Pinker on consciousness

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Steven Pinker has an article in Time called “The Mystery of Consciousness”. An extract:

What remains is not one problem about consciousness but two, which the philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed the Easy Problem and the Hard Problem. Calling the first one easy is an in-joke: it is easy in the sense that curing cancer or sending someone to Mars is easy. That is, scientists more or less know what to look for, and with enough brainpower and funding, they would probably crack it in this century.

What exactly is the Easy Problem? It’s the one that Freud made famous, the difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. Some kinds of information in the brain–such as the surfaces in front of you, your daydreams, your plans for the day, your pleasures and peeves–are conscious. You can ponder them, discuss them and let them guide your behavior. Other kinds, like the control of your heart rate, the rules that order the words as you speak and the sequence of muscle contractions that allow you to hold a pencil, are unconscious. They must be in the brain somewhere because you couldn’t walk and talk and see without them, but they are sealed off from your planning and reasoning circuits, and you can’t say a thing about them.

The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, “That’s green” (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn’t reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, “When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know.”

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

45 Comments

  1. Ah, Jazz. Or perhaps it was Swing? And if not Louis, perhaps Fats?

  2. I would suggest that the hard problem is not soluble, or rather, that it is not in reality a scientific question, which deals only with the exploration and description of objective events, facts, etc, whereas the “phenomenon” of conciousness is inherently private, subjective, and therefore beyond the reach of empirical explanation, which requires two or more minds to be in simultaneous contact with the thing under observation, when there can never be more than one, namely, the subject herself. In this respect the concept of conciousness is a little like the concept of intelligent design in nature, where no conceivable data set could either prove or disprove the existence of such a thing. It is a meaningless question based on a conceptual misunderstanding. 
     
    Of course we are subjective beings and curious by nature and for precisely those reasons we are driven to look for an objective explanation of our subjective experience. We may find spatial and causal correlates, necessary and sufficient conditions, ways to alleviate pain, detect cheaters, etc., but none of this really gets at the underlying phenomenon, and always depends on the subjective report of private persons.

  3. Even Moses recognized this was a hard problem: 
     
    “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” Exodus 33:20

  4. The analogous question btw is “what is the universe expanding into”? 
     
    Since “outside” inherently conjures “inside”, you’d have to transcend the whole concept of space to even begin. I think. Anyway, good luck with that.

  5. An external observer can detect when someone learns to balance on a bicycle, or drive a car without consciously thinking about each movement, or hit a volley ‘instinctively’ in tennis.  
     
    Take a right handed person. The first time everyone tries to hit a volley in tennis, when the ball comes to the forehand side (right side for a right handed person), they move towards it with the right foot first. Everybody does that, without exception. It is counter-intuitive to move towards it with the left foot first. They have to learn that it is better to move toward the ball with the left foot first, and when they start to practise that they have to keep consciously thinking “Left foot first. Left foot first. Damn! Left foot first!” But after enough practice it becomes ‘grooved’ and they no longer have to think about it, they just move that way without conscious thought, and within reason you can tell when they ‘get it’. It’s observable and measurable. 
     
    Same with judging the flight of the ball, moving into it and striking it the right way in the centre of the racquet. It requires a lot of mental computation, but with practise it all becomes subconscious,and it is a fairly qick process, it doesn’t take years. People start hitting good volleys without thinking about it, and if they practise enough they can hit balls coming at them very fast ‘instinctively’ before they even have time to register a conscious thought about what the ball is doing. The eye detects the movement and the body reacts extremely fast, not just so the racquet connects with the ball, but in just the right way so the volley is hit with the right spin, depth and angle to be a winner – not approximately, but with some players very accurately, say 6″ inside the baseline or whatever. 
     
    The question is, how does this happen? How does the subconscious mind learn to make such lightning fast computations, and how does it make them? Because every tennis shot is at least slightly different, there are no two exactly the same – it’s not just repetition of a movement, it involves some computation.

