Posts tagged ‘consciousness’

Maybe hypnosis is the right state of mind and ‘normal’ is really ‘under-hypnotised’?

That’s one idea that does not appear in the comprehensive synthesis of what we know about hypnosis produced by Terhune, Cleeremans, Raz and Lynn. It is a dense, concentrated document, thick with findings and sources, but they have done a remarkably good job of keeping it as readable as possible, and it’s both a useful overview and full of interesting detail. Terhune has picked out some headlines here.

Hypnosis, it seems, has two components; the induction and one or more suggestions. The induction is what we normally think of as the process of hypnotising someone. It’s the bit that in popular culture is achieved by a swinging watch, mystic hand gestures or other theatrical stuff; in common practice probably just a verbal routine. It seems that although further research is needed around optimising the induction, the details are much less important than we might have been led to think, and Terhune et al don’t find it of primary interest. The truth is that hypnosis is more about the suggestibility of the subject than about the effectiveness of the induction. In fact if you want to streamline your view, you could see the induction as simply the first suggestion. Post-hypnotic suggestions, which take effect after the formal hypnosis session has concluded, may be somewhat different and may use different mechanisms from those that serve immediate suggestions, though it seems this has yet to be fully explored.

Broadly, people fall into three groups. 10 to 15 per cent of people are very suggestible, responding strongly to the full range of suggestions; about the same proportion are weakly suggestible and respond to hypnosis poorly or not at all; the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Suggestibility is a fairly fixed characteristic which does not change over time and seems to be heritable; but so far as we know it does not correlate strongly with many other cognitive qualities or personality traits (nor with dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder). It does interestingly resemble the kind of suggestibility seen in the placebo effect – there’s good evidence of hypnosis itself being therapeutically useful for certain conditions – and both may be correlated with empathy.

Terhune et al regard the debate about whether hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness as an unproductive one; but there are certainly some points of interest here when it comes to consciousness. A key feature of hypnosis is the loss of the sense of agency; hypnotised subjects think of their arm moving, not of having moved their arm. Credible current theories attribute this to the suppression of second-order mental states, or of metacognition; amusingly, this ‘cold control theory’ seems to lend some support to the HOT (higher order theory) view of consciousness (alright, please yourselves). Typically in the literature it seems this is discussed as a derangement of the proper sense of agency, but of course elsewhere people have concluded that our sense of agency is a delusion anyway. So perhaps, to repeat my opening suggestion, it’s the hypnotised subjects who have it right, and if we want to understand our own minds properly we should all enter a hypnotic state. Or perhaps that’s too much like noticing that blind people don’t suffer from optical illusions?

There’s a useful distinction here between voluntary control and top-down control. One interesting thing about hypnosis is that it demonstrates the power of top-down control, where beliefs, suggestions, and other high-level states determine basic physiological responses, something we may be inclined to under-rate. But hypnosis also highlights strongly that top-down control does not imply agency; perhaps we sometimes mistake the former for the latter? At any rate it seems to me that some of this research ought to be highly relevant to the analysis of agency, and suggests some potentially interesting avenues.

Another area of interest is surely the ability of hypnosis to affect attention and perception. It had been shown that changes in colour perception induced by hypnosis are registered in the brain differently from mere imagined changes. If we tell someone under hypnosis to see red for green and green for red, does that change the qualia of the experience or not? Do they really see green instead of red, or merely believe that’s what is happening? If anything the facts of hypnosis seem to compound the philosophical problems rather than helping to solve them; nevertheless it does seem to me that quite a lot of the results so handily summarised here should have a bigger impact on current philosophical discussion than they have had to date.

 

What is it like to be a Singularity (or in a Singularity)?

You probably know the idea. At some point in the future, computers become generally cleverer than us. They become able to improve themselves faster than we can do, and an accelerating loop is formed where each improvement speeds up the process of improving, so that they quickly zoom up to incalculable intelligence and speed, in a kind of explosion of intellectual growth. That’s the Singularity. Some people think that we mere humans will at some point have the opportunity of digitising and uploading ourselves, so that we too can grow vastly cleverer and join in the digital world in which these superhuman could scious entities will exist.

Just to clear upfront, I think there are some basic flaws in the plausibility of the story which mean the Singularity is never really going to happen: could never happen, in fact. However, it’s interesting to consider what the experience would be like.

How would we digitise ourselves? One way would be to create a digital model of our actual brain, and run that. We could go the whole hog and put ourselves into a fully simulated world, where we could enjoy sweet dreams forever, but that way we should miss out on the intellectual growth which the Singularity seems to offer, and we should also remain at the mercy of the vast new digital intellects who would be running the show. Generally I think it’s believed that only by joining in the cognitive ascent of these mighty new minds can we assure our own future survival.

In that case, is a brain simulation enough? It would run much faster than a meat brain, a point we’ll come back to, but it would surely suffer some of the limitations that biological brains are heir to. We could perhaps gradually enhance our memory and other faculties and gradually improve things that way, a process which might provide a comforting degree of continuity, but it seems likely that entities based on a biological scheme like this would be second-class citizens within the digital world, falling behind the artificial intellects who endlessly redesign and improve themselves. Could we then preserve our identity while turning fully digital and adopting a radical new architecture?

The subject of what constitutes personal identity, be it memory, certain kinds of continuity, or something else, is too large to explore here, except to note a basic question; can our identity ultimately be boiled down to a set of data? If the answer is yes (I actually believe it’s ‘no’, but today we’ll allow anything) , then one way or another the way is clear for uploading ourselves into an entirely new digital architecture.

