neuron questionBy now the materialist, reductionist, monist, functionalist approaches to consciousness are quite well developed. That is not to say that they have the final answer, but there is quite a range of ideas and theories, complete with objections and rebuttals of the objections. By comparison the dualist case may look a bit underdeveloped, or as Paul Churchland once put it:

Compared to the rich resources and explanatory successes of current materialism, dualism is less a theory of mind than it is an empty space waiting for a genuine theory of mind to be put in it.

In a paper in the latest JCS William S Robinson quotes this scathing observation and takes up the challenge.

Robinson, who could never be accused of denying airtime to his opponents, also quotes O’Hara and Scott’s dismissal of the Hard Problem. For something to be regarded as a legitimate problem, they said, there has to be some viable idea of what an answer would actually look like, or how the supposed problem could actually be solved; since this is absent in the case of the Hard Problem, it doesn’t deserve to be given serious consideration.

Robinson, accordingly, seeks to point out, not a full-blown dualist theory, but a path by which future generations might come to be dualists. This is, in his eyes, the Hard Problem problem; how can we show that the Hard Problem is potentially solvable, without pretending it’s any less Hard than it is? His vision of what our dualist descendants might come to believe relies on two possible future developments, one more or less scientific, the other conceptual.

He starts from the essential question; how can neuronal activity give rise to phenomenal experience? It’s uncontroversial that these two things seem very different, but Robinson sees a basic difference which causes me some difficulty. He thinks neuronal activity is complex while phenomenal experience is simple. Simple? What he seems to have in mind is that when we see, say, a particular patch of yellow paint, a vast array of neurons comes into play, but the experience is just ‘some yellow’.  It’s true that neuronal activity is very complex in the basic sense of there being many parts to it, but it consists of many essentially similar elements in a basically binary state (firing or not firing); whereas the sight of a banana seems to me a multi-level experience whose complexity is actually very hard to assess in any kind of objective terms. It’s not clear to me that even monolithic phenomenal experiences are inherently less complex than the neuronal activity that putatively underpins or constitutes them. I must say, though, that I owe Robinson some thanks for disturbing my dogmatic slumbers, because I’d never really been forced to think so particularly about the complexity of phenomenal experience (and I’m still not sure I can get my mind properly around it).

Anyway, for Robinson this means that the bridge between neurons and qualia is one between complexity and simplicity. He notes that not all kinds of neural activity seem to give rise to consciousness; the first part of his bridge is the reasonable hope that science (or mathematics?) will eventually succeed in characterising and analysing the special kind of complexity which is causally associated with conscious experience; we have no idea yet, but it’s plausible that this will all become clear in due course.

The second, conceptual part of the bridge is a realignment of our ideas to fit the new schema; Robinson suggests we may need to think of complexity and simplicity, not as irreconcilable opposites, but as part of a grander conception, Complexity-And-Simplicity (CAS).

The real challenge for Robinson’s framework is to show how our descendants might on the one hand, find it obvious, almost self-evident, that complex neuronal activity gives rise to simple phenomenal experience, and yet at the same time completely understand how it must have seemed to us that there was a Hard Problem about it; so the Hard Problem is seen to be solvable but still (for us) Hard.

Robinson rejects what he calls the the Short Route of causal essentialism, namely that future generations might come to see it as just metaphysically necessary that the relevant kind of neuronal activity (they understand what kind it is, we don’t) causes our experience. That won’t wash because, briefly,  while in other worlds bricks might not be bricks, depending on the causal properties of the item under consideration, blue will always be blue irrespective of causal relations.

Robinson prefers to draw on an observation of Austen Clark, that there is structure in experience.  The experience of orange is closer to the experience of red and yellow than to the experience of green, and moreover colour space is not symmetrical, with yellow being more like white than blue is. We might legitimately hope that in due course isomorphisms between colour space and neuronal activity will give us good reasons to identify the two. To buttress this line of thinking, Robinson proposes a Minimum Arbitrariness Principle, that in essence, causes and effects tend to be similar, or we might say, isomorphic.

For me the problem here is that I think Clark is completely wrong. Briefly, the resemblances and asymmetries of colour space arise from the properties of light and the limitations of our eyes; they are entirely a matter of non-phenomenal, materialist factors which are available to objective science. Set aside the visual science and our familiarity with the spectrum, and there is no reason to think the phenomenal experience of orange resembles the phenomenal experience of red any more than it resembles the phenomenal experience of Turkish Delight. If that seems bonkers, I submit that it seems so in the light of the strangeness of qualia theory if taken seriously – but I expect I am in a minority.

If we step back, I think that if the descendants whose views Robinson is keen to foresee were to think along the lines he suggests, they probably wouldn’t consider themselves dualists any more; instead they would think that with their new concept of CAS and their discovery of the true nature of neuronal complexity, that they had achieved the grand union of objective and subjective  – and vindicated monism.

langsamHarold Langsam’s new book is a bold attempt to put philosophy of mind back on track. For too long, he declares, we have been distracted by the challenge from reductive physicalism. Its dominance means that those who disagree have spent all their time making arguments against it, instead of developing and exploring their own theories of mind. The solution is that, to a degree, we should ignore the physicalist case and simply go our own way. Of course, as he notes, setting out a rich and attractive non-reductionist theory will incidentally strengthen the case against physicalism. I can sympathise with all that, though I suspect the scarcity of non-reductive theorising also stems in part from its sheer difficulty; it’s much easier to find flaws in the reductionist agenda than to develop something positive of your own.

