Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Consciousness 2

The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

A path there might come (and I am certainly a universe away from the expertise that Pinker has) from the initial distinction he made between the conscious and unconscious “computations”.
The fundamental of gran mal epilepsy is a loss of consciousness. That arises from the degradation of “orderly” brain processes to chaotic. That degradation is the primary cause of “loss of consciousness”, and is also evidenced by the involuntary (chaotic) movement of muscles normally under “conscious” control.

What is not affected in the same way (otherwise gran mal seizures would be immediately life threatening) are the “unconscious” processes of breathing, heart, and other involuntary processes.

So, there is another patth to examining the division within the “Easy Problem”.

Perhaps it is a case of the brain comprising not one but two quite separate organs – closely associated, one far more ancient in evolutionary terms than the other. One, the unconscious processor, providing the mechanical life support systems; the other, the conscious processor, providing the cognitive.

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, "That's green" (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, "When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know."

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

There is a small point of philosophy here that I want to toss into the ring. It comes out of the second paragraph and the subjective “definition” of colour. Pinker puts it this way –
TO APPRECIATE THE HARDNESS OF THE HARD PROBLEM, CONSIDER how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie--a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything. This was the crux of a Star Trek plot in which officials wanted to reverse-engineer Lieut. Commander Data, and a furious debate erupted as to whether this was merely dismantling a machine or snuffing out a sentient life.
Pinker’s summary is telling -
Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

And there is little I can find that would dispute his conclusion that-
Identifying awareness with brain physiology … is a kind of "meat chauvinism" that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn't have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators--a leap that most people find hard to stomach.

… the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can't hold a hundred numbers in memory, can't visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can't intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius--a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness--comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.

There are innumerable ways in which past “evolution” can be illustrated. Perhaps the most succinct way of expressing it is in the progress of science. As our brains have “evolved” to accept understanding of new and more complex systems, our ability to create and to use new tools has led a lucky few into the next level of “understanding”. But that is a process, one which will I am sure will lead to the Darwin or Einstein of “consciousness science”. Pinker again -

Whatever the solutions to the Easy and Hard problems turn out to be, few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices--not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come.


To go straight to TF Sterns blog. Sorry TF, I can not link to the specific article but if others are interested it is titled (as he has said) "Evolution or Eternal Progression" and is dated February 1st 2007.

I commend the article to passing readers, not because TF and I are of the same mind - we are more at opposite poles - but for its honest approach and appraisal.


T. F. Stern said...

Google switched my account and blog automatically to the new version and I forgot to jump a fence and sign in when attepting to comment a while ago. Here goes, again.

I might be splitting hairs when I say that I dislike the word evolution; perhaps it is because evolution and the far ranging associated meanings have been perverted into a false science by those intent on denying God’s grand creations, preferring instead to assign such magnificence to calculated random chance.

For the rest of my comment you will have to read my article, "Evolution or Eternal Progresson", which I will post momentarily, that is if Google lets me.

The probligo said...

Fair point, TF.

Pinker used "evolution" in terms of the progression from animal to human brain function.

I have taken a micro-paradigm view. The information available and technical abilities we have require far greater learning capacity today than even 150 years ago. That the majority of people can cope with that advance shows some kind of change, an "evolvement", over that period.

... or does it. That perhaps might come out of another part to this discussion.

I will look for your article.