I got some replies in my previous post about consciousness. Here I reply to those, and add a few more thoughts about consciousness. Comments from David Pearce are deliberately ignored, as I will devote a full post to his proposed solution to consciousness in a future post.
Identity theory and functionalism
Commenter Simon disagrees with me on my characterisation of identity theory (under which functionalism will fall). Note that I didn’t discuss functionalism in my previous post. Functionalism can be understood, or is used, in two ways
Functionalism-A: Systems that perform the same function will be conscious. In this view, I would be conscious, and so would be the China brain or the Chinese room. Here, consciousness is really real. And so it would have to be a subclass of epiphenomenalism or the other non-materialist theories.
Functionalism-B: The function of a system is all there is. We have a brain, and we call certain processes that the brain does “consciousness”. Here consciousness is merely, but not really, real. Once the easy problem of consciousness is solved, there wouldn’t be anything else to explain. If this is so, this view is a form of eliminativism.
Brian Tomasik agrees with me in this analysis. I would add that the identity theorist wants to have its materialist cake and eat the dualism too, but that cannot be. Claiming that X physical property is identical to Y phenomenal property is like claiming that apples are identical to the Catbus. The way to escape this is to clarify what one means: functionalism of the A or B types. Carroll’s is a B type functionalism. I would guess that A type functionalism is widespread among scientists.
a) The only one of your five theses that I deny is (5). I think that with sufficient understanding, consciousness will be described using algorithmic language that will describe the behavior of neurons firing (in a human brain), in much the same way that today we can describe a character interacting with a 3D world in a video game using algorithmic language that describes the behavior of electrons moving in transistors. The only reason that this seems impossible to us is that we are one or many major insights away from the required understanding.
Thesis 5 is the idea that one cannot logically derive a conclusion from a set of premises that have nothing to do with it. (The is-ought gap is an example of this). In the videogame character example, one can, given enough time and grad students, explain why an Archon moved in the screen in that way while playing Starcraft 2, down to the transistor level. Our explanation could be done in a low level language (Talking purely in terms of flows of electrons and then photons when the pixels in the screen are activated). To get to a high-level explanation, like “The Archon moved down to get close to the enemy’s base”, we would need a chain of premises that would introduce, bit by bit, those high level concepts. We could define ‘down’ in terms of its current position, then define position in terms of its position in the game-map, then define that in terms of the working of the computer, and then turn to transistors. There is no movement of the Archon above and beyond that, and this higher-level language is a short-hand for that highly complex causal chain from the workings of transistors to the appearence of behaviour in a videogame.
Thesis 5 says that you cannot get to “The Archon moves” just from the laws of physics. You need to introduce premises that explain what is the Archon, and what is moving first. Doing this respects Thesis 5. We would not complain if one says that ‘Archon’ is a high-level description, but we would if someone says that consciousness is a high level description of certain processes in the brain. That would be type-B functionalism, and it wouldn’t account for real consciousness, so I find it unsatisfying.
b) I don’t think “poetic” is the right word to describe the relationship between the concept of ‘consciousness’ and the neuronal activity in a human brain. Is it “poetic” to call a car “a car” instead of talking about the way that the engine interacts with the steering and transmission systems, and so on? No, it’s the correct English word to refer to a long list of specific components assembled in a specific way, capable of specific behavior.
Well, maybe it’s not the right word! 🙂 I was using it because Carroll was using it, basically. ‘Poetic’ is here short-hand for “High-level description of a phenomenon that is nothing above and beyond physics roughly as we understand it today”.
c) Likewise, if something is “merely real” (as opposed to really real) if it’s made of parts, that means that everything that exists except fundamental particles (and, if you’re right, consciousness) is merely real. Water molecules, bacteria, human bodies, human societies, stars, and the universe as a whole are all “merely real”. Doesn’t it seem strange that you’ve just declared yourself an eliminativist about 99.99%+ of the concepts you think and talk about every day?
Yes indeed. I am a mereological nihilist, and I would say that almost everything is merely real. It’s fields and quarks all the way down… plus consciousness. The merely/really real distinction is useful precisely because it leads to a very sharp contrast. I think it is not shocking to say that a car is nothing above and beyond its parts and the laws that tie them together. There is no intrinsic ‘carness nature’. The best theory of concepts that we have (of course, Huemer 2015) tells us that concepts are fuzzy regions (that we make up) in property space.
The really/merely distinction also help us avoid the linguistic ploy used by some who do not really believe in consciousness, but use the word with a different (non-realist) sense. When they say “Of course consciousness is real! Consciousness is identical with brain activity!” we can probe deeper and see if they mean it in a strong (really) or a weak (merely) sense, and clarify what they really mean.
So as a computational functionalist I would say that:
1) Consciousness is really real, and like everything else it’s made of parts.
I agree with the first part, and I tend to agree with the second part, though it seems that consciousness appears to us as a unified experience, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that it isn’t really that unified (only merely).