The way is also clear for duplicating and splitting ourselves. Using different copies of our data we can become several people and follow different paths. Can we then re-merge? If the data that constitutes us is static, it seems we should be able to recombine it with few issues; if it is partly a description of a dynamic process we might not be able to do the merger on the fly, and might have to form a third, merged individual. Would we terminate the two contributing selves? Would we worry less about ‘death’ in such cases? If you know your data can always be brought back into action, terminating the processes using that data (for now) might seem less frightening than the irretrievable destruction of your only brain.

This opens up further strange possibilities. At the moment our conscious experience is essentially linear (it’s a bit more complex than that, with layers and threads of attention, but broadly there’s a consistent chronological stream). In the brave new world our consciousness could branch out without limit; or we could have grid experiences, where different loci of consciousness follow crossing paths, merging at each node and the splitting again, before finally reuniting in one node with (very strange) remembered composite experience.

If merging is a possibility, then we should be able to exchange bits of ourselves with other denizens of the digital world, too. When handed a copy of part of someone else we might retain it as exterior data, something we just know about, or incorporate it into a new merged self, whether a successor to ourselves as ourselves, or as a kind of child; if all our data is saved the difference perhaps ceases to be of great significance. Could we exchange data like this with the artificial entities that were never human, or would they be too different?

I’m presupposing here that both the ex-humans and the artificial consciousnesses here remain multiple and distinct. Perhaps there’s an argument for generally merging into one huge consciousness? I think probably not, because it seems to me that multiple loci of consciousness would just get more done in the way of thinking and experiencing. Perhaps when we became sufficiently linked and multi-threaded, with polydimensional multi-member grid consciousnesses binding everything loosely together anyway the question of whether we are one or many – and how many – might not seem important any more.

If we can exchange experiences, does that solve the Hard Problem? We no longer need to worry whether your experience of red is the same as mine, we just swap. Now many people (and I am one) would think that fully digitised entities wouldn’t be having real experiences anyway, so any data exchange they might indulge in would be irrelevant. There are several ways it could be done, of course. It might be a very abstract business or entities of human descent might exchange actual neural data from their old selves. If we use data which, fed into a meat brain, definitely produces proper experience, it perhaps gets a little harder to argue that the exchange is phenomenally empty.

The strange thing is, even if we put all the doubts aside and assume that data exchanges really do transfer subjective experience, the question doesn’t go away. It might be that attachment to a particular node of consciousness conditions the experience so that it is different anyway.

Consider the example of experiences transferred within a single individual, but over time. Let’s think of acquired tastes. When you first tasted beer, it seemed unpleasant; now you like it. Does it taste the same, with you having learnt to like that same taste? Or did it in fact taste different to you back then – more bitter, more sour? I’m not sure it’s possible to answer with great confidence. In the same way, if one node within the realm of the Singularity ‘runs’ another’s experience, it may react differently, and we can’t say for sure whether the phenomenal experience generated is the same or not…

I’m assuming a sort of cyberspace where these digital entities live – but what do they do all day? At one end of the spectrum, they might play video games constantly – rather sadly reproducing the world they left behind. Or at the intellectually pure end, they might devote themselves to the study of maths and philosophy. Perhaps there will be new pursuits that we, in our stupid meaty way, cannot even imagine as yet. But it’s hard not to see a certain tedious emptiness in the pure life of the mind as it would be available to these intellectual giants. They might be tempted to go on playing a role in the real world.

The real world, though, is far too slow. Whatever else they have improved, they will surely have racked up the speed of computation to the point where thousands of years of subjective time take only a few minutes of real world time. The ordinary physical world will seem to have slowed down very close to the point of stopping altogether; the time required to achieve anything much in the real world is going to seem like millions of years.

In fact, that acceleration means that from the point of view of ordinary time, the culture within the Singularity will quickly reach a limit at which everything it could ever have hoped to achieve is done. Whatever projects or research the Singularitarians become interested in will be completed and wrapped up in the blinking of an eye. Unless you think the future course of civilisation is somehow infinite, it will be completed in no time. This might explain the Fermi Paradox, the apparently puzzling absence of advanced alien civilisations: once they invent computing, galactic cultures go into the Singularity, wrap, themselves up in a total intellectual consummation, and within a few days at most, fall silent forever.

Is there a Hard Problem of physics that explains the Hard Problem of consciousness?

Hedda Hassel Mørch has a thoughtful piece in Nautilus’s interesting Consciousness issue (well worth a look generally) that raises this idea. What is the alleged Hard Problem of physics? She say it goes like this…

What is physical matter in and of itself, behind the mathematical structure described by physics?

To cut to the chase, Mørch proposes that things in themselves have a nature not touched by physics, and that nature is consciousness. This explains the original Hard Problem – we, like other things, just are by nature conscious; but because that consciousness is our inward essence rather than one of our physical properties, it is missed out in the scientific account.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the original Hard Problem is about an aspect of the world that physics misses out, but according to me that aspect is just the reality of things. There may not, according to me, be much more that can usefully be said about it. Mørch, I think, takes two wrong turns. The first is to think that there are such things as things in themselves, apart from observable properties. The second is to think that if this were so, it would justify panpsychism, which is where she ends up.

Let’s start by looking at that Hard problem of physics.  Mørch suggests that physics is about the mathematical structure of reality, which is true enough, but the point here is that physics is also about observable properties; it’s nothing if not empirical. If things have a nature in themselves that cannot be detected directly or indirectly from observable properties, physics simply isn’t interested, because those things-in-themselves make no difference to any possible observation. No doubt some physicists would be inclined to denounce such unobservable items as absurd or vacuous, but properly speaking they are just outside the scope of physics, neither to be affirmed nor denied. It follows, I think, that this can’t be a Hard Problem of physics; it’s actually a Hard Problem of metaphysics.

