolution of the human brain, and not having any neuronal apparatus, it’s becoming hard to imagine how He (or Screwtape) could possibly manage it. As a matter of fact I suspect that Lewis and his fellow Inklings had a slightly unorthodox neoplatonic conception of God which they partly kept to themselves; but that’s another subject.

We can arrive at a similar conclusion about our own physicality without being so brutally reductionist. When I sit down and think seriously about what day to day life as a disembodied spirit would be like, I find myself in some difficulty. With no eating, sleeping, walking around or working, I don’t quite know what would be left of my life. Perhaps if there is a spiritual internet I could carry on blogging: surely the discussion of the mind itself is a sufficiently immaterial activity to go on after death? Well, maybe: but my motives for doing it all seem to be based in my animal nature. Curiosity – the way the primate brain goes on demanding to be fed, whereas the feline one obligingly goes to sleep once the stomach is full – is part of it; a vague fear that I don’t basically know what is going on here (anywhere), which no doubt relates to simpler nervousnesses out on that ancestral savannah; the acquisitive pleasure of having ‘got’ something, even if only an abstract argument; they all have their roots in biology and would probably cease to influence my ghost. If so, what would that ghost amount to, and how much would it have in common with the robustly biological animal which pressed the keys to create this text?

It could still be that although our mental life arises from neuronal activity it has a spiritual dimension, but it seems to me that the contest is almost a default win for materialism because traditional dualism barely offers any view as to how spiritual consciousness actually works. An honourable exception is the theory offered by Sir John Eccles with Karl Popper; but their psychons seem to me to mirror neurons a little too closely.

There’s scope for a panpsychist theory whereby our consciousness relapses into its constituent parts after death; but although those parts would still be conscious to some degree it wouldn’t be our distinctive individual consciousness, so to my taste it’s not much better.

What then, about a thoroughly materialist survival? Could the details of our neuronal activity be recorded and then replayed in some suitable medium – or could our neurons gradually be replaced by silicon? I put aside here the Searlian theory that consciousness requires some as-yet unknown special property of neuronal tissue, because hypothetically we can grow artificial neuronal tissue and use that if it’s really necessary. My concerns here are to do with identity. It might be possible to replay an exact copy, but a copy isn’t me; and if I gradually get replaced, won’t I be gradually phased out in a similar way? The fact that I might never know it and might be replaced by a very similar individual is not really enough. I put aside here also the idea that neuronal replacement is theoretically impossible, that the process of neuronal interaction is such that for esoteric reasons it cannot be stopped and restarted or bits replaced; although that’s an interesting hypothesis it doesn’t look as if things work like that.

It does look, though, as if our essential neurons never do get replaced in the normal course of events. We do actually correspond in relatively simple physical terms to a definite set of neurons that last us our whole life; and when they go, we go. Without proving anything absolutely, I think that gives quite a bit of weight to my fears about the effect of substitution on my identity.

It’s not life after death, but what, for the sake of completeness, about just going on as we are: what about getting that same set of neurons to last forever? Let us, as Woody Allen put it, not live on through our work, but live on through not dying. I don’t know why that should be impossible, but I suspect it is. It is noteworthy that remaining young and fit indefinitely should surely have the best possible survival value; yet all the large organisms produced by evolution die. It looks as if we’re up against some fundamental constraint.

My own conclusion is that death is indeed inevitable, final, and definitive. That is an unpleasant prospect, but perhaps when I am grown up I will at last be calm and clear enough about it to be able to tell the assorted merchants of immortality what I think is actually the final truth; one good life is enough.

At the Francis Crick Memorial Conference back in July the participants signed a Declaration (pdf) affirming that animals are conscious. The key passage reads:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Actually, you’ll notice that that paragraph crams on the brakes an inch short of saying that animals are conscious. It says they have various substrates and that it doesn’t seem to be impossible that they should have ‘affective states’. More boldly it says they have the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.

We could certainly do with some clarity on this issue – but why are scientists issuing a Declaration? Don’t they just publish papers and leave the results to speak for themselves? There’s a clear intention that the Declaration should have political impact, at least encouraging protection of animals, perhaps lending support to the idea of animal rights, possibly even giving a boost to veganism if we assume Philip Low (Portuguese text) was serious. (In fact I suppose we might have to go further and intervene to prevent carnivores of other species pursuing their traditional diet.)

