Category Archives: consciousness

The Other Senses

We humans have a visual bias. Experiments have demonstrated our preference for sight, but there is no need for experiments. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not the tasting, but “Seeing is believing,” they say. Whenever we want to illustrate something, well, we illustrate it. Our language and culture reify vision. Even our metaphysical discussions are rife with visual references: consider Mary the color scientist, spectrum inversions, and Gettier problems.

Our belief in seeing privileges our sense of sight relative to our other senses, and we are likely to take its instruction more seriously. We wave off any perceptual conundrums arising from our other senses as foibles of inferior organs. But we should take our nonvisual phenomena more seriously, for they have lessons for us if we do.

Those lessons start at the bottom, with our sense of smell. Though it is our crudest sense, and arguably the one sensory modality that we could most do without, the structure of smell has weighty implications. Olfactory neurons each bear a single kind of receptor. The odors we experience are mediated by activation of a set of receptors entirely. The number and distribution of that activation determines everything about a smell: its intensity, favorability, and motivational power. An odor is something which can be described, but not named. There is no equivalent to “red” in our odor palette. However, there are good and bad smells, and as with moral qualities (supposedly), smells are intrinsically motivating on the basis of their goodness and badness.

That motivational power lies in the smell itself. A chemical in a test tube which smells like a steaming pile, produces the same revulsion as the smell of a steaming pile itself. It is tempting to say that the odor of the chemical in the test tube is just an olfactory misrepresentation of crap. The common scent is supposed to smell just as it does, though. The smell is a conjunction linking an aversive mood, and things to be avoided. The smell and the mood are about a broad landscape, stretching over memory, history coded in our genetics and cultural instruction, all mediated by a particular pattern of receptor activation.

A similar sort of two-directional representation occurs in our auditory experience. The organ which generates auditory nerve signals, the cochlea, is tuned to the range of the human voice. The structures at the auditory end of the line are primed to respond directly to voices and music, and indirectly, to stimulate an emotional response to voices and music. As with smell, when hearing evokes a mood, it builds a memory of itself and its circumstances on a broad and sturdy base. A good framework improves the recollection’s relevance, and therefore its odds of survival. Here is another temptation. Fans of evolutionary psychology and divine teleology may see the beginnings of a good story in this structure. But those sorts of stories are unnecessary, and far beyond the point, which is: our hearing shapes the map of our experience in terms of words and music, as much as it recognizes musical and linguistic experiences.

The other senses break down the uni-directionality of representation, but even further, they blur the internal/external division itself. Taste receptors give us the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Our conscious experience of taste locates those sensations on the tongue. But there are taste receptors for bitter and sweet in the pharynx, and sweet taste receptors throughout the intestinal tract. Those sweet receptors attach to neurons which do not reside in the central nervous system, but instead, lie in the intestinal tract itself, and the pancreas. Though these sense organs have no direct connections to the central nervous system, they still contribute to conscious experience. They simply do so via the adjacent somatosensory system.

Our somatic senses are a bit of a jumble. As a whole, they are the thing that represents our status. Though there are a few specialized sense organs in the system, it mostly relies on bare nerve endings and chemical signals built in to the tissues surrounding the nerve endings. This sense tells us where our limbs are, and what each appendage is doing. The somatosensory system lets us know when our gallbladder is on the fritz, and, indirectly, when we are hungry or full..

Though they are rarely the center of our conscious attention, our somatosensory experiences are always present in our conscious states. If I interrupt Dr. Penrose’s visualization of a 5 dimensional object, he will immediately be able to tell me whether he is standing or sitting, feeling hungry, feeling warm or cold, fit or tired. Somatosensory experience serves as the shade tree, grass, and sky in the painting of our phenomenal picnic.

Of all the senses, our somatic sense most effectively dissolves the boundary between what is internal and what is external. Because, our hunger is apparently our hunger. Our cold is our cold. These are things that seem to incorrigibly belong to us, just like our thoughts or our moods.