2) We’re not p-zombies because p-zombies are not possible, although a human mind can conceive of them, in the same way that someone who doesn’t understand cars can conceive of a car moving without an engine. However…
If I have to hold in my mind the laws of physics as they are and the engineless car at the same time, then I cannot conceive it. If we are proposing such a thing, we would need to consider a world with different laws. But this is what zombie-ists say: David Chalmers says that zombies are not possible in this universe, but that in a different universe, they could be possible. A universe that would miss either psychophysical laws (which define which systems get consciousness) or consciousness as a fundamental property. He says this to highlight that consciousness is something that doesn’t flow immediately from the laws of physics as we know them today (Or has anyone seen consciousness anywhere hidden amongst the Lagrangian of the standard model?).
3) It might be possible to assemble a machine that outwardly looks like us and behaves like us and yet isn’t conscious, but if we were to take a good look at its ‘brain’ (or whatever material mechanism makes it act and react), we would see that it doesn’t work like ours at all. Therefore, the Chinese room isn’t conscious if it’s just implementing a bunch of “if input X, output Y” rules, but a replica of a human brain implemented by something that’s not neurons would be conscious, whether that something is transistors moving electrons around or people passing messages around.
This is interesting, and something that, to some extent, I subscribe. The thing is that the human brain, when seen through the lenses of physics is a bunch of if input X, output Y. If we go full functionalism, the implementation doesn’t matter, the function does. I’ve seen people claiming the Chinese room is conscious! What Simon may have in mind is that the replica must replicate the ‘causal powers of the brain’ to user Searle’s parlance. This is, the parts should be connected to each other in the same (or similar) way as in the human brain. I agree with this: It should be possible to replicate consciousness in non-neurons, by figuring out where and what in the brain is related to consciousness and replicating that.
4) Mary does learn something new when she sees red, kinda, using a somewhat loose definition of “learn”: Her neurons will fire in a way that they’ve never fired before, and shortly after the neurons that store her memories will be configured in a new way to hold a new memory.
I agree. But the point is that she wouldn’t be able to learn this just by studying only physics, neurology and cognitive science in general.
5) All the theories of mind that state that consciousness is not made of parts amount to taking a mysterious concept, putting it in a box, labeling this box “fundamental”, and declaring the problem solved. This is not good philosophy.
Compare: all theories of matter that state that quarks is not made of parts amount to hiding the problem, etc . Reduction presumably has to begin at some point. Chalmers has tiny bits of conscious matter (parts!) aggregating to form consciousness.
6) I’m not sure what to think about eliminativists. I’ve read some things by Dennett that make me think he’d agree with everything I’ve written here except perhaps point (4) about Mary’s room, but if Tomasik really thinks we’re p-zombies I’m at a loss.
Yes, he thinks that, I directly asked him the question in a very clear way. I copypaste. I asked:
Just to clarify, Brian, would you agree with ‘Consciousness is an illusion in the sense that the Müller-Lyer illusion is an illusion. It seems that I (Brian) am conscious, but on further thought I (Brian) realise that it’ s not the case’
And’ Zombies are not only possible and conceivable, but everyone is actually a zombie, and no-zombies do not exist given the laws of physics in this universe’
And the answer I got:
Yeah, I agree with what you wrote if we interpret “consciousness” in the usual philosopher’s sense that Chalmers/Nagel/etc. have in mind (i.e., not type-A consciousness: http://reducing-suffering.org/hard-problem-consciousness/ ).
Tomasik may be accused of inconsistency or poetry, but I leave this as a question for him to sort out 🙂
Next is Tomasik’s response.
> the idea that consciousness is really a poetic name for certain patterns of brain activity. This is the identity theory.
Relative to my (fallible) understanding, I would still call this a type-A theory of consciousness (and you go on to agree that it’s just a less blunt way to explain eliminativism). I understand identity theories as type-B views, which hold that consciousness is really real and happens to be identical (whatever that means) to certain physical processes. (Of course, I don’t think this makes sense, and I see identity theories as disguised forms of property dualism.)
This is what I have already discussed about functionalism or identity theory: they are unstable and collapse to epiphenomenalism or eliminativism.
> You can have bridges built of wood or steel, but you need bridges to get external phenomena into your awareness. Recall, the reason you are doubting realism and embracing eliminativism is that at some point, some facts entered your awareness and you pondered them.
If zombies are possible, then zombies get facts and ideas into their brains without consciousness. Zombies can make statements about their being conscious, can know things about the world, etc.
In a weak sense of know (without attached mental experience).. yes, zombies can do all that and more. The argument I made there is a reply to Rob Bensinger’s argument that qualia do nothing because if we invert them, they work the same. I argued that this is not so if qualia work as a bridge made of different material, but the qualia have to be there to have knowledge (which implies belief which implies phenomenal awareenss). I agree with Tomasik, though, that if we interpret knowledge in a less mental way, yes, sure, zombies can know as much as us.