Whatever we feel about that, it takes us into contentious territory, and I think there are in any case two other factors which make discussion in this area especially complicated. One is that there is a hidden dispute here about standards of proof. At least three standards are, as it were, in play. There’s the ordinary/political standard of proof, which requires something to be shown to be true clearly enough that we believe it and generally expect others to believe it. There’s the scientific standard of proof, which requires more rigorous evidence, reproducibility of results, and endorsement by peer review. Then there’s the philosophical standard of proof, which requires that no rational being who understands the case could possibly think otherwise, which actually makes it tough to prove that animals even exist, never mind what their mental states are. All of these different standards have their place, but discussion of animal consciousness is handicapped by differences and misunderstandings about which to invoke in which contexts.

Animal consciousness is also a peculiarly emotive subject. Our conclusions may be very strongly affected by feelings of empathy, and indeed there is an argument that empathy is an appropriate response.  Although I’ve never heard this particular argument made explicitly, it can be argued legitimately that even if animals are not conscious, we are better people if we let our empathy cause us to believe they are, because empathy is such a vital human quality it even trumps strict truth in this case. It’s better to waste some sympathy on creatures that don’t really deserve it than risk remaining cold to those that do, in other words. At any rate some may feel that those who deny that animals have feelings at all (step forward, Descartes) are deficient in perception or even perhaps in moral sense, a feeling that sceptics on their side are not apt to welcome.

So discussion is potentially difficult, and so it is with all due caution I say I think the Declaration is probably a bad idea overall; and that there are three particular problems with it.

The first problem is that it doesn’t seem well-motivated scientifically, by which I mean it doesn’t seem to be inspired by any definite scientific result. The preliminary passages of the Declaration do allude to various pieces of research, but the basic case is that animals have much of the same brain hardware as human beings, and also exhibit the right sorts of behaviour. We’ve known that for a long time. If some scientific Rubicon has been crossed recently, I missed it and I can’t see it set out here. To make matters worse the Declaration seems to come close to a clunking logical error, along the lines of: other areas than the neocortex are involved in having feelings; animals have those other areas, therefore animals have feelings. That wouldn’t work: you could as well argue that: other organs than the eye are involved in seeing; people whose eyes have been gouged out have those other organs; therefore people whose eyes have been gouged out can see. You can’t really dismiss the neocortex that easily.

The second problem is that we’re not told clearly which animals are conscious, and no allowance is made for different levels of consciousness in different species. On the face of it it seems the claim is that insects are just as conscious as anyone else (so those classic observations of stereotyped behaviour in sphex wasps must somehow have been wrong). In fact Christof Koch seems to be saying everything is conscious. That’s too extreme to be plausible and too vague to be helpful, especially in a context where we’re implicitly thinking about political rights and moral status. This is by no means an academic problem in a world where, for one thing, experimental animals may be sacrificed to help save human lives; if we think all beings have an equal share of consciousness there will certainly be no more animal experiments, and if we get it wrong either way that has serious consequences.

The third problem is that we’re not told what kind of consciousness. The Declaration seems mainly to be about whether animals feel pain, but it makes no distinction between a capacity for suffering and a capacity for rational planning (or indeed self-awareness). These are radically different things, and we might well find it much more likely that animals have the former than the latter.

This is important in two respects. First, if animals have feelings, then we might want to enact laws protecting them from pain; but we won’t feel inclined to give them rights unless we think they have the kind of intentional thought that would allow them to exercise those rights. To have legal rights you need to be the kind of entity that might go to court to enforce them, and presumably the kind of entity which also has duties and gets punished for infractions.  Actually, that’s not quite true; we might still want to give animals the special kind of rights that children or comatose patients have, which need to be exercised on their behalf by others and entail no obligations; but even if we do that it’s important to keep track of what legal/moral status we’re actually awarding.

