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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Consciousness ~ the kernal that will not be cracked (#1)

This blog is a very strange beast I know. I tried a few times to write something accessible on consciousness for it; but it's a subject where you have to be so precise in what you say, with such a massive history, that there's no way to talk about it in my usual "chatty" style.

But what the hell - I may as well post up a few of the flawed attempts to say SOMETHING about this area of philosophy - few will read it, fewer will understand it, but here it is - take #1:

There is something that, to me at least, it seems utterly absurd – a total non-starter – to think we could ever reduce to an objective account: Consciousness. This is not because of any new-agey faith in the idea, but rather from weary experience of exploring the endless arguments and schools of thought on it; and, more importantly, that the very task would appear to be a logical impossibility. It should become clear why I think this. Consciousness has pride of place amongst those concepts that we simply can’t get outside of – so much of our language simply presupposes it, to talk dryly about what it might be without using terms grounded in an idea of some kind of conscious experience happening would appear to be intractably problematic. Some have tried – Phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger come to mind – and they were certainly brave attempts that threw up some enlightening ideas, but ultimately failed to lay the question of “what is consciousness and how does it arise?” to rest. In the mind of the common pleb it might simply be a matter of mind-as-soul (religious account) vs. mind-as-brain (physical account), but this dichotomy is bullshit. You don’t have to take either of those views. I’m quite sure both are massively inadequate.

Old News (Yawn).

The most common religious view of consciousness is the idea that the “soul” is distinct from the physical body – an idea essential to the possibility of an “afterlife” since, well, the body... stops; and goes away. Extraordinary damage has been done to this concept by the study of the brain and body and how it affects people’s experiences, abilities and behaviours. Through biology and neuroscience there is an undeniable avalanche of examples of how what is going on, chemically, mechanically, electronically, in the body and brain at any particular time correlates with what you are feeling, perceiving, remembering, thinking, doing: The activity of the nervous system, the firing of neurons in specific parts of the brain, the balance of chemicals in the brain and body, the activity of organs and their effect on the rest of the system – all of these things are observable, and consistently correlated with sensations, moods and cognitive (mental) tasks (from doing a Sudoku, to remembering a shopping list, to reading a book, to chatting with friends, listening to music, delivering a presentation, visualising the face of an ugly fisherman, assessing the correct trajectory for reverse parking into a space tighter than James Brown’s funk, feeling pain in your eyeball, feeling gung ho for combat after watching (the first) Die Hard, feeling really quite sad indeed, feeling faintly aroused in a sexy-sexy way) – the body behaves in different specific ways when these things are going on, and they are correlated to the point we can look at the physical process and predict what is going on in that person’s “head”. But it’s more than this: We know cause and effect goes both ways – yes, your thinking affects what goes on in your body, but your body also affects your “mind” - by playing about with the brain and body we can cause changes in mental “stuff” to happen. Both drugs (which simply alter the balance of chemicals in your body) and brain damage (from accident or disease) can alter not just your abilities but your personality, your moods, tastes, values – even your sense of humour – everything about your personal identity. If there is a soul, that can survive the obliteration of the body, then it is simply a blank life spark – it is not your conscious “self”, your personality, your faculties or your memories, because all of these can be changed or obliterated by brain damage and manipulation. This suggests very strongly that the split between mind and body is false – even if they are two things, they are bound up in one system. More likely they are two perspectives on the same thing.

But there were problems for the concept of a separate soul even before such scientific knowledge. The idea of a split is kind of ill-conceived, and even its most famous and rigorous champion, Descartes, never quite resolved how it worked. He said since mental events like “the idea of a circle” or “a feeling of sadness” cannot be located in space, then the mind was not a spatial thing – i.e. it’s “outside” of physical space, non-physical. So far so “soul”. But how can a non-physical thing interact with a physical body? Descartes, bafflingly, decided the soul was linked to the body via the pineal gland in the brain. Hmm.