Seva Gunitsky on twitter said that it is too early to dismiss emergentism, that we ontological reductionism is a shaky foundation. He cites evidence from chemistry and cites this paper which seem to state a strong emergentist thesis:
All the various properties of artificial vesicles as membranous compartment systems emerge from molecular assembly as these properties are not present in the individual molecules the system is composed of.
However, this is no evidence against reductionism.
In the blog, I argued against emergentism here. My argument, basically, is to say that reductionism means that a property or behaviour of a physical system is reducible to its components (parts) and the laws that govern them (laws of nature). Given this, the system is fully specified (How else could it be?). Of course, the properties of the vesicles in the previous paper are not present in the molecules that compose the vesicles, but those properties are implied by the molecules and the laws of physics.
Consider water. It is a common example: water is wet, and atoms are not wet, so wetness is an emergent property. But it ain’t. What is wetness? That it we touch it, it feels watery? That it flows? Whatever we take it to mean, we can begin by imagining a volume of water that has “wetness” and then imagine a smaller volume. And so on till we are left with a very small volume. We’ll see water molecules interacting via, among others, hydrogen bonds, and we will see wetness all the way down to the one molecule case, which doesn’t have hydrogen bonds. But these hydrogen bonds, while not present in hydrogen or oxygen, are implied by the laws of physics. What else is there to wetness? A subjective feeling of wetness, sure, but that reduces to the hard problem of consciousness, but that’s not an issue of emergence.
With consciousness, for emergentism to work we need two things:
Either “particles of consciousness” (a la Monads) or psychophysical laws that especify how consciousness emerges. You could call this weak emergentism if you wish, as I accept there are things happening that were not in the parts, but that arise due to the laws that govern their interaction. I wouldn’t call it like that. Strong emergentism, the view that once that we have accounted for components and interactions, there is something else, is something I reject. I haven’t seen a good argument for that, so if you know one, please leave a comment.
A universe of zombies, a universe of angels
I like clarity of language, and I can imagine how I would talk if I were an eliminativist. If I were, I wouldn’t talk about beliefs, qualia, or thoughts. I might talk about them, but in the way I talk about ghosts or God. I rarely use the expression “I feel.. X” for feelings because I really don’t (eg. I don’t say “I feel/I’m sorry” if I don’t feel sorry, and it never happens). Eliminativist Artir would say things like:
EA: You talk about this consciousness thing, but you can’t even explain it. Look, it is not in the laws of physics, it is not in the elementary particles, and I cannot even approximate what you are talking about. It is like ghosts or gnomes or other mythical beings. It is not real. Same for these other things you talk about like beliefs or thoughts. You have your brain, you get inputs, those bounce around and at some point you output whatever. That’s all there is to it. You can call those electric impulses ‘thoughts’ if so you wish, but they are not what you say they are.
Realist Artir: But I am conscious! I experiment things, I see the redness of red!
EA: In the same way that people say they ‘believe’ in ‘God’ or that they have seen ‘ghosts’. It is a malfunctioning of your brain, just study some neuroscience or read how brains can malfuntion and it will go away.
RA: But I’ve done that already and I still think it!
EA: Okay, imagine this thought experiment. A universe where there are beings just like us, but that they have this so called ‘consciousness’. Let’s call them angels (I borrow the term from Rob Bensinger). Would they do anything different from us?
RA: Well, maybe… probably almost everyone would think the way I do, and you would be in the minority saying that consciousness is not real.
EA: Fine, that makes sense. But besides parrot about having a property that they cannot explain, what can these angels do that we -Because you are not conscious, just confused!- cannot? Can they fly, are their senses more accurate, or what?
RA: Well, no, they would just have conscious experiences… but I’m not sure.
EA: Indeed, you see! It would be a useless property, it wouldn’t have evolved, and if it existed, it would have been a spandrel. But what sort of property of nature is one that has only the effect of making you talk about it? Doesn’t it sound ridiculous to you? There is no room in physics for consciousness doing anything. And if there isn’t, then how would they be talking about it? The angel world is nonsense. And so is consciousness!
RA: But it seems that the reason why I like to listen to music is because it sounds so nice, I experience a sound and it sounds pleasing. Without consciousness, I wouldn’t like it.
EA: Not true: you like music because certain patterns of sound activate the reward centres of your brain, and that causes you to seek musical experiences. I also listen to music, for the same reason. No need for consciousness.
RA: Maybe it is *this* world that does not make sense. Admittedly I haven’t explored how consciousness could work yet, but nothing in what you tell me or nothing in what I have read so far convinces me that I am not conscious. I do believe you and everyone else is conscious like I am, and that everyone except myself is deluded. Universal consensus and state of the art scientific knowledge are not enough.
RA: *sigh* indeed.