Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness

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Sciborg_S_Patel

#1
Another thread that got lost.

Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness

Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given.

To make progress on the problem of consciousness, we have to confront it directly. In this paper, I first isolate the truly hard part of the problem, separating it from more tractable parts and giving an account of why it is so difficult to explain. I critique some recent work that uses reductive methods to address consciousness, and argue that such methods inevitably fail to come to grips with the hardest part of the problem. Once this failure is recognized, the door to further progress is opened. In the second half of the paper, I argue that if we move to a new kind of nonreductive explanation, a naturalistic account of consciousness can be given. I put forward my own candidate for such an account: a nonreductive theory based on principles of structural coherence and organizational invariance and a double-aspect view of information.
I realize there's lots of debate regarding the Hard Problem, and lots of room for argument.

However I'd ask that people consider reading the following which addresses concerns from Dennet & the Churchlands. It might address your objections before hand.

Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness

...Perhaps the most common strategy for a type-A materialist is to deflate the "hard problem" by using analogies to other domains, where talk of such a problem would be misguided. Thus Dennett imagines a vitalist arguing about the hard problem of "life", or a neuroscientist arguing about the hard problem of "perception". Similarly, Paul Churchland (1996) imagines a nineteenth century philosopher worrying about the hard problem of "light", and Patricia Churchland brings up an analogy involving "heat". In all these cases, we are to suppose, someone might once have thought that more needed explaining than structure and function; but in each case, science has proved them wrong. So perhaps the argument about consciousness is no better.

This sort of argument cannot bear much weight, however. Pointing out that analogous arguments do not work in other domains is no news: the whole point of anti-reductionist arguments about consciousness is that there is a disanalogy between the problem of consciousness and problems in other domains. As for the claim that analogous arguments in such domains might once have been plausible, this strikes me as something of a convenient myth: in the other domains, it is more or less obvious that structure and function are what need explaining, at least once any experiential aspects are left aside, and one would be hard pressed to find a substantial body of people who ever argued otherwise.

When it comes to the problem of life, for example, it is just obvious that what needs explaining is structure and function: How does a living system self-organize? How does it adapt to its environment? How does it reproduce? Even the vitalists recognized this central point: their driving question was always "How could a mere physical system perform these complex functions?", not "Why are these functions accompanied by life?" It is no accident that Dennett's version of a vitalist is "imaginary". There is no distinct "hard problem" of life, and there never was one, even for vitalists.

In general, when faced with the challenge "explain X", we need to ask: what are the phenomena in the vicinity of X that need explaining, and how might we explain them? In the case of life, what cries out for explanation are such phenomena as reproduction, adaptation, metabolism, self-sustenance, and so on: all complex functions. There is not even a plausible candidate for a further sort of property of life that needs explaining (leaving aside consciousness itself), and indeed there never was. In the case of consciousness, on the other hand, the manifest phenomena that need explaining are such things as discrimination, reportability, integration (the functions), and experience. So this analogy does not even get off the ground...
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#3
I love discussing the related thought experiments, such as Mary's room, the Chinese room, and zombies.

~~ Paul
I never liked Mary's Room, as I think it's too hard to pin down what "knows everything but subjective experience" means.

Chinese Room is a good one, as I think it actually leads into interesting discussion about things like Symbol Grounding. But it probably fits more with the digital consciousness debate in that other thread.

Zombies end up being contentious for a variety of reasons - I find it sorta helps people get some sense of what the Hard Problem is though a lot of people say it begs the question. There was stuff in, IIRC, the NYTimes that involved a public discussion of zombies but will have to check if it's still around.
 

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos

Nap, interrupted.
Member
#4
I never liked Mary's Room, as I think it's too hard to pin down what "knows everything but subjective experience" means.
I agree that is difficult. However, pondering the difference between learned facts and state facts is an interesting aspect.

Chinese Room is a good one, as I think it actually leads into interesting discussion about things like Symbol Grounding. But it probably fits more with the digital consciousness debate in that other thread.
I think it's worthless because certain questions have to be off-limits.

Zombies end up being contentious for a variety of reasons - I find it sorta helps people get some sense of what the Hard Problem is though a lot of people say it begs the question. There was stuff in, IIRC, the NYTimes that involved a public discussion of zombies but will have to check if it's still around.
I think it begs the question.

