Archive for the ‘neuroscience’ Category

Hyper-Mentalism and Supernatural Belief

May 24, 2015 2 comments

This article from Psychology Today, Hyper-Mentalism, Hyper-Empathizing, and Supernatural Belief, talks about the diametric model’s explanation of the psychotic end of the autistic-psychotic spectrum.

“To use an analogy, the diametric model implies that we live in parallel mentalistic and mechanistic universes, with mental causality ruling the first and physical causality the second. Religious, superstitious, and magical thinking clearly represent an encroachment of the mental world on the real one in the form of belief in divine creation, miracles, the power of prayers and spells, and so on. Indeed, as I pointed out in an earlier post, you could see traditional religion and superstition as the result of a primeval mentalistic inflation which hyper-mentalized the real world, in part because mechanistic understanding of it in the form of modern science, medicine, and technology had not had time to develop. Furthermore, you could also see this as the paradigmatic historical case of a “combination of strong mentalizing coupled with poor understanding of the physical world.”

In my view, this is very close to the hypothesis that has been developed under the Multisense Continuum or ACME/OMMM model.

The diametric model deserves more attention, in my view, however I think that the assumptions behind the model are themselves biased toward the systemizing/mechanistic end of the spectrum. Note the language in the quote above: “Religious, superstitious, and magical thinking clearly represent an encroachment of the mental world on the real one“. Highly subjective states are identified as being intrinsically unreal rather than being an extension of nature and reality. The end of that quote shows another good example of the mechanistic worldview, associating superstition with “poor understanding of the physical world.” I would not deny that there are many people who do suffer from a poor understanding of the physical world and compensate for that to some extent with magical thinking, however, that correlation does not always hold true. Many people, such as myself, embrace the physical world and have an excellent understanding of it, yet see that behind and beyond mechanistic appearances are also more subtle natural phenomena. It is not that the psychotic is poorly equipped for reality, it is more like reality poorly equipped to contain psychotic hyper-sensitivities. This is not to say that paranoid schizophrenics are right about the content of their delusions, only that the form of paranoid delusions reflect (in a distorted way) the transpersonal territory of the psyche.

In the short article linked above, the author makes the distinction between his diametric model and “Simon Baron-Cohen’s rival scheme, which has systemizing versus empathizing instead of the diametric model’s mechanistic versus mentalistic cognitive dualism”. Here again, the distinction between empathizing and mentalistic is itself a mechanizing/systemizing distinction. Both the diametric model and empathizing-systemizing model label the ‘feminine’ side in terms of a personal function. The former sees empathy as a cognitive skill, while the latter seems to suggest that it is overdeveloped empathy which interferes with the correct application of cognitive skills. In both cases, the bias of contemporary academic science shows through: Extraordinary awareness which conflicts with consensus reality is a defect.

This bias is not surprising, nor is it even a negative if we are trying to get a handle on human psychology for purposes of treatment. The problem that I see, is that it closes the door on the deeper dimensions of psyche and fails to take seriously the implications of consciousness transcending classical physics. Once we do take a scientifically objective look at these implications, I think that we wind up with a theory of order and participation in the universe which is not limited to human psychology but extends beyond physics, information science, philosophy, and religion: A new scientific cosmology based on sense phenomena.


The Autistic-Psychotic Spectrum of Metaphysical Ontology

August 31, 2014 4 comments

My recent interest in the autism theories of Simon Baron-Cohen, Crespi and Badcock has given me a new way of describing what I call the Multisense Continuum. My interest in the autism work is not so much in the literal interpretation of these theories, but in the themes that the theories tie into. Whether or not autism is caused by high fetal testosterone or selection pressure for ‘maternal resources’ is not my interest personally, and my instinct is that these are ultimately regressive approaches that can be too easily politicized.

What I am interested in, however, is the continuum itself. The concept of autism, not as it really is; a complex set of possible traits related to social development, language, interests, etc, but as a stereotype. The themes of autism and the way those themes can be juxtaposed against the themes of psychosis diametrically are, in my view, the keys to understanding consciousness, and by extension, all of nature. This may sound like an idea which is both psychotic and autistic…and that would make perfect sense.

What I am saying is that the entire universe and the fabric of every part of the universe are fundamentally rooted in the same thematic spectrum as these theories. Physics is the autistic spectrum of the universe, and subjectivity is its psychotic spectrum.

Here are some other ways to look at it:

Unnatural > Natural < Supernatural

In this simple version, the left side would be the autistic side, called ‘unnatural’ to reflect the atomized, mechanical aesthetic of the cosmos. Repetition and isolation are highlighted. Each part a discrete object connected to other objects through highly systemized, literal links.