The thought that any of these things belong to us is a bit off anyway. Words and music, hunger, thought, and mood are constituents, but there is no separable “us” to which they may belong. We come by this error regarding identity via our most favored sense. Because we rely so heavily on vision, we confer an unmerited degree of independence to our visual experiences. We conceive of sight as purely received information, which given the limitations of the medium, na├»vely represents an unconditioned reality. The plain truth gets transmitted through our optic nerves, into the dark room behind our eyes for the viewing pleasure of a little man in front of his little screen – the real us. Visual realism leads to other mistakes in its turn, regarding what is real and what is not. We begin to believe that numbers may be real because our eyes see objects as very discrete. Geometric shapes may seem real because we are able to depict them visually. A separate observer made up a separate stuff must sit behind our eyes to validate the reality of our visions. Our other senses beg to differ. They give as good as they get. Their contributions to our experience only make sense in reference to our global experience itself and do not rest on some outer, hard surface. Our world may be a ship sustained by the tension of its own spars, but it works for us – better than a brittle realism would.

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The E-Word

Last night, the wife and I brewed up some nice Medicare mimosas (that’s orange Metamucil with a pinch of MiraLAX for those who don’t know, yet) and sat down to watch a documentary on the desktop. It was my night to choose, so we didn’t watch the National Geographic folks anthropomorphizing the animal of the week. Instead, we watched something interesting on PBS. It’s an old series imaginatively entitled “The Brain”. It’s really very good, except for one thing. Within the first few minutes, the narrator says the E word (emergence), and he just keeps saying it.

I’m prone to let this sort of thing go. Saying a property emerges in the subject of a micro structural description is often a means of stepping over a steaming pile of metaphysics in the path between discussion of the properties of an object’s components, and the properties of the object itself. I can forgive the use of shorthand..

The narrator initially uses this shorthand meaning of emergence. But as things go along, it becomes clear that he also endorses weak emergence. Then he offhandedly states that colors exist in the mind and not in reality, which indicates that he really does have things the wrong way around.

In defense of the narrator, he still isn’t advocating for strong emergence. Strong emergence is the idea that once some threshold condition is met among components of an object, the group of components comprising the object acquires a new property which then takes over the behavior of the object as a whole, and by extension, that object’s components.

This magical event effectively erases, at least temporarily, the properties of the object’s components. While they remain pieces of the whole, they participate in events according to the dictates of the new property. It is only when they fall off the bus, either accidentally, or via our purposeful examination, that they reacquire their individual properties once again.

For instance, neurons generate electrical impulses, regulate their membrane potentials, and secrete paracrine signals until they are gathered in a certain number and arranged in a certain pattern, at which point they exceed the threshold for becoming a mind and begin to do things like experience, think, and remember. As long as we look at the collection of neurons gathered in the threshold number and arrangement, we will see them exemplifying mental properties. If we pull one of the neurons out of the brain or touch a subthreshold group of them with an electrode probe, we see them revert to exemplifying neuronal properties.

Weak emergence differs from the claims above in that it takes those claims to be metaphorical. When we get to the threshold state for the components of an object, we don’t get an actual, new, causal force out of that last brick added to the structure. Instead, it just becomes more convenient to speak of the object as if it had developed such a new property.

In the case of the mind, that would mean that the threshold number and arrangement of neurons simply becomes too difficult to manage descriptively. It makes sense to begin to use mental terminology to describe their collective behavior rather than trying to persist in using neurologic terminology.

In the case of both strong and weak emergence, we generate additional mysteries to solve, and those mysteries appear to be unsolvable. We have no account of how or why threshold conditions are established or met. We have no idea how properties flip on and off in the components and in the designated objects composed by those subunits. The difference between the two positions is that, in weak emergence we have the above difficulties in explaining a metaphor rather than a mechanism.

The root problem however, is not flipping properties. The root problem is the non-relational account inherent in the treatment of objects and their components. We get another glimpse of this inverted view when the narrator of “The Brain” describes colors as constructs of the brain which are absent in reality. If we take the implied structure seriously, then there’s nothing to save neurons from a similar fate. The only difference might be that we have examples of people who live without colors, but no examples of people who live without neurons. However, we do have examples of people who seem happy to live without minds, from solipsists to eliminatrivists.

