Posts tagged ‘Raymond Tallis’

age-smHow far back in time do you recognise yourself? There may be long self-life and short self-life people; speculatively, the difference may even be genetic.

Some interesting videos here on the question of selves and persons (two words often used by different people to indicate different distinctions, so you can have a long talk at cross-purposes all too easily).

Too much content for me to summarise quickly, but I was particularly struck by Galen Strawson’s view of self-life (as it were). Human beings may live three score and ten years, but the unchanged self really only lasts a short while. Rigorously speaking he thinks it might only last a fraction of a second, but he believes that there are, as it were, different personality types here; people who have either a long or a short sense of identity over time. He is apparently near one end of the spectrum, not really identifying with the Galen Strawson who was here only half an hour ago. Myself, I think I’m towards the other end. When I look at photographs of my five-year-old self, I feel it’s me. There are many differences, of course, but I remember with special empathy what it was like to look out through those eyes.

Strawson thinks this is a genuine difference, not yet sufficiently studied by psychology; perhaps it even has a genetic basis. But he thinks short self-life and long self-life people can get along perfectly well; in fact the combination may make a strong partnership.

One other interesting point, Raymond Tallis thinks personhood is strongly social. On a desert island your personhood would gradually attenuate until you became more or less ‘Humean’ and absorbed in your environment and daily island tasks. It doesn’t sound altogether bad…

god3Sci provided some interesting links in his comment on the previous post, one a lecture by Raymond Tallis. Tallis offers some comfort to theists who have difficulty explaining how or why an eternal creator God should be making one-off interventions in the time-bound secular world he had created.  Tallis grants that’s a bad problem, but suggests atheists face an analogous one in working out how the eternal laws of physics relate to the local and particular world we actually live in.

These are interesting issues which bear on consciousness in at least two important ways, through human agency and the particularity of our experience; but today I want to leave the main road and run off down a dimly-lit alley that looks as if it contains some intriguing premises.

For the theists the problem is partly that God is omniscient and the creator of everything, so whatever happens, he should have foreseen it and arranged matters so that he does not need to intervene. An easy answer is that in fact his supposed interventions are actually part of how he set it up; they look like angry punishments or miraculous salvations to us, but if we could take a step back and see things from his point of view, we’d see it’s all part of the eternal plan, set up from the very beginning, and makes perfect sense. More worrying is the point that God is eternal and unchanging; if he doesn’t change he can’t be conscious.  I’ve mentioned before that our growing understanding of the brain, imperfect as it is, is making it harder to see how God could exist, and so making agnosticism a less comfortable position. We sort of know that human cognition depends on a physical process; how could an immaterial entity even get started? Instead of asking whether God exists, we’re getting to a place where we have to ask first how we can give any coherent account of what he could be – and it doesn’t look good, unless you’re content with a non-conscious God (not necessarily absurd) or a physical old man sitting on a cloud (which to be fair is probably how most Christians saw it until fairly recent times).

So God doesn’t change, and our developing understanding is redefining consciousness in ways that make an unchanging consciousness seem to involve a direct contradiction in terms. A changeless process? At this point I imagine an old gentleman dressed in black who has been sitting patiently in the corner, leaning forward with a kindly smile and pointing out that what we’re trying to do is understand the mind of God. No mere human being can do that, he says, so no wonder you’re getting into a muddle! This is the point where faith must take over.

Well, we don’t give up so easily; but perhaps he has a point; perhaps God has another and higher form of consciousness – metaconsciousness, let’s say – which resolves all these problems, but in ways we can never really understand.  Perhaps when the Singularity comes there will be robots who attain metaconsciousness, too: they may kindly try to explain it to us, but we’ll never really be able to get our heads round it.

