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Does consciousness emerge from the brain?

March 18, 2016 11 comments
My response to this answer on Quora:
An excellent answer which sums up the current neuroscientific perspective, and which I intend to demolish 🙂
What if we set consciousness aside for a moment and use some other examples?
A conventional camera exposes film to visible light, yet the image is not visible. The visibility of the image depends on a process of chemical development, however that process is not changing the image-related information that is constituted by the microphysical states of the photographic emulsion. We can see therefore, that the image is not emergent from film. The film is perfectly capable of recording optical information without providing any visible image. This is a huge problem of eliminativism, computationalism, functionalism, and physicalism.
A similar example: Binary math vs geometry. For instance:
pcoae9gri
This image does not exist within your computer’s RAM or CPU. There is nothing shaped like a triangle or a face that is present in the physical hardware or its logical function which has color, shape, or faces. What is present is nothing but generic microelectronic switches which are capable of receiving and sending each other’s state. This arrangement handles all of our information processing needs, but it does not get us any closer to the image that you see above. For that we need a video screen, eyes, a sense of optical conditions, and a visual presentation. The computer of course needs none of these things to compute every detail of the .png file. It does not need to see anything, nor does it need to have any familiarity with geometry. The binary math works just as well with or without visibility or tangiblity. Logic does not need geometry.
By connecting the dots, I can easily see why emergence is false, and why when we use the term ’emergence’ we are actually referring to nothing more than appearances within consciousness, such that it can never apply to physics or logic in any way. Nothing can ’emerge’ within physicalism because physics can have no preferred frame or reference. The existence of a frame of reference in the absence of perception should also be understood to be a fairly obvious violation of parsimony, i.e., Occam’s Razor would shave off the possibility of sense perception if unsensed frames of reference were already performing every physical function in the brain. In theory, there is no reason why a brain could not perform every operation of our conscious mind unconsciously, just as we assume that a single zygote unconsciously performs every function of dividing into a living brain.
What is harder to understand is why some people, especially those in the hard sciences, completely fail to see this. After several years of consideration, however, I have arrived at what I think is a viable hypothesis: The skill set which tends toward expertise in physical systems and logical functions tends to be incompatible with the opposite skill set which is required to develop a robust theory of mind. Neuroscience is mind blind, so it (along with Dennett, Blackmore, etc) promotes a view of the mind without having the correct lens to gain objectivity on their own objectivity. Nobody is to blame, it’s just part of how the Continuum of Sense works. Color and flavor has no more business being undetectable in the brain than specific gravity or temperature are. Emergence is a post hoc contrivance to cover for the (huge, and critically important) blind spot of the brain-minded mind.

What Is Really Real?

March 12, 2016 Leave a comment

If everything we hear, touch, smell, see are electrical impulses interpreted by our brain, then what is real out there?

 

