Asperger’s, Autism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness
This test was also originally devised by Wellman and Estes, and involves asking the child what the brain is for. They found that normal 3-4 year olds already know that the brain has a set of mental functions, such as dreaming, wanting, thinking, keeping secrets, etc., Some also knew it had physical functions (such as making you move, or helping you stay alive, etc.). In contrast , children with autism (but who again had a mental age above a 4 year old level) appear to know about the physical functions, but typically fail to mention any mental function of the brain (Baron-Cohen, 1989a)
This paper on autism and theory of mind really shines a light on the most intractable problem within philosophy of mind. In particular
…children from about the age of 4 years old normally are able to distinguish between appearance and reality, that is, they can talk about objects which have misleading appearances. For example, they may say, when presented with a candle fashioned in the shape of an apple, that it looks like an apple but is really a candle. Children with autism, presented with the 5 same sorts of tests, tend to commit errors of realism, saying the object really is an apple, or really is a candle, but do not capture the object’s dual identity in their spontaneous descriptions (Baron-Cohen, 1989a).
This cartoon from a Psychology Today article illustrates the kinds of tests that show whether children have developed what is called a theory of mind; an understanding of the contents of other people’s experience:
“Children with autism are virtually at chance on this test, as likely to indicate one character as the other when asked “Which one knows what’s in the box?””
So often it becomes clear to me in debating the issues of consciousness that they are missing something which cannot be replaced by logic. The way that many people think, especially those who are very intelligent in math and physics, only includes a kind of toy model of experience – one which fails to fully realize the difference between the map and the territory. It makes a lot of sense to be that having a very low-res, two dimensional theory of mind would correlate with having a philosophy of mind which undersignifies privacy and oversignifies mechanistic influences. The low res theory of mind comes with a built in bias toward behaviorism, where all events are caused by public conditions rather than private feelings and experiences.
There are several other interesting findings in the (brief) paper. Autistic children find it difficult to tell the difference between what they meant to do and what they actually did, so that when they shoot at a target and miss, they don’t understand that they intended to hit it but ended up missing it and say that they meant to miss. Overall, the list of deficits in imagination, pragmatics, social mindreading, etc has been called mindblindness. This is not to say that everyone who doesn’t understand the hard problem has mindblindness, but I would say it is very likely that having mindreading-empathy deficits on the autistic spectrum would tend to result in a strong bias against idealism, panpsychism, free will, or the hard problem of consciousness.
When Kant wrote:
‘Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves.
he brings up a point of distinction which I think can be resolved when we consider consciousness to absolutely primitive in the universe. When we say that something exists or that it simply is, we are invoking an unacknowledged sense of omnipotence. When we say for example that a circle exists, we are really exporting our own experiences of seeing circular patterns, or of participating in circular motions, repeating processes, etc into a hypothetical experience which hypothetically does not belong to us.
To say that the circle exists does not add anything to the description of a circle. We cannot imagine that there is a ‘circle which does not exist’ and expect it to be meaningful, since there is nothing that it means not to exist other than to be absent from consideration in the first place. It is upon this minor slip of epistemology into pseudo-ontology that the entire criticism of idealism hinges. George Berkeley’s phrase Esse est percipi (“To be is to be perceived”) encapsulates this recognition that the notion of being is a fallacy when it is separated from perception. Unfortunately, Berkeley was in my opinion too far ahead of his time to escape being misunderstood, and he himself had a conception of human psychology which was too simplistic to recover the principle without appeal to religion. He did not consider separating out perception from a perceiver or distinguishing human perception from non-human perception. The famous garbling of Berkeley’s ideas which we know as ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody around to here it, does it make a sound?’.
This of course was not very close to the philosophy that Berkeley had in mind since it opens a huge loophole that we find to be silly on the face of it. Of course a tree falling in a forest makes a sound – animals hear it, the ground shakes, etc. To say that none of that exists just because no human being is around would be insane. When we consider, however, that the nature of hearing is such that the event of the tree falling is part of a chain reaction that includes compression waves in the air, and our ears, and isomorphic waves of biochemical activity in the nervous system and brain, it is difficult to say what it is that is a ‘sound’ and how much a sound can really be separated from the experience of hearing.
Even if we can’t hear, the vibration of a tree falling is something that we can feel throughout our body. Informally we might say that we felt the vibration, or that we could feel the that the tree fell, but ultimately it is our own feeling of our body which is vibrating. We feel the world through our body, but the body, world, feeling, and vibration are different levels of description of the same thing. There is no vibration, tree, or body which exists independently of a sensory experience in which those things are presented. It is my suspicion that our conception of electromagnetism as a sort of vibration in a vacuum is mistaken because of the failure to consider the kinds of ideas that Kant and Berkeley were talking about.
In part I, I made the connection between poor theory of mind skills and the denial of the hard problem of consciousness. The cartoon about Ann and Sally can give some important insight as to fundamental differences in how people understand perception and reality. In the autism cases, children tend not to be able to understand that Sally will not know that Ann has put the ball in the box since they, the reader of the cartoon, knows that Ann put it there. This ‘mindblindness’ is exactly what Berkeley and Kant were each trying to overcome in their own way. Kant pointed out that the concept of existence or being without perceptual essences is purely conceptual, while Berkeley saw that perceptual essences are in fact identical with being. Our seeing Ann put the ball in the box does not give Sally access to that experience. Writing a program which displays the cartoon does not give the computer an experience of seeing it.
The interesting thing about awareness is that it is a real predicate. Unlike the idea of ‘being’ or existence, awareness isn’t merely the idea that X is a “thing” but that X is a concrete perceptual encounter. It has aesthetic qualities like hot or cold, loud or quiet, etc. Even the feeling of being a perceiver of X can be understood as a kind of feeling, so that we need not think of the entire universe as miniature souls as Leibniz thought (monads), but a vast exchange and development of perceptions. Beginning from there, we can see how quantitative structures could emerge from variations in aesthetic qualities and how those structures could be used as mechanical shortcuts for prediction and control, yet without ever developing additional qualities of experience on the machine level.
Searle’s Chinese Room and the other Symbol Grounding arguments are attempts to bring Kant and Berkeley’s insights into artificial intelligence. They show how a computer can function on a syntactic level, passing recorded relations of data back and forth, without having any higher level understanding. There doesn’t appear to be any special level of sophistication at which a machine that is built to imitate functions of the mind becomes a genuine experience of its own. As long as we look for a magic formula to create a ‘being’, we are making the mistake of confusing a ‘dozen’ with a thing that can be built out of eggs.