Friday, April 21, 2017

I vote 'No' on referendums

A friend asked my me my opinion of referendums. I'm generally opposed to direct referendum voting. 

Now, all of this is provisional. It matters the health of the legislative and executive systems we're comparing it to. It matters the threshold.

(I'm using the plural referendums because sometimes even I need to give the smug erudition a freaking rest.)

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Problem one: disconnect between the values/intentions of voters and the outcome of referendums

Sometimes the issue is clear and the politics make sense, eg Massachusetts recently voting to legalize pot (which I support), or various states voting to block gay marriage (the blocking of which I oppose). But much of the time the tradeoffs at play are obscure, the wording doesn't fairly reflect the core questions, and people don't really understand what they're voting on, or how it got here. if one group is doing an end run around a legislative compromise, for example, or trying to get their shoddy hospital funded before a more carefully planned one can be approved.

Part of this problem: not much incentive for deliberation. the typical voter doesn't have much of a reason to study up on the various referendums. At least a legislator is much more likely to cast a crucial vote, whether from the perspective of the odds of the bill passing, or the focus which their vote will receive.

The classic example of problem one is the observation that referendums that propose new government spending generally pass, but referendums that cut taxes also generally pass. (As far as I know, states must all balance their budgets each year, so these are even more contradictory then they are on the federal level.) The same referendums, worded to explicitly reflect the full impact of these proposals, would likely not pass.

Compare this to the federal budgeting system, where (IIRC!) even though Republicans have enjoyed a two House Majority and the presidency for two different periods in the last 20 years, they have passed relatively few unfunded tax cuts. It's just a bit less willy nilly with legislators.

Problem two: the values/intentions of voters being wrong

The first aspect of this is status quo bias. Our federal and state systems have a heavy status quo bias, in that there are lots of ways for legislation to fail and only one or two ways for it to pass and become law. Thus our legislative systems have the value built in that "I'm not sure" becomes "let's not change it". This bias is not without its problems, but I think it's generally a good thing, and the country's founders certainly agreed (though they were wrong on plenty of stuff).

The yes or no format of referendum questions demolishes this. The two options don't seem significantly different in prudence, and if anything, I think psychologically many people have a preference for saying yes if we can't think of a reason to say no. With the current system, why not just keep throwing a referendum like Brexit or  against the wall until it sticks? It only needs to pass once!

Voters should be asking themselves, "Am I SURE that it is a good idea to..." before reading referendum questions, but they generally don't. They're wrong not to.

The counterargument is that often populations seem to be ready for a social change before their legislators are. The public turned against the Vietnam War long before Congress did, for example, and the Massachusetts legislature is only begrudgingly cooperating with the instructions of the marijuana legalization referendum. But I think most of the time, a legislature will slowly come around, and it's very much worthwhile having that slowness for other purposes.

Then there is the fact that most people just generally aren't that smart or knowledgeable about most things, and aren't good at even assessing or acknowledging their own ignorance. Of course, neither are legislators. But at least legislators have had to jump through some hoops of competence and organization to get where they are, and spend part of their days discussing the meaning and impact of legislation. And at least legislators must face budget and procedural constraints that require them to justify their proposals to some degree in a broader context, rather than skipping this context entirely, as referendums do.

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I think referendums would be workable with a higher threshold for passing, like 60% of eligible voters ... I'm sympathetic to the need for an end run around pervasively corrupt governments, I just think, for the reasons above, that 50% of those who happen to vote that day is a ridiculous threshold for a permanent change to the law.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Consciousness confused

I recently wrote to a friend, criticizing Daniel Dennett. The friend wrote back:

[I see] “the hard problem” of consciousness as pointless word games. “Sure, you have all these components of mentation, but where is THE THING that is consciousness? That must be magic!” – sounds to me like “Sure, you have these pistons and sparks and a combustion chamber, but where is the THING that makes the engine turn!?” Just because your mind can’t transition from your model of the parts to a simple model of the emergent aggregate doesn’t mean you have to introduce extra magical entities.

Whereas Dennett almost single-handedly changed the field, and has been one of the most clear and lucid thinkers on the topic I’ve ever read. His view is getting commonplace, but was revolutionary when he introduced it. It helped me form my own ideas on computation and consciousness. Anyway, I love him, and feel like I have to come to his defense!

I think that's a pretty good quick description of Dennett's take. I do think, though, that it's significant that he so often turns the conversation towards the question of linear thinking (the thesis of his book Consciousness Explained, IIRC, is that consciousness arose from people talking to themselves) and away from what I think is the much thornier question of awareness and experience itself.

Here's why I think the question is still interesting. if we built a large replica of my brain, with little marbles to represent the various hormones and synaptic chemicals, we could in theory perfectly replicate all of the things that happen in my brain as I laugh while looking into my daughter's eyes. If we did this, according to Dennett's argument, there would be no meaningful difference between the experience of all those marbles being shuffled around in the experience I believe I am feeling when I actually share this laugh with my daughter.

