Posts tagged ‘consciousness’

Further to the question of conscious vs non-conscious action, here’s a recent RSA video presenting some evidence.

Nicholas Shea presents with Barry Smith riding shotgun. There’s a mention for one piece of research also mentioned by Di Nucci; preventing expert golfers from concentrating consciously on their shot actually improves their performance (it does the opposite for non-experts). There are two pieces of audience participation; one shows that subliminal prompts can (slightly) affect behaviour; the other shows that time to think and discuss can help where explicit reasoning is involved (though it doesn’t seem to help the RSA audience much).

Perhaps in the end consciousness is not essentially private after all, but social and co-operative?

Sign of the times to see two philosophers unashamedly dabbling in experiments. I think the RSA also has to win some kind of prize in the hotly-contested ‘unconvincing brain picture’ category for using purple and yellow cauliflower.

Fish don’t feel pain, says Brian Key.  How does he know? In the deep philosophical sense it remains a matter of some doubt as to whether other human beings really feel pain, and as Key notes, Nagel famously argued that we couldn’t know what it was like to be a bat at all, even though we have much more in common with them than with fish. But in practice we don’t really feel much doubt that humans with bodies and brains like ours do indeed have similar sensations, and we trust that their reports of pain are generally as reliable as our own. Key’s approach extends this kind of practical reasoning. He relies on human reports to identify the parts of the brain involved in feeling pain, and then looks for analogues in other animals.

Key’s review of the evidence is interesting; in brief he concludes that it is the cortex that ‘does’ pain; fish don’t have anything that corresponds with human cortex, or any other brain structure that plausibly carries out the same function. They have relatively hard-wired responses to help them escape  physical damage, and they have a capacity to learn about what to avoid, but they don’t have any mechanism for actually feeling pain with. It is really, he suggests, just anthropomorphism that sees simple avoidance behaviour as evidence of actual pain. Key is rightly stern about anthropomorphism, but I think he could have acknowledged the opposite danger of speciesism. The wide eyes and open mouths of fish, their rigid faces and inability to gesture or scream incline us to see them as stupid, cold, and unfeeling in a way which may not be properly objective.

Still, a careful examination of fish behaviour is a perfectly valid supplementary approach, and Key buttresses his case by noting that pain usually suppresses normal behaviour. Drilling a hole in a human’s skull tends to inhibit locomotion and social activity, but apparently doing the same thing to fish does not stop them going ahead with normal foraging and mating behaviour as though nothing had happened. Hard to believe, surely, that they are in terrible pain but getting on with a dancing display anyway?

I think Key makes a convincing case that fish don’t feel what we do, but there is a small danger of begging the question if we define pain in a way that makes it dependent on human-style consciousness to begin with. The phenomenology really needs clarification, but defining pain, other than by demonstration, is peculiarly difficult. It is almost by definition the thing we want to avoid feeling, yet we can feel pain without being bothered by it, and we can have feelings we desperately want to avoid which are, however, not pain. Pain may be a tiny twinge accompanying a reflex, an attention-grabbing surge, or something we hold in mind and explore (Dennett, I think, says somewhere that he had been told that examining pain introspectively was one way to make it bearable. On his next dentist visit, he tried it out and found that although the method worked, the effort and boredom involved in continuous close attention to the detailed qualities of his pain was such that he eventually preferred straightforward hurting.) Humans certainly understand pain and can opt to suffer it voluntarily in ways that other creatures cannot; whether on balance this higher awareness makes our pain more or less bearable is a difficult question in itself. We might claim that imagination and fear magnify our suffering, but being to some degree aware and in control can also put us in a better position than a panicking dog that cannot understand what is happening to it.

Key leans quite heavily on reportable pain; there are obvious reasons for that, but it could be that doing so skews him towards humanity and towards the cortex, which is surely deeply involved in considering and reporting. He dismisses some evidence that pain can occur without a cortex, and therefore happens in the brain stem. His objections seem reasonable, but surely it would be odd if nothing were going on in the brain stem, that ‘old brain’ we have inherited through evolution, even if it’s only some semi-automatic avoidance stuff. The danger is that we might be paying attention to the reportable pain dealt with by the ‘talky’ part of our minds while another kind is going on elsewhere. We know from such phenomena as blindsight that we can unconsciously ‘see’ things; could we not also have unconscious pain going on in another part of the brain?

