Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Peeling the onion of consciousness

This post may reiterate some points I’ve made in other recent writings but it may also reveal the fundamental truth of all life and existence so I think some repetition can be forgiven.

I’ve been thinking again about this ethereal thing we call consciousness. I find myself musing on the question, “what can I be conscious of?” Obviously I can be conscious of things I see, hear, smell etc… all my sensory sensations (including subtle ones like vestibular/balance sensations and internal body states.) I can also be conscious of thoughts and ideas. This can be great thoughts such as the content of this blog, or more pedestrian musings like, “I need to buy toothpaste” or even thoughts that aren’t thoughts at all: just general sensations of being bored or wondering what Harrison Ford is up to. Even recognizing objects—seeing a car and being aware that it runs on gas and gets people around—is a thought-like mental activity. So too is simply being aware of the passage of time.

Let’s perform a thought experiment and remove some of these elements. Can I envision what it would like to not have my sensory data? Certainly; it’s easy enough to close one’s eyes, to blot out noise etc. I can’t absolutely turn off my sensory systems but I can envision the gist of what it would be like to do so. Can I also turn off my internal thoughts and my object recognition? This is much harder. It’s probably similar to what babies—new to the world and devoid of human knowledge— experience, though even they have intuitions and reflexes that require no learning. However, I think we’ve all had that feeling of just momentarily zoning out, of existing with not much going through your head. Maybe that’s similar to what stripping out this kind of thought awareness is like.

So, if I strip away all this “stuff” what am I left with? Consciousness with nothing to be conscious of. It’s possible there’s nothing at that point; you are essentially dead. But what if consciousness/self-awareness is, as some would argue, a kind of property of the universe, a bit like gravity*? It’s everywhere and when it interacts with a complex network like a brain, it results in a sense of self—an identity with an awareness of its past and its thoughts and whatnot. But the “self” is not really what’s aware; this consciousness field is. And this field is everywhere, in the same sense that forces like gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces are everywhere.

*Frankly, I’m describing something pretty close to the force from the Star Wars movies. Of course that concept was largely lifted from Asian philosophy.

I realize this is quite new-agey and almost impossible to prove, but it does nicely align itself with certain aspects of human spiritualism. Maybe what many spiritualists—shamans and monks of yore—experienced via drugs and meditation was a stripping away of the “content” of consciousness (sensations/thoughts etc.) and an arrival at the raw, empty experience. (This actually ties in with the experiences of Jill Bolte Taylor described here.)

At worst, I’ve got an interesting premise for a science fiction novel.

UPDATE: Feb 25 2014
I was never under the impression that I was originating this theory and I have to say it’s quite similar to Benjamin Libet’s “Conscious Mental Field Theory.” It’s described at this wiki page and includes the following quote from him about the idea.

The process by which the CMF arises from its contributing elements is not describable [sic]. It must simply be regarded as a new fundamental ‘‘given’’ phenomenon in nature, which is different from other fundamental ‘‘givens,’’ like gravity or electromagnetism.

Can plants think?

This is serendipitous. Recently, I wrote, “If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of complex networks (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex.”

Today I come across an interesting New Yorker (December 23, 2013) article on the possibility of plant intelligence. At one point it states:

The hypothesis that intelligent behavior in plants may be an emergent property of cell exchanging signals in a network might sound far-fetched, yet the way that intelligence emerges from a network of neurons may not be very different. Most neuroscientists agree that, while brains considered as whole function as centralized command centers for most animals, within the brain there doesn’t seem to be any command post; rather, one finds a leaderless network. That sense we get when we think about a plant—that there is no there there, no wizard behind the curtain pulling levers—may apply equally well to our brains.

Now the article doesn’t allude to my essential point: that complex networks like brains (and according to this article, plants) may birth not only intelligence (whatever that is) but consciousness (whatever that is.) But the article does seem to imply that we are starting to break down these barriers between different forms of life. (You might recall a recent link I posted arguing that the very barrier between living and non living is false.)

To be clear about a possible confusion arising from my initial quote in the first paragraph; I was suggesting that non living things like storms might have some form of consciousness. I’m aware that plants are living things. ;)

Can storms be conscious?

