Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part 3

I want to back up a bit, because I confess the concept of emergence, at least as it is often bandied about, is not entirely clear to me.

As I noted, probably the most uncontroversial definition of emergence is that it describes an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes, like the illusory overarching "invisible hand" which seems to efficiently steer a free market economy.

But in this supposedly paradigmatic case, is the invisible hand really an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes? It doesn't seem to be, because all that Adam Smith's metaphor is meant to represent is a kind of intelligent volition - but the property of intelligent volition does not exist only at the macro economic level, but inheres in almost all of the miniature economic decisions made by individuals. So, intelligent volition is not an exclusively macro scale property; it is there at every level of economic decision.

Maybe my lack of clarity about this arises from the definition, so what follows is a different definition proposed by Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor at Adelphi University: "the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems".

Well - this is better, I suppose, since it brings in the concept of self-organization. However, I am still not sure how the free market economy possesses "novel" properties, as opposed to simply being the sum total of millions of individual economic decisions by consumers and producers.

Anyway, I could go on for pages on this, so let me put this aside for the moment, and at least explain how I think the term "emergence" should never be used, ever.

Imagine we are in a factory in front of a big machine fed by a conveyor belt. A worker places a lump of coal on the belt, and it enters into the machine. A minute later, out the other end, comes a live rabbit. We have absolutely no clue how any machine could turn a lump of coal into a rabbit, yet we feel pressure to explain it, somehow. Let's say we have reputations to how tempting would it be for us to simply say, "A-HA - emergence!"? Or rather, come up with some fancy explanation which takes 800 words to just, again, say "emergence"?

Judging from the example of quite a number of consciousness researchers, I would say very. But in the case of the rabbit-making machine, as in the case of consciousness, the term "emergence" is a kind of thought-terminating cliche. It does not explain; on the contrary: it distracts from the fact that we can fathom no explanation at all.

Consider some of the following quotes from consciousness researchers:

"Consciousness is not a property of individual neurons. It is a natural emergent property of the interactions of the neurons in nervous system of the body in an environment. It makes a structure that is related to lower level interactions as well as higher level thoughts, and it represents a new observational mechanism of the entire system" (Baas and Emmeriche, "On Emergence and Explanation", Intellectica, 2, 25, pp. 67 - 83).

John Searle writes:

"Consciousness is a higher-level or emergent property of the brain in the utterly harmless sense of ‘higher-level’ or ‘emergent’ in which solidity is a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are in a lattice structure (ice), and liquidity is similarly a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are, roughly speaking, rolling around on each (water)" (From "The Rediscovery of the Mind", p. 14).

Notice that as is typical of characterizations of consciousness as an emergent property, there is simply no attempt by the authors here to explain how such a process could ever occur. We hear from Baas and Emmeriche that consciousness is an "emergent property" of neuronal interaction. Okay. Great. What does that tell us? Actually, nothing. I mean, if we walked out of the factory and soberly announced to all our colleagues that "after careful observation and extensive discussion, we have determined that the explanation for the live rabbits is that they are an 'emergent property' of 'rock-machine interaction'", we'd be laughed at, and rightly so. And I just don't see how John Searle's analogy to water in its liquid and solid form, um, holds any water. What water is to ice, is not what non-consciousness is to consciousness. When water turns to ice, the previously mobile molecules become inert, and thus become bound to neighbouring molecules; i.e., they form (hard) crystalline structures. The water's chemical composition does not change, only the physical expression of that chemical composition: heat the ice, and you'll get liquid again. Heat it more, and the liquid will turn into vapour. Cool it down, it will turn into liquid again, etc.

Needless to say, there is no conceivable way in which consciousness could be like this. All we know - or all we think we know - is that we start with non-conscious stuff, and then, for some reason or other, we wind up with conscious stuff. That isn't the kind of thing that can just be casually whisked away with a water-ice analogy and an "emergence" label. It's a big, fat problem. And I'm not the only one who thinks so:

"‘A motion became a feeling!’ – no phrase that our lips can frame is so devoid of apprehensible meaning...The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable... Suppose it to have become quite clear that a shock in consciousness and a molecular motion are the subjective and objective faces of the same thing; we continue utterly incapable of uniting the two, so as to conceive that reality of which they are the opposite faces (William James, as quoted in "Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore, pp. 19-20).

"How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp" (Thomas Huxley in "Lessons in Elementary Physiology", 1986, p.193).

"How is it possible for conscious states to depend on brain states?...How can technicolour phenomenology arise from soggy grey matter?...How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness?" (Colin McGinn in "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?", 1989, p. 349).

"The immense richness of the phenomenological world that we experience – conscious experience as such – appears to be dependent on what seems a mere trifle in the skull...Why would a mere location in the brain or the possession of a particular anatomical or biochemical feature make the activity of certain neurons so privileged that it suddenly imbues the possessor of that brain with the flavour of subjective experience, with those elusive properties that philosophers call qualia? This is the central problem of conscious experience" (Edelman & Tononi in "A Universe of Consciousness", 2000, pp. 35, 17).

"The individual cells that compose you are alive, but we now understand life well enough to appreciate that each cell is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous microrobot, no more conscious than a yeast cell. The bread dough rising in a bowl in the kitchen is teeming with life, but nothing in the bowl is sentient or aware...(but) you are made of parts that are fundamentally the same sort of thing as those yeast cells...(Daniel Dennett in "Sweet Dreams" , 2006, p.2).

And lastly, this if from John Searle, he of the water-ice analogy:

"The central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles...How can conscious experiences like your pain exist in a world that is entirely composed of physical particles and how can some physical particles, presumably in your brain cause the mental experiences? (Searle in "Mind", 2004, pp. 11, 4).

We already know Searle's "answer" to this question: emergence, the end. But, at least for me, this answer is embarrassingly inadequate. Its function is identical to that of the words "and then a miracle occurs" in the famous cartoon below:

I gotta go to sleep. More later.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, go get some sleep. I've read this 3 times and I swear it isn't even in english.

I'm trying to keep up with the conversation in this thread and need to ask "Can you please slow down, you know, maybe use smaller words? "Layman's" kind of stuff to make your point"

My consciousness isn't an A.D.D. suffer like yours. Mine is Dyslexic.

Co-Founder of 'Dyslexics Untie'. Haha.

DiY said...

At least it isn't about rugby at this time of renewal and reflection. >;-)

Tal, have you asked a child? The experts haven't supplied an answer unless you're willing to accept, "I dunno."

Anonymous said...

Um ... it sounds like this is based on distinguishing something that doesn't come through phenomenology, but appears to be experienced by a large number of us.

One of the things that has annoyed me about science in particular is its disdain for "subjective" information -- and by that I don't mean "emotional" (or not, per se emotional). There are some things that a number of individuals experience, which doesn't seem to correspond to something objective. Psychology tries to objectify as much of it as possible, but I'm unsure it succeeds at all of the reality that's "in there."

Is there something subjective that's real? It's an interesting question for philosophers.

Anonymous said...

Must you?

IlĂ­on said...

'Emergence' (and especially when used of minds) is just another way to say "Hocus-pocus!"