  6. Consciousness is, essentially, the way information feels when being processed. 
     
    -Tegmark at edge.org

  7. Why should processing information ‘feel’ like anything?

  8. The supposed “Hard Problem” isn’t a problem at all! 
    It just comes from an idiotic “philosophical posture”, namely not acknowledging that the subjective experience is the primary source of knowledge : 
    How do you acquire the knowledge of any lab result or scientific bit of text if not thru the feeling of READING? 
    (or touch for blind scientists, or auditory, etc… don’t nitpick)

  9. Why is there consciousness anyway? Since I can regulate my heart rate unconsciously, why can’t I just go through life the same way? Esp. since Libet’s studies indicate even ‘volitional’ activity precedes consciousness in time?

  10. Why should processing information [in a certain way] ‘feel’ like anything? 
     
    Maybe this is a question similar to “why is there gravity?”.

  11. I like Norretranders’ analogy.  
     
    Operating systems present a “user illusion” — folders, documents, arrows, hands, buttons (or commands, if you like CLIs) — that allow the fearsomely complex beast beneath to be controlled in a goal-oriented fashion. 
     
    Consciousness is the body’s user illusion of itself. It allows our meat to reason about itself, plan, and execute plans in an integrated way. As a (perhaps inescapable) side effect, this user illusion thinks it’s real.

  12. so the hard problem is something bogus cooked up by philosophers? Is that the consensus here?

  13. algebraic, 
     
    It’s not insecapable. Unless you’re arguing that the Windows desktop believes itself to be a desktop. 
     
    I don’t think that analogy, relying as it does on a homuncular “user,” clarifies the issue. It doesn’t even get you past Descartes. It’s really just a repackaging of the “epiphenomenon” argument, which has always struck me as a cheap dodge: “It turns out that the most interesting question ever posed, to which we appear at the moment to have no hope of ever offering a satisfactory answer, is, in fact, totally unimportant.” 
     
    It’s sour grapes. Not just, “I give up,” but, “I give up, and I never really wanted to know the answer, anyway.”

  14. so the hard problem is something bogus cooked up by philosophers? 
     
    Yes, asking stupid questions leads to stupid answers. 
    Since the “objective” is an elaboration built upon and above the subjective experience no wonder that attempts to reach or define the subjective in terms of the objective fail. 
     
    This is distinct from Norretranders’ analogy and Descartes’ epiphenomenon in that consciousness (of subjective experiences) is a requirement for the very existence of objectivity. 
     
    As for a consensus about this I doubt there is any, or rather there is probably a consensus for the bogus question, as witnessed by millenias of “theological” arguments.

  15. I reject p-zombies along with Dennett.

  16. Kevembuangga – Chalmers’ hard problem is ontological, not epistemological: what you call “the subjective” does not exist anywhere in the physics-based ontology of the natural sciences. Yet it exists, therefore contemporary scientific materialism is wrong, therefore some other -ism (perhaps never yet conceived) is right. Pointing out the phenomenological facts might lead to an aha experience for somebody, but it does not, in itself, solve the problem.

  17. Just to add. 
     
    ‘Matter’ is a thing we theorize to exist because we insist that there is a cause/reason/explanation for our experiences or thoughts we deem to be ‘sense experiences’. I also think it’s a rather good theory. ‘Dualism’, man is flesh and spirit as it is traditionally put, is the result of men desiring to believe in the reality of matter. Nowadays, people who reject dualism always for some reason think if they go ‘monistic’ mind disappears, but matter is the thing that disappears in that case. 
     
    Science cannot do ‘mind’ since empiricism is about induction or finding stuff out by sensible experience. Science cannot study things that cannot or do not cause a nerve pulse up a scientist’s optic nerve. Since at least so far, no mind has ever caused a nerve pulse up any sort of sense organ nerve, science cannot talk about ‘mind’, and won’t until mind can be observed and not until then. 
     
    As per Dennett, he really doesn’t believe in p zombies and has shown he really understands what not believing in p zombies means at a deep level. At some academic pow wow, in an as far as I know unique moment of public clarity concerning his own thought on ‘mind’, Dennett started talking about the mental life and ‘what it is like to be’ of an automatic thermostat. Everyone started laughing at him like at Linus when he talks about the Great Pumpkin at the school assembly so he hasn’t done it again. Weasel.