There’s an observation about consciousness that I’ve seen made in various texts including “The Mind’s I” and it goes something like this: If we presume that consciousness arises “naturally” out of networks with a certain complexity (like the human brain), then we have to concede that consciousness might arise out of non living things that are as complex. Computers might be one example. So could ant colonies. (Ants themselves are alive but the colony as a unit is not.) But so could things such as ocean waves or electrical storms. Such phenomenon do “exchange information” via complex patterns of “signals” that I freely confess I don’t really understand.

This seems baffling. How could an electrical storm be conscious, even for an instant? Does it suddenly come to being in the sky and think to itself, “I am Bob Weinburger the electrical storm.”

That ridiculous of course. No self respecting electrical storm would name itself Bob. But it’s ridiculous in other ways. How could consciousness simply arise out of nothing?

I was thinking about this today and I realized I was making consciousness more complex than it has to be. I am conscious right now (at least I think I am; various philosophies might argue that perception is an illusion.) This means I’m aware of my world, I recall recent and distant events, I have plans for the future, I have my internal dialogue, etc. But there’s a big difference between me—a person conscious for over 4 decades—and an electrical storm possibly conscious for a moment. I am loaded down with memories, intuitions, knowledge and categorizations about the world etc. Much of my conscious experience is really about juggling data. But if I could strip all that away, what would I be left with? By this I mean, if I took away my ability to use language, my ability to really be aware of my thoughts, to define the world around me, to even be aware there’s a difference between me and the world around me, to even have an urge to break the world up into objects, what am I left with? I’m not exactly sure—it’s probably impossible for our minds to fathom—but it might be a simple enough state. And a state that I could believe an electrical storm could achieve, if only for a moment. It’s like being a really dumb baby I suppose.

Here’s some other recent thoughts prompted by “The Mind’s I.”

UPDATE: Jan 22, 2014
I have to state that a certain thought crosses my mind here. This form of consciousness I argue storms might achieve sounds not unlike the ego-less, formless mental state people seek via meditation and whatnot. And I think Buddhism does argue that in some sense, everything is conscious. One can conceive of consciousness as a kind of property of the universe, like gravity, that permeates everything. Our mental networks, (e.g. brains) have the additional component of memory and thus we are able to form selves and identities.

I’m not saying I sign off on any of these ideas but they are interesting to ruminate on.

The ultimate heretical question

Conservative-but-sane writer Ross Douthat has an interesting recent column which tackles a question that I’ve wrestled with often: why be good?

The column is actually a response to an article that scientist/atheist Jerry Coyne wrote in response to a previous column Douthat penned espousing a traditional Christian world view. I’ve read some of Coyne’s blog and he seems like an interesting guy from whom I’d like to read more, but I think he’s wrong in this battle with Douthat.

Coyne argues two points: One is that the universe is an empty place with no God or higher being or whatever you want to call it. (This point I basically agree with.) He then argues that we can still have meaning in our lives. He says:

Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

I’d argue that Coyne is conflating the terms “intent” with “purpose.” You might reasonably say, “I intend to eat this hamburger,” but it would sound funny to say, “My purpose is to eat this hamburger.” What’s the difference between the two words? Well, all language is at its core vague, but there’s a moral aspect to purpose. It’s not just something you intend to do, it’s something you should do. (According to… God, the universe, who knows…?) Coyne is applying the word purpose to activities that have no moral realm (dining, teaching, traveling.) According to that logic a serial killer could comfortably say, “My purpose is to rape and torture these teenage girls for several days in this bunker. Then I’ll have a donut.”

Later, Douthat quotes more of Coyne.

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

In effect, Coyne is answering the question “why be good?” But his response is so lame I suspect it would be laughed out of an entry level philosophy classroom. Why should we help each other? Because it creates a harmonious society. What’s a harmonious society? It’s a society where people help each other. Thanks, Brainiac.

The point that altruism should be motivated by the drive for respect is easily dismantled by Douthat.

…that only holds so long as the altruistic choice comes at a relatively low cost: If you’re a white Southerner debating whether to speak out against a lynching party or a Dutch family contemplating whether to hide your Jewish neighbors from the SS, the respect factor isn’t really in play — as, indeed, it rarely is in any moral dilemma worthy of the name. (And of course, depending on your ideas about harmony and stability, Coyne’s “harmonious society” argument might also seem like a case against opposing Jim Crow or anti-Semitism — because why rock the boat on behalf of a persecuted minority when stability and order are the greater goods?)

