Posts tagged ‘consciousness’

Hugh Howey gives a bold, amusing, and hopelessly optimistic account of how to construct consciousness in Wired. He thinks it wouldn’t be particularly difficult. Now you might think that a man who knows how to create artificial consciousness shouldn’t be writing articles; he should be building the robot mind. Surely that would make his case more powerfully than any amount of prose? But Howey thinks an artificial consciousness would be disastrous. He thinks even the natural kind is an unfortunate burden, something we have to put up with because evolution has yet to find a way of getting the benefits of certain strategies without the downsides. But he doesn’t believe that conscious AI would take over the world, or threaten human survival, so I would still have thought one demonstration piece was worth the effort? Consciousness sucks, but here’s an example just to prove the point?

What is the theory underlying Howey’s confidence? He rests his ideas on Theory of Mind (which he thinks is little discussed); the ability to infer the thoughts and intentions of others. In essence, he thinks that was a really useful capacity for us to acquire, helping us compete in the cut-throat world of human society; but when we turn it on ourselves it disastrously generates wrong results, in particular about our own having of conscious states.

It remains a bit mysterious to me why he thinks a capacity that is so useful applied to others should be so disastrously and comprehensively wrong when applied to ourselves. He mentions priming studies, where our behaviour is actually determined by factors we’re unaware of; priming’s reputation has suffered rather badly recently in the crisis of non-reproducibility, but I wouldn’t have thought even ardent fans of priming would claim our mental content is entirely dictated by priming effects.

Although Dennett doesn’t get a mention, Howey’s ideas seem very Denettian, and I think they suffer from similar difficulties. So our Theory of Mind leads us to attribute conscious thoughts and intentions  to others; but what are we attributing to them? The theory tells us that neither we nor they actually have these conscious contents; all any of us has is self-attributions of conscious contents. So what, we’re attributing to them some self-attributions of self-attributions of…  The theory covertly assumes we already have and understand the very conscious states it is meant to analyse away. Dennett, of course, has some further things to say about this, and he’s not as negative about self-attributions as Howie.

But you know, it’s all pretty implausible intuitively. Suppose I take a mouthful of soft-boiled egg which tastes bad, and I spit it out. According to Howey what went on there is that I noticed myself spitting out the egg and thought to myself: hm, I infer from this behaviour that it’s very probable I just experienced a bad taste, or maybe the egg was too hot, can’t quite tell for sure.

The thing is, there are real conscious states irrespective of my own beliefs about them (which indeed, may be plagued by error). They are characterised by having content and intentionality, but these are things Howie does not believe in, or rather it seems has never thought of; his view that a big bank of indicator lights shows a language capacity suggests he hasn’t gone into this business of meaning and language quite deeply enough.

If he had to build an artificial consciousness, he might set up a community of self-driving cars, let one make inferences about the motives of the others and then apply that capacity to itself. But it would be a stupid thing to do because it would get it wrong all the time; in fact at this point Howie seems to be tending towards a view that all Theory of Mind is fatally error-prone. It would better, he reckons, if all the cars could have access to all of each other’s internal data, just as universal telepathy would be better for us (though in the human case it would be undermined by mind-masking freeloaders.

Would it, though? If the cars really had intentions, their future behaviour would not be readily deducible  simply from reading off all the measurements. You really do have to construct some kind of intentional extrapolation, which is what the Dennettian intentional stance is supposed to do.

I worry just slightly that some of the things Howey says seem to veer close to saying, hey a lot of these systems are sort of aware already; which seems unhelpful. Generally, it’s a vigorous and entertaining exposition, even if, in my view, on the wrong track.

Ned Block has produced a meaty discussion for  The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science on Philosophical Issues About Consciousness.  

There are special difficulties about writing an encyclopedia about these topics because of the lack of consensus. There is substantial disagreement, not only about the answers, but about what the questions are, and even about how to frame and approach the subject of consciousness at all.  It is still possible to soldier on responsibly, like the heroic Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, doing your level best to be comprehensive and balanced. Authors may find themselves describing and critiquing many complex points of view that neither they nor the reader can take seriously for a moment; sometimes possible points of view (relying on fine and esoteric distinctions of a subtlety difficult even for professionals to grasp), that in point of fact no-one, living or dead, has ever espoused. This can get tedious. The other approach, in my mind, is epitomised by the Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard Gregory, whose policy seemed to be to gather as much interesting stuff as possible and worry about how it hung together later, if at all.  If you tried to use the resulting volume as a work of reference you would usually come up with nothing or with a quirky, stimulating take instead of the mainstream summary you really wanted; however, it was a cracking read, full of fascinating passages and endlessly browsable.