This is awkward because we know that human consciousness does have physical manifestations that are readily amenable to physical investigation; all of our conscious behaviour, our speech and writing, for example. Our new Hard Problem (let’s call it the NHP) can’t help us with those; it is completely irrelevant to our physical behaviour and cannot give us any account of those manifestations of consciousness. That is puzzling and deeply problematic – but only in the same way as the old Hard Problem (OHP) – so perhaps we are on the right track after all?

The problem is that I don’t think the NHP helps us even on a metaphysical level. Since we can’t investigate the essential nature of things empirically, we can only know about it by pure reasoning; and I don’t know of any purely rational laws of metaphysics that tell us about it. Can the inward nature of things change? If so, what are the (pseudo-causal?) laws of intrinsic change that govern that process? If the inward nature doesn’t change, must we take everything to be essentially constant and eternal in itself? That Parmenidean changelessness would be particularly odd in entities we are relying on to explain the fleeting, evanescent business of subjective experience.

Of course Mørch and others who make a similar case don’t claim to present a set of a priori conclusions about their own nature; rather they suggest that the way we know about the essence of things is through direct experience. The inner nature of things is unknowable except in that one case where the thing whose inner nature is to be known is us. We know our own nature, at least. It’s intuitively appealing – but how do we know our own real nature? Why should being a thing bring knowledge of that thing? Just because we have an essential nature here’s no reason to suppose we are acquainted with that inner nature; again we seem to need some hefty metaphysics to explain this, which is actually lacking. All the other examples of knowledge I can think of are constructed, won through experience, not inherent. If we have to invent a new kind of knowledge to support the theory the foundations may be weak.

At the end of the day, the simplest and most parsimonious view, I think, is to say that things just are made up of their properties, with no essential nub besides. Leibniz’s Law tells us that that’s the nature of identity. To be sure, the list will include abstract properties as well as purely physical ones, but abstract properties that are amenable to empirical test, not ones that stand apart from any possible observation. Mørch disagrees:

Some have argued that there is nothing more to particles than their relations, but  intuition rebels at this claim. For there to be a relation, there must be two things being related. Otherwise, the relation is empty—a show that goes on without performers, or a castle constructed out of thin air.

I think the argument is rather that the properties of a particle relate to each other, while these groups of related properties relate in turn to other such groups. Groups don’t require a definitive member, and particles don’t require a single definitive essence. Indeed, since the particle’s essential self cannot determine any of its properties (or it could be brought within the pale of physics) it’s hard to see how it can have a defined relation to any of them and what role the particle-in-itself can play in Mørch’s relational show.

The second point where I think Mørch goes wrong is in the leap to panpsychism. The argument seems to be that the NHP requires non-structural stuff (which she likens to the hardware on which the software of the laws of physics runs – though I myself wouldn’t buy unstructured hardware); the OHP gives us the non-structural essence of conscious experience (of course conscious experience does have structure, but Mørch takes it that down there somewhere is the structureless ineffable something-it-is-like); why not assume that the latter is universal and fills the gap exposed by the NHP?

Well, because other matter exhibits no signs of consciousness, and because the fact that our essence is a conscious essence just wouldn’t warrant the assumption that all essences are conscious ones. Wouldn’t it be simpler to think that only the essences of outwardly conscious beings are conscious essences? This is quite apart from the many problems of panpsychism, which we’ve discussed before, and which Mørch fairly acknowledges.

So I’m not convinced, but the case is a bold and stimulating one and more persuasively argued than it may seem from my account. I applaud the aims and spirit of the expedition even though I may regret the direction it took.

Does recent research into autism suggest real differences between male and female handling of consciousness?

Traditionally, autism has been regarded as an overwhelmingly male condition. Recently, though it has been suggested that the gender gap is not as great as it seems; it’s just that most women with autism go undiagnosed. How can that be? It is hypothesised that some sufferers are able to ‘camouflage’ the symptoms of their autism, and that this suppression of symptoms is particularly prevalent among women.

‘Camouflaging’ means learning normal social behaviours such as giving others appropriate eye contact, interpreting and using appropriate facial expressions, and so on. But surely, that’s just what normal people do? If you can learn these behaviours, doesn’t that mean you’re not autistic any more?
There’s a subtle distinction here between doing what comes naturally and doing what you’ve learned to do. Camouflaging, on this view, requires significant intellectual resources and continuous effort, so that while camouflaged sufferers may lead apparently normal lives, they are likely to suffer other symptoms arising from the sheer mental effort they have to put in – fatigue, depression, and so on.

Measuring the level of camouflaging – which is obviously intended to be undetectable – obviously raises some methodological challenges. Now a study reported in the invaluable BPS Research Digest claims to have pulled it off. The research team used scanning and other approaches, but their main tool was to contrast two different well-established methods of assessing autism – the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule on the one hand and the Autism Spectrum Quotient on the other. While the former assesses ‘external’ qualities such as behaviour, the latter measures ‘internal’ ones. Putting it crudely, they measure what you actually do and what you’d like to do respectively. The ratio between the two scores yields a measure of how much camouflaging is going on, and in brief the results confirm that camouflaging is present to a far greater degree in women. I think in fact it’s possible the results are understated; all of the subjects were people who had already been diagnosed with autism; that criterion may have selected women who were atypically low in the level of camouflaging, precisely because women who do a lot of camouflaging would be more likely to escape diagnosis.

