How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system

network

Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.

So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Subjective Science

quantum mechanics formula

What happened to spark all the recent scientific interest in looking for consciousness in the brains of humans and animals, in insects, and … well, everywhere? (Including not just the universe, but also the theoretical biocentric universe and quantum multiverses.)

“It has been said that, if the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st will be the age of the brain. Among scientists today, consciousness is being hailed as one of the prime intellectual challenges. My interest in the subject is not in any particular solution to the origin of consciousness – I believe we’ll be arguing about that for millennia to come – but rather in the question: why is consciousness perceived as a ‘problem’? How exactly did it become a problem? And given that it was off the table of science for so long, why is it now becoming such a hot research subject?”

I Feel Therefore I Am — How Exactly Did Consciousness Become A Problem? And why, after years off the table, is it a hot research subject now?  Aeon Magazine (Dec. 1, 2015)

From what I can tell, two key sparks started the research fire:  (1) the full implications of quantum mechanics finally set in, and (2) machines learned how to learn.

(1)  Quantum Mechanics:  Science Goes Subjective. Ever since Descartes set up his dualistic reality a few hundred years ago, we’ve been able to trust that science could give us an objective, detached, rational, factual view of the observable universe, while philosophy and religion could explore the invisible universe where subjectivity reigns. But then the handy boundary between the two was torn in the early 20th Century when quantum mechanics found that subjectivity reigns on a sub-atomic level, where reality depends on what researchers decide ahead of time what they’re looking for. Scientists tried for the rest of the 20th Century to restore objectivity to their subatomic lab work, but eventually had to concede.

 “Physicists began to realise that consciousness might after all be critical to their own descriptions of the world. With the advent of quantum mechanics they found that, in order to make sense of what their theories were saying about the subatomic world, they had to posit that the scientist-observer was actively involved in constructing reality.

“At the subatomic level, reality appeared to be a subjective flow in which objects sometimes behave like particles and other times like waves. Which facet is manifest depends on how the human observer is looking at the situation.

“Such a view apalled many physicists, who fought desperately to find a way out, and for much of the 20th century it still seemed possible to imagine that, somehow, subjectivity could be squeezed out of the frame, leaving a purely objective description of the world.

“In other words, human subjectivity is drawing forth the world.”

I Feel Therefore I Am

(2)  Machines Learned to Learn. Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? It used to be that computers had to be supervised — they only did what we told them to do, and could only use the information we gave them. But not anymore. Now their “minds” are free to sort through the garbage on their own and make up their own rules about what to keep or throw out. Because of this kind of machine learning, we now have computers practicing law and medicine, handling customer service, writing the news, composing music, writing novels and screenplays, creating art…. all those things we used to think needed human judgment and feelings. Google wizard and overall overachiever Sebastian Thrun[1] explains the new machine learning in this conversation with TED Curator Chris Anderson:

 “Artificial intelligence and machine learning is about 60 years old and has not had a great day in its past until recently. And the reason is that today, we have reached a scale of computing and datasets that was necessary to make machines smart. The new thing now is that computers can find their own rules. So instead of an expert deciphering, step by step, a rule for every contingency, what you do now is you give the computer examples and have it infer its own rules.

 “20 years ago the computers were as big as a cockroach brain. Now they are powerful enough to really emulate specialized human thinking. And then the computers take advantage of the fact that they can look at much more data than people can.

No wonder science got rattled. Like the rest of us, it was comfortable with all the Cartesian dualisms that kept the world neatly sorted out:  science vs. religion,[2] objective vs. subjective, knowledge vs. belief, humanity vs. technology…. But now all these opposites are blurring together in a subjective vortex while non-human intelligence looks on and comments about it.

Brave New World, indeed. How shall we respond to it?

More next time.

[1] Sebastian Thrun’s TED bio describes him as “an educator, entrepreneur and troublemaker. After a long life as a professor at Stanford University, Thrun resigned from tenure to join Google. At Google, he founded Google X, home to self-driving cars and many other moonshot technologies. Thrun also founded Udacity, an online university with worldwide reach, and Kitty Hawk, a ‘flying car’ company. He has authored 11 books, 400 papers, holds 3 doctorates and has won numerous awards.”