Luckily for us, Block’s piece seems to lean towards the second approach; he is mainly telling us what he thinks is true, rather than recounting everything anyone has said, or might have said. You might think, therefore, that he would start off with the useful and much-quoted distinction he himself introduced into the subject: between phenomenal, or p-consciousness, and access, or a-consciousness. Here instead he proposes two basic forms of consciousness: phenomenality and reflexivity. Phenomenality, the feel or subjective aspect of consciousness, is evidently fundamental; reflexivity is reflection on phenomenal experience. While the first seems to be possible without the second – we can have subjective experience without thinking about it, as we might suppose dogs or other animals do – reflexivity seems on this account to require phenomenality.  It doesn’t seem that we could have a conscious creature with no sensory apparatus, that simply sits quietly and – what? Invents set theory, perhaps, or metaphysics (why not?).

Anyway, the Hard Problem according to Block is how to explain a conscious state (especially phenomenality) in terms of neurology. In fact, he says, no-one has offered even a highly speculative answer, and there is some reason to think no satisfactory answer can be given.  He thinks there are broadly four naturalistic ways you can go: eliminativism; philosophical reductionism (or deflationism); phenomenal realism (or inflationism); or  dualistic naturalism.  The third option is the one Block favours. 

He describes inflationism as the belief that consciousness cannot be philosophically reduced. So while a deflationist expects to reduce consciousness to a redundant term with no distinct and useful meaning, an inflationist thinks the concept can’t be done away with. However, an inflationist may well believe that scientific reduction of consciousness is possible. So, for example, science has reduced heat to molecular kinetic energy; but this is an empirical matter; the concept of heat is not abolished. (I’m a bit uncomfortable with this example but you see what he’s getting at). Inflationists might also, like McGinn, think that although empirical reduction is possible, it’s beyond our mental capacities; or they might think it’s altogether impossible, like Searle (is that right or does he think we just haven’t got the reduction yet?).

Block mentions some leading deflationist views such as higher-order theories and representationism, but inflationists will think that all such theories leave out the thing itself, actual phenomenal experience. How would an empirical reduction help? So what if experience Q is neural state X? We’re not looking for an explanation of that identity – there are no explanations of identities – but rather an explanation of how something like Q could be something like X, an explanation that removes the sense of puzzlement. And there, we’re back at square one; nobody has any idea.

 So what do we do? Block thinks there is a way forward if we distinguish carefully between a property and the concept of a property. Different concepts can identify the same property, and this provides a neat analysis of the classic thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist. Mary knows everything science could ever tell her about colour; when she sees red for the first time does she know a new fact – what red is like? No; on this analysis she gains a new concept of a property she was already familiar with through other, scientific concepts. Thus we can exchange a dualism of properties for a dualism of concepts. That may be less troubling – a proliferation of concepts doesn’t seem so problematic – but I’m not sure it’s altogether trouble-free; for one thing it requires phenomenal concepts which seem themselves to need some demystifying explanation. In general though, I like what I take to be Block’s overall outlook; that reductions can be too greedy and that the world actually retains a certain unavoidable conceptual, perhaps ontological, complexity.
Moving off on a different tack, he notes recent successes in identifying neural correlates of experience. There is a problem, however; while we can say that a certain experience corresponds with a certain pattern of neuronal activity, that pattern (so far as we can tell) can recur without the conscious experience. What’s the missing ingredient? As a matter of fact I think it could be almost anything, given the limited knowledge we have of neurological detail: however, Block sees two families of possible explanation. Maybe it’s something like intensity or synchrony; or maybe it’s access (aha!); the way the activity is connected up with other bits of brain that do memory or decision-making; let’s say with the global mental workspace, without necessarily committing to that being a distinct thing.
But these types of explanation embody different theoretical approaches; physicalism and functionalism respectively. The danger is that these may be theories of different kinds of consciousness. Physicalism may be after phenomenal consciousness, the inward experience, whereas functionalism has access consciousness, the sort that is about such things as regulating behaviour, in its sights. It might therefore be that researchers are sometimes talking past each other. Access consciousness is not reflexivity, by the way, although reflexivity might be seen as a special kind of access. Block counts phenomenality, reflexivity, and access as three distinct concepts.
Of course, either kind of explanation – physicalist or functionalist – implies that there’s something more going on than just plain neural correlates, so in a sense whichever way you go the real drama is still offstage. My instincts tell me that Block is doing things backwards; he should have started with access consciousness and worked towards the phenomenal. But as I say it is a meaty entry for an encyclopaedia, one I haven’t nearly done justice to; see what you make of it.

 

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Where is consciousness? It’s out there, apparently, not in here. There has been an interesting dialogue series going on between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks in the NYRB (thanks to Tom Clark for drawing my attention to it) The separate articles are not particularly helpfully laid out or linked to each other: the series is

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/11/21/challenge-of-defining-consciousness/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/12/08/color-of-consciousness/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/12/30/consciousness-does-information-smell/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/01/26/consciousness-the-ice-cream-problem/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/02/22/consciousness-am-i-the-apple/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/03/16/consciousness-mind-in-the-whirlwind/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/04/20/consciousness-dreaming-outside-our-heads/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/05/11/consciousness-the-body-and-us/
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/06/17/consciousness-whos-at-the-wheel/

We discussed Manzotti’s views back in 2006, when with Honderich and Tonneau he represented a new wave of externalism. His version seemed to me perhaps the clearest and most attractive back then (though I think he’s mistaken). He continues to put some good arguments.