The research is obviously welcome because it might help improve diagnosis rates for women, but also because a more equal rate of autism for men and women perhaps helps to dispel the idea, formerly popular but (to me at least) rather unpalatable, that autism is really little more than typical male behaviour exaggerated to unacceptable levels.

It does not eliminate the tricky gender issues, though. One thing that surely needs to be taken into account is the possibility that accommodating social pressures is something women do more of anyway. It is plausible (isn’t it?) that even among typical average people, women devote more effort to social signals, listening and responding, laughing politely at jokes, and so on. It might be that there is a base level of activity among women devoted to ‘camouflaging’ normal irritation, impatience, and boredom which is largely absent in men, a baseline against which the findings for people with autism should properly be assessed. It might have been interesting to test a selection of non-autistic people, if that makes sense in terms of the tests. How far the general underlying difference, if it exists, might be due to genetics, socialisation, or other factors is a thorny question.

At any rate, it seems to me inescapable that what the study is really attempting to do with its distinction between outward behaviour and inward states, is to measure the difference between unconscious and conscious control of behaviour. That subtle distinction, mentioned above, between natural and learned behaviour is really the distinction between things you don’t have to think about, and things that require constant, conscious attention. Perhaps we might draw a parallel of sorts with other kinds of automatic behaviour. Normally, a lot of things we do, such as walking, require no particular thought. All that stuff, once learned, is taken care of by the cerebellum and the cortex need not be troubled (disclaimer: I am not a neurologist). But people who have their cerebellum completely removed can apparently continue to function: they just have to think about every step all the time, which imposes considerable strain after a while. However, there’s no special organ analogous to the cerebellum that records our social routines, and so far as I know it’s not clear whether the blend of instinct and learning is similar either.

In one respect the study might be thought to open up a promising avenue for new therapeutic approaches. If women can, to a great extent, learn to compensate consciously for autism, and if that ability is to a great extent a result of social conditioning, then in principle one option would be to help male autism sufferers achieve the same thing through applying similar socialisation. Although camouflaging evidently has its downsides, it might still be a trick worth learning. I doubt if it is as simple as that, though; an awful lot of regimes have been tried out on male sufferers and to date I don’t believe the levels of success have been that great; on the other hand it may be that pervasive, ubiquitous social pressure is different in kind from training or special regimes and not so easily deployed therapeutically. The only way might be to bring up autistic boys as girls…

If we take the other view, that women’s ability or predisposition to camouflage is not the result of social conditioning, then we might be inclined to look for genuine ‘hard-wired’ differences in the operation of male and female consciousness. One route to take from there would be to relate the difference to the suggested ability of women (already a cornerstone of gender-related folk psychology) to multi-task more effectively, dividing conscious attention without significant loss to the efficiency of each thread. Certainly one would suppose that having to pay constant attention to detailed social cues would have an impact on the ability to pay attention to other things, but so far as I know there is no evidence that women with camouflaged autism are any worse at paying attention generally than anyone else. Perhaps this is a particular skill of the female mind, while if men pay that much attention to social cues, their ability to listen to what is actually being said is sensibly degraded?

The speculative ice out here is getting thinner than I like, so I’ll leave it there; but in all seriousness, any study that takes us forward in this area, as this one seems to do, must be very warmly welcomed.

A somewhat enigmatic report in the Daily Telegraph says that this problem has been devised by Roger Penrose, who says that chess programs can’t solve it but humans can get a draw or even a win.

I’m not a chess buff, but it looks trivial. Although Black has an immensely powerful collection of pieces, they are all completed bottled up and immobile, apart from three bishops. Since these are all on white squares, the White king is completely safe from them if he stays on black squares. Since the white pawns fencing in Black’s pieces are all on black squares, the bishops can’t do anything about them either. It looks like a drawn position already, in fact.

I suppose Penrose believes that chess computers can’t deal with this because it’s a very weird situation which will not be in any of their reference material. If they resort to combinatorial analysis the huge number of moves available to the bishops is supposed to render the problem intractable, while the computer cannot see the obvious consequences of the position the way a human can.

I don’t know whether it’s true that all chess programs are essentially that stupid, but it is meant to buttress Penrose’s case that computers lack some quality of insight or understanding that is an essential property of human consciousness.

This is all apparently connected with the launch of a new Penrose Institute, whose website is here, but appears to be incomplete. No doubt we’ll hear more soon.

Give up on real comprehension, says Daniel Dennett in From Bacteria to Bach and Back: commendably honest but a little discouraging to the reader? I imagine it set out like the warning above the gates of Hell: ‘Give up on comprehension, you who turn these pages’.  You might have to settle for acquiring some competences.

What have we got here? In this book, Dennett is revisiting themes he developed earlier in his career, retelling the grand story of the evolution of minds. We should not expect big new ideas or major changes of heart ( but see last week’s post for one important one). It would have been good at this stage to have a distillation; a perfect, slim little volume presenting a final crystalline formulation of what Dennett is all about. This isn’t that. It’s more like a sprawling Greatest Hits album. In there somewhere are the old favourites that will always have the fans stomping and shouting (there’s some huffing and puffing from Dennett about how we should watch out because he’s coming for our deepest intuitions with scary tools that may make us flinch, but honestly by now this stuff is about as shocking and countercultural as your dad’s Heavy Metal collection); but we’ve also got unnecessary cover versions of ideas by other people, some stuff that was never really a hit in the first place, and unfortunately one or two bum notes here and there.