That raises another important question: does it matter? Is unconscious or forgotten pain worth considering – would fish pain be negligible even if it exists? Pain is, more or less, the feeling we all want to avoid, so in one way its ethical significance is obvious. But couldn’t those automatic damage avoidance behaviours have some ethical significance too? Isn’t damage sort of ethically charged in itself? Key rejects the argument that we should give fish the ‘benefit of the doubt’, but there is a slightly different argument that being indifferent to apparent suffering makes us worse people even if strictly speaking no pains are being felt.

Consider a small boy with a robot dog; the toy has been programmed to give displays of affection and enjoyment, but if mistreated it also performs an imitation of pain and distress. Now suppose the boy never plays nicely, but obsessively ‘tortures’ the robot, trying to make it yelp and whine as loudly as possible. Wouldn’t his parents feel some concern; wouldn’t they tell him that what he was doing was wrong, even though the robot had no real feelings whatever. Wouldn’t that be a little more than simple  anthropomorphism?

Perhaps we need a bigger vocabulary; ‘pain’ is doing an awful lot of work in these discussions.

scroogeA ghost? Humbug! Yet it was the same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge, “have you read Hume, Jacob? No? You see, to me you’re in the nature of a miracle, something that contradicts all the established understanding of the world. The most parsimonious assumption in such a case, you know, is always that a miraculous event such as your appearance is a delusion.”

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.

To sit, staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with him. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

“You see this toothpick?” said Scrooge, returning quickly to the charge, for the reason just assigned; and wishing, though it were only for a second, to divert the vision’s stony gaze from himself.

“I do,” replied the Ghost.

“You are not looking at it,” said Scrooge.

“But I see it,” said the Ghost, “notwithstanding.”

“Well!” returned Scrooge, “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you! humbug!”
“Yet here I am. You see clearly who I once was. I can tell you, if you wish, things that only Jacob Marley could have known: do you doubt it?” said the spirit.

“No. But would those things come from your brain, or from mine? You see, we know now, Jacob, that consciousness is a product of the brain. Have you read Fechner*? No? Well, really, what have you been doing with your evenings, Jacob?”

Scrooge clung desperately to his exposition as the best means of retaining his equanimity in the face of the apparition’s unwavering gaze; at the same time he felt a little pride over his steadfastness. No great city banker, rich and overbearing as he might be, had ever intimidated Scrooge, and he was not about to be cowed by the mere shade of his own dead partner.

“It has been proved not only that consciousness is amenable to scientific investigation, but that it obeys hard mathematical laws; and there’s no manner of doubt that it resides in the brain. Now your brain is dead, Jacob – there’s no question about it – so no possibility of your consciousness persisting arises. Unless we are to be panpsychists, but if that were true, why, I might as well worry about the consciousness of the knocker on the front door!”

“Perhaps you should,” intoned the ghost, unmoved, “I came to effect a moral reformation, but I see I must begin with mereology. You see these ledgers? These frightful deeds chained about me? Why do you suppose I must carry them everywhere?”

“I don’t know… Can it be meant as a punishment, Jacob?” returned Scrooge.

“No; though they are burden enough. These columns of figures, these legal documents, were the tools I used in life to think about my business. They are as much part of my mind as the brain I once had. And though my body is dissolved, they remain, do they not? Is not that part of my mind still growing and flourishing in your counting-house?”

“I keep the books, certainly, Jacob; but that would be a narrow kind of mind…” Scrooge fell silent as he saw the trap he was falling into.

“Narrow indeed, Ebenezer Scrooge!” replied the spirit, “and when did your thoughts last spend a cheerful hour outside the counting house?”

Scrooge looked abashed, but he was thinking quickly.

“You see, spirit,” he resumed, “those account books may retain vestiges of your personality. But ink upon a page is nothing without a brain… very well, then, without a human being, to animate it, to give it significance. Now Cratchit may read those books; or I may. You may not. So if you are brought here tonight by the revivification of those traces, it is by my mind, and you are indeed nothing more than a phantom of my brain, as I said!”

At this the ghost let out a terrible roar.

“Prepare yourself, Ebenezer Scrooge!” it thundered, “You shall be visited by three ghosts of disembodied consciousness! The Ghost of Dualism Past; the Ghost of Algorithms Present; and the Ghost of Uploading Yet to Come! Expect the first at the stroke of midnight.”

