OutputThe analogy with a digital computer has energised and strongly influenced our thinking about the human mind for at least sixty years, beginning with Turing’s seminal paper of 1950, ‘Computing machinery and intelligence’, and gaining in influence as computers became first real, and then ubiquitous. Whether or not you like the analogy, I think you’d have to concede that it has often set the terms of the discussion over recent decades. Yet we’ve never got it quite clear, and in some respects we’ve almost always got it wrong.

In particular, I’d like to suggest: consciousness is an output, not processing.

At first sight it might seem that consciousness can’t be an output, on the simple grounds that it isn’t, well, put out. Our consciousness is internal, it goes on in our heads – how could that be an output? I don’t, of course, mean it’s an output in that literal sense of being physically emitted: rather, I mean it’s the final product of a process, in this case a mental process. It may often be retained in our heads, but in some sense it’s the end of the line, the result.

It may be worth noting in passing that consciousness is pretty strongly linked with outputs in the simpler sense, though: so much so that the Turing test is based entirely on the ability of the testee to output strings of characters which gain the approval of the judges. Quality of output is taken to be the best possible sign of the presence of consciousness.

Wait a minute, you may say, consciousness isn’t a final output, it’s surely part of the process: what goes on in our conscious mind feeds back into our further thoughts and our behaviour. That’s the whole point of it, surely; to allow more complex and detached forms of processing to take place so that our true outputs in behaviour will eventually be better planned and targeted?

It’s true that the contents of consciousness may feed back into our mental processes, and that must be at least partly why it exists (its role in forming genuine verbal outputs is probably significant too) – I’m not suggesting consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, like, as they say, the whistle on a train. Items from consciousness may be inputs as well as outputs. To take an unarguable example, I’ve never managed to remember how many days there are in each month: but I have managed to remember that little rhyme which contains the information. So if I need to know how many days there are in August, I recall the rhyme and repeat it to myself: in this case the contents of my consciousness are helpfully fed back into my mind. Apart from clunky manoeuvres of this kind, though, I think careful introspection suggests consciousness does not feed directly back into the underlying mental processes all that often. If we want to make a decision we may hold the alternatives in mind and present them to ourselves in sequence, but what we’re waiting for is a feeling or a salient piece of reasoning to pop into our minds from some lower, essentially inscrutable process: we’re not normally putting our own thoughts on the subject together by hand.  I think Fodor once said he had no conscious access to the mental processes which produced his views on any philosophical issue: if he inspected the contents of his mind while cogitating about a particular problem all he came up with were sub-articulate thoughts approximately like “Come on, Jerry!”  I feel much the same.

With apologies if I’m repeating things I’ve said before, I think it may help if I mention some of the confusions that I think arise from not recognising the output nature of consciousness. A striking example is Dennett’s odd view that consciousness might involve a serial computer simulated on a parallel machine. We know, of course, that when people speak of the brain being ‘massively parallel’ they usually mean that many different functional areas are promiscuously interconnected, something radically different from massively parallel computing in the original sense of a carefully managed set of isolated processes; but Dennett seems to be motivated by an additional misunderstanding in which it is assumed that only a serial process can give rise to a coherent serial consciousness. Not at all: the outputs from parallel and serial processing are identical (they’d better be): it’s just that the parallel approach sometimes gets there quicker.

It’s a little unfair to single out Dennett: the same assumption that properties of the underlying process must also be properties of the output consciousness can be discerned elsewhere: it’s just that Dennett is clearer than most. Another striking example might be Libet’s notorious finding that consciousness of a decision arrives some time after the decision itself – but of course it does! The decision is an event in processes of which consciousness is the output.

It’s hard to see consciousness as an output, partly because it can also be an  input, but also because we identify ourselves with our thoughts. We want to believe that we ourselves enjoy agency, that we have causal effects, and so we’re inclined to believe that our thoughts are what does the trick – although we know quite well that when we move our arm it’s not thinking about it that makes it happen. This supposed identity of thoughts and self (after all, it’s because I think, that I am, isn’t it?) is so strong that some, failing to find in their thoughts anything but fleeting bundles of momentary impressions , have concluded there is no self after all. I think that level of scepticism is unwarranted: it’s just that our selves remain inscrutably shadowed to direct conscious observation. “Know thyself”, said the inscription on the temple of the Delphic oracle – alas, ultimately we can’t.

60 Comments

  1. 1. Allen says:

    Perhaps a printer is a better analogy for human conscious than a computer.

    The underlying physical world (the thing-in-itself) could be seen as basically a “qualia printer”.

    As conscious entities, we live in the story and images of the printed pages – not in the printer.

  2. 2. Steve Esser says:

    Hi Peter. I partly agree. But I think it’s helpful to distinguish between reflective self-consciousness and a core consciousness (the kind likely shared with animals). The latter is closer to being coincident with mental processes. The former is clearly a late-comer, both in evolutionary terms and in terms of being output to the process. Libet forces subjects to this meta-level (unlike the consciousness of hitting the nth tennis shot in a match).

    And yet, as you say, even this kind of reflective consciousness can be an input, too. And in contrast to your example, others may be non-trivial (like deliberating over a career change for years prior to making a final decision — put that in a laboratory experiment!).

  3. 3. scott bakker says:

    How is an output defined in informatic terms? I guess I’ve always looked at it as a pragmatic designation, that whether something counted as a process or an output pertained to one’s level or point of description. Homo sapiens sapiens is an evolutionary output and part and parcel of the evolutionary process, depending how you look at it. Is this Dennett’s mistake?

  4. 4. Vicente says:

    Very well presented, thank you Peter. It seems to me that this kind of analysis are sort of soaked in undercover dualism (fine to me), and if you remove the dualism the thing becomes even more complicated, since you have to merge: process, output and receiver, thought and self, in one single entity… very mystical.

    One remark if you allow me, Socrates’ “know thyself”, could be better intrepreted as, “know by yourself”, rather than “know yourself”.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Steve –

    it’s helpful to distinguish between reflective self-consciousness and a core consciousness

    Yes, that’s probably right. Incidentally, I was about to say that I didn’t think deliberating over a career change necessarily involved consciousness feeding back in to the decision-making process – it could be just contemplating the alternatives repeatedly and waiting to see what conclusion popped up – but then I noticed something I overlooked above, ie that even consciously ‘holding up’ the alternatives for contemplation is in a sense providing a kind of input, albeit mostly by proxy.

