09 April 2013

What is Consciousness Anyway?

I'm often frustrated by simplistic worldviews, especially when I fall into one myself. A couple of years back I wrote a response to the charge that is frequently levelled at me, namely that I am a materialist (gasp!). The choices in these cases seem to be materialist or non-materialist (where the latter involves believing in a range of supernatural entities and forces). Similarly there seems to be an assumption that if one is a materialist that one considers consciousness to be a mere epiphenomena. The suggestion is often that if you don't think that consciousness is an ineffable supernatural entity then you must believe it to be mere epiphenomena. But these are not the only two choices. 

A related subject is the idea that science can and does tell us nothing about consciousness. This is clearly not true, as scientists who study the mind are able to tell us a great deal about it. The idea that science cannot explain consciousness seem to be rooted in particular views rather than based on familiarity with scientific inquiry. In other words it's just an ideological position.

I don't think scientists have fully explained consciousness by any means, but there are some very interesting observations of, and ideas about, the mind, and a lot of really insightful deductive work on how the mind must function in order to exhibit the features it does (aka reverse engineering). At present we have some interesting conjectures about how the mind might work that are guiding our search for more data. Scientists are busy trying to disprove one theory or another.

Now, I happen to be a fan of info-graphic guru David McCandless and recently bought a copy of his book Information is Beautiful. One of his infographics lists 12 explanations for consciousness (including a Buddhist version). Each is represented by a graphic and a sentence. The same information with animations is online here. (At time of writing they are conducting a survey of opinions about consciousness using this set). Below is his set of 12 with a couple of additions. The heading in bold and the summary in italics come from McCandless. I have added a few explanatory comments in each case.

Substance Dualism
Consciousness is a field that exists in its own parallel "realm" of existence outside reality so can't be seen.
Aka Cartesian Duality. Strict separation between mind and body. Consciousness and matter are two distinct types of substance. The problems with this view are legend and almost no one takes it seriously any more. Still, if you believe in ghosts or psychic powers then you have a foot in this camp!

Substance Monism
The entire universe is one substance, 
All is one, dude. Included in this is the form of idealism which says that everything is the mind, and physical objects don't really exist. Buddhists sometimes flirt with idealism e.g 'mind only' cittamātra. The opposite extreme, which is more popular in the West is that everything is just material, which is covered by epiphenomenalism, behaviourism and functionalism.

Emergent Dualism
Consciousness is a sensation that "grows" inevitably out of complicated brain states.
This features in a common science fiction theme: a computer network becomes so complex that it spontaneously develops consciousness. As a philosophy of mind this view relies on observations about complex systems emerging from simpler units interacting. One of the central insights of work on fractals and complexity theory is that simple repeating units can produce patterns and processes of startling complexity. The view accepts that we are constructed from matter, but argues that complex arrangements of matter are capable of displaying properties which are greater than the sum of their parts - consciousness and even a soul are attributable to this by proponents.

Property Dualism
Consciousness is a physical property of all matter, like electromagnetism, just not one the scientists know about.
Science is making new discoveries all the time right? So why should we assume that all the properties of matter have been discovered yet? The idea here is that everything is made of one substance, matter, (and it is  thus a form of substance monism) but that matter has multiple properties. In particular matter has physical properties and mental properties. In this view all matter has a psychic component.

This is similar to the Jain view of the world which considered that everything was conscious. Consciousness exists in a hierarchy depending on how many senses the entity possesses. Rock only has the sense of touch, so is only minimally conscious. Some animals have more or different senses than we do.

As a way around both materialism and idealism this view has some merits.

Pan Psychism
All matter has a psychic part. Consciousness is just the psychic part of our brain.
This seems to be a popular view amongst my colleagues. Sometimes its described in terms of the brain being like an radio that 'picks up' consciousness and tunes it in so we can be aware of it. Not very different from property dualism, indeed it is sometimes called Panpsychic property dualism. However Pan Psychism treats everything as mind, where mind has physical and mental properties. As I understand it Theravāda Abhidhamma sees the world in this way. Many Buddhists argue that in our world mind creates the physical world, possibly on the basis of the Nidāna sequence in which viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa.

