Sunday, March 15, 2015

Consciousness, Moving Towards Eliminativism


A few things seen over the last few months. And then an updated old take from me. These are old but they have hints at things that I think are the better way forward, on this idiotic problem.

Though I see usefulness in describing my self as eliminativist or talking about the illusion of qualia, some of the wrangling over this gets into semantic squabbles and into how to phrase things in the most useful language. For example, there is a reason people experience something the way they experience it. Just as there is a reason you will experience an optical color illusion. Importantly, most of the time, we will claim that you experience a color illusion, such as in the shadow checkerboard illusion. Our understanding of what we call consciousness should fully explain why an individual makes the claim on experience that they do. Illusions are often about a better model of reality than what we are believing or seeing, and usually not an illusion about our experiencing, even if we are great fabricators. Discussions truly get idiotic when we claim the experiencing itself is illusion, so says Descartes.

On that note, I will also recommend Stanislas Dehaene's book Consciousness and the Brain (2014). And I buy his argument (and Dennett's, I think) for the usefulness of heterophenomenology. This is the idea that as cognitive scientists and others explore the brain and consciousness, that they will take seriously the individual's account of what they experience. And they will use these accounts, by themselves and in comparison with others, to help form our best theories about the brain.

However, such a stance does not entirely tell you about what I am going to discuss a bit here, which is more asking about what exactly is the property of that which we have called consciousness, what kind of thing is it.



First off. Here is Susan Blackmore's take on the illusion of consciousness in a paper from 2002. She has expressed this eloquently elsewhere as well.

Her main thrust:

If consciousness seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts, then I suggest this is the illusion . . . First we must be clear what is meant by the term “illusion”. To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be―more like a mirage or a visual illusion. And if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery.”


I would add that if we decide their is illusion-like quality to our experiences, we can also see the ways that this has recursively played upon itself as we developed language and as we developed theories. These theories then get eaten by our brains as they are thinking about themselves (and their selves), adding more confusion to the seemings of our experiences. 



And here is Nicholas Humphrey in a Youtube video giving some of his main talking points on consciousness.




His book Soul Dust (2012) also goes through some of these ideas. There were things that I remember irking me a bit in his analysis in the book, and also at the end of the video. For instance, souls . . . however much he naturalizes them.


Following above, I am going to try my hand at denying “consciousness,” at least as some fundamentally new property or object. I am going to try to reduce it to something simpler and say that it is nothing above that analysis. For more on ontology and reduction see my previous post on John Heil, who lays out similar key ideas.

I am essentially going to reduce consciousness to a rapid process of (self-)monitoring, (self-)representing, and action (of the self). But all of those states in a non-conscious, non-unified way. Some of those processes are self reflective. Consciousness here is the “what-it-is-like” conception. It is feels and redness. It is the presentation of sensation “as it pops up before one's self.” (That last part is tricky because there is no adequate way to say “it presents itself to itself,” or simply “it is,” neither which is quite right). I aim to deny that it is actually a property, actually a thing.

First, let us accept something. The book on the table is not actually a book. The book-qua-book has created no new properties in the world, I assume. If it does something to some person/brain/being, other than what physical objects usually do, that will be because of that person’s representation of the symbols. But if there is a new, emergent property in that representation of the book, that property is in the brain (which is the question we are asking about), and is not at all in the unique structure of atoms as regards the book and the properties that book manifests.

One aside here is that there is information in all things. I use the example that any rock has as much information as a door key does. It is just that society finds the information in a door key to often be more useful for social purposes, or to be manifested for social purposes, than we find our ability to use the superficial information of a given rock. We can search all non-intelligent-life planets [bracket intelligence concerns for the time being], and I doubt you will find letters scribbled across a flat sheet, or some other similarly marked structure. That is, I can see an argument for the structure of the book to hold properties, say the possibilities of directed information put into manipulable units, that is not found in non-intelligent-nature, even if humans are trying to describe nature in mathematical or theoretical terms. There may be information condensation (?) in a book that makes it a significantly different object with possible worldly effects than any other object found in a non-intelligent-world. And hence, if such is the case, we could say the book is some new property created by humans. This is also to forgo the entropy-like discussions on information.

