How the light gets out

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Consciousness is the ‘hard problem’, the mystery that confounds science and philosophy. Has a new theory cracked it?


Scientific talks can get a little dry, so I try to mix it up. I take out my giant hairy orangutan puppet, do some ventriloquism and quickly become entangled in an argument. I’ll be explaining my theory about how the brain — a biological machine — generates consciousness. Kevin, the orangutan, starts heckling me. ‘Yeah, well, I don’t have a brain. But I’m still conscious. What does that do to your theory?’

Kevin is the perfect introduction. Intellectually, nobody is fooled: we all know that there’s nothing inside. But everyone in the audience experiences an illusion of sentience emanating from his hairy head. The effect is automatic: being social animals, we project awareness onto the puppet. Indeed, part of the fun of ventriloquism isexperiencing the illusion while knowing, on an intellectual level, that it isn’t real.

Many thinkers have approached consciousness from a first-person vantage point, the kind of philosophical perspective according to which other people’s minds seem essentially unknowable. And yet, as Kevin shows, we spend a lot of mental energy attributing consciousness to other things. We can’t help it, and the fact that we can't help it ought to tell us something about what consciousness is and what it might be used for. If we evolved to recognise it in others – and to mistakenly attribute it to puppets, characters in stories, and cartoons on a screen — then, despite appearances, it really can’t be sealed up within the privacy of our own heads.

Lately, the problem of consciousness has begun to catch on in neuroscience. How does a brain generate consciousness? In the computer age, it is not hard to imagine how a computing machine might construct, store and spit out the information that ‘I am alive, I am a person, I have memories, the wind is cold, the grass is green,’ and so on. But how does a brain become aware of those propositions? The philosopher David Chalmers has claimed that the first question, how a brain computes information about itself and the surrounding world, is the ‘easy’ problem of consciousness. The second question, how a brain becomes aware of all that computed stuff, is the ‘hard’ problem.

Written By: Michael Graziano
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

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  1. In reply to #2 by Sample:

    When I read this article I thought of Quine and Steve Zara. I think they would have opposing views for this theory. If you both are reading, do chime in. :-j

    Mike, p-Zombie

    Hi Mike. Well, I am thinking it over. It is better than so many others I have read, although some parts may have to be reported to the p-Zombie Anti-defamation League. Always watch out when someone writes the word “just” in front of “molecules” or “mechanisms” or “automatons” or “animals” or even “fizzing.” Yes, Steve and I pumped quite a bit about all this into the old consciousness thread, and I would like to go through that at some point and revise the best parts for my blog.

    Some form of “attention” did become important for living beings when their control systems got advanced enough to take corrective actions. If some other organism is starting to gnaw off one of your legs, it probably goes with selection pressure if you do something about that before you lose a few more. I tend to look more into the relationship of physical layers of neural circuits to abstraction. If you have a brain that can control a body in interaction with an environment, then you can grow modules on top of that which ‘sees’ a environment in the patterns of action going on in that ‘lower’ brain. If you get that far, you can then grow modules on that for more abstraction in matching patterns that infer attention, or intent, in other organisms (theory of mind). If you keep growing neural systems to find patterns in ‘older’ systems, you could get up to representation of ideas, thoughts, and a feeling of ‘self’ on the way to symbolic formation and language, math, and synchronized swimming as an Olympic event (beloved of p-Zombies).

    I did like the rejection of the epiphenomenal trivialization. There may be a way to adjust the definition of “consciousness” to fit that “along for the ride” idea, but that is not what most of us are talking about, and yes, that we are talking about it (even if we are wrong) shows that it can cause our fingers to punch keys to put comments in these comment boxes.

    Anyway, thanks for thinking of me (used that theory of mind you have there, didn’t you).

    Qu Quine, fellow p-Zombie

    • In reply to #4 by Quine:

      Hi Quine,

      I had a look at some of the “old consciousness thread” in your link. Very interesting commentary, and supplements the Dennett books I have. But, how could you all keep track of a 2180 comment thread in your consciousness???
      I wish we had some of that depth and longevity nowadays, where 300 comments is a marathon.

      Mac…. 8-)

        • In reply to #8 by Quine:

          Yes, those were the days. The old Lying for Jesus thread went over 9000 comments. From time to time I go back into the archives to find writing subjects to revise and update.