The right side (and I always put the subjective side on the right or “East” side as it is the “orienting” side) would be the psychotic side, called ‘supernatural’ to reflect the irrational, mystical, and divine connotations of delusional and psychedelic states. I think that people who have experienced bipolar shifts from mania to depression might agree that they correspond to a transition from personal identification with the divine to a divine disillusionment or abandonment. Psychedelic trips also famously follow this supernatural ‘Heaven and Hell’ amplification of what would ordinarily be the simple highs and lows of mood. Moods swing up and down, but they also swing left and right, from saturated, floridly supernatural hallucinations to flat, utilitarian execution on the left.
This is not to say that all supernatural experiences are ‘hallucinations’ or that all unnatural influences are devoid of empathy, only that this is what the universe is doing with itself…oscillating and tessellating through this spectrum, expanding it in ever more elaborate ways.

A semiotic way of expressing it might be:

Semaphoric > Morphic || Phoric < Metaphoric

On the left*, I am using a neologism “semaphoric” to make the connection with deflating the broad, poetic sensibility of loose metaphorical association to the precisely defined, mathematical sensibility of codes and logic. Semaphores are flags, like digits or cards** which are used for making compressing information and making it unambiguous. Semaphoric sensibility is bottom up, building complex communication from binary or quantized alphabets.

The center (Natural) section is bifurcated here into the Morphic and Phoric, referring to form and feeling respectively. Form could be geometric objects in space or functional steps in time while feeling would be the appreciation of and participation in sensory experience which may or may not be attached to logical objects/functions. The double pipe (“||”) emphasizes a fold in the continuum, since the inflection point at which the morphological counter-aesthetic of bodies in spacetime and the native, ‘phoric’ aesthetic of experiences-qualia within itself is one of diametric opposition. The flavor of apple pie is not only nothing like the structure of organic chemistry, it is the opposite ontological expression

On the right, ‘metaphoric’ refers to the sensibility which is anchored in the firmament of collective experience. Just as the semaphoric bumps up against a minimum limit of binary logic, the metaphoric branches out into a kind of unification of infinity…a maximum holism. Here, the logic of space and quantity breaks down entirely, as all of history is fused into pool of potential inspiration and meaning. Fantasy is intrinsic to all experience, including the fantasy of escaping fantasy entirely.

Autism > Systemizing || Empathizing < Psychosis

So yeah, this is the human personal version of the Multisense continuum in my view. The extremes of autism would map to my category of OMMM (Only Material Matters Matter) and ACME (Anything Can Mean Everything) would map to the Bipolar/Schizophrenia category. There are endless other ways of expressing this, and I did not even get into how the spectrum ‘wraps around’ so that left and right ends can be seen as the center, but that works also (instead of a diametric “||” there would be an evanescent …… linkage for the ‘Ouroboran’ wrap around).

My hunch is that this spectrum can be formalized for scientific purposes, and that the systemizing and empathizing functions can be understood in ontological terms. The pound sign # and the asterisk * can even be a clue, or perhaps 🙂  < *

* left is also Western-Occidental, counter to default orientation.

**Descartes, interestingly, was so named because of ‘cartes’, or charts that he used to explain his theories, theories which ushered in the Enlightenment era of Cartesian coordinates, through which space and time were digitally quantified.

Zooming in on Reductionism and Extremely Gendered Brains

August 30, 2014 3 comments


istock_connecting-the-dots functional_view

One of the greatest obstacles to understanding the hard problem of consciousness and the explanatory gap between function and qualia is that we are psychologically conditioned to overlook the destructive compression of reductionism.

Only a person who is familiar with the shape of the State of Texas can fully understand the connect the dots image shown above. I have included an intermediate image between ‘potential Texas’ and the Functional View to show how even a shift in perspective can make identification impossible. In the end, no identification at all is necessary fro a machine to logically connect one dot to the next in an n+1 sequence. No matter how many dots are connected, it is just the same mechanical action. No geometry or memory is required, just a machine that logically associate one point of data with the next.

When we build computations out of that, we can step back and look at all of the dots and say “yes, the computer is drawing Texas, therefore it might know what Texas is.” or “surely the more complex the arrangement of dots, the more likely it is that a computer could develop geometry and visual experiences of shape”, but there is no logical support for that. Each process of the machine can continue on as it has, completing one mindless task after another, including mindless meta-tasks of associating many groups of data points with many other.