In essence I think both Coyne and Douthat are half right. I think Coyne is correct that there is no God and essentially no meaning to the universe. I think he’s wrong that we can magically manufacture meaning or purpose out of thin air. I think Douthat is wrong with his Christian worldview, but he’s right that secular naturalism (or whatever it’s called) has no means to demand moral actions; indeed, it dispenses with the notion of morality at all.

Maybe these issues will eventually be hashed out, but Coyne’s attempt is quite weak.

Thus I have spoken.

“The Last Dragon” and egoic thinking

Less than a year ago I read the Eckhart Tolle book “A New Earth” and talked about it here. Now I’m reading what is considered his main text, “The Power of Now.”

Tolle’s main point—one that hardly originates with him—is that “egoic” thinking is the source of a lot of unhappiness. Egoic thinking is “I” thinking. For example…

“I am a millionaire and so I am awesome.”

“I have a beautiful cat therefore I rule.”

“I wrote a great piano sonata therefore I am the best.”

But it’s not just affirming statements, it could be…

“I have an IQ of 45 therefore I am stupid.” (Frankly, 45 is such a low IQ I doubt the idiot would even be able to form that thought.)

“I lost my wife to a better looking man therefore I am a loser.”

You get the drift. Who thinks this way? Pretty much everyone. Tolle argues this way of thinking is so built into our culture that most people are unaware that there even are other ways to think. Certainly I am guilty of this kind of thinking, though I am trying to do less of it.

I struck me today that there’s something sort of anti-progressive about Tolle’s argument. (By progressive I mean politically progressive: vegans, Mother Jones, Move On etc.) The progressive movement, at least its academic component, is very tied up in identity politics. “I am a gay, African American/Latino from a third generation middle class family” …that sort of thing. Borrowing from Marxism, progressivism is, well, frankly obsessed with defining people via classifications. Even though Tolle is associated with fringy, peace loving, new age types, I see a certain conflict between the two belief systems.

Frankly, plenty on the right are obsessed with individual classification too. “I am a God fearing conservative from Alabama” and what not. But you don’t get the sense the right is focussed on gender, race, class etc. to the degree the left is.

Oddly, this reminds me of my recent article on the 80s kung fu flick, “The Last Dragon.” I argued that Leroy, the African American hero of the film, essentially redefined himself as asian–he took on a new racial identity.

This kind of cultural switcheroo might just sound like a gag played for cheap laughs but I think it really is the “soul” of the film, arguing—just as your college sociology professor would—that race is a social construct, one we are free to dismiss when we find an identity more to our liking. Granted, the embrace of blackness by the Chinese trio seems a little phony—a desperate grab at hipsterdom—but Leroy’s comes across as real; even though he’s from Harlem, he finds a path and identity in the East.

Tolle would probably argue that Leroy should dispense with any racial identification (and as I think about it, maybe that is what he really does.) But the movie does address the impermanence of these kinds of egoic constructs.

I am awesome.

Was life better in the past?

As everyone knows I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past four years reading about neuroscience and psychology. Occasionally I’ll see some comment made about how some buddhist monk in 2300 B.C or a Christian philosopher in 1200 A.D. made an observation that is now supported by science. I would often think, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Even though these guys didn’t have the advantages of the modern era—M.R.I.s and peer reviewed research etc.—they were able to get to some core truths about the nature of existence.”

I now wonder if I have this backwards. I’m presuming modern humans have the advantage and people in the past were disadvantaged. But, frankly, if you lived in 2300 B.C. and your day consisted of catching some fish and then staring at clouds for 6 hours, how could you not make knowledgeable observations about existence? And, if you live in our era with the endless onslaught of meaningless bullshit, how can you really have the time to simply exist?

I’m aware that not everyone in the past sat around staring at clouds all day – there were wars, pestilence, starvation etc. But some folks did, for decades perhaps. And they probably led richer lives (if you’ll allow me a value judgement) than we do now.

Does life exist?

I’ve mentioned that I often find myself musing on an original thought only to find, after a month or so, that someone grabs attention by publishing the same idea, usually in some sort of “respected” journal or web site. A lesser man might be upset with the psychic theft of his ideas, but not me. I’m happy to provide my musings for the good of mankind.