In my view, to really answer that question we must forget everything that we think that we know about electrical impulses and brains and look at the phenomena again with fresh eyes. We must also ask questions about sensation and what is meant when we use the world “real”. Most importantly we must ask what our own capacities and biases are and what we can guess is true about reality and sensation vs what is true about our perspective as a human.
I think that I have answers to these questions, but they may not make sense unless you have asked them yourself. I would suggest that you first try to answer them yourself, even write out the answers, before consulting external sources, including this answer. Also write down what sources you think that your beliefs come from.
Question one: Why do most dreams seem real until you wake up?
Most people have probably had the experience of waking up and thinking, ‘Why would I not suspect that Mother Theresa falling asleep in my lap is impossible? She’s not even alive anymore.’ From this can we not conclude that our sense of realism is infinitely plastic? Even though some people may have lucid dreams where they do know that they are dreaming, or who do wake up after realizing that they are dreaming, it still does not explain why we can ever experience surreal, impossible, or nonsensical dreaming without questioning it. There is nothing that we can dream of which is so weird that it would cause us to question the reality of it. From this we must conclude that either our sense of realism is as much of an electrical hallucination as anything else we could sense. Is realism actually nothing more than failing to question one’s experience, or is there more to it than that?
Question two: How can you tell when you actually do wake up?
Many people have probably had the experience of false awakening, or a dream within a dream (even within a dream, within a dream, within a dream, etc). Each time you experience waking up in a dream, you have the feeling that you are awake but you are not, yet when you really do wake up, there seems to be an authenticity which is experienced directly and unmistakably. This sets up a curiously intransitive relation between false awakening and true awakening, namely, when we are dreaming, we can experience being awake, and we can doubt that we are awake, but when we really are awake, sane, and sober, we cannot fully doubt that we are awake. We can doubt it intellectually, and philosophically*, but this to me seems a very superficial kind of doubt which evaporates the moment that we are confronted with the sights, sounds, and feelings of our waking life. This suggests a contradiction to the first answer that I have give, bringing a third question:
Question three: How can we both know that all of our perception could be deception, but nevertheless feel that this knowledge is somehow insufficient to doubt the real world?
For this question, I think that the key is to realize that we have not taken skepticism far enough. If we consider that all perception is potentially deception, then we must also consider that this proposition itself is potentially deception. In other words, since we cannot know what is real, we cannot know that we cannot in some sense know what is real and in another sense not know. How do we know that nature doesn’t contradict itself?
At some point**, we have to admit that something is ‘given’ which cannot be doubted. Further we can conclude that what is given is not ‘knowledge’ but direct experience. However weak the veracity of our perception, knowledge is an even weaker proposition. Sellars attack on the myth of the given†, therefore, is itself deriving its own authority to attack from a myth of authority to attack which is itself under attack by his argument. His reasoning seems to exclude itself from criticism – assuming that scientific theories have access to a level of sanity about themselves which dreams could not simulate.
Question four: What do we really mean when we talk about ‘electrical impulses in the brain’?
When we talk about electricity, I think that we tend to have in mind something like sparks or lightning bolt. A bright, crackling appearance of a natural power or force which is independent of material objects but jumps between them at the speed of light. Further, theories developed by scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell explain this electric force in terms of perturbations or waves in an electromagnetic field. The electromagnetic field itself is invisible and intangible, so when we see lighting, hear thunder, or feel a shock, we are actually experiencing a second hand effect of matter rather than electricity itself.
To clarify:
This is not a picture of electricity, it is a picture of ionized air molecules colliding violently and releasing photons.
In a vacuum, there are no sparks and there is no sound. Sparks require a material medium which refracts light. Sound is always the collision of matter and is interrupted by a vacuum. While light is transmitted through a vacuum, there is no way to know for sure whether light is actually present in a vacuum, or whether photons are something else which can jump non-locally from place to place.
This is my own speculation, but it is not unprecedented. The Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory postulates that “every bit of radiation must be completely absorbed somewhere” (see Landon Carter’s answer to Can you explain Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory in layman’s terms?). If this is true, then it opens the door to radiation being an entanglement-disentanglement between ‘radiators’, even to the point of seeing space-time as emergent from it. Photons, electrons, even atoms themselves may not be true particles or wave in a vacuum, or fields or forces, but are more like examples of the ability to signal perceivability on the microphysical scale.