    Scott –

    Good question, and so far as I know there isn’t a particularly rigorous definition – as you say, it’s seen as a pragmatic matter. I may not be capturing my own intuition very well: what I have in mind is that when a chatbot is running, it is always intelligible on at least two levels – the level of the responses it sticks up on the screen, but also at the ‘code’ level. I’m not sure whether this is also true of the human brain (neurons don’t have to arrange themselves in the orderly way a good programmer would do), but in any case it’s certainly a mistake to confuse the two, or assume that properties of one are necessarily properties of the other.

    I might be misrepresenting Dennett, BTW: he does talk about consciousness as a virtual serial machine implemented on a parallel one, which makes no sense to me except on the reading I’ve given – but how far that reading is really his view and how far my inference I’m not 100% sure. I’ll have to read it again.

    Vicente –

    That’s a better translation of ‘gnothi seauton’ (can’t get Greek characters to work)? I had no idea, but alas I never studied Greek. Curiously enough, as I mentioned somewhere recently, the original sense of ‘consciousness’ in English was ‘know together’.

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    Peter, I don’t really know. A philosophy professor friend of mine, not long ago told me that the inscription is a source of debate and controversy, but that there seems to be some consensus stemming from linguistic considerations, as well as from the Plato writing interpretation, that suggest that “what Socrates meant” when referring to the inscription was -know by yourself-. I believe so too, because I think Socrates believed not in the afterdeath life, when you read the episode before his death, with his friends in the cell, you can see that he was trying to convince himself of what he didn’t really believe. At the same time “know yourself” is a claim for dualism and the difficulty to achieve free will. Who has to know who? what is there to be learnt? IMO, “someone” has to learn about the zombie coexisting with each of us and his whimsical personality…. so I will take the “know by yourself” option, which also fits Socrates quite well.

    Regarding all the process, input and output issues, probably the first thing to clarify is how information is “coded” by the brain. Take a simple case: how is a number coded and handled by the brain?

    Coding is the first step, neither computers nor us work with raw materials, about us I am not sure.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is one of the fields in neuroscience in which less progress has been achieved. We are just able to identify general and blured activity patterns.

  7. 7. scott bakker says:

    Could it be process-product ambiguity that you mean?

    I’m not familiar with the Dennett example you give… One of the things that makes him so slippery to me, though, is the (I think strategic) way he fails to flag process-product transitions. So when he wants to redefine ‘free will’ as ‘behavioural versatility’ for instance, it seems he likes to minimize any mention of the ‘feeling of willing.’ Since the experiential ‘product’ doesn’t seem to square with the neurophysiological process, he goes semantic, tackles the concept of ‘free will’ instead. It’s damn easy to redefine a word. Not so an experience.

    Could this be related?

  8. 8. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, if you are interested in how the brain codes its sensory patterns, you might take a look at “Sparse Coding of Faces in a Neuronal Model”, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/sparscodtre.pdf

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Thank you Arnold, very interesting. After a quick reading, if I have understood well, coding and storing (face database) is done on the basis of synapse weights “vectors”. First the face is decomposed in a set of parameters that is mapped to a set of synapse weights. Once the same face pattern is perceived the “stored” reinforced synapses set is (re)activated, confirming detection.

    It seems to me that this mechanism is to rigid, that human capabilities for face recognition are much more powerful, we can identify kinds of faces, complex expressions, slight nuances, and in an incredible short time.

    Synapse reinforcing takes several repetitions doesn’t it, and I can remember some faces I have just seen once and for half a second….

    Probably the mechanism you propose plays a role in a more complex machinery, but anyway I should know much more to mull over your work with sufficient sense. As I said it was a quick reading, it got me in it, I’ll read it again more carefully and probably come back to you with more questions.

  10. 10. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Synapse reinforcing takes several repetitions doesn’t it, and I can remember some faces I have just seen once and for half a second.”

    According to my learning principle in the synaptic matrix, an exemplar of a particular face can be learned and later quickly recognized after a single exposure. This is an important feature of my theory. In principle, the synaptic matrix model for learning and imagery (together with its accessory mechanisms) could have all the flexibility and power that we see in humans. For a better understanding of its operations, see *The Cognitive Brain*, Ch. 3, “Learning, Imagery, Tokens, and Types”, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter3.pdf

    Also Ch. 5, “Accessory Circuits”, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter5.pdf

  11. 11. John says:

    “In particular, I’d like to suggest: consciousness is an output, not processing”

    I agree. Observation is not processing. “This observation that conscious experience is a succession of passive ideas is well known in philosophy (cf: George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, 25).” (from Wikibooks: Consciousness Studies).

    If consciousness is not processing then it is a “form”, a geometrical entity. Geometrical entities are not entirely passive, Hawking explains how geometry and life are interrelated:

    “Thus I believe that we have to invoke the Anthropic Principle. Many physicists dislike the Anthropic Principle. They feel it is messy and vague, it can be us ed to explain almost anything, and it has little predictive power. I sympathize with these feelings, but the Anthropic Principle seems essential in quantum cosmology. Otherwise, why should we live in a four dimensional world, and not eleven, or some other number of dimensions. The anthropic answer is that two spatial dimensions, are not enough for complicated structures, like intelligent beings. On the other hand, four or more spatial dimensions would mean that gravitational and electric forces would fall off faster than the inverse square law. In this situation, planets would not have stable orbits around their star, nor electrons have stable orbits around the nucleus of an atom. Thus intelligent life, at least as we know it, could exist only in four dim ensions. I very much doubt we will find a non anthropic explanation.” (See Quantum Cosmology, M-theory and the Anthropic Principle, Stephen Hawking)

    So we have a four dimensional geometry as a REQUIREMENT of the existence of the observer. But equally the observer appears to be itself a four dimensional geometry (see Alex Green’s paper). It is a small leap of reasoning to then propose that in a multiverse that could have a wide range of geometries it is the anthropic principle, the requirement of an observer, that selects ours. That selection is simply that conscious observation is the existence of a four dimensional manifold of events and it is the observation – all of our observations – that creates our quantum-entangled, 4D slice of the multiverse.