When we reduce the reds, blues, and yellows of light to ‘simply’ electromagnetic wavelengths, we are suggesting that some agent is converting a set of colorless data points into a a color. This is the explanatory gap. A surprisingly high percentage of the population has no trouble with outright denying that there is a gap at all, and will insist that color simply “is” the brain’s reaction to processing data about light. They do not see that processing of data need only be an invisible, functional interpretation of logical points, compressible to any kind of labeling scheme we like.

A brain could easily use biochemical, epigenetic, or quantum computation to label its vast oceans of data at high speed without having to invent flavors, colors, or feelings. Colors are not even the best example because visual qualia maps relatively isomorphically to optical measurements. The same is not true for flavors and emotions, which bear almost no resemblance to physics. If we allowed the brain to produce a single dimension of sense, there is no plausible reason to have to produce a second, any more than there would be a reason for a car’s dashboard to make a musical playlist to accompany itself. If for some reason a computer needed to see its own data, and it could somehow magically conjure that into existence out of its ‘complexity’, seeing would be more than enough to fulfill all data compression needs forever.

An interesting explanation for the inability of so many people to recognize the gap between function and qualia may be hinted at in Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing–Systemizing (E-S) theory of brain types, and Crespi and Badcock’s paper Psychosis and autism as diametrical disorders of the social brain. I have already caught shit for proposing this, as it may sound like I am saying that autism is bad, or that people who favor functionalism are autistic, but that is actually the almost the opposite of what I am saying. What I think the truth is, or might be, is that everyone carries these diametrical potentials (which map to my ACME-OMMM dichotomy, btw) to some extent, and they reflect the continuum of human consciousness, philosophy of mind, and nature itself. This article had this to say about it:

In their forthcoming article in the premier journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Crespi and Badcock present a very convincing case for paranoid schizophrenia as an extreme female brain. Now the whole picture appears to be complete. When your brain is “too male,” too systemizing, too mechanistic, you become autistic. When your brain is “too female,” too empathizing, too mentalistic, you become paranoid schizophrenic. If the extreme male brain of an autistic is “mindblind,” then you might suggest that the extreme female brain of a paranoid schizophrenia is “logicblind.”

Again, to be clear, I am not advocating a clinical reductionism in psychology. I’m not advocating the labeling of autism this or male-female that. This is not about neuroscience or biology for me*, it is about metaphysics and ontology. The difference between representation and presentation, and how they are flipped again and again within nature, and how they are both lenses which define each other.

Part II of this post here.

*I don’t blame people for having a negative reaction to this kind of science, as far as using terms like ‘extreme male brain’ in itself sounds like the product of ‘extreme male’ thinking. It seems crass and inaccurate to go down that road of categorizing people and pathologizing psychological differences as disorders, but I will take what I can get. I think that this research is on to something, regardless of how it may sound.

Why do people believe in the mind body problem?

July 28, 2014 Leave a comment
“Why do people believe in the mind body problem?

I thought this was solved long ago”

My answer on Quora:

Here are a few reasons I can think of:

  1. Our imagination seems immaterial.
    There is no imaginary stone, for example that is too heavy for us to lift. We can imagine ice cubes melting the sun or a new state of matter that is liquid gravity. Dreams are surreal, and provide evidence that fully realistic worlds can be rendered without there being the expected physics presented. If dreams were not realistic, it would be easier to swallow materialism. As it is, it is very tough to justify how it would be that brains would be able to instantly conjure up fantasy worlds without having access to the same creative resources that physics itself has.
  2. Mental representation is not physical.
    Our thoughts do not appear to break down into chemical compounds which can be transferred from brain to brain in an eyedropper. Instead, they can be communicated through representational signs across many different material substrates. Right now my thoughts are becoming part of your thoughts by means of electronic devices, but it could instead be communicated by voice, gesture, pen and paper, etc. Physical substances and forces cannot be transmitted as signs. We cannot send a text to someone dying of thirst which they can drink.
  3. We cannot access the brain through introspection.
    The greatest minds in history have never, through meditation alone discovered the details of neurology, biochemistry, etc. Common sense might suggest that since, for example, we can touch our body with our body, and see our eyes with our eyes, that we should be able to think of our brain with our brain, but that is not the case. It also goes the other way, where we can correlate data that we find in brain imaging to *known* ‘neural correlates’ like feelings or tasting flavors, but there is nothing in the brain images themselves which would or could ever suggest any such thing as a flavor or feeling.
  4. There is no logical connection between physical phenomena and subjective experience.
    Physics involves measurable forms which can be described using geometry and whose functions can be described through logical, arithmetic steps. Physics is intended to be done without any subjective experience (other than a zero dimensional ‘observer’). Subjectivity is the opposite kind of phenomena on every count from physics. It involves immeasurable qualities of aesthetic appreciation and participation which do not owe their significance to complex universal processes. Instead, subjectivity is comprised of a personalized richness of presentation which eliminates the need for complexity. There is no logical way that a certain wavelength of light could become ‘blue’, and no mathematical transformation which would make it more logical, yet blue is a quality which we cannot deny exists in the universe.
  5. Life is weirder than it seems like it should be.
    The fact that we have never come across any culture that does not have a concept of spirits and the afterlife does not have to mean that there are spirits and an afterlife, but it is certainly an odd thing to have as an anthropological universal if there were nothing funny going on between mind and body. Physics and mathematics in the 20th century only adds to the weirdness, since, after all, if there were nothing but bodies colliding into each other, then we would have no need for concepts like uncertainty, and if logic were nothing but objective facts, then we would have no need for the idea of incompleteness. Also there are so many fishy things that people report all of the time…Near Death Experiences, Out of Body Experiences, psychedelic revelations, paranormal capabilities, synchronicity, etc. If you think that these can be easily swept aside by insisting that they are just anomalies and fraud then you have not looked at the research fairly.
  6. It is the default/naive truth of human experience.
    The sense of being ‘in’ our body, looking out of our eyes is something that we take for granted, but has no basis in physics. Your screen doesn’t have to feel like it is sitting in front of a computer to work, so the fact that there is any sense of being ‘inside’ of ‘our’ body is already a hint at our relation to space and time. Our body is more like a window or a filter than it is a robot. We can say that the Earth is not flat, but if that were literally and completely true, it would be hard to explain why carpenters use a level. Indeed, the roundness of the Earth is not especially useful most of the time for those of us who actually live on the surface of it and experience it as flat. Any description of the universe which fails to mention that planets seem flat when you walk on them and only seem round from a distance is not complete.
  7. Because they have considered the issue deeply.
    While the last few centuries have seen the rise of scientific worldviews which describe our experience from the outside in, some people have noticed that there is a problem with this. Since subjective experience is private to begin with, there is no reason to expect that a worldview which is bound exclusively to public inspection would not be grossly misleading. In fact, the failure of behaviorism in psychology and artificial intelligence in computer science to demonstrate satisfying results should have steered us away from these kinds of approaches already. Fortunately some of the leading scientists and philosophers in the field of consciousness, like Tononi, Koch, and Chalmers have been pointing in a new direction, one which involves consciousness rather than matter as a fundamental property. There is a long tradition within philosophy, particularly in Eastern thought which holds that awareness is the fundamental reality and that matter, bodies, and brains are borrowed from a universal pool of ideas and experiences. The universe may be made of stories rather than things, and things are just part of the story.
  8. Because they have natural insight into the issue
    A recent study suggest to me that not everyone has an equal chance at understanding the mind/body problem. For people whose minds are very logical, they may identify exclusively with the process of their own intellect rather than the qualities of experience from which the intellect arises. I wrote a post about this: Asperger’s, Autism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness For others, the fact of subjectivity is quite plain and ordinary. We move our hand by moving it directly out of our own intention. Whatever biochemical description accompanies that movement is not enough to even define why it is occurring in the first place.
  9. Because simulation theories and emergence are misguided.
    Most theories which collapse subjectivity into physics rely on the kind of GUI model. We look at the computer screen and see pictures and words, and it is natural to think that this relationship would be part of a physical mechanism. A brain would simply produce computations that look like something or taste a certain way because looks and tastes are a way of labeling information and organizing it. What this view fails to recognize is that labeling information would only mean that it would be processed differently, not that those differences would suddenly become a flavor or a sound. Emergence is a way of chasing our tail and fooling ourselves that we have explained consciousness, but in reality, emergence itself cannot be explained without awareness. The parts of an airplane can be individually thrown in the air, so that even though to our understanding the property of a plane flying by itself seems new, it is not at all surprising to the universe. Consciousness is not like that, since there is no configuration of physical objects that would result in a subjective experience, even as an extension of some physical force or field to become self-sustaining or consolidated, etc. The raw ontology of privacy isn’t there to begin with in our model of physics or information.

Asperger’s, Autism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness

July 22, 2014 1 comment

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.

Part II

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.