  18. Chalmers’ hard problem is ontological, not epistemological:  
     
    Yes, exactly, it is a misguided attempt to use an ontological approach where it doesn’t fit (see more below). 
     
    what you call “the subjective” does not exist anywhere in the physics-based ontology of the natural sciences. Yet it exists,  
     
    Can you really explain the meaning you ascribe to the word “exist”? 
    Please note that by using this word the way you do you ALREADY ASSUME a Platonistic position, which is the point I want to debate: is Platonism an epistemologically sound position. 
     
    therefore contemporary scientific materialism is wrong, therefore some other -ism (perhaps never yet conceived) is right. 
     
    If contemporary scientific materialism were “wrong” you could point to some ontological inconsistency in its results, can you? 
    I think nobody can because in spite of masquerading as an ontological approach (abusing even the largest majority of scientists themselves*) scientific materialism is actually an epistemological approach and will deftly overcome any inconsistencies as they show up. 
     
    Pointing out the phenomenological facts might lead to an aha experience for somebody, but it does not, in itself, solve the problem. 
     
    There is no problem to be solved beside the ontological anguish of some, get over it. 
     
    It happens that I am currently involved in discussions about scientism/platonism/epistemology/etc… at various places, if some people were interested in pursuing the arguments it would be nice to pick a single thread and stick to it: 
     
    What is Scientism?, started as pro/con argument about scientism v/s “beliefs”. 
     
    “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Non-Hegemonic Feminist Mathematical Theory” which somehow drifted towards more general questions about science. 
     
    I suggest using the GNXP thread because it is the latest and the comments facility is quite good compared to others. 
     
    * Richard Feynman himself made some comments about the future of science (like we’ve discovered ALL the basics) which were reminiscent of some assertions about the “end of science” made in the late 19th century. 
    I find this pretty idiotic coming from such a high caliber figure.

  19. I think that ‘ontological’ problems become clearer if one knows what ontological means. Logical positivists made ‘metaphysical’ into a dirty word during the beginning of the 20th century, so when scientists engage in metaphysical reasoning, they call it ‘ontological’. If they just called it metaphysical like they should it would clear up a lot of confusion. 
     
    An empiricist is someone who has sense experience A that comes with measurement set X, and subsequently (in time) has sense experience B that yields measurement set Y, and comes up with a function f, colloqially called a law of physics, such that f(x) = y, and if the law is ‘time symmetric’ there exists (where?) an inverse function f’ such that f’(y) = x. 
     
    If one’s f ‘works’, for any measurement set x one get’s a y, such that y = f(x), other scientists can confirm one’s theory about function f. If it does, it gets listed as a ‘law of physics’ and it’s a scientific discovery. 
     
    Laws of physics are pretty high falutin’, the methid works on A’s and B’s that a measurement set is overkill, like ‘humans that eat cyanide soon die’ is a perfectly valid empirical finding, even if no measurement set comes with it. 
     
    Just to point out, WHY it works isn’t something ‘empirical science’ says anything about, and at the brass tacks level never will say anything about. ‘Humans that eat cyanide soon die’ is a perfectly good stand alone and very useful empirical fact without knowing anything as to ‘why’ it’s true. Metaphysics is about ‘why’. This is not a bug, but a feature as far as empiricism is concerned.

  20. A scientist can observe whether a subject is awake or asleep or when the subject first becomes aware of a stimulus. The subject?s self-reported internal experience is associated with observable brain states (but is not an accurate representation of real events). The desktop is a useful analogy for explaining how a human?s internal representation of self may provide a simplified illusion that aids high-level attention and executive control. 
     
    The separate issue, the ?hard problem?, is whether the ?OS desktop? is self-aware. I believe progress will be made on this problem. Observable brain states will be correlated with a subject?s description of his internal experience. Eventually this will lead to a model that matches biological brain processes to self-awareness. I expect some biological processes will be replaced by microprocessors and self-awareness will continue. Scientists may not discover why certain forms of mental processing correlate with self-awareness but I suspect they will be able to artificially duplicate those processing patterns and there will be strong evidence that the resulting artificial beings are self-aware. 
     
    What if you could completely monitor and alter a subject?s brain function while the subject reported his internal experience. Perhaps you could bypass vocal communication and communicate directly with the right and left hemispheres. Perhaps the communication between the hemispheres could be temporarily suppressed. Would two conscious minds arise? Could you explore what brain regions support awareness? How many separately aware entities can exist in the same brain? How much communication between entities is required for the entities to merge into a single aware entity? Could a newly merged entity remember the prior separated states? Or would the separate memories be re-interpreted and integrated into a single shared experience? 
     