Problem A: Gilbert Ryle called the idea of mind/body dualism “the ghost in the machine” and thought it was guff. Ryle said the idea of our “minds” driving our bodies like we drive a car was simplistic and silly – we do not “get in” our bodies and then tell it to do things, rather the “mind” is totally integrated with the body. When we stub our toe, we feel the pain in our toe. When things happen to our bodies, it directly affects our minds. Problem B: Worse, there is no account of how something non-material and outside of space can have any contact with something material at a point in space. The idea does not seem to make sense – how can the non-spatial mind be “located” in one particular body in space? How can the “link” with the mind (which can’t be located in any particular place) be with the pineal gland (which occupies a specific place in the body)? Descartes’ own later attempt to say the non-spatial mind was distributed evenly throughout the body is clearly a contradiction in terms. Problem C: David Hume, the rotund Scottish sceptic par-excellence “pooh-poohed” the idea of a separate “mind” or “soul” altogether. He said the soul was simply a nonsensical idea – the concept itself was meaningless. We cannot conceive of a “thing” that exists outside of space and time, nor say anything about it that would make any real, meaningful sense, let alone give an account of what it would be like to experience such a thing. Therefore the word “soul” is an empty concept – it’s just a word that doesn’t refer to any actual thing that we can pin down. Problem D: Finally, even if the mind is separate to the body, it still causes the body to do things and the body causes it to have experiences. Even if we carve the world up into two distinct realms – physical (body) and non-physical (mind) – if they interact at all they must still be part of the same over-all causal system.

All of this would seem to be old news, laid to rest in the minds of the average Atheist. There is no mind/body split, the mind is the body, or at least just something the body does. Consciousness is mechanical – in the sense that it is part and parcel of, inextricably bound up with, the mechanisms of the body. So it would appear to be settled, and so far I have not told you anything that isn’t a commonly held view.

Thomas F***s It Up.

Now I’m going to f*** that shit up. Because there is a massive, glaring problem here, and this is really where the modern arguments involving consciousness begin. Q: What do we mean by “explaining consciousness”? It seems to me there are two distinct avenues of enquiry here; 1) Giving an account of how human activity, behaviour and functioning arises in the world; 2) Giving an account of how subjective experience or “raw perspective” arises in the world. Now while we may presume these two are linked, they are not the same thing. In most “scientific” approaches to the problem, the second line of enquiry is put on hold, “bracketed out” – there doesn’t appear to be any way to investigate this scientifically, so “subjectivity” is ignored as an ill-defined wishy-washy idea full of misleading errors in conception – as a starting point for enquiry it is a scientific dead-end, a blind alley. Much better to concentrate on the first account. The more optimistic tend to believe 1) will lead to 2), though it’s far from clear how this will happen. The more stubborn and mule-headed tend to insist that 2) will be reduced to 1), so we don’t just have to “bracket” 2) out for now, we can forget about it altogether. But this to me seems utterly nuts – pathological denial and nonsensical self-contradiction of what is most glaringly self-evident – us, our own perspective, what “we” are. It’s presenting an observation and then denying that there is any observer, there is only what is observed; and that is either stupidly naive or flat-out bogus and fraudulent.

We cannot subtract ourselves out of the equation – not even (or especially not) when we are trying to explain ourselves. Q: How do we account for the difference between observing a brain process and being the “experienc-ee” of that brain process without a concept of experiencing or perspective? To try to ignore the issue of perspective is to ignore the very framework and grounds that make any observation, measurement, or ordering and interpreting of factual data a) possible and b) meaningful. You cannot “explain away” the concept of “experience” in the way that you would explain away the concept of, say, ghosts. You can say “ghosts don’t exist” because the concept of a “ghost” is a hypothesis, a constructed explanation for “anomalous” events in the world. You can show that, with research and deduction, there are other, more convincing explanations for those so-called “anomalous” events, and that the explanation “ghost” is incoherent. But the concept of “experience” or “raw perspective” is not a “hypothesis” to be proved or disproved by research and deduction. These are simply basic labels for something ill-defined, that needs explaining ourselves and what we fundamentally are – the fundamental grounds of our existence. The argument is about how we are supposed to grasp and define “conscious experience”, not whether it is a valid term or not – to explain away the concept of “conscious experience” before we have started to try and describe it and how it works is self defeating – we lose the very thing we are analysing in a puff of confused smoke. But it is so hard to pin down that we have a hard time saying anything more about it other than shoddily labelling it. It is not, therefore, truly a fully-formed concept yet. We need to be careful in how we talk about it, what presumptions and distinctions we make about it and attach to it (eg. the idea of a “soul” clearly goes beyond a pure label and into an explanatory hypothesis, which is why it can be pooh-poohed). Essentially 2) is the more primordial question, and, whether we like it or not, a “subjective perspective” (or however we choose to label it) is the starting point we all have. The possibility of “subjective experience or perspective” is in fact unwittingly presumed in, and necessary to, any meaningful account of human activity, behaviour and functioning, i.e. 1). Without it we are left with a dry description of mechanics that may have characteristic features, but ultimately no single definable element that makes it unique from other complex (apparently non-conscious) mechanical systems. And no formulation of 1) alone could do justice to the question of how a unique, non-exchangeable perspective or identity could arise from a point within the undifferentiated flow and interaction of matter and energy in the physical universe.