Now of course, computers can already sail past us in terms of certain kinds of simple capacity: they can remember far more data much more precisely than we can, and they can work quickly through a very large number of alternatives. Even this makes a difference, I’ve mentioned before that exhaustive analysis by computers has shown that certain chess positions long considered draws are actually wins for one side: the winning tactics are just so long and complicated that human beings couldn’t see them, and can’t understand them intuitivel even when they see them played out.  But that’s not really any help; here we’re looking for something much more impressive. What we want to do is take the line which connects an early mammal’s level of cognition to ours and extend it until we’ve gone at least as far beyond the merely human. In facing up to this task, we’re rather like Flatlanders trying to understand the third dimension, or ordinary people trying to grasp the fourth: it isn’t really possible to get it intuitively, but we ought to be able to say some things about it by extrapolation.

So, early mammal – let’s call the beast Em (I don’t want to pick a real animal because that will derail us into consideration of how intelligent it really is) – works very largely on an instinctive or stimulus/resp0onse basis. It sees food, it pursues it and attempts to eat it. It lives in a world of concrete and immediate entities and has responses ready for some of them – fairly complex and somewhat variable responses, but fixed in the main. If we could somehow get Em to play chess with us, he would treat his men like a barbarian army, launching them towards us haphazardly en masse or one at a time, and we should have no trouble picking them off.

Human consciousness, by contrast, allows us to consider abstract entities (though we do not well understand their nature), to develop abstract general goals and to make plans and intentions which deal with future and possible events. These plans can also be of great complexity. We can even play out complicated long-range chess strategies if they’re not too complex.  This kind of thing allows us to do a better job than Em of getting food, though to Em a great deal of our food-related activity is completely opaque and apparently unmotivated. A lot of the time when we’re working on activities that will bring us food it will seem to Em as if we’re doing nothing, or at any rate, nothing at all related to food.

We can take it, then, that God or a future robot which is metaconscious will have moved on from mere goals to something more sophisticated – metagoals, whatever they are. He, or it, will understand abstractions as well as we understand concrete objects, and will perhaps employ meta-abstractions which they might be a little shakier about. God and the robot will at time have goals, just as we eat food, but their activities in respect of them will be both far more powerful and productive than the simple direct stuff we do and in our eyes utterly unrelated to the simpler goals we can guess at. A lot of the time they may appear to be doing nothing when they are actually pressing forward with an important metaproject.

But look, you may say, we have no reason to suppose this meta stuff exists at all.  Em was not capable of abstract thought; we are. That’s the end of the sequence; you either got it or you don’t got it. We got it: our memory capacity and so on may be improvable, but there isn’t any higher realm. Perhaps God’s objectives would be longer term and more complex than ours, but that’s just a difference of degree.

It could be so, but that’s how things would seem to Em, mutatis mutandis. Rocks don’t get food, he points out; but we early mammals get it. See food, take food, eat food: we get it. Now humans may see further (nice trick, that hind legs thing) they may get bigger food. But this talk of plans means nothing; there’s nothing to your plans and your abstraction thing except getting food. You do get food on a big scale, I notice, but I guess that’s really just luck or some kind of magic. Metaconsciousness would seem similarly unimaginable to us, and its results would equally look like magic, or like miracles.

This all fits very well, of course, with Colin McGinn’s diagnosis. According to him, there’s nothing odd about consciousness in itself, we just lack the mental capacity to deal with it. The mental operations available to us confine us within a certain mental sphere: we are restricted by cognitive closure. It could be that we need metaconsciousness to understand consciousness (and then, unimaginably, metametaconsciousness in order to understand metaconsciousness).

This is an odd place to have ended up, though: we started out with the problem that God is eternal and therefore can’t be conscious: if He can’t be conscious then He certainly can’t ascend to even higher cognitive states, can He? Remember we thought metaconsciousness would probably enable him to understand Platonic abstractions in a way we can’t, and even deal with meta-Platonic entities. Perhaps at that level the apparent contradiction between being unchanging and being aware is removed or bypassed, rather the way that putting five squares together in two dimensions is absurd but a breeze in three: hell, put six together and make a cube of it!

Do I really believe in metaconsciousness? No, but excuse me; I have to go and get food.