And, oh dear, another attempt to smear Descartes by association. First Dennett energetically promoted the phrase “Cartesian theatre” – so hard some people suppose that it actually comes from Descartes; now we have ‘Cartesian gravity’, more or less a boo-word for any vaguely dualistic tendency Dennett doesn’t like. This is surely not good intellectual manners; it wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that Descartes actually had a theory of gravity, so that the phrase already has a meaning. Should a responsible professor be spreading new-minted misapprehensions like this? Any meme will do?

There’s a lot about evolution here that rather left me cold (but then I really, really don’t need it explained again, thanks); I don’t think Dennett’s particular gift is for popularising other people’s ideas and his take seems a bit dated. I suspect that most intelligent readers of the book will already know most of this stuff and maybe more, since they will probably have kept up with epigenetics and the various proposals for extension of the modern synthesis that have emerged in the current century, (and the fascinating story of viral intervention in human DNA, surely a natural for anyone who likes the analogy of the selfish gene?) none of which gets any recognition here (I suppose in fairness this is not intended to be full of new stuff). Instead we hear again the tired and in my opinion profoundly unconvincing story about how leaping (‘stotting’) gazelles are employing a convoluted strategy of wasting valuable energy as a lion-directed display of fitness. It’s just an evasive manoeuvre, get over it.

For me it’s the most Dennettian bits of the book that are the best, unsurprisingly. The central theme that competence precedes, and may replace, comprehension is actually well developed. Dennett claims that evolution and computation both provide ‘inversions’ in which intentionless performance can give the appearance of intentional behaviour. He has been accused of equivocating over the reality of intentionality, consciousness and other concepts, but I like his attitude over this and his defence of the reality of ‘free-floating rationales’ seems good to me. It gives us permission to discuss the ‘purposes’ of things without presupposing an intelligent designer whose purposes they are, and I’m completely with Dennett when he argues that this is both necessary and acceptable. I’ve suggested elsewhere that talking about ‘the point’ of things, and in a related sense, what they point to, is a handy way of doing this. The problem for Dennett, if there is one, is that it’s not enough for competence to replace comprehension often; he needs it to happen every time by some means.

Dennett sets out a theoretical space with ‘bottom-up vs top-down’, ‘random vs directed search’, and ‘comprehension’ as its axes; at one corner of the resulting cube we have intentionless structures like a termite colony; at the other we have fully intentional design like Gaudi’s church of the Sagrada Familia, which to Dennett’s eye resembles a termite colony. Gaudi’s perhaps not the ideal choice here, given his enthusiasm for natural forms; it makes Dennett seem curiously impressed by the underwhelming fact that buildings by an architect who borrowed forms from the natural world turn out to have forms resembling those found in nature.

Still, the space suggests a real contrast between the mindless processes of evolution and deliberate design, which at first sight looks refreshingly different and unDennetian. It’s not, of course; Dennett is happy to embrace that difference so long as we recognise that the ‘deliberate design’ is simply a separate evolutionary process powered by memes rather than genes.

I’ve never thought that memes, Richard Dawkins’s proposed cultural analogue of genes, were a particularly helpful addition to Dennett’s theoretical framework, but here he mounts an extended defence of them. One of the worst flaws in the theory as it stands – and there are several – is its confused ontology. What are memes – physical items of culture or abstract ideas? Dennett, as a professional philosopher, seems more sensitive to this problem than some of the more metaphysically naive proponents of the meme. He provides a relatively coherent vision by invoking the idea that memes are ‘tokens’; they may take all sorts of physical forms – written words, pictures, patterns of neuronal firing – but each form is a token of a particular way of behaving. The problem here is that anything at all can serve as a token of any meme; we only know that a given noise or symbol tokens a specific meme because of its meaning. There may be – there certainly are – some selective effects that bite on the actual form of particular tokens. A word that is long or difficult to pronounce is more likely to be forgotten. But the really interesting selections take place at the level of meanings; that requires a much more complex level of explanation. There may still be mechanisms involved that are broadly selective if not exactly Darwinian – I think there are – but I believe any move up to this proper level of complexity inevitably edges the simplistic concept of the meme out of play.

The original Dawkinsian observation that the development of cultural items sometimes resembles evolution was sound, but it implicitly called for the development of a general theory which in spite of some respectable attempts, has simply failed to appear. Instead, the supporters of memetics, perhaps trapped by the insistent drumbeat of the Dawkinsian circus, have tended to insist instead that it’s all Darwinian natural selection. How a genetic theory can be Darwinian when Darwin never heard of genes is just one of the lesser mysteries here (should we call it ‘Mendelian’ instead? But Darwin’s name is the hooray word here just as Descartes’ is the cue for boos). Among the many ways in which cultural selection does not resemble biological evolution, Dennett notes the cogent objection that there is nothing that corresponds to DNA; no general encoding of culture on which selection can operate. One of the worst “bum notes” in the book is Dennett’s strange suggestion that HTML might come to be our cultural DNA. This is, shall we say, an egregious misconception of the scope of text mark-up language.

Anyway, it’s consciousness we’re interested in (check out Tom Clark’s thoughtful take here) and the intentional stance is the number the fans have been waiting for; cunningly kept till last by Dennett. When we get there, though, we get a remix instead of the classic track. Here he has a new metaphor, cunningly calculated to appeal to the youth of today; it’s all about apps. Our impression of consciousness is a user illusion created by our gift for language; it’s like the icons that activate the stuff on your phone. You may object that a user illusion already requires a user, but hang on. Your ability to talk about yourself is initially useful for other people, telling them useful stuff about your internal states and competences, but once the system is operating, you can read it too. It seems plausible to me that something like that is indeed an important part of the process of consciousness, though in this version I felt I had rather lost track of what was illusory about it.