So Langsam has implicitly promised us a feast of original insights; what he certainly gives us is a bold sweep of old-fashioned philosophy. It’s going to be a priori all the way, he makes clear; philosophy is about the things we can work out just by thinking. In fact a key concept for Langsam is intelligibility; by that, he means knowable a priori. It’s a usage far divorced from the normal meaning; in Langsam’s sense most of the world (and all books) would be unintelligible.

The first target is phenomenal experience; here Langsam is content to use the standard terminology although for him phenomenal properties belong to the subject, not the experience. He speaks approvingly of Nagel’s much-quoted formulation ‘there is something it is like’ to have phenomenal experience, although I take it that in Langsam’s view the ‘it’ that something is like is the person having the experience, which I don’t think was what Nagel had in mind. Interestingly enough, this unusual feature of Langsam’s theory does not seem to matter as much as we might have expected. For Langsam, phenomenal properties are acquired by entry into consciousness, which is fine as far as it goes, but seems more like a re-description than an explanation.

Langsam believes, as one would expect, that phenomenal experience has an inexpressible intrinsic nature. While simple physical sensations have structural properties, in particular, phenomenal experience does not. This does not seem to bother him much, though many would regard it as the central mystery. He thinks, however, that the sensory part of an experience – the unproblematic physical registration of something – and the phenomenal part are intelligibly linked. In fact, the properties of the sensory experience determine those of the phenomenal experience.  In sensory terms, we can see that red is more similar to orange than to blue, and for Langsam it follows that the phenomenal experience of red similarly has an intelligible similarity to the phenomenal experience of orange. In fact, the sensory properties explain the phenomenal ones.

This seems problematic. If the linkage is that close, then we can in fact describe phenomenal experience quite well; it’s intelligibly like sensory experience. Mary the colour scientist, who has never seen colours, actually will not learn anything new when she sees red: she will just confirm that the phenomenal experience is intelligibly like the sensory experience she already understood perfectly. In fact because the resemblance is intelligible – knowable a priori – she could work out what it was like before seeing red at all. To that Langsam might perhaps reply that by ‘a priori’ he means not just pure reasoning but introspection, a kind of internal empiricism.

It still leaves me with the feeling that Langsam has opened up a large avenue for naturalisation of phenomenal experience, or even suggested that it is in effect naturalised already. He says that the relationship between the phenomenal and the sensory is like the relation between part and whole; awfully tempting, then, to conclude that his version of phenomenal experience is merely an aspect of sensory experience, and that he is much more of a sceptic about phenomenality than he realises.

This feeling is reinforced when we move on to the causal aspects. Langsam wants phenomenal experience to have a role in making sensory perceptions available to attention, through entering consciousness. Surely this is making all the wrong people, from Langsam’s point of view, nod their heads: it sounds worryingly functionalist. Langsam wants there to be two kinds of causation: ‘brute causation’, the ordinary kind we all believe in, and intelligible causation, where we can just see the causal relationship. I enjoyed Langsam taking a pop at Hume, who of course denied there was any such thing; he suggests that Hume’s case is incomplete, and actually misses the most important bits. In Langsam’s view, as I read it, we just see inferences, perceiving intelligible relationships.

The desire to have phenomenal experience play this role seems to me to carry Langsam too far in another respect: he also claims that simply believing that p has a phenomenal aspect. I take it he wishes this to be the case so that this belief can also be brought to conscious attention by its phenomenal properties, but look; it just isn’t true. ‘Believing that p’ has no phenomenal properties whatever; there is nothing it is like to believe that p, in the way that there is something it is like to see a red flower. The fact that Langsam can believe otherwise reinforces the sense that he isn’t such a believer in full-blooded phenomenality as he supposes.

We can’t accuse him of lacking boldness, though. In the second part of the book he goes on to consider appropriateness and rationality; beliefs can be appropriate and rational, so why not desires? At this point we’re still apparently engaged on an enquiry into philosophy of mind, but in fact we’ve also started doing ethics. In fact I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Langsam is after Kant’s categorical imperative. Our desires can stem intelligibly from such sensations as pain and pleasure, and our attitudes can be rational in relation to the achievement of desires. But can there be globally rational desires – ones that are rational whatever we may otherwise want?

Langsam’s view is that we perceive value in things indirectly through our feelings and when our desires are for good things they are globally rational.  If we started out with Kant, we seem to have ended up with a conclusion more congenial to G.E,Moore. I admire the boldness of these moves, and Langsam fleshes out his theory extensively along the way – which may be the real point as far as he’s concerned. However, there are obvious problems about rooting global rationality in something as subjective and variable as feelings, and without some general theory of value Langsam’s system is bound to suffer a certain one-leggedness.

I do admire the overall boldness and ambition of Langsam’s account, and it is set out carefully and clearly, though not in a way that would be very accessible to the general reader. For me his views are ultimately flawed, but give me a flawed grand theory over a flawless elucidation of an insignificant corner every time.


scalpelExistential Comics raises an interesting question (thanks to Micha for pointing it out). In the strip a doctor with a machine that measures consciousness (rather like Tononi’s new machine, except that that measures awareness) tells an unlucky patient he lacks the consciousness-producing part of the brain altogether. Consequently, the doctor says, he is legally allowed to harvest the patient’s organs.

Would that be right?

We can take it that what the patient lacks is consciousness in the ‘Hard Problem’ sense. He can talk and behave quite normally, it’s just that when he experiences things there isn’t ‘something it is like’; there’s no real phenomenal experience. In fact, he is a philosophical zombie, and for the sake of clarity I take him to be a strict zombie; one of the kind who are absolutely like their normal human equivalent in every important detail except for lacking qualia (the cartoon sort of suggests otherwise, since it implies an actual part of the brain is missing, but I’m going to ignore that).