In the first part, Manzotti says consciousness is awareness, experience. It is somewhat mysterious – we mustn’t take for granted any view about a movie playing in our head or the like – and it doesn’t feature in the scientific account. All the events and processes described by science could, it seems, go on without conscious experience occurring.

He is scathing, however, about the view that consciousness is therefore special (surely something that science doesn’t account for can reasonably be seen as special?), and he suggests the word “mental” is a kind of conceptual dustbin for anything we can’t accommodate otherwise. He and Parks describe the majority of views as internalist, dedicated to the view that one way or another neural activity just is consciousness. Many neural correlates of consciousness have been spotted, says Manzotti, but correlates ain’t the thing itself.

In the second part he tackles colour, one of the strongest cards in the internalist hand. It looks to us as if things just have colour as a simple property, but in fact the science of colour tells us it’s very far from being that simple. For one thing how we perceive a colour depends strongly on what other colours are adjacent; Manzotti demonstrates this with a graphic where areas with the same RGB values appear either blue or green. Examples like this make it very tempting to conclude that colour is constructed in the brain, but Manzotti boldly suggests that if science and ordinary understanding are at odds, so much the worse for science. Maybe we ought to accept that those colours really are different, and be damned to RGB values.

The third dialogue attacks the metaphor of a computer often applied to the brain, and rejects talk of information processing. Information is not a physical thing, says Manzotti, and to speak of it as though it were a visible fluid passing through the brain risks dualism; something Tononi, with his theory of integrated information, accepts; he agrees that his ideas about information having two aspects point that way.

So what’s a better answer? Manzotti traces externalist ideas back to Aristotle, but focuses on the more ideas of affordances and enactivism. An affordance is roughly a possibility offered to us by an object; a hammer offers us the possibility of hitting nails. This idea of bashing things does not need to be represented in the head, because it is out there in the form of the hammer. Enactivism develops a more general idea of perception as action, but runs into difficulties in some cases such as that of dreams, where we seem to have experience without action; or consider that licking a strawberry or a chocolate ice cream is the same action but yields very different experience.

To set out his own view, Manzotti introduces the ‘metaphysical switchboard’: one switch toggles whether subject and object are separate, the other whether the subject is physical or not. If they’re separate, and we choose to make the subject non-physical, we get something like Cartesian dualism, with all the problems that entails. If we select ‘physical’ then we get the view of modern science; and that too seems to be failing. If subject and object are neither separate nor physical, we get Berkleyan idealism; my perceptions actually constitute reality. The only option that works is to say that subject and object are identical, but physical; so when I see an apple, my experience of it is identical with the apple itself. Parks, rightly I think, says that most people will find this bonkers at first sight. But after all, the apple is the only thing that has apple-like qualities! There’s no appliness in my brain or in my actions.

This raises many problems. My experience of the apple changes according to conditions, yet the apple itself doesn’t change. Oh no? says Manzotti, why not? You’re just clinging to the subject/object distinction; let it go and there’s no problem. OK, but if my experience of the apple is identical with the apple, and so is yours, then our experiences must be identical. In fact, since subject and object are the same, we must also be identical!

The answer here is curious. Manzotti points out that the physical quality of velocity is relative to other things; you may be travelling at one speed relative to me but a different one compared to that train going by. In fact, he says, all physical qualities are relative, so the apple is an apple experience relative to one animal (me) and at the same time relative to another in a different way. I don’t think this ingenious manoeuvre ultimately works; it seems Manzotti is introducing an intermediate entity of the kind he was trying to dispel; we now have an apple-experience relative to me which is different from the one relative to you. What binds these and makes them experiences of the same apple? If we say nothing, we fall back into idealism; if it’s the real physical apple, then we’re more or less back with the traditional framework, just differently labelled.

What about dreams and hallucinations? Manzotti holds that they are always made up out of real things we have previously experienced. Hey, he says, if we just invent things and colour is made in the head, how come we never dream new colours? He argues that there is always an interval between cause and effect when we experience things; given that, why shouldn’t real things from long ago be the causes of dreams?

And the self, that other element in the traditional picture? It’s made up of all the experiences, all the things experienced, that are relative to us; all physical, if a little scattered and dare I say metaphysically unusual; a massive conjunction bound together by… nothing in particular? Of course the body is central, and for certain feelings, or for when we’re in a dark, silent room, it may be especially salient. But it’s not the whole thing, and still less is the brain.

In the latest dialogue, Manzotti and Parks consider free will. For Manzotti, having said that you are the sum of your experiences, it is straightforward to say that your decisions are made by the subset of those experiences that are causally active; nothing that contradicts determinist physics, but a reasonable sense in which we can say your act belonged to you. To me this is a relatively appealing outlook.