Not long ago I was thinking about how we define the notion of life. For instance, we define a grasshopper as alive and a rock as not. But, the more you reduce living things to their tiny components, the more they appear similar to non-living things. All of us—living and dead—are made up of molecules which themselves are made up of atoms which can be broken down to quantum particles. If we are all made up of essentially the same stuff, why are some things alive and some dead?

You might say, “because living things move,” but of course so do remote controlled cars. And some non-living things don’t move for eons.

In a blog entitled “Why Life Does Not Really Exist” science writer Ferris Jabr takes this ball and runs with it, doing a much better job with the topic than I could. Ultimately here arrives here:

Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.

My sentiments exactly! But Jabr then fails to explore the dark questions this raises. Modern ethics and morality are all based on the assumption that life is something… a vital force, a soul, whatever. How do we then accommodate our moral concepts with the view that life is not real. Why is it wrong for me to roll a steamroller over a baby (e.g. a collection of molecules) but not a log (e.g. a collection of molecules)? These sorts of questions are, I think, going to be the difficult problems of the coming centuries.

You could accuse me of being willfully ignorant here. I don’t, of course, go through life equating people with rocks and logs. But I do ask why I don’t. Is the distinction an essentially meaningless (though, from an evolutionary perspective, useful) one built into the human mind? Or is there a real qualitative difference between the living and non-living?


Who gets the credit for our thoughts?

Lately I’ve found myself noticing a phenomenon I’ve probably mentioned here in the past: the way ideas seems to leap up out of the netherworlds of my mind into my conscious brain. This happens a lot while waking up. Some particular issue is bothering me, perhaps something work related or a problem with a song or piece of writing I’m working on, and the solution suddenly appears. I find I don’t “build” ideas in a step by step manner, but rather that they “pop up” often fully formed.

In Jonah Lehrer’s book “How We Decide” he advocated the “sleep on it” method of problem solving. Struggling with a problem is often ineffective he argued. You are better off taking a walk or doing something to distract your conscious mind. Let your subconscious work on the solution.

I’m reading “The Mind’s I” and it makes an interesting point related to all this.

Our conscious thoughts seem to come bubbling up from the subterranean caverns of our mind, images flood into our mind’s eye without our having any idea where they came from! Yet when we publish them, we expect that we—not our subconscious structures—will get credit for our thoughts. This dichotomy of the creative self into a conscious part and an unconscious part is one of the most disturbing aspects of trying to understand the mind. If—as was just asserted—our best ideas come burbling up as if from mysterious underground springs, then who really are we? Where does the creative spirit reside? Is it by an act of will that we create, or are we just automata made out of biological hardware, from birth until death fooling ourselves through idle chatter into thinking that we have “free will”? If we are fooling ourselves about these matters, then whom—or what—are we fooling?

Do we “deserve” credit for our accomplishments and ideas?

Splitting apart the brain

I’ve been reading a book I’ve been interested in for some time: “The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul.” The subject is probably obvious from the title. Within its pages I came across an very thought provoking line of inquiry.

First, let’s consider the “conventional” view of consciousness. The idea is that we have all these brain neurons – tens of billions of them – connected to each other by their arms and legs (or more correctly dendrites and axons.) They send signals to one another and somehow, out of this mass of connecting wires, arrives consciousness. This is largely the premise of the book “Connectome” which I discussed on these very pages.

Let’s apply a thought experiment. Suppose you take a person’s brain and tease apart all the neurons from each other. You put each neuron in its own nutrient bath (to keep it alive) and you fix some kind of radio transmitter on each of its inputs and outputs (e.g. arms and legs.) Each neuron can now pass signals to all its fellows as it did before, only now it’s using these transmitters. (This is technically impossible but go with me on this.) Is it reasonable to conclude that this brain is still conscious? Maybe, though something seems off.

Let’s get even crazier. Let’s say we observe that a particular experience – eating a cheese sandwich – causes the neurons to fire in a very precise order (as it almost certainly would.) Then, instead of placing radio transmitters on each neuron, we place little pulse devices that can zap each neuron just like a brain signal. At this point we should be able to activate (in this brain) the experience of eating a cheese sandwich just by zapping the neurons in exactly the same order (and same speed) they would be zapped during a “real” sandwich eating experience. But would our brain – a bunch of neurons lying in separate chemical baths, not even connected to each other but receiving zaps from pulse devices – be conscious? It seems hard to believe it would. What is binding these neurons together?