~~ Paul
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#5
There Are No Easy Problems of Consciousness

This paper challenges David Chalmers’ proposed division of the problems of consciousness into the ‘easy’ ones and the ‘hard’ one, the former allegedly being susceptible to explanation in terms of computational or neural mechanisms and the latter supposedly turning on the fact that experiential ‘qualia’ resist any sort of functional definition. Such a division, it is argued, rests upon a misrepresention of the nature of human cognition and experience and their intimate interrelationship, thereby neglecting a vitally important insight of Kant. From a Kantian perspective, our capacity for conceptual thought is so inextricably bound up with our capacity for phenomenal consciousness that it is an illusion to imagine that there are any ‘easy’ problems of consciousness, resolvable within the computational or neural paradigms.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#6
Bull Meets Shovel: Could Consciousness Be A Conjuring Trick?

Not only does Nature fool us into thinking that consciousness is mysterious, when it is not, she also makes it impossible for us to see that this is what she has done. But there may be a loophole: it may be possible to "explain how a brain process could be (designed to) give rise to the impression of having this quality," i.e., the quality of consciousness. By 'impression,' Humphrey means illusion as is clear from his arithmetical example. So what he is suggesting is that it may be possible to explain how brain processes could give rise to the illusion that there is consciousness, the illusion that brain processes have the quality of consciousness.

But this 'possibility' is a complete absurdity, a complete impossibility. For it is self-evident that illusions presuppose consciousness: an illusion cannot exist without consciousness. The 'cannot' expresses a very strong impossibility, broadly logical impossibility. The Germans have a nice proverb, Soviel Schein, so viel Sein. "So much seeming, so much being." The point being that you can't have Schein without Sein, seeming without being. It can't be seeming 'all the way down.'

The water espied by a parched hiker might be an illusion (a mirage), but it is impossible that consciousness be an illusion. For wherever there is illusion there is consciousness, and indeed the reality of consciousness, not the illusion of consciousness. If you said that the illusion of consciousness is an illusion for a consciousness that is itself an illusion you would be embarked upon a regress that was both infinite and vicious. Just as the world cannot be turtles all the way down, consciousness cannot be illusion all the way down.

In the case of the mirage one can and must distinguish between the seeming and the being. The being (reality) of the mirage consists of heat waves rising from the desert floor, whereas its seeming (appearance) involves a relation to a conscious being who mis-takes the heat waves for water. But conscious states, as Searle and I have been arguing ad nauseam lo these many years, are such that seeming and being, appearance and reality, coincide. For conscious qualia, esse est percipi. Consciousness cannot be an illusion since no sort of wedge can be driven between its appearance and its reality.
It is also important to note how Humphrey freely helps himself to intentional and teleological language, all the while personifying Nature with a capital 'N.' Nature meant the hard problem to be hard, she had a purpose in fooling us. She fooled us. Etc. This is a typical mistake that many naturalists make. They presuppose the validity of the very categories (intentionality, etc.) that their naturalistic schemes would eliminate. How could they fail to presuppose them? After all, naturalists think about consciousness and other things, and they have a purpose in promoting their (absurd) theories.

There is no problem with using teleological talk as a sort of shorthand, but eventually it has to be cashed out: it has to be translated into 'mechanistic' talk. Eliminativists owe us a translation manual. In the absence of a translation manual, they can be charged with presupposing what they are trying to account for, and what is worse, ascribing meanings and purposes to something that could not possibly have them, namely, Natural Selection personified. What is the point of getting rid of God if you end up importing purposes into Natural Selection personified, or what is worse, into 'selfish' genes?

So Humphrey's statement is bullshit in the sense of being radically incoherent. It is pseudo-theory in the worst sense.

Follow up:

Galen Strawson versus Nicholas Humphrey on Consciousness

Here is Strawson's argument in a nutshell:

1. We know the intrinsic nature of consciousness from our own case.

2. We know that consciousness is a form of matter.

Ergo

3. There is nothing mysterious about consciousness or about how matter gives rise to consciousness; nor is there any question whether consciousness is wholly physical; the only mystery concerns the intrinsic nature of matter.