Overall? Well, I like the way externalism seeks to get rid of all the problems with mediation that lead many people to think we never experience the world, only our own impressions of it. Manzotti’s version is particularly coherent and intelligible. I’m not sure his clever relativity finally works though. I agree that experience isn’t strictly in the brain, but I don’t think it’s in the apple either; to talk about its physical location is just a mistake. The processes that give rise to experience certainly have a location, but in itself it just doesn’t have that kind of property.

Could the Universe be conscious? This might seem like one of those Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is ‘No’ that so often provide arresting headlines in the popular press. Since the Universe contains everything, what would it be conscious of? What would it think about? Thinking about itself – thinking about any real thing – would be bizarre, analogous to us thinking about the activity of the  neurons that were doing the thinking. But I suppose it could think about imaginary stuff. Perhaps even the cosmos can dream; perhaps it thinks it’s Cleopatra or Napoleon.

Actually, so far as I can see no-one is actually suggesting the Universe as a whole, as an entity, is conscious. Instead this highly original paper by Gregory L. Matloff starts with panpsychism, a belief that there is some sort of universal field of proto-consciousness permeating the cosmos. That is a not unpopular outlook these days. What’s startling is Matloff’s suggestion that some stars might be able to do roughly what our brains are supposed by panpsychists to do; recruit the field and use it to generate their own consciousness, exerting some degree of voluntary control over their own movements.

He relies for evidence on a phenomenon called Parenago’s discontinuity; cooler, less massive stars seem to circle the galaxy a bit faster than the others. Dismissing a couple of rival explanations, he suggests that these cooler stars might be the ones capable of hosting consciousness, and might be capable of shooting jets from their interior in a consistent direction so as to exert an influence over their own motion. This might be a testable hypothesis, bringing panpsychism in from the debatable realms of philosophy to the rigorous science of astrophysics (unkind people might suggest that the latter field is actually about as speculative as the former; I couldn’t possibly comment).

In discussing panpsychism it is good to draw a distinction between types of consciousness. There is a certain practical decision-making capacity in human consciousness that is relatively well rooted in science in several ways. We can see roughly how it emerged from biological evolution and why it is useful, and we have at least some idea of how neurons might do it, together with a lot of evidence that in fact, they do do it.  Then there is the much mistier business of subjective experience, what being conscious is actually like. We know little about that and it raises severe problems. I think it would be true to claim that most panpsychists think the kind of awareness that suffuses the world is of the latter kind; it is a dim general awareness, not a capacity to make snappy decisions. It is, in my view, one of the big disadvantages of panpsychism that it does not help much with explaining the practical, working kind of consciousness and in fact arguably leaves us with more to account for  than we had on our plate to start with.

Anyway, if Matloff’s theory is to be plausible, he needs to explain how stars could possibly build the decision-making kind of consciousness, and how the universal field would help. To his credit he recognises this – stars surely don’t have neurons – and offers at least some hints about how it might work. If I’ve got it right, the suggestion is that the universal field of consciousness might be identified with vacuum fluctuation pressures, which on the one hand might influence the molecules present in regions of the cooler stars under consideration, and on the other have effects within neurons more or less on Penrose/Hameroff lines. This is at best an outline, and raises immediate and difficult questions; why would vacuum fluctuation have anything to do with subjective experience? If a bunch of molecules in cool suns is enough for conscious volition, why doesn’t the sea have a mind of its own? And so on. For me the deadliest questions are the simplest. If cool stars have conscious control of their movements, why are they all using it the same way – to speed up their circulation a bit? You’d think if they were conscious they would be steering around in different ways according to their own choices. Then again, why would they choose to do anything? As animals we need consciousness to help us pursue food, shelter, reproduction, and so on. Why would stars care which way they went?

I want to be fair to Matloff, because we shouldn’t mock ideas merely for being unconventional. But I see one awful possibility looming. His theory somewhat recalls medieval ideas about angels moving the stars in perfect harmony. They acted in a co-ordinated way because although the angels had wills of their own, they subjected them to God’s. Now, why are the cool stars apparently all using their wills in a similarly co-ordinated way? Are they bound together through the vacuum fluctuations; have we finally found out there the physical manifestation of God? Please, please, nobody go in that direction!

Consciousness: it’s all theology in the end. Or philosophy, if the distinction matters. Beyond a certain point it is, at any rate; when we start asking about the nature of consciousness, about what it really is. That, in bald summary, seems to be the view of Robert A. Burton in a resigned Nautilus piece. Burton is a neurologist, and he describes how Wilder Penfield first provided really hard and detailed evidence of close, specific correlations between neural and mental events, by showing that direct stimulation of neurons could evoke all kinds of memories, feelings, and other vivid mental experiences. Yet even Penfield, at the close of his career did not think the mind, the spirit of man, could yet be fully explained by science, or would be any time soon; in the end we each had to adopt personal assumptions or beliefs about that.

That is more or less the conclusion Burton has come to. Of course he understands the great achievements of neuroscience, but in the end the Hard Problem, which he seems to interpret rather widely, defeats analysis and remains a matter for theology or philosophy, in which we merely adopt the outlook most congenial to us. You may feel that’s a little dismissive in relation to both fields, but I suppose we see his point. It will be no surprise that Burton dislikes Dennett’s sceptical outlook and dismissal of religion. He accuses him of falling into a certain circularity: Dennett claims consciousness is an illusion, but illusions, after all, require consciousness.