Dennett moves on to a new attack on qualia. This time he offers an explanation of why people think they occur – it’s because of the way we project our impressions back out into the world, where they may seem unaccountable. He demonstrates the redundancy of the idea by helpfully sketching out how we could run up a theory of qualia and noting how pointless they are. I was nodding along with this. He suggests that qualia and our own sense of being the intelligent designers in our own heads are the same kind of delusion, simply applied externally or internally. I suppose that’s where the illusion is.

He goes on to defend a sort of compatibilist view of free will and responsibility; another example of what Descartes might be tempted to label Dennettian Equivocation, but as before, I like that posture and I’m with him all the way. He continues with a dismissal of mysterianism, leaning rather more than I think is necessary on the interesting concept of joint understanding, where no one person gets it all perfectly, but nothing remains to be explained, and takes a relatively sceptical view of the practical prospects for artificial general intelligence, even given recent advances in machine learning. Does Google Translate display understanding (in some appropriate sense); no, or rather, not yet. This is not Dennett as we remember him; he speaks disparagingly of the cheerleaders for AI and says that “some of us” always discounted the hype. Hmm. Daniel Dennett, long-time AI sceptic?

What’s the verdict then? Some good stuff in here, but as always true fans will favour the classic album; if you want Dennett at his best the aficionado will still tell you to buy Consciousness Explained.

 

 

A blast of old-fashioned optimism from Owen Holland: let’s just build a conscious robot!

It’s a short video so Holland doesn’t get much chance to back up his prediction that if you’re under thirty you will meet a conscious robot. He voices feelings which I suspect are common on the engineering and robotics side of the house, if not usually expressed so clearly: why don’t we just get on and put a machine together to do this? Philosophy, psychology, all that airy fairy stuff is getting us nowhere; we’ll learn more from a bad robot than twenty papers on qualia.

His basic idea is that we’re essentially dealing with an internal model of the world. We can now put together robots with an increasingly good internal modelling capability (and we can peek into those models); why not do that and then add new faculties and incremental improvements till we get somewhere?

Yeah, but. The history of AI is littered with projects that started like this and ran into the sand. In particular the idea that it’s all about an internal model may be a radical mis-simplification. We don’t just picture ourselves in the world, we picture ourselves picturing ourselves. We can spend time thinking just about the concept of consciousness – how would that appear in a model? In general our conscious experience is complex and elusive, and cannot accurately be put on a screen or described on a page (though generations of novelists have tried everything they can think of).

The danger when we start building is that the first step is wrong and already commits us to a wrong path. Maybe adding new abilities won’t help. Perhaps our ability to model the world is just one aspect of a deeper and more general faculty that we haven’t really grasped yet; building in a fixed spatial modeller might turn us away from that right at the off. Instead of moving incrementally towards consciousness we might end up going nowhere (although there should be some pretty cool robots along the way).

Still, without some optimism we’ll certainly get nowhere anyway.

You can’t build experience out of mere information. Not, at any rate, the way the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) seeks to do it. So says Garrett Mindt in a forthcoming paper for the JCS.

‘Information’ is notoriously a slippery term, and much depends on how you’re using it. Commonly people distinguish the everyday meaning, which makes information a matter of meaning or semantics, and the sense defined by Shannon, which is statistical and excludes meaning, but is rigorous and tractable.

It is a fairly common sceptical claim that you cannot get consciousness, or anything like intentionality or meaning, out of Shannon-style information. Mindt describes in his paper a couple of views that attack IIT on similar grounds. One is by Cerullo, who says:

‘Only by including syntactic, and most importantly semantic, concepts can a theory of information hope to model the causal properties of the brain…’

The other is by Searle, who argues that information, correctly understood, is observer dependent. The fact that this post, for example, contains information depends on conscious entities interpreting it as such, or it would be mere digital noise. Since information, defined this way, requires consciousness, any attempt to derive consciousness from it must be circular.

Although Mindt is ultimately rather sympathetic to both these cases, he says they fail because they assume that IIT is working with a Shannonian conception of information: but that’s not right. In fact IIT invokes a distinct causal conception of information as being ‘a difference that makes a difference’. A system conveys information, in this sense, if it can induce a change in the state of another system. Mindt likens this to the concept of information introduced by Bateson.

Mindt makes the interesting point that Searle and others tend to carve the problem up by separating syntax from semantics; but it’s not clear that semantics is required for hard-problem style conscious experience (in fact I think the question of what, if any, connection there is between the two is puzzling and potentially quite interesting). Better to use the distinction favoured by Tononi in the context of IIT, between extrinsic information – which covers both syntax and semantics – and intrinsic, which covers structure, dynamics, and phenomenal aspects.

Still, Mindt finds IIT vulnerable to a slightly different attack. Even with the clarifications he has made, the theory remains one of structure and dynamics, and physicalist structure and dynamics just don’t look like the sort of thing that could ever account for the phenomenal qualities of experience. There is no theoretical bridge arising from IIT that could take us across the explanatory gap.

I think the case is well made, although unfortunately it may be a case for despair. If this objection stands for IIT then it most likely stands for all physicalist theories. This is a little depressing because on one point of view, non-physicalist theories look unattractive. From that perspective, coming up with a physical explanation of phenomenal experience is exactly the point of the whole enquiry; if no such explanation is possible, no decent answer can ever be given.