Identity Theory
Mental states are simply physical events that we can see in brain scans.
Aka type physicalism or reductive materialism. In this view the states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. In other words what you think of as your consciousness is simply the physical states of the brain. This is a form of monism - it doesn't see the mind as substantially different from the brain. 


Consciousness and its states (belief, desire, pain) are simply functions the brain performs.
Consciousness is the sum of the functions of the brain. Mental states are constituted solely by causal relations to other mental states, sensory inputs, and behavioural outputs. Presumably this does away with the hard problem of consciousness? Functionalism has it's origins in Aristotle's idea of a soul: that it is just that which enables us to function as a human being. Functionalism can be thought of as behaviourism as seen through the lens of cognitive psychology.


Consciousness is literally just behaviour. When we behave in a certain way, we appear conscious.
Once a very popular view behaviourism dispenses with the idea of consciousness. Life is just stimulus and response. In higher animals such as humans this is so complex that it appears to be consciousness, but really it isn't. This kind of mechanistic thinking about humans was popular early in the Enlightenment period when clockwork was the complex mode. I associate behaviourism with the advent of computers. The mind is often likened to the most complex human creation of the moment. Cavemen no doubt thought of the mind as a flint knife. When computers came along as they seemed like a metaphor for the mind. But in practice computers work very differently from the mind. However the invention of neural networks showed that it is possible to imitate more closely how the human mind works. This is the subject of one of De Bono's lesser known works: I am Right You Are Wrong (which I recommend).


Consciousness is an accidental side effect of complex physical processes in the brain.
This is the view that seems to get Buddhists most steamed up. Another form of mechanistic thinking which down plays the hard problem of consciousness by denying that anything is going on. "Move along folks, there's nothing to see here." It arose out of attempts to get around mind/body dualism.

If this view were to hold then we ought to be able to build a sufficiently complex clockwork device that was indistinguishable from a conscious being.

Quantum Consciousness
Not sure what consciousness is, but quantum phsyics over classical physics, can better explain it.
There is no reason why the mind should not involve quantum phenomena. But there is no evidence that it does. For some time it has been trendy to invoke quantum mechanics as an explanation for all sorts of things. But those attempting this seem to be philosophers rather than quantum theorists (Dennett for instance) and I'm doubtful. I've attempted to debunk the idea that Buddhism has anything in common with quantum mechanics (see Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat).

100 billion cells each with 1000 connections is really very complex, so I don't see an a priori need to invoke quantum mechanics in order to explain or describe consciousness. On the other hand the adaptability of an amoeba might make us think again since it is capable of remarkably sophisticated responses to its environment given its relative simplicity of form. However until there's actual evidence of quantum effects this remains in the realm of speculation. Maybe someone more familiar with Dennett can point to the evidence that he cites?


Consciousness is the sensation of your most significant thoughts being highlighted
Quite a lot in common with Functionalism, in that it uses insights from cognitive psychology to improve on Behaviourism. In a sense it highlight thinking as a distinct kind of behaviour. It incorporates the idea of the mind as a computer which processes information and produces behaviour (Behaviourism only acknowledges behaviour).

Higher Order Theory

Consciousness is just higher order thoughts (thoughts about other thoughts)
The approach emerges from the understanding that there are different types of thoughts, and that they operate at different levels of organisation. One of the basic distinctions being between unconscious perception and conscious perception. Another is between intransitive consciousness (mere consciousness) and transitive consciousness (consciousness of some object). Distinctions amongst philosophers of mind often depend on finding the right level at which to describe it. Higher Order  Theory is primarily concerned with understanding conscious, transitive mental states (in this it is similar to early Buddhism).

Consciousness is a continuous stream of ever-recurring phenomena, pinched, like eddies, into isolated minds.
Clearly McCandless is not that well informed on Buddhist ideas about consciousness, and since he doesn't cite sources we can't get at why he thinks we think like this. The last part sounds more like Hinduism to me.