[2] For an alternative to the science-religion dualism, see Science + Religion:  The science-versus-religion opposition is a barrier to thought. Each one is a gift, rather than a threat, to the other, Aeon Magazine (Nov. 21, 2019)

 

Zombies and the Consciousness Hard Problem

              night of the living dead                   Walking Dead

                      Poster from the 1968 movie     https://comicbook.com/thewalkingdead

Philosophers and psychologists call human traits like feelings, conscience, and self- awareness “qualia,” and believe that, if zombies can lack them but still look and act like us (on a really bad day), then locating consciousness entirely in human biology (“physicalism”) can’t be right.

“Physicalism allows us to imagine a world without consciousness, a ‘Zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such Zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As [philosopher David Chalmers][1] has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be Zombie. And if Zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do  exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.”

I Feel Therefore I Am, Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

To physicalists, says the article, “those are fighting words, and some scientists are fighting back”:

“In the frontline are the neuroscientists who, with increasing frequency, are proposing theories for how subjective experience might emerge from a matrix of neurons and brain chemistry. A slew of books over the past two decades have proffered solutions to the ‘problem’ of consciousness. Among the best known are Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004); Giulio Tononi and Gerald Edelman’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000); Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999); and the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s bluntly titled Consciousness Explained (1991).”

Of particular interest in that battery of academic firepower is Daniel Dennett, who has a unique take on Zombies and the consciousness “hard problem”:

“Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness.

“Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on.

“To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

“This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a Zombie.)

“More than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away  Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do… However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

Zombies also appear in another current scientific inquiry:  whether artificially intelligent machines can be conscious. “Who’s to say machines don’t already have minds?” asks this article.[2] If they do, then “we need a better way to define and test for consciousness,” but formulating one means you “still face what you might call the Zombie problem.” (Oh great — so a machine could be a Zombie, too, as if there weren’t already enough of them already.)

Suppose you create a test to detect human qualia in machines, and weed out the Zombies, but who’s going to believe it if it comes back positive?

“Suppose a test finds that a thermostat is conscious. If you’re inclined to think a thermostat is conscious, you will feel vindicated. If sentient thermostats strike you as silly, you will reject the verdict. In that case, why bother conducting the test at all?”

Consciousness Creep

And if conscious thermostats aren’t enough to make you “collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking,” then how about finding consciousness in … insects? Turns out, they, too, have a Zombie problem, according to this article, co-written by a biologist and a philosopher.[3]

What happened to science that it’s tackling these issues, and with a straight face? I promised last time we’d look into that. We’ll do that next.

[1] As we saw last time, David Chalmers defined the “easy” and “hard” problems of consciousness.

[2] Consciousness Creep:  Our machines could become self-aware without our knowing it. Aeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

[3] Bee-Brained;  Are Insects ‘Philosophical Zombies’ With No Inner Life? Close attention to their behaviours and moods suggests otherwise, Aeon Magazine (Sept. 27, 2018)

The Greatest Unsolved Mystery

sherlock holmes

Academic disciplines take turns being more or less in the public eye — although, as we saw a couple posts back, metaphysicians think their discipline ought to be the perennial front runner. After all, it’s about figuring out the real nature of things”[1] and what could be more important than that?

Figuring out the human mind that’s doing the figuring, that’s what![2] Thus neuroscience’s quest to understand human consciousness finds itself at the front of the line as the greatest unsolved scientific mystery of our time.

“Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, [David] Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today.

“I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem [of consciousness], the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science, Aeon Magazine Oct. 9, 2013

“Hard problem” is a term of art in the consciousness quest:

“The philosopher [David] Chalmers … suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems.