To clarify, minds are explained by brains which are explained by neurons which are explained by genes. Colors are explained by retinal pigment, neurons, cone cells, and wavelengths of light. The explanations begin with the object in question, and proceed down to the microstructure.

The microstructure doesn’t represent the object like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or a pile of little homunculi. Instead, the components provide a history of relationships and record of events situating the object of examination in the causal web of space and time.
A couple of examples, in the interest of de-spookifying the statement above. First, take the illustration that the documentary offers for neuronal activity generating consciousness. Our narrator gives the example of the unconscious brain during sleep. In deep sleep, the electrical activity generates a rudimentary waveform on EEG. In REM sleep, when the brain is ostensibly conscious, as well as during wakefulness, the EEG tracing shows a complex waveform. He compares this circumstance to a group of drummers, each initially drumming to their own rhythm. As they listen to each other and begin to coordinate their beats, music emerges.

If the implicit claim really held, John Coltrane wasn’t doing much of anything that any of the rest of us couldn’t do as long as we knew how to work the reed on a saxophone. The drummers can improvise a musical outcome because they understand the object (music) and the components’ (speed and timing of stick strikes on the drum head) relationship to the object composed. That relationship is a series of events involving hearing, drum making skills, proprioceptive experiences and the response of previous brains to frequencies of stick strikes on drum heads. This explains why we can’t play jazz like John Coltrane. We speak of him improvising, but he improvised off of an explanation that situated him in a most musical zone.

More to the point, we can look at the example of neurons and minds itself. Fully developed neurons can’t be placed in a bag, (to borrow from a more gruesome tale offered up by a substance dualist – they are disgusting people), and shaken up to make a brain, much less a mind. The neurons have to go through the developmental process to provide an adequate explanation for the supervening mind. By developmental process, I mean to say the whole history of neuronal development from primordial cells emitting chemical signals in response to changes in membrane polarization to cell migration during gestation, to sensory integration during early childhood. The neurons bear the history of events identified with mental events. The state of affairs is the same as the status of drumsticks and drum heads and drummers regarding music. Those components explain the music because they offer a narrative of events which situates music in the course of events overall. And those specific components pertain to the tune of the day because those components have specific, music related events explaining the components in their turn.

So that’s why I don’t like the E word. When it comes to minds, brains, and neurons, it perpetuates a mystery where there should be none. Worse, it dumbs things down generally, because it substitutes new properties for deep histories.
Problems remain. Dualisms will survive. The hard problem will still wake people in a cold sweat at night (go back to sleep, it’s epiphenomenal). People will still use their minds to insist that we don’t need minds.
Getting rid of the E word solve much.
But it’s a step in the right direction.

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The Main Event

Dwight saw his chance. His opponents last jab was halfhearted, and the other boxers hand dropped a little as he pulled the punch back. Dwight followed his opponents retreating hand in with a hard right, just as the other man was stepping forward. Dwight’s fist connected, and the man went down.

For spectators, the knockout punch is the main event of the main event. It isn’t the only event though. There are events upon events coincident with the main event of the main event.
We think we have something very clear in mind when we speak of events. Perhaps the best formulation of that clear vision is the “property exemplification” form. According to the “property exemplification” characterization of events, an event is best understood as the manifestation of a property, by an object, at a time.

Nice. Now we just have 3 more entities to define: properties, objects, and times. However, the job may not be much harder due to our proliferating terms.

We can go back to Dwight’s knockout punch to try to clarify things.

If you think about it, many, many events occur in the moment of the punch. There are Newtonian events (Dwight’s fist exerts a force and transfers kinetic energy to his opponents jaw). There are neuromuscular events (Dwight follows through and refrains from tensing his arm at the last moment). There are atomic events (covalent bonds flex within the structure that we classify “Dwight’s fist”).