Early Buddhism 
Consciousness is always consciousness of... 
If consciousness is even a subject of inquiry (and I'm not convinced it is) then the usual way of talking about it is that consciousness arises when sense object meets sense faculty and gives rise to sense consciousness.  Early Buddhism focusses on transitive consciousness and has almost no interest in the mind otherwise. The word being translated as 'consciousness' is viññāna which probably means some more like cognition or awareness. Such a cognition which arises in dependence on conditions is referred to as conditioned (saṅkhata); it can be analysed into five branches (pañcakhandhā ≡ papañca). It is possible to have unconditioned (asaṅkhata) cognition when one sees and knows mental objects (dhammā) as they are (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). It is claimed that the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind) and their objects make up the totality (sabbaṃ) and that any other proposition about the world is beyond the proper domain (visāya) of inquiry.

Late Buddhism
Consciousness is a manifestation of karmic seeds
Consciousness arises on the basis of a storehouse for the 'seeds' of karma (ālayavijñāna). Floating on top of this layer are the sensory cognitions which produce provisionally valid cognitions (relative truth). The extra layer at the bottom was invented to try to account for difficulties explaining rebirth (the problem of continuity of consequences). However the ālayavijñāna is a kind of permanent substrate and thus suffers from metaphysical problems related to eternalism. I argue that the problem of continuity between births cannot be practically solved without positing some kind of ātman.


Damasio's Model of Consciousness
This is a rubric for ideas in which consciousness is an emergent property of the brain's role of monitoring the environment and the body's own internal states using virtual representations created in the brain. Combined with temporal memories of previous states (memory), and projections of futures states (imagination) and representing the observing subject as a virtual self, consciousness is the overall effect of these functions. This emerges particularly from the work of Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger and is closest to my own understanding of what consciousness is or does.


Of course it must be said that all of these are the thinnest of glosses on some quite complex ideas, and that not being expert in any of them I have probably got them wrong. My purpose here is mainly to represent the complexity of the subject matter and encourage readers to take in some of the options that are available. There are more than two choices. Being interested in the science of the mind and uninterested in the supernatural leaves me choices other the epiphenomenalism.

In trying to understand McCandless's categories it becomes obvious that many of them have substantial cross-over. Some are in fact subsets of broader categories. So I wouldn't put too much store by his list. It illustrates the point that there are a lot of theories, but not much more.

It seems to me that if we are to make any progress in understanding ourselves then we need to begin with observation and allow understanding to emerge. My beef with philosophy is that it starts with theories and searches for facts to fit. Indeed the vast legacy of philosophical speculation of the mind completely divorced from observation would seem to be a major impediment to progress.

My enthusiasm for Thomas Metzinger is precisely that he starts with observations and works towards an explanation. I'm also interested George Lakoff's ideas about categorisation, metaphor and embodied cognition influence how we see cognition and selfhood. Lakoff's work also stems from observation. I don't mind being presented with a worked out theory as long as the evidence for and against the theory follows.

I tend towards rejecting any strong form of mind/body dualism. Free floating, disembodied consciousness simply does not make sense to me. All the evidence I am aware of points to an intimate connection between brain and consciousness. Metzinger's account of his out of body experiences is central to undermining the last vestiges of my dualistic thinking in this area because it showed that unusual phenomena, like religious traditions, don't have to be taken on face value. Yes, it really does seem as if the consciousness can leave the body; but no, it doesn't have to literally do so to produce a convincing illusion. Traditional Buddhist ideas about consciousness are compatible with this view, as long as we are not too literalistic.

With Kant I accept the existence of an objective world distinct from my perception of it along with the caution that we can only infer things about this world, we can never know it directly (since our only source of information about the world is our senses). However this is not a problem in the foreground of early Buddhist thought. The objective world is a given in early Buddhist texts. Our experience of the world occurs in the space of overlap between a sense endowed body, a world of objective, and attention to the overlap. The entire focus of early Buddhist practice takes place in this liminal space, where our responses to experience feedback into, and to some extent determine, the quality of our experience.

