Archive for February, 2018

Maybe there’s a better strategy on consciousness? An early draft paper by David Chalmers suggests we turn from the Hard Problem (explaining why there is ‘something it is like’ to experience things) and address the Meta-Problem of why people think there is a Hard Problem; why we find the explanation of phenomenal experience problematic. While paper does make clear broadly what Chalmers’ own views are, it primarily seeks to map the territory, and does so in a way that is very useful.

Why would we decide to focus on the Meta-Problem? For sceptics, who don’t believe in phenomenal experience or think that the apparent problems about it stem from mistakes and delusions, it’s a natural piece of tidying up. In fact, for sceptics why people think there’s a problem may well be the only thing that really needs explaining or is capable of explanation. But Chalmers is not a sceptic. Although he acknowledges the merits of the broad sceptical case about phenomenal consciousness which Keith Frankish has recently championed under the label of illusionism, he believes it is indeed real and problematic. He believes, however, that illuminating the Meta-Problem through a programme of thoughtful and empirical research might well help solve the Hard Problem itself, and is a matter of interest well beyond sceptical circles.

To put my cards on the table, I think he is over-optimistic, and seems to take too much comfort from the fact that there have to be physical and functional explanations for everything. It follows from that that there must indeed at least be physical and functional explanations for our reports of experience, our reports of the problem, and our dispositions to speak of phenomenal experience, qualia, etc. But it does not follow that there must be adequate and satisfying explanations.

Certainly physical and functional explanations alone would not be good enough to banish our worries about phenomenal experience. They would not make the itch go away. In fact, I would argue that they are not even adequate for issues to do with the ‘Easy Problem’, roughly the question of how consciousness allows us to produce intelligent and well-directed behaviour. We usually look for higher-level explanations even there; notably explanations with an element of teleology – ones that tell us what things are for or what they are supposed to do. Such explanations can normally be cashed out safely in non-teleological terms, such as strictly-worded evolutionary accounts; but that does not mean they are dispensable or not needed in order for us to understand properly.

How much more challenging things are when we come to Hard Problem issues, where a claim that they lie beyond physics is of the essence. Chalmer’s optimism is encapsulated in a sentence when he says…

Presumably there is at least a very close tie between the mechanisms that generate phenomenal reports and consciousness itself.

There’s your problem. Illusionists can be content with explanations that never touch on phenomenal consciousness because they don’t think it exists, but no explanation that does not connect with it will satisfy qualophiles. But how can you connect with a phenomenon explanatorily without diagnosing its nature? It really seems that for believers, we have to solve the Hard Problem first (or at least, simultaneously) because believers are constrained to say that the appearance of a problem arises from a real problem.

Logically, that is not quite the case; we could say that our dispositions to talk about phenomenal experience arise from merely material causes, but just happen to be truthful about a second world of phenomenal experience, or are truthful in light of a Leibnizian pre-established harmony. Some qualophiles are similarly prepared to say that their utterances about qualia are not caused by qualia, so that position might seem appealing in some quarters. To me the harmonised second world seems hopelessly redundant, and that is why something like illusionism is, at the end of the day, the only game in town.

I should make it clear that Chalmers by no means neglects the question of what sort of explanation will do; in fact he provides a rich and characteristically thorough discussion. It’s more that in my opinion, he just doesn’t know when he’s beaten, which to be fair may be an outlook essential to the conduct of philosophy.

I say that something like illusionism seems to be the only game in town, though I don’t quite call myself an illusionist. There’s a presentational difficulty for me because I think the reality of experience, in an appropriate sense, is the nub of the matter. But you could situate my view as the form of illusionism which says the appearance of ineffable phenomenal experience arises from the mistaken assumption that particular real experiences should be within the explanatory scope of general physical theory.

I won’t attempt to summarise the whole of Chalmers’ discussion, which is detailed and illuminating; although I think he is doomed to disappointment, the project he proposes might well yield good new insights; it’s often been the case that false philosophical positions were more fecund than true ones.

There’s a fundamental ontological difference between people and programs which means that uploading a mind into a machine is quite impossible.

