Questioning Consciousness

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Questioning Consciousness

Postby nomo » Wed Jan 30, 2008 3:37 pm

http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2008/0 ... usness.php

Questioning Consciousness

To understand consciousness and its evolution, we need to ask the right questions.

by Nicholas Humphrey • Posted January 28, 2008 04:57 PM



No one doubts that our experience of phenomenal consciousness—the felt redness of fire, the felt sweetness of a peach, the felt pain of a bee sting—arises from the activity of our brains. Yet the problem of explaining how this can be so seems to many theorists to be staggeringly hard. How can the wine of consciousness, the weird, ineffable, immaterial qualia that give such richness to subjective experience, conceivably arise from the water of the brain? As the philosopher Colin McGinn has put it, it's like trying to explain how you can get "numbers from biscuits, or ethics from rhubarb." The philosopher Jerry Fodor recently claimed, "The revisions of our concepts and theories that imagining a solution will eventually require are likely to be very deep and very unsettling."

If you smell theoretical panic, you're right. But are the scientific answers really so far out of reach? Have people been beguiled by the marvelous properties of consciousness into asking for the moon, while what is at issue is really much more down to earth? Everybody says they are waiting for the Big Idea. But perhaps the big idea should be that consciousness, which is of such significance to us subjectively, is scientifically not such a big deal.

Image

It all depends on asking the right questions at the outset. I can show what I mean with the example of a well-known visual illusion. Consider what you might want to explain about the experience of looking at the object in the picture to the left (Fig. 1), a solid wooden version of the so-called impossible triangle. Since it is at first sight so surprising and impressive, any of us might very well innocently ask the (bad) question: "How can we explain the existence of this triangle as we perceive it?" Only later—indeed only once we have seen the object from a different viewpoint (Fig. 2), and realized that the "triangle as we perceive it" is an illusion—will it occur to us to ask the (good) question: "How can we explain the fact we have been tricked into perceiving it this way?"

Now, no one wants to think that consciousness is likewise some kind of trick. But let's nonetheless see where the analogy may lead. The standard philosopher's example is the case of what it's like to see red. So, suppose you were looking at a ripe tomato: What might you want to explain about the qualia-rich red sensation that you are experiencing?

Since the qualia are indeed so up-front and remarkable, and since no one knows why this is, we are all, most probably, going to start off by asking what may be a bad question: "How can we explain the existence of these qualia as we experience them?" So here, again, it will only be if we undergo a radical shift in perspective and realize that the "qualia as we experience them" could be a mental fantasy, that we shall move on to asking what may be the good question: "How can we explain why we have the impression that such fantastic qualia exist even if they do not?" But, here is why it is likely to be so difficult to make this move: In the case of consciousness, we cannot simply change our perspective to see the solution. We are all stuck with the first-person point of view. So, the result is we persist with questing for the qualia as such.

Yet if consciousness is a trick, then of course this quest is a fool's errand. It will make no more sense to try to explain the existence of qualia than it would to explain the existence of the impossible triangle. What we should be doing instead is trying to explain just how we have been set up—and why.

Well, is it a trick? The only way to find out, I'd say, would be to take seriously the idea that consciousness is a trick, and think through what further questions would follow at a scientific level. And, though I realize I should not go overboard with the analogy, I believe the impossible triangle can continue to show the way.

A philosophical term comes in useful here. When people perceive, think, believe, and so on, these mental states are called "intentional states;" whatever the particular state is about—the percept, thought, belief—is called the "intentional object." So, when we look at the wooden triangle from the special position, what we perceive—the impossible triangle—is the "intentional object." Meanwhile, the thing we are actually looking at can be called the "real-world object."

So, now, with phenomenal consciousness, let's see if we cannot make a similar distinction. Suppose that, when we are conscious of having a sensation, when we say it's like something—it's like seeing red—this thing it is like is the "intentional object of consciousness." Then, if this is in any way similar to the case of the triangle, there will be a corresponding real-world object—presumably something going on in the brain—which is what we are actually engaging with and commenting on. In which case, there will indeed be another series of questions to ask.

1. What exactly is the real-world brain activity that we are engaging with when we say a sensation is like something?

2. Why does this activity have the (tricky) properties it has, such that our experience of it is seemingly something so strangely private, not of this world, and indescribable in common terms?