“One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What is meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

Solving the “easy” problem requires objective, empirical inquiry into how our brains are organized and wired, what brain areas and neural circuits process which kinds of experience, how they all share relevant information, etc. Armed with MRIs and other technologies, neuroscience has made great progress on all that. What it can’t seem to get its instruments around is the personal and  private subjection interpretation of the brain’s objective processing of experience.

“First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.”

I Feel Therefore I Am  Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

Neuroscience does objective just fine, but meets its match with subjective.

“The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Recently though, neuroscience has unleashed new urgency on the hard problem:

“For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

“A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurons, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Impressive, but are they making progress? Not so much.

“Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

The quest to map and measure the “personalized feeling level” of consciousness has taken researchers to some odd places indeed — as we saw in the video featured last time. Zombies also feature prominently:

“All those tests still face what you might call the zombie problem. How do you know your uncle, let alone your computer, isn’t a pod person – a zombie in the philosophical sense, going through the motions but lacking an internal life? He could look, act, and talk like your uncle, but have no experience of being your uncle. None of us can ever enter another mind, so we can never really know whether anyone’s home.”

Consciousness CreepAeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

More about Zombies and other consciousness conundrums coming up, along with a look at what made consciousness shoot to the top of the unsolved scientific mysteries pile.

[1] Encyclopedia Briitanica

[2] We’ll see later in this series what made illuminating the human mind so critical to science in general, not just neuroscience in particular.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [9]:  Reckoning With Mystery

pontius pilate

“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate
John 18:38 (NIV)

On the science side of Cartesian dualism, truth must be falsifiable — we have to be able to prove it’s untrue. On the religious side, to falsify is to doubt, doubt becomes heresy, and heresy meets the bad end it deserves.

Neither side likes mystery, because both are trying to satisfy a more primal need:  to know, explain, and be right. It’s a survival skill:  we need to be right about a lot of things to stay alive, and there’s nothing more primal to a mortal being than staying alive. Mystery is nice if you’ve got the time, but at some point it won’t help you eat and avoid being eaten.

Science tackles mysteries with experiments and theories, religion with doctrine and ritual. Both try to nail their truth down to every “jot and tittle,” while mystery bides its time, aloof and unimpressed.

I once heard a street preacher offer his rationale for the existence of God. “Think about how big the universe is,” he said, “It’s too big for me to understand. There has to be a God behind it.” That’s God explained on a street corner:  “I don’t get it, so there has be a higher up who does. His name is God.” The preacher’s God has the expansive consciousness we lack, and if we don’t always understand, that’s part of the deal:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Compare that to a cognitive neuroscientist’s take on our ability to perceive reality, as explained in this video.

“Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.”

The video is 40 minutes long, but a few minutes will suffice to make today/s point. Prof. Hoffman admits his theory is counterintuitive and bizarre, but promises he’s still working on it (moving it toward falsifiability). I personally favor scientific materialism’s explanation of consciousness, and I actually get the theory behind Prof. Hoffman’s ideas, but when I watch this I can’t help but think its’s amazing how far science and religion will go to define their versions of how things work. That’s why I quit trying to read philosophy:  all that meticulous logic trying to block all exits and close all loopholes, but sooner or later some mystery leaks out a seam, and when it does the whole thing seems overwrought and silly.

The street preacher thinks reality is out there, and we’re given enough brain to both get by and know when to quit trying and trust a higher intelligence that has it all figured out. The scientist starts in here, with the brain (“the meat that thinks”), then tries to describe how it creates a useful enough version of reality to help us get by in the external world.

The preacher likes the eternal human soul; the scientist goes for the bio-neuro-cultural construction we call the self. Positions established, each side takes and receives metaphysical potshots from the other. For example, when science clamors after the non-falsifiable multiverse theory of quantum physics, the intelligent designers gleefully point out that the so-called scientists are leapers of faith just like them:

“Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

“And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

And so it goes. But what would be so wrong with letting mystery stay… well, um… mysterious?

We’ll look at that next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [8]: Science and Snake Oil

snake oil salesman 2

Science requires that its findings be falsifiable:  you have to be able to prove them wrong. That they might be right isn’t enough; if they can’t be wrong, they’re not science.

