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Is consciousness an emergent property of the brain or a fundamental property of matter?

February 25, 2014 50 comments
Which is more likely?
Isn’t saying that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain just as much a non-explanation as saying it is a fundamental property of all matter?

To begin with, I think that it is necessary to separate the notion of personal states of consciousness from the vastly more general phenomenon of awareness.

Despite continuing evidence that human beings are less unique and special compared to other species than we had believed in the past, there are still ways in which Homo sapiens exhibit superlative talents. While we may no longer be able to point to any one particular trait, such as tool use, language use, or bipedalism that makes humans fundamentally different from everything else in the universe, the overwhelming sophistication of human life is surely an order of magnitude greater than that of any other organism we have encountered.

We know now that human neurons are not very different from those of other species, however, the human brain has almost twice the ratio of brain to body mass and energy of expenditure than the next closest contender (Bottlenose dolphin). We have every reason to correlate this surplus brain capacity with the success of the human species in overcoming their natural limitations and extending their habitat in uniquely un-natural ways.

If we set aside the special case of human consciousness for a moment, what can we really say that a brain does for an organism which cannot be found in organisms which lack a brain that has to do with deciding whether that organism is aware or not? There are zooplankton, for instance, with no brains who have eyes made of just two cells. We can imagine that anything using such primitive sense organs would have a vastly degraded experience compared to stereoscopic human vision, but the general premise of using optical sensation to navigate the environment is no more or less an indication of consciousness than our own.

As neuroscience and biology progress, it seems that rather than finding a clear threshold of phenomena which begin to appear more conscious, the threshold continues to fall. Here are some interesting things to consider:

This even extends beyond the level of living cells:

Add to this the continuing lack of resolution on ‘fringe’ issues such as NDEs, OBE’s, paranormal phenomena, the increase of the placebo effect, statistical anomalies in random event generators (REGs) and we get a picture of consciousness emerging from brains as seeming awfully anthropocentric.

If we consider the possibility of a material panpsychism, in which consciousness is a property of matter, it is not clear that we have solved the fundamental problem. The so called Hard Problem of Consciousness and Explanatory Gap address this lack of understanding about what a phenomenal quality of aesthetic presence would be doing in a mechanistic universe in the first place. By focusing on the structure of the brain and function of neurons, we are hoping to deflate the mind body problem. The mind can be seen simply as the functioning of a neural body – a vast network which exploits biochemistry to represent computations in this as-yet-not-understood, but inevitably discoverable way we are familiar with as our naive experience.

If we look at this approach more closely however, I think that we should find that all we have done is to miniaturize the mind body problem, so that it now exists at an arbitrary scale (neuron-mind neuron-body, peptide-mind peptide-body, connectome-mind connectome body, etc.). The metaphor of hardware and software has, in my view, led a generation of cognitive scientists and consciousness enthusiasts down a misguided path in which the very systems which we use to serve our conscious user experience (screen, keyboard, GUI, software) are mistakenly identified as serving the hardware (CPU, RAM, storage, network).

To truly go beyond the hard problem requires that we look at ‘looking’ itself. Understanding sensation and awareness as a phenomenon in its own right requires that we suspend all previous judgments and delve into completely new directions. In my own hypothesis, I see consciousness as not only a property of matter or physics, but is the sole property from which all possible properties must extend. This doesn’t require a human-like deity any more than the belief in matter requires that the universe is a large human-like body. It is more a matter of understanding how nested symmetries of a primordial sensitivity could produce what we know as matter, energy, spacetime, information, and subjective experience.

Is consciousness a physical phenomenon? Something fully explainable as a complex interaction of elementary particles.

Improving The Hard Problem

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

I have been using the term ‘aesthetic’ a lot lately in specifying the qualitative aspects of consciousness, and I feel like it clarifies one of the core issues. The Hard Problem of Consciousness is confusing to people whose mindset is innately compelled to define consciousness as a collection of functions in the first place. It therefore comes out nonsensical when philosophers like David Chalmers talk about questioning why there is such a thing as ‘what it is like’ to have an experience, since for the functionalist, ‘what it is like’ to perform a function is simply the self-same set of events which comprise the function.

