Posts tagged ‘Peter Hankins’

Louie Savva kindly invited me to do a couple of podcasts recently which are now accessible on his site. These are part of the ‘Existential Files’ series he and Matthew Smith have been doing on his blog of despair (actually quite cheerful, considering) Everything is Pointless. I understand Susan Blackmore is pencilled in to do one soon, which should be interesting.

This was a new departure for me, but I must say I had great fun maundering away.  A vast range of subjects got covered at high speed, from consciousness and brain preservation to the limits of reason and why the universe exists.

One interesting thing (for me) was that I don’t think I quite sound like a Londoner even after all these years. I don’t sound like John Major’s geeky nephew, as I had feared: but it turns out I’m in no danger of being mistaken for James Mason either.

Anyway if you’ve been looking for the chance to listen to a confused old git wibbling about cognition, this might be your lucky day…

knight 2This is the second of four posts about key ideas from my book The Shadow of Consciousness. This one looks at how the brain points at things, and how that could provide a basis for handling intentionality, meaning and relevance.

Intentionality is the quality of being about things, possessed by our thoughts, desires, beliefs and (clue’s in the name) our intentions. In a slightly different way intentionality is also a property of books, symbols, signs and, pointers. There are many theories out there about how it works; most, in my view, have some appeal, but none looks like the full story.

Several of the existing theories touch on a handy notion of natural meaning proposed by H.P.Grice. Natural meaning is essentially just the noticeable implication of things. Those spots mean measles; those massed dark clouds mean rain. If we regard this kind of ‘meaning’ as the wild, undeveloped form of intentionality we might be able to go on to suggest how the full-blown kind might be built out of it; how we get to non-natural meaning, the kind we generally use to communicate with and the kind most important to consciousness.

My proposal is that we regard natural meaning as a kind of pointing, and that pointing, in turn, is the recognition of a higher-level entity that links the pointer with the target. Seeing dark clouds and feeling raindrops on your head are two parts of the recognisable over-arching entity of a rain-storm. Spots are just part of the larger entity of measles. So our basic ability to deal with meanings is simply a consequence of our ability to recognise things at different levels.

Looking at it that way, it’s easy enough to see how we could build derived intentionality, the sort that words and symbols have; the difference is just that the higher-level entities we need to link everything up are artificial, supplied by convention or shared understanding: the words of a language, the conventions of a map. Clouds and water on my head are linked by the natural phenomenon of rain: the word ‘rain’ and water on my head are linked by the prodigious vocabulary table of the language. We can imagine how such conventions might grow up through something akin to a game of charades; I use a truncated version of a digging gesture to invite my neighbour to help with a hole: he gets it because he recognises that my hand movements could be part of the larger entity of digging. After a while the grunt I usually do at the same time becomes enough to convey the notion of digging.

External communication is useful, but this faculty of recognising wholes for parts and parts for wholes enables me to support more ambitious cognitive processes too, and make a bid for the original (aka ‘intrinsic’) intentionality that characterises my own thoughts, desires and beliefs. I start off with simple behaviour patterns in which recognising an object stimulates the appropriate behaviour; now I can put together much more complex stuff. I recognise an apple; but instead of just eating it, I recognise the higher entity of an apple tree; from there I recognise the long cycle of tree growth, then the early part in which a seed hits the ground; and from there I recognise that the apple in my hand could yield the pips required, which are recognisably part of a planting operation I could undertake myself…

So I am able to respond, not just to immediate stimuli, but to think about future apples that don’t even exist yet and shape my behaviour towards them. Plans that come out of this kind of process can properly be called intentional (I thought about what I was doing) and the fact that they seem to start with my thoughts, not simply with external stimuli, is what justifies our sense of responsibility and free will. In my example there’s still an external apple that starts the chain of thought, but I could have been ruminating for hours and the actions that result might have no simple relationship to any recent external stimulus.