Second, the presence or absence of rational conscious thought might affect our view of how important feelings are. It might be that some animals can indeed feel pain in a basic way, but that without human-style neocortex-driven awareness their pains are only like dream ones, or like pains we instantly forget (some people take the view that a forgotten agony doesn’t matter; and indeed surgeons use mnestics, which make you forget the pain, almost interchangeably with true anaesthetics, which actually stop you feeling it in the first place). Even if animals feel pain it might still be that their pains are of lesser value or even of no account at all; and the presence or absence of explicitly entertained thoughts, projects and desires might be relevant.

There’s an awful lot more to be said about these issues, quite a lot of it on the Declaration’s side, but that brings me to the overall problem. What is the Declaration for, and what will it be used for? I presume the aspiration is that it will be cited wherever the treatment of animals is an issue. Its function is surely meant to be to give clarity, but to do it by curtailing argument; to end discussion. That’s certainly liable to be the way it is used, at any rate. I don’t like that at all; there are cases where it’s legitimate to try to close down an area of discussion, but I don’t think this is one; the attempt is at best radically premature, at worst profoundly unhelpful. If anything we should be promoting discussion. Wouldn’t it have been better, and more appropriate to Crick’s memory, if the participants in the Conference had, in that spirit, published a list of good questions?

Sebastian FaulksConsciousness, as a subject, is nothing if not multidisciplinary. We have noted once or twice before that besides all the different groups of scientists and philosophers, novelists are strongly interested; in fact it’s not much of a stretch to claim that novel-writing is itself an exploration of human consciousness.  If so, it’s an exploration that is generally pursued separately from the academic investigation, but the occasional linkages and crossovers are always interesting. Did Henry James’s works influence his brother William’s psychology? Alas, we’ll never know exactly, but William’s concept of the stream of consciousness had a massive impact on novelists.

Novels are certainly extended, virtuoso exercises in theory of mind. Novelists use their own understanding of other minds to evoke in the consciousness of readers an intense engagement with the purely imagined mental lives of their characters, and it’s all achieved purely through print on a page; a remarkably complex feat to pull off. As a result novelists arguably have a better appreciation than most cognitive scientists of just how complicated the actual experience of consciousness really is.

When you step back and look at it, the everyday experience of consciousness really is complicated, isn’t it? From moment to moment a gamut of miscellaneous sensory and proprioceptive impressions, memories, fragments of explicit speech, emotions and desires all float in and out of the several levels of conscious, unconscious, and half-conscious thought that run in parallel, with some in the centre or the penumbra of a focus of attention that may at times not be present at all, and others in one or more levels of background; all conditioned by prevailing but variable states of being calm, exalted, curious, depressed, drunk; the whole thing pushed along at times by perceptions, impulses and predispositions emerging unobtrusively from silent faculties outside the pale of true mentality. All of that, or the gist of it, has to represented in a linear text in such a way as to bring about the required ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in the reader, or indeed more than that, a positive, empathetic identification.

The basic technique, I suppose, is to present a text which seems to record someone recounting his own experiences. One option for complete realism is to present the text as letters or diary entries. Or like Plato, we could present two friends meeting by chance, one of whom then relates a memorable conversation Socrates once had. Already there another narrator has slipped unobtrusively into the background – the unmentioned person – Plato? – who must be telling us what the two friends said. This shadowy personage can, if we wish, do the whole job of narration for us, becoming the mysteriously omniscient narrator we have become used to in standard storytelling. The range of options that open up thereafter is wide: first person, third person, past tense, present historic, dialogue, unreliable narrator; the sophisticated free indirect style which allows us to slip smoothly between the description of physical events and mental ones, and more radical techniques like the aforementioned stream of consciousness; lately novelists have been able to use, or had to contend with, the narrative conventions and techniques drilled into readers by films and graphics.

It has been suggested more than once that the self and our conscious experience come from the brain spinning a narrative. There may well be some truth in that, but in the light of all the foregoing I think we can see that it raises as many questions as it answers. What kind of narrative? Visual? Textual? First person? Are we allowed flashbacks and jump cuts? Far from narrative being a simple primitive, something well understood which we can use to explain consciousness and the self, it seems to be one of consciousness’s most complicated and surprising final products.

