Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mind in a breeze, a stone, a sun

So my girlfriend Kate and I got in an hours-long argument about the nature of consciousness (sympathy donations can be made in her name).

I was arguing that consciousness is a mystery, because the most convincing explanation--that it is simply a natural phenomenon that emerges from the brain's complexity--is not satisfactory. If the brain's complexity is all you need to create consciousness, I was arguing, couldn't we create a machine that thinks? And why wouldn't a slower version of the brain--say, a trillion conveyor belts that exchange pieces of paper exactly as brain cells exchange neurochemicals and firing signals, but do it at one billionth the speed--be conscious as well?

If the same sequence of chemical reactions happening in one millisecond my brain were recreated in a machine, with the same exact chemicals, would there be a flicker of consciousness? And if the properties of physics make matter itself a universal computer at the tiniest level, as Stephen Wolfram and others say, then what reason could there possibly be that my brain produces awareness, but a bucket of paint does not?

These questions are endlessly fascinating to me. They are not endlessly fascinating to my girlfriend.

Typical exchange:

Ben: What if you slowly replaced my brain cells, one by one, with larger, functionally equivalent objects that traded gumballs with each other, but interacted chemically with the remaining brain cells? At any moment in the conversion process, the remaining brain cells would have no way of knowing the difference. Nothing would work differently, but it's hard to imagine I'd still be conscious when I became a gumball factory!

Kate: You don't really know what you're talking about. How can you, when it's impossible for scientists to track all the behaviors of a single cell, let alone construct a cell from scratch? Anyway, gumballs just can't talk or think.

My instinct here, which is probably wrong, is to reduce our difference to gender. Why do I do that? Well, when I think back, the only people I've ever had exciting conversations about stuff like this with have been men (white men, in fact). Is there a gener divide with abstract philosophy? Are men, especially intellectual-class white men, more likely to be interested in philosophy, and more likely to think they know enough to be amateur philosophers, than women? Or is it self-selecting, because I already think of men as people I discuss abstract ideas with, and women as people I discuss concrete ideas with, fall in love with, etc.? (I don't see the same pattern with sexuality--many of the guys whom I have talked about this kind of thing with have been gay or bisexual.)

Getting back to the question of consciousness, am I right or is Kate right? That is, is it remarkable that in addition to just performing complicated tasks, we find ourselves actually experiencing existence? Or is it a mistake to think this experience can even be described separately from its underlying physical processes? Should it even be surprising? I do feel the pull of the explanation (by Kate, Daniel Dennett and others) that awareness is just a meaningless illusion. After all, you could ask a robot if it was conscious, and if it said yes you could never know if this was true or not; for that matter, you can never know if anyone but you experiences awareness either. In a way, we make the anthropomorphic error every time we assume that another person, or animal, is a thinking being. Couldn't we just be making the anthropomorphic error regarding ourselves, all the time? That's Dennett's take on it, more or less.

Here's Dennett in the NY Times magazine (interviewed by an idiot):

Q. I take it you do not subscribe to the idea of an everlasting soul, which is part of almost every religion.

A. Ugh. I certainly don't believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.

Q. That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.

Of course, Dennett is correct, just as he was in Consciousness Explained (where his thesis was that the process of thinking evolved from talking to ourselves), but there's something he's avoiding with his certainty. He might accurately be describing consciousness, awareness, and the nature of the soul, but that just doesn't explain why awareness exists, when it seems it could just as easily not.

The only terms I can find for describing my objection to Dennett sound religious. All I know is that I do feel, and I am. It could all be an illusion, but just as a Christian knows God exists, I know that my awareness exists. It is not merely that there are chemical and electrical transactions that carry my thoughts; it is as though there is an additional step, that turns that activity, rather than any other similar activity somewhere else, into my awareness.

But if I have no justification for the existence of such a special step from activity to awareness, couldn't that mean that a rock, or at least a star, has experience as well? That's the conclusion of computer scientist, mathematician and novelist Rudy Rucker, who (besides also believing in the Wolfram idea of the universe as computer) ascribes to panpsychism:

Yes, the workings of a human brain are a deterministic computation that could be emulated by any universal computer. And, yes, I sense more to my mental phenomena than the rule-bound exfoliation of reactions to inputs: this residue is the inner light, the raw sensation of existence. But, no, that inner glow is not the exclusive birthright of humans, nor is it solely limited to biological organisms.
So if inorganic matter has potential for a phenomenon related to awareness, how does that work? Maybe awareness clicks on only in the right combination of complex circumstances: a whale, and a monkey, and a mouse, have it, but a worm doesn't. Or maybe awareness isn't an all-or-nothing thing; maybe a human has more than a whale, which has more than a fish, which has more than a worm, which has more than a tree, which has more than air, which has more than empty space. Maybe awareness exists to greater and lesser degrees in all of the infinite relationships between all things, reaching human levels when those relationships are massively clustered and networked, but remaining at a whisper between all things.