We can move thinks up another notch if I begin, as it were, to grunt internally. From the digging grunt and similar easy starts, I can put together a reasonable kind of language which not only works on my friends, but on me if I silently recognise the digging grunt and use it to pose to myself the concept of excavation.

There’s more. In effect, when I think, I am moving through the forest of hierarchical relationships subserved by recognition. This forest has an interesting property. Although it is disorderly and extremely complex, it automatically arranges things so that things I perceive as connected in any way are indeed linked. This means it serves me as a kind of relevance space, where the things I may need to think about are naturally grouped and linked. This helps explain how the human brain is so good at dealing with the inexhaustible: it naturally (not infallibly) tends to keep the most salient things close.

In the end then, human style thought and human style consciousness (or at any rate the Easy Problem kind) seem to be a large and remarkably effective re-purposing of our basic faculty of recognition. By moving from parts to whole to other parts and then to other wholes, I can move through a conceptual space in a uniquely detached but effective way.

That’s a very compressed version of thoughts that probably need a more gentle introduction, but I hope it makes some sense. On to haecceity!


knightIt had to happen eventually. I decided it was time I nailed my colours to the mast and said what I actually think about consciousness in book form: and here it is (, The Shadow of Consciousness (A Little Less Wrong) has two unusual merits for a book about consciousness: it does not pretend to give the absolute final answer about everything; and more remarkable than that, it features no pictures at all of glowing brains.

Actually it falls into three parts (only metaphorically – this is a sturdy paperback product or a sound Kindle ebook, depending on your choice). The first is a quick and idiosyncratic review of the history of the subject. I begin with consciousness seen as the property of things that move without being pushed (an elegant definition and by no means the worst) and well, after that it gets a bit more complicated.

The underlying theme here is how the question itself has changed over time, and crucially become less a matter of intellectual justifications and more a matter of practical blueprints for robots. The robots are generally misconceived, and may never really work – but the change of perspective has opened up the issues in ways that may be really helpful.

The second part describes and solves the Easy Problem. No, come on. What it really does is look at the unforeseen obstacles that have blocked the path to AI and to a proper understanding of consciousness. I suggest that a series of different, difficult problems are all in the end members of a group, all of which arise out of the inexhaustibility of real-world situations. The hard core of this group is the classical non-computability established for certain problems by Turing, but the Frame Problem, Quine’s indeterminacy of translation, the problem of relevance, and even Hume’s issues with induction, all turn out to be about the inexhaustible complexity of the real world.

I suggest that the brain uses the pre-formal, anomic (rule-free) faculty of recognition to deal with these problems, and that that in turn is founded on two special tools; a pointing ability which we can relate to HP Grice’s concept of natural meaning, and a doubly ambiguous approach to pattern matching which is highlighted by Edelman’s analogy with the immune system.

The third part of the book tackles the Hard Problem. It flails around for quite a while, failing to make much sense of qualia, and finally suggests that in fact there is only one quale; that is, that the special vividness and particularity of real experience which is attributed to qualia is in fact simply down to the haecceity – the ‘thisness’ of real experience. In the classic qualia arguments, I suggest, we miss this partly because we fail to draw the correct distinction between existence and subsistence (honestly the point is not as esoteric as it sounds).

Along the way I draw some conclusions about causality and induction and how our clerkish academic outlook may have led us astray now and then.

Not many theories have rated more than a couple of posts on Conscious Entities, but I must say I’ve rather impressed myself with my own perspicacity, so I’m going to post separately about four of the key ideas in the book, alternating with posts about other stuff. The four ideas are inexhaustibility, pointing, haecceity and reality. Then I promise we can go back to normal.

I’ll close by quoting from the acknowledgements…

… it would be poor-spirited of me indeed not to tip my hat to the regulars at Conscious Entities, my blog, who encouraged and puzzled me in very helpful ways.

Thanks, chaps. Not one of you, I think, will really agree with what I’m saying, and that’s exactly as it should be.