Belief in the supernatural isn’t falsifiable, therefore it’s not science:

“Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth — these can never be disproved.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History,by Kurt Andersen (2017)

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.

“We often see what we already believe is there, not what is actually in front of us. Perhaps the greatest of all examples of this are religious experiences. People with religious experiences always see in their visions what they have been taught all their lives. For example, a Muslim will never see a vision of Jesus in his religious experience and a Christian will never see Mohammed.

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

Consider falsifiability’s take on homeopathic medicine:

“Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.”

Fantasyland

“We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine… Even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who … continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

“Homeopathy was the original ‘alternative medicine,’” Kurt Andersen writes. He describes how it was soon joined by mesmerism, phrenology, séances, and traveling snake oil salesmen, brought to us by illustrious champions such as Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian Sylvester Graham (as in graham crackers), John Kellogg (of cereal fame), and “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” (father of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil), Along the way, it helped to spawn “New Thought” religion — e.g., Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science churches and today’s New Age movement.

Alternative medicine works because of the placebo effect:

“Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients who had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

“The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath:    . Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to ‘bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,’ that was their problem.”

Fantasyland

In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin M.D. tells how she switched from conventional to alternative medicine after realizing that lots of people in placebo control groups actually do get better taking those sugar pills. They may be in the minority, but still…. I once heard a medical researcher tell a group of MS patients to “Find your placebo — if you think it will help you, it probably will.”

But placebos aren’t science, and the “Scientific Proof” in Dr. Rankin’s book title is off target. Last time we heard about the science behind your GPS. You don’t want it to “probably” work, or work just some of the time, or so rarely it’s a “miracle” when it does. You want it to work every time, everywhere. If it doesn’t, then the science behind it has been falsified (proven wrong), and it’s back to the drawing board.

Eventually science and investigative journalism teamed up to put the snake oil peddlers out of business:

“[At the start of the Twentieth Century,] medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part  investigative series on the ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers,’ and ‘cures’ racket — and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business.”

Fantasyland

We’ve been digressing a bit. Next time, we’ll get back to what this has to do with consciousness and the self.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [7]: Science and Metaphysics

college photo op

It’s a fine September day during freshman orientation week, and we’re a photo op:  a circle of students on the grass outside a stately hall of higher education. Our leader asked us to tell each other what we hope to learn while we’re here. “I’m interested in metaphysics,” one girl says. I don’t know what that means, and being a clueless frosh, I don’t bother to find out until decades later. [1]

This is from Online Etymology:

metaphysics (n.)

“the science of the inward and essential nature of things,” 1560s, plural of Middle English metaphisikmethaphesik (late 14c.), “branch of speculation which deals with the first causes of things.” … See meta- + physics.

“The name was given c.70 B.C.E. … to the customary ordering of [Aristotle’s Physics], but it was misinterpreted by Latin writers as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical.”

Metaphysics is what happens when scholars think about the big picture. René Descartes was doing metaphysics when he split reality into seen vs. unseen, knowable vs. mysterious:  “He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind… and matter.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Metaphysics catches some grief about whether it’s a legitimate academic discipline, but counters that you can’t think about… well, anything… without first thinking about the bigger picture:

Metaphysics, the philosophical study whose object is to determine the real nature of things—to determine the meaning, structure, and principles of whatever is insofar as it is. Although this study is popularly conceived as referring to anything excessively subtle and highly theoretical and although it has been subjected to many criticisms, it is presented by metaphysicians as the most fundamental and most comprehensive of inquiries, inasmuch as it is concerned with reality as a whole.”

Encyclopedia Brittanica:

Even science has to concede metaphysics’ primacy:

“It turns out to be impossible even to formulate a scientific theory without metaphysics, without first assuming some things we can’t actually prove, such as the existence of an objective reality and the invisible entities we believe to exist in it.