The problem with this argument is premise (2). It is pure bluster: a wholly gratuitous assumption, a mere dogma of naturalism. I can neutralize the argument with this counterargument:

4. If (1) & (2), then brain matter has occult powers.

5. We have no good reason to assume -- it is wholly gratuitous to assume -- that brain matter has occult powers.

Therefore

6. We have no good reason to assume that both (1) and (2) are true.

7. We know that (1) is true.

Therefore

8. We have good reason to believe that (2) is false.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#7
Thought this had already been posted but it was probably lost in the Forumpocalypse:

Consciousness and its Place in Nature


In this paper I take my cue from Broad, approaching the problem of consciousness by a strategy of divide-and-conquer. I will not adopt Broad's categories: our understanding of the mind-body problem has advanced in the last 75 years, and it would be nice to think that we have a better understanding of the crucial issues. On my view, the most important views on the metaphysics of consciousness can be divided almost exhaustively into six classes, which I will label "type A" through "type F." Three of these (A through C) involve broadly reductive views, seeing consciousness as a physical process that involves no expansion of a physical ontology. The other three (D through F) involve broadly nonreductive views, on which consciousness involves something irreducible in nature, and requires expansion or reconception of a physical ontology.

The discussion will be cast at an abstract level, giving an overview of the metaphysical landscape. Rather than engaging the empirical science of consciousness, or detailed philosophical theories of consciousness, I will be examining some general classes into which theories of consciousness might fall. I will not pretend to be neutral in this discussion. I think that each of the reductive views is incorrect, while each of the nonreductive views holds some promise. So the first part of this paper can be seen as an extended argument against reductive views of consciousness, while the second part can be seen as an investigation of where we go from there.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#8
Chalmers on Intentionality, QM, Panpsychism, Zombies, Progress in Philosophy, and a host of other stuff...


I think panpsychism has many attractions. It offers a very integrated picture of the place of consciousness in the natural order, in a monistic, simple picture. It provides a potential causal role of consciousness in the natural order. I think of it as having many of the advantages of materialism and the advantages of dualism without having the disadvantages associated with the respective positions: too much reductionism for materialism and problems of physics for dualism. The big problem for panpsychism for me is not the counter-intuitiveness; I don’t find it particularly crazy or outlandish. It’s maybe a little counter-intuitive, but I don’t know that our intuitions about consciousness and where it is present count for all that much. After all, it’s not something you can observe. These intuitions are very culturally relative and some cultures have found it very plausible.

I consider the main problem with panpsychism to be the combination problem. How do the little bits of consciousness add up to the kind of consciousness we have?
What I’m skeptical of are certain reductionist approaches to the problem of consciousness, about developing a theory of consciousness in wholly physical terms. I think that’s probably not going to work out. But I’m very much open to scientific non-reductive approaches to consciousness, which take consciousness to be something fundamental and primitive and develop theoretical principles about it. I think there’s a lot of that happening right now. The talk I’m doing tomorrow can be viewed as a contribution to that project – consciousness collapsing wave functions.14 The work of someone like Tononi is also interesting.15 He very much sees his work as a non-reductive approach. So what we have got out of the science of consciousness in recent years, as I see it, is basically a non-reductive science. It doesn’t try to reduce consciousness to the brain.

He very much sees his work as a non-reductive approach. So what we have got out of the science of consciousness in recent years, as I see it, is basically a non-reductive science. It doesn’t try to reduce consciousness to the brain. It’s finding interesting correlations between consciousness and the brain, and ultimately we want to figure out the fundamental principles that align those correlations. It is early days for doing that, but someone like Tononi is putting forward some hypotheses, and maybe there are others. So I suppose the distinctive pessimism I have would be just directed at reductionist approaches. I think one shouldn’t identify science with materialism. Those are two very different things.
More on Tononi's ideas here, with development from Tegmark here. Implications for A.I.s as conscious entities here.

More on consciousness influencing reality at the quantum level here.

eta: Also Groff seeks to avoid the combination problem by positing non-compositional panpsychism. Note the potential similarities to Feser's conception of the soul as a non-spatial entity.
 