Maybe it helps to define ‘what it is like’ in more specific terms, which I think would be scientifically described as private sensory-motive participation but informally can be understood as aesthetic phenomena. The key is to notice the asymmetric relation between aesthetics and function in that function can improve aesthetics, but aesthetics can *never* improve function. The Hard Problem then becomes a problem of how to explain aesthetics (aka qualia) in a universe of functions which can neither benefit by them nor physically generate them as far as we can tell (unless there is a miniature kitchen near our olfactory bulbs baking microscopic apple pies whenever we remember the smell of apple pie).

The fact that aesthetics are not possible to explain in terms of a function, but that functions can be conceived of aesthetically is unfamiliar and those who have that innately functional mindset will balk at the notion of aesthetic supremacy, but this is the future of science – letting go of the familiar, or in this case, rediscovering the literally familiar (ordinary consciousness) in an unfamiliar way (as the fabric of existence).

When we talk about consciousness then, what we really mean is the aesthetic experience of being and doing, of perceiving and participating. This experience is extended publicly as spatio-temporal form-functions (STFF), but those phenomena are not capable of appreciating themselves. Just as a puppet can be made to seem to walk and talk like a person, forms can be made to interact by hijacking their natural low-level aesthetics to represent our high-level expectations. The letters on this screen are just such an example. I am using a lot of technology to generate contrasting pixels on your video screen, which you will experience as letters, words, and sentences.

Each level of description – as typeface, spellings, grammars, evoke aesthetic micro-experiences. The closer these descriptions get to your native scale – the personal scale, the more that your personal experience, feelings, and understanding influences the aesthetics of all of the sub-personal experiences within reading the language. What you see of the letters is because of your experience of learning to read English, not because of any special power that these words have to project meaning. By themselves, these words and letters do nothing to each other. They are figures for use in human communication – they have no functional aspect, i.e. they are *only* aesthetic. This is why a computer has no use for human languages, or even programming languages. Computation requires no figures or forms of any kind, nor can it produce any forms or figures without borrowing some kind of STFF (with u in the middle, heh) from the ‘real world’. Otherwise there is a only the anesthetic concept of pure function – which is the exact opposite of representation by form, image, or quality, but is non-presentation through quantity.

Computation, or ‘Information Processing’ is the unconscious number crunching of automated, logical functionality. Information lacks aesthetic presence by definition – it is a purely conceptual understanding of instructed variables in motion. If there is a capacity for aesthetic appreciation to begin with, then computation can extend it and improve it. If there is no such capacity, then there is certainly no justification for adding it into computation, as automatic function cannot benefit in any way by appreciation of its own activity.

Free Will and the Fallibility of Science

April 13, 2013 4 comments

Mills Baker

One of the most significant intellectual errors educated persons make is in underestimating the fallibility of science. The very best scientific theories containing our soundest, most reliable knowledge are certain to be superseded, recategorized from “right” to “wrong”; they are, as physicist David Deutsch says, misconceptions:
I have often thought that the nature of science would be better understood if we called theories “misconceptions” from the outset, instead of only after we have discovered their successors. Thus we could say that Einstein’s Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton’s Misconception, which was an improvement on Kepler’s. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin’s Misconception, and his on Lamarck’s… Science claims neither infallibility nor finality.

This fact comes as a surprise to many; we tend to think of science —at the point of conclusion, when it becomes knowledge— as being more or less infallible and certainly final. Science, indeed, is the sole area of human investigation whose reports we take seriously to the point of crypto-objectivism. Even people who very much deny the possibility of objective knowledge step onto airplanes and ingest medicines. And most importantly: where science contradicts what we believe or know through cultural or even personal means, we accept science and discard those truths, often enough wisely.