One of the main criticisms that comes from the anti-physicalist side of the argument is that theories which don't accept a supernatural aspect to mind, i.e. an aspect of mind which operates outside the known laws of nature, can't account for qualia. One of the reasons this claim stands is that such people do not keep up with neuroscience. Some recent research looks promising.
Orpwood, Roger. 'Qualia Could Arise from Information Processing in Local Cortical Networks.' Frontiers in Psychology. 2013; 4: 121. Published online 2013 March 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00121
Jakub Limanowski, and Felix Blankenburg. 'Minimal self-models and the free energy principle.' Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 547. Published online 2013 September 12. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00547

See also
 The Where of What: How Brains Represent Thousands of Objects by Ed Yong (Dec 2012), which summarises the state of research on this subject as of 2012. 
I also recommend A Brain in a Supercomputer, a TED talk by Henry Markham which helps with getting an idea of the complexity of the brain. Follow this up at The Blue Brain Project.
We do not yet fully understand consciousness. But this is no reason to fall back on supernatural explanations.
The route away from superstition and fearful projections onto the world has been long and difficult but it has been worth it. On the other hand what we are learning is far more sophisticated than Medieval insights from Buddhists and if we stick to what's in our ancient texts at some point we'll become irrelevant. The Mindfulness Therapy movement is already showing how this this might work since they have been far more successful in communicating their version of Buddhist methods in a shorter space of time.


See also this in the Guardian (10.4.13): Transparent brains reveal their secrets – video. A fly-through of a whole mouse brain where the non-neuronal material has been rendered transparent - every dendrite of every neuron is visible! Selective stains enable neurons of different functionality to be coloured differently. The original article is: Chung, K.,  et al (2013). 'Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems.' Nature. doi:10.1038/nature12107.

I should also have given a nod to the Human Connectome Project. No doubt this new technique used above will advance their work considerably.

Brain as Receiver

One of the options that comes up regularly to explain consciousness in a dualistic frame is the brain as TV receiver analogy. This is ruled out by Steven Novella. He argues that to compare the brain to a TV that simply displays the information beamed into it the analogy would have to answer these questions positively:
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?
Disrupting the reception, via brain damage, does not simply distort the image of the show, it changes the plot and the characters. The brain simply cannot be a passive receiver. The brain creates consciousness. This is the only way to explain the correlations. 


lee said...

I'm in the "sensation" camp, that consciousness is a metasensation of raw experience. Those experiences can be both intrinsic as well as extrinsic.

One reason I endorse this view stems from my experience with a meditative state known as the "Blue Pearl," or the "Blue Consciousness."

I've only ever done it a few times, and I could feel the sensation of consciousness itself, in the same sensual space I only typically experience thoughts. It required, unfortunately, a very uncomfortable amount of focus, akin to an access concentration gone overboard. It also proved increasingly unsustainable & frustrating.

On the Vipassana/Dhyana side of direct experience, in the sense of "just seeing," etc., I think that conscious awareness is mind's way of reflecting extrinsic phenomena. In comparative neuroanatomy, we see an increase in brain function, with intrinsic phenomena playing an increasing role with ever-more complex brain structures.

To the Zen tradition, Mind is contiguous with extrinsic phenomena, that the Buddha field extends across all phenomena, intrinsic & extrinsic. Gestalt, Buddha field, extrinsic phenomena ... same thing only different?

That's as far as I'm going to carry this ... it's not a discussion I see that particularly avails fruitful deconstruction (Abidhamma prosaics to the contrary ... ). Maybe the best way to embrace the actual nature of consciousness is to *just sense* and *just think* & ditch the semantic constructs.... :)

Jayarava said...


I suggest you read Metzinger's account of Out of Body Experiences carefully.

The most unhelpful way of understanding consciousness is to generalise from one's own interpretation of experience. We are so prone to bias, so prone to interpretation on the basis of presupposition and implicit assumptions, that it usually leads us astray.

For example your last statements betray the Romantic bias in Western Zen that McMahan so ably describes in The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

What we think about consciousness from the inside is unlikely to illuminate what consciousness actually is and does, precisely because we don't experience consciousness directly, but construct it as a form of prapañca on the basis of experience. The idea that subjectivity is a better guide to consciousness is quite wrong. Subjectivity is just as much a construct as objectivity.

Consciousness is a not a problem that can be solved by introspection, and this was never the goal of the Buddha anyway. The Buddha wanted us to understand the dependent nature of experience. Not that nature of consciousness (which is in any case a Western construct).

Michael Dorfman said...

I've just read the Orpwood article that you cited, and I fail to see how it makes any advance on the very real (and hard) philosophical problem that Chalmers originally raised.