Would lack of qualia mean you also lacked human rights and could be treated like an animal, or worse? It seems to me that while lack of qualia might affect your standing as a moral object (because it would bear on whether you could suffer, for example), it wouldn’t stop you being a full-fledged moral subject (you would still have agency). I think I would consequently draw a distinction between the legal and the moral answer. Legally, I can’t see any reason why the absence of qualia would make any difference. Legal personhood, rights and duties are all about actions and behaviour, which takes us squarely into the realm of the Easy Problem. Our zombie friend is just like us in these respects; there’s no reason why he can’t enter into contracts, suffer punishments, or take on responsibilities. The law is a public matter; it is forensic – it deals with the things dealt with in the public forum; and it follows that it has nothing to say about the incorrigibly private matter of qualia.

Of course the doctor’s machine changes all that and makes qualia potentially a public matter (which is one reason why we might think the machine is inherently absurd, since public qualia are almost a contradiction in terms). It could be that the doctor is appealing to some new, recently-agreed legislation which explicitly takes account of his equipment and its powers. If so, such legislation would presumably have to have been based on moral arguments, so whichever way we look at it, it is to the moral discussion that we must turn.

This is a good deal more complicated. Why would we suppose that phenomenal experience has moral significance? There is a general difficulty because the zombie has experiences too. In conditions when a normal human would feel fear, he trembles and turns pale; he smiles and relaxes under the influence of pleasure; he registers everything that we all register. He writes love poetry and tells us convincingly about his feelings and tastes. It’s just that, on the inside, everything is hollow and void. But because real phenomenal experience always goes along with zombie-style experience, it’s hard for us to find any evidence as to why one matters when the other doesn’t.

The question also depends critically on what ethical theories we adopt. We might well take the view that our existing moral framework is definitive, authorised by God or tradition, and therefore if it says nothing about qualia, we should take no account of them either. No new laws are necessary, and there can be no moral reason to allow the harvesting of organs.

In this respect I believe it is the case that medieval legislatures typically saw themselves, not as making new laws, but as rediscovering the full version of old ones, or following out the implications of existing laws for new circumstances. So when the English parliamentarians wanted to argue against Charles I’s Ship Tax, rather than rest their case on inequity, fiscal distortion, or political impropriety, they appealed to a dusty charter of Ine, ancient ruler of Wessex (regrettably they referred to Queen Ine, whereas he had in fact been a robustly virile King).

Even within a traditional moral framework, therefore, we might find some room to argue that new circumstances called for some clarification; but I think we would find it hard going to argue for the harvesting.

What if we were utilitarians, those people who say that morality is acting to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number? Here we have a very different problem because the utilitarians are more than happy to harvest your organs anyway if by doing so they can save more than one person, no matter whether you have qualia or not. This unattractive kind of behaviour is why most people who espouse a broadly utilitarian framework build in some qualifications (they might say that while organ harvesting is good in principle actual human aversion to it would mean that in practice it did not conduce to happiness overall, for example).

The interesting point is whether zombie happiness counts towards the utilitarian calculation. Some might take the view that without qualia it had no real value, so that the zombie’s happiness figure should be taken as zero. Unfortunately there is no obvious answer here; it just depends what kind of happiness you think is important. In fact some consequentialists take the utilitarian system but plug into it desiderata other than happiness anyway. It can be argued that old-fashioned happiness utilitarianism would lead to us all sitting in boxes that directly stimulated our pleasure centres, so something more abstract seems to be needed; some even just speak of ‘utility’ without making it any more specific.

No clear answer then, but it looks as if qualia might at least be relevant to a utilitarian.

What about the Kantians? Kant, to simplify somewhat, thought we should act in accordance with the kind of moral rules we should want other people to adopt. So, we should be right to harvest the organs so long as we were content that if we ourselves turned out to be zombies, the same thing would happen to us. Now I can imagine that some people might attach such value to qualia that they might convince themselves they should agree to this proposition; but in general the answer is surely negative. We know that zombies behave exactly like ordinary people, so they would not for the most part agree to having their organs harvested; so we can say with confidence that if I were a zombie I should still tell the doctor to desist.

I think that’s about as far as I can reasonably take the moral survey within the scope of a blog post. At the end of the day, are qualia morally relevant? People certainly talk as if they are in some way fundamental to value. “Qualia are what make my life worth living” they say: unfortunately we know that zombies would say exactly the same.

I think most people, deliberately or otherwise, will simply not draw a distinction between real phenomenal experience on one hand and the objective experience of the kind a zombie can have on the other. Our view of the case will in fact be determined by what we think about people with and without feelings of both kinds, rather than people with and without qualia specifically. If so, qualia sceptics may find that grist to their mill.

Micha has made some interesting comments which I hope he won’t mind me reproducing.

The question of deontology vs consequentialism might be involved. A deontologist has less reason — although still some — to care about the content of the victim’s mind. Animals are also objects of morality; so the whole question may be quantitative, not qualitative.

Subjects like ethics aren’t easy for me to discuss philosophically to someone of another faith. Orthodox Judaism, like traditional Islam, is a legally structured religion. Therefore ethics aren’t discussed in the same language as in western society, since how the legal system processes revelation impacts conclusion.