    A new evidence-based science would describe how awareness depends on brain computation. The range and variety of ?awareness? states could be explored. Eventually science might predict whether an insect or a computer is self-aware based on computational patterns.

  21. It’s not insecapable. Unless you’re arguing that the Windows desktop believes itself to be a desktop. I don’t think that analogy, relying as it does on a homuncular “user,” clarifies the issue. 
     
    Kindly read “The User Illusion“. No homonculus. No Cartesian Theater. No user at all — that’s the “illusion”, see? 
     
    I’m not claiming the idea is right, but having read some of the philosophers (Dennett and Calvin) and a bunch of the scientists, I like the user illusion notion because it handily deals with the following “hard problems”: 
     
    1) How can we reconcile the experience of consciousness when, per Libet, our intentions are formed long (100-500msec) before we become conscious of them? (Answer: our feeling of consciousness is, in fact, a lie — it’s our feeling that’s wrong, not Libet’s data.) 
     
    2) Why bother with consciousness if it’s not doing what we’d like to think it is, namely controlling everything? (Answer: because having a self-concept, an internal model of the collective as a unified entity, is a great advantage when making decisions about the collective’s future.) 
     
    3) Why do we feel conscious if we’re not really really conscious? (Answer — only semi-flippant: because that internal model, imbued as it is with the illusion that it’s a coherent, self-aware entity for the purposes of decision-making, can’t help but feel that way!)

  22. “It turns out that the most interesting question ever posed, to which we appear at the moment to have no hope of ever offering a satisfactory answer, is, in fact, totally unimportant.” 
     
    I don’t agree that such a nihilistic conclusion follows in any way. For starters, as the beginnning of an answer to the Easy Problem, the user illusion concept provides an entry into questions of evolution. One can start asking how complex a system must be before it would benefit from such an illusion, how much benefit is actually gotten, what features of that illusion are primary (sense of unitary self persisting over time?) versus side-effects (subjective experience?) from a fitness standpoint, and so on. 
     
    And the Hard Problem (if it is indeed a problem) remains untouched, but we have a titillating question: how elaborate a user illusion can the body have without feeling conscious? 
     
    For those who haven’t read it, Norretranders’ little book is a treat. (And worth the time: when I mentioned it to Christof Koch before entering Caltech’s Computation & Neural Systems doctoral program, he said [paraphrasing], “It’s a wonderful book, one of the best popular books on consciousness there is.” — notably this was before his own book came out!) 
     
    For me, the most mind-altering part of Norretranders’ little book was its mounds of material showing that the unconscious/subconscious mind is pulling most of the weight — 16-40 bits/second of conscious processing, 11 million bits/second of unconscious processing. I feel better knowing that it’s all me!

  23. And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11. 
     
    Good grief! And Paleo-Marxists, Maoists, and the Khmer Rouge exalted it? Pinker is one of my heroes for his no nonsense, almost everyman response to the data, PC be damned. But then he comes up with this. Again I say, good grief!

  24. I don’t think there’s NOT a problem, but I sincerely have never been able to get my head around what it is supposed to be, exactly For example, discussions like Pinker’s always seem to convey the sense that we should find consciouness SURPRISING or something, when consciousness is about the least surprising thing ever. I mean, is the question just, If most of the stuff the brain does is backstage, then why does there need to be a stage? OK. But then what’s all this stuff about the experience of irreducible greenness? Is that the same as the question about how subjective experience arises from neural computation? Is it better to ask, How could it not? because, obviously, it just has to (pace Chalmers’ semi-sensical utterances). 8 years of philosophy grad school and I still just can’t really grasp the question.

  25. – 
    16-40 bits/second of conscious processing, 11 million bits/second of unconscious processing.  
    – 
     
    these are totally adhoc numbers.. So the unconscious is processing a million times more bits? Why not a billion or a thousand? The metric (bit) is decidely vague.

  26. alg, 
     
    I’ll take a look at the Norretranders. But so far, the applications of information theory to neuroscience I’ve seen haven’t convinced me the approach has much to offer. 
     