We can’t, of course, dismiss the issues of consciousness and selfhood as completely irrelevant to normal life; they bear directly on such matters as personal responsibility, moral rights, and who should be kept alive. But I think Burton could well argue that the way we deal with these issues in practice tends to vindicate his outlook; what we often see when these things are debated is a clash between differing sets of assumptions rather than a skilful forensic duel of competing reasoning.

Another line of argument that would tend to support Burton is the one that says worries about consciousness are largely confined to modern Western culture. I don’t know enough for my own opinion to be worth anything, but I’ve been told that in classical Indian and Chinese thought the issue of consciousness just never really arises, although both traditions have long and complex philosophical traditions. Indeed, much the same could be said about Ancient Greek philosophy, I think; there’s a good deal of philosophy of mind, but consciousness as we know it just doesn’t really present itself as a puzzle. Socrates never professed ignorance about what consciousness was.

A common view would be that it’s only after Descartes that the issue as we know it starts to take shape, because of his dualism; a distinction between body and spirit that certainly has its roots in the theological (and philosophical) traditions of Western Christianity. I myself would argue that the modern topic of consciousness didn’t really take shape until Turing raised the real possibility of digital computers; consciousness was recruited to play the role of the thing computers haven’t got, and our views on it have been shaped by that perspective over the last fifty years in particular. I’ve argued before that although Locke gives what might be the first recognisable version of the Hard Problem, with an inverted spectrum thought experiment, he actually doesn’t care about it much and only mentions it as a secondary argument about matters that to him, seemed more important.

I think it is true in some respects that as William James said, consciousness is the last remnant of the vanishing soul. Certainly, when people deny the reality of the self, it often seems to me that their main purpose is to deny the reality of the soul. But I still believe that Burton’s view cedes too much to relativism – as I think Fodor once said, I hate relativism. We got into this business – even the theologians – because we wanted the truth, and we’re not going to be fobbed off with that stuff! Scientists may become impatient when no agreed answer is forthcoming after a couple of centuries, but I cling to the idea that there is a truth if the matter about personhood, freedom, and consciousness. I recognise that there is in this, ironically, a tinge of an act of faith, but I don’t care.

Unfortunately, as always things are probably more complicated than that. Could freedom of the will, say, be a culturally relative matter? All my instincts say no, but if people don’t believe themselves to be free, doesn’t that in fact impose some limits on how free they really are? If I absolutely do not believe I’m able to touch the sacred statue, then although the inability may be purely psychological, couldn’t it be real? It seems there are at least some fuzzy edges. Could I abolish myself by ceasing to believe in my own existence? In a way you could say that is in caricature form what Buddhists believe (though they think that correctly understood, my existence was a delusion anyway). That’s too much for me, and not only because of the sort of circularity mentioned above; I think it’s much too pessimistic to give up on a good objective accounts of agency and selfhood.

There may never be a single clear answer that commands universal agreement on these issues, but then there has never been, and never will be, complete agreement about the correct form of human government; but we have surely come on a bit in the last thousand years. To abandon hope of similar gradual consensual progress on consciousness might be to neglect our civic duty. It follows that by reading and thinking about this, you are performing a humane and important task. Well done!

[Next week I return from a long holiday; I’ll leave you to judge whether I make more or less sense.]

What is the moral significance of consciousness? Jim Davies addressed the question in a short but thoughtful piece recently.

Davies quite rightly points out that although the nature of consciousness is often seen as an academic matter, remote from practical concerns, it actually bears directly on how we treat animals and each other (and of course, robots, an area that was purely theoretical not that long ago, but becomes more urgently practical by the day). In particular, the question of which entities are to be regarded as conscious is potentially decisive in many cases.

There are two main ways my consciousness affects my moral status. First, if I’m not conscious, I can’t be a moral subject, in the sense of being an agent (perhaps I can’t anyway, but if I’m not conscious it really seems I can’t get started). Second, I probably can’t be a moral object either; I don’t have any desires that can be thwarted and since I don’t have any experiences, I can’t suffer or feel pain.

Davies asks whether we need to give plants consideration. They respond to their environment and can suffer damage, but without a nervous system it seems unlikely they feel pain. However, pain is a complex business, with a mix of simple awareness of damage, actual experience of that essential bad thing that is the experiential core of pain, and in humans at least, all sorts of other distress and emotional response. This makes the task of deciding which creatures feel pain rather difficult, and in practice guidelines for animal experimentation rely heavily on the broad guess that the more like humans they are, the more we should worry. If you’re an invertebrate, then with few exceptions you’re probably not going to be treated very tenderly. As we come to understand neurology and related science better, we might have to adjust our thinking. This might let us behave better, but it might also force us to give up certain fields of research which are useful to us.