Back to representation and to consciousness. The chess computer or Watson can represent and create "intentional" structures in the world without the arising of consciousness or of new emergent and non-reducible properties (see previous post on Deflating Consciousness). An amoeba can “represent” and create self-beneficial action as it regards the sun or saltwater, again without consciousness or seemingly emergent properties. The idea being here that evolution put, say, early bacteria into a structure that sensed (perhaps represented) external environments, and did things because of those perceivings. Biology is chemistry is physics. If something emergent has happened in the universe at that time, it is no more usefully emergent than the first creation of hydrogen atoms. The structures of the behavior readily falls from the structures of the world. 

Carrying on, animals got more complicated in sensing and representing their world. Again, this is what evolution does. Animals with more complex sensory systems and informational parsing structures increased in number because those modifications were useful in their environment. In humans, our representations reach a point where we had enough internal representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, that we also modeled that we exist, that "I" experience.  

My thesis here is that such representing in higher animals, such that represents and organizes behaviors and even “thoughts” around external and internal events, is doing so in what we are calling a conscious way. But this “consciousness” is actually nothing. The rapid presentation of representational structures, as arising from sensory information along with emotional effects, presents and circles around a representation of the animal, including tons of representations of the self, of an I at the center of the world, aided by linguistic explosion. But this is not actually a different process than the particular makeup of the rapid representational structures. It simply is that very fast run-through of those countless representations. There is not some central unified vision or property within that representation. If an animal represents that a predator is near, those representations are mixed with (really inseparable from) chemically induced sensations and feelings. A new property or object has not emerged of a non-reducible quality, of consciousness. This probably parallels Antonio Damasio a bit (see the Self Comes to Mind and The Feeling of What Happens), except I am more dismissive of consciousness as a robust phenomenon. 

Likewise, human consciousness has a greatly expanded self-awareness. That is, it has representations and a model (and occasional representation of that model) of "I," my self, at this computer, at this date in time, at this place in the universe. But this is merely a representational sequence, and there is no "qualitative feeling" to it.

However, the “what-it-is-like” is special. Any complex representation (or maybe series of representations) is a singular representation unlike anything else in the world. But that does not mean it is an emergent property, unless we want to say that the unique atomic structure of "that rock" is emergent. Nor is it non-reducible. The representation is cashed out in its micro-structures which have been ordered that way by evolution and the history of this individual. If a representational schema plays cool functions in the world, allows you to do badass things with that trombone over there, it is because that is what evolution does. It puts material together in cool ways that can further manipulate the world for their own benefit. But this is always reducible to the physical level which was put in its cool situation by historical accident. So nothing emergent or new was created (except in some banal sense).

But consciousness is something. Sure, just as this book is something . . . because we represent it “as something.” But we are humble about what that book is: an interesting structure of material. We do not claim it is emergent or non-reducible. Mental properties are the same. Yes, they are processes. Yes, consciousness is a state of the world (a structure of atoms in the brain organized in an interesting way). Consciousness is no more an object or a process than water going from complete solid to complete gas is a process. Or better, than the computer going from the 1st move in a chess game (with an external “opponent” occasionally moving a piece) to the last. Consciousness is not different than that computer process, except that we have a great many more representations of our selves at the center of a modeled world, representing our selves as the feeler of emotions and pains, and so on.


In humans, the rapid presentation of images and concepts and ideas creates an additional representation of a being at the center experiencing such, but that representational process does not literally create (me or I). The postulated central representation does not experience anything any more than the computer experiences a chess move. Consciousness as property or non-reducible conception does not exist, except again in the unique sense of individuality (there is nothing exactly like that set of atoms or that exact process of representations). Only you are representing the room you are in, a few body cues, a few memory insertions, and this exact sentence at this exact time. That representation is unique, and in certain ways non-reducible. In order to get all the exact processes that are you and your immediate environment, we would have to reproduce just that entire environment. 

According to this naive representer. 

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