    This proposition would be obvious except that the four dimensional manifold that underlies our universe involves a negative dimension and very few readers can cope with thinking about a pseudo-euclidean geometry. See An Introduction to New Empiricism).

  12. 12. John says:

    I am not sure that I made the connection between the Anthropic Principle and the geometry of the conscious observer clearly enough above. If, for the sake of argument, the conscious observer required two positive spatial dimensions and one negative dimension then Hawking would have been arguing “why should we live in a 3 dimensional world… the anthropic answer is that three spatial dimensions produce overly complex structures that would suppress the purity of intelligent beings…etc.” In a multiverse the observed universe fits the geometry of the observer.

  13. 13. John says:

    ps: comment number 11 is awaiting moderation because it has links to Hawking’s paper etc.

  14. 14. kim says:

    I only have an high school diploma. Yesterday I understood relativity quatom physics. the past present and future…….now. suffering, variables water light life darvin, my daughter my sisters my mother electrons protons auros….multiple demissions. which lead me to here. have i gone mad? one consious something i thought as a young child but it was altered

  15. 15. Eric Thomson says:

    Peter: How are you defining output?

  16. 16. John says:

    (I have reposted comment 11 because it did not appear)

    “In particular, I’d like to suggest: consciousness is an output, not processing”

    I agree. Observation is not processing. “This observation that conscious experience is a succession of passive ideas is well known in philosophy (cf: George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, 25).” (from Wikibooks: Consciousness Studies http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Consciousness_Studies/The_Conflict#Berkeley.27s_.22passive_ideas.22).

    If consciousness is not processing then it is a “form”, a geometrical entity. Geometrical entities are not entirely passive, Hawking explains how geometry and life are interrelated:

    “Thus I believe that we have to invoke the Anthropic Principle. Many physicists dislike the Anthropic Principle. They feel it is messy and vague, it can be us ed to explain almost anything, and it has little predictive power. I sympathize with these feelings, but the Anthropic Principle seems essential in quantum cosmology. Otherwise, why should we live in a four dimensional world, and not eleven, or some other number of dimensions. The anthropic answer is that two spatial dimensions, are not enough for complicated structures, like intelligent beings. On the other hand, four or more spatial dimensions would mean that gravitational and electric forces would fall off faster than the inverse square law. In this situation, planets would not have stable orbits around their star, nor electrons have stable orbits around the nucleus of an atom. Thus intelligent life, at least as we know it, could exist only in four dim ensions. I very much doubt we will find a non anthropic explanation.” (See Quantum Cosmology, M-theory and the Anthropic Principle, Stephen Hawking http://www.hawking.org.uk/index.php/lectures/physicscolloquiums/68)

    So we have a four dimensional geometry as a REQUIREMENT of the existence of the observer. But equally the observer appears to be itself a four dimensional geometry (see Alex Green’s paper http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/02/alex-greens-original-paper.html). It is a small leap of reasoning to then propose that in a multiverse that could have a wide range of geometries it is the anthropic principle, the requirement of an observer, that selects ours. That selection is simply that conscious observation is the existence of a four dimensional manifold of events and it is the observation – all of our observations – that creates our quantum-entangled, 4D slice of the multiverse.

    This proposition would be obvious except that the four dimensional manifold that underlies our universe involves a negative dimension and very few readers can cope with thinking about a pseudo-euclidean geometry. See An Introduction to New Empiricism http://newempiricism.blogspot.com/2009/10/simple-summary.html).

    Incidentally, I was looking through the Wikibooks reference above and found these quotes:

    “Our conscious experience consists of the output of the cortical modelling and perceptual processes. The cerebral cortex itself appears to be non-conscious. The evidence for the non-conscious nature of the cerebral cortex consists of lesion studies in which large amounts of cortex can be removed without removing consciousness and physiological studies in which it is demonstrated that the cerebral cortex can be active without conscious experience.” and “There are about ten times as many nerve fibres going from the cortex to the thalamus as there are from the thalamus to the cortex (Destexhe 2000).” See http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Consciousness_Studies/Neuroscience_1

  17. 17. Peter says:

    John – humble apologies for the mess with your comments. I’ve tried to rectify things, but if you’d like more editing done, just let me know.

    Scott – yes, good point. The Dennett passage I’m referring to is in Consciousness Explained (7.7, esp page 218).

    Eric – a good question, to which I don’t have a watertight answer (see 5 above): if forced to define I might find myself saying something like ‘a product of the process which does not need to be input to the process in order for it to continue’. But that’s not very good.

  18. 18. Arnold Trehub says:

    John, thanks for your post about the anthropic principle. The weak version of the anthropic principle, in my view, must be the case because the cosmos that is represented in our brain’s retinoid system is the only cosmos we can think about. All alternatives that we might think about are also part of our subjective universe in retinoid space-time.

  19. 19. Vicente says:

    John: “In particular, I’d like to suggest: consciousness is an output, not processing”

    OK, so consciousness is a product then. It is the output of certain neural processes. I assume you agree that some prior neural processing is required. My question is, who is the benefitiary of such product? or are the benefitiary and the product one single thing. If so, why not to include the process too? and here we are in complete confussion again (at least I am).

    Regarding the anthropic principle, I don’t know if the Universe laws are tuned for life and consciousness appearance, but mankind is definitely tuned for the laws of the Universe statement, since they only exist within men’s minds. Sorry to repeat the same idea but the Universe models, physics, their representations, only exist in the minds of intelligent conscious beings. There is no Universe to consider without consciousness.

    You could well say that the Universe is an output of our minds, as much as our minds are the result of the laws of the Universe (the second can be questioned).

  20. 20. John says:

    Peter, I am sorry to have mucked up the comments on your blog. I used my wife’s laptop where my comments were invisible, then an old machine and it was only when I returned to my main machine that I realised what a mess I had made.

    Vicente, I might have given the impression that the “consciousness is an output..” statement was mine but it was Peter’s in the main article. The Wikibook reference above shows that it is quite a widespread view ie: “Our conscious experience consists of the output of the cortical modelling and perceptual processes”.