“Humbug!” said Scrooge, excitedly, “Double Humbug, I say! And Humbug on stilts!

 

* Scrooge was actually rather lucky to get away with that one. He is, of course, is alluding to Fechner’s Law, which relates subjective sensation to the logarithm of the intensity of the stimulus, hence at the time a shining example of the new empirical psychology (actually rather too new – I don’t think it was published even in German until after A Christmas Carol). Strangely enough, neither Scrooge nor Marley seem aware that Fechner himself believed in a form of panpsychism and had already set out in Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode (1836) his vision of human life as having three stages: a sleep before birth, normal life in the middle stage, and entry into the general communion of consciousness after death, with the dead still able to exert a helpful influence on the living. He would definitely not have been on Scrooge’s  side in this discussion.

alien-superWe are in danger of being eliminated by aliens who aren’t even conscious, says Susan Schneider. Luckily, I think I see some flaws in the argument.

Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the Universe, she suggests; others probably have been going for billions of years longer. Perhaps, but maybe they have all attained enlightenment and moved on from this plane, leaving us young dummies the cleverest or the only people around?

Schneider thinks the older cultures are likely to be post-biological, having moved on into machine forms of intelligence. This transition may only take a few hundred years, she suggests, to ‘judge from the human experience’ (Have we transitioned? Did I miss it?). She says transistors are much faster than neurons and computer power is almost indefinitely expandable, so AI will end up much cleverer than us.

Then there may be a problem over controlling these superlatively bright computers, as foreseen by Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates. Bill Gates? The man who, by exploiting the monopoly handed to him by IBM was able to impose on us all the crippled memory management of DOS and the endless vulnerabilities of Windows? Well, OK; not sure he has much idea about technology, but he’s got form on trying to retain control of things.

Schneider more or less takes it for granted that computation is cogitation, and that faster computation means smarter thinking. It’s true that computers have become very good at games we didn’t think they could play at all, and she reminds us of some examples. But to take over from human beings, computers need more than just computation. To mention two things, they need agency and intentionality, and to date they haven’t shown any capacity at all for either. I don’t rule out the possibility of both being generated artificially in future, but the ever-growing ability of computers to do more sums more quickly is strictly irrelevant. Those future artificial people of whom we know nothing may be able to exploit the power of computation – but so can we. If computers are good at winning battles, our computers can fight their computers.

Schneider also takes it for granted that her computational aliens will be hostile and likely to come over and fuck us up good if they ever know we exist. They might, for example, infect our systems with computer viruses (probably not, I think, because without Bill Gates providing their operating systems computer viruses probably remained a purely theoretical matter for them). Sending signals out into the galaxy, she reckons, is a really bad idea; our radio signals are already out there but luckily it’s faint and easily missed (even by unimaginably super-intelligent aliens, it seems). Premature to worry, surely, because even our earliest radio signals can be no more than about a hundred light years away so far – not much of a distance in galactic terms. But why would super-intelligent entities behave like witless bullies anyway? Somewhere between benign and indifferent seems a more likely attitude.

To me this whole scenario seems to embody a selective prognosis anyway. The aliens have overcome the limitation of the speed of light, they feed off black holes (no clue, sorry) but they still run on the computation we currently think is really smart. A hundred years ago no-one would have supposed computation was going to be the dominant technology of our decade, let alone the next million years; maybe by 2116 we’ll look back on it the way we fondly remember steam locomotion.

Schneider’s most arresting thought is that her dangerous computational aliens might lack qualia, and so in that sense not be conscious. It seems to me more natural to suppose that acquiring human-style thought would necessarily involve acquiring human-style qualia. Schneider seems to share the Searlian view that qualia have something to do with unknown biological qualities of neural tissue which silicon can never share. Even if qualia could be engineered into silicon, why would the aliens bother, she asks – it’s just an extra overhead that might add unwanted ethical issues. Most surprisingly, she supposes that we might be able to test the proposition! Suppose that for medical reasons we replace parts of a functioning human brain with chips, we might then find that qualia are lost.

But how would we know? Ex hypothesi, qualia have no causal powers and so could not cause any change in our behaviour. Even if the qualia vanished, the fact could not be reported. None of the things we say about qualia were caused by qualia; that’s one of the bizarre things about them.