Picture: Raymond Tallis‘Aping Mankind’ is a large scale attack by Raymond Tallis on two reductive dogmas which he characterises as ‘Neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’.  He wishes especially to refute the identification of mind and brain, and as an expert on the neurology of old age, his view of the scientific evidence carries a good deal of weight. He also appears to be a big fan of Parmenides, which suggests a good acquaintance with the philosophical background. It’s a vigorous, useful, and readable contribution to the debate.

Tallis persuasively denounces exaggerated claims made on the basis of brain scans, notably claims to have detected the ‘seat of wisdom’ in the brain.  These experiments, it seems, rely on what are essentially fuzzy and ambiguous pictures arrived at by subtraction in very simple experimental conditions, to provide the basis for claims of a profound and detailed understanding far beyond what they could possibly support. This is no longer such a controversial debunking as it would have been a few years ago, but it’s still useful.

Of course, the fact that some claims to have reduced thought to neuronal activity are wrong does not mean that thought cannot nevertheless turn out to be neuronal activity, but Tallis pushes his scepticism a long way. At times he seems reluctant to concede that there is anything more than a meaningless correlation between the firing of neurons in the brain and the occurence of thoughts in the mind.  He does agree that possession of a working brain is a necessary condition for conscious thought, but he’s not prepared to go much further. Most people, I think, would accept that Wilder Penfield’s classic experiments, in which the stimulation of parts of the brain with an electrode caused an experience of remembered music in the subject, pretty much show that memories are encoded in the brain one way or another; but Tallis does not accept that neurons could constitute memories. For memory you need a history, you need to have formed the memories in the first place, he says: Penfield’s electrode was not creating but merely reactivating memories which already existed.

Tallis seems to start from a kind of Brentanoesque incredulity about the utter incompatibility of the physical and the mental. Some of his arguments have a refreshingly simple (or if you prefer, naive) quality: when we experience yellow, he points out, our nerve impulses are not yellow.  True enough, but then a word need not be printed in yellow ink to encode yellowness either. Tallis quotes Searle offering a dual-aspect explanation: water is H2O, but H2O molecules do not themselves have watery properties: you cannot tell what the back of a house loks like from the front, although it is the same house. In the same way our thoughts can be neural activity without the neurons themselves resembling thoughts. Tallis utterly rejects this: he maintains that to have different aspects requires a conscious observer, so we’re smuggling in the very thing we need to explain.  I think this is an odd argument. If things don’t have different aspects until an observer is present, what determines the aspects they eventually have? If it’s the observer, we seem to slipping towards idealism or solipsism, which I’m sure Tallis would not find congenial. Based on what he says elsewhere, I think Tallis would say the thing determines its own aspects in that it has potential aspects which only get actualised when observed; but in that case didn’t it really sort of have those aspects all along? Tallis seems to be adopting the view that an appearance (say yellowness) can only properly be explained by another thing that already has that same appearance (is yellow). It must be clear that if we take this view we’re never going to get very far with our explanations of yellow or any other appearance.

But I think that’s the weakest point in a sceptical case which is otherwise fairly plausible. Tallis is Brentanoesque in another way in that he emphasises the importance of intentionality – quite rightly, I think. He suggests it has been neglected, which I think is also true, although we must not go overboard: both Searle and Dennett, for example, have published whole books about it. In Tallis’ view the capacity to think explicitly about things is a key unique feature of human mindfulness, and that too may well be correct. I’m less sure about his characterisation of intentionality as an outward arrow. Perception, he says, is usually represented purely in terms of information flowing in, but there is also a corresponding outward flow of intentionality. The rose we’re looking at hits our eye (or rather a beam of light from the rose does so), but we also, as it were, think back at the rose. Is this a useful way of thinking about intentionality? It has the merit of foregrounding it, but I think we’d need a theory of intentionality  in order to judge whether talk of an outward arrow was helpful or confusing, and no fully-developed theory is on offer.

Tallis has a very vivid evocation of a form of the binding problem, the issue of how all our different sensory inputs are brought together in the mind coherently. As normally described, the binding problem seems like lip-synch issues writ large: Tallis focuses instead on the strange fact that consciousness is united and yet composed of many small distinct elements at the same time.  He rightly points out that it’s no good having a theory which merely explains how things are all brought together: if you combine a lot of nerve impulses into one you just mash them. I think the answer may be that we can experience a complex unity because we are complex unities ourselves, but it’s an excellent and thought-provoking exposition.