What I am suggesting is that absorber theory is on the right track, but does not go far enough. Not only is time meaningless for a photon (because of the constancy and insuperability of c) but even the assumption that some thing is emitted or absorbed could also be unfounded. Indeed, if my view is right, every equation and observation that we have about subatomic particles could be explained in terms of directly perceived micro-phenomenology.
This is not to say that “photons can see“, but that photons have no existence whatsoever other than as visibility (and thermodynamic tangibility) itself. Quantum fields and wave-functions mus then be considered purely abstract statistical entities which do not point to a deeper layer of inference beyond detection, but to the phenomenon of detection itself – to sensory-motor presentation. This uproots the entire foundation of both physicalism and functionalism to suggest the primacy of aesthetic participation behind any possibility of physical forms or logical functions. Sense is what the universe is made of, not stuff that makes sense, or that makes illusions of sense.
Rolling this back to ‘electrical impulses in the brain’, what we are really seeing when we look at an MRI is not electrical impulses, but electrical changes in the MRI instrument itself which are synchronized with the electrical changes of water molecules in brain tissue. This synchronization is not a collision of photons but a low level perceptual entanglement (which, in my hypothesis should be understood as a re-acquaintence or re-entanglement of spatiotemporally disentangled perceptual unity).
This is how I think that the brain works – we live our lives not as bodies or brains or electricity, but as the synchronization of changes which are diffracted across those various scales (Planck, atomic, organic, cellular, neurological, anthropological). These should not be thought of as scales primarily of space or distance but first of perceptual-partcipation, then time, then space. We are not bodies, or patterns of electrochemical information, or even pattern itself, but the capacity to perceive and participate which must rationally precede all appearance of ‘patterns’. Our brain activity is a 3+1 dimensional tip of an iceberg which transcends dimension itself, and which appears as a brain only because of the way that the limits of our human perception is even further limited by the sub-human bandwidth of our sensory organs.
From this, I conclude that what we perceive as the natural world, including brains, as well as everything that we infer from our perceptions, such as electromagnetism, are neither myth nor given but ‘myth-giving’ experiences. These experiences are, like our ordinary experiences, both concretely real within their own frame of reference and unreal from a ‘perceptually distanced’ or diffracted perceptual frame. A dream is a real dream, and only becomes unreal upon awakening into another dream which is more substantial and shared by more frames of reference. Reality should be understood as the real density of phenomenal overlap, such that there is not Reality so much as “Real Realism” – a quality of significance and coherence within a particular frame of perception in which the significance of the weight of perceptual experience accumulated through the entire history of experienced time (which would include all clock/calendar time, as well as all psychological time) is felt intuitively or instinctively.
Reality is real alright, but it is only the density of the constraints imposed by our condition as a human lifetime defining itself in the context of all other lives and times. I cannot prove what I am proposing to the satisfaction of reactionary skepticism (see Craig Weinberg’s answer to Is dualism no more than philosophical debris given the advances in neuroscience?) however I think that it is possible to reinterpret all of physics, mathematics, and information science successfully in this sense-first framework. Language and etymology are a valuable tool, since we can look at common-sense associations across cultures. Metaphors link literal, public facing phenomena such as weight or gravity with private facing phenomena such as importance or seriousness. There is, in my estimation, a whole other universe of connection between the sense of what is ‘out there’ and the sense of what is ‘in here’, which I try to scratch the surface of in my writing.
*Pyrrho, the founder of Skepticism is worth mentioning here, he
“founded a new school in which he taught fallibilism, namely that every object of human knowledge involves uncertainty. Thus, he argued, it is impossible ever to arrive at the knowledge of truth. It is related that he acted on his own principles, and carried his skepticism to such an extreme, that his friends were obliged to accompany him wherever he went, so he might not be run over by carriages or fall down precipices. It is likely, though, that these reports were invented by the Dogmatists whom he opposed. ” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
** Descartes famously arrived at his cogito “I think therefore I am” as a result of taking his Cartesian doubt to its limit. Doubt, after all, cannot itself be doubted, and a belief in disbelief is still a belief.
† Another philosopher living in the 20th century, Wilfrid Sellars, was influential for his “Attack on the Myth of the Given”. Where Descartes skepticism led him to view himself as unquestionable, Sellars saw perception as inseparable from conception, so that just as an ambiguous image can appear to be a duck or a rabbit, our theory about what we are looking at cannot be subtracted from the experience of looking at it. Because of this, his view is that scientific theory can supersede the empirical reports of our senses. In my terms, he is saying that sense-making is more fundamental than sense experience.

