Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part Two


If Dennett's ideas (or perhaps better, non-ideas) were ludicrous, what else was there? One I found early on was proposed by Australian National University philosopher David Chalmers. Unusually for an idea published in academic journals, it appeared to have been inspired primarily by LSD and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album. But at least if it was spectacularly wrong, it had an element of the spectacular about it.

I find many of Chalmers's ideas unclear, but in a nutshell, he argues for panprotopsychism, the idea that consciousness may exist in the universe without depending at all on anything physical (i.e., it is a "fundamental property" of the universe, like gravity); and further, that it may just find more particular expression when matter comes together in a certain way. Amongst other things, Chalmers says that we are justified in believing that even crude information-processing systems, like thermostats, may be conscious.

The problem, I think, with Chalmers's creative ideas is that they seem unconstrained to the point of being inherently untestable (no doubt why British psychologist Susan Greenfield describes them as "unhelpful"). Somehow or other, we need ideas that empirically can justify belief in them, and I am not sure that conscious thermostats qualify for that. Still, I admire Chalmers for taking consciousness seriously, and for being bold enough to propose such ideas.

Another idea I came across early on was proposed by British philosopher Colin McGinn. Our brains, he says, are the products of evolution. This implies that the brain capacities we have are those which helped our ancestors survive. And because the capacity to answer the question of where consciousness comes from cannot conceivably be of any survival value, McGinn says, we may conclude that our brains simply have not evolved in such a way as to enable us to make any headway on this question, ever. It is simply beyond our capacity, as much so as nuclear physics is forever beyond the mental capacity of an earthworm to understand. In short, human beings will never understand consciousness. (Perhaps as a result of this evidently liberating conclusion, McGinn now spends a lot of time surfing).

This position has been dubbed "mysterianism", and has a few high profile sympathizers (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker among them). But like Chalmers's position, it seems unhelpful and also doubtful. After all, the human brain obviously possesses high-powered reasoning capacities. Humans have been calculating astronomical distances and orbits for millenia; we devise complex codes and decipher dead languages; we split atoms and create particle colliders and invent computers and create vaccines. We build rockets and fly to the moon. We have already discovered quite a lot about the brain, and there seems to be no reason why we could not in principle understand how consciousness arises. So while I understand that in its common formulation, the question at the core of consciousness research is stupefying, I still can't buy McGinn's conclusion that consciousness is in principle unfathomable to the human mind. It just seems like way too much of a leap.

Anyway, the more I read, the more intrigued I became. I even flew to North Carolina at one point in spring of 2004 partly to chat with Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan, a leading commentator on consciousness. He was surprisingly friendly and even invited me over to his house. We hung out on his back porch chatting for about an hour. (While we chatted, Flanagan's dog came bouncing up with his favourite tennis ball, and I threw it into the woods over and over for him to retrieve...).

But Flanagan, in the end, was as much at a loss to explain how consciousness could arise from non-consciousness, as everyone else was. In fact, I noticed that many commentators, particularly psychologists and neuroscientists (Christof Koch comes to mind), who by temperament and training are far more inclined to producing empirical results, ended up arguing that we ought to continue mapping particular brain functions, like how the auditory or memory system works, instead of sitting around trying to understand where consciousness comes from in the first place. Maybe, the argument went, if we focus on understanding brain functions we already have something of a handle on, eventually the answer to the Big Question will become obvious; in the meantime, let's get some stuff done. A practical enough approach; but the minutiae of how the visuo-motor system works held little appeal to me. It was the dark gap at the heart of everything that intrigued me...

Now, one recurrent claim in the pieces I read was that consciousness was an "emergent" property (John Searle and Michael Gazzaniga come to mind) of the brain. What does this mean? Well...unfortunately - and this is really the problem - it can mean lots of different things.