To illustrate the difference between mere awareness of harm and actual pain, Davies suggests the example of watching our arm being crushed while heavily anaesthetised (I believe there are also drugs that in effect allow you to feel the pain while not caring about it). I think that raises some additional fundamental issues about why we think things are bad. You might indeed sit by and watch while your arm was crushed without feeling pain or perhaps even concern. Perhaps we can imagine that for some reason you’re never going to need your arm again (perhaps now you have a form of high-tech psychokinesis, an ability to move and touch things with your mind that simply outclasses that old-fashioned ‘arm’ business), so you have no regrets or worries. Even so, isn’t there just something bad about watching the destruction of such a complex and well-structured limb?

Take a different example; everyone is dead and no-one is ever coming back, not even any aliens. The only agent left is a robot which feels no pleasure or pain but makes conscious plans; it’s a military robot and it spends its time blowing up fine buildings and destroying works of art, for no particular reason. Its vandalistic rampage doesn’t hurt anyone and cannot have any consequences, but doesn’t its casual destructiveness still seem bad?

I’d like to argue that there is a badness to destruction over and above its consequential impact, but it’s difficult to construct a pure example, and I know many people simply don’t share my intuition. It is admittedly difficult because there’s always the likelihood that one’s intuitions are contaminated by ingrained assumptions about things having utility. I’d like to say there’s a real moral rule that favours more things and more organisation, but without appealing to consequentialist arguments it’s hard for me to do much more than note that in fact moral codes tend to inhibit destruction and favour its opposite.

However, if my gut feeling is right, it’s quite important, because it means the largely utilitarian grounds used for rules about animal research and some human matters, re not quite adequate after all; the fact that some piece of research causes no pain is not necessarily enough to stop its destructive character bring bad.

It’s probably my duty to work on my intuitions and arguments a bit more, but that’s hard to do when you’re sitting in the sun with a beer in the charming streets of old Salamanca…

Where did consciousness come from? A recent piece in New Scientist (paywalled, I’m afraid) reviewed a number of ideas about the evolutionary origin and biological nature of consciousness. The article obligingly offered a set of ten criteria for judging whether an organism is conscious or not…

  • Recognises itself in a mirror
  • Has insight into the minds of others
  • Displays regret having made a bad decision
  • Heart races in stressful situations
  • Has many dopamine receptors in its brain to sense reward
  • Highly flexible in making decisions
  • Has ability to focus attention (subjective experience)
  • Needs to sleep
  • Sensitive to anaesthetics
  • Displays unlimited associative learning

This is clearly a bit of a mixed bag. One or two of these have a clear theoretical base; they could be used as the basis of a plausible definition of consciousness. Having insight into the minds of others (‘theory of mind’) is one, and unlimited associative learning looks like another. But robots and aliens need not have dopamine receptors or racing hearts, yet we surely wouldn’t rule out their being conscious on that account. The list is less like notes towards a definition and more of a collection of symptoms.

They’re drawn from some quite different sources, too. The idea that self-awareness and awareness of the minds of others has something to do with consciousness is widely accepted and the piece alludes to some examples in animals. A chimp shown a mirror will touch a spot that had been covertly placed on its forehead, which is (debatably) said to prove it knows that the reflection is itself. A scrub jay will re-hide food if it was seen doing the hiding the first time – unless it was seen only by its own mate. A rat that pressed the wrong lever in an experiment will, it seems, gaze regretfully at the right one (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘Oh, I assess the level of regret in a rat’s gaze.’) Self-awareness certainly could constitute consciousness if higher-order theories are right, but to me it looks more like a product of consciousness and hence a symptom, albeit a pretty good one.

Another possibility is hedonic variation, here championed by Jesse Prinz and Bjørn Grinde. Many animals exhibit a raised heart rate and dopamine levels when stimulated – but not amphibians or fish (who seem to be getting a bad press on the consciousness front lately). There’s a definite theoretical insight underlying this one. The idea is that assigning pleasure to some outcomes and letting that drive behaviour instead of just running off fixed patterns instinctively, allows an extra degree of flexibility which on the whole has a positive survival value. Grinde apparently thinks there are downsides too and on that account it’s unlikely that consciousness evolved more than once. The basic idea here seems to make a lot of sense, but the dopamine stuff apparently requires us to think that lizards are conscious while newts are not. That seems a fine distinction, though I have to admit that I don’t have enough experience of newts to make the judgement (or of lizards either if I’m being completely honest).

Bruno van Swinderen has a different view, relating consciousness to subjective experience. That, of course, is notoriously unmeasurable according to many, but luckily van Swinderen thinks it correlates with selective attention, or indeed is much the same thing. Why on earth he thinks that remains obscure, but he measures selective attention with some exquisitely designed equipment plugged into the brains of fruit flies. (‘Oh, you do rat regret? I measure how attentively flies are watching things.’)

Sleep might be a handy indicator, as van Swinderen believes it is creatures that do selective attention that need it. They also, from insects to vertebrates (fish are in this time), need comparable doses of anaesthetic to knock them out, whereas nematode worms need far more to stop them in their tracks. I don’t know whether this is enough. I think if I were shown a nematode that had finally been drugged up enough to make it keep still, I might be prepared to say it was unconscious; and if something can become unconscious, it must previously have been conscious.