I can think of several possible conclusions from all this.

1) Dualists and spiritualists are right: there is an immaterial soul. Something that takes all that neural processing and in some way interprets it as a conscious experience. Of course, this is just taking one mystery – how does the brain work? – and replacing it with another – how does the soul work? (You could exchange the word “soul” with “mind” and make the same point.)

2) There’s some missing part to the connectome theory – some strange property that emerges out of complex systems like the brain, or dark matter, or weird laws of quantum physics, who knows what. This sort of thing is what I believe the quantum consciousness movement advocates.

3) Separate strands of unconnected brain tissue CAN be conscious. Maybe all sorts of weird complex systems can. Maybe clouds are conscious! Computers! The universe!

4) This one is hard to really put into words but I like it. We are presuming the brain has to correlate to this thing we call consciousness but we have never really defined consciousness. Maybe we aren’t really conscious at all? Maybe it’s just some kind of illusion? (But don’t we need to be conscious to be fooled by an illusion? Like I said, this one is tricky.)

Do we have multiple consciousness(es)?

Who is thinking here?A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I’m continuing to read Ray Kuzweil’s “How To Create a Mind” and he gets into some related territory, even allowing for the possibility of multiple consciousnesses. There is strong evidence for some version of this possibility. For example, we have Mike Gazzaniga’s split brain patients. I described these patients in an earlier post.

These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.

His exact experiments have been described many times and I see no reason to repeat them here. (This Nature article covers the gist.) But what’s observed is that the two separate sections of brain really seem to process the world separately and be unaware of each other.

We can also consider half brain patients. These are people, as you might suspect, have half a brain (either because of a birth defect or a surgical procedure.) The term is often considered derogatory, but in fact patients with half a brain function quite well. But they beg the question, what is that missing half a brain (present in most people) doing?

And of course, we can consider the unconscious – the part of your brain regulating your heart, causing your legs to walk and, possibly, repressing your sexual attraction to your dog, your primal hatred of all life etc. (Sometimes these two types of unconscious are broken up into the terms “unconscious” and “subconscious.”) Is the unconscious in some way conscious, but cordoned off from what we consider our conscious experience to be?

In a sense, I’m alleging that there’s more than one “I” in our skull. There’s our standard consciousness, which has rich language functionality and subjective experience, though maybe even that can be split into separate “Is” as the split brain experiments show. Then there’s the unconscious—probably the domain of our fear and pleasure driven reptilian brain—which has no language functionality. And maybe the unconscious can also be split into multiple components, each of them independently (in some sense) conscious.

evil twinYou of course might say, “But I only feel that main, traditional consciousness—the one that gets up for work in the morning and and watches late night television at night?” Correct – “you” do, but I’m saying there are many “yous” in your body. It might help to think of those classic horror films where a person has an evil conjoined twin growing out of their body. That twin has no real say about what you (the main consciousness) decides to do, but he sits there, growing out of your chest and stewing in his anger*.

* Why do I presume these unconscious units are filled with hatred and anger as opposed to affable joy? It’s just the way I see the world, I guess.

Of course I’m really saying, maybe that evil twin (the un/subconscious) does have some effect on your decisions. He’s the classic Freudian subconscious nag, spurring you to chose a wife who reminds you of your mother, or to fear the boss who reminds you of the uncle who molested you before you had memory.

The question is whether these additional consciousnesses are really conscious the way “we” are. I suspect no; their consciousness is more like that of a dog or a bug. And we – the top consciousness – are left hearing the cries and pleas of these tiny consciousnesses and using them to guide our path through life.

UPDATE: Another neurosis implying some possible separate consciousness in one body: Alien Hand Syndrome! After a stroke…

The patient complained of a feeling of “strangeness” in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that “someone else” was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself. Goldstein reported that, as a result of this report, “she was regarded at first as a paranoiac.” When the left hand grasped an object, she could not voluntarily release it. The somatic sensibility of the left side was reported to be impaired, especially with aspects of sensation having to do with the orienting of the limb. Some spontaneous movements were noted to occur involving the left hand, such as wiping the face or rubbing the eyes; but these were relatively infrequent. Only with significant effort was she able to perform simple movements with the left arm in response to spoken command, but these movements were performed slowly and often incompletely even if these same movements had been involuntarily performed with relative ease before while in the abnormal ‘alien’ control mode.