If we take the example of the smell of peppermint: it is easy to see how a set of cells can recognize the chemical fingerprint of this smell. We can also imagine feeding back the representation of this smell through the same cells, and recognizing the representation as such. But I fail to see how doing this repeatedly will somehow give rise to the experience we have of the smell of peppermint. A recognition of a representation of a representation of a representation is still, at the end of the day, no closer to bridging the gap between some set of physical processes and our experience of how it feels.

Unfortunately, this seems to be par for the course for the similar articles I have read as well-- it all reduces to the famous "...and then a miracle occurs..." cartoon. (I still haven't read Metzinger, though-- perhaps he avoids this pattern.)

Regarding "Quantum Consciousness", I always associated this more with Penrose than Dennett; at least in the Dennett books that I read, consciousness is seen as an illusion-- he's an eliminativist.

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

I doubt I can explain any better than the authors. Perhaps time will tell as to whether this approach will bear fruit.

It's not really a problem for Buddhists anyway - more of a hobby. It's totally unnecessary to understand the problem let alone solve it since it has no bearing on Buddhist practice.

But since it kind of is a hobby of mine, I think the biggest barrier to understanding the mind are the legacy presuppositions of philosophers in the spell of their own narratives. This has been going through my mind a lot in the last few days. Centuries of legacy to scrape away.

Where I think Metzinger and Damasio score highly is that they begin to deconstruct philosophy. Sure it feels like you are a self, but actually and demonstrably you aren't. What we experience as a self is nothing of the sort.

Indeed the subjectivity of what we experience is just as problematic as the objectivity. No self means no subject and no subjectivity.

Subjectivity is a myth - it just feels like we have it. How can we look for something that doesn't exist? We have to go back to basics and ask 'what is going on?' and check our answers against what other people observe.

This is where a dash of Buddhist philosophy might be useful, because it makes very different assumptions about the mind: no theatre of consciousness, no distinction between thought and emotion, no self. Our presuppositions about the parameters of research into the mind are a school of red herrings.

It seems to me that the hard problem will be disentangling research from the legacies of philosophy. Just as physicists had to abandon notions like phlogiston or aether. Consciousness is a unicorn. We'll never find one. But eventually we'll work out what our brains are good for.

You are right to say that we do not yet fully understand the mind. No one is claiming that they do. And you may be right about Penrose/Dennett as I have no real interest in either of them I probably got them confused.

Jayarava said...

In response to my tweet earlier today "We'll never understand consciousness by introspection." one of my colleagues tweeted back "We'll never understand conciousness full stop."

This is apparently because he believes that the brain is a Turing machine and that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem applies - a Turing machine can't understand itself. I'm not sure, however that there is any way to know whether the brain is a Turing machine. Add the idea that the brain is formally a mechanism (his link) to the list of theories.

However I still think we need to base hypotheses on observation and not the other way around.

Michael Dorfman said...

There's a recent book called "Self - No Self" (edited by Siderits and Zahavi) which looks at this topic from a variety of Buddhist and non-Buddhist perspectives. I've just started reading it myself, and it looks quite good.

re: Gödel/Turing-- I am personally not very enamored of the notion of the brain as a Turing machine, as I see no reason to assume that all of the mind's functions are reducible to computation. I think that it is these kinds of assumptions that lead a lot of researchers astray.

I think that prematurely committing to some narrow form of "materialism" is a mistake. I'm not trying to hold the door open for any kind of supernaturalism-- I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter. (Or that they are not, for that matter.) I think the more responsible position is to say that we just don't know, and try to see where the research leads us.

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

"I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter."

What I see in that statement is a Romantic assumption, tinged with legacy Christianity. An explanation in terms of matter is a reduction, since matter is mundane, cold and lifeless in the Romantic view and is contrasted with the vibrancy of the spirit. The world of matter is on a lower plane of existence than the world of the spirit. Matter is lower; spirit is higher. Matter is heavy; spirit is light. Matter is dark; spirit is light.

Even though you attempt to dodge the attribution of "supernatural" you invoke it by implication in your view of matter. And it was quite useful in providing me with an insight into the Romantic view of the universe!