If we under-rate the complexity of the task facing novelists, they may be partly to blame; it seems evident that to a great extent our view of our own conscious lives has been shaped by reading all those novels. We sort of expect our inner lives to resemble the neatened-up depictions assigned to characters in books, and that’s how we tend to think of them. More than that, and perhaps rather scarily, we may suspect that our mental lives have actually been changed and in some degree shaped by those expectations.

So with all that by way of a build-up – what do we think of A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks’ latest?

Most reviews have suggested the book isn’t really a novel at all, but a collection of short stories. Certainly it looks that way, although the separate stories have linkages: shared or duplicated experiences, common characters or objects. It seems natural to suppose that Faulks owes something to David Mitchell in this respect; but whereas Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas hinted at reincarnation Faulks seems, if we can trust the thoughts of one character which close the book, to be offering a more radical thesis: let’s come back to that, though.

The individual stories are pretty good and sketched out with a light but authoritative touch: I would single out a nineteenth-century one which I thought was remarkable. It’s not easy to depict Victorians from the poorer classes for a number of reasons (not least the looming presence of Dickens) but I thought this story rang true on every level.  However, for Conscious Entities the most interesting one concerns two scientists who, in the near future, solve the mystery of consciousness.  It’s clear that Faulks has done his research into the current state of the field, and we can spot the influence of Damasio and others in the sketch he offers us (again pretty convincing) of how the breakthrough arrives. The critical enabler proves to be, guess what, an advance in scanning technology, and the breakthrough is preceded by the discovery of Glockner’s Isthmus: a linkage which momentarily binds sensory data with input from the internal organs, providing a sense of self which is apparently common to humans and some other animals. This, however, provides only base-level consciousness: human-style self-awareness relies on the Rossi-Duranti Loop which connects the Isthmus with episodic memory.

This is a novel, not an academic paper: otherwise we might ask for a bit more detail on how a link and a loop are sufficient to do the ontological and cognitive work being asked of them here; but it’s not a bad thesis and the gist is clear: a sense of self from the guts and a context from memory. We are in fact dealing with a system designed to insert a self into a narrative.  Proust, a literary critic suggests in the story, has been vindicated.

One incidentally interesting feature of Faulks’ system is that the Rossi-Duranti Loop only works now and then, with the implication that full consciousness is only switched on at particularly reflective moments. I think this mainly means that we operate largely on autopilot, with conscious decision-making and creativity reserved for when they’re needed or invoked, but it could suggest that most of the time we are philosophical zombies, without qualia; living examples of a thought-experiment we’ve mentioned before. Faulks makes the Loop a recent development, so that, in a sort of echo of Julian Jaynes, those old cave men and people from early times were not really conscious, in spite of their splendid paintings.

Our scientists are helped by the chance arrival of a subject who, rather like Phineas Gage, has had a rod driven through his head: in this case a kebab skewer. On Kebab Man the effect is to turn his Loop permanently on, but Faulks, alas, resists the urge to show or tell us what this is like (Marvellous? Exhausting? If this were SF, Kebab Man might become a super hero or a genius like those in Ted Chiang’s Understand).

Has the arrival of a naturalistic explanation for consciousness destroyed something important? Some, in the novel, think it has. Elena Duranti, one of the scientists responsible for discovering the Loop, has a childhood friend (or rather more than a friend) called Bruno who is a gifted story-teller and later an author(who talks about the narrative of their lives and the question, Copperfield-like, of being the hero of one’s own story). Angrily, towards the end, he tells her she has proved we don’t really exist and thereby brought despair: “I don’t think that’s what Beatrice and I proved.” Elena says.

What did they prove? Well, I think the radical thesis I mentioned above, which I take to be what Faulks is putting forward, is that the separate experiences of our life are not inherently unique to us, but shared or potentially shared: that our personal identity is only a loose linkage from a wider pool of shared experience, of which we are all part. No real need to fear death, then, because it follows that ultimately “we’re all in this thing, like it or not, for ever.” It is sometimes suggested that individual human consciousness emerges out of a general cosmic mind: this is the cosmic mind, nor am I out of it, Faulks might say.

If that is indeed the thesis of the book, then we can see that it could only be illustrated by apparently separate stories which at some level and in places are united, so the contention that it’s less a novel than a collection sort of misses the point. At any rate, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in this stuff.