Just You Try

Q: If “consciousness” is indeed reducible to an account of physical mechanisms, what is it about our brain and body processes exactly that causes “consciousness” to happen? Or to put it another way: Q: How does a subjective perspective arise out of an arrangement of matter? In order to be scientific about what conscious experience is and how it is caused we would need to able to observe and measure when something is “conscious” or “consciously experiencing” – be able to test whether “consciousness”, whatever it is, is present in any object or physical mechanism. Q: How do we observe and measure when something is “conscious” (carrying out the function labelled “being conscious”?) We must accept: Some matter arranges itself to carry out this function (eg. me) some does not (eg. my unappetizing sandwich). Q: What observable and measurable data do we have to tell us about what is happening with any arrangement of matter? We can observe and measure its physical properties and processes, and we can observe and measure its behaviour. Q: What physical properties or processes or behaviour would be sufficient to conclude that that “arrangement of matter” is “being conscious” – let’s say, that it has an identity and perspective in the way that we do? Let’s break that down:

If we look at the physical properties and processes of the working body, is there anything there that tells us that that body is experiencing, has an identity, a perspective? Well, it responds to stimulation – but those are just chemical reactions, electrical responses, mechanical forces, no different to standard chemical reactions etc. elsewhere. So “consciousness” is not observable in this way.

So it must be in the behaviour of that body, what it does, right? Q: Is it feasible that we could create a robot that could behave and respond just like a living, breathing human being, and yet it does not have a perspective or identity of its own – it is simply going through the motions, a puppet of its programming? Computer scientist Alan Turing suggested that if we talked to a human (let’s call her Colin), and a computer with artificial intelligence, in a Skype-style conversation, and could not tell which was which, we would have to conclude that the computer was conscious. But we can turn this on its head and point out that we still have no definite firm empirical evidence that the computer definitely has its own perspective and identity – we are just relying on some undefined human judgement. The computer could still be simply mimicking “conscious” responses through clever, complex programming that it is just too subtle to detect. If we admit that this is at least, in theory, a possibility, then we have just admitted that we also have no way of empirically testing that Colin has her own perspective and identity. We have no way of knowing anyone but ourselves experiences like we do. Behaviour does not give us measurable and observable “consciousness” either.

“Behaviourism” is (or was) a philosophical school of thought that suggests that “consciousness” should simply be defined as behaviour. It ultimately fails as an account of “consciousness”, because it has zero explanatory power – by limiting itself only to what is observable, it only looks at the surface, the end result, the output. It’s like asking “how does a biscuit factory work?” and expecting “it produces these biscuits” to be a sufficient response. Furthermore it would seem impossible to reduce a description of a person’s behaviour to dry, mechanical terms that do not pre-suppose conscious activity – at least not without losing the sense of what you are trying to describe in the first place. You are left with a description that could refer to any non-conscious physical process, and have again evaporated what you were trying to explain. You cannot say some matter carries out the function of “consciousness” and some does not, since nothing empirical can show you the difference.

In short, there is no way to observe and measure when something is “conscious” or “consciously experiencing” – there is no way to test whether “consciousness”, whatever it is, is present in any object or physical mechanism. Whether we look at physical properties and processes or outward behaviour, our “scientific” criteria for whether that thing is carrying out the “consciousness” function or not is this: How similar is it to ourselves – the only example of a “perspective” that we know. There is no unique, identifiable, observable element we can measure in that thing that will tell us definitely, empirically, that that thing has a perspective. We just measure it against ourselves. From a scientific point of view this is appalling. It means all these high-minded attempts to reduce and explain consciousness as a physical, mechanical process essentially, at the core rely on... personal introspection. This is outrageous – that’s not scientific at all! What a dirty secret! What a swizz! The only other option available to us is to deny consciousness altogether – ignore ourselves and state that there is no difference between so-called “conscious” arrangements of matter and “non-conscious” arrangements of matter. Because: Dry descriptions of physical properties, processes and outward behaviour contain nothing that suggests a “perspective” is occurring in that arrangement of matter; and, if you are truly reductionist and refuse to use any terminology that presupposes consciousness, there is no element that is unique to so-called “conscious” things. Therefore there is nothing “conscious” doing the observing, measuring and describing – “you” don’t exist.