IIT 3.0 Central Axioms

July 7, 2014 Leave a comment

From the Phenomenology to the Mechanisms of Consciousness: Integrated Information Theory 3.0

The recent publication of new details for Tononi & Koch’s Integrated Information Theory includes the following central axioms, which are “taken to be immediately evident,”:

  • Existence: Consciousness exists – it is an undeniable aspect of reality. Paraphrasing Descartes, “I experience therefore I am”.
  • Composition: Consciousness is compositional (structured): each experience consists of multiple aspects in various combinations. Within the same experience, one can see, for example, left and right, red and blue, a triangle and a square, a red triangle on the left, a blue square on the right, and so on.
  • Information: Consciousness is informative: each experience differs in its particular way from other possible experiences. Thus, an experience of pure darkness is what it is by differing, in its particular way, from an immense number of other possible experiences. A small subset of these possible experiences includes, for example, all the frames of all possible movies.
  • Integration: Consciousness is integrated: each experience is (strongly) irreducible to non-interdependent components. Thus, experiencing the word “SONO” written in the middle of a blank page is irreducible to an experience of the word “SO” at the right border of a half-page, plus an experience of the word “NO” on the left border of another half page – the experience is whole. Similarly, seeing a red triangle is irreducible to seeing a triangle but no red color, plus a red patch but no triangle.
  • Exclusion: Consciousness is exclusive: each experience excludes all others – at any given time there is only one experience having its full content, rather than a superposition of multiple partial experiences; each experience has definite borders – certain things can be experienced and others cannot; each experience has a particular spatial and temporal grain – it flows at a particular speed, and it has a certain resolution such that some distinctions are possible and finer or coarser distinctions are not.

In looking at each of them, I can’t help but want to point out that the opposite of each axiom is also true in a sense. Consider:

Existence: Consciousness is a spectrum of qualities which appear to come in and out of existence. Some qualities of consciousness are ‘barely there’ or arguably resist being defined as existing. We can, for example, dream of a book in which there are sentences which appear to be made out of words and letters, but cannot be read. We might remember someone’s face in a way that seems specific, but when we reach for concrete details, we find that they do not ‘exist’.

Composition: Here too, if we look at other kinds of conscious experience, such as the flavor of a wine, it is not clear that there is an objective structure. We will not necessarily agree that there are earthy notes followed by floral notes, etc. The wine can be experienced as a gestalt which, while containing the potential for nuanced composition to be drawn out, does not necessitate any such formal realization in structure. We need not presume only a combination of discrete units, but we can also model a diffraction from top level simplicities downward.

Information: Conscious contents range from being highly informative to highly repetitious without materially altering their significance. Many addictive behaviors rely on the pure pleasure of the experience without any analytical dimension of uniqueness or learning behind them. Information may only pertain to communication and representation of conscious experience, not to the experience itself.

Integration: I agree fundamentally that in one sense, each experience stands on its own, however, in another sense, every experience is associated with ranges of other experiences to different degrees. If anything, it the modulation between qualities of being integrated, informing, composed, etc and their opposite qualities of disintegration, ignorance, decomposition, etc which are implicated in consciousness.

Exclusion: Here I fundamentally disagree. While any given experience can be isolated intellectually, that partitioning appears to me to be superficial. Experience builds on itself, and every waking moment implicitly contains the presence of all past experiences and hints at future possibilities. Experience can be read on many different levels, so that even though exclusion is a large part of the function of the intellect, that aspect of experience itself is floating on a sea of metaphorical, intuitive, and universal influences. Exclusion is easy to assume in a figurative sense, as far as our typical human attention seems to find a quality of focus whenever it focuses on itself, but I think that in a literal sense, exclusion is impossible.




Is the brain the receiver of mind and consciousness, or their generator?

June 8, 2014 1 comment

My answer on Quora

The receiver model of consciousness need not be taken so literally as to presume that mind is exactly like an electromagnetic broadcast. Arguing for a receiver-like role for the brain does not require that we have a good theory of what is being received and how, only that there are other possibilities for the origin of consciousness besides being somehow generated within the tissue of the brain itself.

In a way, philosophy and science can be understood as the academic extensions of mind and body, respectively. Because this concept directly addresses some of the deepest mysteries in both philosophy and science, we should begin, in my view, from a position of Cartesian skepticism…assume nothing except what we cannot doubt, and proceed from there.

What do we really know about the brain? I think that we should all be able to agree that the brain is something which we see and touch with our body, and with technological extensions of our body. Why make a big deal out of that? Because although we can imagine many things in our mind that are true, the details of our own brain is not one of them. Everyone can see a brain with their eyes, but nobody can correctly imagine precise details of their own neurochemical functioning. By the same token, no brain imaging technology can show things like flavors, emotions, and colors being generated in the brain.

If we take our body’s word for what consciousness is, all that we can see is that the brain is the organ which can cause changes to behavior. If we image our own brain, we can learn that it is the organ through which we cause changes in our body.  It is through the activity of the brain that the mind can cause changes in the world. It should be noted that this world is the world that we ordinarily perceive to be outside of our mind, however even the advance of science has not prevented significant portions of the population from continuing to report various sorts of out of body experiences and experiences in which the world is not separated from the self.