Tallis’ attack on’ Darwinitis’ takes on Cosmidoobianism, memes and the rest with predictable but entertaining vigour. Again, he presses things quite a long way. It’s one thing to doubt whether every feature of human culture is determined by evolution: Tallis seems to suggest that human culture has no survival value, or at any rate, had none until recently, too recently to account for human development. This is reminiscent of the argument put by Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of the principle of survival of the fittest: he later said that evolution could not account for human intelligence because a caveman could have lived his life perfectly well with a much less generous helping of it. The problem is that this leaves us needing a further explanation of why we are so brainy and cultured; Wallace, alas, ended up resorting to spiritualism to fill the gap (we can feel confident that Tallis, a notable public champion of disbelief, will never go that way). It seems better to me to draw a clear distinction between the capacity for human culture, which is wholly explicable by evolutionary pressure, and the contents of human culture, which are largely ephemeral, variable, and non-hereditary.

Tallis points out that some sleight of hand with vocabulary is not unknown in this area, in particular the tactic of the transferrred epithet: a word implying full mental activity is used metaphorically – a ‘smart’ bomb is said to be ‘hunting down’ its target – and the important difference is covertly elided. He notes the particular slipperiness of the word ‘information’, something we’ve touched on before.

It is a weakness of Tallis’ position that he has no general alternative theory to offer in place of those he is attacking – consciousness remains a mystery (he sympathises with Colin McGinn’s mysterianism to some degree, incidentally, but reproves him for suggesting that our inability to understand ourselves might be biological). However, he does offer positive views of selfhood and free will, both of which he is concerned to defend. Rather than the brain, he chooses to celebrate the hand as a defining and influential human organ: opposable thumbs allow it to address itself and us: it becomes a proto-tool and this gives us a sense of ourselves as acting on the world in a tool-like manner. In this way we develop a sense of ourselves as a distinct entity and an agent, an existential intuition.  This is OK as far as it goes though it does sound in places like another theory of how we get a mere impression, or dare I say an illusion, of selfhood and agency, the very position Tallis wants to refute. We really need more solid ontological foundations. In response to critics who have pointed to the elephant’s trunk and the squid’s tentacles, Tallis grudgingly concedes that hands alone are not all you need and a human brain does have something to contribute.

Turning to free will, Tallis tackles Libet’s experiments (which seem to show that a decision to move one’s hand is actually made a measurable time before one becomes aware of it). So, he says, the decision to move the hand can be tracked back half a second? Well, that’s nothing: if you like you can track it back days, to when the experimental subject decided to volunteer; moreover, the aim of the subject was not just to move the hand, but also to help that nice Dr Libet, or to forward the cause of science. In this longer context of freely made decisions the precise timing of the RP is of no account.

To be free according to Tallis, an act must be expressive of what the agent is, the agent must seem to be the initiator, and the act must deflect the course of events. If we are inclined to doubt that we can truly deflect the course of events, he again appeals to a wider context: look at the world around us, he says, and who can doubt that collectively we have diverted the course of events pretty substantially?  I don’t think this will convert any determinists. The curious thing is that Tallis seems to be groping for a theory of different levels of description, or well, a dual aspect theory.  I would  have thought dual-aspect theories ought to be quite congenial to Tallis, as they represent a rejection of ‘nothing but’ reductionism in favour of an attempt to give all levels of interpretation parity of esteem, but alas it seems not.

As I say, there is no new theory of consciousness on offer here, but Tallis does review the idea that we might need to revise our basic ideas of how the world is put together in order to accommodate it. He is emphatically against traditional dualism, and he firmly rejects the idea that quantum physics might have the explanation too. Panpsychism may have a certain logic but generate more problems than it solves.  Instead he points again to the importance of intentionality and the need for a new view that incorporates it: in the end ‘Thatter’, his word for the indexical, intentional quality of the mental world, may be as important as matter.