This is clearly a failure. Why? What has gone wrong? Well, there is some kind of category mistake here. The problem is treating consciousness as if it is a property to be found by observation and measurement. When we observe the world scientifically, whether observing matter, energy, properties, behaviour, mechanical interactions, processes – in every case we are looking at something we have come across in the world, something we can analyse, compare to other things, take apart. We can even do this to ideas – they may not be physically “in the world”, but we do still come across them “in the world” in a broad sense – they exist outside of "us" and have a mechanics and behaviour in the function they serve, so again we can analyse, compare, take apart. But our perspective is not something we “come across” – it is the starting point, the grounds for being able to “come across”, measure, observe, analyse, compare, take apart, anything at all. It is so utterly primordial and basic that it fundamentally resists analysis – it is analysis. Consciousness is a concept so fundamental it cannot be broken down, and there is nothing to compare it to – it is a kernel that cannot be cracked. You can’t observe and measure consciousness because it is observation and measurement. It is not a thing to slot into in our framework of how things work it is the framework itself. You cannot explain your framework by slotting it into itself – that’s simply a logical nonsense.

This is not to say that there is nothing that we can say about consciousness, simply that we will never be able to reduce it to what is empirically observable. We are also unlikely to ever pin it down sufficiently, but that does not mean we can’t explore some aspects of its mysterious workings, only that the final question of “what is consciousness and how does it arise?” is never likely to be answered properly. It’s more than an attribute we developed like language capability or the opposable thumb – it is our defining essence and a concept that we cannot make sense of anything without, that it is impossible to remove from anything, that we cannot think outside of or around – obviously, because consciousness is implicit in all of those statements. Indeed it is more than just a ‘conscious’ concept – consciousness is not just our persona or ego it is raw perspective, ‘unconsciously’ presumed, there, a priori, unspoken no matter how ‘conscious’ of it we are and whether we have a word for it or not.


  1. Well the good news is an answer is close at hand. There's a online poll to answer this very question. Results will of course be binding in the European Court of Human Rights.


    You can pick up to three. I never read the instructions, so I just picked one - higher order theory. This sounds the most plausible to me - consciousness is the act of thinking about thoughts. It's an emergent property so gives a good outline of how it could have evolved.

    But then I can't trust my mind to tell me how my mind works. That dodgy bastard will just make up some crazy bollocks.

  2. That's actually an excellently succinct summation of most of the main philosophical positions.

    They are all rubbish though.

    Well, maybe not rubbish - some have legs. "Flawed or currently not quite adequate"

  3. Interesting stuff Noise - you touched on AI near the end and it seems logical that that should be the key to studying consciousness objectively. But as you rightly say, the most sophisticated AI BOTs you can talk to online currently are merely the result of very complex programming.

    The ultimate aim I suppose is still to create learning machines - machines that evolve a subjective perspective independently. But would that bring us closer to understanding consciousness - or just replicate the problem?

  4. Here's a thought about AI. I suspect the growth of consciousness is about the cumulative effect of complex thinking - higher order "thinking about thoughts", which leads to abstract reasoning and the recognition of the self

    But perhaps that can only happen when the thoughts are imperfect - computers don't miscalculate, so is it even possible for them to reflect on their own thought processes? Are they simply too effective?

    I can't shake the feeling that the flaws in the way we think are what makes it possible for consciousness to emerge.

  5. Hmm ha - see what I've got to spew out yet!

    Yes, the most interesting thing about AI is getting a machine to demonstrate "self awareness" or "creative thinking" when it hasn't been explicitly and directly programmed to do that - ie. programming it to programme itself/go beyond it's basic programming - at least there we can say we have created an organic, growing intelligence. Though whether it "has perspective" like we do is still not certain...