Anyway, I say if we’re going to indulge in this kind of wild speculation, let’s really go big; I say the super-intelligent aliens will be powered by hyper-computation, a technology that makes our concept of computation look like counting on your fingers; and they’ll have not only qualia, but hyper-qualia, experiential phenomenologica whose awesomeness we cannot even speak of. They will be inexpressibly kindly and wise and will be be borne to Earth to visit us on special wave-forms, beyond our understanding but hugely hyperbolic…

frankish-illusionConsciousness – it’s all been a terrible mistake. In a really cracking issue of the JCS (possibly the best I’ve read) Keith Frankish sets out and defends the thesis of illusionism, with a splendid array of responses from supporters and others.

How can consciousness be an illusion? Surely an illusion is itself a conscious state – a deceptive one – so that the reality of consciousness is a precondition of anything being an illusion? Illusionism, of course, is not talking about the practical, content-bearing kind of consciousness, but about phenomenal consciousness, qualia, the subjective side, what it is like to see something. Illusionism denies that our experiences have the phenomenal aspect they seem to have; it is in essence a sceptical case about phenomenal experience. It aims to replace the question of what phenomenal experience is, with the question of why people have the illusion of phenomenal experience.

In one way I wonder whether it isn’t better to stick with raw scepticism than frame the whole thing in terms of an illusion. There is a danger that the illusion itself becomes a new topic and inadvertently builds the confusion further. One reason the whole issue is so difficult is that it’s hard to see one’s way through the dense thicket of clarifications thrown up by philosophers, all demanding to be addressed and straightened out. There’s something to be said for the bracing elegance of the two-word formulation of scepticism offered by Dennett (who provides a robustly supportive response to illusionism here, as being the default case) – ‘What qualia?’. Perhaps we should just listen to the ‘tales of the qualophiles’ – there is something it is like, Mary knows something new, I could have a zombie twin – and just say a plain ‘no’ to all of them. If we do that, the champions of phenomenal experience have nothing to offer; all they can do is, as Pete Mandik puts it here, gesture towards phenomenal properties. (My imagination whimpers in fear at being asked to construe the space in which one might gesture towards phenomenal qualities, let alone the ineffable limb with which the movement might be performed; it insists that we fall back on Mandik’s other description; that phenomenalists can only invite an act of inner ostension.)

Eric Schwitzgebel relies on something like this gesturing in his espousal of definition by example as a means of getting the innocent conception of phenomenal experience he wants without embracing the dubious aspects. Mandik amusingly and cogently assails the scepticism of the illusionist case from an even more radical scepticism – meta-illusionism. Sceptics argue that phenomenalism can’t be specified meaningfully (we just circle around a small group of phrases and words that provide a set of synonyms with no definition outside the loop) , but if that’s true how do we even start talking about it? Whereof we cannot speak…

Introspection is certainly the name of the game, and Susan Blackmore has a nifty argument here; perhaps it’s the very act of introspecting that creates the phenomenal qualities? Her delusionism tells us we are wrong to think that there is a continuous stream of conscious experience going on in the absence of introspection, but stops short of outright scepticism about the phenomenal. I’m not sure. William James told us that introspection must be retrospection – we can only mentally examine the thought we just had, not the one we are having now – and it seems odd to me to think that a remembered state could be given a phenomenal aspect after the fact. Easier, surely, to consider that the whole business is consistently illusory?

Philip Goff is perhaps the toughest critic of illusionism; if we weren’t in the grip of scientism, he says, we should have no difficulty in seeing that the causal role of brain activity also has a categorical nature which is the inward, phenomenal aspect. If this view is incoherent or untenable in any way, we’re owed a decent argument as to why.

Myself I think Frankish is broadly on the right track. He sets out three ways we might approach phenomenal experience. One is to accept its reality and look for an explanation that significantly modifies our understanding of the world. Second, we look for an explanation that reconciles it with our current understanding, finding explanations within the world of physics of which we already have a general understanding. Third, we dismiss it as an illusion. I think we could add ‘approach zero’: we accept the reality of phenomenal experience and just regard it as inexplicable. This sounds like mysterianism – but mysterians think the world itself makes sense; we just don’t have the brains to see it. Option zero says there is actual irreducible mystery in the real world. This conclusion is surely thoroughly repugnant to most philosophers, who aspire to clear answers even if they don’t achieve them; but I think it is hard to avoid unless we take the sceptical route. Phenomenal experience is on most mainstream accounts something over and above the physical account just by definition. A physical explanation is automatically ruled out; even if good candidates are put forward, we can always retreat and say that they explain some aspects of experience, but not the ineffable one we are after. I submit that in fact this same strategy of retreat means that there cannot be any satisfactory rational account of phenomenal experience, because it can always be asserted that something ineffable is missing.