In this case, it seems relevant that the talmud says that someone who kills adnei-hasadeh (literally: men of the field) is as guilty of murder as someone who kills a human being. It’s unclear what the talmud is referring to: it may be a roman mythical being who is like a human, but with an umbilicus that grows down to roots into the earth, or perhaps an orangutan — from the Malay for “man of the jungle”, or some other ape. Whatever it is, only actual human beings are presumed to have free will. And yet killing one qualifies as murder, not the killing of an animal.

correspondentNarrative Complexity is what it all comes down to according to R. Salvador Reyes. His site features a series of essays which bring together a number of sensible ideas. Perhaps too sensible? The truth, we suspect, is not just out there, but way out.

If you missed it, you might be interested in the strange tale of Samantha West, who is probably not exactly a robot as such. Or is that what they want us to think?

Walter Freeman’s correspondence reveals that patients and their families often expressed satisfaction with the results of ice-pick lobotomy. This may be partly because they focussed on getting the patient working again, without worrying too much about other aspects. Desperation probably played a part too, one poor woman coming back to ask for a third attempt even after two previous lobotomies had failed.

The European Human Brain Project got under way late last year.

lightChristof Koch declares himself a panpsychist in this interesting piece, but I don’t think he really is one. He subscribes to the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of Giulio Tononi, which holds that consciousness is created by the appropriate integration of sufficient quantities of information. The level of integrated information can be mathematically expressed in a value called Phi: we have discussed this before a couple of times. I think this makes Koch an emergentist, but curiously enough he vigorously denies that.

Koch starts with a quotation about every outside having an inside which aptly brings out the importance of the first-person perspective in all these issues. It’s an implicit theme of what Koch says (in my reading at least) that consciousness is something extra. If we look at the issue from a purely third-person point of view, there doesn’t seem to be much to get excited about. Organisms exhibit different levels of complexity in their behaviour and it turns out that this complexity of behaviour arises from a greater complexity in the brain. You don’t say! The astonishment meter is still indicating zero. It’s only when we add in the belief that at some stage the inward light of consciousness, actual phenomenal experience, has come on that it gets interesting. It may be that Koch wants to incorporate panpsychism into his outlook to help provide that ineffable light, but attempting to make two theories work together is a risky path to take. I don’t want to accuse anyone of leaning towards dualism (which is the worst kind of philosophical bitchiness) but… well, enough said. I think Koch would do better to stick with the austere simplicity of IIT and say: that magic light you think you see is just integrated information. It may look a bit funny but that’s all it is, get used to it.

He starts off by arguing persuasively that consciousness is not the unique prerogative of human beings. Some, he says, have suggested that language is the dividing line, but surely some animals, preverbal infants and so on should not be denied consciousness? Well, no, but language might be interesting, not for itself but because it is an auxiliary effect of a fundamental change in brain organisation, one that facilitates the handling of abstract concepts, say (or one that allows the integration of much larger quantities of information, why not?). It might almost be a side benefit, but also a handy sign that this underlying reorganisation is in place, which would not be to say that you couldn’t have the reorganisation without having actual language. We would then have something, human-style thought, which was significantly different from the feelings of dogs, although the impoverishment of our vocabulary makes us call them both consciousness.

Still, in general the view that we’re dealing with a spectrum of experience, one which may well extend down to the presumably dim adumbrations of worms and insects, seems only sensible.

One appealing way of staying monist but allowing for the light of phenomenal experience is through emergence: at a certain level we find that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts: we do sort of get something extra, but in an unobjectionable way. Strangely, Koch will have no truck with this kind of thinking. He says

‘the mental is too radically different for it to arise gradually from the physical’.

At first sight this seemed to me almost a direct contradiction of what he had just finished saying. The spectrum of consciousness suggests that we start with the blazing 3D cinema projector of the human mind, work our way down to the magic lanterns of dogs, the candles of newts, and the faint tiny glows of worms – and then the complete darkness of rocks and air. That suggests that consciousness does indeed build up gradually out of nothing, doesn’t it? An actual panpsychist, moreover, pushes the whole thing further, so that trees have faint twinkles and even tiny pieces of clay have a detectable scintilla.

Koch’s view is not, in fact, contradictory: what he seems to want is something like one of those dimmer switches that has a definite on and off, but gradations of brightness when on. He’s entitled to take that view, but I don’t think I agree that gradual emergence of consciousness is unimaginable. Take the analogy of a novel. We can start with Pride and Prejudice, work our way down through short stories or incoherent first drafts, to recipe books or collections of limericks, books with scribble and broken sentences, down to books filled with meaningless lines, and the chance pattern of cracks on a wall. All the way along there will be debatable cases, and contrarians who disbelieve in the real existence of literature can argue against the whole thing (‘You need to exercise your imagination to make Pride and Prejudice a novel; but if you are willing to use your imagination I can tell you there are finer novels in the cracks on my wall than anything Jane bloody Austen ever wrote…’) : but it seems clear enough to me that we can have a spectrum all the way down to nothing. That doesn’t prove that consciousness is like that, but makes it hard to assert that it couldn’t be.
The other reason it seems odd to hear such an argument from Koch is that he espouses the IIT which seems to require a spectrum which sits well with emergentism. Presumably on Koch’s view a small amount of integrated information does nothing, but at some point, when there’s enough being integrated, we start to get consciousness? Yet he says:

“if there is nothing there in the first place, adding a little bit more won’t make something. If a small brain won’t be able to feel pain, why should a large brain be able to feel the god-awfulness of a throbbing toothache? Why should adding some neurons give rise to this ineffable feeling?”

Well, because a small brain only integrates a small amount of information, whereas a large on integrates enough for full consciousness? I think I must be missing something here, but look at this.