    You say that “…mankind is definitely tuned for the laws of the Universe statement, since they only exist within men’s minds”. How does your statement compare with that of Hawking? Hawking’s version of the Anthropic Principle, coupled with modern decoherence theory suggests that observers jointly select their observation, crystallising a universe from a much wider set of possibilities and this selection is based upon the geometry that supports the existence of an observer. If “men’s minds” are the geometrical object that we call “experience”, an object that appears to be an output or form, then the difference between your idea and Hawking’s is that you have one mind whereas Hawking has many minds plus the form of a mind as the universe.

    Arnold: “All alternatives that we might think about are also part of our subjective universe in retinoid space-time.” Yes, but our models are limited because we cannot have an experience that has, say, 8 spatial, 2 negative temporal and 1 positive temporal dimensions, the best we can do is translate these into analogues in our “retinoid space-time”. I believe this problem is the origin of the “explanatory gap” – philosophers have an archaic model of the universe that has 3 spatial and 1 independent, positive, temporal dimensions (+++/+) and there is a mismatch between this geometry and that of experience that prevents the representation of positive time except as a spatial dimension. The mere fact that we must “represent” positive time as a spatial dimension means that it is obvious that we do not have 4 spatial dimensions so either time or mind are denied by many philosophers. On the other hand, if time is a negative temporal dimension (physicists have shown that our universe has 3 spatial and one, dependent, negative, temporal extensive dimensions +++-) then dimensional time appears naturally as observation at a point and the possibility of simultaneity in experience, we don’t need to represent it, it is simply there.

  21. 21. Vicente says:

    Arnold, what is the cosmos that is represented in our retinoid system? a couple of concerns:

    – Qualia don’t exist in the physical Universe, but they do in our mind. We perceive sound and brightness, not pressure or wave amplitude. Just equating qualia with biophysical processes is not sufficient.

    – The laws of physics, are definitely counter-intuitive, (Quantum, relativistic or Newtonian….) as an example, I’m trying to decipher John’s comment on decoherence theory applied to a conscious a observer instead of a measurement instrument (apparatus)…

    There seems to be some formal or logical level above… As Heisemberg used to say, the quantum world is much closer to Plato than to Democritus.

    Getting back to the coding mechanisms in the brain, it might be possible to code sensorial patterns, and based on them build more complex networks in a relational fashion, but how are complex and abstract ideas, theories, coded based on these primitive sensorial blocks… How can an abstract idea be mapped on to one this networks? Is it always possible to decompose every idea in to simpler sensorial blocks?

  22. 22. John says:

    Vicente: “I’m trying to decipher John’s comment on decoherence theory applied to a conscious a observer instead of a measurement instrument (apparatus)”

    The difference between a measuring instrument and an observer is that the instrument provides a flow of data that can interact with an observer whilst the observer is a 4D geometrical form in which that data can be mounted with its spatio-temporal relations preserved. It is the spatio-temporal relations within the form of the observer that endow the data flow with meaning.

    Imagine a universe where there is no qm entanglement. The first light cone to form will provide a basis for subsequent decoherence. The reason for this is that all interactions occur at the tip of a lightcone so the isolated components of the universe become entangled at that point. That point is also the observation point for an observer. Once such a universe has started to decohere (become entangled) any other observation point within the new universe will have little effect except on its immediate neighborhood. However, we are left with a universe that has a geometrical form that permits conscious observation.

  23. 23. Vicente says:

    John, thank you for the further elaboration, I’m still struggling with it, when you wrote “become entagled” you meant “become un-entagled”, didn’t you? so that locality (reality elements) can apply.

  24. 24. John says:

    No, the classical environment IS a quantum entangled system. This concept is essential to an understanding of modern physics. It is central.

    “When two systems, whose states are initially factorisable, interact, their quantum states generally become non-separable. Moreover when system 1 interacts with system 2, and system 2 subsequently interacts with system 3, the total quantum state will generally become an entangled state of all three systems. It therefore seems plausible that due to inevitable past interactions, most, if not all, particles that are part of a pointer and its environment, at any given time in recent history, will be in some huge entangled state.” (from The modal interpretation of quantum mechanics. By Dennis Geert Bernardus Johan Dieks, Pieter E. Vermaas)

    The environment can host entangled subsystems such as two photons that have been generated together. We then have the giant, entangled environment and a tiny, entangled subsystem.

    According to the Multiverse Theory, if you were outside of our entangled environment (our universe) the whole universe would act like a particle! You could see an infinity of superpositions of universes and make them interfere through a mega double slit experiment.

    It is sad that physicists have not explained the two breakthroughs in cosmology that occurred in the twentieth century to the world in general:

    1. Dimensional time is a negative dimension – the classical universe is Minkowskian, not Euclidean.
    2. The classical universe is a single entangled state

    Add the Anthropic Principle and we can also hypothesise that conscious observation is a property of the geometry of the world and it is the geometry that gives rise to entanglement.

  25. 25. John says:

    I should link the last comment back to Peter’s article about experience being an “output”. If experience is an output and not a process it is a geometrical form. Such a form is epiphenomenal in the classical environment but it is not epiphenomenal in a multiverse. An output or form of the type that occurs in experience may well be required to allow free will and to stabilise the brain. (Free will being navigation through a multiverse.)

    As Arnold points out, the contents of the form are not epiphenomenal

  26. 26. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Arnold, what is the cosmos that is represented in our retinoid system?”

    Among those who think about it, it is everything that exists. Of course, each represents their phenomenal universe/cosmos in accordance with their own knowledge and egocentric perspective.

    Vicente: “Qualia don’t exist in the physical Universe, but they do in our mind. We perceive sound and brightness, not pressure or wave amplitude. Just equating qualia with biophysical processes is not sufficient.”

    Our mind is a part of the physical universe, so qualia do exist in the physical universe. You are right that we don’t directly perceive the air pressure that induces sound or the amplitude of the electromagnetic waves/photon energy that induces brightness. What we perceive are the excitation patterns in our brain’s egocentric retinoid space that are caused by the physical events. These excitation patterns in retinoid space constitute our qualia.

    Vicente: “How can an abstract idea be mapped on to one this networks? Is it always possible to decompose every idea in to simpler sensorial blocks?”