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#9
IMHO, you will ultimately have to go beyond "it" language to really grasp consciousness-a la a buddha or guru or such. Even the approaches that Chalmers favors above (and I like his ideas a lot in general) still have that as a fundamental problem.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#11
IMHO, you will ultimately have to go beyond "it" language to really grasp consciousness-a la a buddha or guru or such. Even the approaches that Chalmers favors above (and I like his ideas a lot in general) still have that as a fundamental problem.
IIRC Bohm had a similar idea, that reality - including consciousness - was more akin to a verb than a noun.

The interview with his friend and biographer F. David Peat can be found here, I think this particular subject comes toward the end.
 
#12
I'm struggling to process that Tononi is not trying to reduce consciousness to the brain. I thought he was a reductionist.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#14
I'm struggling to process that Tononi is not trying to reduce consciousness to the brain. I thought he was a reductionist.
I remember thinking the same, but that might have been Koch who's panpsychist but also determinist?

They're working together on IIT.
 
#15
I remember thinking the same, but that might have been Koch who's panpsychist but also determinist?

They're working together on IIT.
I do think panpsychism is going to win out. ASIB, you have fundamental consciousness that does not require a massive overturning of current scientific thinking. True it would place consciousness as something primary and fundamental, but it doesn't seem to clash with current thinking. All it would do would be to expand our knowledge a little bit.
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#16
I do think panpsychism is going to win out. ASIB, you have fundamental consciousness that does not require a massive overturning of current scientific thinking. True it would place consciousness as something primary and fundamental, but it doesn't seem to clash with current thinking. All it would do would be to expand our knowledge a little bit.
ASIB?

Yeah, I think it's almost inevitable that materialism is on its way out. You have Harris of all people saying emergence takes a nonsensical miracle, and Tegmark & Tononi offer the possibility of a metaphysics that is amenable to equations while preserving a bit of the world's enchantment.

That's probably enough to end up at some middle ground.

Throw in Massimo's contention that causality transcendent math is the firmament
, maybe a bit of quantum observer-participancy, and the distance between materialist and immaterialist seems to be nigh meaningless?
 
#17
ASIB?

Yeah, I think it's almost inevitable that materialism is on its way out. You have Harris of all people saying emergence takes a nonsensical miracle, and Tegmark & Tononi offer the possibility of a metaphysics that is amenable to equations while preserving a bit of the world's enchantment.

That's probably enough to end up at some middle ground.
Throw in Massimo's contention that causality transcendent math is the firmament, maybe a bit of quantum observer-participancy, and the distance between materialist and immaterialist seems to be nigh meaningless?

Meant to be AISB (as I said before) with you throwing out IIRCs with reckless abandon, I thought I'd get my own back :p
 
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Sciborg_S_Patel

#18
From another thread that I suspect was gobbled up:

The mental block: Consciousness is the greatest mystery in science. Don’t believe the hype: the Hard Problem is here to stay


Consciousness is in fact so weird, and so poorly understood, that we may permit ourselves the sort of wild speculation that would be risible in other fields. We can ask, for instance, if our increasingly puzzling failure to detect intelligent alien life might have any bearing on the matter. We can speculate that it is consciousness that gives rise to the physical world rather than the other way round. The 20th-century British physicist James Hopwood Jeans speculated that the universe might be ‘more like a great thought than like a great machine.’ Idealist notions keep creeping into modern physics, linking the idea that the mind of the observer is somehow fundamental in quantum measurements and the strange, seemingly subjective nature of time itself, as pondered by the British physicist Julian Barbour. Once you have accepted that feelings and experiences can be quite independent of time and space (those causally connected but delocalised cogwheels), you might take a look at your assumptions about what, where and when you are with a little reeling disquiet.

I don’t know. No one does. And I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem, the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. It’s hard, but we shouldn’t stop trying. The head of that bird on the rooftop contains more mystery than will be uncovered by our biggest telescopes or atom smashers. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.
 
#20
I'm a reductive materialist, so I don't think consciousness can truly be reduced to non-conscious entities, although I'm not sure if they can't be reduced to proto-consciousness. Usually, the arguments laid down are against the reduction of consciousness to the known set of particles and their third perspective characteristics, but it's unclear if the hard problem has enough force as to make consciousness non-reducible to anything at all.
 
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