          Back when 24 marathon sittings were regular occurrences…go for a cup of tea and when ya came back there was some catching up to do. Of course I was just a lurker back then, should’ve stayed one too I guess….looking back at the names of some of those big guns that commented puts a tear in my eye, happy days. Enough reminiscing, no point pondering too much in the past. Onward and upward I say.

      • In reply to #7 by CdnMacAtheist:

        In reply to #4 by Quine:

        Hi Quine,

        I had a look at some of the “old consciousness thread” in your link. Very interesting commentary, and supplements the Dennett books I have. But, how could you all keep track of a 2180 comment thread in your consciousness???
        I wish we had some of that depth and…

        The “old” system had a lot of utility for tracking conversations: thread subscription and go to first unread functions. This new crap is going the way of Facebook. Its like a “live” conversation and doesn’t care to help you track your discussions. That’s why I rarely come here any more. Too hard to engage.

        • In reply to #13 by DanDare:

          In reply to #7 by CdnMacAtheist:

          Hi Dan,

          I started lurking here in early 2010, and went through all the changes that have greatly reduced the usability and membership of RDF.

          It’s sad that so many very experienced and competent Members are gone, or reduced to the occasional pass-by.

          I REALLY miss the ‘first unread comment’ function, and the ‘comment subscription’ is somewhat replaced by the ‘e-mail notification’. I never used the old comment subscription – did that function within the RDF site, which would prevent all the e-mail notification clutter that annoys me when I’m in my e-mail?

          Hoping to see you again…. Mac.

          • In reply to #19 by CdnMacAtheist:

            In reply to #13 by DanDare:

            In reply to #7 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi Dan,

            I started lurking here in early 2010, and went through all the changes that have greatly reduced the usability and membership of RDF.

            It’s sad that so many very experienced and competent Members are gone, or reduced to the occa…

            I was on the old site for a little while. It was as you say much better than this. Along with the things you mentioned is the activity that used to be shown on one’s page. Now, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of what’s where. I also notice that some of the religious folks–I remember them as being polite–are not here as a counterbalance.

            I wonder why they decided to downgrade the site.

          • In reply to #20 by DonaldMiller:

            In reply to #19 by CdnMacAtheist:
            In reply to #13 by DanDare:
            In reply to #7 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi Dan,

            I started lurking here in early 2010, and went through all the changes that have greatly reduced the usability and membership of RDF.

            I wonder why they decided to downgrade the site.

            The primary computer code developer of the old site left, and I suspect the code was not maintainable, so they had to redevelop it. Features have gradually been added back. Which do you miss in particular? There seemed to be a lot of stuff happening at one point with dozens of threads at once, not just articles with comments, but I never really got into that.

            I think the site has simply got less popular with time, possibly because Richard is in the media spotlight less. Maybe the old participants have less time than they did, e.g. because they graduated. Perhaps we should have some planning threads of some kind; compiling best-of lists, considering good topics of the past and what might make good discussion points for the future. There seems to be a team of volunteers, but from what I’ve seen apart from official-type (mostly– I think Mike comments now and then) pronouncements, they keep out of public discussions here.

            Oh, and achromatX (sp? for some X). I think he is or was working for RDFRS. Perhaps there are others and I just don’t know about them working for RDFRS.

          • In reply to #22 by PERSON:

            In reply to #20 by DonaldMiller:

            In reply to #19 by CdnMacAtheist:
            In reply to #13 by DanDare:
            In reply to #7 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi Dan,

            I started lurking here in early 2010, and went through all the changes that have greatly reduced the usability and membership of RDF.

            I wonder why they dec…

            “Which do you miss in particular? “

            Something that came in real handy was having the comments I made show up on my page, where it was easy to locate a specific one.

            One item they didn’t have that I think would be a good idea is to have people be able to place links to their weblogs on their pages, for as you said, sometimes the discussion begins veering away from the main topic. In my way of thinking, the ability to chat like that offers people a chance to form stronger, hopefully, longer lasting bonds, what with them knowing each other better — interests, perspectives, so forth.

            I’ll try to tighten up my writing more. But anytime someone has asked for additional information, I’ve given it to them–if it was along the lines of YouTube videos and the like.

            This could be a good opportunity for me to develop better skills at writing better constructed essays and statments. No complaints about that.