 

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.

Jesse Prinz -On the (Dis)unity of Consciousness

September 25, 2013 5 comments

Jesse Prinz gives a well developed perspective on neuronal synchronization as the correlate to attention and explores the question of binding. As always, neuroscience offers important details and clues for us to guide our understanding, however, knowledge alone may not be the pure and unbiased resource that we presume it to be. The assumptions that we make about a world in which we have already defined consciousness to be the behavior of neurons are not neutral. They direct and some cases self-validate the approach as much as any cognitive bias could. For those who watch the video, here are my comments:

To begin with, aren’t unity and disunity qualitative discernments within consciousness? To me, the binding problem is most likely generated from the assumption that consciousness arises a posteriori of distinctions like part-whole, when in fact, awareness may be identical to the capacity for any distinction at all, and is therefore outside of any notion of ‘it-ness’, ‘unity’, or multiplicity. To me, it is clear that consciousness is unified, not-unified, both unified and not unified, and neither unified nor not unified. If we call consciousness ‘attention’, what should we call our awareness of the periphery of our awareness – of memories and intuitions?

The assumption that needs to be questioned is that sub-conscious awareness is different from consciousness in some material way. Our awareness of our awareness is of course limited, but that doesn’t mean that low level ‘processing’ is not also private experience in its own right.

Pointing to synchronization of neuronal activity as causing attention just pushes the hard problem down to a microphenomenal level. In order to synchronize with each other, neurons themselves would ostensibly have to be aware and pay attention to each other in some way.

Synchrony may not be the cause, but the symptom. Experience is stepped down from the top and up from the bottom in the same way that I am using codes of letters to make words which together communicate my top-down ideas. Neurons are the brain’s ‘alphabet’, they are not the author of consciousness, they are not sufficient for consciousness, but they are necessary for a human quality of consciousness. (In my opinion).

Later on, when he covers the idea of Primitive Unity, he dismisses holistic awareness on the basis of separate areas of the brain contribute separate information, but that is based on an expectation that the brain is the cause of awareness rather than the event horizon of privacy as it becomes public (and vice versa) on many levels and scales. The whole idea of ‘building whole experiences’ from atomistic parts assumes holism as a possibility, even as it seeks to deny that possibility. How can a whole experience be built without an expectation of wholes?

Attention is not what consciousness is, it is what consciousness does. In order for attention to exist, there must first be the capacity to receive sensation and to appreciate that sensation qualitatively. Only then, when we have something to pay attention to, can be find our capacity to participate actively in what we perceive.

As far as the refrigerator light idea goes, I think that is a good line of thought to explore with consciousness as I think it should lead to a questioning not only of the constancy of the light, but of the darkness as well. We cannot assume that either the naive state of light on or the sophisticated state of light on with door open/off when closed is more real than the other. Instead, each view only reflects the perspective which is getting the attention. When we look at consciousness from the point of view of a brain, we can only find explanations which break consciousness apart into subconscious and impersonal operations. It is a confirmation bias of a different sort which is never considered.

Mathematics of Mind

November 9, 2012 Leave a comment

“This is your sense of consciousness – it’s a mathematical relationship among causal elements, and so the mindfulness of the monk or the agony of the cancer patient, those are all different polytropes in this very high dimensional space, and you measure the size of them, the size of the conscious repertoire by the number phi (Φ).” –

Christof Koch on the Neurobiology and Mathematics of Consciousness

Good stuff for the Easy Problem…still no Hard Problem solution. If high dimensional polytropes can represent agony or mindfulness – why have agony or mindfulness? What translates them into experience and why?

I still have not seen anyone recognize that the assumption of impersonal micro-structures translating into personal non-structures might be unfounded. When we underestimate consciousness, it becomes a synthetic product rather than the ground of being from which we cannot escape. Mathematics exists in consciousness, but consciousness, if it could exist in mathematics, would have no reason to exist in any perceptual forms. Data is data. Why would mathematical functions do all of this decoration?

I suggest that consciousness isn’t built up from nothing by tiny parts, it is recovered from everything by sensitivity.

Image

Being Human: Mental + Representations & Decision-Making

September 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Being Human: Mental + Representations & Decision-Making

01:20 to 20:36 Laurie Santos, Comparative Psychologist, Yale
Decision making bias in gain vs. loss.

A nice example that challenges assumptions of human exceptionalism and gives insights into the relativity of perceived risk.

20:37 – 39:39 Thomas Metzinger, Philosopher, Gutenberg University
The Self Model – Internal representation of the self as a whole (ownership).