It might still be the case that IIT is the best theory of its kind, and that it is capable of explaining many aspects of consciousness. We might even hope to squeeze the essential Hard Problem to one side. What if IIT could never explain why the integration of information gives rise to experience, but could explain everything, or most things, about the character of experience? Might we not then come to regard the Hard Problem as one of those knotty tangles that philosophers can mull over indefinitely, while the rest of us put together a perfectly good practical understanding of how mind and brain work?

I don’t know what Mindt would think about that, but he rounds out his case by addressing one claimed prediction of IIT; namely that if a large information complex is split, the attendant consciousness will also divide. This looks like what we might see in split-brain cases, although so far as I can see, nobody knows whether split-brain patients have two separate sets of phenomenal experiences, and I’m not sure there’s any way of testing the matter. Mindt points out that the prediction is really a matter of  ‘Easy Problem’ issues and doesn’t help otherwise: it’s also not an especially impressive prediction, as many other possible theories would predict the same thing.

Mindt’s prescription is that we should go back and have another try at that definition of information; without attempting to do that he smiles on dual aspect theories. I’m afraid I am left scowling at all of them; as always in this field the arguments against any idea seem so much better than the ones for.

 

Emotions like fear are not something inherited from our unconscious animal past. Instead they arise from the higher-order aspects that make human thought conscious. That (if I’ve got it right) is the gist of an interesting paper by LeDoux and Brown.

A mainstream view of fear (the authors discuss fear in particular as a handy example of emotion, on the assumption that similar conclusions apply to other emotions) would make it a matter of the limbic system, notably the amygdala, which is known to be associated with the detection of threats. People whose amygdalas have been destroyed become excessively trusting, for example – although as always things are more complicated than they seem at first and the amygdalas are much more than just the organs of ‘fear and loathing’. LeDoux and Brown would make fear a cortical matter, generated only in the kind of reflective consciousness possessed by human beings.

One immediate objection might be that this seems to confine fear to human beings, whereas it seems pretty obvious that animals experience fear too. It depends, though, what we mean by ‘fear’. LeDoux and Brown would not deny that animals exhibit aversive behaviour, that they run away or emit terrified noises; what they are after is the actual feeling of fear. LeDoux and Brown situate their concept of fear in the context of philosophical discussion about phenomenal experience, which makes sense but threatens to open up a larger can of worms – nothing about phenomenal experience, including its bare existence, is altogether uncontroversial. Luckily I think that for the current purposes the deeper issues can be put to one side; whether or not fear is a matter of ineffable qualia we can probably agree that humanly conscious fear is a distinct thing. At the risk of begging the question a bit we might say that if you don’t know you’re afraid, you’re not feeling the kind of fear LeDoux and Brown want to talk about.

On a traditional view, again, fear might play a direct causal role in behaviour. We detect a threat, that causes the feeling of fear, and the feeling causes us to run away. For LeDoux and Brown, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, while the threat causes the running away, that process does not in itself generate the feeling of fear. Those sub-cortical processes, along with other signals, feed into a separate conscious process, and it’s that that generates the feeling.

Another immediate objection therefore might be that the authors have made fear an epiphenomenon; it doesn’t do anything. Some, of course, might embrace the idea that all conscious experience is epiphenomenal; a by-product whose influence on behaviour is illusory. Most people, though, would find it puzzling that the brain should go to the trouble of generating experiences that never affect behaviour and so contribute nothing to survival.

The answer here, I think, comes from the authors’ view of consciousness. They embrace a higher-order theory (HOT). HOTs (there are a number of variations) say that a mental state is conscious if there is another mental state in the same mind which is about it – a Higher Order Representation (HOR); or to put it another way, being conscious is being aware that you’re aware. If that is correct, then fear is a natural result of the application of conscious processes to certain situations, not a peculiar side-effect.

HOTs have been around for a long time: they would always get a mention in any round-up of the contenders for an explanation of consciousness, but somehow it seems to me they have never generated the little bursts of excitement and interest that other theories have enjoyed. LeDoux and Brown suggest that other theories of emotion and consciousness either are ‘first -order’ theories explicitly, or can be construed as such. They defend the HOT concept against one of the leading objections, which is that it seems to be possible to have HORs of non-existent states of awareness. In Charles Bonnet, syndrome, for example, people who are in fact blind have vivid and complex visual hallucinations. To deal with this, the authors propose to climb one order higher; the conscious awareness, they suggest, comes not from the HOR of a visual experience but from the HOR of a HOR: a HOROR, in fact. There clearly is no theoretical limit to the number of orders we can rise to, and there’s some discussion here about when and whether we should call the process introspection.

I’m not convinced by HOTs myself. The authors suggest that single-order theory implies there can be conscious states of which we are not aware, which seems sort of weird: you can feel fear and not know you’re feeling fear? I think there’s a danger here of equivocating between two senses of ‘aware’. Conscious states are states of awareness, but not necessarily states we are aware of; something is in awareness if we are conscious; but that’s not to say that the something includes our awareness itself. I would argue, contrarily, that there must be states of awareness with no HOR; otherwise, what about the HOR itself? If HORs are states of awareness themselves, each must have its own HOR, and so on indefinitely. If they’re not, I don’t see how the existence of an inert representation can endow the first-order state with the magic of consciousness.

My intuitive unease goes a bit wider than that, too. The authors have given a credible account of a likely process, but on this account fear looks very like other conscious states. What makes it different – what makes it actually fearful? It seems possible to imagine that I might perform the animal aversive behaviour, experience a conscious awareness of the threat and enter an appropriate conscious state without actually feeling fear. I have no doubt more could be said here to make the account more plausible and in fairness LeDoux and Brown could well reply that nobody has a knock-down account of phenomenal experience, with their version offering a lot more than some.