“This is a bit awkward because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to gather empirical facts without first having some theoretical understanding of what we think we’re doing.

“Choosing between competing theories that are equivalently accommodating of the facts can become a matter for personal judgment, or our choice of metaphysical preconceptions or prejudices.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019. (The remaining quotes are also from this source.)

Scientific inquiry begins subjectively — with beliefs and assumptions that can’t be scrutinized by scientific method — a detail which, if left unintended, puts scientific inquiry on a par with, let’s say, late night dorm conjecture about the meaning of life. Science tries to rise above by requiring that its theories be falsifiable:  they have to be expressed in a way that lets you objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

Falsifiability means you can’t appeal to metaphysics to avoid empirical scrutiny. Trouble is, our brains, once wired with our beliefs, make sure our experience conforms to them. But still…

“For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

To be reliable, science has to make sure its metaphysics and physics line up in actual experience. For example, whatever  your metaphysical theory of the grand cosmos, you still need physics to make your GPS work:

“When you use Google Maps on your smartphone, you draw on a network of satellites orbiting Earth at 20,000 kilometres, of which four are needed for the system to work, and between six and 10 are ‘visible’ from your location at any time. Each of these satellites carries a miniaturised atomic clock, and transmits precise timing and position data to your device that allow you to pinpoint your location and identify the fastest route to the pub. “But without corrections based on Albert Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, the Global Positioning System would accumulate clock errors, leading to position errors of up to 11 kilometres per day. Without these rather abstract and esoteric – but nevertheless highly successful – theories of physics, after a couple of days you’d have a hard time working out where on Earth you are.

“In February 2019, the pioneers of GPS were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The judges remarked that ‘the public may not know what [GPS] stands for, but they know what it is’. This suggests a rather handy metaphor for science. We might scratch our heads about how it works, but we know that, when it’s done properly, it does.”

More about falsifiability vs. faith, subjective vs. objective, real vs. fantasy, and other Cartesian dualisms next time.

[1] Now that I know what “metaphysics” means, I realize I was interested in it, too. In fact, metaphysics has been something of a defining pursuit of mine for most of my life, although less so lately. More on that another time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [6]: “The Meat Thinks”

they're made out of meat 2

“The brain does the thinking — the meat.”

Last time, we looked at neuroscience’s idea that consciousness — and therefore the conscious self — is a conglomerate of various neural networks that process experience. In other words, the internal voice that narrates your life, that you’ve been hearing for as long as you can remember, isn’t the voice of a transcendent soul commenting about your Earthly experience, it’s the result of the biological functioning of your brain. Your brain matter — the meat, as sci-fi writer Terry Bisson called it in an Omni Magazine story back in 1991 — does the thinking.

Bisson’s sci-fi piece anticipated neuroscientific materialism by nearly two decades (not an unusual thing for sci-fi to do — sometimes it’s even intentional[1]). Here’s the full text of the short story, which consists entirely of a conversation between an undercover extra-terrestrial and his superior, as the agent reports on his investigation of the human race. The story was made into a six-minute film, which you can watch here. Here’s an excerpt:

They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat…. They’re born meat and they die meat … They’re meat all the way through.”

“No brain?”

“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“So what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat.”

Conscious meat — the idea is preposterous to the aliens and to us. True, “meat” is an indelicate way to put it, which of course is intentional, but knowing that the term is a clever literary device doesn’t help us accept the idea, any more than we’re willing to accept the formal neuroscientific version we looked at last time:

 “In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the “global workspace.” In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

Sci-fi version or neuroscience version — either way, the message is preposterous:  “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

Yes, as a matter of fact. And also as a matter of fact, that “preposterous!”  judgment is at least in some measure a case of “refusing to deal with what I’m telling you.” Revolutionary scientific paradigm shifts don’t easily become mainstream. The idea that the Earth isn’t flat has been around way longer than Columbus, but some brains still don’t believe it. The concept of an eternal, transcendent soul has been around even longer; it’s been thoroughly wired into individual and cultural consciousness; we’re convinced that’s the way it is. But now along comes neuroscience, saying that it knows something different. Our well-worn neural pathways tilt at the suggestion. The best we can do is relegate the idea to fiction, where things don’t have to be true — at least not now, although they might become so in the future.