  2. This article reminds me of a night out in Benidorm club, for my 50th birthday and with a large company of friends and family, where the main attraction was a ventriloquist comedian called Ricky Stevens and his cloth monkey. A female member of our group sincerely commented, after the act had finished, that the comedian was okay, but his wee monkey was far funnier.

    I pished myself laughing, she couldn’t understand why.

  3. In reply to #2 by Sample:

    When I read this article I thought of Quine and Steve Zara. I think they would have opposing views for this theory. If you both are reading, do chime in. :-j

    Mike, p-Zombie

    Indeed….as Quine often says, “the map is not the territory”, good old days, sorely missed.

  4. In reply to #10 by DonaldMiller:

    Anyone have any thoughts about John Searle’s Chinese Box idea.

    Yes, discussed at length on the old consciousness thread. Basically, Searle got a lot of career mileage out of a thought experiment that has nothing in it. Because the person in his room is following an algorithm that is completely specified by the instruction cards, he can be replaced by a machine that does the same thing. Then you have a room with a machine following the instructions on the cards, which is the same as a computer programmed with the information on the cards, which is just an AI and adds nothing to the assumption, at the start, that the cards can answer the questions. That the language is Chinese is irrelevant, and the whole thought experiment gives no weight one way or the other.

  5. Yes, but why does awareness have to hurt so much?

    This idea that consciousness has no leverage in the world, that it’s just a rationalisation to make us feel better about ourselves, is terribly bleak. It runs against most people’s intuitions.

    Well that’s just tough. People need to get over their intuitions, especially when they’re wrong.

    Some people might confuse the attention schema theory with that nihilistic view.

    No, what bothers me is what seems to me to be denial of the subjectivity of consciousness and thereby the very reason we value it in the first place.

  6. There is no arrow B. The mind, consciousness, arise from the physical workings of your brain.When we think about our minds we do it with the same hardware that made our mind in the first place. The mind is an idea, a model, not a real thing. It cannot directly affect the physical brain. Your physical brain creates a mind because it is a useful model to help interface with the rest of the world. Experience can change your physical brain, but it is the working of the physical brain that updates the brain, ie learning, not some feedback loop from the abstract model of the mind.

    • In reply to #15 by canadian_right:

      There is no arrow B. The mind, consciousness, arise from the physical workings of your brain.When we think about our minds we do it with the same hardware that made our mind in the first place. The mind is an idea, a model, not a real thing. It cannot directly affect the physical brain. Your physica…

      It sounds like you’re confusing conscious experience with ‘consciousness’. When we say that we have ‘consciousness’, we mean that we have a conscious self. The conscious self emerges from the complex interactions of conscious experiences and long term memory. The conscious self gives context and meaning to our conscious experiences and allows us to create our own internal conscious experiences by thinking about past and possible future experiences. It is the memory of these internal conscious experiences that allows our conscious selves to influence our future actions.

  7. In reply to #12 by DonaldMiller:

    Certainly that it’s Chinese is irrelevant, but I think the point is that it’s a language that the person in the room has no idea what the meaning of the words are–that that’s the primary point.

    But that is also irrelevant. The person in the room could be simply passing notes, that he or she does not understand, through a slot in another door and then getting back notes to further pass back. It would not matter what is behind that interior door. Searle constructed the room to talk about mechanical processing of language to philosophy folks before computers were common in the population and computer algorithms were part of typical study. If you think about it, you will see that the person in the original room makes no difference, and that assuming the algorithm in the cards can do what it does, closes the experiment before it even gets started.

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  9. “Suppose that consciousness is a non-physical feeling, an aura, an inner essence that arises somehow from a brain or from a special circuit in the brain. The ‘emergent consciousness’ theory is the most common assumption in the literature.”

    I suppose there is conflation of essentialism with emergence, but surely used correctly it refers to supervenience? The above seems a little distorted.

  10. In reply to #21 by Moderator:

    Moderators’ message

    Please keep comments on the topic of the OP, as required by our Terms and Conditions. If you hunt around, there are various threads relating to this website itself, where feedback about functionality and ease-of-use of the site will be both on topic and welcome.

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    In reply to #26 by PERSON:

    In reply to #21 by Moderator:

    Moderators’ message

    Please keep comments on the topic of the OP, as required by our Terms and Conditions. If you hunt around, there are various threads relating to this website itself, where feedback about functionality and ease-of-use of the site will be both on topi…

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