    I would say that, in principle, it is always possible to decompose every idea into simpler sensory patterns. What I am suggesting is that at the root of any meaningful concept there are one or more sensory exemplars. See TCB, Ch. 3, Fig. 3.7 for a simple example, here:

    http://people.umass.edu/trehub/thecognitivebrain/chapter3.pdf

  27. 27. Arnold Trehub says:

    Time as a negative dimension in retinoid space.

    John, I’ve been thinking about how to give a concrete example of the extended present in retinoid space. Imagine a Z-plane in retinoid space as the display face of a cathode ray tube with a phosphor of very long persistence. Imagine digits 0 to 10 presented in sequence and in superposition on the display, one digit per second in clock time. Our clock present is the moment the number 10 appears. But when 10 appears in the phenomenal present, numbers 10 ? 0 are displayed with diminishing brightness from 10 ? 0. So on a scale of intensity, elapsed time is a negative dimension of the extended present in the content of retinoid space. Does this make sense to you?

  28. 28. Arnold Trehub says:

    My arrow symbol for the sequence of numbers did not appear properly in my post above. Read “10 ? 0″ as “10 to 0″.

  29. 29. John says:

    Hi Arnold, there is a discussion of how an extended present might occur in a retinoid system at The value and interpretation of meditations. The shift-register-like characteristics of the retinoid system would shunt events out to the periphery of retinoid space from nearer the centre. In effect it would be a bit like your CRT example, the more temporally and hence spatially distant events might even blur slightly because of the spherical geometry. What we think as 0.5 secs would be represented in about 10^-11 secs of real time. I haven’t mentioned this before because there are problems such as a jerky reloading of 0.5 – 1 sec “specious presents”. I would imagine this happening in a few cubic millimetres of neurons, which would give us quite a few million to work with yet be fast.

  30. 30. Eric Thomson says:

    Consciousness is typically produced after quite a bit of processing that leads up to the final “product” of our experience. If that’s what you mean I’m fine with it. It seems a linguistic decision, not a question of matter of fact, whether you call this an output or process (is a thalamocortical oscillation a process or output, or both?).

    Not much seems to ride upon this linguistic decision. If anything, my worry is that by invoking such computer metaphors it will set thinking back to the 80s when Turing Machines were thought to be useful for thinking about consciousness.

    On the other hand, perhaps for some structures like the retina a more old-fashioned computer picture might be appropriate. There are well-defined inputs (stimuli), well-defined outputs (in the optic nerve), and a bunch of stuff in between (though the retinal ganglion cells that constitute the optic nerve outputs also may synapse onto other cells in the retina, blurring the line between output and processing).

    At any rate, it is usually more helpful to talk about specific models of how brains are conscious, rather than worry about how this maps onto entities from the theory of computation such as finite state automata and turing machines.

  31. 31. kim says:

    I’m not going to comment again because i dont have the vocabulary and don’t know how to explain I never heard of theses idea s. I didnt attend church. But the ideas are true. I dont know if its the 4th dimenion. a computer but I know november 11th it happened to me again….I dont do Yoga or meditate but it was made clear to me. If your trying to discover a mathmatic formula..think of two magnets pulling a metal ball and it being able to stay afloat in the air. thats what it feels like in my world…it was happening in 1993 also..I try to stop it ….and this knowing observer thing I knew it when i was a child and dismissed it …….but anyway carry on.,,,,,,,,(it makes you know things but i dont have the words.)

  32. 32. kim says:

    oh, one more thing, I perceive it to be like two bubbles joining and your in between. and not alone in there.

  33. 33. Vicente says:

    Arnold: “What we perceive are the excitation patterns in our brain’s egocentric retinoid space that are caused by the physical events.

    Precisely !! This is the point !! who or what perceives those patterns?

    a) Other brain areas connected to them. Then, who perceives the activity patterns in those other areas?

    b) Themselves. Can the retina watch the retina? can a photographic cammera take a picture of itself?

    c) An external entity?

    I could understand this model at philosophical zombies level, but the moment we have consciousness, phenomenal experience, even if it is just an epiphenomenal case, something is missing to me, necessary to explain the whole system.

  34. 34. John says:

    Hallo, my last comment just disappeared.

  35. 35. John says:

    Still not working..

    Vicente, your option (b), the Aristotlean option is the correct one but you have deliberately framed the option to be absurd. You ask whether a 3 dimensional object can observe itself well, obviously not.

    Your asked what perceives the patterns, the answer is that the patterns are the output of perceptual processing and this is self aware. How is this done? Perhaps we can do what philosophers hate most and take a look.

    If I pinch my hand lightly the event is at my hand and lasts 0.5 secs. If I pinched myself for no time at all there would be no event so awareness is an event with location and time. The “time” is special however, it is not a succession of instants of no duration because each instant would have no time for an event within it, the “time” in my experience is a whole extension of about a second. The location is also special because it is a point in a set of simultaneous events that is my hand, the hand is a whole extension in space of about 5 degrees. The hand is separate from an observation point that I take to be now, this instant. The hand has an angular projection at this point and the pinching event has a very similar temporal angular projection at the point. Notice that the events are not separable from their arrangement in space and time.

    So, this is what I have: a spatial arrangement projected at a point and a temporal arrangement projected at the same point. These are Peter’s outputs, and Aristotle and Berkeley’s “ideas”.

    What perceives those patterns? What perceives the pinch? Keep looking rather than making up some theory. There is no flow into the observation point, it is just a point. So whatever perceives is not through or in the point. It should be immediately apparent that the question is wrong, the question is asking how we can account for perception in terms of a flow from place to place that is processed during the flow. Look, there is no flow of that sort in experience.

    So what is awareness? It is the spatial and temporal arrangement projected at a point, in particular it is the temporal arrangement of the pinching movement onto the hand accompanied by the events in the pinched hand all of which are now, at the instant of the observation point while the pinch occurs. It is the whole combined event of the pinching over 0.5 secs and 5 degrees projected at an instantaneous point. “Awareness” is actually a word that implies the fact that we can hear whole words and experience a whole second of events now. It is a murky word that dodges the issue of the existence of time-extended experience because this offends the presentist sensibilities of philosophers.