Some think by contrast that we need a narrower view; Michael Graziano reckons you need a mental model, and while fish are still in, he would exclude the insects and crustaceans van Swinderen grants consciousness to. Eva Jablonka thinks you need unlimited associative learning, and she would let the insects and crustaceans back in, but hesitates over those worms. The idea behind associative learning is again that consciousness takes you away from stereotyped behaviour and allows more complex and flexible responses – in this case because you can, for example, associate complex sets of stimuli and treat them as one new stimulus, quite an appealing idea.

Really it seems to me that all these interesting efforts are going after somewhat different conceptions of consciousness. I think it was Ned Block who called it a ‘mongrel’ concept; there’s little doubt that we use it in very varied ways, to describe the property of a worm that’s still moving at one end, to the ability to hold explicit views about the beliefs of other conscious entities at the other. We don’t need one theory of consciousness, we need a dozen.

Matt Faw says subjective experience is caused by a simulation in the hippocampus – a bit like a holodeck. There’s a brief description on the Brains Blog, with the full version here.

In a very brief sketch, Faw says that data from various systems is pulled together in the hippocampal system and compiled into a sort of unified report of what’s going on. This is sort of a global workspace system, whose function is to co-ordinate. The ongoing reportage here is like a rolling film or holodeck simulation, and because it’s the only unified picture available, it is mistaken for the brain’s actual interaction with the world. The actual work of cognition is done elsewhere, but this simulation is what gives rise to ‘neurotypical subjective experience’.

I’m uneasy about that; it doesn’t much resemble what I would call subjective experience. We can have a model of the self in the world without any experiencing going on (Roger Penrose suggested the example of a video camera pointed at a mirror), while the actual subjectivity of phenomenal experience seems to be nothing to do with the ‘structural’ properties of whether there’s a simulation of the world going on.

I believe the simulation or model is supposed to help us think about the world and make plans; but the actual process of thinking about things rarely involves a continuous simulation of reality. If I’m thinking of going out to buy a newspaper, I don’t have to run through imagining what the experience is going to be like; indeed, to do so would require some effort. Even if I do that, I’m the puppeteer throughout; it’s not like running a computer game and being surprised by what happens. I don’t learn much from the process.

And what would the point be? I can just think about the world. Laboriously constructing a model of the world and then thinking about that instead looks like a lot of redundant work and a terrible source of error if I get it wrong.

There’s a further problem for Faw in that there are people who manage without functioning hippocampi. Although they undoubtedly have serious memory problems, they can talk to us fairly normally and answer questions about their experiences. It seems weird to suggest that they don’t have any subjective experience; are they philosophical zombies?

Faw doesn’t want to say so. Instead he likens their thought processes to the ones that go on when we’re driving without thinking. Often we find we’ve driven somewhere but cannot remember any details of the journey. Faw suggests that what happens here is just that we don’t remember the driving. All the functions that really do the cognitive work are operating normally, but whereas in other circumstances their activity would get covered (to some extent) in the ‘news bulletin’ simulation, in this case our mind is dealing with something more interesting (a daydream, other plans, whatever), and just fails to record what we’ve done with the brake and the steering wheel. But if we were asked at the very moment of turning left what we were doing, we’d have no problem answering. People with no hippocampi are like this; constantly aware of the detail of current cognition, stuff that is normally hidden from neurotypically normal people, but lacking the broader context which for us is the source of normal conscious experience.

I broadly like this account, and it points to the probability that the apparent problems for Faw are to a degree just a matter of labelling. He’s calling it subjective experience, but if he called it reportable subjective experience it would make a lot of sense. We only ever report what we remember to have been our conscious experience: some time, even if only an instant, has to have passed. It’s entirely plausible that that we rely on the hippocampus to put together these immediate, reportable memories for us.

So really what I call subjective experience is going on all the time out there; it doesn’t require a unified account or model; but it does need the hippocampal newsletter in order to become reportable. Faw and I might disagree on the fine philosophical issue of whether it is meaningful to talk about experiences that cannot, in principle, be reported; but in other ways we don’t really differ as much as it seemed.

Do we need robots to be conscious? Ryota Kanai thinks it is largely up to us whether the machines wake up – but he is working on it. I think his analysis is pretty good and in fact I think we can push it a bit further.

His opening remarks, perhaps due to over-editing, don’t clearly draw the necessary distinction between Hard and Easy problems, or between subjective p-consciousness and action-related a-consciousness (I take it to be the same distinction, though not everyone would agree). Kanai talks about the unsolved mystery of experience, which he says is not a necessary by-product of cognition, and says that nevertheless consciousness must be a product of evolution. Hm. It’s p-consciousness, the ineffable, phenomenal business of what experience is like, that is profoundly mysterious, not a necessary by-product of cognition, and quite possibly nonsense. That kind of consciousness cannot in any useful sense be a product of evolution, because it does not affect my behaviour, as the classic zombie twin thought experiment explicitly demonstrates.  A-consciousness, on the other hand, the kind involved in reflecting and deciding, absolutely does have survival value and certainly is a product of evolution, for exactly the reasons Kanai goes on to discuss.