In light of these conditions of uncertainty about mind and body, it may be premature to pronounce that 1) it is the body alone which produces mind and 2) the body is produced by something which is not like consciousness. If we dig down into the latter, I think that we find the most important possibility. When we think about the vast undertaking that is entailed in the division of a single zygote into a living human body, complete with central nervous system, brain, immune system, etc, the complexity is arguably far greater than what has been technologically achieved in human history thus far. Within the body, for example, there are countless critical processes which are maintained under dynamically changing conditions. It begs the question – if this fantastic orchestration of physiology can take place without minds or some kind of awareness, then why would the humble hominid develop this elaborate, metaphysical quality of ‘conscious’ experience just to keep up with the daily demands of food foraging and mate selection? What is it that would be so special about a human life that it would be the sole being which is capable of experiencing the universe?

Surely we don’t mean to say that no other animal experiences the universe, and as time goes on, we are finding fewer and fewer ways that human beings are different from other species in an unqualified way. It seems that at best, Homo sapiens recapitulates the features of a lot of different species, and has developed some of those feature to an elaborate degree. If what we see of other creatures is so limited by our own perception, so too might our scientific instruments amplify our limitations as well as our understanding. The more that we study our body, the less we remember that the body is only the exterior of our mind. The more we study other bodies in the world, the more that we define them by their behaviors. Cells and especially molecules and atoms are seen increasingly as mechanistic puppets, behaving according to principles which are also mechanical. What we have failed to see is the role that perceptual relativity plays in how our world is portrayed. We have learned to disregard our own direct view of the universe, trusting instead the view of the universe which is given to us when we look through microscopes and telescopes. The problem with that is that we define the significance of our own subjectivity from a perspective which has been filtered by our subjectivity to negate itself. When we construct this relatively objective worldview, subjectivity is zeroed out by necessity. Our enlightenment has literally blinded us to the ontologically ‘nocturnal’ phenomena in the universe.

In Steve Harris‘ answer, he says ‘You can’t damage a mere receiver to a normal intelligent mind in a way that mimics all common symptoms of dementia.’

A very good point. I agree that the brain is not like a receiver in the sense of being passive. To the contrary, the brain is more like a transceiver, and in my view, it is made of cellular transceivers, and molecular transceivers.
The internet is not contained in my computer, but if my local computer is damaged, I might not be able to get into certain websites. That, in turn, might affect my ability to effectively use other online services, and that in turn might affect my desire to continue using the internet at all (and then its lights out).

I propose that actually what we see as molecules, cells, and bodies are more like obstructions or standing waves within a primordial context of perception and participation that is very different from our own. Matter is not a separate substance, but rather a phenomenal presence which is encountered from a particular sensory perspective. Just as we can see different reflections with polarized filters, or a rainbow appears from one vantage point but not another, matter, cells, brains, and bodies are a way of looking at the collective history of our history as an organism from an ‘edge-on’ view, as it were. All that we are and all that we are not are distorted as through a fisheye lens before our eyes and behind them.

Philosophy and science, like mind and brain offer us two perspectives, each of which is unique in some sense and which together make a deeper kind of sense. Both philosophy and science formalize methods of inquiry into nature, but whereas science emerged as a kind of ‘performance enhancing’ philosophy specializing in nature, philosophy itself extends into metaphysics, ethics, politics, mathematics, etc. Following science back to philosophy is like following the brain back to the mind, and the mind itself as the accumulation of discipline and learning on an even more primordial animism of emotion and sensation.

I no longer see any reason to be afraid of a model of the universe in which brains and not minds physically exist, or in which science and not philosophy is allowed to contribute to the progress of human civilization. In light especially of the revelations of people like Einstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, we no longer need to think of the fabric of the universe as body-like. From pioneers like Jung and Leary and Ken Wilber, we no longer need to see the nature of consciousness as only mind-like. The inner universe and the outer universe seem to overlap, to share, and to diverge wildly, however ultimately, to me, it is brain-like structures which seem more plausible to ‘materialize’ within a sensory context than the other way around. There is no likelihood, as far as I can imagine, of unconscious matter to build bodies and brains, but then for brains to suddenly develop a need for something that is not physics to explain itself to itself.

What is the basis of reality: matter or consciousness? Why?