“ [Consciousness] is a property of complex entities and cannot be further reduced to the action of more elementary properties. We have reached the ground floor of reductionism.”

Isn’t that emergence? Koch must see something else which he thinks is essential to emergentism which he doesn’t like, but I’m not seeing it.

The problem with Koch being panpsychist is that for panpsychists souls (or in this case consciousness) have to be everywhere. Even a particle of stone or a screwed-up sheet of wrapping paper must have just the basic spark; the lights must be at least slightly on. Koch doesn’t want to go quite that far – and I have every sympathy with that, but it means taking the pan out of the panpsychist. Koch fully recognises that he isn’t espousing traditional full-blooded panpsychism but in my opinion he deviates too far to be entitled to the badge. What Koch believes is that everything has the potential to instantiate consciousness when correctly organised and integrated. That amounts to no more than believing in the neutrality of the substrate, that neurons are not essential and that consciousness can be built with anything so long as its functional properties are right. All functionalists and a lot of other people (not everyone, of course) believe that without being panpsychists.

Perhaps functionalism is really the direction Koch’s theories lean towards. After all, it’s not enough to integrate information in any superficial way. A big database which exhaustively cross-referenced the Library of Congress would not seem much of a candidate for consciousness. Koch realises that there have to be some rules about what kinds of integration matter, but I think that if the theory develops far enough these other constraints will play an increasingly large role, until eventually we find that they have taken over the theory and the quantity of integrated information has receded to the status of a necessary but not sufficient condition.

I suppose that that might still leave room for Tononi’s Phi meter, now apparently built, to work satisfactorily. I hope it does, because it would be pretty useful.

chiantiIt has always seemed remarkable to me that the ingestion of a single substance can have such complex effects on behaviour. Alcohol does it, in part, by promoting the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitters and suppressing the effects of excitatory ones, while also whacking up a nice surge of dopamine – or so I understand. This messes up co-ordination and can lead to loss of memory and indeed consciousness; but the most interesting effect, and the one for which alcohol is sometimes valued, is that it causes disinhibition. This allows us to relax and have a good time but may also encourage risky behaviour and lead to us saying things – in vino veritas – we wouldn’t normally let out.

Curiously, though, there’s no solid scientific support for the idea that alcohol causes disinhibition, and good evidence that alcohol is blamed for disinhibition it did not cause. One of the slippery things about the demon drink is that its effects are strongly conditioned by the drinkers expectations. It has been shown that people who merely thought they were consuming alcohol were disinhibited just as if they had been; while other studies have shown that risky sexual behaviour can actually be deterred in those who have had a few drinks, if the circumstances are right.

One piece of research suggests that meta-consciousness is impaired by alcohol; drink makes us less aware of our own mental state. But a popular and well-supported theory these days is that drinking causes ‘alcohol myopia’. On this theory, when we’re drunk we lose track of long-term and remote factors, while our immediate surroundings seem more salient. One useful aspect of the theory is that it explains the variability of the effects of alcohol. It may make remoter worries recede and so leave us feeling unjustifiably happy with ourselves; but if reminders of our problems are close while the long term looks more hopeful, the effect may be depressing. Apparently subjects who had the words ‘AIDS KILLS’ actually written on their arm were less likely to indulge in risky sex (I suspect it might kind of dent your chances of getting a casual partner, actually).

A merry and appropriately disinhibited Christmas to you!

salienceI was interested to see reports here and there the other day that scientists had discovered the seat of the will in the anterior midcingulate cortex.

That’s not precisely the case, of course; there’s an article here which describes the research. The scientists in question had an unusual opportunity to use electrodes in the brains of two patients; although they did indeed operate in the anterior midcingulate cortex they believe they were stimulating the brain’s salience network, which is quite widely distributed. The effect was apparently to create feelings of needing to persist against challenging circumstances; the researchers themselves call it “the will to persevere”. The patients were fully conscious and able to describe their feelings, but alas no tests were carried out to see whether they were in fact more persistent when stimulated.

The correct interpretation of the results seems difficult to me. As I understand it, the theory of the salience network holds that brain activity is controlled by neural networks which stretch across several regions of the brain. The default mode network, or DMN, is the one that operates when we’re not focused on anything in particular, perhaps daydreaming. It has been suggested that loss of this function is what distinguishes people who have “locked-in” syndrome from those who are in a “persistent vegetative state” – if you lose your DMN you’re not really there any more, in other words.

When we concentrate on a task, another network takes over – the central executive network, or CEN. The role of the salience network, if I’ve got this right, is primarily to act as arbitrator between the two. It spots something that deserves attention – something salient, indeed – and switches control from DMN to CEN. That’s fine, but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with persistence; it’s actually about changing the object of attention, not sticking with it. But perhaps strong or continuing stimulation of the salience network has that kind of effect. The salience network says “you need to look at this”, so perhaps when it operates emphatically we think “yes, I’m going to look the hell out of that alright; I’m going to look at that intensively; when I’ve finished looking at that, by golly it’s going to stay looked at”.

More plausibly it might all be to do with physiological effects; besides directing attention the salience network has a role in gearing up our “fight or flight” state, and it might just be that in that state we feel ready for a challenge ( in which case a readiness to persist comes into it, but surely isn’t the whole point); that would be a William James style emotion, originally a matter of the gut more than the mind.