All of the aforementioned constitute legitimate events. They also refer to a single event, which supervenes upon all the little happenings designated by the punch.. Resolution of the resulting paradox may simplify our job immensely. Because, the one and many account reveals properties as categories, objects as summaries of events, and times as contents of objects.

Dwight’s fist exemplifies the property of striking his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Dwight’s fist is the hand, which developed from a limb bud when Dwight was an embryo, whose knuckles were hardened against the heavy bag, whose fingers were closed in a certain configuration, and which struck his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Like the ship of Theseus, Dwight’s fist (like any object) is never truly static, though we mistakenly speak of it as such for convenience’s sake.

So, analysis of Dwight’s fist reveals a particular collection of property exemplification’s.

Dwight’s fist strikes. “Striking” is constituted by rates of energy transfer within certain parameters. As such it is, as are properties generally, a category of relationships. Striking is not pushing, because pushing happens more slowly. Slapping is striking because it does happen quickly, with the qualification that it occurs with a particular hand conformation, and depending upon the speaker, perhaps with the implication of lower levels of force. There is an interlocking pedigree between the tropes and other instances of similar properties nearby.

59 seconds into the 3rd round means a specific number of position changes, between the fighters, the people in the crowd, the air molecules and particles of light within the room, and the vibrating atoms in the timing elements of the ringside clock. A differential accrual of happenings defines 3 rounds and 59 seconds.

There are problems with this scheme, but events are a confusing topic. More to follow.

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The Sustaining God

Once upon a time, at the height of the Mughal empire, a man of great intelligence and refinement sat on the throne. With his nation at peace, he used his wealth to gather around him every sort of beautiful thing and interesting person. He ruled wisely, and the populace venerated him. He pursued whatever inspired him, to his complete satisfaction.
At last, the Mughal Emperor looked around himself and saw that all his wishes and ambitions had been fulfilled. Now, he only had one fear: that he must one day leave his perfect life.

He became obsessed with the thought that he must die and leave it all behind. So, he sent emissaries to seek out the secrets of immortality. They sought up the rivers and across the mountains, for many years, in vain.

Until one day, one of the Emperor’s agents came upon a village at the foot of a mountain. The villagers told him that a Daoist priest lived in a cave below the peak and that the hermit had found a way to defeat death.
The emissary climbed up and found the priest, a shoeless man dressed in a tattered robe. On behalf of the Emperor, the agent begged the priest to come to the Mughal capital and teach the Emperor how to defeat death. The agent offered power and riches to persuade the priest, but the priest refused all enticements outright. He agreed to make the journey and to teach the Emperor without cause or condition.
The priest and the emissary traveled back across the mountains and down the rivers until they arrived at the palace.
The Emperor summoned the priest to him immediately.
Once ensconced in the his chambers with his guest, the sovereign asked the question which had overcome his thoughts entirely.
“How do I defeat death?”
The priest made no answer, so the Emperor tried again.
“I’ve been told that you’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Tell me, how do I live forever? What chants, rituals, potions or salves must I employ?”
The priest sighed, “I am sorry, but you cannot live forever. There is no chant, ritual, potion or salve which will sustain you. You cannot defeat death in that way. But there is another way. If you allow me, I will teach you to lighten up. And if you follow my teachings to their conclusion, you may become so light and insubstantial that death cannot grasp you.”

Here, the record ends.

What happened with the Emperor and the priest? After the priest delivered his news, did the Emperor nod and move on untroubled, or did he have the priest killed? Maybe the Emperor split the difference.

Maybe he nodded without moving on. He might have feigned acknowledgment while nurturing the desire for life in secret. Perhaps he devoted himself entirely to the Master’s lifestyle, becoming more and more consumed with meditation and asceticism until he starved to death rather than have death ambush him.

We may imagine something even worse too. When the priest explained how the world was just one story (as he would have done, since “Dao” indicates “just one story”, nothing more and nothing less), maybe the Emperor grasped at the metaphor. Rather than seeing past the priest’s analogy, the Emperor quickly laid upon it a driving plot, necessary characters, and a storyteller who he symbolized with the image of a book.
Soon, a shrine housing a statue of a Golden book stood in every house in the land. The Emperor wore an amulet in the shape of a book around his neck. At the end, he clutched the symbol tight in his fist while beseeching the storyteller to keep writing his lines.