Life is associated with spirit; lifelessness with matter. Matter is the cold, unmoving, stuff of the mundane. Matter exists in chunks and blocks and is lifeless.

And this clarification of the metaphors involved in abtractsions about the mind clarifies the argument about consciousness doesn't it? It highlights why there is resistance to matteralism. Matter cannot explain the lively since it appears to entire lack the qualities of life. The prototype of the catergory "matter" is stone - cold, grey, lifeless. Consciousness cannot fit in the same catergory as matter.

Similarly the mind can't be a machine because the prototypical machine is made of metal, is clunking, and lacking in spirit. What image does the word machine invoke? Steam engine? Automobile?

Even the idea of the mind as computer creats cognitive dissonance. We have more in common with an ant as a living being than with the most sophisticated computer - we can both get up and walk away for one thing! Computers are simply not like living things at all.

Thanks that has really clarified things for me.

lee said...



I proffered that intentionally as an example of the problem. When you consider the devotional sects under the big tent -- or Zen's acknowledged amalgam of Tao & Mahayana (the flag moves ... the mind moves) ... it's a misdemeanor.

Buddhism makes some rather pretty claims about undoing karmic entanglement when it boils down to decoupling left-brain reaction from direct experience. But extolling an ascetic path to liberation needn't become an abnegation of sensuality. *Just sensing* doesn't judge, so why throw rotten tomatoes?

Another wrinkle ... if we are to remain diligent against decay, we're against thermodynamics. Can Buddhism admit that it adds a very particular flavor to liberation here, in a protracted battle against the discomfiture of chaos?

WHY give a damned about the extrinsic, as well as intrinsic, realm of component things without an ADMISSION of a functional identification *with* the phenomenal realm around us? If we are to engage it, is it not all as somehow equivalent to our own arising & falling essence? It's a non-negotiable article of faith, by token of awareness, that Mind is a votive substance to all phenomenal essence around it.

The metaphor of Contiguous Mind serves up the opportunity to open up to everything around us (Thich Nhat Hahn's "interbeing" comes to mind...). Slippery slope they say, then the Buddha field is suffused in an atomic clock's time dilation experience just the same as between the astronaut's ears. Next stop: Animism?

Consciousness gets put up on a pedestal as being a part of all fungible experiences, only better. How so? More equal than all other experiences, by token of its awareness? This asserts that consciousness is a "Good," of value and nihilism can only be its counterpart. Wait, who snuck in *that* dialectic?

Well hot damned, we *ARE* better for not being "reborn" as vultures, then!? Or... are we? C'mon Buddhism, why is *this* (the human votary) a "better" rebirth? We get to have it both ways, that all experience are fungible, but it's *better* to have the conscious experience than ... not? By association consciousness is "good" and sentience is "gooder." The brain is the most important organ in my body, but look who's telling me this!? Observer bias, again.

Ooookay. So Mind is either better, or it's everywhere so we're back off the pedestal, or mind is more than phenomenal, it's noumenal -- but since all is contiguous, the noumenon of the universe aren't exclusive to us, just we're not supposed to *project* that they are *there.* Some bardo of original mind perhaps?

Oh my oh my. What to do?

If consciousness is just another sensation, then it's awfully good at sensing problems, challenges & then trying to find a solution. It's so compelling a sensation however, that it also invents problems. After all, the brain is the most important organ in my body -- but look who's telling me this!?

Or is it better seen as a node of experience with some intrinsic feedback loops that reify process-value out of an indifferent field of temporal and physical contiguity? We can't say that emptiness means that A & B are unrelated (would also violate dependent origination & arising).

We can say that consciousness, and its superset of raw awarenesses & emergent intelligences, are intrinsic but that's almost trite. It's not in its entirety an illusion, otherwise it wouldn't accomplish anything. After all, the Gaia biosphere is intrinsic to the planet Earth, and it's not conscious.

Is one rhetorical apophatic after another helpful, what consciousness *isn't?* Or is the universe conscious by token of a subset? Panentheism then?

If there's a paradox, a bugaboo to religion and philosophy, it's the attempt to use the left brain to liberate the right.

Back to raw experience again.

Michael Dorfman said...