I say philosophers will find this repugnant, but I can sense some amiable theologians sidling up to me. Those light-weight would-be scientists can’t deal with mystery and the ineffable, they say, but hey, come with us for a bit…

Regular readers may possibly remember that I think that the phenomenal aspect of experience is actually just its reality; that the particularity or haecceity of real experience is puzzling to those who think that theory must accommodate everything. That reality is itself mysterious in some sense, though: not easily accounted for and not susceptible to satisfactory explanation either by induction or deduction. It may be that to understand that in full we have to give up on these more advanced mental tools and fall back on the basic faculty of recognition, the basis of all our thinking in my view and the capacity of which both deduction and induction are specialised forms. That implies that we might have to stop applying logic and science and just contemplate reality; I suppose that might mean in turn that meditation and the mystic tradition of some religions is not exactly a rejection of philosophy as understood in the West, but a legitimate extension of the same enquiry.

Yeah, but no; I may be irredeemably Western and wedded to scientism, but rightly or wrongly, meditation doesn’t scratch my epistemic itch. Illusionism may not offer quite the right answer, but for me it is definitely asking the right questions.

blackmore-and-churchland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Blackmore, champion of memes, interviews Patricia Churchland, author of the classic Neurophilosophy.  With Swedish subtitles.

(Sorry, I’m not clever enough to embed this one.)

eyesPhilip Goff tells us that panpsychism is an appealingly simple view. I do think he has captured an important point, and one which makes a real contribution to panpsychism’s otherwise puzzling ability to attract adherents. But although the argument is clear and well-constructed I could hardly agree less.

Even his opening sentence has me shaking my head…

Common sense tells us that only living things have consciousness.

Hm; I’m not altogether sure such questions are really even within the scope of common sense, but popular culture seems to tell us that people are generally happy to assume that robots may be conscious. In fact, I suspect that only our scientific education stops us attributing agency to the weather, stones that trip us up, and almost anything that moves. It isn’t only Basil Fawlty that shouts at his car!

Goff suggests that the main argument against panpsychism (approximately the view that everything everywhere is conscious: I skip here various caveats and clarifications which don’t affect the main argument) is just that it is ‘crazy’ – that it conflicts with common sense. He goes on to rebut this by pointing out that relativity and Darwinism both conflict with common sense too. This seems dangerously close to the classic George Spiggott argument so memorably refuted in the 1967 film Bedazzled;

Stanley Moon: You’re a nutcase! You’re a bleedin’ nutcase!
George Spiggott: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
Stanley Moon: They said it of a lot of nutcases too.
George Spiggott: You’re not as stupid as you look, are you, Mr. Moon?

But really we’re fighting a straw man; the main argument against panpsychism is surely not a mere appeal to common sense. (Who are these philosophers who stick to common sense and how do they get any work done?) One of the candidates for the main counter-argument must surely be the difficulty of saying exactly which of the teeming multi-layered dynasties of entities in the universe we deem to be conscious, whether composite entities qualify, and if so, how on Earth that works. Another main line of hostile argument must be the problem of explaining how these ubiquitous consciousnesses relate to the ordinary kind that appears to operate in brains. Perhaps the biggest objection of all is to panpsychism’s staggering ontological profligacy. William of Occam told us to use as few angels as possible; panpsychism stations one in every particle of the cosmos.

How could such a massive commitment represent simplicity? The thing is, Goff isn’t starting from nothing; he already has another metaphysical commitment. He believes that things have an intrinsic nature apart from their physical properties. Science, on this view, is all about a world that often, rather mysteriously, gets called the ‘external’ world. It tells us about the objectively measurable properties of things, but nothing at all about the things in themselves. No doubt Goff has reasons for thinking this that he has set out elsewhere, probably in the book of which he helpfully provides an interesting chapter.