    So how does it work? The likely scenario is as follows. The brain collects, interprets, combines input data, especially in the set of specialised processors known as the cerebral cortex, it then provides a massive output to somewhere, probably in the Thalamus in a system similar to Arnold’s retinoid system, where the output forms the events that are our experience. (Notice that there are ten times as many cortico-thalamic output connections as input connections to the cerebral cortex.) The small volume of neural tissue that receives the output is connected with itself through about a second of time, or has events for a second of time arranged spatially, and the transtemporal data is projected at a single point in the present instant. The contents of this projection have the functions that Arnold has explained and the overall form is probably some snazzy way of stabilising our observation in a multiverse and giving us free will.

  36. 36. Peter says:

    John – sorry about that. Akismet seems to have taken against you. I’ll check to see if I can whitelist you.

  37. 37. Arnold Trehub says:

    John, your suggestion of representing elapsed time in the extended present by its distance from the self-center/origin in retinoid coordinates is interesting. Notice that this brain mechanism quantizes phenomenal time as it jumps from one autaptic cell to its neighbor, just as distance is quantized in retinoid space. In this model, a just noticeable distance (jnd) in conventional psychophysics is really the quantal jump from one autaptic cell to the next in retinoid space.

  38. 38. Vicente says:

    Arnold, “quantizes phenomenal time”, I don’t really know what it means. If you refer to the minimun time period that can be consciously perceived, then fine. To me that is not phenomenal time, it is just to measure the fequency saturation of nervous signals propagation. Equivalent to the mechanism for which an amplifier gain diminishes with input signal frequency. How many times per second can you open and close a membrane ion channel and allow current to flow through it?

    To me phenomenal time is a much more complex psychological process, absolutely context and experience dependant.

    What is the time percepetion when you dream?

    John was right, I deliberately made (b) look absurd. And (c) leads to the homunculi paradox, and the infinite regression. The point here, is that we require what someone in this blog once called an “intrinsic observer” , in which process, product and customer, are surprisingly one single entity.

    To consider such observer, a new comprehension of reality is needed. I am sorry John, but you don’t explain why there is awarness in those cortical patterns.

    John, it is not only philosophers, many (most?) physicists don’t support dimensional time, considering the degenerated case; s=0; r^2= (ct)^2; anecdotal.

  39. 39. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente: “Arnold, “quantizes phenomenal time”, I don’t really know what it means. If you refer to the minimun time period that can be consciously perceived, then fine.”

    Yes, I refer to the minimum time period that can be consciously experienced.

    Vicente: “The point here, is that we require what someone in this blog once called an “intrinsic observer” , in which process, product and customer, are surprisingly one single entity.”

    This is suggestive of the commonly held idea of the *self as an observer*. In my view this has always been a stumbling block in our effort to understand consciousness. In my theory the *core self* is the coordinate of origin in retinoid space-time. It does not perform the function of an observer. In my view, observation consists in sensing, detecting, and classifying patterns of energy. In the brain, the function of observation is performed by specialized synaptic matrices in the many distributed sensory modalities. The outputs of these separate observational mechanisms must be projected and bound in proper spatio-temporal register within egocentric retinoid space for us to have the kind of subjective experience of the world that we have.

  40. 40. Vicente says:

    Arnold: “This is suggestive of the commonly held idea of the *self as an observer*.”

    To me this is not an idea, it is a profound experience, it is what I feel as part of my very nature. The curvature of space or the keinessian economical theory are ideas, not this.

  41. 41. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente:”Arnold: “This is suggestive of the commonly held idea of the *self as an observer*.”
    To me this is not an idea, it is a profound experience, it is what I feel as part of my very nature.”

    Yes, I’m sure you feel it as part of your nature. I feel the same way. This is what makes it so difficult to understand what the core self (I!) is and why it cannot be an observer. To grasp the problem, it is important to make the distinction between the *self* as the fixed origin of a person’s retinoid space, which is I!, and the *self image*, what Metzinger calls the phenomenal self model (PSM), which is a person’s characterization of his self. Your profound feeling is that you, as a person, are the observer of everything that you experience. And you are right in that feeling; taken as a whole person, you are an observer because all of your non-conscious sensory modalities which perform the operations of observation in their synaptic matrices are all parts of *you as a person.* But this feeling of being an observer depends on your having a core self (I!) as the perspectival locus of origin in retinoid space which does not perform the function of observation. See here:

    http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Models_of_consciousness#Retinoid_model

    and here:

    http://www.theassc.org/files/assc/Commentary_on_Praetorius.pdf

  42. 42. John says:

    Vicente, I asked if we could observe. If we do observe we find there are none of the flows that you require for your “homunculus” to be a problem. If you just allow your experience to occur you might notice that your hand within that experience is already coloured, it already has muscle tension within it and when you pinch it the sensation is in the skin. Nothing flows from the hand in experience back into the brain or through some point into the observer. The observation IS your mind.

    As Peter noted, the experience is an output. It is a creation of the brain. We need to describe it, not demand that it fits some primitive idea of information transfer, find it does not then declare ERGO DUALISM! You seem to be using a straw man theory of the world, find it does not work and then say that the world is supernatural, it is as if you were looking for that conclusion in the first place. We must describe first of all and then either apply a known theory if this is consistent with our observation or develop a new theory.

  43. 43. Vicente says:

    Arnold, I said “part”, because even that observer perspective feeling can be overriden by the context. Sometimes, when I am deeply concentrated in a problem, my “self” vanishes for some time, and time vanishes too. It seems there are just the concepts involved in the problem and the operations performed over them that exist. It is only later on, when I remember the process, that I seem to be there again. To convey personal experience is always very difficult, it is just to give an example of an outlayer situation. I believe that your approach is correct as part of the structure and organisation necessary for brain functioning, but there must be something else.