An obvious example: the philosophical problem of free will. When Newton’s misconceptions were still considered the exemplar of truth par excellence, the very model of knowledge, many philosophers felt obliged to accept a kind of determinism with radical implications. Give the initial-state of the universe, it appeared, we should be able to follow all particle trajectories through the present, account for all phenomena through purely physical means. In other words: the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition:

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Determinism in the West is often associated with Newtonian physics, which depicts the physical matter of the universe as operating according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The “billiard ball” hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that once the initial conditions of the universe have been established, the rest of the history of the universe follows inevitably. If it were actually possible to have complete knowledge of physical matter and all of the laws governing that matter at any one time, then it would be theoretically possible to compute the time and place of every event that will ever occur (Laplace’s demon). In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce predictable results.

Thus: the movement of the atoms of your body, and the emergent phenomena that such movement entails, can all be physically accounted for as part of a chain of merely physical, causal steps. You do not “decide” things; your “feelings” aren’t governing anything; there is no meaning to your sense of agency or rationality. From this essentially unavoidable philosophical position, we are logically-compelled to derive many political, moral, and cultural conclusions. For example: if free will is a phenomenological illusion, we must deprecate phenomenology in our philosophies; it is the closely-clutched delusion of a faulty animal; people, as predictable and materially reducible as commodities, can be reckoned by governments and institutions as though they are numbers. Freedom is a myth; you are the result of a process you didn’t control, and your choices aren’t choices at all but the results of laws we can discover, understand, and base our morality upon.

I should note now that (1) many people, even people far from epistemology, accept this idea, conveyed via the diffusion of science and philosophy through politics, art, and culture, that most of who you are is determined apart from your will; and (2) the development of quantum physics has not in itself upended the theory that free will is an illusion, as the sorts of indeterminacy we see among particles does not provide sufficient room, as it were, for free will.

Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.

As it happens, determinism is a false conception of reality. Physicists like David Deutsch and Ilya Prigogine have, in my opinion, defended free will amply on scientific grounds; and the philosopher Karl Popper described how free will is compatible in principle with a physicalist conception of the universe; he is quoted by both scientists, and Prigogine begins his book The End of Certainty, which proposes that determinism is no longer compatible with science, by alluding to Popper:

Earlier this century in The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism, Karl Popper wrote,” Common sense inclines, on the one hand, to assert that every event is caused by some preceding events, so that every event can be explained or predicted… On the other hand, … common sense attributes to mature and sane human persons… the ability to choose freely between alternative possibilities of acting.” This “dilemma of determinism,” as William James called it, is closely related to the meaning of time. Is the future given, or is it under perpetual construction?

Prigogine goes on to demonstrate that there is, in fact, an “arrow of time,” that time is not symmetrical, and that the future is very much open, very much compatible with the idea of free will. Thus: in our lifetimes we have seen science —or parts of the scientific community, with the rest to follow in tow— reclassify free will from “illusion” to “likely reality”; the question of your own role in your future, of humanity’s role in the future of civilization, has been answered differently just within the past few decades.

No more profound question can be imagined for human endeavor, yet we have an inescapable conclusion: our phenomenologically obvious sense that we choose, decide, change, perpetually construct the future was for centuries contradicted falsely by “true” science. Prigogine’s work and that of his peers —which he calls a “probabilizing revolution” because of its emphasis on understanding unstable systems and the potentialities they entail— introduces concepts that restore the commonsensical conceptions of possibility, futurity, and free will to defensibility.

If one has read the tortured thinking of twentieth-century intellectuals attempting to unify determinism and the plain facts of human experience, one knows how submissive we now are to the claims of science. As Prigogine notes, we were prepared to believe that we, “as imperfect human observers, [were] responsible for the difference between past and future through the approximations we introduce into our description of nature.” Indeed, one has the sense that the more counterintuitive the scientific claim, the eagerer we are to deny our own experience in order to demonstrate our rationality.