    RE: Libet, it’s more a matter of methods and interpretations than data. There’s plenty of room to argue there, as I’m sure you’re aware. And even if you swallow Libet whole, I think “a lie” is pushing it. 
     
    It’s clear that the brain is assembling models of the organism and its environment. I don’t understand what the idea of a user illusion adds to that. 
     
    I think, in fact, that it muddies the issue, because: 
    1) There is no “user.” The brain “operates” itself. 
    2) There is no “illusion.” Patterns of neural activity are just as real as the phenomena they represent. 
    3) The implied hierarchy, in which more abstract models are closer to the top, fails to capture the massively parallel nature of neural processes. 
     
    To me, it seems like not much more than a bit of argumentative sleight of hand: talk about “user illusions” and computers for a while, and then say, “In the brain, the user IS the illusion.” 
     
    I’ll take your word, for the moment, that there’s more to it than that, but it does seem like something that would have appealed to me more back when I smoked a lot of weed. Not least for its Cheech & Chong-esque quality: you know how the van IS the weed in Up in Smoke? 
     
    No offense intended, anyway, and good luck with your “terrible life choice.” :-)

  27. Will Wilkinson:  
    I mean, is the question just, If most of the stuff the brain does is backstage, then why does there need to be a stage? 
     
    1) There must be (I suppose) some evolutionary advantage to it. 
    2) Asking the question this way means you are still trying to investigate the “nature” of subjective experience thru an “objective” perspective which is itself dependent on primary subjective experiences. 
     
    OK. But then what’s all this stuff about the experience of irreducible greenness? 
     
    “irreducible greenness” as well as any other subjectively felt quality has the same nice properties than words in a language : you can “bind” other qualities, concepts, feelings to it in a (more or less) unique and reliable way. 
    It acts as a “notation”, the madeleine of Proust (a cluster of subjective feelings) is tied to and is the key to a set of recalled ideas and emotions, plus, Proust knows that the madeleine is the key to this and it thus allows thinking about the set of recalled ideas. 
    How could this be done without reliable non verbal tags into the set of ideas and emotions? 
     
    Is that the same as the question about how subjective experience arises from neural computation? 
     
    Not at all! 
    This last question is the (meaningless) question into the “Hard Problem” while the “why” questions above were instances of the “Easy Problem” questions. 
     
    DTLV : 
    There is no “user.” The brain “operates” itself. 
     
    THERE IS an “user”, you may call the “user” an illusion when you look at the brain (even your own) “from the outside” because there is indeed NO way that you can see the “user” from here (this is the basis of the solipsism argument), but you just forget that YOU are the user somehow “inside” your own brain and I guess you don’t feel as an illusion to yourself. 
    To say this I have to make a few bold assumptions: 
    - That you are not a “philosophical zombie” (see Jason Malloy’s link above). 
    - That you are an homo sapiens somewhat similar to me. 
    - That you are not a too badly deranged psychotic. 
     
    There is no “illusion.” Patterns of neural activity are just as real as the phenomena they represent. 
     
    Obviously patterns of neural activity as well as phenomena are “real” in the common sense acception of the word real. 
    But this is an uninteresting Platonistic assertion which does not address the “Hard Problem”, neither directly (as an instance of wondering about the “mystery” of consciousness) nor indirectly (as providing an insight about the premisses involved in the questionning).

  28. I prefer to think of the brain as a TV set rather than a computer. 
     
    All the parts are there, you can see the electrons scanning across the phosphorus tube and creating an image. But to truly understand a TV you have to go “outside” the TV and follow the signal it’s receiving. 
     
    And I think-with Descartes-that ‘God’ is our program director back in the studio.

  29. I don’t think Norretranders has much of anything to do with information theory, in the end. We agree about the failures of computational neuroscience to say much beyond a few neurons thus far. 
     
    Let me try again, as you (DTLV) say things as if you disagree, yet we agree. The brain does operate itself. Patterns of neural activity are indeed real. And consciousness doesn’t sit at the top of any hierarchy in N’s model — that’s in fact the whole point. 
     