3. What makes this trick work? How is it done?

4. What is the point? Why was it designed like this? What might have been the evolutionary advantage of our having these marvelous experiences?

I believe we can already propose plausible answers to each of these questions—although they are all quite radical. Here they are.

The real-world brain activity is the activity that I call "sentition." In response to sensory stimulation, we react with an evolutionarily ancient form of internalized bodily expression (something like an inner grimace or smile). We then experience this as sensation when we form an inner picture—by monitoring the command signals—of just what we are doing.

Sentition has been subtly shaped in the course of evolution so as to instill our picture of it with those added dimensions of phenomenality. Sentition has, in short, become what I call a "phenomenous object"—defined as "something that when monitored by introspection seems to have phenomenal properties."

I do not pretend to know yet how this is done, or what the neural correlate of phenomenous sentition is. My hunch is that feedback loops in the sensory areas of the brain are creating complex attractor states that require more than the usual four dimensions to describe—and that this makes these "states of mind" seem to have immaterial qualities. But you do not need to understand what I have just said to get the message. Creating a thing that gives the illusion of having weird and wonderful properties need be no great shakes, and is certainly much easier than creating something that actually has them, especially when it is possible to restrict the point of view.

There is every reason to think the truth about consciousness will eventually be discovered by scientific investigation. Even so, I'd flag a potential difficulty in getting there. If sentition appears phenomenal only when observed from the specific first-person viewpoint, this is bound to create major difficulties for those neuroscientists who hope to find the neural correlate of consciousness (the NCC) by studying the brain from the outside. For the reality will likely be that seen from outside, the NCC will strike the observer as nothing special, merely an oddity—just as would happen if we were to come across an impossible triangle lying on a bench, without realizing what it has been designed to do.

The final challenge will be explaining the biological purpose of all this. We can surely assume that the kind of development I have sketched above will not have happened accidentally. It must be the result of natural selection favoring genes that underwrite the specialized neural circuits—whatever they turn out to be—that do indeed sustain the illusion of qualia, giving rise to the magical mystery show observed by the first-person. And it is axiomatic that this will only have happened if those lucky enough to be spectators of this show have somehow been at an advantage in terms of biological survival. Yet, how can this be if, as is widely assumed by theorists, the phenomenal richness of consciousness is of no practical value whatsoever?

Fodor has stated this aspect of the problem bluntly: "There are several reasons why consciousness is so baffling. For one thing, it seems to be among the chronically unemployed. What mental processes can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds can do they could do just as well if they weren't conscious. Why then did God bother to make consciousness?"

Fodor is undoubtedly asking the right question: "Why did God—or rather natural selection—make consciousness?" Yet I'd suggest the reason he finds it all so baffling is that he is starting off with the completely wrong premise, for he has assumed, as indeed almost everyone else does, that phenomenal consciousness must be providing us with some kind of new skill. In other words, it must be helping us do something that we can do only by virtue of being conscious, in the way that, say, a bird can fly only because it has wings, or you can understand this sentence only because you know English.

Yet I want to suggest the role of phenomenal consciousness may not be like this at all. Its role may not be to enable us to do something we could not do otherwise, but rather to encourage us to do something we would not do otherwise: to make us take an interest in things that otherwise would not interest us, or to mind things we otherwise would not mind, or to set ourselves goals we otherwise would not set.

To test this idea we will need evidence as to how being phenomenally conscious changes our worldview: What beliefs and attitudes flow from it? What changes occur in the way conscious individuals think about who and what they are?

These are empirical questions that can be answered only by careful fieldwork in the realm of conscious creatures. What is needed is a thorough natural history of consciousness, and it must be a program of research in which we are ready to consider all sorts of possibilities—not just those we would expect to find discussed in the science or philosophy section of the library, but perhaps those that belong in the Self Help section, or even Mind and Spirit.

Regrettably, this area of consciousness studies has been neglected by scientists (although artists have been involved with it since art began). I cannot claim to be more than an amateur myself. All the same, I will not hold back from telling you my own main conclusion from a lifetime's interest in what consciousness does. I may shock you by what may seem the naivety of my conclusion (I've shocked myself): I think the plain and simple fact is that consciousness—on various levels—makes life more worth living.