This is the argument of the emergentist view of consciousness, which is popular among theoreticians associated with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, including my father and Steven "bad boy" Johnson. This is an exciting belief because if it is correct, human awareness is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of higher consciousness. There are people who try to achieve such a higher consciousness, a sort of secular, scientifically-based nirvana, through meditation and other methods, like deep interpersonal intimacy. Some say they have succeeded in expanding their consciousness, usually for brief amounts of time.

Whatever the nature of awareness, it seems like there must be ways to augment it, or to fuse awareness between two people through advanced technology. For an excellent treatment of these themes, see Joe Haldeman's sci-fi novel Forever Peace, in which the US military develops such technology so that troops can act in perfect coordination, but the technology is hijacked and used for all sorts of other purposes. It contains an incredible sci-fi sex scene (Joe Haldeman is the best writer of sci-fi sex I know), between two people with fused consciousness.

A last thought: since black holes bring together matter in an infinitely dense arrangement, could they possess a god-like level of awareness?

Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Feb 07, 03:27:00 PM:
if you found out that a rock had the same awareness that you do, what would it mean or how would that matter?
what would that information do to you?
and in the near future, if you don't have something pressing to blog about, can you elaborate on the theme of paragraph six ("my instinct to reduce our difference to gender")?
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 07, 07:36:00 PM:
For one thing, if I learned that awareness really does pervade all things, I would probably start meditating a lot more. And I think it would make my socially-oriented thinking shift... if all things are aware, who cares what we're having for dinner tonight?

About my instinct to reduce my difference with Kate to gender--what I mean is that women I know don't seem to me to be as interested as men in talking about consciousness, coming up with theories, mouthing off about the nature of reality, etc. I don't think that's an issue of innate ability or anything--I think it's the result of cultural differentiation.

Take, for example, the types of novels that people I know are working on. The guys are all writing: 1) magic realism that deals with symbols and philosophical questions; 2) realism/naturalism that makes points about politics, culture, etc.; 3) potboilers, action, sci-fi, etc.

Women I know are writing: 1) romantic comedies; 2) stories about families etc., without so many gimmicks.

When I bring up philosophy around MOST guys I know, they have something they want to say. When I bring up philosophy around MOST women I know, they aren't interested. In our culture, I think there an encouragement of men to be authorities, to conquer the opposition, to speak confidently even if they are only winging their argument. There is a discouragement of women to do all these things.

Also, men are more encouraged to focus on abstract and self-centered goals--wealth, renown, power--than women. Women are more encouraged than men to focus on being personally attentive, socially diplomatic, realistic. Of course, the dichotomy isn't absolute, and there's tons of women who are more abstract than men, and tons of men who are more concrete than women. But there's a cultural trend there, and I think I notice the difference in response when I bubble over about things.
Anonymous sue wheeler on Sun Mar 12, 01:02:00 AM:
Ben: a couple of points. First, on whether everything has a consciousness (which of course gets right back to how we define consciousness): I have come, through living close to nature for 34 years, to believe that almost everything in the natural world has some sort of consciousness. My way of thinking is along the lines of "how could it not? How could we be so presumptuous (again) as to set ourselves up as THAT special, that separate and distinctive?" I just do not believe we are. This is my experience, here with the moon and the tides and the plants and the worms and everything else. Rocks, too. They got here first.

Have you read David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous? Marvelous, thought-provoking book, deals with (among other things) the disruption of our sense-based link with the world. I have had some pretty intense hearing-the-music-of-the-spheres experiences as a result of ideas in this book.

I do not think, however, contrary to your dad and Esalen and what I understand emergentism to be about, that this needs to mean there is some higher consciousness. Just that there is consciousness everywhere, and occasionally we can be aware of some of it.

As for the gender business you mention: I think you are onto something in your reply to Anon, when you say that men are culturally encouraged to spend more time on abstractions, and to be more willing to mouth off in public about them.
Anonymous sue wheeler on Sun Mar 12, 01:17:00 AM:
...and just minutes later I find, as so often happens with cyberspace communications, that I may have misspoken myself a bit. "mouth off" in the above entry sounds rude, and I apologize. The sort of flippant comment that could work in face-to-face, but not so well here. Expound? Hold forth? Conversationally explore?
Anonymous June on Thu Mar 22, 04:54:00 PM:
There are probably a greater number of men then women who think in terms of abstractions. That said, I see frequently see guys getting in the same sort of philosophical arguments you and your girlfriend got into--where one is talking about the theory of building such a thing and the other is talking about the real-world possibility of building such a thing--and they worked it out until they saw each other's points. If you just conclude it's a gender difference that you have next to no chance of getting around it, you'll never get that far. You'll stop talking about it. So, I generally say bah to the gender differences issue... it's a problem that perpetuates itself.