Giulio Tononi’s Phi is an extraordinary book.  It’s heavy, and I mean that literally: presumably because of the high quality glossy paper, it is noticeably weighty in the hand; not one I’d want to hold up before my eyes for long without support, though perhaps my wrists have been weakened by habitual Kindle use.

That glossy paper is there for the vast number of sumptuous pictures with which the book is crammed; mainly great works of art, but also scientific scans and diagrams (towards the end a Pollock-style painting and a Golgi-Cox image of real neurons are amusingly juxtaposed: you really can barely tell which is which). What is going on with all this stuff?

My theory is that the book reflects a taste conditioned by internet use. The culture of the World Wide Web is quotational and referential: it favours links to good stuff and instant impact. In putting together a blog authors tend to gather striking bits and pieces rather the way a bower bird picks up brightly coloured objects to enhance its display ground, without worrying too much about coherence or context. (If we were pessimistic we might take this as a sign that our culture, like classical Greek culture before it, is moving away from the era of original thought into an age of encyclopedists; myself I’m not that gloomy –  I think that however frothy the Internet may get in places it’s all extra and mostly beneficial.) Anyway, that’s a bit what this book is like; a site decorated with tons of ‘good stuff’ trawled up from all over, and in that slightly uncomplimentary sense it’s very modern.

You may have guessed that I’m not sure I like this magpie approach.  The pictures are forced into a new context unrelated to what the original artist had in mind, one in which they jostle for space, and many are edited or changed, sometimes rather crudely (I know: I should talk, when it comes to crude editing of borrowed images – but there we are). The choice of image skews towards serious art (no cartoons here) and towards the erotic, scary, or grotesque. Poor Maddalena Svenuta gets tipped on her back, perhaps to emphasise the sexual overtones of the painting – although they are unignorable enough in the original orientation. This may seem to suggest a certain lack of respect for sources and certainly produces a rather indigestible result; but perhaps we ought to cut Tononi a bit of slack. The overflowing cornucopia of images seems to reflect his honest excitement and enthusiasm: he may, who knows, be pioneering a new form which we need time to get used to; and like an over-stuffed blog, the overwhelming gallimaufry is likely here and there to introduce any reader to new things worth knowing about. Besides the images the text itself is crammed with disguised quotes and allusions.  Prepare to be shocked: there is no index.

I’m late to the party here. Gary Williams has made some sharp-eyed observations on the implicit panpsychism of Tononi’s views;  Scott Bakker rather liked the book and the way some parts of Tononi’s theory chimed with his own Blind Brain theory (more on that another time, btw). Scott, however, raised a ‘quibble’ about sexism: I think he must have in mind this hair-raising sentence in the notes to Chapter 29:

At the end, Emily Dickinson saves the day with one of those pronouncements that show how poets (or women) have deeper intuition of what is real than scientists (or men) ever might: internal difference, where all the meanings are.

Ouch, indeed: but I don’t think this is meant to be Tononi speaking.

The book is arranged to resemble Dante’s Divine Comedy in a loose way: Galileo is presented as the main character, being led through dreamlike but enlightening encounters in three main Parts, which in this case present in turn, more or less, the facts about brain and mind – the evidence, the theory of Phi, and the implications. Galileo has a different guide in each Part: first someone who is more or less Francis Crick, then someone who is more or less Alan Turing, and finally for reasons I couldn’t really fathom, someone who is more or less Charles Darwin (a bit of an English selection, as the notes point out); typically each chapter involves an encounter with some notable personality in the midst of an illuminating experience or experiment; quite often, as Tononi frankly explains, one that probably did not feature in their real lives. Each chapter ends with notes that set out the source of images and quotations and give warnings about any alterations: the notes also criticise the chapter, its presentation, and the attitudes of the personalities involved, often accusing them of arrogance and taking a very negative view of the presumed author’s choices. I presume the note writer is, as it were, a sock puppet, and I suppose this provides an entertaining way for Tononi to voice the reservations he feels about the main text, backing up the dialogues within that text with a kind of one-sided meta-textual critique.