But whatever his grounds may be, I think this view is itself hopeless. For one thing, if these intrinsic natures have no physical impact, nothing we ever say or write can have been caused by them. That seems worrying. Ah, but here I’m inadvertently beginning to make Goff’s case for him, because what else is there that never causes any of the things we say about it? Qualia, phenomenal consciousness, the sort Goff is clearly after. Now if we’ve got two things with this slippery acausal quality, might it not be a handy simplification if they were the same thing? This is very much the kind of simplification that Goff wants to suggest. We know or assume that everything has its own intrinsic nature. In one case, ourselves, we know what that intrinsic nature is like; it’s conscious experience. So is it not the simplest way if we suppose that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of everything? Voila.

There’s no denying that that does make some sense. We do indeed get simplicity of a sort – but only at a price. Once we’ve taken on the huge commitment of intrinsic natures, and once we’ve also taken on the commitment of ineffable interior qualia, then it looks like good sense to combine the two commitments into, as it were, one easy payment. But it’s far better to avoid these onerous commitments in the first place.

Let me suggest that for one thing, believing in intrinsic natures poisons the essential concept of identity. Leibniz tells us that the identity of a thing resides in its properties; if all the properties of A are the same as all the properties of B, then A is B. But if everything has an unobservable inner nature as well as its observable properties, its identity is forever unknowable and there can never be certainty that this dagger I see before me is actually the same as the identical-looking one I saw in the same place a moment ago. Its inward nature might have changed.

Moreover, even if we take on both intrinsic natures and ineffable qualia, there are several good reasons to think the two must be different. If we are to put aside my fear that my dagger may have furtively changed its intrinsic nature, it must surely be that the intrinsic nature of a thing generally stays the same – but consciousness constantly changes? In fact, consciousness goes away regularly every night; does our intrinsic nature disappear too? Do sleeping people somehow not have an intrinsic nature – or if they have one, doesn’t it persist when they wake, alongside and evidently distinct from their consciousness? Or consider what consciousness is like: consciousness is consciousness of things; qualia are qualia of red, or middle C, or the smell of bacon; how can entities with no sensory organs have them? Is there a quale of nothing? There might be answers, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy ones.

There’s another problem lurking in wait, too, I think. Goff, I think, assumes that we all exist and have intrinsic natures, but he cannot have any good reason to think so, because intrinsic natures leave no evidence. We who believe that the identity of things is founded in their observable properties have empirical grounds to believe that there are many conscious entities out there. For him the observable physics must be strictly irrelevant. He has immediate knowledge only of one intrinsic nature, his own, which he takes to be his consciousness;  the most parsimonious conclusion to draw from there is not that the universe is full of intrinsic natures and consciousnesses of a similar kind, but that there is precisely one; Goff, the single consciousness that underpins everything. He seems to me, in other words, to have no defence against some kind of solipsism; simplicity makes it most likely that he lives in his own dream, or at best in a world populated by some kind of zombies.

Crazy? Well, it’s a little strange…


Watch the full video with related content here.

The discussion following the presentations I featured last week.

multi-factor-awareness-cIs awareness an on/off thing? Or is it on a sort of dimmer switch? A degree of variation seems to be indicated by the peculiar vagueness of some metal content (or is that just me?). Fazekas and Overgaard argue that even a dimmer switch is far too simple; they suggest that there are at least four ways in which awareness can be graduated.

First, interestingly, we can be aware of things to different degrees on different levels. Our visual system identifies dark and light, then at a higher level identifies edges, at a higher level again sees three dimensional shapes, and higher again, particular objects. We don’t have to be equally clear at all levels, though. If we’re looking at the dog, for example, we may be aware that in the background is the cat, and a chair; but we are not distinctly aware of the cat’s whiskers or the pattern on the back of the chair. We have only a high-level awareness of cat and chair. It can work the other way, too; people who suffer from face-blindness, for example, may be well able to describe the nose and other features of someone presented to them without recognising that the face belongs to a friend.

That is certainly not the only way our awareness can vary, though; it can also be of higher or lower quality. That gives us a nice two-dimensional array of possible vagueness; job done? Well no, because Fazekas and Overgaard think quality varies in at least three ways.

  • Intensity
  • Precision
  • Temporal Stability

So in fact we have a matrix of vagueness which has four dimensions, or perhaps I should say three plus one.