June 8, 2014 Leave a comment

My answer on Quora

I. What is the basis of reality?

A. Is it Matter?

1. Matter is thought to emerge from fundamental physical forces.

a. The strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity are considered to be the as-yet-irreducible ingredients of matter. We do not really understand what forces themselves are made of, or could be made of, so they are considered axiomatic. Known forces, fields, and the particle-wave effects which are produced by them can explain all of the scientific observations that we have, or so it would seem.

b. Not included in these physical fundamentals are ideal influences, such as geometry. How does a wave become wavy? Where does waving come from? Why are there geometric shapes when information processing of geometric problems can more easily be solved using binary math? This is a good way of showing that the hard problem of consciousness extends beyond biology and into metaphysics, since a universe which arose purely out of unconscious function would not be indicated by the symptom of being filled with figures and forms that require conscious sense modalities and perspectives to define.

If the universe were blind and intangible, and needs conscious beings to compose it into visible and tangible phenomena, then how can we say that what we think of as reality is composed by matter? Reality, as we have ever known it, is tangible (touchable) substance, with forms that often reveal characteristics of those substances. Certainly human consciousness is not what defines the universe, but how can we say what a universe would be without any definition from any consciousness? If such a ‘reality’ could exist, what would be the difference between that and nothingness, except that it is a nothingness which somehow leads to the birth of consciousness of an experienced reality?

B. Is it Consciousness?

1. What is beneath consciousness is debatable.

a. Some say that consciousness is information processing which is substrate independent. Subjective qualities like color and flavor are emergent from the complexity of arithmetic relations and exist for functional purposes (labeling or compressing data). If we recreate the complex interactions in silico, or even in a large network of pipes and mechanical valves, experiences such as the flavor of pineapple would emerge, just because that is what must happen.

b. Some say that it is the product of neurochemical functions, which could either be a computation which is substrate dependent for an unknown reason, or it could be a non-computational biological product such as digestion. A computer program could simulate digestion, but it can’t digest physically real food.

These both take the modus ponens approach to logic, where a proposition that is the same as something true is also true: Since we can taste pineapple, and we are made of a brain process, anything that performs the same process well enough must yield the same result.

If we take the modus tollens approach to logic, which is equally viable, we would say that since there is no logical justification for the flavor of pineapple to exist in either a computer program or a neurochemical function, and since a computer program or neurochemical function could conceivably be created that matches our brain to an arbitrary degree of precision, then it is false that consciousness can be defined purely in terms of biology and computation.

c. Some say that consciousness is of divine origin, or unexplained, or unexplainable. Others say that consciousness could have no origin. In my view, this makes the most sense, since the idea of an origin does not seem native to mathematics or physics, and originality appears to be a quality within consciousness rather than the other way around. In fact, every quality that we experience seems to emerge from beyond the rational limits of arithmetic or pure functions. In a universe of only material process, the idea of emergent flavors or colors, feelings, etc.seems no more plausible than divine Creation. The deeper that I have looked into the physics of perception, the more it is clear to me that our current models lack a deep understanding of the reality of consciousness, and rather assume a linear, toy model made of black boxes and behaviorism.

C. What is reality?

Typically this question takes a detour into what I consider a philosophical dead end, of trying to prove that illusions are real or reality is an illusion. The fact that we can tell the difference between illusion and reality, or that we can even conceive of a difference suggests to me that reality is category of sensory qualities – enduring sensations which are harder, heavier, more complex and filled with interrelated truths than we could have imagined. The universe that we experience, however, includes much more than that. Besides the qualities of realism, we have surreal fantasies, dreams, fiction, etc. We have fiction intended as fiction, and fiction intended as reality (like money). If we have spun for ourselves a cocoon of ’emergent’ human illusions, we must either acknowledge that such an emergence is either metaphysical, or we must expand our definition of physics to include these private and social phenomena. Looking at it objectively, something like the idea of money is causing more changes on this planet than any function of matter alone.

Isn’t it really a human bias to think that physics only includes what came before humans? If the basis of reality were matter, there seems to be no good argument for why it wouldn’t stay that way. Appealing to ‘complexity’, emergence, and randomness is to me very clearly circular thinking, as it assumes that such things are both physical yet free from the requirement of physical explanation. They indicate instead that the materialistic view has focused on the nature of physical surfaces and functional skeletons…spaces and dimensions composed of purely abstract measurement or purely concrete objects, with nothing in between. Consider that a universe of matter is one which exists from the outside in – a place ‘out there’ which only recently developed a sense of ‘in here’. Without some kind of experience which makes sense, all of the functions of nature become abstractions; un-realities which have no good excuse for ever becoming ‘realized’.