I would argue against ‘representation’. It is a presentation, which, although it can be fooled, is not necessarily a figment of computation. Instead, it’s about resolving conflicts between levels. We rely on vision to inform our experience more than any other channel of sense, so that more subtle awareness can be subsumed. If you close your eyes, you won’t be fooled. If you try to move your hand your intention to move it won’t get lost. It is then premature to assume a literal self model as mathematical entity.

Body image displacement/dissociation. Rubber hand, video displacement, remote prosthetic robotics.

Assumes an invisible interface which hides neurocomputation, rather than neurocomputation being a visible interface which hides awareness. I disagree that there is a medium. Naive realism is actually limited realism of genuine experience, not an abstract model or program.

39:40 01:01 – David Eagleman, Neuroscientist, Baylor University
Expressing the assumptions of neuroscience – of immense sub-personal complexity underlying personal hallucination, i.e. complex = “real”, condensed = “illusory”. I think this is an important phase to pass through in understanding but ultimately needs to be overcome. When the personal layer examines the sub-personal (‘in-cognito) layers through impersonal instruments, the result is a ‘gap’ between unconscious operations and (unexplained) representation. I maintain that this view is almost correct, but from a more objective perspective is perfectly inverted.

Good stuff about how brain damage can change identity, even if part of you is unchanged. This speaks to the power of sub-personal and neurological conditions, but I think that it is a mistake to presume that consciousness in general supervenes on neurology in general. By changing what we think about and what we do with our bodies, our neurology follows that intention rather than leads it. We can also look to this assumption and follow it down the microcosm, from neurons to molecules, to atoms, to quantum, and wind up lacking a meaningful substrate that has any more explanatory power than the top level phenomenological experience. If anything, the subjective experience of perception and participation is far more insightful as to why the body is doing what it does than the probabilistic irrationality of the ultra-microcosm.

There is a disconnect also – where the neuroscientific perspective completely embraces a bio-deterministic picture of consciousness in every individuals, but a blind faith in a rationalist intervention free-will picture of social policy. Somehow we are slaves to our neurology in all matters except when it comes to redesigning our legal system. In these matters, society is suddenly not modeled as inevitable computations of interacting brain-vehicles, but as an open marketplace of disembodied ideas which can be assessed without bias and evaluated independently of neurophysiology.

There is no explanation offered to bridge this gap. How can we be bound and blinded by naive realism, yet able to understand this blindness with crystal clarity? How can we believe that we have no real free will yet casually suggest that we should choose to use our free will to intentionally contribute to social progress?

I do agree that retribution is “a Stone Age concept”, but at the same time, why should we expect that society as a whole should be able to transcend the pre-Stone Age concepts of the individuals that make it up? We can only do that if we admit that under typical conditions, we do have some genuine participation in our own thoughts and actions. We can’t take all the credit or blame, but neither can we escape it completely either.

The neurofeedback treatment for addiction that David Eagleman describes around 01:15 sounds great. My sense is that it hasn’t worked as well as it seems like it should in theory. I’m not knocking the approach, I think it’s a good start, but still rooted in mechanism, behaviorism, and ultimately the neo-phrenological assumptions of contemporary neuroscience. I don’t want to minimize the importance of this kind of research, but I think that we are missing the big picture by insisting on the software model of consciousness.

In the last ten minutes: Good stuff on pre-linguistic concepts of justice and fairness. Three month old infants choose good puppets over bad innately.

I agree that first person accounts do not describe what is going on within the brain, but neither do analyses of what is going on within the brain anticipate anything at all about consciousness, including consciousness itself. We have to take our own word for our existence to begin with, then we can figure out how it is that our experience doesn’t show up in the structures of the brain.

Approaching it that way, I find the solution is that it is actually matter in space which is the reduction and re-presentation of experience and not the other way around. Matter extends in a different way than direct subjective experience, the opposite way, so that when we look at matter we are seeing a representation of many, many experiences on many different scales and frequencies – some seem frozen in time to us, others seem to be changing so fast that they are in superposition.

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