In fact, even though I don’t sign up for a HOT I can actually muster a pretty good degree of agreement nonetheless. Nobody, after all, believes that higher order mental states don’t exist (we could hardly be discussing this subject if they didn’t). In fact, although I think consciousness doesn’t require HORs, I think they are characteristic of its normal operation and in fact ordinary consciousness is a complex meld of states of awareness at several different levels. If we define fear the way LeDoux and Brown do, I can agree that they have given a highly plausible account of how it works without having to give up my belief that simple first-order consciousness is also a thing.

 

Scott Bakker’s alien consciousnesses are back, and this time it’s peer-reviewed.  We talked about their earlier appearance in the Three Pound Brain a while ago, and now a paper in the JCS sets out a new version.

The new paper foregrounds the idea of using hypothetical aliens as a forensic tool for going after the truth about our own minds; perhaps we might call it xenophenomenology. That opens up a large speculative space, though it’s one which is largely closed down again here by the accompanying assumption that our aliens are humanoid, the product of convergent evolution. In fact, they are now called Convergians, instead of the Thespians of the earlier version.

In a way, this is a shame. On the one hand, one can argue that to do xenophenomenology properly is impractical; it involves consideration of every conceivable form of intelligence, which in turn requires an heroic if not god-like imaginative power which few can aspire to (and which would leave the rest of us struggling to comprehend the titanic ontologies involved anyway). But if we could show that any possible mind would have to be x, we should have a pretty strong case for xism about human beings. In the present case not much is said about the detailed nature of the Convergian convergence, and we’re pretty much left to assume that they are the same as us in every important respect. This means there can be no final reveal in which – aha! – it turns out that all this is true of humans too! Instead it’s pretty clear that we’re effectively talking about humans all along.

Of course, there’s not much doubt about the conclusion we’re heading to here, either: in effect the Blind Brain Theory (BBT). Scott argues that as products of evolution our minds are designed to deliver survival in the most efficient way possible. As a result they make do with a mere trickle of data and apply cunning heuristics that provide a model of the world which is quick and practical but misleading in certain important respects. In particular, our minds are unsuited to metacognition – thinking about thinking – and when we do apply our minds to themselves the darkness of those old heuristics breeds monsters: our sense of our selves as real, conscious agents and the hard problems of consciousness.

This seems to put Scott in a particular bind so far as xenophenomenology is concerned. The xenophenomenological strategy requires us to consider objectively what alien minds might be like; but Scott’s theory tells us we are radically incapable of doing so. If we are presented with any intelligent being, on his view those same old heuristics will kick in and tell us that the aliens are people who think much like us. This means his conclusion that Convergians would surely suffer the same mental limitations as us appears as merely another product of faulty heuristics, and the assumed truth of his conclusion undercuts the value of his evidence.

Are those heuristics really that dominant? It is undoubtedly true that through evolution the brains of mammals and other creatures took some short cuts, and quite a few survive into human cognition, including some we’re not generally aware of. That seems to short-change the human mind a bit though; in a way the whole point of it is that it isn’t the prisoner of instinct and habit. When evolution came up with the human brain, it took a sort of gamble; instead of equipping it with good fixed routines, it set it free to come up with new ones, and even over-ride old instincts. That gamble paid off, of course, and it leaves us uniquely able to identify and overcome our own limitations.

If it were true that our view of human conscious identity were built in by the quirks of our heuristics, surely those views would be universal, but they don’t seem to be. Scott suggests that, for example, the two realms of sky and earth naturally give rise to a sort of dualism, and the lack of visible detail in the distant heavens predisposes Convergians (or us) to see it as pure and spiritual. I don’t know about that as a generalisation across human cultures (didn’t the Greeks, for one thing, have three main realms, with the sea as the third?). More to the point, it’s not clear to me that modern western ways of framing the problems of the human mind are universal. Ancient Egyptians divided personhood into several souls, not just one. I’ve been told that in Hindu thought the question of dualism simply never arises. In Shinto the line between the living and the material is not drawn in quite the Western way. In Buddhism human consciousness and personhood have been taken to be illusions for many centuries. Even in the West, I don’t think the concept of consciousness as we now debate it goes back very far at all – probably no earlier than the nineteenth century, with a real boost in the mid-twentieth (in Italian and French I believe one word has to do duty for both ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’, although we mustn’t read too much into that). If our heuristics condemn us to seeing our own conscious existence in a particular way, I wouldn’t have expected that much variation.

Of course there’s a difference between what vividly seems true and what careful science tells us is true; indeed if the latter didn’t reveal the limitations of our original ideas this whole discussion would be impossible. I don’t think Scott would disagree about that; and his claim that our cognitive limitations have influenced the way we understand things is entirely plausible. The question is whether that’s all there is to the problems of consciousness.

As Scott mentions here, we don’t just suffer misleading perceptions when thinking of ourselves; we also have dodgy and approximate impressions of physics. But those misperceptions were not Hard problems; no-one had ever really doubted that heavier things fell faster, for example. Galileo sorted several of these basic misperceptions out simply by being a better observer than anyone previously, and paying more careful attention. We’ve been paying careful attention to consciousness for some time now, and arguably it just gets worse.

In fairness that might rather short-change Scott’s detailed hypothesising about how the appearance of deep mystery might arise for Convergians; those, I think, are the places where xenophenomenology comes close to fulfilling its potential.