I thought I’d get my view in first (hey, it’s my blog), but I was inspired to do so by Beth Elderkin’s compilation of expert views in Gizmodo, inspired in turn by Netflix’s series Altered Carbon. The question of uploading is often discussed in terms of a hypothetical Star Trek style scanner and the puzzling thought experiments it enables. What if instead of producing a duplicate of me far away, the scanner produced two duplicates? What if my original body was not destroyed – which is me? But let’s cut to the chase; digital data and a real person belong to different ontological realms. Digital data is a set of numbers, and so has a kind of eternal Platonic essence. A person is a messy entity bound into time and space. The former subsist, the latter exist; you cannot turn one into the other, any more than an integer can become a biscuit and get eaten.

Or look at it this way; a digitisation is a description. Descriptions, however good, do not contain the thing described (which is why the science of colour vision does not contain the colour red, as Mary found in the famous thought experiment).

OK, well, that that, see you next time… Oh, sorry, yes, the experts…

Actually there are many good points in the expert views. Susan Schneider makes three main ones. First, we don’t know what features of a human brain are essential, so we cannot be sure we are reproducing them; quantum physics imposes some limits on how precisely we can copy th3 brain anyway. Second, the person left behind by a non-destructive scanner surely is still you, so a destructive scan amounts to death. Third, we don’t know whether AI consciousness is possible at all. So no dice.

Anders Sandberg makes the philosophical point that it’s debatable whether a scanner transfers identity. He tends to agree with Parfit that there is no truth of the matter about it. He also makes the technical point that scanning a brain in sufficient detail is an impossibly vast and challenging task, well beyond current technology at least. While a digital insert controlling a biological body seems feasible in theory, reshaping a biological brain is probably out of the question. He goes on to consider ethical objections to uploading, which don’t convince him.

Randal Koene thinks uploading probably is possible. Human consciousness, according to the evidence, arises from brain processes; if we reproduce the processes, we reproduce the mind. The way forward may be through brain prostheses that replace damaged sections of brain, which might lead ultimately to a full replacement. He thinks we must pursue the possibility of uploading in order to escape from the ecological niche in which we may otherwise be trapped (I think humans have other potential ways around that problem).

Miguel A. L. Nicolelis dismisses the idea. Our minds are not digital at all, he says, and depend on information embedded in the brain tissue that cannot be extracted by digital means.

I’m basically with Nicolelis, I fear.


The self is real – it just, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. That’s the case made by Serife Tekin in Aeon. She begins by rightly pointing out the current popularity of disbelief in the self. She traces antirealist thinking right back to Hume, who said he was never able to spot his self by introspection; all he ever came up with was a bundle of perceptions. Interestingly she picks out Dennett as a contemporary example of antirealism, but she could readily have pointed to several others who think the self is an illusion or misinterpretation, perhaps stemming from our cognitive limitations, or from the reflexivity that arises when we turn our mind on itself.

Tekin by contrast suggests the self is both real and open to proper scientific investigation. It’s just that it has many forms; it is multitudinous. Borrowing from Neisser, she suggests five main dimensions of the self…

…the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.

I don’t think these five types are meant to exhaust the variety of the self, which actually comes in a huge variety of shifting shapes. Nor are we meant to think that there is no basic unity; the five work together to provide an overall coherence of agency, though not without retaining some inner tensions and contradictions (nothing too strange psychologically in the idea that we may entertain contradictory thoughts and feelings in certain contexts.

The fivefold structure pays off because Tekin can give a separate account of how each can be addressed scientifically. The ecological self is easily observable, for example; fir the interpersonal self we need to pay attention to social aspects, but no great problem there. The most difficult seems likely to be the private self; Tekin seems to think we can get to that simply by interviewing people about ‘what it is like’, which perhaps underrates the problems.

Overall, it’s a sensible and appealing position. The curious thing is how close it seems to the kind of position taken by Dennett, here quoted as an example of antirealism. In fact, Dennett’s ideas are more nuanced than some. He doesn’t believe in a continuous, coherent self like a soul, but he is content to liken the self to a centre of gravity; not a real physical entity as such but a useful and harmless construction. As the author of the ‘multiple drafts’ theory of consciousness, I think he might rather like Tekin’s multitudinousness; and her approach to the private self looks quite like his ‘heterophenomenology’ in which we give up trying to study ineffable inner experience, but happily give consideration to what people tell us about ineffable inner experience.

This raises the attractive possibility that sceptics and believers might end up constructing effectively identical models of the self, the only difference being that one side regards the model as an eliminative reduction while the other sees it as simply analysis. I find that a strangely cheering prospect.