    John, I really can’t follow your reasoning. The observation is part of, or a content of my mind. Note that probably you could directly stimulate the brain in order to produce the same feeling you get when you pinch the hand. The question is why those brain activity patterns produce consciousness, irrespective of the outter world, irrelevant for our problem. Last night I was watching an interview with Oxford Univ neurologist Kia Nobre, and (in my understanding) she said that despite the physical evidence in order to get the whole picture we need to find something that is still missing. This is what I think, not ERGO DUALISM, ERGO SOMETHING NEW, really new. The description is made at physical level, and I don’t see why relational structures at higher hierarchical levels (networks) should produce consciousness. Even then what is the output? the concept of output involves a receiver. OK, the receiver could be the system itself with a feedback loop, the output is added to the input, but then consciousness is a process, not an output. Could be both, process and output, but if you accept the output component, you have to identify a receiver.

  44. 44. Eric Thomson says:

    Vicente wrote:
    I don’t see why relational structures at higher hierarchical levels (networks) should produce consciousness.

    I don’t see why a complex brain processes (of a certain type) shouldn’t be conscious, given that our best evidence suggests they are.

    Vicente:
    Even then what is the output? the concept of output involves a receiver. OK, the receiver could be the system itself with a feedback loop, the output is added to the input, but then consciousness is a process, not an output. Could be both, process and output, but if you accept the output component, you have to identify a receiver.

    This illustrates one reason I mentioned above why I think this way of thinking about consciousness as an “output” may not be very helpful. It starts to evoke old-school views of computers, or in this case Shannon information channels (which are not the same thing), and such. Small step to people treating these things literally and then asking where the receiver is (or where the output tape is :)).

    I asked whether a thalamocortical oscillation was an output or a process: point being it isn’t clear. Since since this way of talking doesn’t seem to actually add anything very useful to our thinking about consciousness, and seems to actually pull people into unproductive ruts, I think I’ll pass on thinking this is important.

    That’s why I said “[I]t is usually more helpful to talk about specific models of how brains are conscious, rather than worry about how this maps onto entities from the theory of computation such as finite state automata and turing machines [and shannon information channels].”

    Note I’m not saying information theory is useless in neuroscience…(though theory of computation pretty much is).

  45. 45. John says:

    Vicente: “The observation is part of, or a content of my mind.”

    The observation is our current experience. There is no “consciousness” outside of your current experience so I would ask philosophers to take a novel approach and actually describe their current experience. You seem to be taking the approach that awareness and consciousness are not here, currently and cannot be described, that they are mysterious. I take the approach that these things are indeed here, currently and these words used to vaguely describe the fact that experience is extended in time. There is an observation point that is now and events that occur over about 0.5-1 secs distributed in a space. That’s it, that’s what we are, look. “Awareness” is a word that we use to describe how a question and an answer can both be present and “consciousness” describes the fact that there is a manifold of events that exists rather than a manifold that exists for no time at all. All the evidence points to this four dimensional manifold of events being an output of cerebral cortical processing.

    Vicente, if there really is a thing called consciousness it must be here, it must be current. If it truly exists in you and me we should be able to describe what it is about our experience that is “conscious”. I have done this but you dodge off and start talking about what it is about the flow of signals in the brain that is conscious, applying a theory about flows in neural tissue before you have even pinned down the phenomenon that the theory must explain.

  46. 46. Vicente says:

    John: That’s it. I cannot reconcile my experience and what I know about the physical world so far. If you can, you are a lucky man. We have reached one of the usual final destinations of this kind of discussion threads, the attractor forgives not.

    Eric: I don’t see why a complex brain processes (of a certain type) shouldn’t be conscious, given that our best evidence suggests they are.

    This is not how it works… I don’t see why the universe shouldn’t be expanding faster and faster, the Galaxies dynamics deviate from the expected motion according to the observed mass and energy, and entagled particles pay no attention to locality, given that our best evidence suggests they are, why not? so let it be. In the case we are interested in, you can’t even measure, or propose a physical model, no matter how exotic or crazy could be… as I said to John, if you don’t see why, lucky you.

  47. 47. Eric Thomson says:

    Vicente said:
    In the case we are interested in, you can’t even measure, or propose a physical model, no matter how exotic or crazy could be…

    Let’s assume, just for argument’s sake, you are right that I don’t have a model, that I can’t even imagine one right now. What follows? That consciousness is not a brain process? That is a non sequitur. Especially since the best thinking and evidence that I have seen strongly supports that it is a brain process.

    I am a bit late to the show here, so I don’t know if you are basing your conclusions on mary-bat-zombie type arguments, or the more basic intuition that brains and experiences are clearly just patently different.

    If the former, I’ll just say I don’t buy the arguments of the philosophers, but leave it at that so as not to hijack this thread. If the latter, then perhaps your intuitions are wrong (I still have the intuition that the Earth doesn’t move, for instance).

    Also, saying we cannot measure consciousness seems strange, given that we measure it all the time via psychophysical experiments. Even if, for argument’s sake, I accept that we cannot measure all aspects of consciousness directly, I don’t see the problem with that. In science we often have to measure things indirectly (e.g., gravitational lensing).

    Most importantly, let’s say this is a valid objection to a neurocentric perspective. Is there a perspective that it wouldn’t cut against? E.g., let’s say property dualism, or substance dualism, or whatever theory T meets your fancy, is true. You choose. Under T, would we then be able to measure consciousness in the ways you think we cannot under a neurocentric paradigm? How do you see that playing out?

  48. 48. Vicente says:

    Eric: that is the point, I can’t choose, because none of the T’s options you’ve offered are theories. Property dualisms means nothing, and so on.

    Then, to measure indirectly is just a way of talking, it is to measure directly some quantity, and then to use that data to infer other quantities.

    Nothing is measured indirectly. Some values can be “indirectly calculated” using “direct measures”.

    No, we won’t me able to measure phenomenal “realities”.

    evidence that I have seen strongly supports that it is [...] a brain process.

    Would you allow: [...]= “very much related (correlated) to”;

    My intuitions could be wrong? of course.

    I’ll try to express my point in a neurocentric fashion, using a computing metaphore.

    What is the relation between a JPG image file stored in your hard drive and that image presented on the screen?

    To get from the first to the second:

    (1) there has to be a file reading operation.
    (2) a video format conversion.
    (3) video memory writing.
    (4) final output to the screen.

    [(5)still the image does not exist on the screen, it only does in your mind, but I will omit this part since we are getting neurocentric]

    Is there a relation/correlation between the image on the screen and the hard drive file? (only logical, not even analogical)

    Are the file and the screen image the same thing?