Dialogue is a long-established format for philosophy and has certain definite advantages: in particular it allows an author to set out different cases with full vigour without a lot of circumlocution and potential confusion. I think on the whole it works here, though I must admit some reservation about having Galileo put into the role of the naive explorer. I sort of revere Galileo as a man whose powers of observation and analysis were truly extraordinary, and personally I wouldn’t dare put words into his mouth, let alone thoughts into his head: I’d have preferred someone else: perhaps a fictional Lemuel Gulliver figure. It makes it worse that while other characters have their names lightly disguised (which I take to be in part a graceful acknowledgement that they are really figments of Tononi) Galileo is plain Galileo.

Why has Tononi produced such an unusual book? Isn’t there a danger that this will actually cause his Integrated Information Theory to be taken less seriously in some quarters? I think to Tononi the theory is both exciting and illuminating, with the widest of implications, and that’s what he wants to share with us. At times I’m afraid that enthusiasm and the torrent of one damn thing after another became wearing for me and made the book harder to read: but in general it cannot help but be engaging.

The theory, moreover, has a lot of good qualities. We’ve discussed it before: in essence Tononi suggests that consciousness arises where sufficient information is integrated. Even a small amount may yield a spark of awareness, but the more we integrate, the greater the level of consciousness. Integrated potential is as important as integrated activity: the fact that darkness is not blue and not loud and not sweet-tasting makes it, for us, a far more complex thing that it could ever be to an entity that lacked the capacity for those perceptions.  It’s this role of absent or subliminal qualities that make qualia seem so ineffable.

This makes more sense than some theories I’ve read but for me it’s still somewhat problematic. I’m unclear about the status of the ‘information’ we’re integrating and I don’t really understand what the integration amounts to, either. Tononi starts out with information in the unobjectionable sense defined by Shannon, but he seems to want it to do things that Shannon was clear it couldn’t. He talks about information having meaning when seen from the inside, but what’s this inside and how did it get there? He says that when a lot of information is aggregated it generates new information – hard to resist the idea that in the guise of ‘new information’ he is smuggling in a meaningfulness that Shannonian information simply doesn’t have.  The suggestion that inactive bits of the system may be making important contributions just seems to make it worse. It’s one thing for some neural activity to be subliminal or outside the zone of consciousness: it’s quite different for neurons that don’t fire to be contributing to experience. What’s the functional difference between neurons that don’t fire and those that don’t exist? Is it about the possibility that the existing ones could have fired? I don’t even want to think about the problems that raises.

I don’t like the idea of qualia space, another of Tononi’s concepts, either. As Dennett nearly said, what qualia space? To have an orderly space of this kind you must be able to reduce the phenomenon in question to a set of numerical variables which can be plotted along axes. Nobody can do this with qualia; nobody knows if it is even possible in principle. When Wundt and his successors set out to map the basic units of subjective experience, they failed to reach agreement, as Tononi mentions. As an aspiration qualia space might be reasonable, but you cannot just assume it’s OK, and doing so raises a fear that Tononi has unconsciously slipped from thinking about real qualia to thinking about sense-data or some other tractable proxy. People do that a lot, I’m afraid.

One implication of the theory which I don’t much like is the sliding scale of consciousness it provides. If the level of consciousness relates to the quantity of information integrated, then it is infinitely variable, from the extremely dim awareness of a photodiode up through flatworms to birds, humans and – why not – to hypothetical beings whose consciousness far exceeds our own. Without denying that consciousness can be clear or dim, I prefer to think that in certain important respects there are plateaux: that for moral purposes, in particular, enough is enough. A certain level of consciousness is necessary for the awareness of pain, but being twice as bright doesn’t make my feelings twice as great. I need a certain level of consciousness to be responsible for my own actions, but having a more massive brain doesn’t thereafter make me more responsible. Not, of course, that Tononi is saying that, exactly: but if super-brained aliens land one day and tell us that their massive information capacity means their interests take precedence over ours, I hope Tononi isn’t World President.

All that said, I ought to concede that in broad terms I think it’s quite likely Tononi is right: it probably is the integration of information that gives rise to consciousness. We just need more clarity about how – and about what that actually means.