I'm glad my response helped crystalize a position for you, but I'm not sure it was actually my position.

I was using "reducible" in the philosophical sense-- I'm not making a value judgment about, I'm merely speaking about whether one thing can be completely explained solely by means of another thing.

I'm not saying matter is cold and lifeless, or that it can't explain consciousness-- I'm saying that it currently doesn't explain consciousness, and until we come up with some sufficient explanatory mechanism, we can't be certain that such an explanation will necessarily be reducible (there's that word again) to physics (as we currently understand it.)

And I'm not saying that the mind can't be a machine-- it may very well be. But at the moment, minds do things (like experience qualia, have emotions, volitions, and the appearance of some free will) that we don't even begin to know how to model with machines.

The Orpwood paper, I think, is exemplary. I don't know if you've ever done any computer programming, but the LISP language is based on the principle that the language itself and its data are interchangeable. Thus, it is very easy to model the type of system that Orpwood describes, where a program recognizes some data, and then recognizes its own representation of that data, and then recognizes the means by which it recognizes the representation, etc. And Orpwood to the contrary, there's no indication that recursing this process five times causes the machine to suddenly know what the smell of peppermint is like to us (if the requisite chemical data is offered in the first step.)

In all of the papers of this type that I have read, there's always a hidden "...and then a miracle occurs..." step. Penrose calls on Quantum Physics to solve the problem, others leave it unstated-- but there's still a major explanatory gap.

Now, as I said, I'm not arguing for anything supernatural; in fact, I think the idea is absurd. I am completely confident that whatever mechanism we ultimately discover to explain the arising of consciousness will follow natural laws. But I'm not certain that these laws will be limited to the laws of physics as we now know them (quantum or otherwise). Whether this means a different type of substance than matter, or a different property, or additional (possible quantum) laws, etc., is an open question, as I see it.

Speaking for myself, Substance monism, substance dualism, emergent dualism, property dualism, panpsychism, quantum consciousness, etc., all seem like possible metaphysical alternatives, and I don't see any reason to rule any of them out.

Functionalism, Identity Theory, Behaviorism, Epiphenomanalism, Cognitivism, and Higher Order Theory seem somewhat weaker, as they seem to me to avoid the problem of Qualia. They seem to rely on (or imply) a substance monism without offering an adequate ground for making that choice.

I'm aware of the German Romantic bias we see in a lot of places (and I've read my McMahan) but I don't think that's behind my argument here. If somebody fills in the "...and then a miracle occurs..." step, I'll be perfectly happy with a substance monism of whichever variety manages to fill in the blank. But until then, it seems to me to be premature to rule out the possibility of some sort of dualism (substance, property, emergent, what have you.)

Jayarava said...

Goodness Michael that's a very comprehensive reply :-)

Jayarava said...

I think the stand out feature of your reply, Michael, is your characterisation of what I wrote in terms of extensions of metaphors deriving from matter: a crystallised position.

While your own view is fluid and open to change, i.e. in keeping with metaphors deriving from spirit.

I must say I find this all very fascinating and spent the morning writing these ideas up at greater length.

Jayarava said...

See also You are not your brain and the followup article <a href="http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2013/04/12/the-astonishing-brain/>The astonishing brain</a> by Neurosceptic.

He/she deals with the dichotomy that images of the brain as a lump of inert matter cause. "The mind-body problem, for example, doesn’t arise; it was, I believe, all along really a rich-sparse problem."

Michael Dorfman said...

I'm enjoying this, I must say-- I've wanted to have this conversation with you for quite some time, and we've certainly had quite a few false starts along the way.

I supposed I'm so eager because of what Freudians call "the narcissism of small differences"-- unlike a lot of writers on the subject, who are either clearly wrong (in my opinion) and therefore uninteresting, or who seem right to me (and are therefore uninteresting), your views (as I understand them) and my own views are very close overall, yet seem to differ on a few key points.

I found the two Neuroskeptic links fascinating, and germane. Trying to reduce either "the mind" or "the brain" onto the other is fraught with difficulties; the rich-sparse problem is an interesting opening.

I look forward to reading your further thoughts.

Jayarava said...