Computer Scientists Induce Schizophrenia in a Neural Network, Causing it to Make Ridiculous Claims

June 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Computer Scientists Induce Schizophrenia in a Neural Network, Causing it to Make Ridiculous Claims

I was asked what I thought of this, so here is my response:


It’s interesting. First you have to get past the hype release layer to the actual study, and the PDF is necessary if you want to be able to tell what really is going on.

In particular, this passage from the U of T press release is absolute garbage, and it is being picked up in every pop-sci reblogging:

“After being re-trained with the elevated learning rate, DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall. In one answer, for instance, DISCERN claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.”

Utter bullshit. If you give someone a coin that makes heads “A story about myself” and tails “A story about crime”, then it is not so far fetched to expect that flipping the coin too many times to keep up with would render stories like “Myself committed crime”. Hardly a premeditated decision to accept responsibility for a criminal act. Seriously, OMFG.

What they did do is have schizophrenics and control patients listen to three brief stories and analyze how they retained the information in the stories over time – immediately after they heard them, 45 minutes later, and 7 days later. This was the result of that:

It shows that the patients have many more errors of the agent-slotting type and derailed clause type. Agent slotting is confusing subject and object – the story says man gives girl flowers, patient recalls girl giving man flowers. Derailed clauses are the more profoundly confused, word salad type of propositions like ‘I remember the generosity of the flowers…”

The neural network system that they are using (called DISCERN) was given a completely different set of 28 stories, half of which were crime stories and half of which were autobiographical. They broke down the kinds of recall errors into different syntactic-semantic metrics and claim that they got significant results when they tweaked the DISCERN parameters toward ‘hyperlearning’.


I don’t want to crap on the study, because it seems like solid, progressive research, and that can only help people who need it, but I do think that the interpretation exaggerates somewhat. Of course the press release is wildly hyped (did I mention that it’s called DISCERN??) The treatment of the derailed clauses, for example, which to me are really the signature of schizophrenic language, are not really evident to me. They cite outputs like “Tony feared Joe (substituting for Vito) and note that “This confusion occurred again in recalling Story 27:” So they observer that stories can get mixed up when you push the system into hyperlearning…which is not unexpected to me at all, but they do not show any clauses like “Rain feared Tony” etc.

Likewise the attribution of subject object switches to fixed delusion seems like an awfully broad, if not clearly invalid leap. Unfortunately when computer science conspires with psychiatry, what we apparently get is a very superficial view of the psyche as producer of symbolic communication. When we feed a computer a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly and it comes up with peanut butter and jelly, that is quite a bit different than the computer announcing that peanut butter is Napoleon. I don’t see any indication here of deep simulation of schizophrenia, but the connection between hyperlearning and some symptoms of schizophrenia are certainly worth pursuing. They may indeed have found part of why schizophrenics say some of the things that they say, but I think that it is a misinterpretation to conclude that this supports the idea that consciousness is defined only by information processing. What it supports is that breaking language down into mathematical relations can yield mathematical understandings of disordered language.

Alien Hand/Limb Syndrome

February 26, 2014 Leave a comment

“The alien hand syndrome, as originally defined, was used to describe cases involving anterior corpus callosal lesions producing involuntary movement and a concomitant inability to distinguish the affected hand from an examiner’s hand when these were placed in the patient’s unaffected hand. In recent years, acceptable usage of the term has broadened considerably, and has been defined as involuntary movement occurring in the context of feelings of estrangement from or personification of the affected limb or its movements. Three varieties of alien hand syndrome have been reported, involving lesions of the corpus callosum alone, the corpus callosum plus dominant medial frontal cortex, and posterior cortical/subcortical areas. A patient with posterior alien hand syndrome of vascular aetiology is reported and the findings are discussed in the light of a conceptualisation of posterior alien hand syndrome as a disorder which may be less associated with specific focal neuropathology than are its callosal and callosal-frontal counterparts.” –

This kind of alienation from the function of a limb would seem to contradict functionalism. If functionalism identifies consciousness with function, then it would seem problematic that a functioning limb could be seen as estranged from the personal awareness, is it is really no different from a zombie in which the substitution level is set at the body level. There is no damage to the arm, no difference between one arm and another, and yet, its is felt to be outside of one’s control and its sensations are felt not to be your sensations.

This would be precisely the kind of estrangement that I would expect to encounter during a gradual replacement of the brain with any inorganic substitute. At the level at which food becomes non-food, so too would the brain become non-brain, and any animation of the nervous system would fail to be incorporated into personal awareness. The living brain could still learn to use the prosthetic, and ultimately imbue it with its own articulation and familiarity to a surprising extent, but it is a one way street and the prosthetic has no capacity to find the personal awareness and merge with it.

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