However, one common understanding of the phrase "emergent property" is that it refers to an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes. The free market economy is an oft-used example. Of all the economic systems yet devised, it makes the most efficient use of resources, so much so that the famed Scottish economist Adam Smith once wrote that at the macro level, resources in a free market ecomony seemed to be guided by "an invisible hand", i.e., by a top-down intelligence and power. But in fact, there is no such top-down intelligence or power guiding the free market economy; this is, so the argument goes, a macro-level property emerging from many millions of micro-level economic transactions made by single agents (buyers and sellers), each possessing a very minute amount of information, and who often do not even act particularly rationally (for those interested in this, check out Austrian ecomonist Friedrich von Hayek's work).

This is an immediately appealing example of emergence, because while we all know that buyers and sellers have relatively minute amounts of economic information (as in, this green coat is ten dollars cheaper than that one; therefore, I'll buy this one, the end), we can easily imagine how many millions of data-impoverished economic decisions, in aggregate could produce spectacular macro scale efficiency of resource usage and distribution, and produce the illusion of a super-intelligence guiding the whole system.

Unfortunately, the word "emergence", I found, is also used in very different ways.

More later.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part One


There is a mystery at the heart of all research into the human brain, and it is the mystery of consciousness. How, so the question goes, can a lump of non-conscious grey matter give rise to consciousness?

My own interest in this question began about six years ago, when I went through a period of deep introspection, and ultimately, epiphany, over the religion I was raised in. At one point, I ended up feeling like I could "observe", so to speak, parts of my mind in action which I had never before observed. In particular, I felt like I became aware that my subconscious mind had been filtering out certain evidences, questions, conclusions, and even feelings in a way, which would have caused me severe emotional distress. In a way, I felt like I became able, from some sort of detached state, to observe myself deceiving myself.

Becoming aware of this was very disturbing to me. I had no idea, never having read anything about the psyche, that it had been well established that the subconscious parts of the brain routinely filtered out all sorts of things, keeping them from the conscious parts, both for reasons of functional efficiency and to protect us from emotional distress. Thus, it was something of a revelation to read through a big, expensive book I ordered off of Amazon around that time, entitled "Essential Sources in the Study of Consciousness". This book is a compilation of articles written by top consciousness researchers, and a number of them describe studies showing the subconscious in action - including how it filters information (I was particularly struck by articles by Bruce Mangan and John Kihlstrom, psychologists at UC Berkeley).

Even after I gained clarity on the religious questions which had tormented me, I continued to read about consciousness. I was wading into the topic for the first time, but consciousness, to my mind anyway, is surprisingly alluring to novice investigators. The main reason is that no one, not even the most famous consciousness researchers out there, can give any sort of coherent account of how consciousness might arise from non-conscious brain matter. So...it almost seems like even the novice investigator might be able to solve the mystery.

Here is an example. Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book almost two decades ago now called "Consciousness Explained", in which he takes 500 pages to essentially argue that what we experience as consciousness is but an illusion, and that therefore, there is nothing to explain (perhaps the most brazen example of a non sequitir in the history of science writing). So clearly, if a famous philosopher can claim to have explained consciousness simply by claiming that consciousness is merely an illusion, which of course does not follow at all (the whole point is that regardless of whether we are merely imagining ourselves to be conscious or not, our capacity to imagine itself is the very thing which needs to be explained), then anyone could take a shot; no proposal could possibly be sillier than Dennett's, even though it was taken seriously by many (UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle is one exception, and has written one of the most astute criticisms of Dennett's silly ideas).

I read through dozens of books and articles over the next few years. Chalmers, Baars, McGinn, the Churchlands, Levine, Koch, Searle...I blew hundreds on Amazon. They were all interesting, but in the end, with one or two semi-exceptions, none of them really made sense. Here is why.

Remember that the question is: How can non-conscious matter give rise to consciousness?

Another way of putting this question is as follows:

How can a pile of rocks become conscious? After all, to hear all the consciousness researchers tell it, the brain was made up of matter no more conscious than rocks.

To me, early on, the answer was obvious...

But I am getting ahead of myself.

To be continued.