The survival value of A-consciousness comes from the way it allows us to step back from the immediate environment; instead of responding to stimuli that are present now, we can respond to ones that were around last week, or even ones that haven’t happened yet; our behaviour can address complex future contingencies in a way that is both remarkable and powerfully useful. We can make plans, and we can work out what to do in novel situations (not always perfectly, of course, but we can do much better than just running a sequence of instinctive behaviour).

Kanai discusses what must be about the most minimal example of this; our ability to wait three seconds before responding to a stimulus. Whether this should properly be regarded as requiring full consciousness is debatable, but I think he is quite right to situate it within a continuum of detached behaviour which, further along, includes reactions to very complex counterfactuals.

The kind he focuses on particularly is self-consciousness or higher-order consciousness; thinking about ourselves. We have an emergent problem, he points out, with robots  whose reasons are hidden; increasingly we cannot tell why a complex piece of machine learning resulted in the behaviour that resulted. Why not get the robot to tell us, he says; why not enable it to report its own inner states? And if it becomes able to consider and explain its own internal states, won’t that be a useful facility which is also like the kind of self-reflecting consciousness that some philosophers take to be the crucial feature of the human variety?

There’s an immediate and a more general objection we might raise here. The really bad problem with machine learning is not that we don’t have access to the internal workings of the robot mind; it’s really that in some cases there just is no explanation of the robot’s behaviour that a human being can understand. Getting the robot to report will be no better than trying to examine the state of the robot’s mind directly; in fact it’s worse, because it introduces a new step into the process, one where additional errors can creep in. Kanai describes a community of AIs, endowed with a special language that allows them to report their internal states to each other. It sounds awfully tedious, like a room full of people who, when asked ‘How are you?’ each respond with a detailed health report. Maybe that is quite human in a way after all.

The more general theoretical objection (also rather vaguer, to be honest) is that, in my opinion at least, Kanai and those Higher Order Theory philosophers just overstate the importance of being able to think about your own mental states. It is an interesting and important variety of consciousness, but I think it just comes for free with a sufficiently advanced cognitive apparatus. Once we can think about anything, then we can of course think about our thoughts.

So do we need robots to be conscious? I think conscious thought does two jobs for us that need to be considered separately although they are in fact strongly linked. I think myself that consciousness is basically recognition. When we pull off that trick of waiting for three seconds before we respond to a stimulus, it is because we recognise the wait as a thing whose beginning is present now, and can therefore be treated as another present stimulus. This one simple trick allows us to respond to future things and plan future behaviour in a way that would otherwise seem to contradict the basic principle that the cause must come before effect.

The first job that does is allow the planning of effective and complex actions to achieve a given goal. We might want a robot to be able to do that so it can acquire the same kind of effectiveness in planning and dealing with new situations which we have ourselves, a facility which to date has tended to elude robots because of the Frame Problem and other issues to do with the limitations of pre-programmed routines.

The second job is more controversial. Because action motivated by future contingencies has a more complex causal back-story, it looks a bit spooky, and it is the thing that confers on us the reality (or the illusion, if you prefer) of free will and moral responsibility. Because our behaviour comes from consideration of the future, it seems to have no roots in the past, and to originate in our minds. It is what enables us to choose ‘new’ goals for ourselves that are not merely the consequence of goals we already had. Now there is an argument that we don’t want robots to have that. We’ve got enough people around already to originate basic goals and take moral responsibility; they are a dreadful pain already with all the moral and legal issues they raise, so adding a whole new category of potentially immortal electronic busybodies is arguably something best avoided. That probably means we can’t get robots to do job number one for us either; but that’s not so bad because the strategies and plans which job one yields can always be turned into procedures after the fact and fed to ‘simple’ computers to run. We can, in fact, go on doing things the way we do them now; humans work out how to deal with a task and then give the robots a set of instructions; but we retain personhood, free will, agency and moral responsibility for ourselves.

There is quite a big potential downside, though; it might be that the robots, once conscious, would be able to come up with better aims and more effective strategies than we will ever be able to devise. By not giving them consciousness we might be permanently depriving ourselves of the best possible algorithms (and possibly some superior people, but that’s a depressing thought from a human point of view). True, but then I think that’s almost what we are on the brink of doing already. Kanai mentions European initiatives which may insist that computer processes come with an explanation that humans can understand; if put into practice the effect, once the rule collides with some of those processes that simply aren’t capable of explanation, would be to make certain optimal but inscrutable algorithms permanently illegal.

We could have the best of both worlds if we could devise a form of consciousness that did job number one for us without doing job two as an unavoidable by-product, but since in my view they’re all acts of recognition of varying degrees of complexity, I don’t see at the moment how the two can be separated.

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.