    It’s likely that many organisms with brains assemble models of portions of themselves in their heads. Setting aside consciousness for a sec, Andersen (Caltech) and Logothetis (Max Planck) now routinely tap into movement-planning regions of the macaque brain, where the monkey maintains a model of its arm. (See here, the Coordinate Frames section, for a very brief overview.) Let’s suppose that such a strategy is widely used among critters with brains and limbs; let’s also suppose that not all such critters are conscious like we are. 
     
    What Norretranders argues is roughly this: it’s a small but critical step to model not just a limb but yourself in your head. This model is not actually you, any more than the monkey’s model of its arm is actually its arm. (That’s what I mean by “real.”) In order to be effective, this self-model must behave like a real self (the body + brain), but it needn’t be in control of anything — it’s just a tool that the body uses to execute certain functions. Just as the arm model is used to plan arm movements, the self model is used to make decisions and set goals. 
     
    The last bit, the experience of consciousness, would then (my illusion of Norretranders goes on to argue) arise because this self-model thinks it’s the real self. (And who can blame it!) Hence this weird (conscious!) experience of feeling like a resident in your body, rather than part and parcel of it. 
     
    ps. — terrible life choice?

  30. So the final triumph of the empiricists is to deny their own existence. How fitting!

  31. algebraic : 
    The last bit, the experience of consciousness, would then (my illusion of Norretranders goes on to argue) arise because this self-model thinks it’s the real self. 
     
    The self-model thinks! 
    I am afraid you just reintroduced the same conundrum. 
    How does a “model” “thinks” ? 
    At which point in the complexity scale of the “models of portions” does a feeling sets in? 
     
    I am not expecting answers, I think that these “questions” are meaningless (NO “Hard Problem”). 
    Let’s say that I am an atheistic “consciousness agnostic”, subjective experience is PRIMARY. 
    Which doesn’t mean that consciousness has some primacy over the materialistic apparatus which it obviously depends on. 
    It only means that because the only “tool” we have to model the world (materialistic or whatever, no matter) is the subjective experience this “tool” cannot refexively model itself.

  32. See, that’s the funny thing. You’re only denying your own existence if you actually believe that your consciousness circumscribes you.  
     
    To which I would say, poor little 30-bit-per-second waif! How cute. Let’s take it in and help it understand that the subconscious/unconscious you is all you too! 
     
    Now let’s introduce the poor thing to our Buddhist friends…

  33. The self-model thinks! 
     
    I was waiting for that. I’m sure you can answer that semantic niggle yourself.  
     
    First answer: try “the self-model is imbued with the certainty that it is the real self.” Second answer: kindly define thinking. If thinking is just information processing, then this little model — shorthand for “recurring pattern of neural activity” — can surely process information, just as other models in the brain can, and can encode a belief in itself (for surely not all beliefs are conscious!). If thinking is consciousness — which I would deny — then you’re right, circularity ensues.

  34. algebraic & Martin, 
     
    ROFLMAO! 
    As an anti-Platonist I am very pleased to watch your inconclusive bickering about what “exists” or not.

  35. I was waiting for that. I’m sure you can answer that semantic niggle yourself. 
     
    No, you didn’t read closely enough, I said I cannot answer meaningless questions.

  36. If thinking is just information processing, 
     
    I would deny THAT. 
    I would not assert either that that “thinking is consciousness” but that thinking is our subjective experience of SOME of our information processing (not all). 
    Information processing obviously occurs at many places without thinking. 
     
    “The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” Edsger Dijkstra

  37. What are some animals that can’t think? What are some nonhuman animals that can? How do you know?

  38. algebraic : 
     
    I cannot even know for sure that you are thinking nor can you be sure that I am thinking. 
    It is just a very plausible assumption for each of us. 
    I can just observe that you are doing “information processing” but how can I know how it feels for you? 
    Have you ever played with a chatterbot?

  39. K — I have indeed played with chatterbots. I’m rather comfortable with the notion that the difference between humans and chatterbots is largely one of degree (how complicated the input-output transformations are), not kind. (Revealing my non-dualist, anti-Platonist, materialist stripes, I guess.) We’re in total agreement about the “very plausible assumption” of thinking. 
     
    To me, it’s then also a very plausible assumption that behaviors we share with most vertebrate life make degrees of consciousness very plausible assumptions in them, too — raising the question of what, exactly, these critters (or babies, or mentally damaged individuals) are doing that’s any different from what we are, except in scale. 
     