Of course, from the outside, the two are indistinguishable. you can ask the marbles, using some text interface, to describe the feeling of laughter. And you can ask me. if the replica is good enough, the answers should be the same. Dennett is right to wonder why on earth you should trust me in my claim that I'm experiencing an ineffable subjective reality, and dismiss the marbles' identical claim. And that's certainly a rhetorically compelling question!

But turn it around: if awareness is only an illusion that results from emergent complexity, are we really ready to say that to whatever extent it feels like something to be me, it will feel just as much like something to be the system of marbles?

I think Dennett's preference in talking about the most human forms of awareness, such as the ability to think through questions in an almost linguistic way, is partially a reflection of how much less challenging that aspect of consciousness is to explain, given awareness itself. This is a line that I have seen Dennett fudge time and time again. I'm not sure what Dennett thinks it's like to be a mouse, but I would guess that a mouse experiences distress and panic in a way I would recognize, without needing to be able to talk itself out of a bad habit; just as I have at times been able to experience and react to pain even while heavily sedated and unable to form reflective thoughts. It's really the mouse's awareness that's the bigger mystery than human reflective thinking, we just don't have many talking mice to interrogate. (And how I'd love to quiz a bacterium!)

and yet, we are close to being able to produce a robot mouse able to perform the sort of pattern recognition and reflex reactions of an animal mouse. It seems that if awareness is a mere byproduct, animals could have evolved without it. why must it feel like hunger to be flooded with hormones that instruct me to seek food? I don't think it feels uncomfortable for air to be compressed in a tank, or that it feels explosive for the complex chemical eddies within a star to swirl their way with maximal efficiency to the surface.

It might not be fair of me to demand that Dennett answer to all of my different scenarios. but he is declaring, in a way, that no boundary exists that distinguishes human experience from any old complex information processing physical system. that's an affirmative description of the world that implicitly posits a huge range of whispers of experience, and to not address these is to not fully back up that affirmative description.

Whereas the "hard problem of consciousness" camp (which I think I'm in) is not putting forth an affirmative description, but merely articulating a sense of confusion and contradiction.

To make a dangerous analogy, I think it's a bit like the Shakespeare authorship question... the traditionalists/Stratfordians like to think of themselves as realists and describe the skeptics as fantasists who are affirmatively constructing ridiculous theories. But I think our default view should be that we are almost entirely ignorant of the creative processes of people who lived 400+ years ago and left little documentation. "Absolutely no one else collaborated significantly on any of the plays or any of the poems attributed to William Shakespeare!" is not a prudent view, it is an almost religious one; and when you dig into the scholarship that claims most intimate knowledge of the creative process behind Shakespeare's writings, you start to see very circular references that create statements like "Shakespeare wanted to explore theme X" out of whole cloth.

What separates me from Shakespeare authorship traditionalists is that they think this discussion is sickeningly indulgent and tired, while I find it fascinating and unsettling. Perhaps I'm a Shakespeare authorship skeptic because I'm infatuated with an illusion -- that's what traditionalists seem to often think. But I don't think they've given me answers that would justify their certainty.

I'm capable of having entire conversations while in what seems to have been an unconscious or semiconscious state. (I joked around with my surgeon, then told him the exact same joke when I gained full consciousness 10 minutes later.) I'm capable of feeling things when I'm having no thoughts at all (which happened when I was knocked out with sedative gas and then given a shot in my hand.). Why do I have awareness sometimes but not others? couldn't I perform many of my functions as a human without consciousness? What do I have in my brain's complexity that a replica wouldn't? what's it like to be a marble-based simulation of Ben's brain? what is it like to be a mouse or a gnat or a worm or a bacterium?

What separates me from Dennett most is that he finds these questions boring, while I find them unsettling, complex, mysterious and fascinating. Perhaps that's because I am immaturely infatuated with my own illusion. But I don't feel that he has given me answers that would justify his certainty.

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Blogger Shawn on Sun Apr 23, 04:11:00 PM:
Hi Ben. Fun stuff.

I for one am really ready to say that your reported experience would be indistinguishable from your marbles-replica's. The examples you give of experience divorced from awareness are less illustrative than they might appear at a glance. If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No? And how are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

And I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. (I'll speak here for myself, since I am not conversant in the Dennett camp's arguments.) The type of certainty you are objecting to is something more like: "In the absence of evidence for something ineffable/magical above and beyond what may be explained by the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, we are not justified in believing the ineffable/magical thing is real/extant." One need not be 100% certain to find materialists' formulation compelling. The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?
Blogger Ben on Mon Apr 24, 02:19:00 AM:
Thanks for the close read and thoughtful response!

If you show signs of consciousness by joking with your surgeon, but do not later recall doing so, that sounds more like a failure of memory than it does a lack of consciousness at the time of your joking. No?