Anyway, this really has nothing to do with an organ of the will. That is an interesting notion, though, isn’t it? My own assumption is that the will emerges from the operation of general cognition and that there couldn’t be a separate will module. If such a module determined the actions to be willed, it would surely have to encompass almost the whole of cognition, and so be far more than just a module; if it merely willed the actions selected for it by the rest of the brain it wouldn’t amount to much at all.

People do, of course, often hypothesise that there might be a special function for assigning value, or flagging up those things we ought to pursue as desirable. To me, though, that seems a bit different; the will, properly understood, is not a matter of basic motivation, but a faculty which might over-ride that motivation, either by operating at a meta level or simply by acting as a restraining and countervailing force.

Would that even be a distinct faculty of its own? Some would probably question whether talking about the will is a useful approach at all, rather than a relic from outmoded ideas about the soul controlling the body through acts of will. I must admit I find it hard to think of any subject that can’t be adequately discussed without mentioning  the will. Even free will doesn’t really lose anything if we talk about free action.  So is the will even worth persisting with? I can feel my DMN kicking in…

SocratesWhy is it that we can’t solve the mind/body problem? Well, if we define that problem as being about the capacity of mental events to cause physical events, there is a project in progress at Durham University that says it’s about the lack of good philosophy, or more specifically, that our problem stems from inadequate ontology (ontology being the branch of metaphysics that deals with what there is).  The project has been running for a few years, and now a substantial volume of corrective metaphysics has been published, with a thoughtful and full review here.  (Hat-tip to Micha for drawing this to my attention).

 The book is not a manifesto, because the authors do not share a single view: it’s more like an exhibition. What’s on offer here is a variety of philosophical views of mental causation, all more sophisticated than the ones we typically encounter in discussions of  artificial intelligence. The review gives a good sense of what’s on offer, and depending on your inclinations you may see it as a collection of esoteric and unhelpful complications, or as a magic sweetshop whose every jar holds the way to a new world of possibility and enlightenment. I think the average view will see it as a bookshop with many volumes of dull sermons and outdated almanacs which might nevertheless just be holding somewhere in the dusty back room that one book that makes sense of everything.

Is it likely that better philosophy will deliver the answer? There is  a horrid vision in my mind in which the neurologists and/or the AI people produce a model which seems to work; we’re able to build machines which talk to us in the same way as human beings, and we can explain exactly how the brain does its stuff and how it is analogous to these machines: but the philosophers go on doubting whether this machine consciousness is real consciousness. No-one else cares.

Moreover, there are some identifiable weaknesses in philosophy which are clearly on display in the current volume. First is the fissiparous nature of philosophical discussion. I said this was an exhibition rather than a manifesto; but wouldn’t a manifesto have been better? It’s not achievable because every philosopher has his or her own view and the longer discussion goes on the more possible views there are. In one way it’s a pleasing, exploratory quality, but if you want a solution it’s a grave handicap. Second, and related, there’s no objective test beyond logical consistency. Experiments will never prove any of these views wrong.

Third, although philosophy is too difficult, it’s also too easy. Someone somewhere once said that Aristotle’s problem was that he was too clever. For him, it was always possible to come up with a theory which justified the outlook of a complacent middle-aged Ancient Greek: theories which have turned out, so far as we can test them, to be almost invariably false or incomplete. Less clever pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus or Parmenides were forced to adopt weirder points of view which in the long run might actually tell us more.

The current volume, I think, might contain many cases of clever people making cases that broadly  justify common sense while the real truth may be out there in the wild regions beyond. E.J.Lowe, one of the editors of the book and champions of the project, has a view about the powers of the will. He characterises powers as active or passive on the one hand and causal or non-causal. This leaves open the possibility of a power which is both active and non-causal. He wants the human will to have these properties, so that it is  spontaneous and not causally inefficacious without the agent per se thereby bringing about any sort of effect (if I’ve got that right). The spontaneity is supposed to resemble the spontaneity of the decay of a specific radium atom, and hence be consistent with physics, while the causal  efficacy is of a kind that does  not require an interruption of normal physics while still being an important corollary of our status as rational beings.

This is clever stuff, no doubt, but it looks like an attempt – you may consider it a doomed attempt – to explain away the problems with our common sense views rather than correcting them. We’re being offered loopholes which may – debatably – let us carry on thinking what we’ve always thought, rather than offering us a new perspective. It leaves me feeling the way I might feel after a clever lawyer has explained why his client should not be convicted; yeah, but did he do it? There’s no ‘aha!’ moment on offer. In her review Sara Bernstein suggests that sceptics may be inclined to turn back to reductionism, and I must confess that is indeed my inclination.

Still, I can’t shake my hope that somewhere in that dusty old bookshop the truth is to be found, and so I can’t help wishing the project well.

quarkOne of the main objections to panpsychism, the belief that mind, or at any rate experience, is everywhere, is that it doesn’t help. The point of a theory is to take an issue that was mysterious to begin with and make it clear; but panpsychism seems to leave us with just as much explaining to do as before. In fact, things may be worse. To begin with we only needed to explain the occurrence of consciousness in the human brain; once we embrace panpsychism we have to explain it’s occurrence everywhere and account for the difference between the consciousness in a lump of turf and the consciousness in our heads. The only way that could be an attractive option would be if there were really good and convincing answers to these problems ready to hand.

Creditably, Patrick Lewtas recognises this and rolling up his sleeves has undertaken the job of explaining first, how ‘basic bottom level experience’ makes sense, and second, how it builds up to the high-level kind of experience going on in the brain. A first paper, tackling the first question, “What is it like to be a Quark” appeared in the JCS recently (Alas, there doesn’t seem to be an online version available to non-subscribers.)