    I have no trouble believing that my own consciousness — me, some might say, though I would disagree — is kind of delusional in thinking that it’s in control, as opposed to being largely controlled by subconscious stuff. I take Libet’s results, and those on the confabulatory nature of consciousness, quite seriously. When I “make a decision,” I believe that mostly sub-conscious bits of me did the deciding, and my conscious experience is a just that little model’s narrator doing its thing.  
     
    Once one accepts that conscious “you” is not all of “you”, I find it’s hard to be disappointed about this (coherent, consistent with experiment) world view. All this talk of existence and importance and so on seems to rest on the notion that consciousness really is in control, where we just have pitiful evidence for that proposition. It’s just not the way the (modular, parallel) brain works, and Libet’s experiments provide evidence to the contrary. 
     
    As to “how it feels” to think, neither I nor Norretranders have much to say about it. It’s Hard Problem territory.

  40. K asks me 
     
    Can you really explain the meaning you ascribe to the word “exist”? 
     
    “Existence” is one of those words that it’s hard, perhaps impossible to define in a noncircular fashion. Eventually you have to appeal to ostensive definition. And I even think that the prevailing concept of existence may have systematic deficiencies; Heidegger has a nice passage somewhere talking about aspects of being which are frozen out of the usual conception. Still – what do you want me to say, here? I mean it exists in the sense that it “is there”. I mean it exists, in the sense that it does not “not exist”! You were the one who talked about “the subjective”, which I took to be another name for everything to do with consciousness; do you think the subjective exists? And if you don’t, what on earth do your statements about it mean?  
     
    by using this word the way you do you ALREADY ASSUME a Platonistic position 
     
    Anyone who says that anything exists is a Platonist? Well, then we must all be Platonists, because something manifestly exists.  
     
    If contemporary scientific materialism were “wrong” you could point to some ontological inconsistency in its results, can you? 
     
    How about an inconsistency with the facts? Colors exist, there are no colors in the universe of mathematical physics (a wavelength is not a color, it’s a length-scale), therefore the latter is not the whole story ontologically. – I take “contemporary scientific materialism” to be defined by the belief that the universe of mathematical physics is the whole story. (You are allowed to talk about mereological aggregates of basic physical entities, and their properties, and I’ll still count you as a contemporary scientific materialist, unless you believe in some “strong emergence” thesis, in which case I’d say you’re actually a dualist.)

  41. algebraic : 
     
    We are indeed in agreement on many things, I will mostly emphasize the points which make a significant difference. 
     
    the question of what, exactly, these critters (or babies, or mentally damaged individuals) are doing that’s any different from what we are, except in scale. 
     
    Yes, but what about the “scale”? 
    Not even to speak about consciousness, where does the “feeling” sets in? 
    Does an oyster feels the pinch of lemon juice? 
    Does a bacteria feels the harm of an antibiotic? 
    I am “agnostic” about this question, I think we will never be able to answer it. 
     
    All this talk of existence and importance and so on seems to rest on the notion that consciousness really is in control, where we just have pitiful evidence for that proposition. 
     
    I agree that we are not “in control” with respect to the whole shebang of our own information processing but I am saying that the consciousness “feeling” is a mandatory component of the person, the “you”, and that it probably has an important functional role in the whole picture of “mental capabilities” (philosophical zombies would not work). 
    As for the questions of “existence” it is a different point and you are probably confused by my weird views on the epistemological/ontological approaches to modelling “reality”. 
     
    As to “how it feels” to think, neither I nor Norretranders have much to say about it. It’s Hard Problem territory. 
     
    Neither do I have much to say about “how it feels to think” but I deny that there is any kind of Hard Problem because, to me, the question is rendered meaningless by an INTRINSIC impossibility, like you cannot square the circle but can prove it’s infeasible. 
    My view on this is that since subjective experience is a mandatory basis for our “objective” discourse we will never be able to reflexively “explain” the subjective thru something which is rooted in the subjective. 
    That does NOT imply any fancy “mystical” position, no more than Godel’s theorem.

  42. RE: “terrible life choice,” see here: 
     
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufSZ3QBWSaw 
     
    Like I said, no offense intended.