Good point. It's certainly hard for me to reconstruct what my mind might have been operating like at the time. The reason I have the hunch that I was not conscious (or not veryconscious) is that that is what general anaesthesia does, generally, and I think the idea that I was communicating complex ideas while without much consciousness squares with what I've also experienced other times I've been on some sort of mental autopilot -- while very drunk, say, or while cooking, where I might find that I've gone very far down the road of some cooking process that doesn't match my intentions, because I'm entirely thinking about something else. A more pure example of this is complex sleepwalking. are you so certain you are capable of feeling things in the absence of any level/degree of awareness? Aren't you again/always relying on memory, a stored personal narrative of experiencing pain? Isn't that narrative recorded in or at least retrieved/relived via language?

I don't mean to suggest I can "feel" things without awareness, just that I can do so without the sort of pseudo-verbal consciousness that Dennett centers on. First person solitary experiences don't make for very compelling evidence in a debate, so all I can say is that I think I understand deeply with the difference is between experiences I have recapitulated linguistically so that they are now primarily a verbal reconstruction, vs. experiences that were immediately seared into me in a nonnarrative form, whose place in my mind I have kept intact and been careful not to recolor. There are physical experiences that do not seem to me to originate in my consciousness; they enter my awareness by piercing it, and my consciousness must be roused to process and respond to them.

I can see why you are more comfortable flipping things around and asserting that Dennett and materialists are making an affirmative claim. But that is just sleight of hand. ... The burden of proof is on you if want to demonstrate the issue is thornier than materialists let on, since you are claiming that the ineffable/magical thing *does* in reality exist. Right?

I almost agree, but I do think there is an epistemological gap between their assertions and mine. I'm certainly not assertively claiming that something magical exists; and I think "ineffable" only applies until you understand a phenomenon. I, too, am a materialist by default.

My difference with the Dennett camp is that I think the evidence available to us is incredibly confusing. I'm open to the possibility that the confusion is entirely the result of illusions, and that there is nothing more to understand that the heart of the question of consciousness than what we already do understand. But I'm also open the possibility that there are aspects of the scienctific phenomenon of consciousness that make being a whale different from being a simulation of a whale.

I admit that it's going out on a thin rhetorical limb to assert the possibility of this with so little idea of what it could be! I guess I have to face up to have similar this is to the very weak defenses of religion put forth by some scientists, that go something like "I have no idea how a scientific explanation of God might work, but I think there might be one someday, because I sense the existence of God in a way that doesn't feel like an illusion".
Blogger Shawn on Tue May 09, 02:15:00 PM:
Thanks for humoring me! And please excuse my laggy response.

First, I understand you are still using the Ben and Alice blog to basically think out loud, so I am not too hung up on rhetorical strengths/weaknesses. I'm trying to engage with the logical content you are kicking around. And it is fun to engage with, so thanks for sharing.

Second, I made at least two untested inferences that may have been mistaken. A) I assumed the hypothetical "marble replica" of your brain would extend to either the entire nervous system or at least include analogues for all the nerve/sensory inputs to your brain. I wonder if that more complex model reduces any of the confusion here. Perhaps not... And B) I thought you were making the very strong argument that no materialist theory of consciousness could capture all the nuances you describe (e.g., genuine "whaleness" as distinct from a whale simulation); but I believe now that you are making the somewhat more limited argument that these confusing bits of experiential information are not captured by the Dennett theory/model. Is that right? If so, you have tentatively persuaded me there is some room for daylight between our experiences of consciousness and current materialist models of consciousness (specifically Dennett's notion of an emergent pseudo-verbal consciousness). And you have certainly persuaded me to catch up on Dennett's writings. Do you have a recommendation for where to start re his theory of consciousness?
Blogger Ben on Tue May 09, 04:54:00 PM:
I think you've summarized my position well. I am a materialist, though I'm open to the possibility that there are aspects of physics, computation or complexity that are part of what's going on in the phenomenon of consciousness, but which we don't yet understand. That is, I'm not the sort of materialist who thinks that materialism means any apparently faithful simulation of a mind will have the same characteristics as an actual animal mind.

Thanks for asking me to get specific about Dennett's work, because it forces me to admit my ignorance of the great majority of what he's written! I'm basically going on the strength of having read Consciousness Explained over a decade ago (though it made me so vividly frustrated, it seems more recent!), having listened to a polite debate with Sam Harris ( ), and having read the New Yorker profile of him. My sense from this limited exposure is that he dodges the full complexity of the most sticky questions by instead answering different, more satisfying ones.

In short, I appreciate Dennett's mocking the mystery-of-consciousness crowd (including me) for our resort to what seems like handwaving and magic to explain our theories. But Dennett thinks if you take a bunch of Legos and sorting machines and program in rules for moving them from place to place, at some point, somehow, you're going to make it feel the same way that an orgasm feels to me. Or rather, Dennett doesn't just think this is true, he is so overwhelmingly certain that he thinks it's laughable for me not to be sure he's right.

We are at the very beginning of understanding systems that are in some ways more complex and powerful than entire galaxies. All I am saying is that I balk at the job of appreciating, let alone understanding, that complexity and power and its sources.