But since we do not really know the end of this story, why not be more hopeful? Why not make the story more interesting too? Because our stories usually are much more interesting than the story of instantaneous enlightenment at the end of a short lesson, or summary execution.
Let us imagine that the Emperor parted with the priest in a state of doubtful curiosity.

He went back to his duties and avocations watchfully. As he had his moments of fear, triumph, and satisfaction, he tried to see those moments as elements of just one, complete story, rather than belonging to his personal narrative. He got better and better at adopting the single-story viewpoint. In doing so, he dropped the possessive perspective – a collector’s perspective – which had previously obscured his experiences with the demands of ambition, pride, and disappointment.

He had been treating his life like a gilded scrapbook. He came to understand the impossibility of having an experience; one could only experience an experience. He finally managed to set the scrapbook aside.

From that moment on, all the little details were illuminated as never before. He could feel himself lightening up. And at the end, when all the experiences were over, he felt himself possessed of no substance, with none of the associated, substantial troubles.

Maybe that was what happened. But he probably killed the priest instead.

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Welcome to the Aftermath

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

  Vince Lombardi

“There only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games

Ernest Hemingway

“The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”

 Voltaire

The difference between Hemingway’s sports and games is, of course, a matter of winning. In games, winning really is the only thing. In those other endeavors, winning is nothing.
Simply engaging in sport yields the maximum voluntary experience. Engagement delivers everything on the spot, whether or not the participant comes out on the other side, and certainly regardless of winning and losing.
Trophies, money and ribbons only serve to dress sports up by equating them with games. The civilization must thereby disparage sporting ends, since it strives constantly to the opposite goal.
The civilization turns out to be really good at window dressing though. Its props and costumes create a realistic illusion in which games are wholesome and sports are pathologic. Maybe that is why we now live in an age of games and gamesmanship. Our culture has created a situation where Lombardi is right.
Excessive trappings have made sports and sportsmanship not only unrecognizable, but incomprehensible.
Subsequently we have the rise of the consummate gamesman: Trump. To him, there are only winners and losers. Failure to engage and success in shifting the cost define the gamesman’s method.
Allowing him to operate so at the controls of our society has given the whole thing a gamy taint.
To clean it up, we need to make things a little more sporty, though we might not need to make politics quite as sporty as Voltaire suggests.
Perhaps it would be enough to replace the inauguration ceremony with a bullfight.

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The Other Minds

My dog loves me. Despite his creaking hips and back, he heaves himself up and comes to greet me when I return home each night, with his tail wagging. Yet I wonder if I am right about his feelings about me. After all, I am just interpreting his behavior as representative of mental and emotional states which I would have in similar circumstances. And, he has been bred over centuries to be a veritable human-pleasing machine which exhibits a set of behaviors that, among other things, is calculated to make me feel that he feels like I am the best thing since kibbles. Come to think of it, he does not wag his tail while he eats, and he never met a kibble he didn’t love.

If only he could tell me that he loves me, then I would know for sure. On second thought, I could not know for sure. I can’t even know for sure when another human reports their feelings or perceptions or any other personal, qualitative aspect of their experience to me. In any such case, the experience that I attribute to their report may be radically different from what they are actually experiencing. At least, that’s what the Inverted Spectrum teaches us.

The Inverted Spectrum is a thought experiment. It was not devised to tackle the problem of other minds. It was devised to demonstrate the ethereal nature of qualitative properties. But like any good thought experiment, it illustrates multiple aspects of the target issue.

Here’s how it goes: Imagine that you have a best friend named Fred, who you have known since you both could walk. Unbeknownst to you however, whenever you both look at something red, Fred does not see red, he sees green instead. This is not to say that Fred is color blind. On the contrary, he sees all the colors that you see, and he quite happily calls the red object “red”. He just sees it as green. The two of you could go through your entire lives discussing painting and picking out Granny Smiths instead of Red Delicious at the grocery store, without a hitch. The basic qualities “red” and “green” do not influence function; we happily operate the same way with the qualities flipped.

