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)


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 [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.