Lewtas adopts an idiosyncratic style of argument, loading himself with Constraints like a philosophical Houdini.

  1. Panpsychism should attribute to basic physical objects all but only those types of experiences needed to explain higher-level (including, but not limited to, human) consciousness.
  2. Panpsychism must eschew explanatory gaps.
  3. Panpsychism must eschew property emergence.
  4. Maximum possible complexity of experience varies with complexity of physical structure.
  5. Basic physical objects have maximally simple structures. They lack parts, internal structure, and internal processes.
  6. Where possible and appropriate, panpsychism should posit strictly-basic conscious properties similar, in their higher-order features to strictly-basic physical properties.
  7. Basic objects with strictly-basic experiences have the constantly and continuously.
  8. Each basic experience-type, through its strictly-basic  instances. characterizes (at least some) basic physical objects.

Of course it is these very constraints that end up getting him where he wanted to be all along.  To justify each of them and give the implications would amount to reproducing the paper; I’ll try to summarise in a freer style here.

Lewtas wants his basic experience to sit with basic physical entities and he wants it to be recognisably the same kind of thing as the higher level experience. This parsimony is designed to avoid any need for emergence or other difficulties; if we end up going down that sort of road, Lewtas feels we will fall back into the position where our theory is too complex to be attractive in competition with more mainstream ideas. Without seeming to be strongly wedded to them, he chooses to focus on quarks as his basic unit, but he does not say much about the particular quirks of quarks; he seems to have chosen them because they may have the property he’s really after; that of having no parts.

The thing with no parts! Aiee! This ancient concept has stalked philosophy for thousands of years under different names: the atom, a substance, a monad (the first two names long since passed on to other, blameless ideas). I hesitate to say that there’s something fundamentally problematic with the concept itself (it seems to work fine in geometry); but in philosophy it seems hard to handle without generating a splendid effusion of florid metaphysics.  The idea of yoking it together with the metaphysically tricky modern concept of quarks makes my hair stand on end. But perhaps Lewtas can keep the monster in check: he wants it, presumably, because he wants to build on bedrock, with no question of basic experience being capable of further analysis.

Some theorists, Lewtas notes, have argued that the basic level experience of particles must be incomprehensible to us; as incomprehensible as the experiences of bats according to Nagel, or indeed even worse. Lewtas thinks things can, and indeed must, be far simpler and more transparent than that. The experience of a quark, he suggests, might just be like the simple experience of red; red detached from any object or pattern, with no limits or overtones or significance; just red.  Human beings can most probably never achieve such simplicity in its pure form, but we can move in that direction and we can get our heads around ‘what it’s like’ without undue difficulty.

Now the partless thing begins to give trouble; a thing which has no parts cannot change, because change would imply some kind of reorganisation or substitution; you can’t rearrange something that has no parts and if you substitute anything you have to substitute another whole thing for the first one, which is not change but replacement. At best the thing’s external relations can change. If one of the properties of the quark is an experience of red, therefore, that’s how it stays. It carries on being an experience of red, and it does not respond in any way to its environment or anything outside itself. I think we can be forgiven if we already start to worry a little about how this is going to work with a perceptual system, but that is for the later paper.

Lewtas is aware that he could be in for an awfully large catalogue of experiences here if every possible basic experience has to be assigned to a quark. His hope is that some experiences will turn out to be composites, so that we’ll be able to make do with a more restricted set: and he gives the example of orange experience reducing to red and yellow experience. A bad example: orange experience is just orange experience, actually, and the fact that orange paint can be made by mixing red and yellow paint is just a quirk of the human visual system, not an essential quality of orange light or orange phenomenology. A bad example doesn’t mean the thesis is false; but a comprehensive reduction of phenomenology to a manageable set of basic elements is a pretty non-trivial requirement. I think in fact Lewtas might eventually be forced to accept that he has to deal with an infinite set of possible basic experiences. Think of the experience of unity, duality, trinity…  That’s debatable, perhaps.

At any rate Lewtas is prepared to some extent. He accepts explicitly that the number of basic experiences will be greater than the number of different kinds of basic quark, so it follows that basic physical units must be able to accommodate more than one basic experience at the same time. So your quark is having a simple, constant experience of red and at the same time it’s having a simple, constant experience of yellow.

That has got to be a hard idea for Lewtas to sell. It seems to risk the simple transparency which was one of his main goals, because it is surely impossible to imagine what having two or more completely pure but completely separate experiences at the same time is like.  However, if that bullet is bitten, then I see no particular reason why Lewtas shouldn’t allow his quarks to have all possible experiences simultaneously (my idea, not his).

By the time we get to this point I find myself wondering what the quarks, or the basic physical units, are contributing to the theory. It’s not altogether clear how the experiences are anchored to the quarks and since all experiences are going to have to be readily available everywhere, I wonder whether it wouldn’t simplify matters to just say that all experiences are accessible to all matter. That might be one of the many issues cleared up in the paper to follow where perhaps, with one cat-like leap, Lewtas will escape the problems which seem to me to be on the point of having him cornered…

poppyIt may be a little off our usual beat, but Graham Hancock’s piece in the New Statesman (longer version here) raised some interesting thoughts.

It’s the ‘war on drugs’ that is Hancock’s real target, but he says it’s really a war on consciousness…

This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behaviour towards others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behaviour towards others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.