This is only degrees removed from ordinary orthodoxies. The point is merely that the very best scientific theories remain misconceptions, and that where science contradicts human truths of whatever form, it is rational to at least contemplate the possibility that science has not advanced enough yet to account for them; we must be pragmatic in managing our knowledge, aware of the possibility that some truths we intuit we cannot yet explain, while other intuitions we can now abandon.

It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations, and even more the limitations of second-order sciences (like social sciences). Newton’s laws were incredible achievements of rationality, verified by all technologies and analyses for hundreds of years, before their unpredicted exposure as deeply flawed ideas applied to a limited domain which in total provide incorrect predictions and erroneous metaphorical structures for understanding the universe.

I never tire of quoting Karl Popper’s dictum:

Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.

It is hard but necessary to have this relationship with science, whose theories seem like the only possible answers and whose obsolescence we cannot imagine. A rational person in the nineteenth century would have laughed at the suggestion that Newton was in error; he could not have known about the sub-atomic world or the forces and entities at play in the world of general relativity; and he especially could not have imagined how a theory that seemed utterly, universally true and whose predictive and explanatory powers were immense could still be an incomplete understanding, revealed by later progress to be completely mistaken about nearly all of its claims.

Can you imagine such a thing? It will happen to nearly everything you know. Consider what “ignorance” and “knowledge” really are for a human, what you can truly know, how you should judge others given this overwhelming epistemological instability!

That’s a great article, IMO. He hits a lot of points dead on that I have tried many times to make in many different debates.

The only point of contention I might have is the idea of scientific paradigms being misconceptions rather than conceptions. It makes sense as far as it provides a good provocation for an audience, but if we were really being absolutely scientific about it, I would say that misconception has too much of a dismissive connotation. If it turns out that the Earth is actually a four dimensional shadow of a 19 dimensional interplanetary being, that doesn’t make our perceptions of the Sol-centric orbiting orb or the Jerusalem-centric flat garden misconceptions…but it does make the latter model a misconception *in comparison to the former*.

But yes, for the purposes of the waking up the average humdrum mind, the point is well made that we would all be well advised to keep in mind that odds are that everything we know is wrong, on some level or in some sense. That seems to be more important now than it usually does. Some moments in history appear to be more polarizing than others.

“the chain of causation from the Big Bang on left no room for your volition”

This is still the overwhelmingly popular assumption, in my experience.

“Of course, few of us can behave for even a moment as though free will is a myth; there should  be no reason for personal engagement with ourselves, no justification  for “trying” or “striving”; one would be, at best, a robot-like  automaton incapable of self-control but capable of self-observation. One  would account for one’s behaviors not with reasons but with causes; one  would be profoundly divested from outcomes which one cannot affect  anyway. And one would come to hold that, in its basic conception of time  and will, the human consciousness was totally deluded.”

I have tried many times to communicate this exactly. Great way of pulling it together. I think that the fact that what he is saying is true gives us the vantage point from which to see that “trying” or “striving” is an aesthetic quality of intention which is actually perpendicular or orthomodular physical principle to the axis of the unintentional. As the privacy of physics is a spectrum of effort, courage, tenacity, boldness, surrender, release, etc, the public side of physics is monotonous: anesthetic, automatic qualities which describe a continuum between determinism and ‘accident’ (/error/random/mutation). Of course, it is only because we can alter our own degree of intentionality that we can discern between determinism and accident; were the universe plotted only on that single unintentional axis, that chain of causation, then there could be no conceivable difference between accident and non-accident. It is ironically our own distance from automatism which gives us the impression that automatism is rich enough to exist as a monopole.

“It is vital to consider how something can be both true and not in order to understand science and its limitations,”

Stealing that.

I’m generally in full agreement with everything here. He might be a bit more optimistic than I am about the current state of what is accepted by scientists and science buffs at this point. I feel that the mechanistic worldview is not going to die that easily. If this revolution does get off the ground, it could very well be another brief renaissance before being subsumed into the next revival of anesthetic totalism.

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