Hi Michael

It's good to get a positive response to playfulness. I must say that I have not thought very seriously about these issues before and I am finding my feet as I go - and resisting reading standard opinions which seem bound up in philosophical traditions which I distrust. Lakoff makes sense to me for instance.

I have two more blogs exploring these themes ready and waiting! I look forward to your responses.

I agree that the most fruitful discussions are the ones based on a common framework with minor differences - I've intuited this before and never known there was a word for it :-)

Michael Dorfman said...

In terms of your "finding your feet", another book which may or may not be interesting to you is Dan Arnold's new book, Brains, Buddhas, and Believing: The Problem of Intentionality in Classical Buddhist and Cognitive-Scientific Philosophy of Mind.

I've only read the first chapter so far, but it looks excellent-- I am a big admirer of Arnold's work.

(Note that "intentionality" here is used in the phenomenological sense, not in the sense of "volition").

You can read a sample of Arnold's writing on the subject in this brief article.

Michael Dorfman said...

One more thing-- I see (from browsing) that the Siderits/Zahavi volume I mentioned above contains several discussions of Damasio and Metzinger.

thrig said...

"Consciousness is an accidental sides effect"

perhaps takes plurality too far?

Jayarava Attwood said...

too far indeed. Fixed. I appreciate good humoured proof reading :-)

Simon said...

Hi Jaya,
What a lovely neighbourhood you are developing here! I'm a bit late to the discussion but would like to chip in anyhow. I hope you think this is sensible/useful.

Further to "the narcissism of small differences": There are questions about language and metaphor, congruent with Lakoff's concerns I think, which, for me, seem central to talking about brains, consciousness, etc.

As an example, to Michael's early comment: Is it useful to talk about cells and brain structures as intentional entities themselves as in "it is easy to see how a set of cells can recognize the chemical fingerprint of this smell. We can also imagine feeding back the representation of this smell through the same cells, and recognizing the representation as such?" Can we really talk about "recognition" happening below the level of the organism as a whole without importing into these more-or-less atomic structures characteristics which are arguably more appropriately applied only to the level of the organism as a whole? See Bennett and Hacker The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This is not an ontological work; more a critique of implied ontological attributions as above.

After 40+ years wrestling with computing and now as a psychotherapist all corrupted by 40+ years of Buddhistic enquiry, I have a horror of the metaphor of the brain as a *digital* computer and see in these attribution echoes of that metaphor. John Hughlings Jackson conceived the nervous system as being a 3 level hierarchy in which stimuli were "represented, re-represented and re-re-represented". I'd only slightly humbly suggest that we change the metaphor to be more congruent with a nested series of *analog* computers in which stimuli (internal as well as external) are "transformed, re-transformed and re-re-transformed" in the organism's quest for whole system, dynamic equilibrium.

In this sort of language, peppermint in the air (good name for a song perhaps?) causes a directed cascade of re-entrant and ramifying reactions within the organism which may, at some point and some level of transformation, give rise to what we can call recognition; which (in humans) both causes and depends on naming, which in turn depends on reference to fellows' accounts of their perceptions. Naming of course most definitely is representation. That particular cascade (granting for argument's sake that it can be isolated) is dependent on structures and processes both innate to the organism and those having developed during previous cascades. (See Nicholas Humphrey's A History of the Mind. Quite old now but excellent in my view at building a picture of the structural and processual complexity necessarily underlying behaviour and/or consciousness).

And I suppose my big question: what sort of a term is "consciousness"? Should it be a strong exemplar of the metaphor of "thinginess" like, for example, "tree"? Or should it reflect that metaphor more vaguely as does, for example, "movement"? In my view, we never see "movement": we see things (limbs, organisms, trees, cars) moving. We attribute "movement" to the thing when we compare physical position before and after: these days we mostly manage to avoid confusing ourselves into asking how "movement" came to arise within the thing, except as Jaya has pointed out elsewhere, when that movement becomes life.

None of which is to say that "consciousness" is not a useful term (vis Lakoff) within models which (may) further some understandings. "Movement" certainly is itself a useful metaphor from physics to music to fine arts. The trick seems to me to apply the term where it is useful and to detect where it seems to obscure understanding.

Not a popular position, alas.

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