The implications of the Inverted Spectrum may seem bizarre, dramatic and disturbing, but closer examination may shrink the menace. If I assign you and Fred to sort red and green beads into separate boxes, the two of you will complete the task in no time with no mistakes. That’s because what we all call “red” designates the same set of beads, even though they produce in Fred what you or I would call a “green” experience. To take it a little further, if I assign the two of you to tell me the color of sour things, sweet things, hot things, dangerous things or growing things, you and Fred will give me the same answers in French, English, Fulani, or even just by pointing. All secondary associations are flipped along with the reds and greens.

The jolt from this thought experiment comes when we imagine our experience of Fred’s experience, with all of our secondary associations still in place. But that’s completely off base. What we have run down with this thought experiment is an account of Fred’s experience with all his own secondary associations attached. The point is that there is some irreducible personal element to it all. But then, where does that leave Fred’s “red” or his “green” or his any other what-it-is-like aspect of experience?

Having seen what it is like to see what it is like to experience what Fred sees from your viewpoint, you may have trouble explaining your horror to him. You will insist that the apple is red, as are hot things and dangerous things, and he will heartily agree. You can desperately insist that he is deluded and is pervasively mistaking red qualities for green ones. He will reply that he is not and will ask you to prove it, which, as the thought experiment demonstrates, you cannot. What remains to his personal, qualitative experience, stripped of all the secondary associations, is just its personalness.

If you were to truly step into Fred’s skin with all its secondary associations in place and your own secondary associations set aside, you would have to admit that Fred’s “red” is indeed red; it is just not your red.

My dog may be an automaton. He may be a human-pleasing machine who wags his tail on the basis of a genetic algorithm and just acts in a very convincing way, like he means it. But if so, as the Inverted Spectrum illustrates, he does mean it, just as Fred really means red when he says “red”. All the secondary associations are in place. I may rightly conjecture that what it may be like to be him may not be what it is like to be me, but I knew that before he wagged his tail. He loves me, as sure as I know what love is.

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A Few, Very Specific Things

People are always asking me, “What do you believe?”

Nah, nobody actually asks me that, but I tell them anyway, just like this:

When it comes to consciousness, it comes with identity, and therefore locality.

When it comes to cause, it causes identity.

And, of course, that’s about it for classical theism.

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AI, Determinism and Supervenience

Recently, NPR interviewed the man who “de-aged” Robert De Niro for the film, “The Irishman”. The conversation drifted into the metaphysics of computer-generated imaging:

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what you’re describing is a technology that’s only going to get better and better, which I think brings up some ethical issues because as the technology gets more seamless and commonplace and those likenesses that you’ve just described get more subtle, could we end up doing away with the actual actor altogether? I mean, could it come to a point where a studio owns the digital image of an actor and just uses that instead of the real thing?

HELMAN: I don’t think so ’cause the performance has to come from somewhere, and that has to be the actor. And so just think about what it’ll take for a computer to do what Robert De Niro does. You need to train the computer – right? – to do those kinds of things. And basically, if you think about the behavior or likeness of somebody, how do you become yourself? You become yourself by living, you know, by having a bunch of experiences. And then you also have all the connections that are made in your face, the way you smile, all the cultural things that you live.

So if you want a computer to act like Robert De Niro, you need to train the computer like Robert De Niro. And then you spend a lifetime, you know, basically training the computer. And for that, you might as well just use Robert De Niro, you know?

Quite right, and more generally correct than I suspect Mr. Helman intended. Explanations pertain to the past, where things could not have been otherwise. The future will always be the realm of probability, else, to echo Mr. Helman, it will already have been.

The supervenient identity specifies its base. Otherwise, there is no explanation of the identity by the base. The point is: there are no loose ends – no theoretical De Niro’s.

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