We like being phenomenally conscious. We like the world in which we're phenomenally conscious. We like ourselves for being phenomenally conscious. And the resulting joie de vivre, the enchantment with the world we live in, and the enhanced sense of our own metaphysical importance have, in the course of evolutionary history, turned our lives around.
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Postby Wombaticus Rex » Wed Jan 30, 2008 8:27 pm

Great read, thanks....I should really get a subscription to Seed, I'm consistently impressed by their material.
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Ben D » Mon Dec 09, 2013 4:44 am

Yes, conceptual consciousness is a form of illusion, the real is beyond time space relativity...

There is That which was not born, nor created, nor evolved. If it were not so, there would never be any refuge from being born, or created, or evolving. That is the end of suffering. That is God**.

** or Nirvana, Allah, Brahman, Tao, etc...
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby DrVolin » Mon Dec 09, 2013 8:45 am

Or we can simply say that qualia is an evolved response, or adaptation, to external stimulus (signal wavelength, for example), in which case it is not hard at all to explain. It is still difficult to figure out how it is produced, but that becomes a mechanical problem, not a philosophical one.
all these dreams are swept aside
By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide
And history bears the scars of our civil wars

--Guns and Roses
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby tapitsbo » Mon Dec 09, 2013 9:21 am

my admittedly uninformed mind doesn't understand how mechanism isn't just an evolved response to qualia

it seems easier to trace the origin of the physical world back to information and sensations than it is to do the reverse.

so why is there a consensus that matter causes consciousness and not the other way around?

i mean, besides any hypothetical mind control enslavement conspiracy (which if it existed would naturally not be the whole story. right?)
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby tazmic » Mon Dec 09, 2013 2:35 pm

Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Exhaustive coverage here.

"Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is an opposite bookend of sorts to Alex Rosenberg’s recent The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Both Nagel and Rosenberg are naturalists, but both are also highly critical of their fellow naturalists -- who, Nagel and Rosenberg maintain, do not see the deep metaphysical problems afflicting the complacent materialism that prevails among contemporary philosophers (and among contemporary scientists in their philosophical moods). What Nagel and Rosenberg disagree about is the prescribed remedy. For Rosenberg, to be a consistent naturalist requires being a radical eliminativist -- denying the existence of intentionality and semantic meaning, the epistemic value of introspection, and so forth. For Nagel, salvaging naturalism requires going to almost the opposite extreme of reviving the Aristotelian teleology that naturalists have for centuries been defining themselves against."
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby coffin_dodger » Mon Dec 09, 2013 3:37 pm

tazmic wrote:"Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is an opposite bookend of sorts to Alex Rosenberg’s recent The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Both Nagel and Rosenberg are naturalists, but both are also highly critical of their fellow naturalists -- who, Nagel and Rosenberg maintain, do not see the deep metaphysical problems afflicting the complacent materialism that prevails among contemporary philosophers (and among contemporary scientists in their philosophical moods). What Nagel and Rosenberg disagree about is the prescribed remedy. For Rosenberg, to be a consistent naturalist requires being a radical eliminativist -- denying the existence of intentionality and semantic meaning, the epistemic value of introspection, and so forth. For Nagel, salvaging naturalism requires going to almost the opposite extreme of reviving the Aristotelian teleology that naturalists have for centuries been defining themselves against."


It's little wonder we have no idea what consciousness is. The words and language we use to describe these concepts are enough to turn anyone lower than brainiac into a disinterested party.
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Wombaticus Rex » Mon Dec 09, 2013 3:53 pm

Two of my favorite riffs on this modal composition from Nick Herbert:

http://southerncrossreview.org/16/herbert.essay.htm

http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~sai/herbert_int.htm

DJB: Do you see Bell's Theorem, and our understanding from astrophysics that all particles in the universe were together at the moment of the Big Bang, as being a possible explanation for mysterious phenomenon such as telepathy and synchronicity?

NICK: Yeah, I do. But I think that it would be too easy to say that because we're all connected we have telepathy. Because, again, why do we feel so all alone?

DJB: Doesn't it have something to do with the recency of the connection?

NICK: Yeah. If you make a connection, separate, and then make any other connections, those later connections will dilute the first connection. It's just as strong, but now you have another connection that's speeding into you. So it's a little bit like what's been called the coefficient of consanguinity, which measures how close people are linked genetically. Your mother is the closest to you, then your grandmother, and so forth on down. You're all linked by connections, but the more recent connections are the strongest. But even then, even when you've just met somebody, and separated, the telepathy between you is not really readily apparent. It would be be something, wouldn't it, if we lived in a society where the last person you met you had a telepathic contact with, until you met somebody else. That doesn't seem to happen, though, at least on the level we're aware of.