That doesn’t seem quite right. It’s true there are weak arguments for laws against drugs – some of them based on bad consequences that arguably arise from the laws rather than the drugs – but there are reasonable ones, too. The bedrock point is that taking a lot of psychoactive drugs is probably bad for you. Hancock and many others might say that we should have the right to harm ourselves, or at any rate to risk harm, if we don’t hurt anyone else, but that principle is not, I think, generally accepted by most legislatures. Moreover there are special arguments in the case of drugs. One is that they are addictive.  ‘Addiction’ is used pretty widely these days to cover any kind of dependency or habit, but I believe the original meaning was that an addict became physically dependent, unable to stop taking the drug without serious, possibly even fatal consequences, while at the same time ever larger doses were needed to achieve relief. That is clearly not a good way to go, and it’s a case where leaving people to make up their own minds doesn’t really work because of the dependency. Secondly, drugs may affect the user’s judgement and for that reason too should arguably be a case where people are not left to judge risks for themselves.

Now, as a matter of fact neither of those arguments may apply in the case of some restricted drugs – they may not be addictive in that strongest sense and they may not remove the user’s ability to judge risks; and the risks themselves may in some cases have been overstated; but we don’t have to assume that governments are simply set on denying us the benefits of enhanced consciousness.

What would those benefits be? They might be knowledge, enhanced cognition, or simple pleasure. We could also reverse the argument that Hancock attributes to our rulers and suggest that drugs make people less likely to harm others. People who are lying around admiring the wallpaper in a confused manner are not out committing crimes, after all.

Enhanced cognition might work up to a point in some cases: certain drugs really do help dispel fatigue or anxiety and sharpen concentration in the short term. But the really interesting possibility for us is that drug use might allow different kinds of cognition and knowledge. I think the evidence on fathoming the secrets of the Universe is rather discouraging. Drugs may often make people feel as if they understand everything, but it never seems to be possible to write the insights down. Where they are written down, they turn out to be like the secret of the cosmos apprehended by Oliver Wendell Holmes under the influence of ether; later he discovered his notes read “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout”.

But perhaps we’re not dealing with that kind of knowledge. Perhaps instead drugs can offer us the kind of ineffable knowledge we get from qualia? Mary the colour scientist is said to know something new once she has seen red for the first time; not something about colour that could have been written down, or ex hypothesi she would have known it already, but what it is like. Perhaps drugs allow us to experience more qualia, or even super qualia; to know what things are like whose existence we should not otherwise have suspected. Terry Pratchett introduced the word ‘knurd’ to describe the state of being below zero on the drunkenness scale; needing a drink to bring you up to the normal mental condition: perhaps philosophical zombies, who experience no qualia, are simply in a similar state with respect to certain drugs.

That seems plausible enough, but it raises the implication that normal qualia are also in fact delusions (not an uncongenial implication for some). For drugs there is a wider problem of non-veridicality. We know that drugs can cause hallucinations, and as mentioned above, can impart feelings of understanding without the substance. What if it’s all like that? What if drug experiences are systematically false? What if we don’t really have any new knowledge or any new experiences on drugs, we just feel as if we have? For that matter, what about pleasure? What if drugs give us a false memory of having had a good time – or what if they make us think we’re having a good time now although in reality we’re not enjoying it at all? You may well feel that last one is impossible, but it doesn’t pay to underestimate the tricksiness of the mind.

Well, many people would say that the feeling of having had a good time is itself worth having, even if the factual element of the feeling is false. So perhaps in the same way we can say that even if qualia are delusions, they’re valuable ones. Perhaps the exalted places to which drugs take us are imaginary; but just because somewhere doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worth going there. For myself I generally prefer the truth (no argument for that, just a preference) and I think I generally get it most reliably when sober and undrugged.

Hancock, at any rate, has another kind of knowledge in mind. He suggests that the brain may turn out to be, not a generator of consciousness but rather a receiver, tuned in to the psychic waves where, I assume, our spiritual existence is sustained. Drugs, he proposes, might possibly allow us to twiddle the knobs on our mental apparatus so as to receive messages from others: different kinds of being or perhaps people in other dimensions. I’m not quite clear where he draws the line between receiving and existing, or whether we should take ourselves to be in the brain or in the spiritual ether. If we’re in the brain, then the signals we’re receiving are a form of outside control which doesn’t sound very nice: but if we’re really in the ether then when the signals from other beings are being received by the brain we ought to lose consciousness, or at least lose control of our bodies, not just pick up a message. No doubt Hancock could clarify, given a chance, but it looks as if there’s a bit of work to be done.

But let’s not worry too much, because the idea of the brain as a mere receiver seems highly dubious.  We know now that very detailed neuronal activity is associated with very specific mental content, and as time goes on that association becomes ever sharper. This means that if the brain is a receiver the signals it receives must be capable of influencing a vast collection of close-packed neurons in incredibly exquisite detail. It’s only fair to remember that a neurologist as distinguished as Sir John Eccles, not all that long ago, thought this was exactly what was happening; but to me it seems incompatible with ordinary physics. We can manipulate small areas of the brain from outside with suitable equipment, but dictating its operation at this level of detail, and without any evident physical intervention seems too much. Hancock says the possibility has not been disproved, and for certain standards of proof that’s right; but I reckon by the provisional standards that normally apply for science we can rule out the receiver thesis.

Speaking of manipulating the brain from outside, it seems inevitable to me that within a few years we shall have external electronic means of simulating the effects of certain drugs, or at least of deranging normal mental operation in a diverting and agreeable way. You’ll be able to slip on a helmet, flick a switch, and mess with your mind in all sorts of ways. They might call it e-drugs or something similar, but you’ll no longer need to buy dodgy chemicals at an exorbitant mark-up. What price the war on drugs or on consciousness then?