The authors are scrupulous about explaining how intensity, precision, and temporal stability probably relate to neuronal activity, and they are quite convincing; if anything I should have liked a bit more discussion of the phenomenal aspects – what are some of these states of partially-degraded awareness actually like?

What they do discuss is what mechanism governs or produces their three quality factors. Intensity, they think, comes from the allocation of attention. When we really focus on something, more neuronal resources are pulled in and the result is in effect to turn up the volume of the experience a bit.

Precision is also connected with attention; paying attention to a feature produces sharpening and our awareness becomes less generic (so instead of merely seeing something is red, we can tell whether it is magenta or crimson, and so on). This is fair enough, but it does raise a small worry as to whether intensity and precision are really all that distinct. Mightn’t it just be that enhancing the intensity of a particular aspect of our awareness makes it more distinct and so increases precision? The authors acknowledge some linkage.

Temporal stability is another matter. Remember we’re not talking here about whether the stimulus itself is brief or sustained but whether our awareness is constant. This kind of stability, the authors say, is a feature of conscious experience rather than unconscious responses and depends on recurrence and feedback loops.

Is there a distinct mechanism underlying our different levels of awareness? The authors think not; they reckon that it is simply a matter of what quality of awareness we have on each level (I suppose we have to allow for the possibility if not the certainty that some levels will be not just poor quality but actually absent. I don’t think I’m typically aware of all possible levels of interpretation when considering something.

So there is the model in all its glory; but beware; there are folks around who argue that in fact awareness is actually not like this, but in at least some cases is an on/off matter. Some experiments by Asplund were based on the fact that if a subject is presented with two stimuli in quick succession, the second is missed. As the gap increases, we reach a point where the second stimulus can be reported; but subjects don’t see it gradually emerging as the interval grows; rather With one gap it’s not there, while With a slightly larger one, it is.

Fazekas and Overgaard argue that Asplund failed to appreciate the full complexity of the graduation that goes on; his case focuses too narrowly on precision alone. In that respect there may be a sharp change, but in terms of intensity or temporal stability, and hence in terms of awareness overall, they think there would be graduation.

A second rival theory which the authors call the ‘levels of processing view’ or LPV, suggests that while awareness of low-level items is graduated, at a high level you’re either aware or not. These experiments used colours to represent low-level features and numbers for high level ones, and found that while there was graduated awareness of the former, with the latter you either got the number or you didn’t.

Fazekas and Overgaard argue that this is because colours and numbers are not really suitable for this kind of comparison. Red and blue are on a continuous scale and one can morph gradually into the other; the numeral ‘7’ does not gradually change into ‘9’. This line of argument made sense to me, but on reflection caused me some problems. If it is true that numerals are just distinct in this way, that seems to me to concede a point that makes the LPV case seem intuitively appealing; in some circumstances things just are on/off. It seemed true at first sight that numerals are distinct in this way, but when I thought back to experiences in the optician’s chair, I could remember cases where the letter I was trying to read seemed genuinely indeterminate between two or even more alternatives. Now though, if My first thought was wrong and numerals are not in fact inherently distinct in this way, that seems to undercut Fazekas and Overgaard’s counter-argument.

On the whole the more complex model seems to provide better explanatory resources and I find it broadly convincing, but I wonder whether a reasonable compromise couldn’t be devised, allowing that for certain experiences there may be a relatively sharp change of awareness, with only marginal graduation? Probably I have come up with a vague and poorly graduated conclusion…


Watch the full video with related content here.

What is the problem about consciousness? A Royal Institution video with interesting presentations (part 2 another time).

Anil Seth presents a striking illusion and gives an optimistic view of the ability of science to tackle the problem; or maybe we just get on with the science anyway? The philosophers may ask good questions, but their answers have always been wrong.

Barry Smith says that’s because when the philosophers have sorted a subject out it moves over into science. One problem is that we tend to miss thinking about consciousness and think about its contents. Isn’t there a problem: to be aware of your own awareness changes it? I feel pain in my body, but could consciousness be in my ankle?

Chris Frith points out that actually only a small part of our mental activity has anything to do with consciousness, and in fact there is evidence to show that many of the things we think are controlled by conscious thought really are not: a vindication of Helmholtz’s idea of unconscious inference. Thinking about your thinking messes things up?  Try asking someone how happy they feel – guaranteed to make them less happy immediately…