    Your evidence correspond to the files and the bytes manipulation operations, but where is the image?

    – Is adreline panic? is the effect of adreline on the brain panic?
    – Is propanolol relaxation?

    “to be” vs. “to be related to”

  49. 49. Arnold Trehub says:

    Vicente, is it harder for you to accept the idea that consciousness exists as both neuronal brain activity and phenomenal experience than to accept the idea that light exists as both particle and wave? If so, why do you think this way? After all, the brain mechanism that constitutes consciousness (the retinoid) is a theoretical construct, just as the physical particle that constitutes light (the photon) is a theoretical construct. The SMTT experiment provides information about a property of consciousness just as the double slit experiment provides information about a property of light. Could it be that in the case of light you accept the authority of a scientific consensus, whereas in the case of consciousness you admit no authority but your own?

  50. 50. Eric Thomson says:

    On measurability of consciousness. Thanks for clarifying: so you seem to agree that your ‘unmeasurability’ criticism is not aimed at neurocentrism in particular, and you don’t see a way out of it for any view of consciousness. At this point I’m not sure what you are actually criticising.

    Note also I was just assuming, for argument, that there is something essentially unmeasurable about consciousness. I do not endorse that claim (I am frankly unsure), but to avoid getting bogged down in that argument, was just seeing where you would go if it were true (again, I am not sure anything interesting follows).

    In terms of all the stuff about correlation beint there because brain events and conscious events are different: I don’t see a compelling reason to see things that way. It seems to provide no additional explanatory purchase, while adding complexity and opacity. That seems the opposite direction we want our theories to go.

    But I can’t give a knock-down argument against dualism, especially in a blog. If someone wants to interpret things that way, and saw we are merely observing correlations, not the conscious brain in action, then I can’t stop them. I would just point out the evidence, general biological thinking, and ask them what their view adds. This would take a book to do properly, but I think it could be written.

  51. 51. Eric Thomson says:

    Dangit last two paras I mangled in transition. Corrected:

    In terms of all the stuff about accepting correlations, but claiming that this is still consistent with brain events and conscious events being different, you can certainly say that and not directly contradict the data. My concern is that I don’t see a compelling reason to see things that way. It seems to provide no additional explanatory purchase, while adding complexity and opacity. That seems the opposite direction we want our theories to go.

    But I can’t give a knock-down argument against dualism, especially in a blog. If someone wants to interpret things that way, and say that neuroscientists are merely observing correlations between two fundamentally different things, not the conscious brain in action, then I can’t stop them. I would just point out the evidence, general biological thinking, how useful this approach has been, and ask them what their view adds. This would take a book to do properly, but I think it could be written…

  52. 52. Vicente says:

    Arnold, I admit that I sustain quite a parasitic and unproductive attitude, but it is not a matter of authority, it is matter of understanding.

    Yes, it is clear that for human mind, any attempt to understand quantum “mysteries” beyond their sheer mathematical presentation is a real challenge. For the sake of clarity, light can show a particle or a wave behaviour but never concurrently. Not only light, big molecules have shown interferometric patterns. There are even more weird and disgusting (for human mental standards) effects, like quantum entanglement. Bell’s theorem experimental success is like a sledge hammer turning our brains porridge.

    This thread leads to another common end point, cognitive closure. In this case, it applies not only to consciousness but to the fundamental nature of the whole reality.

  53. 53. Vicente says:

    Eric, I just read that Lynn Margulis has passed away. Thinking of her work pushes me to ask you, what is “general biological thinking”? the one that tells almost nothing “really interesting” about life “per se”, about which many books have been written, none able to unveil the most important questions about it… maybe that is the point, how are we going to tell about consciousness, knowing so little about the brain, and how are we going to talk about the brain, knowing so little about biology… of course to know much or little is pretty relative.

  54. 54. Eric Thomson says:

    It sounds like you are advocating vitalism/dualism, but without any positive approach. It will be interesting to compare notes in 100 years to see which strategy has yielded more fruit.

    Sad about Margulis.

  55. 55. Vicente says:

    Eric, no I am really not. I just feel that some more humility and modesty overall would be benefitial. Exhibitions of the kind that D. Dennett (consciousness explained !!) or C. Venter (synthetic life !!) like are not very positive either.

  56. 56. Eric Thomson says:

    Vicente: I’m all for humility and modesty. I would like to see more of it from dualists who tend to be overconfident that a more traditional neuronal approach is doomed to fail. This always surprises me, given that their actual arguments are not very compelling, and given that they have little to nothing to offer by way of a positive story.

    My strategy is just to try to find out what their perspective will add to a more flat-footed biological approach.

  57. 57. gregorylent says:

    PLEASE distinguish between awareness and consciousness … they are NOT synonyms … and then watch research improve.

  58. 58. John says:

    Here is a straightforward demonstration of “output consciousness”: The phi phenomenon anf the half second gap. You can see that our experience is so late compared with the events around our bodies that it is both an output and seldom used for rapid interactions.

  59. 59. john davey says:

    I think that the problem of a lot of consciousness analysis is the obsession with ‘information’. It’s a huge smokescreen/sideshow, call it what you will. A piece of rock is a material object with a host of phenomenal characteristics. I can attribute the rock with metrics (weight,colour,constituency) and decide the rock is ‘information’, or has informational attributes. But the rock is clearly not a lump of scalar attributes : it is a phenomenal object with real causal attributes. A set of metrics won’t hurt your head. but a rock will if you drop it on your foot. It might seem a blatantly obvious distinction but it’s one that that goes west immediately anybody starts talking about consciousness.

    Consciousness is a phenomenon brought about by the material, causal properties of the brain. It is not an information state, but a physical state. That is why blue is not a number : consciousness is not a collection of passive observer-relative computational attributes, it is a real, physical phenomenon. Thinking is a physical act, and there is as big a distinction between the objects of conscious thought (that train is coming for me)- and consciousness itself as there is between a rock and its observer-relative metrics such as weight, colour , chemical composition etc. The output or input nature of the information flows connected to consciousness shed maybe a little light on the function of consciousness, but that is all. They shed no light, and are not capable of of shedding any light, on the causes or processes underlying the phenomenon.

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