Besides, there’s another, deeper, more pervasive belief at work here — about what it means for science to know something is true.

“But isn’t science in any case about what is right and true? Surely nobody wants to be wrong and false? Except that it isn’t, and we seriously limit our ability to lift the veils of ignorance and change antiscientific beliefs if we persist in peddling this absurdly simplistic view of what science is.

“Despite appearances, science offers no certainty. Decades of progress in the philosophy of science have led us to accept that our prevailing scientific understanding is a limited-time offer, valid only until a new observation or experiment proves that it’s not.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

Scientific knowledge is throwaway truth — only useable until something better comes along. Conviction, on the other hand, casts its truth in adamantine. Scientific knowledge demands correction, while personal and cultural conviction punishes it.

More next time.

[1] See this article for a look at how science fiction sometimes informs science non-fiction.  Here’s a sample:  “Fictionalising the future can be an effective way of realising it and making it familiar…. As the science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow put it in 2014: ‘There is nothing weird about a company … commissioning a story about people using a technology to decide if the technology is worth following through on. It’s like an architect creating a virtual fly-through of a building.’”

 

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [5]: Looking For the Self in the Brain

My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins,
My city’s in ruins.

Bruce Springsteen

Neuroscience looks for the soul in the brain and can’t find it. What it finds instead are the elements of consciousness — sensory perception, language, cognition, memory,  etc. — in various neural networks and regions of the brain, and those diverse networks collaborating to generate a composite conscious experience. Meanwhile, the master network — the one that is equivalent to conventional notions of the soul or self — remains elusive.

Prof. Bruce Hood lays out the progression from conventional belief in a separate self to the current brain network theory:

“Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word “illusion” does not mean that it does not exist — rather an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.

“Understanding that the self could be an illusion is really difficult… Our self seems so convincing, so real to us. But then again, many aspects of our experience are not what they seem.

“In challenging what is the self, what most people think is the self must first be considered. If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individual inside bodies is sometimes called the ‘ego theory,’ although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’

“In contrast to this ego view, there is an alternative version of the self, based on the ‘bundle theory’ after the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume… He tried to describe his inner self and thought that there was no single entity, but rather bundles of sensations, perceptions and thoughts piled on top of each other. He concluded that the self emerged out of the bundling together of these experiences.

“If the self is the sum of our thoughts and actions, then the first inescapable fact is that these depend on brains. Thoughts and actions are not exclusively the brain because we are always thinking about and acting upon things in the world with our bodies, but the brain is primarily responsible for coordinating these activities. In effect, we are our brains or at least, the brain is the most critical body part when it comes to who we are.

“There is no center in the brain where the self is constructed. The brain has many distributed jobs. It processes incoming information from the external world into meaningful patterns that are interpreted and stored for future reference. It generates different levels and types of motivations that are the human drives, emotions, and feelings. It produces all sorts of behavior — some of them automatic while other are acquired thought skill, practice, and sheer effort.

“The sense of self that most of us experience is not to be found in any one area. Rather it emerges out of the orchestra of different brain processes.”

The Self Illusion:  How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano uses an “attention schema theory” to describe this collaboration of neural networks. “The heart of the theory is that awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention,” he says, and expands as follows:

“In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the ‘global workspace.’ In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

To those who hold fast to the common belief (as most people do) that the soul is something transcendent, noble, unique, special, poetic, and divine, referring to consciousness and the self as “global workspace” and calling awareness “information” lacks a little something. But is that any reason to reject the bundle theory as untrue?

Meanwhile, Prof. Graziano admits that “the attention schema theory does not even seek to answer the question of existential reality but instead tries to describe what is constructed by the brain.” And besides, is science really after truth anyway?

We’ll look at those questions next time.