Some of it also just comes down to how men and women interact. I can have deep philosophical discussions with some men, but not others. There are many reasons for this:

- Some men speak over me or don't take me seriously in the same way they take other men seriously. I've taken part in discussions where I'll make a comment, it gets ignored, a man in the discussion makes the same comment and everyone listens and adds to it. These discussions are just frustrating and I usually drop out of speaking in them. Though they are fun to listen to. Not saying this has anything to do with what's going on between you and your girlfriend, but it might have something to do with why those sorts of discussions are frustrating to her.

- Confrontation in argument. I don't like arguments that are too heated and confrontational. My threshold for this is lower than most men's. He may feel like we're just getting to the real meat of the discussion while I feel like it's time to cool down.

- Other reasons that I can't think of at the moment.

I think you can reduce down consciousness to physical processes and architecture. I don't know if you could be made into a theoretical gum ball factory, though. We don't know enough about the brain to build this theoretical thing, and the complexity of the brain is such that the gum ball factory required to make it could very easily be larger than our solar system (heck, larger than the galaxy for all I know). Add to this the fact that we are probably monstrously dependent upon input to form our schema... it probably isn't enough to just build the machine, you also need to give it sensory data. Also, the gumball machine needs to be able to change itself and learn. I don't know how to build a gum ball machine that would do all this, but that doesn't mean it can't be built theoretically. If it can't be build, it doesn't disprove that consciousness arises entirely from physical processes. It might just be that gum balls don't have the correct properties for accomplishing the goal (although, I'd imagine you could use them anyway, it would just be incredibly impractical).

Consciousness is a mystery--but the best explanation I can find is that it arises from physical processes. The reason that awareness exists, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's probably been useful for survival (of species, at any rate). We are self-replicating machines and the brain has been in development for billions of years so far. It's maddening to think about, especially when your awareness is screaming at you that it exists and that it is independent. Nonetheless, brain damage etc all are very suggestive that our conscious state is determined by our physical state. On the other hand, there's a level at which consciousness can be used to change the molecular workings of the brain and body. I'd call it an operating system, but the mind is much more complicated than any computer we're capable of building, so it seems like an insult.

I don't know about your black hole thought. The brain requires more than density to make it what it is. I don't see any reason to think that a black hole would be a spot of God-like consciousness, but I will agree that if we so desired we could stick lots of neurons in there. :)
Blogger Ben on Mon May 14, 07:51:00 PM:
Let me focus in on what I think is the crux of the question. If we assume that there is no supernatural soul, and that life is a purely physical process, then I see two categories of explanation for what consciousness is: the Daniel Dennett / Stephen Johnson "emergent complexity" school of thought, and the physical spiritualist school, which holds that consciousness is something special that arises from the unique subatomic physics of our universe, perhaps because of quantum uncertainty (e.g., free will might involve forcing states to collapse one way or another) or because enough brownian motion of electric signals in such a small space creates some conscious energy field.

The emergent complexity explanation seems the most popular, perhaps because it's simplest, involves the least amount of hokum and wishful thinking, and seems to square best with evolution, which reminds us that humans aren't so special and that we have lots of relatives capable of thought, albeit not to the point that we are. (If you're unconvinced of this, read Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics.) But it means that there is nothing extra about being alive and feeling, beyond the simple chemical signals being sent between cells.

The abstract question that interests me here is this: if our best guess is true, and experience really does arise out of the right of combination simple signals, wouldn't that transform our understanding of how the universe works, on the same scale as the paradigm shifts of relativity and quantum mechanics?
Think of it: awareness, feeling, sensation exist not because we are unique, but because in this universe, if you put together enough things that play back and forth in the right way, their very relatedness *is* sensation.

I agree that *thinking* serves an evolutionary function that suns and black holes don't benefit from, so it is unlikely that they think. But consciousness is made of both thinking and sensation; while task handling ability suggests that a monkey thinks less than we do, and a mouse even less, and a newt even more less, and an earthworm still less, we have little reason to think that they are devoid of sensation and awareness. After all, we don't need to think in order to feel pain, and we recoil from it much the same way these other creatures do.

In other words, there is no mystery to awareness; this is merely what it feels like to be a bunch of neurons. Fine, but then it feels like something to be the same brain minus one neuron, and to be a brain organized a bit more simply, and to be a cow, and to be a mouse, and to be an earthworm, and to be a tree. After all, if thinking is just the organized processing of signals with meaning to their patterns, then getting cut feels painful because that's what it means to have a defensive physical response, and having an orgasm feels great because that's what it means to have a physical inclination to mate; evolution made us aware not as an extra bonus, but because that's what comes from the territory if you are to flee and mate.

Following this, shouldn't the patterns a tree sends--calls for more water from the roots, or signals to accelerate flowering, or (this is real) distress hormones sent to warn nearby trees of danger--feel, in turn, thirsty, eager, and afraid? Shouldn't an amoeba feel hungry, when its chemistry starts to change due to deprivation? Shouldn't a molecule of DNA feel satisfaction when RNA assembles to bond with its free electrons?