  43. Hehe…never saw that before. But I worked for years in industry before going to grad school, no ponytails or poverty for me. :) 
     
    Kev — Yeah, we’re in mostly violent agreement. I take the same view of the Hard Problem, and think all the stuff about “feeling” is unanswerable — per Pinker’s statement about color perception. Not sold on mandatory “feelings”, but I’d certainly admit the possibility.

  44. mitchell porter : answering below, I just overlooked your posting on 01.30 
     
    I mean it exists in the sense that it “is there”. I mean it exists, in the sense that it does not “not exist”! You were the one who talked about “the subjective”, which I took to be another name for everything to do with consciousness; do you think the subjective exists?  
     
    Funnily I think we agree on the “facts” not about the meanings. 
    The “I exist” is a subjective feeling which I do have too, but it is only a feeling and in some respect it is the only “thing” which exists in the acception you seem to use for the word “exist”. 
    We may not unduly extend this quality to other objects, concepts, ideas, entities, etc… because ALL of those “things” are constructs from within our own epistemology at the current stage of development it has relative to our summed up past experiences. 
    NO objects, concepts, ideas, entities exist “in reality”, they only “exist” in a slightly different sense as “tags” in our epistemology. 
    Equating the objects from an epistemology with “objects in reality” is the Platonic position which I find wrongheaded. 
    Since EVERYBODY’s personal epistemology is in a constant flux due to ongoing accumulating experience no wonder that the Platonistic stance which attempts to “cast in concrete” the previous experiences is leading to paradoxes and trouble. 
     
    Anyone who says that anything exists is a Platonist? Well, then we must all be Platonists, because something manifestly exists. 
     
    Only “you” (and “I”…) exist. 
    I hope you understand what I mean by this from my explanations above. 
     
    Colors exist, there are no colors in the universe of mathematical physics (a wavelength is not a color, it’s a length-scale), therefore the latter is not the whole story ontologically. 
     
    Ha! ha!  
    Same agreement on the “facts”, same incompatibility about the meaning. 
    Actually, colors are one of my favorite examples against Scientism taken as an absolute Platonistic worldview. 
    To elaborate on this, consider that your colors only exist FOR YOU, for someone with Daltonism your colors certainly don’t exist. 
    And even MY colors may not exist for you if, for instance, my “feeling” of green is your feeling of red and vice-versa (like in a photo-negative) we will NEVER FIND OUT! 
    Why is that? 
    Because colors “exist” in your (or mine) epistemology, NOT “in reality”. 
     
    I take “contemporary scientific materialism” to be defined by the belief that the universe of mathematical physics is the whole story. 
     
    This is what it seems to be pretending when taken as a Platonistic ontological approach (the “obtuse Scientists” approach which I criticize too). 
    Fortunately the ACTUAL scientific practice does not shy away of “paradigm shifts” which amount to discarding obsolete ontologies. 
     
    I’d say you’re actually a dualist. 
     
    I am much worse than a dualist! :-) 
    If you understood my position, how could you call that? 
    An “infinitualist”?

  45. Alg, 
     
    Don’t know if you’re still here, but you’re right, in a way. Like K says above, we agree on the facts. I’m just not convinced your explanation really explains anything. It seems to me it just rephrases the problem in such a way that it’s harder to see what the problem is. A while back I read a little book by Searle which seemed to me to do the same thing. Maybe I’m just not getting it. I don’t know that there’s much to be gained by hashing it out. 
     
    I do think, though, that this failure to adequately explain how consciousness is generated is a problem for materialism. One of its more strident advocates agrees, here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dawkins_pinker/debate_p12.html . Of course, since I haven’t made it my life’s work to prove the correctness of my assumptions (to OTHER PEOPLE!) it’s not a huge problem for me… 
     
    What I am worried about, though, are the political consequences of consciousness-agnosticism among scientists. You and K are happy to agree that questions of the, “what it’s like to be…” sort are meaningless, and even that the oyster may very well feel the lemon, but this isn’t just philosophy we’re talking about here — ask Dario Ringach. The nature of politics is that people who lack strong opinions are shouted down by people who don’t, so scientists need to come up with something better than, “Who cares?” 
     
    Hmm. Maybe I do need to go out there and prove my assumptions to other people…

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