So the real question is why is telepathy so dilute? I would expect a proper science to explain that fact. Then, of course once we had that explanation, we could increase it, make it greater, or overcome the diluteness if you didn't want to have telepathic contact with certain people. So that to me is the biggest mystery. Bell's Theorem could explain telepathy, but what explains the lack of telepathy? That's something I don't think anyone has really addressed. There are a few people who have addressed this fact on the level of psychology, but not physics, as to why we don't have telepathy. The most convincing answer that I know about is that it would be just too terrible to look into the hearts of people, because there's so much pain around that it would be excruciating to tap into that.

RMN: Also, it seems that a lot of people don't want to be that open about themselves, maybe they don't want people seeing into them.

NICK: There's that too--I don't want people to look into me. But suppose you want to look into other people? A reason not to do that would be that it would be very painful.

RMN: There seems to be an idea among physicists that by persistent analysis, they will eventually discover the fundamental particle, the stuff from which all matter is formed, and yet they continue to discover smaller and smaller versions of this particle. What are your thoughts on this?

NICK: Oh, ultimate particles, huh? I'd be perfectly content if physics came to an end--that quarks and leptons were actually the world's fundamental particles. Some people think this, that physics is coming to an end, as far as the direction of finding fundamental particles goes. It's okay with me. I don't think that's the most interesting way to go, looking for fundamental particles. You know my real notion is that consciousness is the toughest problem, and that physics has basically taken off on the easy problems, and may even solve them. We may find all the forces and all the particles of nature-that's physic's quest--but then what? Then we have to really tackle some of these harder problems--the nature of mind, the nature of God, and bigger problems that we don't even know how to ask yet. So, actually I'm not too interested in the problem of finding fundamental particles, but my guess is, from what we know now, that we're very close to that situation.
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Julian the Apostate » Mon Dec 09, 2013 4:17 pm

tazmic » Mon Dec 09, 2013 1:35 pm wrote:Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Exhaustive coverage here.

"Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is an opposite bookend of sorts to Alex Rosenberg’s recent The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Both Nagel and Rosenberg are naturalists, but both are also highly critical of their fellow naturalists -- who, Nagel and Rosenberg maintain, do not see the deep metaphysical problems afflicting the complacent materialism that prevails among contemporary philosophers (and among contemporary scientists in their philosophical moods). What Nagel and Rosenberg disagree about is the prescribed remedy. For Rosenberg, to be a consistent naturalist requires being a radical eliminativist -- denying the existence of intentionality and semantic meaning, the epistemic value of introspection, and so forth. For Nagel, salvaging naturalism requires going to almost the opposite extreme of reviving the Aristotelian teleology that naturalists have for centuries been defining themselves against."


Interesting material, I will have to bookmark it for when I have more time to do some reading.

First Things seems like a very interesting organization. As a Freemason, the title of their Daily Columns page (“On the Square”) caught my eye. So I wanted to learn more about who is behind First Things. The About Us page says it is published by “The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” Woah, sounds heavy, and like their Daily Columns page, there is a hint of Masonic terminology in there.

So I looked up R.R. Reno, turns out he was an Episcopalian and in 2004 converted to Catholicism. While that doesn’t necessarily preclude him from being a Mason, it makes it far less likely. I just wonder why his organization uses so much Masonic terminology. Perhaps it is unintentional and coincidental…
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby slimmouse » Mon Dec 09, 2013 4:54 pm

tapitsbo wrote:so why is there a consensus that matter causes consciousness and not the other way around?


Surely thats because this is what we are supposed to think?
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Pele'sDaughter » Mon Dec 09, 2013 6:29 pm

http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/201 ... sciousness

Interview with Christof Koch. Here's the intro.

A neuroscientist's radical theory of how networks become conscious

It's a question that's perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That's just the way the universe works.

"The electric charge of an electron doesn't arise out of more elemental properties. It simply has a charge," says Koch. "Likewise, I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems."

What Koch proposes is a scientifically refined version of an ancient philosophical doctrine called panpsychism -- and, coming from someone else, it might sound more like spirituality than science. But Koch has devoted the last three decades to studying the neurological basis of consciousness. His work at the Allen Institute now puts him at the forefront of the BRAIN Initiative, the massive new effort to understand how brains work, which will begin next year.

Koch's insights have been detailed in dozens of scientific articles and a series of books, including last year's Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Wired talked to Koch about his understanding of this age-old question.
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Ben D » Mon Dec 09, 2013 7:02 pm

The thing is, both objective knowledge and subjective awareness only arise as a result of awake state consciousness self referencing itself to the physical body, and any natural not material based awareness, presuming it exists, is totally obscured by the neuron firing brain focused on relative subjective awareness and objective ruminations.

Imo, it is the public education system that has been the cause of accelerated evolution to dependence on the conceptual mind to the exclusion of the non dual meditative holistic mind which nowadays is mostly beyond the capacity of people to realize. Not that this evolutionary process wasn't already in full sway among the scholarly class for millennia, thus the loss of true understanding of mystical religious scripture of the past.

So in a nutshell...when consciousness identifies with a physical source in time and place, the undivided whole of existence is mentally divided into two parts...me the observer, and not me the rest of existence. On the other hand, if the mind is still and free from identification with the physical source, the 'I' and its relative perceptions doesn't arise in the mind to disturb the timeless state of unity of existence. Both forms of awareness, the relative and the holistic (religious), should have their place in the life of human beings, for without the latter, knowledge of what and who they really are can't ever be realized, and thus they can easily be brain washed into believing whatever the mind controllers desire...and are!
There is That which was not born, nor created, nor evolved. If it were not so, there would never be any refuge from being born, or created, or evolving. That is the end of suffering. That is God**.

** or Nirvana, Allah, Brahman, Tao, etc...
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby DrVolin » Mon Dec 09, 2013 7:11 pm

I'm a hypothetical realist. I am willing to accept the possibility that there is a reality out there. At least, that is, until I have good evidence that there isn't.
all these dreams are swept aside
By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide
And history bears the scars of our civil wars

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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Sounder » Mon Dec 09, 2013 7:26 pm

No one doubts that our experience of phenomenal consciousness—the felt redness of fire, the felt sweetness of a peach, the felt pain of a bee sting—arises from the activity of our brains.



It’s good to see the major premise in the first sentence. I doubt it, an I’m not no one. If the brain is more like an amplifier than a computer say, then consciousness might not so much ‘arise’ from the brain, as much as the brain being part of an interface system that provides access to externally generated signals (vibrations).

The lives we draw for ourselves are determined by the direction and focus of our attention.

This determines the manner by which Source ‘speaks’ to you.

Always done in terms of the forms of your existing understanding.

So go ahead and keep up with the materialism, Source will still speak to you.
All these things will continue as long as coercion remains a central element of our mentality.
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Re: Questioning Consciousness

Postby Elvis » Mon Dec 09, 2013 10:34 pm

I'm swimming in this subject lately, not so much in a scientific but a cultural context.

tapitsbo » Mon Dec 09, 2013 6:21 am wrote: so why is there a consensus that matter causes consciousness and not the other way around?


I think it was partly an over-reaction of the Enlightenment (so ironic it's called that) to claptrap religion (which itself went too far with fancy). In that new rational, objective view, everything had to be accounted for with physical cause and effect. Then further, the individual, subjective consciousness became something to be studied, rather than lived. I'm not saying it very well, but in other words, yes:

slimmouse wrote:Surely thats because this is what we are supposed to think?



where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.

Good luck solving that one! :mrgreen:


I think Sounder phrases it well --

Sounder » Mon Dec 09, 2013 4:26 pm[/url] wrote:If the brain is more like an amplifier than a computer say, then consciousness might not so much ‘arise’ from the brain, as much as the brain being part of an interface system that provides access to externally generated signals (vibrations).


I'd add that the brain is also a filter, but overall, I like the "interface system" characterization (even if expressed in a somewhat 'techocratic' term).


In another thread someone, Jack Riddler, I think, said (paraphrasing) that "there is no material/spiritual dichotomy -- it's ultimately all physical." Well...the dichotomy doesn't go away so easily, because one can just as easily say "it's all spiritual!" And they might actually have science on their side (i.e. science meaning data, not the institution of Science).

(I have much more to write about this topic, if I get my thoughts in better order (agh!) and find the time.)
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